Last night we burned all the Christmas wreaths. Basking in the sudden heat and light of the crackling greenery made it feel like the year had finally started at last, the January malaise burning away and giving shape to something new. These last hours of the old lunar year seem like the right time to share this tapestry of writing from 2022, a mix of quotidian and fantastical phone notes that I compiled and fleshed out over the past few weeks, though there are about 1,000 words per month so read at your own risk. Wishing you a warm and glowing 2023.
Every year I make vague plans to complete a long and continuous work of writing and instead I wind up scribbling short observations and reflections about daily events. I suppose it’s my way of bending rather than breaking with the modular work calendar that governs my weeks, days, hours. And it’s a way of writing at least something when I’m too busy with work projects or emails.
In the past I have also used the daily calendar format as a basis for creative projects, but this year’s collection is more straightforward. These 200 or so entries were expanded from my initial notes to paint a portrait of a year that was by turns Epicurean, difficult, transitional, sad, and at times also very fun.
Seeing all these moments in one place reminds me how rich in relationships, humor, and experiences my life really is (even if many important people and events are not expressly mentioned here). It highlights things that I may be overlooking or failing to do, or that I may need to change in my life.
I also find writing daily or near daily entries enormously helpful in keeping track of what happens to my time, cataloging big life events and small moments alike. Seeing everything in one places helps me get a sense of what kind of year it was, and it’s a more accurate barometer of life’s ups and downs than what you might find on social media.
I admit this kind of writing may be more fun to write than to read. The tenses jump around a lot from one day to the next. It’s a bit personal in places. But I think there’s enough here to be of interest to at least a few of you, even if it’s just to provide a moment of “Hey, I could do this!” (you absolutely could, and maybe even should).
You can’t slow down the time, but pausing to appreciate the good, difficult, unique, and interesting moments makes daily writing a worthwhile exercise. My grandpa B, who always seemed joyful and at peace in his later years, said that life’s greatest reward was the knowledge that you have lived it well.
Right now I’m a very long way from that kind of sanguine wisdom. But after the seemingly interminable uncertainties of the past few years, I’m learning to take longer breaths again, calm down a bit, look further ahead.
Who knows, maybe this will be the year I write something longer. Until then, please enjoy, politely skip on past, or better yet, pick up your pen or notes app and write a few entries yourself. For the intrepid water rabbit of 2023, it’s not too late to start.
There’s a bus stop on Ward Parkway that to my knowledge is not in use, but which nonetheless serves as an anchor in the Westwood, Missouri, neighborhood. It’s more of a little stone pavilion than a bus stop, almost like the little shrines you see in Eastern cultures, if a bit more utilitarian. I stop there for a moment sometimes when crossing the street, but it’s only a few feet back from the curb, wedged uncomfortably between speeding traffic and a bridge people often spend the night beneath, so I never tarry. Tonight, though I noticed a sparkle, a bit of gold, an orb of some sort wedged between two of the boards. I realized someone had taken one of the oversized and increasingly out of date Christmas ornaments from the statue basin on the opposite side of the street and wedged it decoratively between the pillars of the bus shrine. They had done so with creativity and artistry, if apparently not great care. As I got closer I saw the large ornament’s surface was broken, a lower quadrant perhaps having been impaled or dropped in transit, but the overall shape remained intact. It shone like a proud but broken globe, the black of the night sky filling the gap in its glittering golden surface. A plein air installation piece, the first artifact in a new series of celebrating things that might otherwise go unnoticed.
I read the other day that the way you spend the first 12 days of the year will determine how you spend the rest of your year. If that’s the case, then I’m in for a long year of walking along industrial stretches of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, skipping along sandbars, and snapping vivid phone pictures of the sunset or blurry zoomed-in images of the moon. And of course working, sleeping (at least a bit), and spending time with friends and family.
I want to share more writing, too, but since it’s the 11th hour of the 11th day of that critical 12 day stretch, I better get cracking. After all this time in the wilderness of work, relationships, and lonely riparian sojourns, I’m not quite sure where to start.
I guess I can take a brief look back at the new year so far. We are adding on to our house and the living room and porch areas are complete. Ruby has been practicing viola in the new space, which without furnishings or stained floorboards feels like a yoga studio. Last night I sat on the floor and could see the moon shining through the skylights in the vaulted ceiling. People keep asking when the project will be finished but since most of it is done I’m enjoying these final few weeks of the building process and these first tentative uses of the space.
Emil is playing a lot of Super Mario Maker and composing his own video game soundtracks on the programmable Casio keyboard we bought during lockdown. His electronic compositions are a nice blend of the jazz standards he learns in piano lessons and the hours he’s spent reading the Casio’s manual and skillfully manipulating the arpeggiator. In school he enjoys math and is illustrating the animals in the Chinese zodiac. We’re almost through with the year of the tiger and on to the year of the rabbit. Thank goodness.
Raising older kids is a lot different than raising younger kids. You never know what kinds of conversations you are going to have or need to have. The other night Ruby couldn’t sleep because she’d either read or heard from a friend that the sun will eventually swell to such a large size that it will fatally suck all the planets in the solar system into its orbit, including Earth. That prompted a long conversation about worry, life, the universe, faith, science, and many other things, all while we listened to an instrumental album of a string quartet playing Miyazaki soundtrack themes. I was touched by her concern for the future of people hundreds of millions of years into the future. I remember feeling the same way as a kid, still largely unaware of present-day problems in society but overwhelmed by the idea of eternity. You just listen, stroke their hair, gently share some perspective, and send them back to bed. But their questions and earnestness in asking them stay in your mind for a long while afterward.
After an intensive few years of helping people buy and sell homes, Jenn has mostly stepped back from real estate and is refocusing on her photography business, specializing in interiors, portraiture, and also shooting random objects and scenes just for fun in her free time. It’s been great to see her return to her professional and creative roots while also planning the home addition and helping out with the kids school activities and projects.
Life for me has been good, but humbling. In the past five years I have edited over 100 different titles for Andrews McMeel Publishing, mostly graphic novels, thematic comic collections, a few memoirs, books of poetry, and narrative nonfiction. I love helping authors shape and focus their ideas and working with our design and production team to help realize each author’s vision. I work with some amazingly talented people. The only problem is it can all be dizzying to keep track of, and I spend a lot of time writing emails, walking around drinking coffee, or staring into space and hoping I didn’t forget to do something critically important. But I’m grateful to have a job that aligns with my interests and affords us the chance to do fun things and explore new places.
People often comment to us how much we get around or are always traveling, which is a combination of truth and optical illusion. Many of the posts that look like travels are in fact from nearby locations, just framed in a way that looks interesting or exotic. And some of the trips we take (hello and goodbye, Dauphin Island, Alabama!) turn out to be bumpy and misguided. While we have been fortunate enough to go on some great trips this past few years, the superficial sheen of social media rarely reflects the more mundane or complex realities of daily life, which is one of the reasons I want to do more writing instead.
Whether I’m in a foreign country or at home in Kansas City, the reality is that I’m mostly just moving in circles—not heading toward anything specific as much as just moving around. On a walk through Westwood Park a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the Rilke poem “I Live My Life in Widening Circles,” in which the speaker talks about endlessly roaming through the world, circling the ancient tower of God, asking himself who he is: a falcon, a storm, or some giant song. I love the idea of eternally searching and not even knowing what you are searching for, even if I’m not yet quite as resigned to the concept as the guy in the poem.
After completing so many circles, I also thought I would have things a bit more figured out by now. I guess I expected that at around age 40 I’d hit some sort of threshold of accomplishment, age, or understanding. But I didn’t, and I haven’t, so I keep moving.
But now that I find myself in a rare moment of rest, settling back into routines amid the shorter and colder days, I find that the corollary of that poem is also true. I live my life in tightening circles. I find myself walking familiar routes, revisiting projects that have been on pause for years, trying to figure out how to integrate my desire for travel, exploration, and escape into my daily life here in the Midwest.
It’s so easy to live in the same city or work the same job for a long time and feel like you’ll never be surprised again. To feel like you’ve seen it all before and everything new is just a repackaged iteration of something that’s already been done. But then I take a look at the artwork, writing, or projects by a few of the artists I know—people who may be quite a bit older than me, but who still look at their surroundings with the same sense of newness and exploration one might bring to a country they are visiting for the first time.
Their work reminds me to remain open to new things, new people, new ideas, and new possibilities. It reminds me that no matter where you live, there are always new opportunities to work with others or to dig deeper within. It reminds me to stay curious and keep experimenting. And most importantly, to stay in motion and stick with things, especially when I feel stuck.
So in conclusion, before the clock strikes midnight on this 11th day of the year, I’ll sign off by wishing you a happy 2023 and a furry and gentle year of the rabbit. Please look for some new posts here soon and see the “about me” page if you’d like to get in touch. I’m very much looking forward to a new year of explorations and discovery, and I’m wishing you the best of luck.
