Koney 2020

photo credit: David Wetzel

On a super rainy Thursday in May, during which much of Westport and half my basement was flooded, I sat scrolling Instagram in a locked bathroom, nearly three months into the pandemic, the nation on the verge of unrest following that week’s police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But in that moment I saw a flash of good news — the glorious watermelon cover of Koney, the Konnor Ervin solo album I’d been praying for since I first heard the demos five years earlier. Hallelujah.

Konnor and friends in Shy Boys — whose debut LP for me will always be the sound of a certain Kansas City time and place — are such talented musicians and songwriters, switching instruments and songwriting credits almost interchangeably. They have their own thing, their own nicknames, their own senses of humor, simultaneously esoteric and inclusive. On our 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 finished mix. I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album.

But it took a while. Years. Sometimes I would chide Konnor about it, or ask his bandmates to apply some friendly pressure. But artists need to polish up and put their work out on their own terms, and eventually I left him alone about it. Right up until the album’s release, which I immediately decided to chronicle, however imperfectly, for the local magazine of record. Thanks to Brock and the Pitch for giving me the chance to do so, and thanks Koney and friends for bringing us along your amusing, magical, musical journey.

Koney’s album comes out Oct. 9 on High Dive records. In the meantime, 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 comes out next week. 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 made my person 2020 much more bearable.– LW

Dear friends,

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.

Books I edited in 2019

I was fortunate to work on some outstanding book titles this year through my job as an editor at Andrews McMeel Publishing, working alongside many talented colleagues in design/production/sales/marketing to help a wide range of authors publish some fantastic new work. What made it more fun was that I got to meet with each of these authors in person over the course of the year at conventions, book launch events, or just for dinner and drinks. Below is a short description of these books and links for where to find them.

Nancy: A Comics Collection
by Olivia Jaimes

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This book was lots of fun to put together and a true team effort. For those who missed the coverage in The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Vulture, and many other places, the re-boot of the nearly 100-year-old Nancy comic strip by the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes (the comic strip’s first female author) has been a true phenomenon. Olivia was a blast to work with and this hardcover book, which includes sketches, interviews, and essays as well as comics, turned out beautifully. We also worked together on Nancy’s Genius Plan, a board book for preschool kids in which you have to help Nancy sneak a slice of Aunt Fritzi’s cornbread.

Reflection
by Tyler Lockett
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An all-pro wide receiver and return specialist for the Seattle Seahawks, Tyler Lockett spits lines of verse as deftly and smoothly as he makes dazzling plays on the field. Tyler’s debut book of poetry has reached people of all ages and backgrounds, and with poems that address heavy topics like suicide, anxiety, and depression, he doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. The book also includes workshop questions, inspirational messages, and “notes to self” that encourage the reader to do their own reflecting. Tyler put a lot of time and passion into this book project and it’s been rewarding to see it hit home with so many readers and fans.

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood
by Ben Zaehringer
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Ben has been writing and illustrating the offbeat, bizarre, and hilarious webcomic Berkeley Mews for the better part of a decade. With comics that skewer Santa Claus, Disney princesses, God, and family relationships, this debut book is the perfect antidote to the schmaltz and sentimentality of Disney+. So far it’s been a hit with readers and fans, and if you’re in search of laughs I highly recommend this book and/or Ben’s Instagram page


The Unicorn Whisperer: Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure
by Dana Simpson

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Dana Simpson is an enormously talented cartoonist whose Phoebe and Her Unicorn series coincided with and helped usher in a new golden age for unicorns in fiction and storytelling. The winner of a comic strip superstar contest a decade ago that launched her syndication and book career, Dana’s comics have drawn comparison to Calvin & Hobbes thanks to the complex and innocent friendship between fourth grade Phoebe Howell and her best friend, the magical unicorn Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. She’s also sold something like 1.5 million books.

Snug Harbor Stories: A Wallace The Brave collection
by Will Henry
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Will Henry is a wildly imaginative cartoonist from Rhode Island whose coastal surroundings come to life in his detailed watercolor illustrations of a group of kid explorers, adventurers, and mischief-makers. Will took home the Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Strip this year, who has received critical praise for the childhood magic, vivid imagination and elaborate visual storytelling of his comic strip universe. This book is perfect for kids ages 8 to 12, though adults will enjoy it as well. Here’s a short book trailer showcasing Will’s art style.

War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers
by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich
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One of the most popular webcomics of the past few years, War and Peas combines a dark sensibility with a dry and oddly uplifting sense of humor. The awesome thing about this book is that the comics can be read individually, but also work together to tell a linear, interweaving story about a boy who becomes a ghost, a robot in love with his scientist creator, a hapless grim reaper, a dog who is tired of being a “good boy,” and a slutty witch (their words, not mine). Definitely an adult-themed collection, which is super refreshing for me after working within the confines of newspaper taste standards for the past 10 years. (out in March)

How I Broke Up with My Colon: Fascinating, Bizarre, and True Health Stories
by Nick Seluk
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Mysterious illnesses. Freakish injuries. X-rays revealing something weird that got stuck in your foot. These strange but true stories are among the 24 medical tales retold in comic form by bestselling author/illustrator Nick Seluk, the creator of The Awkward Yeti comic strip. Featuring fascinating stories submitted by people all over the world, How I Broke Up with My Colon is an educational and hilarious tour through the bizarre workings of the human body. This book will be a delight for doctors, nurses, those in the medical profession, and anyone who would rather read a cartoon collection than an anatomy textbook. (out in March)

