Larger Farms, Fewer Farmers

This column was published Tuesday, October 9, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


As the Wichita Rotarians were diving into their rubber chicken, I asked for a show of hands. How many here have spent at least part of their lives on a farm or ranch?

From where I stood, scanning the audience of some 250 Rotarians, more than half the arms shot up. Mine, too. My father farmed until his capacity to withstand the debt involved in production agriculture exceeded his ability to live with it. When that day came, he sold the farm, changed careers and we moved to Wichita. That rural-to-urban arc typical of many in my generation in Kansas.

Writing this column is a side gig, so it was just a matter of time before column fodder would bump up against the day job. The business card reads Director of Industry Affairs and Development for Kansas Farm Bureau – the farm organization. We do what any self-respecting trade organization does: Lobby, educate, communicate and when invited, go home to the city where we grew up and remind urban-dwelling Rotarians that things are changing in the places they came from.

Within my existing portfolio is a two-year strategic planning effort, aimed at ensuring the farm organization is lobbying, educating and communicating optimally. This assumes we know the future. Or at least enough of it to get started on the work. We did the due diligence, read the reports, examined the prognostications and came to an inescapable conclusion: the future of Kansas agriculture is larger farms, fewer farmers.

In Kansas, we grow wheat, corn, soybeans and milo. We raise cattle. We’re good at it. We have an entire economic, transportation, storage, marketing, regulatory and I will argue, emotional and cultural infrastructure in place to support the growing of these raw commodities.

Many of the factors impacting the future are financial. Operating loans on a handshake over bacon, eggs and white bread toast slathered in strawberry preserves at the coffee shop are no longer that simple. This often spells trouble for the younger producer, who, unless he or she has a family connection willing to partner, finds the pathway to enter farming, nearly impossible.

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Farmers with the wherewithal to expand the physical size of their operations, tend to do that. Those without, tend not to. Here’s a troublesome fact that sums up the culture and illustrates the limitations of impacting these trends, especially those without the wherewithal: We won’t know until it’s too late. We don’t ask our farmer/rancher members about their finances. This is an independent, work ethic, save it for a rainy day, bootstrap culture. Their bottom line is none of my business. Because I respect their privacy and their pride, I’m not about to ask.

It means hard decisions loom. As the rural population base declines, watch for increased pressure on local taxing authorities to maintain equal, if not more, services. At what point does the local property tax burden begin to exceed the capacity of those left to pay it? Or maybe a better question: At what point do rural Kansans grow weary enough of higher locally-levied taxes and dwindling services that they grab their 21st century technological equivalent to a pitchfork and descend on the county commission, town council or the school board?

Throughout the middle of the country, we’re seeing steep drops in mainstream denomination church attendance. It’s not that they don’t believe in God or no longer love their neighbor. I’ll argue it’s just the opposite. You don’t put a wheat seed in the ground or inseminate a momma cow without a deep-seated faith that something good will result.

It’s not just churches. It’s service clubs and county Farm Bureau boards. People will give of their time if they feel it’s worth it. Expectations change with demographics. Our cultural and emotional infrastructure needs to keep up.

What can be done? Glad you asked.

Imagine if systems in rural Kansas with existing membership infrastructures, human/financial resources and decades of tradition came together to design, build and implement an effort aimed at enhancing the capacity of the people who have made a conscious and purposeful decision to stay in rural Kansas.

Systems that acknowledge their individual agendas and recognize that when more people in rural Kansas develop more problem-solving skills, better understand what it means to think critically and gain knowledge on how to collaborate. A rising tide lifts all boats. A good stiff south wind can carry us all to a better place.

In that future, when the inevitable rural challenges arise, we will be able to manage them, instead of the other way around. Absent such an effort, my fear is, the trends that frighten us, that lead us to stick our heads in the sand because it’s all we know how to do, will one day soon eclipse our capacity to manage them.

That’s the conversation we hope to start in our state. So, I guess it only makes sense that a guy who spent his early childhood on a Kansas farm and his formative years in a Kansas city, would return home to the city and talk with a room full of similarly-situated Rotarians about the past… and the future.