So long, old Westwood View! Tomorrow is the last day the 50+ year old building will be the home of the neighborhood elementary school that I attended as a kid and where my own kids go now. I have to admit I’m a bit heartbroken about the quaint old place being torn down, so I thought I’d channel that toward remembering some of the unique things about it. Feel free to chime in with your own memories or tributes as well.
But first, some things that I’ll miss…
The building itself: The building is made up of two octagonal pods resting on either side of a hill, with narrow hallways, rows of lockers, and a massive gymnasium with a knotted rope and basketball goals, one of which was apparently signed by KU basketball player Jerod Haase. Our gym teacher used to put on the record to “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys and make us run laps to start the period. I never know why she chose this song but to this day when I hear it played I instinctively move to the perimeter of the building and begin running laps. The classrooms are not large, but the high ceilings create a sense of security and openness that always seemed like a stark contrast to the more confined classrooms at other schools.
The school grounds: When I was a kid, you weren’t a true kickball hero until you’d landed at least one utility ball on the roof. Tetherball was marked by epic rivalries, and four-square competition was intense. Today my kids play a lot of gaga-ball, and after they taught me how to play I can see why. Many of the massive oak trees I played under as a kid are still standing today, and another classmate pointed out one to me recently where his gang of friends, “The Mini-Spies,” used to gather to plot imaginative mischief. The lower playground equipment has changed, but used to be the home of a climbing structure called “The Spider” due to its shape. We also used to build homes for squirrels out of woodchips, decorated with tiny furniture and artwork. The upper parking lots are where many a kid has learned how to ride a bike on weekends or evenings. Just last week the school grounds were home to the school carnival complete with a dunk tank and cakewalk. Many of the trees have plaques in tribute of past teachers and students. There’s so much history here and it’s hard not to imagine these school grounds buzzing with life.
The composite pictures: The school itself predates the existing building, and class pictures line the hallways from 1938 to the present. The children in the oldest pictures look so much older than any kids today, thanks to the faded sepia photographs, changing styles, and formal attire. When I’ve been back in the school I always stop to find my class picture or those of my siblings, remembering names and faces I’ve forgotten, snapping a picture to send to friends I still talk to, and remembering those who are no longer with us. I’m sure most kids walk past them without a second thought – we didn’t pay them much attention either except maybe to make fun of an odd photo or two – but if you think about it, it’s a pretty intense thing to have that many faces staring out at all times. Not quite Hogwarts-level eerie, but definitely something that contributes to the atmosphere and generational continuity of this small neighborhood school.
The memories: Too many to recount, but a few that have come up recently include playing Oregon Trail on the old Apple computers, shooting hundreds of pounds of Buffalo meat even though I could only carry 6. Kindergarten, where we watched baby chicks hatch in the incubator and made a paper-mache unicorn inspired by the Shel Silverstein poem/song. D.A.R.E. assemblies where kids performed songs pledging to stay drug-free (with eventual mixed results). The bright yellow ribbons we got to pin on and take home when we were “child of the day.” And the smiling blue and yellow python mascot you still see today.
Mostly, I remember Westwood View as an encouraging and welcoming place that lived up to the closing lyrics of the school song, “At Westwood View, you can’t go wrong.” My teachers got me interested in science, math, and reading, but also made sure that if I hurt someone’s feelings, I understood what I had done wrong and apologized for it. I got in trouble for a few things over the years (throwing food, giving a substitute teacher a false name, writing and performing a rap song with explicit lyrics, lol) but was never made to feel like a bad person for it. The school had a maternal feel, as the teachers were mostly women, but there were always a few male teachers or administrators to play football with or set you straight or tell you about the birds and the bees with the aid of super old-fashioned filmstrips.
What’s remarkable to me now — nearly 30 years after my own sixth-grade graduation, and with my own kids in 2nd and 4th grade — is how little things there have changed. The faces and names are different, but the teachers are still fantastic, caring, and dedicated to what they do. During the pandemic, teachers, staff, and administrators faced all kinds of extra challenges, navigating remote school, health concerns and protocols, and masks. But they worked through it and our kids come home each day energized by what they’ve learned, what projects they’re working on, and what they’ll be doing tomorrow. At a time when nothing in the world has seemed “normal,” this is something I’ll always be grateful for.
Another thing that makes Westwood View special is the involvement of the parents. Walking through the front doors last week, I was instantly reminded of my mom, who helped put that mosaic together a couple decades ago and who was active in school events for nearly two decades. I remember her staying up late to paint the backdrops to the school carnival, helping to design the yearbook, or playing piano at a school concert. Her contributions then remind me of the many current parents who make the Westwood View experience fun, educational, and sometimes even magical for kids — I could name a bunch of names, but who you know who you are. I’m sure that spirit of parental involvement will continue to thrive in the new building.
So, as sad as I am to bid farewell to the old building, I can tell from talking with my kids, their teachers, and the principal how excited they all are to make use of the new facilities, rooms, and resources. And most importantly, the new building ensures that the school will thrive for many years to come — something that seemed in doubt not that long ago.
Lately a number of the big trees I walked past on my walk to school are being taken down for safety reasons, having reached maturity or sustained damage from storms. I see new parents pushing strollers and know that in a few years their kids will be starting school at WWV just as mine are moving on. There’s a lot of change in the air, and it feels like the right time for a new school building for students, teachers, and staff to grow into. It’s bittersweet, but mostly, it’s exciting.
So I’ll just sign out by saying how lucky I am to have experienced life at Westwood View as both a student and a parent, and by saying congrats to all the teachers, staff members, parents, students, and community members who make this place what it is. It feels great knowing that the school’s A+ Attitude and Achievement (old school motto, for the heads) will live on for many years to come.
Pythons Forever! And hello, new Westwood View!
Today was a day of highs and lows, and tears of joy and sorrow, all having to do with sports.
I woke up at dawn, still a wee bit tipsy from the previous night’s campfire reunion of friends, and tuned in to the 4th set of Nadal vs. Medvedev in the Australian Open final. Seeing Nadal slog through to victory and the huge grin spread across his face when he realized he had won, you got a glimpse of the pure joy of individual triumph — triumph against age, injury, Covid, and a formidable opponent.
Nine hours later, I sat on the same couch with my son watching the end of the Chiefs AFC championship game against the Bengals. They had first and goal at the 5 under two minutes, we seemed God-destined to win this game in glorious, escape artist fashion, just like we’ve done for as long as my 7-year-old can remember. He went upstairs and fetched the cardboard confetti cannon he made using a craft book instructions, “just in case.” But I could see through the humility, I knew he was expecting to use it and was just waiting until when.
But the win didn’t materialize, and when the Bengals kicked the winning field goal he hid his head under the blanket and cried. “We don’t cry about sports games,” I said, reciting a speech I had rehearsed in my head but, in the moment, had little conviction in. We watched a couple minutes of the postgame handshakes and turned it off on the image of Kelce turning away in defeat.
I had been trying to model good behavior, good sportsmanship, not yelling or complaining or moping, just keeping it steady. But in a way I think my son had the right idea. Cry a bunch all at once, then move on to art projects or Nintendo and go to bed without much of a care. Meanwhile I will be replaying the lowlights in my head until I finally fall asleep, which I suspect is still a ways off.
A valuable lesson, losing. And a whole generation of kids in Kansas City has yet to learn much about it, even though their parents spent decades thinking that’s all there ever was or would be. I should be used to it by now, but remembering how to lose graciously is something you have to relearn. I can’t pretend I wasn’t wrapped up in highlights and analysis and celebrations for the past three weeks, so it doesn’t seem fair to just turn the TV off on a bad loss like it never happened.
We like to call out “fair-weather fans,” or people who only watch when the team is hot or the stakes are high. But that’s really more of bandwagon fandom, which to me has always seemed logical — hot, winning teams are much more fun to watch than losing, long-suffering ones. All-weather fandom is all about how you handle wins and losses, how gracious and composed you can be in both victory and defeat.
I always seem to want to put things in a nice little bow — a “well we tried” text message, or “not our year” concession, or “back next year” sentiment — but the hard truth is that losing hurts, sometimes for a long time. Yes, football is just a game, but in sports and in life, emotions have to be accepted and processed, and not run away from.
Which takes me back to tennis, and the emotion of the milestone win by Rafael Nadal this morning. Watching him climb up to congratulate his team after this morning’s match, I had flashbacks to his very first title, which I watched live with my great-aunt Marjorie at her home in Amsterdam.
On that day, Nadal’s 19th birthday, the long-haired Majorcan climbed up into the stands to pay tribute to the King of Spain. Marjorie and I knew we were watching something pure, emotional, historical, and when I saw tears in her eyes I realized I did, too.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time we would see each other. I moved back to Kansas City a week later and she passed away the following year. On that day I also had no inkling that 17 years later I would be watching the same champion win a grand slam final with my 7-year-old son, wondering if he had any understanding of why his dad suddenly was emotional to the point of tears.
