Thursday, December 29, 2011


It’s 4:00 A.M., December 22nd. My post-Christmas reflections have begun early this year.
The Christmas season holds a special place in my heart. It’s the time of the year when my long journey from atheism to Christianity began.  The 1965 Christmas I experienced was anything but traditional. There were no snow covered Thomas Kinkade cottages dotting the landscape. I was in Vietnam, having been assigned as a cryptographer matrixed to 7th Air Force.
It wasn’t a particularly dangerous assignment, as wars go. I did my job and dodged the occasional mortar rounds or 122 millimeter rockets the V.C. lobbed our way. Most of the men I knew were “believers.” I practiced my atheism vigorously. I would occasionally debate them. They usually asked me how I couldn’t believe in the face of the world’s natural beauty – “The blue sky, the fluffy clouds, and the obvious design of it all.” I would ask two questions in response. “Haven’t you noticed all these mangled babies and stinking corpses around here?” “How could you possibly believe in God in the face of that?” That was as far as the debates ever went.
My duty station wasn’t far from the base mortuary. I had to pass it every time I went to work. When I first arrived in Vietnam it wasn’t particularly busy, but after I’d been there a few months it was bristling with activity every time I passed by. As I did, I was filled with a mix of emotions – anger, curiosity, revulsion.
I wasn’t involved directly in the killing and dying. I should have been content with that. But, I began to feel that if everyone else was killing people, why shouldn’t I. After all, Dostoevsky had said “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”
One of the occasional duties I had was incinerating classified trash. It was on one of those trips to the incinerator that I put Dostoevsky to the test. I walked from the duty section, bags of classified trash and an M-16 in tow. I got to the burn area, locked the gate, and proceeded to burn the trash. As soon as I did I noticed something in a clearing about fifty or sixty yards from me. It was an old Vietnamese man relieving himself. He looked world-worn. I began to make assumptions for him. “Life really isn’t worth living.” “Living is too difficult.” “I wish someone would end this misery for me.” I picked up the M16. I disengaged the safety and took aim. My heart was racing. Then, before I could squeeze the trigger I heard a voice. “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I stopped and tried to re-compose myself and heard the words again. “The quality of mercy is not strained.” They were Portia’s beautiful words to Shylock from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” I re-engaged the safety, dropped the weapon and began to sob uncontrollably.
In the days after I wondered whether the words I heard were the product of my imagination or if they came from somewhere or someone else. And, why those words? Was someone trying to tell me that there was truly a cosmic moral compass that must guide our actions? Was someone trying to tell me that he, or she, cared about that old man….and me?
I wrestled with those thoughts for months. My internal world was shaken to its core. I’d spent years building what I thought were walls of safety around myself. Now, slowly but surely, grace was breaking them down.
In due time I surrendered to the grace; I converted to Christianity. That was nearly 50 years ago. The experiences of those days shaped who I am today. Nothing can take that from me.
When Nancy got home from Tonganoxie last night we spent the evening talking about the current Christmas season. We came to the conclusion that, somehow, in the tangle of our culture, modern Christianity has lost its way. We spend an inordinate amount of our time trying to compel modern culture to bend to our wishes and wind up in the end being bent into the shape of the culture around us. We fight about nativity scenes or whether it should be the Christmas program or the seasonal celebration. We jockey for political control, mistakenly believing that if we control policy we can change the human heart.
As I think about it I find myself preferring the Christmastime of Vietnam to what I see today. The war that raged within me then is over. There’s no more need for fighting meaningless battles. Grace has won. As Shakespeare so ably said, “But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The day didn’t start with a sense of foreboding, but it got that way in a hurry. I’ve never ventured out on Black Friday, but I decided, against the prompting of my inner voice, to get out and about to see what all the fuss was about. I was holding my own, wandering aimlessly from store to store at the Legends Shopping Center. Then I made my big mistake. I walked into the Gap. The place was mobbed with young people. They appeared to be competing furiously for marked-down jeans and hoodies. It was serious business. I tried to stay out of the line of fire, but the crowd was just too much. As I stood, dazed and confused, in the aisle near the sweaters, I heard a young, gruff voice directly behind me. “Get out of the way, you old buzzard.” My first reaction was to pretend I wasn’t the roadblock. But, I knew better. The bald spot on the back of my head was a dead giveaway. I thought about protesting, but decided the best course of action was to comply with the young man’s request. I stepped aside. Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor.
The rest of the day was uneventful.  I shared a quiet dinner with Nancy and Corina at the Al Dente Café and quiet conversation at our River Market loft. I went to bed about ten, with my ego a bit bloodied, but still somewhat intact. Then, at about 2:00 A.M., I felt a wrenching pain in the middle of my chest. I got up and wobbled my way to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and felt a sense of panic grip me. Three years earlier I’d gone through double bypass surgery. I wondered to myself whether or not this was going to be the big one.
We got to the emergency room at K.U. Med Center at about 2:15. It didn’t take long at all to get me wired up to EKG’s, IV’s, and other monitoring devices. Nurses swirled around me, pumping me full of Nitro-glycerin, and aspirin. By the third tablet of nitro the pain was dissipating. I started to feel a bit giddy. I told one of the nurses if they didn’t stop poking me I was going to sneeze and blow the place up. Then the doctors started marching in, like Laurel and Hardy’s wooden soldiers. There was Doctor Singh, from India. He was followed by a young doctor who appeared to be six or seven years younger than Doogie Howser.