Pearls Takes A Wrong Turn
by Stephan Pastis

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This Pearls Before Swine treasury includes 18 months of Stephan’s comics, with an intro and commentary by the author. To do the cover shot, we set up along some decommissioned railroad tracks outside Belton, Missouri, unfortunately only moments before the area was hit with a “gustnado,” a bizarre weather pattern involving tons of rain, lightning, and funnel-cloud-style winds. Thankfully we had access to a good studio back in downtown KC. (out in March)

Fowl Language: Winging It
by Brian Gordon
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Brian is a former Hallmark illustrator whose comics of ducks dealing with the throes of early parenting have become a viral sensation. His comics perfectly express the intense exasperation and emotional delights of parenting, expertly deploying F bombs whenever necessary. This collection is an extra special one, as it includes a dozen essays about topics such as siblings, school, activities, vacations, and parental coping mechanisms. Brian is a gifted writer as well as a cartoonist and I recommend this for anyone with both kids and a sense of humor.

Tomorrow’s Woman
by Greta Bellamacina
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This poetry collection from one of the U.K.’s finest young poets combines the vivid imagery of French surrealism and British romantic poetry with a modern, first-person examination of love, gender identity, motherhood, and social issues. Greta’s poems are filled with wonder, sadness, and hope. I first encountered her work through New River Press in London and am delighted we got to work together for her first collection of poems to be published in the U.S. and internationally.

Little Big Nate
by Lincoln Peirce
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In addition to all his work on the Big Nate comics and books for middle grade readers (and a new series, Max and the Midknights, with Crown Publishing), Lincoln introduced a new version of his character for preschool readers this past fall. This is a beautiful little rhyming story for young children and a fun extension of Nate’s identity. Also coming out this spring is Big Nate: Hug it Out! one of my favorite covers/titles of the Big Nate series through AMP.

Snoopy: First Beagle in Space
by Charles Schulz
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This year marks the 70th anniversary of Peanuts. Even though Sparky himself has been gone since 2000, Peanuts itself feels timeless in many ways. This collection includes all the space exploration themed comics and some classic storylines, with a “more to explore” section for kids all about space travel. And the astronaut outfit seen on the cover is similar to what Snoopy wore to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last year. (out in April).

Hot Dogs, Hot Cats
a Mutts treasury by Patrick McDonnell
9781524852283_featurePatrick McDonnell is a master of the comics art form, and his beautiful, minimalist comics of cats, dogs, and other animals show the universe through a lens of wonder and zen-like appreciation of the universe. I love the cover illustration on the latest treasury, a play on Frank Zappa’s famous “Hot Rats” album cover. (Also my daughter Ruby got to contribute a couple illustrations, big thanks to Patrick for that opportunity!)

In addition to these individual books, I also got to edit and help with ongoing series including Zits, Baby Blues, Sherman’s Lagoon, all of which have excellent new treasuries out on shelves now. And you can find a lot of other fantastic humor, gift, and poetry titles from Andrews McMeel on the publishing site.

I’m a bit worried I’m leaving something out, since I’m not at my office and don’t have all the titles lined up on the shelf in front of me, but if I don’t catch it this time I’ll add it later or mention in my next list of titles worked on.

Thanks for checking them out and let me know if you need help tracking down any of these titles. Happy reading and Happy New Year!

 

The Year of the Owl

After two years of writing (2015-2016), two more years of tinkering (2017-2018), and one year of doing nothing (2019), I would like to finally share “The Year of the Owl.” This selection of 365 short entries was extracted and compiled from various studio writings, notebooks, voice memos, letters, stories, and essays. Some of these lines have appeared over the years in gallery shows, on billboards, zines, or published poems. Attempts to pare down and put into publishable format have mostly failed, and since different dates/entries appeal to different people for what I presume are many different reasons, there seems to be some strength in numbers. As for the title, I chose that just moments ago. There is of course no Year of the Owl in the Chinese calendar, but these writings don’t reflect an actual year’s timeline, either. My hope is that they will provide friends, family, or curious readers with amusement or contemplation, or possibly even spark an idea, prompt, or even title for your own artistic projects. Feel free to quote, incorporate, or reproduce any of these lines wherever you choose. And thank you for reading.

 

Selected Letters From The Landlocked

 

Dear X,  

Please don’t make me contemplate eternity. It’s one of your most debilitating side effects. For me, all’s well that ends, period. What I love the most about your poems is that they all fit on a single page. I used to try to stay awake all week but these days I would rather have a lone thimble of sugar than a whole jar of syrup. And yes, I see you in the doorway, smiling and refusing to check your watch. There’s nothing I appreciate more than your perfect attendance.

 

        * * *

 

Dear Y,

Thank you so much for the walking tour. I don’t think my feet touched the ground more than twice the whole night. I’m amazed and more than a little alarmed how few of the neighborhoods I recognized, especially the new houses along the old shipping canals. And I very much approve of your plan to introduce bioluminescent algae along the docks, as well as establishing a meditation center in the southernmost turret. But do you really think this will succeed in attracting our young people back to the province?

 

        * * *

 

Dear Z,

It’s such a relief to be free of all this mammalian pretension, to party like my lifespan is less tortoisean, to take flight on the strength of an idea. Today, for just a moment, the streetcar construction paused and I was able to drag my toes through the grooves and soak up the low currents of electricity, my hair standing on end and my unending anxiety relieved for a precious few moments. I had carved out such an exquisite niche I nearly disappeared.