Living in the Past

In the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have seen the Eagles, the Doobies and Steely Dan twice each. Also KC & the Sunshine Band, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Earth Wind & Fire, James Taylor and now Billy Joel. Emmylou Harris next month at McCain.

Go to the concert. You only live once.

Billy Joel live was on Jackie’s bucket list. Twist my arm, baby. Our mutual love of music has taken us to both coasts, Vegas and the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.

In front of 40-thousand-plus adoring fans last night at the K, Billy told us, “I’m 69 years old.” A couple of weeks ago at the State Fair grandstand, Harry Wayne Casey said, “I’m 67 years old.” They each said it with this sort of detached fascination as if they were thinking, “I’m still doing this?”

I look around me at these concerts and everyone’s my age or older. When we stand and applaud, our biceps wave in the wind like the Royals pennants. I imagine us younger. It’s not hard.

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One of my first rock concerts was Kansas at Century II in Wichita. 1976. Might’ve been Levitt Arena. Maybe ’75. In line with my chums pre-game, I saw Kerry Livgren feeling no pain, mixing with his fans, sharing a bottle of Jack. Carry on, my wayward son. Livgren eventually found Jesus and his rock and roll was never the same, IMHO.

All this reminiscing could be dangerous for a writer. Could lead to a year and a half of feelings and word vomit about days gone by. It could lead one to a lot of looking backward and not enough living in the moment.

If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you’ll notice a music thread. Can you find serenity in a song lyric? Does a melody bring peace of mind?

The sound vibrates through microphones and out of loudspeakers and washes over me like a wave, tumbling head-over-heels back in time. To my long hair days. Back to my reckless youth when the decisions were impulsive, ill-informed and incomplete.

You live long enough, make enough of those sorts of decisions and you learn. If you are fortunate, you gain enough knowledge, experience and insight to recognize that we all have a daily reprieve from the worst, most destructive aspects of our character.

At its essence, music is art and lyrics are poetry. The core of creativity. My rock stars arrange the notes and the words in such a fashion that touch my heart. Still. I’ll live in the past, because of the fond memories and experiences.

Stevie Nicks is 70, but she’ll always be my older woman. Literally, now. Glenn Frey, Maurice White and Walter Becker have died. More data that leads me to go to the concert.

My past informed my present. My present will inform my future.

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man. We’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling all right.

I got my love of music from my mom. My Billy Joel is her Judy Garland. She celebrated her 83rd birthday this summer. At just about precisely the same time, I learned my son and DIL are expecting.

I’m too young to be a grandfather. I’m too old to go to rock concerts. Wrong. Both times. Jackie tells me age is just a number. I think she’s on to something.

Latter-Day Pragmatist

This column was published Tuesday, September 18, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


He was a third-grader, ensuring Red Rover fair play during recess while I bucked the system, fighting to stay awake during my afternoon kindergarten nap. Jerry Moran and I shared the same time and space at Plainville Rural Grade School. We lived in the country, he lived across the street from my Mom’s best friend in town.

I didn’t get to know him until we each found ourselves in the Statehouse, him legislating, me reporting. As our professional paths crossed over the years, our shared Rooks County roots seem to run deeper for both of us.

There are two distinct narratives that describe Moran’s public service in Kansas among those who burn oxygen over such things. The first, ‘Plainville, agriculture, heritage, pragmatism.’ Privileged and honored to serve. I’ll employ my God-given talents, skills and abilities in Washington, D.C. to do good things on your behalf.

In this way, Moran’s the natural heir to Alf Landon, Frank Carlson, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.

I was not around when Landon and Carlson were speechifying, but I remember Dole and Kassebaum viewing government as a vehicle to improve people’s lives. Laws crafted by women and men of good faith and different political persuasions who give and take, and the result is better.

Not perfect, but better. That’s Jerry Moran’s innate tendency and I’ll argue he’s even better than Dole and Kassebaum at connecting pragmatism with Kansas culture and heritage.