By 3:00 A.M. the medical staff decided to admit me for further tests. I didn’t like the idea, but knew that settling in to the routine was the best course of action.

I was taken to my room by a man named Chris. I found out that he had retired from the fire department and that he’d lost his wife a few years back. He said he still felt occasional pangs of loneliness when he thought about her. Serving others in his current capacity seemed to rub healing salve into those wounds.

Not long after I got to my room the day shift nurse introduced herself. Her name was Nina. She had an interesting accent. I asked where she was from. “Togo,” she responded proudly. She was followed by another woman whose accent was slightly different than Nina’s. “Where are you from?” I asked her as she read my vital signs. “Ethiopia,” she responded gently.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Jerusalem.”
“That’s a beautiful name. Have you ever been there?”
She smiled. “I’ve never been, but I am going to the New Jerusalem someday.”
I smiled back. “Me too. I’m sure I’ll see you there.”

In the two days that followed I felt increasingly comforted. Everyone was so kind and so professional, from the doctors to the nurses to the technicians to the housekeeping and dietary staff. When all the tests were done I was told that my heart was fine and that the episode may have been esophageal reflux.

I’m back home in Emporia and I feel good, better than an old buzzard like me should. I feel frisky enough that I’m tempted to back to the Legends and find that young guy to let him know that a year from now his gut will be so big he won’t be able to wear that sweater he coveted.

But why bother? I came home with something far more important. My prognosis for this life and the next is really good. My faith and experience tell me this is so. I feel a renewed sense of connection to the long ago events that took place in a stable. It’s a great gift to have, particularly at this special time of the year.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


I walked downtown on Veteran’s Day to watch the annual parade. As I did I gave fleeting thought to a personal anniversary. Fifty years earlier I had enlisted in the Air Force.  Four years later I was on a Continental Airlines 707 making its approach into Saigon. One of the enduring memories of that day was listening to Bing Crosby on the P.A. system – “I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces.” I thought of home and family. I reminisced about playing stickball on Chatham Street. I thought about why I’d volunteered to go to Vietnam. About the only reason that came to mind was curiosity. I’d seen a photograph of a Montagnard tribesman several months earlier and thought it would be interesting to meet one of them.   I knew next to nothing about geopolitics or the Domino Theory. Actually, things back home seemed quite safe and secure. Massachusetts wasn’t at war with New York, unless you count the Red Sox versus the Yankees. And, if that were true it seemed to me a very sane way to conduct a war. Two teams, representing their communities. Fans by the thousands paying to see the war unfold. A scoreboard. A final score. A winner, a loser, and bragging rights to be claimed. There would be very few injuries other than the occasional sprained ankle or torn ACL. There would be no body counts.

By the time I got to Fourth and Commercial, the parade was starting, with the color guard leading the way. As it has been since I’ve lived here it appeared to be the same five men as always marching five abreast. I’ve never met them, but I feel I know them. They were a year older and it showed. The limps were a bit more pronounced than they were last year. The spit and polish of short order drill seemed a distant memory. Their eyes revealed a mixture of the pain of sacrifice and loss along with the pride of having served and done their duty. Their faces were a bit more wrinkled and worn. They’re proud men and Emporia is proud to honor them every year.

That would have been enough for me. The marching bands, the cub scouts, boy scouts, girl scouts, the civic organizations, the motorcycles were fine. But for the life of me I don’t understand why politicians had to get into the middle of the festivities and muck things up. Can’t they just leave us alone to honor those who served? Can’t they just stand on the sidewalks with the rest of us and wave the flag? I’m thinking it might just be time for a city ordinance proclaiming all Veterans’ Day festivities to be pander free zones. If it were up to me I’d make it unlawful for politicians to sit in the back seat of cars and wave to the crowds on Veterans’ Day. I’d make it illegal for them to speechify. The service and sacrifice of our veterans speaks far more eloquently than the often empty words of politicians.  The penalty for breaking the law would be a six month replacement tour of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, or wherever else our troops will be sent next. The law-breaking politicians would go. Worthy veterans would get to come home for some much needed rest and recuperation.

If there are any politicians reading this essay they’re probably thinking to themselves “Do you really expect me to give up an opportunity to politick or make a speech?”
Here’s what I expect, and I don’t think alone in my thinking. Go back to Washington or Topeka and start shouting from the housetops, “We can no longer allow a system where our men and women serve tour after tour after endless tour in harm’s way.” How can you possibly think that such is system is fair or just? The only answer I can come up with is that you’re totally detached from reality. The numbers bear me out. Only about 20% of our current legislators have ever served in the military. Less than 6% of those in the executive branch have ever served. It’s no wonder we get the endless deployments.

I capped the day off at the U.S.O. concert. I was especially moved by the boy scouts and girl scouts. My eyes were drawn to a young scout who was fidgeting a bit. I saw that he really wanted to get his three finger salute right. There was no doubt that he had the makings of a good soldier.  In my mind’s eye I flashed into the future, wondering how many deployments this kid might have to someday endure. A lot, I’m afraid, unless our politicians leave the parades and decide to really fix the problem.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Nancy and I really enjoyed Ken Burns’ most recent documentary, “Prohibition.” Like anything Burns does, the quality of the work was outstanding.