 

        * * *

 

Dear W,

In your last invitation, you asked how I was doing. The best answer I can give you is “exceptionally not bad.” On one hand, I am trapped in America without a valid passport. On the other, it is the very lap of luxury. For a while I considered attending one of your famous séances, until I realized it would no longer be prudent, family life and all. Though I do miss the lights that used to flare up in our eyes when we ran around at sunrise, gesturing with sweeping arms at the miracles of animation in the natural world and in ourselves. I am happy you have kept a steady column of sacred smoke rising above our home state, which is in desperate need of such radical imagination.

   

        * * *

 

Dear V,

I know my sight is not what they used to be, but I can always sense when you are near by the way the bugs vanish, the way the big cats begin to purr and the train whistles bend into slowly dissipating echoes. I try to meditate, but mostly I drift, and when I return you are as present as a whisper. Remember when we bought those galoshes and waded into the storm sewers to see what relics had surfaced during the flood? Meanwhile our public symbols left a lot to be desired. The state flower was the corsage, the state insect was the fire ant, the state shape was and remains the trapezoid. Today our once-proud, once-rural estate languishes in escrow. On the wall of the toolshed is a laminated picture of you and me at the dance, a cardboard sickle moon hanging above us like a glittering half halo. For now I remain all ears and eternally at your surface.

 

        * * *

 

Dear K,

I had a good laugh when you said your spirit manimal was a sad sasquatch who makes pots of coffee that he tosses out after barely so much as a sip. I know we typically define leaders as those with a track record of getting things done, but there is also room for folks like us who drum up all kinds of excitement about things we never see through. All I ask is you write more than once every fifteenth Friday and/or whenever you feel inspired. Consistency will take you places. Maybe not the promised land, but certainly somewhere more interesting than this.

 

        * * *

 

Dear T,

I know how much you love getting high, but you have to admit it’s marvelous here on the floor. Eating crumb cake with your fingers, no need for apologies or napkins. You’ve been walking around town in a leather aviator helmet for almost two decades, and the furthest you ever got was county line. But now you’ve got a new script.

      

        * * *

 

Dear S,

I remember when I saw you in the stairwell the Friday before Halloween. You wore a cape and a black feather boa. There were red wine stains on your plastic vampire teeth. Back then your sustained campaign against equilibrium rivaled even my own. Our ancestors were equal parts fun-loving and puritanical, and at times that seesaw hit us in the head. Now your profile pictures are all blank and your last posted coordinates don’t show up on any app. So it’s funny to be writing you now, when I don’t even know where to send this. But I hope this reaches you all the same.

 

       * * *

 

Dear J,

I’ve been asked not to renew your lease. You may thank me later, if things go where they’re heading, which is nowhere fast. For now it’s best to lay low. Speak only when spoken to. Dispel with those myths of sparkle over substance. Nostalgia is a hansom cab whose driver has no face. The flora is brittle, the fauna has no scent. What we forget about first impressions is that these scenes were often only made fresh by virtue of their freshness.

       

        * * *

 

Dear Q,

When did you go from being an omnivore to a nadavore? I know there is nothing new under the sun, but I’m tired of viewing everyone as phonies. I believe in pseudoscience to the degree it is metaphorically true. A fire burns in you, too, I know it. Even if you don’t always know where to find it, you’ll know what to do with it when you do. Right now the gaps between where you are and where you thought you’d be seem insurmountable. But they themselves are of little matter. What will you fill them with?

 

        * * *

 

Dear H,

“Don’t lose sight of the stars,” you said. If only it were that easy, with all this light pollution and space debris, unsanctioned drag races on the rings of the gas giants. I was much happier not knowing about all those Kepler giants, the mirror solar systems. I still feel bad for Pluto, the now demoted planet first discovered by a young man from Kansas. But tonight the local heavens have opened, while I sit here flightless and free of labels, on the rooftop terrace below the paint-stripped billboard, basking in the light of something long since burned out.

 

* * *

 

Dear M,

I am touched by your concern about my soul, which I can assure you is healthy, if perhaps a little opaque. It’s possible we do not find God in the same places. My glimpses into the eternal often arrive unannounced, like the child scientist alone in the barn, studying acorns and silently praying. In spite of my apparent apostasy, I feel the peace of the Lord quite strongly at times. Yesterday, for example, shirtless and holding my sleeping baby, who had just moments earlier awakened, crying. And later, in the muted sunlight of a December day, when no sunglasses were needed. There are truths I have always known and of which I need to be reminded. There are lights.

 


(originally published in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” 2016, revised 2019)

Prose poem essay for a short ambient film about parking garages

Here it is: the parking garage. The modern day stable. The gateway to my work day, activated by magnets, a chopping yellow robot arm, a white collar portcullis.

You spiral up, as if still dreaming, twisting higher until you find an open space. Don’t be fooled by those “too good to be true” spots, which in fact contain Honda Fits, or are reserved by number, or are coned-off corner non-spaces.

While you’re in the car, you are part of the steel and concrete apparatus, a native animal in a shadowy terraced dwelling. But this place is not meant for humans. Once you get out, you are prey. Furtively darting between parallel cars, swishing tires. Unsuspecting, hesitant, in dress shoes or high heels, always evading, never actually getting hit.

In the parking garage, the car is king.

We all look sketchy in this lighting. Liminal, sickly, replaceable, painted within pale yellow rows. Crooked angles, the truck in the compact spot. Slamming doors, glowing phones, secret cigs, distracted life.

The garage is near the arena, and in the evenings the day and night crowds share space but do not mingle. A man and his teenage son leave the rock show, an elderly couple holds hands on the way to the religious rally. The concert goer pisses in the corner beside the beer cans, a hurried, transitory tailgate.