Sports is a funny thing. So much can happen so quickly. You can experience so many highs and lows in such a short time. But they also bring us together. Whether you’re in the stands, watching at home with friends, or by yourself and sharing game-related texts, the Liverpudlians are right: you’ll never walk alone.
While I enjoy the dopamine of highlight reels and victory Mondays, the joy of watching the Chiefs for me this year has not been the pure high of a chasing a championship — we experienced that already in 2015 and 2020. It’s been more about seeing a group of people dedicate themselves to a common cause and take a lot of pride and joy in doing their jobs.
So yes, losing hurts. And winning — from what I remember this time last week — can be pretty sweet. But I don’t regret any of it. Even though we didn’t get to unleash the confetti canyons this year, we did our part all season long, cheering and staying hopeful until the very end. And tomorrow, though we may not feel like it, we’ll have to go back to work.
paperback, 96 pages, $15
What then are these poems?
telegrams from a season
The poems and photographs in this collection were composed over the course of dozens of solo walks through covid-era moods and landscapes, celebrating neighborhood minutiae, regional geography, and natural phenomena. Drawing on Japanese haiku, Greek fragments, South American imagery, and Chinese mountain poetry, The river also changes its mind about things switches its antennae between influences in this uniquely Midwestern haiku journey.
August 25, 2021. KC, MO. Walking through downtown as depressed as can be, FOR RENT signs in the former Paragraph Gallery space, and across the street, a big sign in tribute to the founder of our company, who died in June. The Kaldi’s Coffee where I once traded employees art prints and poems for free coffee has been replaced by a Bank of America that no one needs or asked for. Everything feels dead, or over. The bright spot is a row of gingko trees on Main Street, a sidewalk so congested with scooters, signs, and pedestrians that it normally feels unwalkable, but is completely free of humans now, and also covered in leaves.
Inside the club we are treated to free yard beers and smoked pickled deviled eggs. A new bar in the basement of a restored hotel. It feels ancient and familiar. Maybe there is life yet. It feels like the last “urban renaissance” is finally over, if it ever really happened, I can hardly remember now. The Royals will not make the playoffs and my best friends have gotten divorced and moved away. This city feels small but is still big enough where you can disappear without even moving. Maybe that’s what happened to me. I don’t have a frame of reference, nor a presence on any platform of contemporary relevance. Isn’t that how it always is? People are briefly almost something and then they are old.
The show almost made me weep. The band’s first performance in over a year, the band members so deprived of applause, it was like seeing a starving person eat and try to remain polite. They played some of the old songs they normally pretend not to remember, and some of their parents were there. I drank one beer and then another. Others drank even more than me. There were shy and elegant people who I vaguely remembered meeting years ago and was reintroduced to, made polite conversation with. C0ntractors, scientists, muralists. The lights were turned down and someone said the light fixtures were from 60 years ago.
And that, my friends, is the end of my notes. The club has since officially opened. I haven’t been back, but I hope to return, maybe as a once-a-month DJ, if they’ll have me. An indie disco, or tour of other genres of Americana, soul, and folk music. I just have to work up the courage. If you’re reading this, and it hasn’t happened yet, please remind me. I probably will have forgotten and will maybe have a new venue in mind. Who knows. At the very least I’ll buy you a drink. And some deviled eggs, too, beneath the lights and local memorabilia. I am old enough that I can imagine one day becoming a fixture, something that has long since sat in storage, freshly polished.
Father always kept fresh flowers on the table
And a refrigerator full of condiments
Strange syrups I didn’t understand
He taught me how to drain the rainwater
from the candlewicks
Told me how they would hiss
and sputter next time they were lit
He would shout out song lyrics at any given moment in the house
He had lots of books but always fell asleep when he tried to read them
The stereo was always on when we came home
He taught us how to draw funny faces on the photos in the newspaper
And seemed equal parts annoyed and impressed when we did it
He often seemed like he couldn’t make up his mind
And would linger in the doorway when we went to bed
Like he’d forgotten what he wanted to say, forgotten
he had ever wanted to say anything at all
He rarely, if ever, talked about God
But you should’ve seen him the day he fell
through a sudden tear
in the trampoline
While we sat—scared—on what remained
of the mat, looking down
lying on his back in the dirt
-lhw (adapted from a lengthy text to self from 6.16.20 rediscovered 17 months later)
2020 started out strong at Andrews McMeel Publishing, but once COVID hit we quickly had to abandon the office and adapt to coordinating deadlines, projects, and acquisitions from home. It was chaotic at first, and at times very stressful, but fortunately the books and authors themselves made the whole experience worthwhile and fun. Instead of hiding out in a conference room or stairwell, I could take phone calls openly, go for walks in the park every lunch break to get some fresh air/ideas, and dig out a previously unused corner of the basement to carve out a 24/7 editorial bunker. I was also named a Publisher’s Weekly Star Watch honoree, which led to some introductions to other early or mid-career publishing professionals across the country. But most of the time I was somewhere buried in the process of putting the following books together. I encourage you to check them out. There’s something here for everyone.
Fangs is a love story between a werewolf and a vampire, who on the surface appear to be normal (if strange) twenty- or thirtysomethings, but who live dark, secretive lives. Their monstrous elements are played here for laughs, but the dry sense of humor barely conceals this couple’s genuine vulnerability and care for one another. The book itself is beautiful, a small, red cloth-bound hardcover volume that Sarah wanted to look “like a satanic bible.” We did a lot of experimenting with different cloth material, foil stamping, and even black dye on the edge of the pages to get the look and feel right. The book made the New York Times bestseller list and was nominated for an Eisner award.
Dbury@50 – The Complete Digital Doonesbury
by Garry Trudeau
This 50th-anniversary omnibus was the most elaborate and demanding project I ever worked on, and fortunately there was a whole talented team of people on hand to do it. Garry himself, of course, his longtime editorial deputy/historian David Stanford (who wrote several pages of summary text for each year of the strip’s history), and design team George and Susan Corsillo (Design Monsters), as well as in-house colleagues at AMP. We had to go back through physical archives and scan literally thousands of strips that had never been digitized, and design a program (included on a flash drive) that contained every strip in existence, along with a book, poster, and packaging. Garry also wrote a sentence summary for each week of daily strips and each Sunday in his catalog. Dbury@50 also was nominated for an Eisner award.
I Hope This Helps – Comics and Cures for 21st-century Panic
by Tommy Siegel
I once commented to someone in New York radio that Tommy’s comics were like New Yorker cartoons on psychedelics, a line that popped up on a few of the virtual book signing introductions. Talking with Tommy almost daily during the early days of the pandemic helped keep a lot of humor and lightness in those times, and we often traded off musical recommendations (usually Grateful Dead) between arranging comics, editing the essays he wrote on various topics, and working on the book design. It’s a brilliant and hilarious book that skewers capitalism, millennial consumer trends, phone addictions, doomscrolling, news overload, and just about everything else making us all go crazy right now. And there are also drawings of birds with big butts.
Chen Weng is a video game designer turned cartoonist in Seattle who studied art and illustration in Beijing, China. She has been writing and illustrating long-form comics in Chinese for years, and once her kids became toddlers she started posting short, hilarious comic views of parenting that I (along with tens of thousands of other parents) instantly. It’s a brilliant and lighthearted book that I highly recommend to any parents of young children.
When Sharks Attack With Kindness
by Andrés J. Colmenares
Andrés is one of the most clever cartoonists I know, and also one of the sweetest. Rather than apply his creative genius to making political statements or creating witty, relatable human characters, his Wawawiwa comics give life to inanimate objects and animals, including a whole caste of aquatic species that cheer each other up in ingenious ways throughout the course of this book. Following the foibles of a kindly shark who just wants to make a friend, the sea life in this book come up with all kinds of ingenious ways to cheer up each other and anyone who reads this book.
Vulnerability is my Superpower
by Jackie Davis (Underpants and Overbites)
Jackie Davis’s Underpants and Overbites colorful diary comics bring you into the cozy inner world and imagination of an extraordinarily observant, funny, sensitive, kind young writer and artist. She finds delight in the smallest things, making lists of the things that keep her happy, even during the pandemic, telling autobiographical stories with a great eye for detail and an extraordinary sense of wonder. If Rilke advised the young poet to “try to love the questions” that remain unsolved in his own heart, Jackie chooses to bring those big (and tiny) questions to life in her wonderful watercolor-and-ink comics.