Thanks to the historical record we know that the 18th amendment was an unmitigated disaster. From the time it was ratified in 1919, America was treated to the daily body counts, huge supplies of bathtub gin, the ever-changing speakeasy passwords (Knock three times…”Tell ‘em Louie sent you.”), and Warren Harding’s “whiskey cabinet.” The booze never stopped flowing, thanks to the birth of a huge criminal enterprise that supplied Americans with what they wanted.   For every hatchet wielded by a Carry Nation acolyte there was a tommy gun placed in the hands of the underlings of Al Capone or Bugs Moran. While the Capone and Moran gangs were busy trying to kill one another off, thousands of Americans (some estimates are as high as 10,000) died from ingesting denatured alcohol or other concoctions supplied by eager bootleggers.

The ecclesiastical motivation, for the most part, was noble. By the turn of the twentieth century, alcoholism was becoming a major problem. America’s church leaders were increasingly put in the unenviable position of having to piece families back together who had been splintered by booze. A significant number of fathers who should have been providing food for their wives and children spent entire paychecks at saloons. It was a social problem that seemed to be begging for a sweeping solution.

One of the things that did surprise us was the extent to which Progressives and Feminists of the period got involved, particularly their partnership with what was basically a para-church movement. The Progressive interest centered in part around their goals for enacting a national income tax and in part to improve social conditions. The primary Feminist motivation was women’s suffrage.

It was a highly successful trinity, with each interest group getting what it wanted. The sixteenth amendment¸ which gave the federal government the power to tax incomes, was enacted in 1913. The eighteenth amendment, prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol, was enacted in 1919. And, the twentieth amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was enacted in 1920.

The three amendments were a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when strange bedfellows form alliances.

The least satisfactory of the three solutions was, clearly, the eighteenth amendment. Its supporters didn’t seem to understand they had outlawed something that people had been using since the dawn of recorded history. They didn’t understand that enacting laws to solve a problem that less than 10% of the people had was bad legislative policy. They didn’t give much thought to the idea of prohibition was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, that telling Americans they couldn’t do something was the surest way to get them to do it. While they were, no doubt, well intentioned, church leaders also failed to consider the possibility that their founder, Jesus, had he been born in America around 1880, might well have been arrested and incarcerated for having turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Worst of all, they never dreamed that all their do-gooding would give birth to one of the largest criminal enterprises in human history. About the only criminal enterprise larger, as Mark Twain’s literary creation, Pudd’nhead Wilson, observed in 1897, was the U.S. Congress. He put it quite eloquently – “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

One of the enduring lessons of Prohibition is that the road to perdition is sometimes paved with the very best of intentions. Burns seemed to think that the willy-nilly use of constitutional amendments to solve social problems has passed. I’d like to think he’s right, but I think he’s a bit optimistic. Do-gooders, particularly today’s Progressives, find it almost impossible to resist the urge to fix the overwhelming majority of us who aren’t nearly as noble as them. These days, allied with state and local government, Progressives have even taken on Happy Meals, soda pop, pizza, chicken nuggets, and just about anything else that makes living around them tolerable. If they had their way we’d all be spending our days eating nothing but carrots. They just can’t leave well enough alone. If the average American is anything like me, being around a Progressive brings on an instant craving for greasy food.

Why, given the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if a generation or so from now one of Ken Burns’ grandchildren produces a documentary on black market cheeseburgers. I can almost see the footage as I write. “Pssst…Yeah, you buddy….Over here in the alley…I got ‘em loaded down with pickles, grilled onions, mustard, ketchup, and thousands of calories. Just give me ten bucks and this baby will be yours to devour.”

Thursday, November 03, 2011


The Gipper and the Iron Lady are safe for now. My sincere thanks to Bob Grover for his kindness and compassion. It must come naturally to Progressives.
The implications of the so-called science are impressive. Progressives are compassionate and Conservatives are heartless brutes.
It’s time to mount some so called science in my defense. It is true that Progressives are people of the left and it’s also true that the Latin word for left is sinistro, which in turn is the origin for the English word sinister. There you have it. The inference couldn’t be clearer.
I suppose I could also point out, ad infinitum, that for every Tom Delay there’s a William Jefferson with a freezer full of money or that for every Newt Gingrich there’s a Nancy Pelosi. But that would be pointless, a bit like saying “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.”
My wife recently heard something on NPR. It was an investigative piece about the systemic abuse of Native Americans by the Federal government and the South Dakota division of social and rehabilitation services. Hundreds of Native American children are being taken from their loved ones and placed in white foster homes. The state agency claims it’s about compassion. In reality it’s all about money. The overwhelming majority of the children come from loving families. They’re poor, but they are loved. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The agency gets $17,000 from the Feds for each child placed. In the past year the individual bounties have added up to millions.
I listened to the story this morning. By the time it was done I was blubbering like a child. Then the anger welled up. The South Dakota social welfare system, in the name of Progressive compassion, has uprooted children from loving homes for money. It’s compassion run amok.
It makes my blood boil to hear Progressives skillfully manipulate public opinion by telling America that anyone who has the temerity to question the root motives and the lavish spending is “hard, ruthless, and unfeeling toward others.”
A couple of weeks ago my brother’s wife sent us several photos of a recent family gathering. On the last page of the album there was a 1948 picture of my brother, sister and me that was taken while we were living at Prendergast Preventorium, a state funded facility in Mattapan. Friends who’ve seen it tell me I didn’t look very happy. I tell them I wasn’t, thanks to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Progressive politics.
My brother, sister, and I grew up inner city poor. Our father was a stereotypical Irish alcoholic. Our mother was an uneducated (she’d only completed third grade) immigrant from Newfoundland. When our father died from complications of tuberculosis and alcohol, our mother had a nervous breakdown. My brother, sister, and I were then defined as “wards of the state” and shipped to Prendergast by the Commonwealth. While they were tinkering with us, our mother was institutionalized, pumped full of drugs and given shock treatments for a couple of years. It was the very best Progressive care Massachusetts could buy. She somehow survived. When she left the hospital she weighed 80 pounds. She was neurotic for the rest of her life.
I have a photo taken the day our mother left the hospital. I keep it as a reminder of the damage compassion run amok can inflict.
My mother fought desperately to escape the clutches of the state sponsored compassion. In the end it was her love for us, and not institutional compassion that saved her, and us.
My mother and I lived in a government housing project for several years after that. She would occasionally take me down to the welfare office for case review or a handout. I remember once hearing a couple of welfare workers whispering to one another. “Who’s that kid?” “That’s the Dillon kid. His dad died an alcoholic and his mother’s an uneducated dolt…Poor kid… We’re gonna’ need to take care of him for the rest of his life.” When I got old enough to legally work I tried to get a summer job cleaning up the housing project. I was told I didn’t qualify. The jobs were earmarked for college interns who needed to learn the ins and outs of poverty so they could later become professional caretakers of the indigent.
It was compassion run amok.

