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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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.

Plug In, Push Back, Wise Up

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


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

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

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

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

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

 Homage (or nod)... framed.

Homage (or nod)... framed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How quaint.   

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

Plug in. Discern. Push back. Wise up.

Codell's Lament

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


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

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

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

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

Codell Road.jpg

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

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

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

“We done shifted.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manson Delivers

It was a setup from the getgo.

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

Subtly wooed.

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

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

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

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

Who knew?

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

Effective and efficient.

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

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

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

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

“What? Who’s there?”

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

“Manson?”

Every week the same thing. “Manson?”

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

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

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

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

Where the Lightning Meets the Pasture

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


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

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

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

Boy up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where the lightning meets the grass pasture.

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

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

To step closer to peace of mind.

Point and Shoot

I feel a little guilty.

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

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

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

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

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

Yawn.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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