In the stairwell, a vapor smoker on a bluetooth headset, a cloudy whiff of graham crackers surrounds him like an aura.

On the sidewalk, vendors hawk plastic light up wands to resigned Disney on Ice moms. A man plays the drumbeat to “Wipeout” on an empty 10-gallon bucket.

Along the ramps, skateboarders, doing tricks or stopping to pose for pictures taken by a friend.

On a school holiday, a pair of teenagers looking for a roof to climb.

In a car with the exhaust running, the murmur of a radio, fogged windows slightly cracked.

Comings and goings. Young people in pajamas, walking to their loft apartments. Office drones, workers, salesmen. Someone who had dreams once and wonders how it came to this. The young suburban semiprofessional with coffee-splashed sneakers, a bit lightheaded, always late.

There but for the grace of God go I, in reverse, my lights illuminating a lady dragging a wheeled suitcase, a lithe professional phantom who quickly disappears.

Confusion in the double helix, the Up rows are not the same as the Down, people get off track, driving fearfully against the grain. Exiting is a rodeo for the regulars, it pays to know which cones can be bypassed, reaching out to tag the key card bullseye while the suckers line up to pay.

When the lot is full, or when we need to breathe, we park on the roof and watch the sun set. Tired but not yet ready to go home, even though it’s freezing and the sky streaks have nearly faded and the wind is threatening to pull off the driver’s side door.

Summer nights, looking out toward the lightning, which fills the sky in sheets or breaks up, striking the top of the TV tower.

On lunch break, I sit on the concrete bumper and eat a simple sandwich. It’s a bit like camping. The steel bumper guard is a log. The vistas contain buildings rather than mountains. You can see for miles. Human wildlife. The girl six blocks away looks beautiful, distant, out of reach. The man at the bus stop with a long coat, beard and bags appears unusually calm.

Some days I just sit in my car, reading or listening to music. I open the windows, facing the sun but not directly, leaning back in the seat to close my eyes, for 15 or 20 or 45 minutes.

On St. Patrick’s Day, you can hear bagpipes play in the distance.

Where would we be without this place? On the streets, dealing with newfangled parking meters, confusing systems of card swipes and numbers, squeezed into 2 hour spots. Here we are sheltered from the elements, insulated from the chaos of the outside world. Here there aren’t any hard decisions. Here all you have to do is park.

Dreams again, descending spirals, marbles set loose on a downward track.

Dual exits, patterned treads, guaranteed for so many miles. Revolutions per minute, heavy rotation of CDs, tires, planets. The traffic cone, an orange icecap. Cautionary stripes and emergency jump starts from the old man in the neon vest.

Look both ways. The structure shakes when cars pass below or rumble overhead. The peaceful minutes between arriving and exiting, between lifting the handle and not going anywhere yet.

You are silent, invisible until the key cranks. Might as well enjoy this floating sensation, a car ascending high above the streets. Heat rises, you too are hot, the air vents offer brilliant windows to building and sky.

The parking garage is no-place.

The parking garage is home.

When our coffee mugs are empty, we plug into the hybrid car chargers just to get a jolt.

Walking between the lines, a small pond of oil forms beneath our feet. Petroleum rainbows rise above our reflections, wavering like halos until a sudden humble “SPLASH”

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from a 2015 downtown arts proposal I never submitted and can’t remember writing

On a walking tour of downtown, the guide pretends to be visiting from a later century and describes all the scenery in condescending, past-tense terms. “Here is where dozens of lawyers labored in an attempt to change the tax codes, depriving a distracted public of millions. Here is where sad office ladies wore faux fur coats and smoked analog cigs while reading paperback novels. This building used to be a sub-basement-level food court, serving canned “energy” drinks and microwaved chicken tenders. Here is a condominium that touted its own luxury even as its residents were tens of thousands of dollars underwater, to borrow a term from a bygone fiscal era. And this is an entire city block where the signs (“Barber Shop,” “Pizza Parlor,” etc) remain but nothing is left, like all the shop owners and customers had to evacuate overnight and never came back…”

Happy Old Year

Author’s Note: In my December 2017 column for the Pitch, I promised to stop writing columns and just listen for an entire year. Amazingly, I managed to keep that promise, if less out of virtue than because I was lazy or distracted with other things. And there was, in fact, a lot of listening to do. All the same, I wanted to share a few things from this year before it comes to a close, posted here in this dusty showroom of a personal website. I hope you enjoy this present-tense compendium of 2018 events, and if it drags a bit, you can always keep scrolling or just come back later.

 

* * *

 

I am invited by a friend to be the January 2018 poet laureate for the Wonder Fair, an art gallery and arts supply store in Lawrence. My duties include writing a short poem that will be displayed on a letter board behind the counter. But when my brother visits, he reports that the previous month’s poem is up instead. My slot is pushed back to February. My pride is wounded, but I can’t complain. The December recipient’s poem, a brief ode about living inside a snow globe in a city with no escalators, is much better than mine.

 

* * *

 

For the first time in seven years, I turn my Facebook off completely. The main benefit I notice is having more mental space. Walks at night are pleasant and freeing now that I’m not mindlessly auto-composing status updates in my head the whole time. What else have I missed by not being on Facebook? I don’t know. That’s kind of the price of inadmission.

 

* * *

 

I visit a friend in Massachusetts and we drive up to ski for a day in New Hampshire, my first time skiing in over 15 years. I am excited to be in New Hampshire because its state quarter features The Old Man of the Mountain. We drive by the landmark on our way through Franconia Notch, but my friend tells me the Old Man’s face crumbled and fell off in a 2003 landslide, just a few years after the quarter was issued.

