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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


In a week or so Nancy and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. For the past few years we’ve celebrated at our favorite Kansas City restaurant, Le Fou Frog (The Crazy Frenchman). I’ve already made our reservations for this year.
Twenty-five years is a significant chunk of time. A lot can happen in twenty-five years. We’ve witnessed the election of our first African-American president, 9-11, two wars in the Persian Gulf, one in Afghanistan, a national economic meltdown, and a presidential election decided by the Supreme Court. We’ve been through the death of her father and one of her brothers and my mother’s passing. We’ve been unemployed. We’ve been broke. We’ve been blessed with plenty.
Yet, when I consider our years together it’s not so much the big things that capture my attention. It’s the silver memories that taken together add up to powerful bonds of love and affection. So, I’m going to share a few of those moments with you. As I do, you might want to prop your feet up and think back to your silver moments with your significant other.
I remember the early days. Nancy and I had been chosen to be part of a teaching team. There came a time when we’d spend time outside the church, just talking. The first conversations lasted five minutes. Then, five minutes became a half hour, then an hour or more. One night as I was on my way back home I found myself in a mystical conversation with Nancy. I could see her face in the windshield. As I passed through the inner loop of downtown Kansas City a cop pulled me over. I was doing 62 in a 45 MPH zone. I apologized and admitted my guilt, but knew I couldn’t tell the cop that the reason I was speeding was because I had gotten caught up in the apparition of a beautiful woman. He kept pressing the point and I finally said, “If I plead insanity will you give me my ticket and let me go?” The result was an on-the-spot safety inspection of my beat up old Ford and close to $300 of mechanical repairs to go with it. The next time I saw Nancy I proposed. I told her, “I’m not a college sophomore any more. I know what I want. I’m head over heels in love with you. And, besides, if I don’t marry you I’ll be dead broke in less than a month.” That was in April of ’86. We got married in September.
The early years were tough. We had to work our way through differences. I liked noisy mornings, jumpstarted by Dire Straits. Nancy preferred Debussy. She was quiet and reflective, as opposed to my manic flailing around on the exercise machine in the basement. She liked quiche. I liked ham and cheese omelets.
We moved to New Jersey in the late eighties. We rented an old Victorian home near Montville. It was a wonderful place. Nancy loved it. I remember a morning when we were peering out a picture window in our breakfast nook while we sipped coffee. Suddenly, there was something that captured her full attention. It was a bird. She got so excited when she saw it that she grabbed my hand across the table, squeezed it, and exclaimed, “Oh, Phil, it’s the Flicker! He’s come back.” I don’t think she was fully aware of what was going on inside her. I’m not a weak man, but a part of me wanted to cry out in pain. I didn’t want to short circuit the moment, so I sat there, soaking in the effect, realizing that I was going to share many more of those wonderful moments with her as time went by.
I remember our first brush with mortality. It was early morning and we were sitting at an inn in Cape May. Nancy seemed to know that I was feeling uncomfortable about being around so many older people. I was beginning to sense time and mortality moving at light speed away from me. She asked what seemed to be a strange question. “Slick, what will you do if I die before you?” Like an idiot, I blurted out, “I don’t want you to ever die.” I felt so noble when I said it. It wasn’t till I got home and read C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” that I realized I’d been more worried about the things I wanted from Nancy  than I had about Nancy herself. I had to learn that she wasn’t put on earth solely for my amusement.  
There are so many of those silver moments, but I’ve run out of space. It’s time to go downstairs and reflect quietly. Maybe it would be a good time for you to reflect on your silver moments, too.