Thankfully, the military became my escape route. In 1965 I learned all about guns and butter. Thousands of us, many who had migrated from housing projects, got the guns. Progressives in ivory towers and universities got the butter in the form of grants to study poverty. It’s a fairly standard Progressive career path.

So, here’s my bottom line.  I think Progressives would be better served to examine the scars they leave in their wake instead of constantly reminding the rest of us how compassionate they are.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Until recently I didn’t think Conservaphobia was a real phenomenon. But, after reading a Friday Gazette op-ed, I’m flummoxed.  Now I don’t know whether to repent or go into hiding.

I’m a conservative. For the sake of political correctness and personal safety I should be saying that in hushed tones, but I just can’t help myself. I’ve been a conservative since the days of Jimmy Carter and I intend to be planted in the ground someday as a conservative.

Far be it from me to critique the work of experts. They apparently know more about a guy like me than I know about myself. If some academic expert, with impeccable credentials, says that I’m a mass of “fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, or overreaction to threats” who am I to criticize?

Some experts think that being conservative is dangerous. In one paragraph we’re just garden variety conservatives. In the next we’ve become “right wing authoritarians,” or RWA’s. They’ve even developed RWA scales so they can pigeon hole us.

I can hardly wait for the op-ed about RWA leaders. I’m guessing they’re going to exhume Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The psycho-babble will be fascinating.

It might be time to make Emporia a model for more sweeping solutions to its conservative problem. We could start with pilot programs. We could allocate space in one of our empty storefronts for a twelve step program to help desperate conservatives shake the oppressive shackles of their political philosophy. I might attend, more than likely under compulsion. I can see myself sheepishly breaking the ice: “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m a conservative.” I can almost hear the gasps from the other miscreants assembled as they respond in unison, “Hi, Phil.”

Twelve step programs might be a bit too gentle to solve the problem. If they fail, as many will (we conservatives are a highly resistant lot), escalation would be in order. We could have latter day Robspierres roaming the streets to ferret out offenders. All of Emporia would be a conservative free zone¸ protected by Committees for Public Safety. Anyone caught skulking around with a copy of “God and Man at Yale” or C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” would be dragged, kicking and screaming, to an interrogation room. There¸ skilled interrogators with names like Lakshmi, Sonari, or Kai, would ask the important questions in gentle, new age tones. “Have you had any conservative thoughts recently?” “What do you know about the work of Edmund Burke?”  “Have you ever subscribed to the political philosophy of Ronald Reagan?” “Are there any other conservatives lurking around in your neighborhood?”   The interrogations would always end with this reminder – “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.” (see “1984,” Book 1, Chapter 2)

The interrogations won’t be enough to cause the hard core conservatives to recant. In those cases, lobotomies would become the preferred option. The Committee for Public Safety could hire Nurse Ratched to oversee the operation.

When all is said and done I think that a lot of detractors possess some of the same personality traits they accuse conservatives of holding exclusively. I’ve met more than a few Progressives in my lifetime who “consider themselves more upstanding and moral than others.” I’ve even met some who “hold numerous hypocrisies and double standards.” But I’m not ready to declare that there’s a malady called Progressive Personality Disorder. If they want to be better than everyone else, I say let ém.

If the truth be known, most conservatives believe in a “transcendent order” and have an abiding “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”  (“The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot” – page 8).

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I’ll close with a couple of gentle reminders, one from the poetry of Robert Burns and one paraphrasing Holy Writ.