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The other narrative, right or wrong, is that Moran is too cautious and has a finger-in-the-air, wind-testing reputation which prevents him from getting out front the way, say, Pat Roberts does on farm bills, or John McCain did on calling out presidents. In Washington, Moran is not the most vocal or visible U.S. Senator. Clearly, that’s a calculated choice, and I don’t mean that as pejorative.

My sense is the man is just calculated enough to know better than to get caught up in arguments and actions that result only in more chaos and the hardening of factionalism. Jerry Moran won’t make noise, just for noise’s sake. In that sense, he’s just like Kassebaum, Dole, et al.

Landon Lectures give sitting politicians a chance to burnish their image and Moran runs, even sprints, backward, to embrace his Kansas political legacy. He offered homage to Dole (who was not in the house) and Kassebaum (who was) and perhaps with an eye to the future, gave a shout out to his first Congressional intern, Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann.

The Landon Lecture remains an enduring mainstream Kansas tradition, but it’s more than the State Fair, Bill Snyder or Boeing 737 fuselages. It’s glossy in the way it lends substance and gravitas to people who, by the time they’re invited to lecture, have plenty of each. Presidents of the United States, titans of American industry, Supreme Court justices, even the last of the Soviet Communists, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, have graced the Landon podium in Manhattan.

Jerry Moran did not need legitimizing, but being invited to deliver a Landon Lecture, and the specific thoughts and feelings he shared, offered a sense that, as a latter-day pragmatist, his job today is harder than Dole and Kassebaum’s a generation ago.

Back then, compromise was the outcome that was expected and worked for. Today, it’s not even on the agenda, much less strategically positioned in someone’s back pocket, ready to be deployed at the opportune moment. The political toxins in the atmosphere today are so thick, it’s hard to breathe. Our better angels struggle to take flight, let alone reach the stars.

Surely, the pendulum will swing back to civility and pragmatism. Sometimes I worry Moran may be the last of his kind. The end of an era in Kansas public service. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Midlecture, the former journalist in me texted a friend who knows him well, “Is he gonna make news?” The response, “He might.” The closest he came was an admission that if the time comes to pass congressional judgment on the current White House occupant, Moran will be consistent, hearkening back to a speech on the floor of the U.S. House two decades ago, when another president was in hot water and Moran wanted his kids to know “he stood for high ethical standards, truth, the rule of law and not for party politics or the passion of the moment.”

To do what’s right instead of what’s easy.

He may be cautious to a fault, but Jerry Moran’s motives emanate from the best possible place. He has always been that way. He will always be that way. It’s his standing up and saying those things out loud in a Landon Lecture that make me feel better, that give me a little more peace of mind, when I contemplate the storms to come.

Within Reason

This column was published Tuesday, September 4 in The Manhattan Mercury.


When I go out to eat, I don’t walk in to the restaurant and holler out my culinary preferences. I wait to be seated, enter into a social contract of sorts with the system and select from a range of choices presented via a menu. They bring my dinner, I eat, pay up and leave.

I expect to be served a meal. They expect me to pay for it.    

When I get up in the morning, brew a pot of Strong Enough to Walk and pull up my favorite newspapers online, I have an expectation that the front page will contain the most important fact-based news articles and that the opinion section will feature just that.  

When I miss a connecting flight in Chicago or Dallas, I can be angry at the airline over delays or cancellations or I can recognize that norm and plan my travel accordingly.  

If Presidents of the United States choose to blow through boundaries within which his predecessors who held widely divergent political views have succeeded, the system provides checks and balances. If I don’t feel those are working, I can do my part to allow someone else to do the checking and balancing.

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Baked into these system norms is an assumption that I trust someone else’s judgment. I’ll assume if the restauranteur needs to push the spaghetti and meatballs, they’ll make it an off-menu special, instruct their wait staff accordingly, or find some other non-threatening way to let me know.  

Similarly, I’ll trust the judgment of the editors and publishers of my favorite news sites to distinguish which fact-based news stories and opinion pieces are most important, position them accordingly and allow me, their consumer, to consume to my heart’s content.