 

* * *

 

My friend and I stay home with our sons while our wives and daughters attend the “March for Our Lives” event at Theis Park. It feels important, like this time people really want things to change, though the year will see a horrific wave of additional mass shootings. It gets to where you can’t remember the last time the flags weren’t at half staff.

 

* * *

 

While we meet up with friends to watch the NCAA Tournament, my 4-year-old son develops a strong affinity for the song “One Shining Moment,” even going so far as to declare it his favorite song. My daughter is partial to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which we read and sang from a library book. They both adore “One Little Star” from the Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird. All of these songs are about togetherness, of being so close yet so far apart, even in the case of the Luther Vandross championship jam. After all, one person’s shining moment is another’s confetti-covered heartbreak.

 

* * *

 

The most amusing thing I see all month is a squirrel carrying an improbably large plastic bag up the trunk and branches of a tall tree at Westwood Park. The bag is so expansive that at first you can’t see the squirrel and it just looks like a steadily rising trash ghost. In the end the squirrel drops it and our cheering stops, but what a heroic effort.

 

* * *

 

While eating out at Taco Via with my family, I teach my kids a lesson about why they shouldn’t play the claw game by showing them what happens when you play the claw game. They each lose. I decide to play, too, barely missing out on the stuffed smiley on my first try. I was so close that I keep on trying, draining dollar after dollar, until both kids are crying and my wife is mad and the old couple sitting nearby goes from smiling politely to looking grim and almost certainly having their dinner ruined. 

 

* * *

 

After a posh company dinner at Room 39, I drive to the jazz district to see the ACBs. Tonight they’re playing in an unfurnished, unofficial space on 18th and Vine, the address displayed in the window in pink neon, a small crowd of art and music kids inside and on the street. Listening to Konnor’s pleasant repetitive stairstep riffs, Kyle and Colin’s blood-tight rhythm section, and the space waves of Ross’s flummoxing wobulator (or whatever that synth thing is called), I feel for a moment like I’ve died and gone to Kansas City.

* * *

 

Jeff hosts a 4th of July party at his backyard pool. A lot of old friends are there with their kids. John Philip Sousa music is playing in a triumphant loop and there are abundant donuts, Lay’s potato chips, and a huge platter of hot dogs. The water balloon skirmish planned for the kids quickly devolves into a semi-serious water balloon battles between the parents. It’s easily the best party I’ll attend all year.

 

* * *

 

I visit The Ship to hear Dave play drums in a new band, The Freedom Affair. A phenomenal group, especially if you are favorably disposed toward funk music. Seeing their early shows at the Ship reminds me of when I first saw Hearts of Darkness in 2009 (coincidentally, upstairs in the same building). 

 

* * *

 

Dockless scooters take over the city. I find them annoying and dangerous to pedestrians, and saying so online results in a mild controversy. On the other hand, I really wish these things had been around when I was in high school. Back then there was nothing to do downtown except drive around and listen to Portishead and trying and failing to get into jazz clubs, checking out graffiti and hoping to avoid sketchy dealers. And sometimes hang out at YJ’s. 

 

* * *

 

I revisit the same nature preserve in Florida I’ve gone to with my friends the previous two years, arriving at the beach only to find out it’s no longer there. Instead of a continuous surf, the water flows in every direction, in strange eddies and tide pools, an apocalyptic pumping unit dominating the horizon. We walk all the way to Wiggins Pass hoping for a different view, but instead we find a drunken vet with a microphone and P.A. system shouting along to “Like A Rolling Stone.” When a ranger rides by on a four wheeler to enforce the sunset curfew, we flag him down and ask what happened to the beach. “Irma took all the sand and threw it into the river,” he explains before asking us to leave.

 

* * *

 

I begin seeing art in all kinds of unexpected places, thanks to Open Spaces, a unique and marvelous two-month-long, city-wide, open-air art exhibit and performance series. The first exhibit I come across is “Fractured Horizons” a sculpture by St. Louis artist Claire Trosclair in which the fractured ruins of a house stand in the middle of a park. The drywall, studs and torn wallpaper remind me of the 2011 Joplin tornado wreckage. This piece is lovely, though, and there’s a lightness to walking along the dirt and grass, looking at the sky from the fractured foundation of a house that never was.

 

*  * *

 

We go to Germany and eat sausages and ride on small boats across sub-alpine lakes and drink beer in parks and stop and watch street musicians play in front of storefronts in the pedestrian zones. At the Egapark, a landscaped garden park in the former East German city of Erfurt, there are large sculptural displays made out of pumpkins. A rocket ship, a small biplane, a howling wolf, a grand piano. A woman in a wheelchair stops in front of an impressive pumpkin-made module of the Lunar rover. She stares at it in apparent fascination, as if she’s only just now beginning to believe in the miracles of the space program.

 

*  * *

 

For the first time since I was 20, I re-read Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Its pages transport me to the illumined heights of spirituality, the mysterious depths of the human soul, and the complex, hilarious tragicomedy of existence. Functionally, however, my main takeaway is feeling the almost irrepressible urge to use the phrase “Devil take you, sir!” in all of my professional correspondence. For the most part, I manage to resist. 

 

*  * *

 

While sitting with my sister at a coffee shop in Chicago, I realize something that strikes me as both terribly profound and completely obvious. While Lois studies for her law exams, I compose and tweet the phrase: “Technically all snakes on two-dimensional flat surfaces are snakes on a plane.” It gets 20 likes, which is about 19 more than usual.