Living With Mochi
by Gemma Gené
Mochi is one of the most popular pugs on the internet, which is saying something. Gemma’s international readership follows her work for her art and humor, and also to get a glimpse at the comic dramatizations of living with Mochi, her real-life pet pug. Mochi can be clumsy and steps on people’s toes (or faces) sometimes, but with an innocence and charm you won’t find in, say, Garfield or Snoopy. He’s all id and no artifice, and he’s adorable and hilarious. If you’re a pet owner who especially loves small dogs and dog humor, you’re in good hands with Mochi.
On A Roll! – A JumpStart Treasury
by Robb Armstrong
I used to edit JumpStart when it was in syndication, and love the enthusiasm Robb has for his characters, who to him are all real people with lives of their own. It was a lot of fun going back through his 30-year catalog to put this retrospective together. Including over 500 comics, original paintings, and an intro by the author, this deluxe JumpStart treasury celebrates 30 years of one of the most beloved African-American family comic strips in history.
Wicked Epic Adventures
by Will Henry (Wallace The Brave)
I remember seeing the sign for “Snug Harbor” while on a visit to Rhode Island to see Will Henry and a few other cartoonist friends, and being shocked that it’s a real place. I only knew the name from the visually dazzling imaginative comic strip, Wallace The Brave, which appears in newspapers all over the country and won the Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Comic strip a couple years ago. This is the third book in this middle-grade graphic novel series. Will’s characters are adventurous, fun, and refreshingly unusual. And the book includes some cool “more to explore” activities and crafts for kids.
by Tommy Siegel
When I first talked to Tommy a few years ago he had just started the candy hearts series as part of his “500 comics a day” series. I think it was to help create somethign humorous out of a breakup, and it quickly took on a life of its own. Tommy used it to reflect the ways couples are often not on the same page, and since the book was being pulled together in the summer of 2020, quite a few quarantine-themed gags made it into this book, along with a whole online dating series. The book was hugely popular and even made it on an end cap display in Target when it came out a few weeks ahead of Valentine’s Day, 2021. He’s still writing new ones, too, up on his Instagram and site.
Mutts Go Green
by Patrick McDonnell
In addition to illustrating Mutts for several decades, Patrick McDonnell is deeply dedicated to environmental causes and pet shelters. He collaborated with Jane Goodall on a book about her life, and is currently on sabbatical from the strip while he works on something not-yet-announced with (checks notes) His Holiness the Dalai Llama. This book is a collection of comics about nature and animals, featuring earth-friendly tips on how kids can take care of the planet and make their neighborhoods better places to live. Like all of his books, its printed on fully recycled paper. A great read for kids ages 7-12.
by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman
Zits has been around for decades now, and the teenager/boomer parent dynamic is never short on charm and relatability. I love the cover treatment on this one, where we used some spot gloss and blur to make the title look like its actually glowing.
by Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman
BB3X is a special Baby Blues treasury that celebrates three decades of one of the most heartwarming, funny, and true-to-life depictions of raising children ever seen in the funny pages. In addition to a year’s worth of Baby Blues comics, this special collection sheds light on the unique collaborative process of Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, whose cartooning magic has helped transform some of the most stressful moments in life into some of the most hilarious. The book includes a forward from Rick, a reflection by Jerry, and a special “scrapbook” section of archival photographs, memorabilia, and illustrations from the duo’s three decades of Baby Blues collaboration.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn (various)
by Dana Simpson
One of my favorite moments in this job is when, after batting around title and cover ideas for a few weeks, I get an email from Dana (usually around 2 in the morning my time) with the new cover art for her next Phoebe and Her Unicorn collection. Dana’s graphic novels are aimed toward kids, but don’t at all sell short the complexity of social relationships, joys, and insecurities faced by a 10-year-old girl and her best friend, the unicorn Marigold Heavenly Nostrils.
Ozy and Millie: Perfectly Normal
by Dana Simpson
Dana’s other series, which she wrote for a decade before starting Phoebe, is a whimsical, philosophical, and imaginative exploration of the friendship between two foxes and the other animals around them. And Ozy’s dad, Llewellyn, a red dragon with an extraordinary knowledge of history, politics, and all varieties of arcane arts. A great read for upper middle grade readers.
Big Nate (various)
by Lincoln Peirce
Big Nate turned 30 this year, too, and with style. Lincoln Peirce’s comic about friendship, school pranks, and one 11-year-old’s comically oversized ego is now in development for a new TV show on Paramount+ and Nickelodeon that will launch next year. I’ve only seen the briefest of previews, and I can’t wait.
The Spirit of Botany
by Jill McKeever (For Strange Women)
This book by our friend Jill McKeever was beautifully edited by my friend and colleague Melissa Rhodes Zahorsky, but I’m including it here since I first introduced Jill to AMP. After seeing how many submissions we get for books about essential oils and such I mentioned to Jill that I’d love to publish a book of her own botanical recipes instead, since her own work with all-natural fragrances, creams, and salves is a refreshing, no-bullshit counterpart to the new age mysticism of social media and consumer marketing. Jill is a true visionary and a polymath of the botanical arts, and in this book she generously shares not just her recipes her but also her personal philosophies on her craft, and on creativity in general.
Today is the 10-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado, the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1947, which killed 161 people and destroyed 25% of my wife’s hometown. This week I’ve been thinking about the event itself, and also how much has changed since then.
We had just moved back from Leipzig, and were settling back into a Kansas City that seemed abuzz with new civic and cultural life. The new performing arts center was about to open, our friends were taking part in a new national arts project called “America: Now and Here” that kicked off in Kansas City (and quickly ran out of money), and we were busily, happily, reconnecting with people and the city.
The Saturday before the tornado, May 21, 2011, had been predicted as the day of rapture and judgment by a Christian radio host and doomsayer, which made a lot of headlines. 2012 was just months away, and the apocalypse seemed just around the corner, if you took these things at all seriously, which no one I knew did (except for one person, but that’s another story).
The world didn’t end that day, but at least one person was killed in a storm that night in Lone Jack, which my friends and I drunkenly noted was enough to fulfill the prophecy on a small, hyperlocal level. That night I walked home from Kyle’s house in KCK, hiccuping and laughing as the tornado sirens kicked on. It was so familiar it felt almost quaint. It’s good to be home, I thought.
The next day everything changed. We got a call at a graduation party when Jenn got a text from one of Jenn’s sisters. “Mom and Dad are OK. Cell service is down. Landline might work.”
She quickly called back her sister, who told her there had been a tornado and that we should turn on the TV.
I took the remote from my cousin, deep in the NHL playoffs, and switched to network news, where early reports suggested that 75% of the town had been destroyed by a massive tornado. It might have even said 90%. I can’t remember, but the early numbers and footage presented a portrait of the devastation on the ground as near complete.
Jenn got a ride to Joplin the next day. I worked a couple more days — my second week back on the job — and drove down toward the end of the week. During the days between reconnecting we each had to take shelter (her in Joplin, me at work in downtown Kansas City) due to other tornado warnings. For several years after that I had recurring dreams of taking shelter from tornadoes at various locations. My days of smiling at the sound of storm sirens were obviously over.
The night I arrived, her dad gave me a tour of the tornado zone, which ran in a mile-wide band through the middle of the city. I’ve never seen anything close to that level of destruction. He pointed out where various friends’ houses had been, the spray-painted Xs with numbers showing how many times a house had been searched, and whether any bodies had been recovered. It was just before curfew, and a line of police cars blocked off access to the hardest-hit streets, including Jenn’s grandma’s house, which had been completely leveled. Though thankfully her grandma had been visiting relatives in Texas.
I remember a lot of things about that week. Drinking beer at night with other friends who had come back to town to help out, laughing at the kind but devout volunteers from regional church groups, offering bottled water and platitudes like “The Lord has a plan.” (“Yes, but what if his plan is to pummel the shit out of Joplin?” Jeremiah countered). Watching YouTube videos from storm chasers and people trapped in the storage room at a gas station. Jenn’s uncle setting aside his medical practice for a few weeks to investigate stories of people seeing angels (which turned out to be mostly Facebook rumors).
Mostly, though, the visuals: Flattened buildings and shredded trees everywhere. A giant shredded American flag on the highway entering town. Semi-trailers turned on their sides. The cross standing in front of the now destroyed St. Mary’s church. Looking for South Main Street and not even realizing I was already on it since all the familiar landmarks were gone. The driveways and destroyed houses painted with messages like “Down but not out,” “You loot, we shoot,” “Put down your camera, lend a hand,” and “F5? FU!”
Joplin High School had been leveled, and the sign beside the street quickly became an inspirational shrine of sorts. Next to the remaining letters in the school sign (“OP”) someone painted an H and an E. The “HOPE high school” sign was presided over by sculptures of eagles carved out from broken trees — a tribute to the school’s community and mascot. If the tornado hadn’t been on a Sunday afternoon, with the school’s graduation ceremony several miles away, who knows how much worse it could have been.