When I worked in politics and government, I shared a Statehouse office suite with the governor’s general counsel. Brothers-in-arms in the service of a greater good. It was there I learned of the ‘reasonable person standard.’ It’s a legal principle used to represent a hypothetical person in our society who exercises average care, skill and judgment in conduct.

Lawyer-speak for determining societal boundaries. A ‘reasonable’ way to define expectations.  

It is reasonable to expect to be politely asked to put a sock in it, if I’m hollering for spaghetti and meatballs the moment I cross the Olive Garden threshold. It is reasonable to assume mainstream journalism professionals will publish the truth. In 2018, it is reasonable to expect flight delays or cancellations. It is reasonable to hope the Oval Office occupant will respect more than two centuries of American presidential tradition.

I hold these expectations because I have been endowed by my Creator with free will. I am free to write about them in a newspaper column for two reasons: One lofty, one practical. I am bequeathed this right by the founding fathers of my country, who looked around, examined their society, and exercised their best judgment in crafting a system of norms and boundaries called a Constitution. Practical, because the publisher of this newspaper trusts my judgment.

I’ll argue these norms and assumptions are the glue that allows us to move agendas and get things done. They’re the unwritten rules that become the fabric of our culture. We read between the lines and learn them through trial and error. We follow them because experience has taught us that to do otherwise results in adversity or loss.

Reasonable people can disagree within the boundaries of these norms and still move an agenda, get things done, and not suffer undue angst. Angst being an emotionally-derived by-product of change. Systems change and evolve and yet still tend to find their own equilibrium, based on reasonable people exercising free will. This American cultural flexibility is a gift, too easily taken for granted.

In deciding whether to holler in public about meatballs, to trust the judgment of journalists based on their body of work and tradition of truth-telling, to draw conclusions about the character of our elected office holders strikes me as the work of reasonable people to form a more perfect union.

The words, actions and expectations of our social contracts need not be re-written. The difference will be made in the way reasonable people read between the lines.

My Favorite Year

Late summer 1978 and I’m driving east on Lake Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the radio, preceded by an a capella jingle (Double-you-C-C-O… F-M one-oh-three…) comes what will soon be awarded Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are.

I turned 20 about six months ago in Wichita, jammed all my worldly possessions in a splotchy metallic blue ‘73 Pontiac LeMans and made for the Twin Cities to pursue a technical school education in broadcasting.

At least that’s the story I told my father. After graduating high school three-and-a-half years ago, I’ll cop to being somewhat aimless. Lackluster college performance, mostly because I didn’t want to be there, but I thought society expected it of me and I know the old man did. He’s a true believer in this notion of organized post-secondary education as a means of gaining a skill and the knowhow to keep me in bread, beans and beer.

The truth is I’m stone in love with a girl from up here and there’s nothing keeping me in Kansas. When she smiles at me, I just kind of melt all over the floor.

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Up on the left is the Minnehaha Mall. I work at the SuperValu market there. My résumé listed three years of all-purpose grocery work at Mr. D’s IGA back home. I’m a pro. I stock dairy. Milk, cheese, yogurt and Land O’ Lakes butter. These Scandihoovians love their lactose.

In the springtime after the thaw, I stowed my engine block heater. (“It’s an electric dipstick? You gotta be kiddin’ me!”) They weren’t.

My girlfriend lives with her family in the outer ring of the suburbs in Wayzata. Her family’s as hospitable as can be and turn me on to snowmobiles and Chinese food (careful, that mustard ain’t French’s Yellow).

She’ll dump me in a couple of months for a Stallone wannabe. “Stay away from her or you won’t have any teeth to broadcast with.” OK, knucklehead. You win. No more snowmobiling or moo goo gai pan.

There’s a billboard up on the right promoting the Minnesota Twins, which reads, “Mike Marshall Saves at the Met.” (Marshall = Twins closer, the Met = Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington). Rod Carew gets a hit every time he comes to the plate. He’ll hit .378 this year. The Twins have a player named Bombo Rivera, who will be a flash in the pan, but this year, he’s my guy.