 

*  * *

 

The election results are announced. Some of the bad guys lose for a change. Spontaneous fireworks and scattered cheers erupt above the backyards of my residential enclave, a polite neighborhood where we almost never talk about such things.

 

*  * *

 

I play a round of disc golf at Rosedale in the snow, just after sunset. The snow is deep and it gets dark fast and I only make it through 10 holes. Finding my disc takes some time, since the flashing red LED lights taped on are growing faint and it keeps getting darker. Each time I find my disc half-submerged and blinking in a snowdrift, it feels like a minor miracle. Like I am expertly identifying and defusing completely harmless plastic landmines.

 

* * *

 

Taco Via turns 50 years old this month, and I take the family there to celebrate. How does a place that objectively bad survive to such an age? Maybe because if you grew up with it, it actually is good. I’m hoping the milestone will lead to wild celebrations in the strip malls and parking lots of Lenexa, including free rides in the Taco Via hot air balloon, the mystical and ethnically ambiguous lady in the logo shedding a tear for all of us taco sinners. Until then, you can find me in the labyrinth of peeling vinyl booths, crunching my nachos, playing Galaga or vintage pinball, taking quiet sips of taco sauce to ward off the darkness.

 

* * *

 

For now, let us pray for a kinder and more humane 2019. May we do our best to live our best lives, and help create opportunities for others to do the same, regardless of what side of the fence we are on. May each of us find warmth, comfort and meaning wherever we can.

Footnotes:

re: Theis Park
The city’s most Daoist park (literally spells “the is” park). If I had to put together a short list of preferred protest songs it would include Gimme Some Truth by John Lennon, Lying Has To Stop by Soft Hair, A Whole Lot of BS by Funkadelic, (Abandon) Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty by UMO, and Women of the World: Take Over by Jim O’Rourke.

re: Shy Boys + ACBs
2018 has been a big year for the Shy Boys (virtually identical in lineup to the ACBs) and I hope these guys get a lot more love and listens in 2019.

One of my favorite things about this town is how you’ll wind up attending an amazing show at an unofficial venue you’d never heard of until that day and may never attend again, watching a local or touring band that isn’t that well known yet but could easily go toe-to-toe or note-to-note with the best groups in the world. It’s a magical feeling, and even if I rarely experience it these days, it brings me joy to know that scene still exists.

And speaking of scene-building, there might be a big opportunity to give the regional music scene a big boost. Given all the financial woes faced by the Zona Rosa, I’m hoping to put together a Kickstarter to bail out the troubled shopping center near the airport and rename it for the ACBs 2010 album “Stona Rosa.” With medical marijuana recently approved by Missouri voters, it would be a natural site for dispensaries, in addition to musical venues, chiropracters, and whatever else people in the Northland are in to. Far-fetched, yes, but a lot more possible in 2019 than ever before.

re: Open Spaces
The actual exhibits are amazing, including the watery, shapeshifting floors of Nick Cave’s intense audiovisual chapel, “Hy-Dyve” in an abandoned church, the psychedelic floral daydreams of Ebony Patterson’s “…called up” in a forgotten pool, and the all-too-at-home bird hobos camping out in the former nature center in “For the Birds aka Swope Shelter” by Jillian Youngbird. My other favorites were the tours by Blue River Road Investigators and unexpectedly encountering “Where We No Longer Gather” by Anthony Marcos Rea. Kansas City has seen some exciting things in the past few years, from a World Series win to the new streetcar. But Open Spaces in some ways felt more significant, not just because of the national talent attracted, but in how the exhibits highlighted, explored and in some cases literally illuminated pockets of the city otherwise often overlooked. I discovered places I’d never been in two decades of exploring. It forced me to open my eyes, to seek things out, to pay attention.  

re: Germany
Given the cruelty and racism of the current U.S. administration, Europe’s intense skepticism about Silicon Valley, and the reactions I experienced there in the Bush era, I was expecting to see a lot of graffiti and expressed anti-U.S. sentiments in Germany, but they seem to be absorbed in their own problems. Last week French protestors literally tore the tits off the Marianne. We’ve entered a new era in which everything feels out of balance at once. It’s not anything to feel good about, but in a way everyone having their own national problems makes us seem less “exceptional.” As the 20-year-old tour guide at the Guyasamin museum in Quito told us nonchalantly, after calmly explaining a painting about class warfare and mass slaughter, “we all have our dictators.”

re: Freedom Affair
Freedom Affair has a 45 coming out next year with Colemine Records, which also released “My God Has A Telephone,” a gospel tune from 2017 that sounds like it’s from 1966. 

re: Facebook
The only reason I am tempted to get back on Facebook is to reinstate my lone upcoming event, “Hanging Out” which disappeared along with my profile. Since the details are still general, however, I can basically catch you up to speed. The event is called “Hanging Out,” with a location of “somewhere” and is currently scheduled from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on July 4, 2036. “Hanging Out” started back in 2011 as a joke, a way to see how far the calendar would let me go, and then a humorous and perplexing invite, a guest list with an unusually high percentage of committed “maybes,” a growing list of attendees as new friends were made or re-made over the years, lots of promises to bring things like “frookies” (futuristic cookies) and scouting out potential locations including the volcanic slopes of Momotombo.

But there’s something real toward it, too. Hearing about the 2040 deadline for a cataclysmic climactic shift, I realized our party would only be a few years away from who knows what upcoming catastrophes. And who knows what kind of crazy stuff will happen between now and then. But one thing’s for certain: at that point there won’t be anyone to blame but us. We will be the ones in charge, the ones leading the way the best we know how. Will we listen then to our protests now? To the protests of our children? Will we try to make it easier on them than we feel like it is for us now? How much more will they have to contend with, and how much harder will we work to make sure things aren’t even shittier for them? I don’t know. But it’s something I will be thinking about over the next 18 years.