Later that year, or maybe in early 2012, the vividness and detail of the Joplin tornado’s aftermath were brought back to me in a series of paintings by Travis Pratt, a Kansas City artist originally from Joplin who spent the previous year painting scenes of the tornado’s destruction, most of them painted directly onto plywood and debris salvaged in the clean-up effort. His paintings captured the unusual and even beautiful arrangement of everyday materials, of houses and lives turned inside-out and left there for everyone to see. In 2017, they were finally featured in a solo exhibit at Spiva Arts Center, back in his hometown.
For months after the event itself, the tornado dominated conversations with friends and family from Joplin. Our friend Tom’s family was selected to appear on a special tornado edition of “Extreme Home Makeover,” which constructed a house for his family complete with a half-pipe, snack shack, and fake palm trees in the backyard. I remember having a party there the week the show aired, drinking cases of beer on the porch and looking out over a neighborhood that was still almost completely flattened.
Friends who lived through it had incredible and harrowing stories — taking shelter in a movie theater, seeing the tornado approaching and throwing their cars into reverse, as well as strange mixes of fact and rumors like the Picadilly Circus elephants that helped pull away debris, a Sebaldian detail that even now seems more like fiction than history.
The magnitude of that event — even experienced secondhand — had a strong effect on us. It was a strange and intense thing to have happen our first week back home in the States, but I’m glad we were around to help clean up and document things and not watching helplessly from too far away. Within a few months, Jenn and I were expecting our first kid, and while it’s far too tidy to cite the life-and-death nature of May 2011 as an inspiration to start a family, I do remember feeling for the first time a mysterious push toward begetting new life.
Almost 9 years later, at the onset of COVID-19, I considered the many similarities between the Joplin tornado and the global pandemic: The relatively sudden onset of a life-altering event. The distinctive divide into before/after time periods. The knowledge that things will “come back,” but certainly not in the same way as before. And the need, in the midst of chaos and adversity, to figure out the best ways to quickly adjust and keep going.
Hanging out in our backyards and porches and drinking beer with friends in 2020 also felt a lot like those early makeshift gatherings in Joplin in 2011. There was something informal and essential about social events in both of those eras. And on a Saturday night this fall, back at Kyle’s (this time in KCMO), a few of us were outside listening to music when the subject of the tornado came up. Joplin had been in the national news again as a crisis point, this time due to COVID. For some reason I started telling the story of my friend who saw the tornado and threw his car into reverse, a story that by now I surely know only as an oversimplified, dramatic version of whatever really happened.
Our friend Billy was over that night, and as a Joplin native he had stories, too, including one from his aunt. She had heard the sirens and wanted to try and make it home before the storm hit. But by the time she had buckled into her vehicle and begun the drive home, a tree branch fell across the front of her car, smashing the hood. She looked over and saw the car next to her fly up into the sky. She felt the tail of her own car lift into the air, but it stayed on the ground, pinned in place by the same tree that had almost killed her.
Hearing Billy tell that story (no doubt in a more thorough and accurate version) brought back the intensity of May 22, 2011, and the thought: we lived through that. Not directly, in our cases. But enough to be shaped by it, and to never forget those events as long as we live.
So on the 1o-year anniversary today I’m thinking of all the people who were directly affected, especially those who lost family members, friends, pets, homes, businesses. I’m sure for the parents who lost children — some torn directly from their arms — 10 years is nowhere near long enough to dampen the pain of that loss. But if you visit Joplin today, you’d hardly look around and suspect a tornado hit a decade ago, or that a pandemic is still underway. Both 2011 and 2020 are reminders that, even in historically terrible times, life can, and does, and will go on.
I like wearing a mask. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s a face scarf, it allows me to visit and support local businesses, the pattern is the same as a shawl worn by my aunt, the baroness, a design that features embroidered teeth, each one stitched with gold leaf, in tribute of the rapper who died last year, and in memory of my face before it changed. While masked up these days I catch myself making the most bizarre faces, which no one sees, but still I wonder: When did I give the muscles permission to just slacken, to contort with my moods and change shape with the thoughts that get pinched between the light of day and whichever nook they are seeking to escape. My mask holds it all in, like a steaming teapot beneath its ceramic lid. I am awake and vapid with the vapors of a vacant city, teeming with life, a blip in the sound file, a light on the projection screen. But I can’t help but wonder. When it’s time to take the masks off, will I succeed in squeezing my face back into shape?
In light of the recent passing of Dodgers Legend Tommy Lasorda at age 93, I’d like to revisit this excellent and somewhat under-the-radar regional release from 2012. I think either Scott or David must have helped me edit this feature I wrote for the Pitch, because it’s a much cleaner piece than my usual lapses into criticism and personal mood. Worth a listen on Spotify, and maybe even a few records still out there in the wild. My favorite tracks? The piano/sonic crunch of “Of Little Faith,” and eerie, swirling outtro, “His Laugh is Love.”
While driving over the Biloxi Bridge, I squint at the sunlight and find the oldies station on the dial, first some Christmas songs and then “Never My Love” by The Association. We make a U-turn on Beach Blvd. and park at the beach. My son is sleeping in the car so I sit on the bench outside our parking space and watch my wife and daughter fly a kite. This is not the first attempt this year. That effort ended with a tangle of string and broken flaps in a parking lot at Kansas City’s riverfront park, with a methhead driving his truck over to laugh and commiserate and tell me about a boy scout kit you could order to build your own. Instead I bought this one at REI. It flies gloriously. Even a child can do it. Even an inept dad. It depicts a blue and orange and yellow scene of the mountains. There is no snow here, just white sand, and it’s enough to make angels out of, which my daughter does, though curiously while lying on her belly rather than her back.
I look over and see a couple who has just parked and walked out to enjoy the sunset, which according to my phone is only 10 minutes from now. This far east in Central Standard Time you feel like you’re being cheated of evening daylight, sunset is probably a good 35 minutes later in say, Russell, Kansas. But who wants to be in Russell. I look over toward the casinos, in the direction of the bridge, and see the couple is now standing together near the water in a back-hug, an arrangement you almost only see in photographs and not in real life. So perhaps that’s why looking at them I get the sudden sense I’m witnessing an important moment in their lives, a snapshot in which they fully realized and melted into their romantic love for one another, or maybe a moment in which something was renewed, restored. Perhaps.
Our own scene is less romantic. Our son is crying because the kite isn’t flying. The wind has died down, he was napping in the car, and it seems we woke him up too quickly. Christmas has been a long day for them. How can you sleep through the night when you know Santa is coming? At 4:30 in the morning I thought I heard a voice, and went toward their room and heard them both talking to each other at normal conversational volume. The overhead light was on and they were playing Kariba, a card game. What are you doing? I asked incredulously. Mom told us just to play quietly until you guys woke up, my daughter said. But it’s 4 in the morning, I said. You still need to sleep. We didn’t know what time it was, they protested, and we couldn’t go out in the kitchen to look. Fair enough. Here’s my phone, I said. Push this button and it will tell you what time it is. I turned up a few blinds so they could see the sun come in. And don’t get up until it’s light outside.
We had mixed luck with trails. One was beautiful, sunny, with palmettos and pines and wildflowers, a habitat for the rare sandhill crane, which there are only 100 of left in the wild. The other was set along the sparkling waters of the bay with trails through the woods and wooden platforms overlooking the bayou. But much of it was closed, visibly destroyed by the pair of hurricanes earlier in 2020. We spent most of our improvised walk through the park talking about hurricanes, tornadoes, Katrina. My son was alert and interested, my daughter was sad and wanted to talk about something else. But it seemed like a disservice not to discuss them, given how much these events are likely to be present in their lives.
Driving back from the beach later, I ask my wife to drop me off on the eastern side of the Biloxi Bridge. It’s only a 1.7 mile pedestrian path across, then another mile or so along the beach back to the house. The lane is protected but still the cars race by, roaring and whooshing. I feel a rush as I break into a run, buttoning up my raincoat and palming my water bottle in one hand and my cloth mask in the other. There is no one else in sight and I feel free. I stop at the mile markers which are decorated with bronze relief landscapes of fishing, boating, and other gulf coast scenes. One of them displays a bridge buckled into fragments, a clear depiction of the Biloxi Bridge after Katrina. It was only 15 years ago, but in this medium it feels historic, even Biblical. Destroyed bridges, houses, even the famous souvenir shop, Sharkheads, which was gutted in 2005 and reopened 7 years later with a giant shark mouth entrance.
Tracing my fingers over the image of the bridge, I think about what it means to rebuild, when by the time the rebuilding occurs so much of the community has already been reshaped—people moved away, jobs changed, relationships severed, a trust broken. I’ve seen it in Joplin, my wife’s hometown, which was wiped out by a tornado a decade ago. But that destruction and recovery was quick, at least physically. Katrina was so much more widespread, a clear era of before/after, and for someone like me who never went to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast before 2005 we probably have no idea what things were like before. We’re experiencing something similar now with COVID, an even slower-moving wave of destruction, this one quiet and invisible, as restaurants and businesses close their doors, schools are shut down, and loved ones say goodbye over iPads.