In his “To a Louse,” Burns wrote about noticing a woman of high estate sitting in front of him in church. He saw that she had all the trappings of class and distinction. She was dressed to the nines. What she couldn’t see was what Burns could -  a louse crawling across her hat. The poem ends with the following observation:

“And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his listeners they would do well to remove the logs in their own eyes before they tried to remove the specks in their brothers.’ It was good advice 2,000 years ago. It’s good advice today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


For the past couple of months city and county politics have reminded me of my high school days, especially getting caught smoking in the boys’ room.
I should’ve never started smoking, but I was young and I wanted to be one of the boys. I knew what the rules were. I knew there were bathroom monitors roaming around, but I was willing to take the chance. For me, the opportunity came between Latin II and Physical Education. As soon as Mr. Landrigan dismissed us with one last reminder we’d better bone up on our ablative absolutes I was gone, hoping I’d be able to find a stall to satisfy my nicotine fit in secrecy. I usually got away with my misdeeds¸ but the bathroom monitors occasionally caught me and about six or seven others in the act. The door would swing open and we’d hear, “Awright, who’s smokin’ in here?” I think they took great delight in what came next –lit cigarette butts hissing as they hit the water, followed by the sound of flushing.
I’m not sure how many bathroom monitors we have here in Emporia, but whatever the number is, I don’t think there are enough.
I don’t attend city, county, or school board meetings as often as I should, but when I do I get the nagging sense that our esteemed leaders have spent some of their time puffing away together somewhere back in the goodoleboy’s room. It’s not that I’ve ever been back in the goodoleboy’s room that makes me wonder; it’s just that there’s something in the air. There are times I want to whisper to folks around me, “Do you smell cigar smoke creeping out from under a back room door?”
Some of my friends think I’m a bit too eastern for these parts. This is especially true when I ask them whether or not they’re a bit curious about political doings here. They tell me that, unlike easterners, Midwesterners trust one another and that business in Emporia and Lyon County takes place on a handshake basis. Now there’s nothing wrong with handshakes. I like them. And, as far as trust goes, I’m actually a very trusting guy. I trust my wife, my kids, and my friends. I trust my neighbors and their kids.  I trust Jack and Ranger, my dogs. They’ve never tried to bite me. But I do admit to feeling queasy being around politicians who try to pick my pocket when my attention is focused elsewhere.
At some of the recent meetings I got that feeling. When I hear politicians saying something like “We can move money from this fund to that fund,” my antenna goes up. When the gang at the county tells us we need a sales tax to give us property tax relief and we still wind up with higher property taxes I want to scream, “If you’re gonna’ mug me, please slap me only once.” When I get a copy of a budget and it’s just a page or two shorter than “War and Peace” I begin to wonder what genius adorned with a green eyeshade authored this minefield. My suspicions get aroused and I begin to hope the Gazette’s ace reporter or Jeff O’Dell has a bit of the muckraker in their blood.
But, maybe my friends are right. I just need to be more trusting. Our local politics is probably as honest as a barracks poker game. And, besides, if there is political double-talk and patronage here it’s as American as apple pie.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of the “We’re going into executive session” and it’s got my wheels turning. What’s up with that? Are we dealing with bruised egos who are feeling compelled to let us know how important they are? Are they trying to tell us, “We’re dealing with stuff so sensitive we have to communicate with each other by way of Enigma machines” or that if any Emporian ever found out what was going on it would trigger Armageddon?
A couple of weeks ago the city commissioners went into executive session from 9:00 A.M. till 11:00. At 11:00 they sat down for a few minutes and promptly went into executive session again. Our commissioners spent about as much time in secret as Ike and his team did planning the Normandy invasion.
I’m a trusting soul. I really am. But I’m curious. What on earth are they hatching back there? Is someone smoking in the goodoleboys’ room? I’ve heard that where there’s smoke there’s usually a cigar.
Maybe it would be good if our leaders knew we’re watching them. Who knows? One of these days the door may open wide and they’ll hear, “Awright, who’s smokin’ in here?” If the next sounds we hear are hissing and flushing we’ll know our curiosity was justified.

Friday, October 07, 2011


Some historians have credited Herbert Hoover with the following political beatitude – “Blessed are the young¸ because they will inherit the national debt.” Hoover may or may not have said it, but I guess that’s not particularly relevant. Hoover has also been credited with doing nothing once the stock market crashed in 1929, but that may not be entirely true either. When the stock market crashed he blamed it on the Coolidge administration’s laissez faire, pro- business policy. By the time he left office the Hoover administration had passed the highest income tax increase in American history, doubled the estate tax, and secured passage of the Smoot-Harley tariff of 1930, which precipitated a worldwide trade war. In the aftermath of the speculative bubble that had caused the market to crash unemployment had gotten as high as 9%. By 1930 unemployment had been reduced to a little bit over 6%. By 1931, thanks to Smoot-Harley, unemployment reached 11%. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 the unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 23.6%!
Maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way, but I don’t think Herbert Hoover did “nothing.” He did a lot and not much of it was good. Coolidge, the “Old Stone Face,” may have gotten it right. He had on occasion referred to Hoover as “Wonder Boy.”  He was also reluctant to support Hoover’s presidential bid in 1928 and had once remarked, “For six years that man has given me unsolicited advice—all of it bad.”
I started this essay writing about debt so I guess I’d better get back to it.  It’s interesting. Just about everyone in the country seems to agree that we have a national debt problem. Economists are telling government officials we have a crisis on our hands. Strangely, though, the message of debt reduction doesn’t seem to have a lot of appeal in some circles.
In a recent essay published by Time Magazine, Brad Tuttle opined, “While it is prudent for the individual to save more and scale back on consumption, the consensus is that, collectively, we need to spend to get the economy humming along once more. If the masses were to exhibit boring, responsible, debt-averse consumer behavior for a sustained period of time, that would be a recipe for continued economic strife.”
I’m not sure who is responsible for this consensus. My guess it’s a brigade of Washington think tankers. The average American isn’t that dumb. You know eventually the politicians are going to get a hold of this and, when they do, they’re gonna’ have a field day.
It gets even worse. It’s one thing for the Obama administration to blame the Bush administration for our current predicament. That may or may not be true. But it’s another thing altogether to blame you and me, and that’s what’s happening.  The argument, so it goes, is that, since consumer spending represents 70% of our economic activity, consumers who are scaling back on big ticket purchases and reducing debt load are “seriously hampering the economy’s recovery.”
Well, there you have it. It’s all our fault.
Why is it that bad ideas seem to get such traction? I find it mystifying. It seems, for example, that every time we have a national disaster, a tornado, a hurricane like Katrina or Irene, a flood, or a blizzard, the airwaves begin buzzing with the idea that maybe the tragedy wasn’t so bad after all because it will stimulate economic activity and bring on recovery. I understand that there is some economic activity that comes on the heels of a disaster, but does that mean that the solution to our economic problems is to mount tragedy upon tragedy to create the desired economic outcome. Really? I guess that means we’d do well to start burning our cities down, inventing machines to shake all of our houses like James Bond’s dry martinis, or opening the national spigots and flooding everyone out. Man, talk about stimulus! It’s too bad Herbert Hoover didn’t think of that. Had he been clever enough he could have adopted the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, break it” to market all the destructive energy.  We just may have avoided the Great Depression. We might have had a lot of scorched and flooded earth, broken buildings, and stratospheric casualty reports, but the lucky ones left standing would have been employed rebuilding everything.
I wonder what our young people are thinking as they observe the madness disguised as compassionate genius in action. Are they dreading the future? Surely, they must be thinking that the ruling generation has taken leave of its senses. Lord, I hope they don’t start thinking like their elders and begin breaking things. Maybe, for the sake of self-perseveration, I’d better suggest they just eat, drink, and be merry now, for tomorrow they will probably be broke!