Billy wrote this song about his first wife, Elizabeth. Four years from now, he’ll meet Christie Brinkley and it’ll be seeyalater Elizabeth. I wonder if Elizabeth called Christie a knucklehead? She took the good times. She’ll take the bad times.

South on 36th Avenue. The place I live is just up ahead. Six guys in the upper two floors of an old Victorian. I actually lock my door with a skeleton key. We each have a bedroom with a common kitchen and bathroom. If you’re not the first one up, the shower is ice freaking cold.

I hang out with these guys, chums from school, my girlfriend, her friends. We do the discos. An Italian joint in St. Paul called Rosa’s. Snowmobiling. Ballgames. Lake Calhoun. Blatz, Grain Belt and Heileman’s Old Style comes in these handy new 12-packs and one of the three is always on sale at the corner liquor store.

My new friends grew up here, Wisconsin or the Dakotas and talk with this strange Minnie-soda northern plains accent. They call me a southerner. Uh… have you looked at a map? Kansas is smack in the middle of the country. Their logic: Well, it’s south of here.

Real good, then.

My life here is similar to back home in Kansas, but the truth is, something’s different. At 20, I think maybe I’m taking my future more seriously. I make straight A’s at the trade school and seem to have a knack for broadcasting. Could it be my father was on to something?

The trade school prides itself on placement and a radio station in International Falls wants to talk to me. Wait a minute. Aren’t you the ones that always have the record low temperature in the country? No, thanks. I’m a southerner.  

I park the wide ride LeMans in the street next to the Victorian as Just The Way You Are’s alto sax solo washes over me. The boys and the Blatz await upstairs, but I don’t want clever conversation. The truth is there’s nothing keeping me here and I wanna go home. To Kansas. George Brett (who will hit .390 in two years) over Rod Carew. Coors Light instead of Old Style. Great Plains twang, not Minnie-soda. My father’s advice, informing my decisions.   

To this day, when I hear that song, I’m transported immediately back to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1978. The truth is, it’s become my favorite year.

Adult Contemporary

This column appeared Tuesday, August 7, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


The target audience was 30- and 40-something housewives, for whom the Steve Miller Band was too loud, Donna Summer too risqué, Merle Haggard too morose and the Police too avant-garde. We sought listeners who would sob along with the King of Pop on She’s Out of My Life but would hold Off the Wall at arms’ length. 

Adult Contemporary radio listeners were not party people night and day. Mom jeans, feathered hair, clogs, pile the kids in the station wagon, punch up 1240 AM, Ride Like the Wind and sing along with Christopher Cross. In 1979-80, Wichita’s KAKE Radio had the Adult Contemporary format nailed. The Winner Takes It All. (ABBA). 

Heavy on the Manilow, Little River Band and the Johns (Elton, Robert and Olivia Newton-). The distinctions were subtle and involved radio station programmer (read: human) judgment. Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland was too R&B, but Lionel Richie and the Commodores’ Sail On was a staple.

I was back in Wichita after a year away. As a college dropout stocking Cool Whip and Totino’s Frozen Pizza Rolls at a local supermarket, I enrolled in a year-long broadcasting technical school in the Twin Cities with dreams of becoming the next Denny Matthews. Truth be told, I’d met a girl from Minneapolis at the supermarket, she was returning home, I was convinced Love Is the Answer (England Dan & John Ford Coley) and followed her north. 

After she dumped me at the end of the year, Broken Hearted Me (Anne Murray) summoned all the earnestness I could muster along with the audition tape I’d cut at the trade school (I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor) returned home and landed a gig as the all-night disc jockey at KAKE Radio.    

Time and temp, weather forecast, $416 in the Jackpot Jingle, Royals host the White Sox tomorrow, the Whitey Herzog show at 7:10 Tuesday evening, right here on 12-40 KAKE radio. 

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Through trial and error, I learned I was no comedian. Stayed away from the canned jokes and played it straight. Nor was I a philosopher. I was not there to impart my 21-year old wisdom to the handful of 30- and 40-something insomniac housewives. I was there to share George Benson and Rupert Holmes who, respectively, would Give Them the Night and help plan their Escape (The Pina Colada Song)

I learned that if you were having a crappy day and were Bluer than Blue (Michael Johnson), successful radio announcers found a way not to show it. No one wants to hear a glum DJ. Especially in the middle of the night. I was taught to smile before keying the mic.