Friday, August 12, 2011


In my younger days I burned the candle at both ends, and sometimes even the middle. If I could find a wick, or the hint of one, I’d set it ablaze. Like almost any young man my preoccupation was wine, women, and song.  At those rare moments of adult sanity when I entertained thoughts I’d eventually pay a price for my misadventures I’d dismiss them and move on to a new one.
These days many of the memories of my youth have faded and I’m left with the physical reminders that there is a price to be paid for burning the candle of youth. A little over two years ago I went through open heart surgery, thanks to my love of greasy food. Six weeks or so ago the pain in my back was so excruciating I could barely get my tennis shoes on when I got out of bed at 5:00 A.M.  I went to a chiropractor for the first time in my life. It took several treatments to get the arthritis to respond to the chiropractor’s skilled hands. Two Sundays ago I had to go to the emergency room at Newman. Blood tests revealed that I’d had a flare-up of pancreatitis, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I wouldn’t even with it on a politician. For a week after I left the hospital I had to maintain a liquid diet. If you’re anything like me living on chicken broth, popsicles, diet Jell-O, noodles, and one cup of morning coffee can get very old, very fast.
You can see that I’m struggling with the aging process. That’s why I’m glad I have my buddy, Jack, the ugliest dog in Emporia. He’s a great teacher.
Like me, Jack is getting long in the tooth. A few months ago he seemed to be on the verge of going to the old bone yard. But, thanks to Floyd Dorsey and daily enzyme treatments Jack seems to be doing alright. He’s no spring chicken, mind you, but he’s alive and has occasional visits from the sweet bird of youth.
Our days together start with a walk. By seven he’s back home and ready for breakfast. It takes me a few minutes to cut up the pills and sprinkle the enzymes on his food. As I do, Jack gets a case of the happy feet. He jumps up and down. The sound of his toenails hitting the wood floor reminds me of the sound of a flamenco dancer’s castanets. As soon as his bowl hits the floor Jack hurls himself into his work. It takes him less time to eat the food than it took me to prepare it for him. Then, it’s off to take a nap in his favorite spot under the piano.
For the next forty-five minutes I tune in to C-Span’s “Washington Journal getting my daily fix of what America is thinking. As soon as I’m satisfied that the Republic is safe for at least one more day I fix breakfast for myself, which amounts to Shredded Wheat, skim milk, orange juice, daily medications, and two tablets of pancreatic enzymes. Then, if the mood strikes me, I might sit down in front of my laptop and work on an essay, mow the lawn, or go to a commission meeting and stick a barb or two into Emporia’s high and mighty.
While I’m doing my thing Jack spends his day quietly. He’ll chew on a bone for a while, then hide it from Ranger, the Sheltie, and Brudder the cat. If he doesn’t have a bone to work on he’ll sit in front of me and emit strange guttural sounds and muffled “Ruff’s” to let me know he needs one. When he goes outside he moves slowly, showing his age. But, it all changes when a neighborhood squirrel occasionally does his high wire act between the utility poles running along the right of way in back of our house. Jack sees him and it’s like he’s been hit by an instant jolt of electric youth. He vibrates, then runs full tilt toward the interloper, barking as he does. He’s never caught the squirrel, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Jack seems quite content. For him, life is quite simple – food mixed with enzymes, a daily bone, concessions to age and occasional bursts of youth. There’s a meter, a rhythm to it all and it’s quite mysterious to observe. I heard Bob Dylan describe it this way once:
“Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee
So it may flow and be
To each his own, it’s all unknown
If dogs run free”

As I take part in his these daily rituals I’m learning that Jack and I are in some ways very much alike. We’re just two old dogs living our sunset years on enzymes.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


Most people know him as Jimmy or James. In lighter moments I know him as Beanblossom the Great. It’s a moniker I gave him when we first met twenty-five years ago. He liked it and it’s stuck like glue ever since.
James is my wife’s developmentally disabled brother.
James wasn’t born with a disability. He was quite normal at birth. He was the older of a set of twins. But, sometime in the fall of 1946 he got very sick. The doctors later told the family he’d developed spinal meningitis and double pneumonia simultaneously. By the time his parents got him to a hospital his fever had reached 109. He survived the ordeal, but his brain was all but fried. He’s been developmentally disabled ever since.
I don’t know much about the time between his early life and when I met him. I do know that he spent some of that time in institutional settings at Parsons and somewhere in western Kansas. By the time I met him he was living at home, spending his time listening to gospel music or working in a sheltered workshop in Johnson County.
We hit it off right away. Like Forrest and Jenny we were two peas in a pod. That has never changed over the years. I’ve done my best to be a constant friend to him and on occasion I’ve stepped in to be a fierce defender. One of the enduring lessons I’ve taken to heart from James over the years is that there is often much more to folks with developmental disabilities than meets the eye.
Some years ago, when he was living in Shawnee with his mother, the workshop started sending a series of notes home with him. If I recall correctly they were called incident reports. They were a curious mix of police report and institutionally based language. “Consumer refused to do assigned work.” “Consumer screamed.” “Consumer got into an argument with Charles.” A meeting was scheduled and his mother asked me if I would attend. When the meeting began I could see that James was quite worried. The supervisor began by reading back the litany. “Consumer did this.” “Consumer did that.” I Interrupted and asked, “Why do you keep calling James “consumer?” “What’s he consuming anyway?” “Too much oxygen?” “Too much of your precious time?” The supervisor explained and his explanation went right over my head. Institutional language has that effect on me. We then proceeded to the primary cause of the meeting. James had been told to assemble some notebooks. When the work was brought to him he saw that the notebook covers had pictures of scantily clad women. He told the supervisor he couldn’t do what he’d been told to do. The supervisor insisted. James said he wouldn’t. The supervisor said he had to. James ended the standoff by saying, “You can’t make me do this crap.” The result of the dustup was the incident report that had precipitated the meeting. I asked the supervisor if he had any understanding of James’s moral compass. He looked at me quizzically, which told me that he probably didn’t believe a developmentally disabled person could think moral thoughts. I assured him that James did indeed have a moral code that he would not violate under any circumstances and that a good supervisor would have found something else for James to do instead of setting up a battle of wills he would never win.
The meeting ended with not much resolved. James wasn’t going to shift his moral compass and the supervisor was going to continue to flex his administrative muscle.
James is, of course, developmentally disabled. It would be easy to think the best way out of the dilemma would have been to give in. I disagree. I think his response was quite normal. Isn’t it normal for us to draw lines we won’t cross? Didn’t Johnny Paycheck strike a chord with the public when he crooned, “Take this job and shove it?”
Thankfully, things have improved immeasurably since that meeting. James now lives here in Emporia. He lives independently, with the help of the wonderful staff at Auspicion. He spends his days working for Hetlinger. He loves his work and his supervisors, especially Vivian. Every time we get together he has me transcribe his daily production numbers on to small slips of paper which he files meticulously.
There’s a lot more I could say, but I’m running out of space. The bottom line is that James wants the things in life we all want – to be happy, to live independently, to be productive. All in all, I’d say that’s quite good, and quite normal.