 

 

 

 

9.10.18 / blue river zone

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Blue River Road is a scenic, tree-lined roadway that stretches through east Kansas City for about 10 miles — or at least it was until 2010, when heavy rains and flooding partially washed it out. Rather than repair the road, the city erected concrete barricades on either side of a .7-mile-long section and simply left them there. While the rest of Blue River Road remains open, the closed-off area (known as the “annex”) has been slowly overtaken by nature, debris and a variety of legal and not-so-legal human activities.

Blue River Road Annex is also the subject of exploration for artist-researchers Matthew Brent Jackson and Trey Hock, two professors who formed the Blue River Investigators. The duo has been exploring and leading tours of the Annex every Saturday as part of the Open Spaces art exhibit and will be doing so from now through October. I joined in the tour this weekend with a dozen or so other people, and while it didn’t feel particularly dramatic at the time, the walk provided a great opportunity for observation, reflection and discussion about the complex relationships between society and nature, legality and illegality, progress and decay.

Probably the most exciting part of the walk is the anticipation of pulling up to the gravel parking lot beside some mostly neglected soccer fields and following Jackson and Hock (both carrying walkie-talkies and wearing neon vests with “ARTIST” on the back) to the start of the route. Looking past the barricades into the overgrown roadway reminded me of the haunting early scenes of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” when you first glimpse the edge of the forbidden/radioactive/supernatural area known as “the Zone.”

The Blue River Annex is less foreboding — at least during the daytime — and the walk itself reminded me more of one of my favorite parks in Berlin, the Naturpark Südgelände, a former freight depot abandoned during the war and overtaken by nature in the following decades, eventually designated as a nature preserve with many of the original train tracks and industrial features still intact. Both the Südgelände park in Berlin and the Blue River Road Annex in Kansas City can be seen as examples of a “new wilderness” that springs from abandoned or unused urban-industrial areas — spaces that might not yet have any official designation, but which people will inevitably find uses for.

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Jackson and Hock point out the natural species growing along the way (semi-comically referring to a humble plant as “old glory” and a patch of shade as “Little Valhalla”), but they are more interested in exploring the human activities that take place in the annex. During our tour, we saw dirt bike trails, firework debris, an abandoned tent with an open bible left beside a makeshift fire pit, road signs covered in bullet holes and graffiti — all kinds of evidence that closing the road to cars has opened it up to other uses. While the Investigators’ official attire and use of artspeak/academic language can feel a bit tongue-in-cheek (the annex is “a kind of national park” and the 1-435 underpass “a sort of cathedral”), their central question is a serious one: What happens to a road when it no longer serves as a road?

To explore this question yourself, join the BRR Investigators any Saturday at 4 p.m. through October starting at the lot by the soccer fields (I had some trouble finding the spot, but created a map link here). And for my friends and readers who aren’t in the area, I’d be curious what “new wilderness” areas have sprung up in your own home cities. Exploring spaces like this requires curiosity and caution, but is ultimately much more engaging than scholarly articles, podcasts or post-apocalyptic films. What you see on your walk will be different than what I saw on mine, but you’re guaranteed to see something. As Jackson and Hock are fond of saying, “the road always delivers.”

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(image courtesy of @brrinvestigators)

9.7.18 / millennial park

The other day, while reading a news article about millennials, I realized that I don’t know whether I am a millennial or not. Even Google gave me mixed messages. Some sites said the oldest millennials were born in 1982, others said 1981, and others just “early ’80s.” I had always assumed my affinity for Gen X sensibilities (clove cigarettes, coffee shops with bad coffee and good music, sarcasm, the Lower East Side) put me out of millennial range, but now I wasn’t so sure. For years I’ve viewed myself as millennial-adjacent, standing up to the haters by applauding millennials’ interests in sustainability, transit, gardening, craftsmanship, all-natural materials, technology, sincerity, etc. On the other hand, I appreciate having a certain remove. For example, if a twentysomething runs over my toes on a BIRD scooter while posting an Instagram story, I can raise my fist and yell “curse you millennials!” like an angry old man. While to some degree a label is just a label, what category we are placed in really can affect how we view ourselves and our place in society. It was topics like these that were on my mind as I walked around one afternoon and recorded the series of voice memos that became this poem published last week on Kawsmouth. Millennials: strange new species or just like us? If that isn’t a good subject for a news article, poem or blog post in the 21st century, I don’t know what is.

 

9.6.18 / behold, an elf

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Recently our daughter (age 6, first grade) drew me a picture to hang up at work. It features a kitty, a desk, our family, some names, and a wonderfully detailed, green-clad, female wood elf.

In my lifelong doodling career, elves appear more than any other figure. I’d always drawn cartoons and enjoyed fantasy/adventure stories as a kid, so by the time I read Goethe’s “Erlkönig” in high school, elves, dryads, wood nymphs and fairy-folk had become my unofficial doodle-mascots.

So it is with great delight that I looked at her drawing and could see she has already eclipsed me in artistically rendering this same subject. Artistically, at least, my evolutionary purpose is essentially complete. Anything else I do in life can be considered gravy. Or better yet, salsa. I am really more of a salsa guy.