It’s a nightmare. And it’s still going on, even if many of us don’t see it. Meanwhile I’m traveling across the country, wearing masks and staying out of public places but still out in society in one form or another. What makes us think this risk is OK? To be honest I’m not 100% sure that it is. But as long as we limit our interactions to the same or less than at home (carryout, groceries, brief visits to stores or museums), stay outside as much as possible, and wear a mask everywhere we go, I’m hoping that reduces our risk to ourselves and others to the point of not being entirely irresponsible.
Having been home an entire year and canceled all of our spring and summer travel plans, I wanted to make sure our kids got at least some glimpse of the world outside their neighborhood, their family unit, their school-issued iPads. Even if it’s as frivolous as seeing seagulls on the beach, street musicians in New Orleans, and driving a rented golf cart drive through the Christmas-light-covered ironwork and magnolia trees of the American South. The world still exists, even if we can’t participate in it in quite the same way.
And for me, running wild across the bridge and only stopping to yell at a tugboat to sound its horn in a Merry Christmas salute, I haven’t felt this unburdened all year. For a moment the 25-hour round trip feels worth it. To quote an ancient proverb, never underestimate the wanderlust of the landlocked water sign, the spirit of renewal, the miracle of rebirth.
Looking back through my photos from 2020, I spent a lot of time playing disc golf. This is no surprise to anyone who knows me. Once I’m free of work or family responsibilities for an hour or more, my preferred way to get some fresh air is by walking through trees and parks, hurling brightly colored plastic discs at aluminum baskets along the way. And since this year was one of working at home, needing to keep distance from others, and seeking to balance the mental insanity of checking news with more restorative pursuits, disc golf took on an even larger role in my staying-sane-and-healthy regimen.
Mostly I went to Rosedale, the sprawling park in Kansas City, Kansas, that features an expansive “up top” course in the main park and also a densely wooded “down under” course along the urban hillside. You have great views of downtown, wide open fields, and this year, a lot of helicopter traffic heading to nearby KU Medical Center. My love of Rosedale is also no secret, and it’s an easy place to meet friends or my brother David for a quick round. At one point in the spring I played a quick round over lunch break almost every weekday.
But I did my best to branch out as well, and this post will be a quick tour of 10 other courses I was able to visit and explore this year, almost all of which are within striking distance of the Kansas City area.
Disc Golf “Course” is an imperfect term, as it implies something manicured and finite, while in many cases a course is just a bunch of baskets and tee pads arranged in a forest setting. This was definitely the case for Longview Disc Golf Course in Lake Perry State Park, a well organized course where you will likely see more deer than humans. Lakes (or technically, reservoirs) in Kansas are strange places, resembling lakes anywhere except they are often only around 50 years old, so you get a feeling of being in an old-growth forest while knowing it was likely just fields or farmland a hundred years ago. Doesn’t matter as long as you turn your phone off and are able to tune out the world for an hour or two.
Cedar Ridge Disc Golf Course in Bonner Springs, Kansas, provides a similar experience, though not as expansive or isolated as Lake Perry. The throws are short and ace-able, the course filled with pine, cedar, and oak trees and a large pond at the center of the course.
Cliff Drive Disc Golf Course at Kessler Park is a mix of city and wilderness, snaking along the cliffs and valleys of one of the city’s most scenic roads. I like to play on weekends when the road is open to pedestrians only, though often I abandon playing disc and just take up one of the hiking trails instead. I haven’t had any problems but have run across some sketchy actors here and there, so I’d recommend not going alone on your first visit.
Waterworks Park, just north of downtown KCMO on North Oak Trafficway, has the most brilliant views of downtown. I like to go just at sunset, or in the fall, when the massive sycamores and oak trees are turning. I played here on Monday, Nov. 3, the day before the election, and probably the most optimistic I felt all year, knowing in the back of my mind how messy things were likely to get but choosing to remain naively positive. Walking out onto the green of hole 14 at night (I play with little blinking LED lights taped on the bottom of my discs) is highly cinematic. You’re headed straight toward a large water tower, with the small biplanes and commercial aircraft flying directly overhead into the Downtown Airport in the river valley below. As you get closer to the basket the lights of downtown come into view. If I was a film director looking to capture a unique night scene in Kansas City, I would definitely scope out this location.
Shawnee Mission Park is nice, too. It gets busy on the weekends but is a great place to play at sunset. With tall grasses, high winds, and lone trees dotting the course, it has much more of a wild, Kansas feel than the aforementioned KCMO parks. Though often by the time I drive all that way I opt for a longer outdoor excursion and walk the red and orange hiking the trails instead.
Other parks I played this year include some further afield. In far Western Kansas, the little 9-hole course at Historic Scott Lake is among the most scenic, arid, and unusual. I love the sign warning park visitors to look out for flying discs. It almost looks like code for keeping your eyes open for UFOs. Kansas may be the center of the country, but considering how far it would take for people from coastal capitals (and even Kansas City) to reach this particular spot, it may as well be the end of the world.
In Frisco, Colorado, Doozie and I played the Peak One Disc Golf Course, situated along the shores of the Lake Dillon Reservoir and with surrounding views of the mountains. An extra bonus here is the benches made from old ski lifts.
And at Shepard State Park in Gautier, Mississippi, I found an interesting and experimental placement of baskets along the bayou, including some right by the water and others placed up on five-foot poles. (If you get tired of disc, the park also offers an archery target range).
Other courses I enjoyed include Paradise Point at Smithville Lake, which is actually three courses, all hugging the lake at different points. Though I definitely chose biking in favor of disc in my 2020 visits to this park. Also the newly expanded McLelland Park courses in Joplin, Missouri, set along a scenic hillside in this gateway to the Ozarks (just try to go when the nearby police shooting range is not in session or it will seriously harsh your mellow).
And of course my favorite or at least most accessible course of all, my own backyard.
Happy disc-ing and see you on the course in 2021. Played my first round yesterday, in fact. A bit cold, but had it all to myself.
Rob’s paintings. Much will be made of the subject matter, the fires. That’s fine. It’s hard not to feel the heat emanating from those canvases, the same heat curdling the headlines. But these paintings are evocative of the times beyond the contents. The sight of fires and damage is not just depicted in the paintings, it’s a component of the technique. On first glance the pool is swiped with painterly’ “noise,” a la Richter, but the impression it leaves on the viewer is that of a scar. For someone who has seen Rob paint these scenes for nearly a decade, it’s jarring, like seeing an old friend or family member emerge from a health crisis with a from-this-point-on-distinguishing scar. It’s how they look now. How we all look in 2020, and certainly after. So hard to believe we’re still in it, but not in the small room where Rob’s paintings are displayed. It’s the most intimate public space I’ve been in in months. If Rob’s pieces have been critiqued as a reflection of privilege, a claim that may or may not have merit or be immaterial, he also shows that these objects are not immune to erosion, decay, or even complete destruction. Rob’s paintings have always existed in their own plane, so it’s striking to see them altered, to see that this plane is also subject to the same rules of physics as our real-world landmarks. Not because it’s such a foreign experience, but because it’s so recognizable. We are all scarred by this year, we recognize our own crises and traumas in these pigments. The artist depicts but does not judge, our damage is safely contained within the contemplation of each scene, which in other circumstances or conditions might be beautiful. But that is not the timeline we were given. So here we are, huddled apart for warmth, scared and shaken but also beginning to suspect that we can survive/”overlive” the gray months as long as fireworks of color like these adorn the walls of the gallery, and even in our darkest moments, continue to exist and shine and even thrive.
– my published comments on “There in Spirit,” a recent exhibition by my friend and favorite painter, Robert Bingaman. The paintings were on display until just recently at Haw Contemporary. You can check out the rest of the series and his personal reflections on the subject matter at his website.
My son played in his first piano recital last Sunday. It was Halloween themed, the teacher rewarded the participants with candy and “orbs,” or a paper mache pinata painted up like a spooky head. Emil chose to dress as a ghost, a white frayed and fringed sheet worn in two parts, a frock and a mask. His mom warned him that he should take off the mask while playing, otherwise he might not be able to see the sheet music. I knew he had memorized the piece, though, so I supported him leaving it on, which he did. It also seemed important to him to stay in character. He did a bang-up job, plunking out the piece’s spooky, staccato rhythms, his legs swaying in rhythm below the piano bench because they were too short to reach the ground. Afterwards we took a picture with his teacher with his mask off, the bottom half of the costume looking like a frayed acolyte’s robe. I felt a bit bad for my parents, who were also in attendance, sitting a safe several rows behind us, because this is the closest they are likely to see their son get to a first communion. Still, it suits us. Our little nontraditional family unit. Instead of sacred rites and holy water and incense, before this altar stood an older piano teacher and her young student, side by side and smiling after a wildly successful rendition of “The Ghost Who Couldn’t Say Boo.”
letter to Don Iguanadon / circa 2015, CSF Studios, KCMO
Recently I revisited the Rozarks, one of my favorite places in the city, which I thought had been destroyed but in fact is still—at least partially—intact. I hadn’t been there in years. Not since Earth Day 2017, when I arrived and saw a large swath of trees had been clear-cut, an entire hillside grove leveled for a new power substation, an act that seemed unconscionable and yet which, as a user of electricity, I also felt complicit in. But last week Neal reminded me that the trails were still there, and the main intact portion at least I should revisit, especially this time of year when everything is green and yellow and not yet deep orange or brown.