The overnight duty included ripping, reading and recording wire copy that aired on KAKE-TV between all night movies. I honed diction and pronunciation. Iran was ear-RAWN, not I-ran. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. Lech Walesa and Wojciech Jaruzelski. The letter W was double-you not dubya. It would come in handy when I covered politics for WIBW radio and TV in Topeka. 

We owned our market ADI (Area of Dominant Influence), which fueled the account exec’s Kenny Loggins-inspired radio advertising sales pitch. Looking to reach the member of the household with buying power? This Is It.

Rating surveys counted listeners each quarter hour if they were tuned in for at least five minutes during that time. Hot track the quarter hour with top of the playlist songs to keep the housewives until they had been counted. 

Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. Fifteen minutes later, Babs and Neil again. Still no flowers. I was in love with Linda Ronstadt but Hurt So Bad every 15 minutes got to the point where it really did hurt. So bad. Sorry, Linda. 

Top of the hour network news was a hard start, so if Kenny Rogers’ Coward of the County was four minutes and four seconds long, I would need to start the song at exactly 55:56 past the hour and as Kenny faded, ad lib a station ID.

“Starry skies, 39 degrees in the Air Capital city. It is 3 o’clock in the morning on 12-40 K-A-K-E, Wichita.” 
 
Professional relationships need opportunity, space and proximity. KAKEland had stellar local talent on TV and radio and I’d often hang around after my shift, or swing by during the daytime to learn at their knee. Long before I knew what it was called, I was networking and being mentored. I learned from true professionals that one can have influence without dominance. 

I cannot remember the last time I listened to AM radio. Today it’s ‘70s on 7, ‘80s on 8 and Yacht Rock on satellite radio. Captain & Tennille Do That to Me One More Time and I am thrown back to a time and place when ambition and motivation coalesced with willingness to learn and grow. Very often, the hard way.  

The origins of my contemporary adulting. You might even call it The Biggest Part of Me (Ambrosia).

A Primary Principle

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


I am an unaffiliated, independent voter. Agnostic, in the sense that I have doubts about the vehicles currently in place in my home state to allow me to exercise democracy to the fullest and fairest extent.

There’s a reason I am unaffiliated. Ideology has become more important than collaboration. Until or unless that pendulum swings back, I prefer not to play with either party, thank you very much. I have evolved into this position over 20 years and my comfort level with it rises in direct proportion to the failure of collaborative policymaking.

Similarly, as comfort and pride of my unaffiliated voter status has flowed, discomfort with the participatory infrastructure of primary elections in Kansas has ebbed.

This is not a column about ‘why.’ It’s a column about ‘how.’  

I struggle between two arguments.

Argument #1: I don’t vote in the Kansas primary election on principle. I am not a member of either of the two organized political parties around which the rules are written.  

Argument #2: When I don’t vote, I abdicate my civic responsibility.

For me to vote in a primary election in Kansas, I must declare a party. The system forces me to abandon my personal principles. I must lie. To the system and to myself. I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. There are always people on both party primary ballots for whom I want to vote.

Can’t do it, son. Pick a side.  

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If I am true to myself, I take the moral high ground and rather than swing by St. Thomas More Catholic Church shortly after 7 a.m. on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August, I’ll swing through Radina’s on the Hill for a double dark roast with a shot of espresso.

A shot in the dark, in barista nomenclature.

I have also marched into that same polling place on Kansas primary election days, greeted the neighbor lady volunteering at the table, indicated my independent status, requested one party ballot and voted. Did my vote make a difference? Absolutely. For somebody else’s political party.

A couple days later when it’s convenient, I’ve trudged into the Riley County Clerk’s office, requested the form to revert to unaffiliated, checked the proper boxes and got on with my appointed rounds.