Maybe you’ll have the pleasure of meeting him some day. If you do you may get to know him well enough to call him Beanblossom the Great.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


By the time this essay is published the flags will have been taken down and the odor of the fireworks of Independence Day will have dissipated. Rand McNally will have moved on in their search for America’s most patriotic city. The official fanfare that accompanied the dedication of “the rocks” will be history.
When all the talk of patriotism and the push to impress Rand McNally was going around it seemed a bit out of place to me. I thought of being amused, but came to the conclusion there was nothing amusing about it. I actually found myself getting angry. It wasn’t because I’m less a patriot than the sponsors of the dog and pony show. I was upset because I believe that those who were pushing the show had a misplaced sense of what patriotism is, or should be, all about.
In April, 1775, British author Samuel Johnson, made a remarkable statement – “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Was Johnson saying that there was something inherently wrong with being a patriot? Far from it. A year earlier Johnson had published a pamphlet titled “The Patriot.” A small sample of what he wrote follows:
“It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.”
“A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers everything to the common interest.”
Johnson saw clearly that there was more to being a patriot than beating the drums. Patriotism, as he saw it, was a state of mind and heart that put self-interest on the shelf and elevated a higher motive. To the patriot, a person’s neighbors, his community, and his country were the paramount interests.
These are some of the ingredients that have been missing in the rush to impress Rand McNally or to serve a few narrow interests at the expense of the people who pay the bills and do the serving.
There’s something else that’s been missing. A lot of true patriots are being passed by, as if their service to this community and country mean nothing unless they serve the narrow interests of the few.
I moved to Emporia twelve years ago. Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to talk with a neighbor named Terry Bassler. Terry is a transplant to Emporia. He hails from Oklahoma. I have fond memories of our brief conversations as Terry walked his dog, Mattie, by our house in the cool of the evening. Terry is a plain spoken man. He has a wonderful drawl when he speaks. He’s honest to a fault. In fact, he’s downright unimpeachable. I remember talking to him about his orders to deploy to Iraq with his National Guard unit. It wasn’t much of a conversation. I thanked him and told him to be careful. I told him I’d be praying for him. About three months or so after he deployed we got word that he’d been wounded. Not long after that he came home with pins screwed into his leg, courtesy of an explosive device of some kind. Just seeing the pain he was going through made me wince. I see Terry from time to time these days. I’ve never heard him complain. He just keeps plugging away, in his own quiet way.
I don’t think I’ve ever met him, but I occasionally read something he’s posted to the Gazette’s forums. His name is Matt Slater. The last I heard he was serving a tour in Afghanistan. Before he deployed Matt, along with some of his fellow entrepreneurs, fought the proposed smoking ban. He lost that battle, then shipped out. He occasionally comments on things here at home. He’s never complained about serving his country. He’s one of those “fire eaters” the high and mighty around town love to marginalize.
I find it quite ironic.

One of the great characters in 20th century literature was an old German soldier named Katcinsky, from Erich Remarque’s classic “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  Kat, as he was affectionately known, was the grizzled old veteran the younger soldiers relied on in difficult times. When the younger soldiers wondered how to end the bloody war, Kat came up with an ingenious solution. The King and the Kaiser would meet, in their underwear, clubs in hand¸ in a field.
I think the solution is timeless. Maybe it’s time for our leaders to stop beating the drum. Maybe it’s time to ship them “over there” Maybe then they’ll learn what patriotism is all about.