While on my walk I decided to put on my blue surgical mask for some reason, even though there was no one around. A few moments later, a couple deer—I would guess a mother and a fawn—appeared on the path. Instead of running away, they walked toward me, looking at me curiously. Maybe with my mask on they did not perceive me as a human danger, but as a less harmful animal. Or maybe they were just bold, reckless city deer. Eventually they heard a small animal moving in the brush and wandered off.
These trails have been used by Rosedalians for generations, as shortcuts to school, dogwalking routes, a refuge for crazies, motorbikers, teenagers, or dads who want to smoke or birdwatch, the way we pass the time in the Dale. The hill overlooks Southwest Boulevard, the diagonal thoroughfare of Mexican restaurants, like the nearby red lights of Sol Azteca, Sabor y Sol, Bohemio, all of which are the same place except at different eras. The first place I went after we found out we were going to have a kid, the place we returned to a few years later with a kid who knocked over my massive Coca-Cola.
The Boulevard, too, used to flood. Turkey Creek would rise up every so often from its banks, just look at the pictures from 1951. The smaller streams that feed it are mostly buried now, which I know because at a spot in the Rozarks you can hear the water trickling beneath the sewer grates, right along the powerline path. Tamed but the forces live on.
While in the Rozarks you can see the sunset on mild days in winter, see the trains pass, the traffic headed out from downtown, where you should probably still be working, but you took off early, and by this point you’ve been “off” for so long you can’t remember when you last went to the city. Still working at home, in your basement, or on your phone, on the trail, in your waking dreams, exhausted. Now you need more than a break. You need a new path forward.
I’m glad these trails still exist. That the woods are still here. The colors. The sounds, of birds and insects, planes and traffic, a few other families, dogwalkers, a couple. Signs of life ahead of a long winter. We’re going to need every bit of light we can find.
As for the doe and the fawn, I’ll never know exactly why they approached me instead of darting into the woods like usual. But I very much appreciate that they did.
In the playoff baseball game, the DJ plays “every body clap your hands,” which is ridiculous since there are no people in the stands. The baseball stadium in Taiwan is filled with onlookers, except they are made of cardboard. The crowd goes wild at the football game, but it’s just some guy pushing buttons on a keyboard. The COVID-era adaptations in professional sports are stark and strange, but you can see them at the little league level as well. In my daughter’s soccer games, instead of lining up at the end of the game to give the other team fives and then run through the parent tunnel (in which all of us form a pyramid with our arms for the kids to run through, a joy that seems to instantly make them forget the pain of losing) the girls face the other team from their spot on the sideline and clap appreciatively from a distance. Makes sense, of course. But strange to see. And it’s hard for me to imagine the indignities of losing or the thrill of winning in youth soccer without having to face our opponents up close, to touch the hands of the other team, limp and sticky with orange slices and sweat, imagining briefly what it would have been like to grow up in a different neighborhood and have a totally different set of friends and teammates and parents cheering you on. Maybe next year, or at some point in the future, those traditions will return. But for now, no more “good games.” A small thing, but a strange one to do without.
Voyage twenty twenty / The greenhouse gases have escaped and it’s far too late for irony / you rested your convictions on the collapsing coastal shelf / the countess sits on the lounge chair frying in the sunlight / she counts flying sheep and dreams / of what’s on the other side of the ivy / The ghost of the cactus wears a brimmed hat / dressed with arsenic and phoenix feathers / we are febrile and flightless in the land of plenty / The countries part ways, with themselves and with each other / We make cheesecake, place our faith in the kids we failed to protect or empower / but now I want to shrink to the size of a seedpod / drift in on a cocktail umbrella, across the floating tablecloth / like we really loved, like we really knew what it meant to love
A poem reconstructed from semi-legible rainstained sharpie on a folded office envelope, located in the trunk of my now defunct Saturn when I cleaned it out the final time January 2020. The line about irony is a quote from Robert Montgomery, spoken during our many rounds of cognac at the Chateau Marmont last December, the last time I flew anywhere. The line about love is paraphrased from Neil Young.
Lately I have been trying to remember the good times just before everything stopped. One example is The Freedom Affair’s video shoot on the 5th floor of an old warehouse building in the West Bottoms, a small live audience on hand including me, Elvis, and Kimberly. It was the last concert I saw before the shutdown. The Freedom Affair is one of the finest soul bands this city has ever seen, at least in my lifetime. That Sunday night they were performing several original songs with strings, strong drinks being sold for a couple bucks each, video cameras and couches on set, a requested muted color dress code. They performed each song two or three times, but we could have listened twice more and never gotten bored. The band’s members reflect the diversity, talent, and heart in the community (just check out this new video for “Give A Little Love” and the lyrics dig into a variety of social issues. Their soul and positivity is contagious. You can see and listen for yourself below. If you like soul/jazz/funk music an miss going to concerts, I can almost guarantee it will lift your spirits.
TFA’s debut album, Freedom is Love, can be purchased/streamed here.
The other day I lost six months’ worth of voice memos. They disappeared when my phone broke and couldn’t be properly restored. Notes to self, stories I was composing on the spot and planned to transcribe later, impromptu interviews with the kids, scraps of music, fleeting jam sessions, things I don’t even want to think about now that they are gone.
For a long time I have defended having a smartphone even though I experience its mentally deleterious and socially distracting effects every day. It can be a tool for creativity! I tell myself optimistically. A camera, a tape recorder, a note-taking machine. But then I wind up losing the exact materials I wanted to preserve.
One of those memos I recorded one night while nearly asleep, a moment of clarity and calm in which my sense of purpose and beliefs about life became so clear to me that I reached over to the phone to record them, dictating in a whisper so as not to disturb my sleeping family. In a rare act of categorization, I labeled the file “Whispered Truths.”
I felt comforted knowing the voice memo was there, but I didn’t go back to listen to it. What was on the recording? I will never know. Any truths uncovered in that moment will have to be rediscovered elsewhere or remain forever just below the surface. Past experience tells me I am not missing out on much, that any “truths” contained are likely intrinsic and only felt like revelations in the faux profundity of half-sleep.
On the other hand, my favorite part of “Kubla Khan” is the part Coleridge couldn’t remember, and what I actually succeed in transcribing almost never compares to what I had in my head once but can never recover.
So here’s to the eventual arrival of new ideas, to less digital dependence, to more reliable systems of channeling creativity and harnessing the unreliable mystic. If I am successful with any of these efforts I promise to post about them here, likely using my old-school computer rather than my double-edged smartphone. But right now it’s late and I must go to sleep. Who knows what truths may visit?
Konnor Ervin and his friends in local bands ACBs, Fullbloods, and Shy Boys — whose debut LP for me will always be the sound of a certain KC time and place — are a group of incredibly talented musicians and songwriters who switch instruments and songwriting credits almost interchangeably. They have their own sound, their own nicknames, their own senses of humor, simultaneously esoteric and inclusive. My good friend Mike Nolte has run several of their recording sessions, so I got to drop by the studio a few times to check out the progress and listen to rough mixes, careful not to stick around too long.
On occasional group hangs I always asked Konner to play one song in particular, a super catchy number with a sunshiny chorus that I think started as “ooh, Diane” and later morphed into “Glue Diet” on the woozy finished mix. I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of his solo album. So when I saw his Instagram post earlier this summer announcing the record release, nearly five years after the initial recording sessions, I immediately decided to write about it for the local magazine of record.
In spite of not being able to tour, Koney and friends have maintained a steady slate of record releases. Ross’s latest Fullbloods album is also a 2020 favorite, as is the newest STRFKR album, which Ross produced and Shy Boys sang on. Shy Boys’ newest offering came out a few weeks ago on Polyvinyl recordings. Any live shows or tour are obviously still a long way off, but in the meantime this talented group of friends is giving us a lot to listen and has made my own 2020 much more bearable.
It is almost midnight on April 23, one month after Kansas City’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. At least I think it’s been one month. Time right now is filled with strange air pockets and dead weight, each week its own weird season.