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Nancy and I love listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on Saturday evening, especially the news of Lake Wobegon(e), a fictional Minnesota town where, “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” If you haven’t heard Keillor weave his tales I recommend you do. Tune in to NPR at 5:00 PM on Saturdays.
This morning I caught the tail end of a CNBC interview with author Thomas Friedman. He was pitching his latest book, “That Used to Be Us – How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How It Can Come Back.” I haven’t read the book, but after hearing the interview I have it on order.
I’ve just finished reading a Christian Science Monitor review of the book, which has really whetted my appetite for more. The review describes the authors, Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, as “frustrated optimists.” What’s got them frustrated? “America is in denial, unwilling to accept that it’s been living beyond its means and getting, well, a little lazy.”
I wonder if Friedman and Mandelbaum paid a visit to Emporia when they were doing their research. It sure looks like it. If there were a gold standard award for denial in economic development and clever, meaningless jingles I think we’d win hands down.
I’m often taken to task by this town’s important people because I don’t tow the “everything’s fine” party line that dominates our leadership. That’s alright. I realize there’s a price to pay when you rub the powerful the wrong way. But, in their rush to criticize they’ve missed the really important point. I’m right and they’re wrong. We’ve got problems that demand serious reflection and answers. Denial won’t make the problems go away and, worse yet, it keeps us from answering the difficult questions and finding our way out of the mess we’re in.
Time is of the essence. With each passing day Emporia, and America, are falling further and further behind in a world that is increasingly competitive and skills driven.
I’ve seen the competitive international environment first hand. I’ve seen just how good our competitors are. I’ve seen them in Singapore, Israel, and South Korea. I’ve read about the emerging markets and the rise of trade partnerships like the “BRICS,” who are pooling resources to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant economic power. And, here at home, I’ve seen it in my living room and dining room as I sat with international students and discussed their aims and dreams in life.
My wife and I have hosted four international students since 2003, one from the Republic of Moldova, one from South Korea, one from Vietnam, and one from China. While each student came with ethnic and cultural distinctives, they held two important things in common. They understood how fiercely competitive the world economic environment is and they came to compete and win. They understood that “average” is no longer good enough and that the world is now demanding excellence. One of our international students, Corina Nour, was interviewed by the Gazette when she attended Emporia High several years ago. She was asked what she thought of homecoming. She said, “Not much. We don’t have homecoming in Moldova. Students there understand the global marketplace and they gear themselves toward success in that arena.” In a couple of months she’ll graduate with a Masters’ and launch out into the deep. She’ll succeed. As much as we’d like to keep her, we know that won’t happen. She hasn’t spent her time preparing to be mired in a low wage, high poverty environment.
One of the recommendations Friedman and Mandelbaum make is for America to adopt the Lake Wobegon(e) standard. What’s that? It’s the standard that says “average” is no longer acceptable. It’s not acceptable for our students or our teachers. More importantly, it’s no longer acceptable for our leaders. They need to see that the path of disaster is strewn with the casualties of “average is good enough.” We need to be about the business of excellence. The new world of economic opportunity demands it
I hear all the time that I’m too negative. I say that I’m like Friedman and Mandelbaum. I’m a “frustrated optimist.” I know we can do better. In fact, I think we should be. We should be gearing our young people in Emporia toward excellence in achievement. I think they’re capable of it. The same holds true for our workforce. They can rise to the challenge. Our leaders need to rethink the old, costly notion that low wage manufacturing is Emporia’s future in the same way it’s been our past. All it’s done is get us into a low wage, high poverty rut. It’s time to put some 21st century wheels on the wagon.   