It feels like drinking weak coffee. My first thought is my democracy is failing me. Why can’t I vote for whomever I believe is the best candidate? My second thought, which is always better than the first, is wait a minute, genius. You don’t live in an autocracy (yet). The essence of democracy is ‘we the people.’

I don’t claim to be an expert on Kansas election law, and I am not fluent on how the existing primary election processes came about, but I have no doubt they were designed during an era when the two major parties worked together. Since this is an opinion column and I’m bumping up against my deadline, I guess I figure if you want to learn that history, Google beckons. Knock yourself out.

But I do know a thing or two about system change. I know that change of the magnitude required to ease my troubled unaffiliated mind only happens if and when a critical mass of we the people decide we are troubled enough with the status quo that we are moved to action. I also know that such change is always preceded by dialogue, conversation, debate and very often accompanied by cogently written opinion columns in the local daily. As always, please draw your own conclusions on the cogency of this thought piece.

What’s a principle for, if not to stand on? Maintaining the courage of my convictions assumes not only that I have convictions, but courage. I want to be rigorously honest with myself and others, but I also want to vote. Is there a sweet spot that lies somewhere between fulfilling my civic duty and standing on principle?

I’ve still no clue which of the two arguments will drive my actions on Tuesday, August 7.

No Joy in Mudville

My baseball team is on pace for 115 losses. Out of 162 games played.

Ouch.

The players get it. Absent the confidence boost that comes with winning, Salvy splashes now would merely revert to their essence: taking a cold shower with your clothes on.

Trade Moustakas to the Yankees for a couple of warm AA bodies. Ship Merrifield to the Phils for a bucket of balls and a used fungo bat. He’ll look smashing in a red oven mitt.

We’ll go to a half-dozen games at the K this year. At least there’s the ballpark delectables, silver-lining while exiting onto the Manchester Trafficway. Drown my sorrows in a 6th inning tub of heavily “buttered” Topsy’s popcorn. Except I’m on a low-carb diet this summer. So, I sit there feeling sorry for myself with my large lukewarm Aquafina and reminisce.

Salvy scalding a breaking ball down the left field line in the bottom of the 12th just a couple of minutes into October 2014 and The Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played. My son and I at Game 6 of the ’14 WS, hollering at Giants reliever Jean Machi, who could use a little low-carb his own bad self, “HEY MACHI! ONE MAN TO A PAIR OF PANTS OUT THERE!”

Alcides Escobar hitting the first pitch to the home team in the first home game of the ’15 World Series for an inside-the-park home run. Hoz rolling the dice, scampering home in the Queens night after Lucas Duda pulled a Bill Buckner.

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I’m jolted back to Mudville as Alex Gordon strikes out. Again. There is no joy.

Some of the jumbotron spin is just laughable: “Lucas Duda (of all people) is currently ranked 7th in the American League for loogies hawked in the left side of the batters’ box on Tuesday nights when it’s raining!”

Used to be when a team lost like this, they’d fire the manager and bring in Billy Martin. Used to be when a team was mired in this abyss, the skipper would purposefully pick a fight, turn his ballcap around, get all up in an umpire’s grill and get tossed, firing up the crowd and the team. Replay has removed the underlying premise for the argument. Ned Yost pantomiming the headphones. Yawn. We have sacrificed emotion for accuracy. Not convinced it’s worth it.

Especially when we’re 5-21 in June and oh for July.

Rex Hudler’s contractually obligated sunniness wears thin. Burch Smith’s stuff is not “amazing.” It’s marginally adequate for the market. On Tuesday nights when it’s raining.  

My tendencies in circumstances like these are to descend into the pit of cynicism. Fortunately, my wife, who should be the poster child for team loyalty, pulls me back up.

I think of the three teams that entered MLB as expansion clubs the same year we did. The Padres have appeared in two World Series and lost both of them. The Pilots/Brewers went to one and lost. Big goose egg for the Expos/Nats. My team, on the other hand, has been to four Fall Classics and won two of them. Viewed from the nosebleeds, it could be worse.