Still, it’s hard to believe we’re only one flip of the calendar from that fateful week when basketball was canceled and our offices closed until further notice, the downtown Kansas City streets empty except for a few bewildered Big 12 fans aimlessly riding the streetcar.
After work that Friday March 13th, I paid a visit to Caravaggio’s John The Baptist in the Wilderness the day before the Nelson-Atkins Museum closed. I wanted to consult with someone who had been around for centuries and had seen it all before. John looked radiant that afternoon, impossibly young, all shadow and light. But instead of offering comfort or counsel, he just stared at the floor, lost in his own troubles.
That night I met my friend Dave at Grünauer, where I drank several steins of Stiegel Goldbräu beer, suspecting that restaurants, too, would likely be closing soon. It felt like the last night of socializing for who knows how long. “You know, if the world needs to take a time out for a while, I think that’s all right,” Dave said.
But the peaceful notion of a “time out” and the panicked reality of a pandemic are two different things. The first time I went to the grocery store, I almost cried. It felt like such a slow motion waking nightmare. Masked customers seeing you at the other end of the aisle and immediately steering their cart in the opposite direction. The impossibly vulnerable cashiers, risking their lives by doing their jobs, performing an essential service on an hourly wage.
There are other worries. Worry for friends, family, doctors and nurses, first responders. For all the local businesses that began announcing they were closing, first voluntarily, then by city order. For all the people losing their jobs. Worry that I will get sick myself and start “shedding virus,” any public outing or shortness of breath leading to pensive moments at the kitchen counter with a thermometer in my mouth.
In some ways it reminds me of the deadly tornado that struck my wife’s hometown of Joplin in 2011. Some people’s homes were destroyed, others remained intact. Not everyone survived and no one who lived through it would forget. After the initial shock passes, the realization sets in that nothing will ever be the same. But what that will look like nobody knows yet.
Like you, I read a lot of news. If you scroll far enough, you start to feel like you are falling. The words begin to blur and just the images remain: the terrifying roller coaster climb of infection rate graphs. The pathos of a playground spring horse wrapped in yellow caution tape. Pictures of statues wearing masks — clever at first, though pretty soon the statues themselves begin to look weary of being used as props.
“The virus doesn’t recognize borders,” public health officials remind us, leading me to picture a fuzzy, bug-eyed virus ball disguised in a trench coat and traveling without a passport, sneaking past border police at the speed of a sneeze. And every time I see one of those graphics that makes coronavirus look like a spiky chew toy, I want to grab a tennis racket and slap it into oblivion. If only it were that simple.
I worry about the country. The spats between different levels of government feels like watching your parents arguing while the house is burning down. “Are we watching a superpower implode?” asks German magazine Der Spiegel, and though they’ve been writing that same headlines since 9/11, it does feel like we’re at a tipping point. Are we going to place our faith in science and public policy, or light torches and set cell towers on fire? Will we protect our elections, or send those we disagree with out to vote in the middle of a pandemic? These are not hypothetical questions.
Home life, on the other hand, is an oasis of imagination and play. Our situation is a privileged one. My wife and I are able to do most work from home. Our kids do lessons on school-issued iPads and then practice the piano. Inspired by Harry Potter, they conduct “flying lessons” for their stuffed animals. On rainy days they set up Rube Goldberg-esque “obstacle courses” involving dominoes, marbles, light switches, and copious amounts of scotch tape. Eventually the stuffed animals graduate flying school and open their own hotel, adorned with inexplicable handwritten signs like “Party Camels only alowd.”
Life right now feels full of contradictions. I am grateful to have a job, though at times I find it hard to picture ever setting foot in an office again. I am happy to be eating healthy, but fall asleep dreaming of Hana’s donuts. I am fascinated by the fact that we are living through an unprecedented time in history, and I desperately want life to go back to normal.
I am trying to stay present. That is not a new challenge, but it feels magnified now. “So what’s your story today?” Todd messaged me one morning while trying to arrange a phone call. I never closed out the chat window, so each morning when I sign on to email the question pops back up, still bulleted in green. “So what’s your story today? is probably the closest thing I have to a mantra.
Lately sitting on my back porch and bird-listening has become my favorite pastime. I recently read that people have been doing web searches asking “why are the birds louder now?” The answers explain that it’s as a result of the sudden quieting of our cities. But I like the notion that the birds are getting bolder, that they sense an advantage in the species and are now chirping with confidence and singing with impunity. It’s the kind of thing you want to cheer on.
I ride my bike around the neighborhood, collecting images as I go. The painted banners in front doors reminding us to “stay strong KC.” The unicorn piñata that dangled from a nearby oak tree for over a month, surviving frost, hail, and multiple thunderstorms, never surrendering its smile. Red tree blossoms carpeting the street at night after a heavy rain. New parents out for a stroll, looking perplexed. An elderly woman wearing a mask and riding to Wal-Mart on a very slow motorcycle.
I read meaning into signs that are probably not there. The black trash barrel in the park with “COVID-19” spray-painted on the side is ostensibly a warning to stay home, but it looks like gang graffiti from the 19th Street Covids, a shitty gang that terrorizes old people and keeps kids home from school. A friend sends a “save the date” postcard but forgets to include the wedding date, just the address of an event venue and “five o’clock in the evening.” Instead of a mistake, I prefer to view it as a statement of determination to celebrate whenever it’s possible to safely do so again. And the Community America billboard featuring a smiling Patrick Mahomes and the slogan “We’re Just Getting Started” has taken on an ominous new meaning. But I love that people are displaying the “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign as a profile message, devoid of any alteration or irony.
Without sports, shopping, concerts, or social events, I mostly turn to music. Making coffee and blasting Joy Division’s “Isolation,” which is more uplifting than it sounds. Playing trap remixes of the Caillou and Peppa Pig theme songs to amuse the kids. Grilling burgers while listening to Magic Sam. Lying on the floor listening to Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” before the kids go to bed. Listening to Low’s “Silver Rider” on a sleepless night, pondering the question of God.
Music also connects me with friends and with the city. Instead of an album release concert on April 3, Kansas City group Fullbloods (the mostly solo project of Ross Brown) hosts a live streaming event during which we chime in via chat and he narrates moments of doubt and inspiration behind the songs. It lacks the sensory impressions of a live show, but somehow all of us sitting at home listening on our headphones feels no less intimate.
My favorite anthem of hope during this time is KC native Kevin Morby’s “Congratulations” from his newest album, Oh My God. Congratulations / You have survived / Oh, you stayed alive / This life is a killer / But, oh, what a riot / Just to wake up each morning / Just to open your eyes. It sounds like a triumphant message from the future, the kind of thing you can’t wait to play at a party for all your friends once this whole thing is over.
Though who knows when that will be. Driving down I-35 one night, I see that the Mahomes billboard has been replaced by a picture of the skyline with the words “This is our 3rd-and-15,” a reference to Super Bowl LIV’s pivotal play. But as much as the crowd loves a hail mary touchdown-cure, the only clear play call in this situation is a months-long timeout. So in a world in which leadership is lacking and sports metaphors fall short, what do we do?
My short list: Stay home. Wear masks. Donate. Reach out. Listen to the experts. Stay balanced, no matter how much things continue to shift. Recognize that there is only so much you can control. Take things one day at a time, accepting that some days will be better than others. Keep on living as much as possible. Don’t kill yourself worrying about things that haven’t happened yet.
I try to take joy where I can, calling friends or setting up Zoom calls even if they quickly devolve into contests of who can create the weirdest background. I hug my children close and try not to lose patience. I find it can help to get a bit drunk, but not too drunk, and not too often.
I am curious how you are dealing with things, too. Each day I see entertaining videos, livestreamed music, improvised meals, rambling hikes, autobiographical comics. I hear people discussing new habits, things they are ready to leave behind, the ways they are beginning to imagine living differently in the future. At a time of relative confinement, I am curious what new spaces are opening up for people mentally, creatively, and spiritually.
While the most important thing right now is to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, it also feels like an opportunity to consider what changes we’d like to see in ourselves and in society. And as we experience those changes on an individual and family level, the world will begin to shift as well. The micro becomes the macro.
For now, with the traditional calendar exerting less pressure than usual, we are free to assign the days and weeks their own unique identities. The Night of the Pink Moon. The week of Ruby’s Birthday. The Weekend of the Tent, which we set up in the backyard in late March, stuffing it with sleeping bags, coloring books, and a cot, thereby creating an oasis for naps, reading poetry, and listening to the wind.
I would like to close with a short poem by Alejandra Pizarnik that I read that week, knowing full well that no lines of verse can make a sick person well, or a loved one get their job back, or a city burst full of life and commerce again. But words can affect the way we feel, think, and deal with reality, and it is in this spirit that I share this entire lengthy message and these short closing lines:
though it’s late, though it’s night,
And you are not able.
sing as if nothing were wrong.
nothing is wrong.