Thursday, September 08, 2011


My Pastor, Mike Stubbs, has often said that he learned early in life that when one is seeking answers to life’s mysterious questions and the answers tried seem to fail, it would be a good idea to try the obvious answer you’ve been avoiding all along.
I think Mike’s formula is very true when it comes to inspiration.
A couple of times a month Nancy and I spend our weekend in Kansas City. As we approach the I-35/Broadway exit we always comment on the progress being made on the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It’s almost completed and when it is it will be a Kansas City gem.  As it is, it’s a sight to behold¸ with its not quite complete roof gleaming in the sun. It’s being built along the lines of the Sydney Opera House.
As I’ve looked on it lately I’ve begun to wonder how it all got started. Not long ago the building site was an empty lot on the edge of the Freight House District. Well, the answer is obvious. It was inspiration. Given that, how did inspiration become reality? The answer is every bit as obvious. It’s perspiration. It’s hard work.
The project was as ambitious as any I’ve ever seen in Kansas City. The total cost, when completed, will be over $400 million. That’s a big number and you’d think that it would derail things. But the cost wasn’t an inhibiting factor at all. In fact, as of October, 2010, $370 million of the needed funding had been secured. How much of that funding was taxpayer money? None.  The Ewing Kauffman Foundation has contributed over $30 million. The Hall family chipped in $23 million; the Jean Brandmeyer Family Foundation gave $12 million, the Helzbergs contributed $10 million.
Putting this all together was hard work. It was a marriage of inspiration and perspiration. I’m sure the board of directors had to do a lot of legwork and negotiating to get the funding. The men and women who manned the scaffolds have done yeoman work. It shows.
It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people work together.
I’ve had some people tell me that there isn’t enough private energy or capital to undertake big projects here in Emporia. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. My brother-in-law, James, has been telling me how proud he is about being part of the ground breaking for Hetlinger Development’s $2 million expansion. James is rightly proud of his small part in what is happening. So should everyone at Hetlinger Development, from the board of directors, to staff, to financial contributors, to the workers who will in the end seal the dream with brick and mortar. The completed project will allow Hetlinger to expand their client base by 25%!
What started this project in motion? It’s obvious. It was inspiration.
The question of how to convert inspiration was answered in the same way supporters of the Kauffman Center answered the questions inspiration raised for them. The hard work began. Grants were solicited and received. The Mabee Foundation gave $400,000. Smaller contributions came through the “Everyday Heroes Campaign.” The board of directors, to a person, contributed. Staff contributed as well. And, so it went. Well, now ground has been broken. The dream will become a reality.
As with the Kauffman Center, no taxpayer money will be needed for the Hetlinger expansion. Not a dime! Why? It’s obvious. Once the seeds of inspiration were sown things flowed in the right direction. The dream was so viable that people wanted to contribute to make it a reality.
There are some great lessons in this. First, when the dream has real value its supporters rarely take the path of least resistance. They don’t go to the city council or the city commission with their hats in their hands. They go out and find the dreamers and doers. They connect wallets, purses, hammers, saws, hands, feet, and hearts to the dream. That’s how it happens.
Secondly, people gravitate to hard work. They dislike things that flow along the path of least resistance.
Third, they reward hard work.
Fourth, they’ll get behind a good project.
One of the things that makes me weary about things in Emporia is that far too many projects here run along the path of least resistance. It makes me question their inspiration. It makes me wonder if the visions proponents have decided that a mill levy increase or the public trough is the way to get the maximum benefit from the minimum effort. It’s “Let the taxpayers fund it.”
If the proponents of these projects believe their dreams are so worthy I think it’s time for them start doing the hard work needed to turn inspiration into reality. If they don’t know how, I recommend they call Hetlinger or the Kauffman Foundation.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