I was #raisedroyal and will play the long game. A friend on social media said losing in 2018 is a down payment on contending in 2023. I actually think we’ll contend in 2022. My hopes and dreams are pinned on the likes of Nicky Lopez and Seuly Matias. I wanna see Brady Singer bust ’em inside at Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas.

Meantime, it’s like visiting a sick friend in the hospital.

Twenty Years of Change

This column appeared Tuesday, July 3, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


When my wife and I made the decision to get married in 1998, I was living and working in Topeka, she was doing the same in Manhattan. The logical question arose. Where we gonna live?

We thought about it for five whole seconds, looked at each other and said in unison, “Manhattan.”

When I first left Manhattan, I was two years old and 40 when I came back. I was born here while my father earned an agronomy degree on the G.I. Bill. We lived in a dinky trailer in what is still the Blue Valley Mobile Home Court. Two pine saplings he planted back then remain, today towering like protective sentinels over the socio-economic reality of a trailer park.

Upon graduation, we returned to the Rooks County farm where my mother grew up and my father applied the science he learned at the land grant. When he could no longer apply the economics of the debt needed to operate, the folks had the courageous conversation and sold the farm. He went back to college and we transplanted to Wichita, where my father applied his graduate degree, teaching high school physics and geology.

I think about how much our society has evolved in twenty years and the impact it’s had on Manhattan. The land grant vibe is not as resonant today as in 1998. The 2000 census was the first in our state’s history where urban and suburban Kansans outnumbered their rural brethren. A generation later, the downstream ramifications for small-town Kansans and the land grant community where their sons and daughters matriculate, hit home.   

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This may border on blasphemy, but the once bright cultural line that separated Mass Street in Lawrence from Aggieville fades with each passing year. Today, in Aggieville, you’re just as likely to see a kid with gaged ears, tats and a man bun fade, as you are one wearing Wranglers, square-toed boots and a ballcap.

How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve sampled the pleasures of a double skinny macchiato, while balancing their chakras and asanas doing yoga in the heart of Aggieville?

Over the last two decades in Manhattan, I’ve become a big tipper. Not that I’m a bigshot, just a realization that the pizza delivery dudes, waitresses and coffee shop baristas are working their way through college.

My career has been spent in statewide venues and that used to be my excuse not to get involved locally. A few years back I recognized it as an excuse and began to make different choices about how to spend my idle hours. It has opened my eyes to our community’s potential and put flesh and bones on poverty.

For me, it’s simple. If God expects me to love my neighbor, then maybe I should climb out of the overstuffed easy chair and do it. Bring my lamp out from beneath the bushel basket. To those whom much is given, much is expected. That’s enough Biblical admonition-mangling for one bi-monthly newspaper column. You get the picture.

Twenty years of change. The growth into Pott County, NBAF, a seemingly recession-proof local economy. The ebb and flow of troop strength at Fort Riley has engendered a new appreciation for defense appropriations. A four-lane superhighway catapulting me to points westward. Twice-daily flights to Dallas and Chicago. Today, when the big ol’ jet airliner taxis to the terminal, I’m 15 minutes away from my pillow.

Ray’s Apple Market exits, HyVee enters. Last Chance cheeseburgers go away, in comes Five Guys. It’s as though greasy cheeseburgers abhor a vacuum.

More change looms. Richard Myers is 76. Bill Snyder, 78.
 
I travel frequently and one of the best things about it is coming home from the east. When I cross the Konza and begin the descent into the Kaw River Valley, familiar landmarks enter my view: Kistner’s (which reminds me, better send some flowers to my wife), the massive cottonwoods on the banks of the Kaw, the Blue Earth Plaza and Flint Hills Discovery Center.

A feeling of calm, of familiarity washes over me. These places, old and new, have meaning and value in my life. I never had this feeling in Topeka or Wichita, my priorities were different then. Look at the subtitle of this blog. I get it now.

The definition of hometown is as variable as those who seek to define it. Wichita is where I grew up, graduated high school, found and lost my first true love, came of age. Those memories will never fade.

Twenty years after returning, the arc of my life descendant, the place of my birth has become the place of my rebirth.

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.