To hear our city and county commissioners these days you’d get the impression that every mill levied against us is baked with love and that every public service provided is absolutely essential to our well-being.
Now I don’t spend a lot of time in the belly of the beast. I’m just a front line foot soldier sitting here in my third line trench, and from where I sit these acts of municipal kindness feel like upright pianos with cast iron innards being heaved at me. I’ve tried my best to get them to see what they’re doing, but it’s not working too well. I’ve occasionally thought I’m invisible, but the cashiers at Wal-Mart or Reebles, my neighbors, and my friends all say “Hello” when they see me out and about. Maybe our leaders can’t see me because I don’t genuflect in their presence or fawn all over them. It’s probably time for another approach. Let me try this. “I love you commissioners.” “You’re the absolute best.” “You’re the cat’s pajamas.” How’s that?
I’ve gone as far as I can go. I’m going back to making my case. Commissioners, please. Stop it! You’re killing me with your kindness.
I’m really not against the concept of government. I like it, particularly the idea of self-government, which I’ve been led to understand is supposed to be the American ideal. What I’m decidedly against is government, whether it’s Federal, State, or Municipal, that all too often does things it has no business doing and fails to do many of the things it should.
Sometimes it amazes me. Our leaders seem to have enough money to subsidize a public golf course to the tune of six figures annually, but couldn’t find enough to subsidize reduced cab fares for the city’s elderly and handicapped a couple of budget cycles ago. The commissioners said they were simply eliminating a duplicate service. The net effect of the decision was one transport service for the elderly and disabled and two golf courses, one getting a public subsidy and another having to compete with the subsidized links.
How is it our leaders have enough time to consider having taxpayers foot the bill for overpriced property on Highway 50, but can’t seem to find the time to deal with slumlords who prey on renters and cost their neighbors in higher property taxes and then add insult to injury by failing to pay their fair share and depressing property values?
There must be some sort of chemical mix in the water down at city hall and the county courthouse that causes our leaders to take leave of their senses just about the time they have to make a decision. I think they must be using them in every government office in the country.
Last night I read about a bill the California senate just passed. It’s titled Senate Bill 432. In their superior wisdom, a small band of public spirited politicians have mandated that all hotels, inns, bed and breakfasts, etc. in the state start using fitted sheets on their beds. According to the politicos, the reason for the mandate was worker safety. For any hotel, inn, or bed and breakfast that has the temerity to defy the legislators there will be criminal penalties. The California innkeepers say the decision will cost them close to $20 million and that the costs will be passed on to their guests. Will the mandate improve safety conditions for the state’s hotel workers? No, but that doesn’t matter.
The California House is going to consider the proposed legislation sometime this month. I’m sure the Senate will send the proposal, along with enough chemicals to ensure the bill’s passage.
A couple of months ago, the cities of San Francisco and Santa Monica considered legislation banning the practice of male circumcision. When religious groups, particularly Jews, objected, the lawyers stepped in and argued that “So long as a law has no discriminatory intent, states and the federal government may, therefore, regulate behavior in ways that contradict individuals' religious beliefs and practices.” In other words, Jews can object all they want. They can argue they’ve been circumcising their male children since Abraham instituted the practice 4,000 years ago, but it may not do them any good.
The measure is going to be on the cities’ respective ballots in November.
I see these things being played out in my home town, in California, and in Washington, D.C. and I feel like my head is spinning. The country is drowning in debt and deficits. So is California. So is Emporia. And what are our leaders doing? Drinking chemically laced water, mandating fitted sheets, banning circumcision, subsidizing golf, pandering to slumlords, and printing money. It makes me want to scream from my housetop, “Stop the insanity!” “Stop killing me with your kindness!”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I’m going to be accused of it so I might as well jump right in. I’m going to beat on a dead horse.
Actually, the reason I’m flailing away is that the horse isn’t really dead. I’ve been whacking him for years now, but in spite of my heroic effort he keeps coming back to life. My critics must be having a field day. They’re probably saying to themselves, “This fool thinks he’s smacking an old nag around. He doesn’t understand that our horse is actually more like Seabiscuit.”
The horse I’m talking about is the cultural and political divide in this town. On one side of the divide are those who say that everything in Emporia is fine. Their contention is that there’s not much we need to do to fix the things that ail us other than shop a little bit more here in town. They seem to hold the high ground and feel the defenses they’ve erected are impregnable.
They might be right, but I think I’ll keep it up, sort of like Ulysses S. Grant did at Cold Harbor. I’m thinking that if I can somehow remain ambulatory I may win out in the end.
Who’s the nag I’m beating on? It’s the divide between Emporia’s important citizens/decision makers and its rank and file.
I got back from a meeting last week and found a school district pamphlet called the “Clipboard,” dated June 22nd. There’s was a news brief on the cover page circled that read, “The policy also shifts two of the 11 paid holidays from Veterans Day and Good Friday to additional days during Christmas.” That was it.
I called the school district this morning to figure out how the decision to shift the holiday had been made. The process went something like this. In the past, teachers and administrators used Veterans Day as an in service day. Those who worked on Veterans Day got paid for the holiday, which meant they had to work a half a day to earn their holiday pay. This year the “calendar committee” decided to eliminate the Veterans Day holiday and add that day to the Christmas break. They forwarded their recommendation to the school board, the recommendation was approved. It’s now district policy.
As far as the decision makers are concerned it’s a done deal. Then, why am I beating on a dead horse? Actually, I’m not. I’m beating on the old nag named Disconnect. He’s very much alive.
Some questions occurred to me as I listened to the explanation. Did anyone on the calendar committee consider how Emporia’s veterans might feel about the change? Could the committee have found another day on the calendar that would have kept the Veterans Day holiday intact and still meet the requirement for an in service day?
My critics might have a couple of questions for me. “Why are you getting so hot and bothered?” “Isn’t this much ado about nothing?” And therein lies the problem. The disconnect in Emporia is palpable. It’s as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon.
A couple of weeks ago city leaders were busily trying to convince USA Today that Emporia was America’s most patriotic city. I think there was a disconnect there. I think patriotism was misused to further narrow political and economic interests. Now we’ve got some of Emporia’s leaders all but saying that a day set aside to honor veterans means little or nothing. And, they wonder why Emporia’s average guy feels the deck is stacked against him. They wonder why the “little people” refuse to turn out in droves on Election Day.
I suppose veterans are not that big a constituent group. Besides, they’re too busy dodging RPG’s up in Tora Bora to complain.
The disconnect probably seems quite small. But, when you add all of the small disconnects in Emporia up the number becomes almost unmanageable.
How is it, for example, that someone can assume the city has pockets deep enough to treat $23,000 an acre like it was chump change? Maybe it’s easy when you hold 65 Emporians over the fires of economic hell as collateral. Do you think the average hourly sweating out the weekly paycheck might be feeling like he’s being held hostage in this game of economic chicken? I do!
I’ve spent years wondering how this city’s slumlords get away with what they do. They must be politically connected. I’ve wondered why city leaders keep saying, I’m fixin’ to work on the problem….tomorrow….or the day after tomorrow. It’s a lot easier when the slumlords’ victims have decided to bite the bullet or they’ve just given up.
The end result is that we’ve got a lot of people who’ve become invisible to leadership. And, until they become visible nothing else here will change for the better.