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9.5.18 / a start-up of sorts

So it turns out that today is my half birthday. I never knew this, and never once thought about it until my kids asked about their own half-birthdays a couple weeks ago. But now that we’re here, I want to designate this as a starting point. The first entry in what I hope will be a “twilight of my thirties” bulletin of fun and interesting commentary, insights, jokes, musings, music recommendations, and marginalia. I’m sure you have other better things to read, but frankly, I need the exercise. Rather than a lengthy re-introduction here, I’ll leave you with the brief, unresolved meditation below, which I found in a recent notebook. Thanks for reading, and more soon.

I am my own start-up
every day I get up
and try to face the music
hoping it isn’t too faint
to follow

Why do I mute it?
drown it out?
why don’t I listen
more closely,
more often?

 

Songs for Insane Times

How a month-long concert bender restored my faith in humanity

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Big Thief at the Bottleneck, 10/12/17. Photo by David Wetzel

Reality has been a bit much lately. Fires, floods, shootings, Trump: Each morning I look at my phone to see if it’s all over, but it only seems to get worse.

I’ve tried various palliatives — overeating, football, ibuprofen — but nothing seems to do the trick. At times I wish things would just go back to normal, but then I think about how, for many others less fortunate than me, “normal” has never had a positive connotation.

I have, however, found at least one reliably soul-restoring activity lately: live music. While it doesn’t blot out the darker aspects of humanity, going to a concert feels like a healthy immersion in its best qualities — a way to pull oneself from the brink of despair while also having a good time.

For these reasons, as well as the quirks of the concert calendar, I’ve been to more shows in the first few weeks of fall than I did the entire spring and summer.

My KC live music bender actually began in LA, where I saw a headlining set by Kevin Morby, an Overland Park native whose songwriting and stage presence have improved with each tour. Morby’s band includes Meg Duffy, one of the most interesting lead guitarists in indie music, whose ornate, soulful guitar lines give each song a sparkle not found on Morby’s earlier efforts.

These days, Morby and pals call Los Angeles home, and several people in the Teragram Ballroom crowd seemed to know all the words. Between songs, a guy behind me said to a friend, “He’s got like this Midwestern, Kansas City vibe going. I’m digging it!” Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut. LA digs the KC vibe? Coolness, it would seem, is a moving target.

To my Midwestern eyes, Morby looked serious and focused, his songs straightforward and perfectly on point. During a short acoustic set, he played “Beautiful Strangers,” his song addressing the Paris attacks of 2015, the Orlando nightclub massacre and the police killing of Freddie Gray. Part folk song, part prayer, the song urges listeners to keep calm in the face of violence and terror.

Why is no one else writing songs like this? I wondered. Probably because it requires exceptional skill and heart. I’d always thought of Morby as a good songwriter, but this was great.

The song was still in my head a week later, when it became all too relevant once again. Reading the headlines about the massacre in Las Vegas, I felt instantly numb — the brain insulating itself from what it would prefer not to understand. Morby’s lyrics echoed: “If the gunmen come, or if I die too young, I’m full of love.” Midwestern? Yes. Better yet: human.

The next day, I bought a couple of discounted, last-minute tickets to see The XX at Starlight. It would be my first visit to the venerable Swope Park venue since I saw the musical “Camelot” as a 5-year-old (which, come to think of it, probably explains the Arthurian nostalgia I feel every time I catch a glimpse of the Swope Memorial).

Thirty years later, Starlight is still beautiful, its trees, fountains and faux-Venetian architecture a welcome relief from bars, televisions and the real world. It was a perfect setting for The XX, whose songs about vulnerability, empathy and hope somehow sound even more intimate amplified from the big stage. The music was much clearer than I would have expected from the outdoor stage, with intricate light displays refracted in rotating, mirrored panels.

In the dimness, I focused on objects that captured the light — a pink glow from the stage lights in someone’s cup of beer, a moth pirouetting above the orchestra seats, a nimbus moon holding court in the clouds left of the stage. This is full-on sensory escapism, I thought, realizing that I felt OK again. Everything was still wrong in the world, but the concert had put it all on mute. I knew that not everyone had the same privilege, but I decided to indulge anyway.

The band did not dissuade me. Bassist Oliver Sim told the crowd they hope people can leave at home whatever is causing them pain so that they can have a good time at the show. Each band member thanked us for being there, sounding sincere in the way only the British can. It’s hard to know how much Las Vegas (or Paris, or Manchester) were on their minds, but The XX seemed keenly aware of the physical and emotional vulnerability of performing in public, and genuinely grateful we were taking those risks alongside them.

Two nights later, at the Angel Olsen show in Lawrence, the vibe was more festive. It was Thursday night in a college town, and people were there to party, the triple homicide that happened outside the venue a week earlier seemingly forgotten. With her glittering jumpsuit, teased-up hair and playful stage banter, Olsen was in sassier form than her 2014 visit to the Riot Room, calling for tequila shots and joking about retiring to become a librarian.

Her music, however, sounded solemn, beautiful and very much of its time. On the climactic verse of “Woman,” a searing number about love and loss, Olsen sings: “I dare you to understand / what makes me a woman.” You can hear so much in that final syllable, which she stretches out with anguish, her voice soaring before plunging back into the noise of the band. It’s a dare (white, male) listeners like me may be willing to accept, while also acknowledging that we will never truly understand.

The local acts I’ve seen this past month have been no less impressive. At a reunion of Lawrence musicians in town for an October wedding, I was reminded of how special a performer Suzannah Johannes is, how weird and fun a Drakkar Sauna show can be, how perfectly a Fourth of July song pairs with PBR and a nagging sense of regret.

A showcase of local composers at the Folly Theater, hosted by the Charlotte Street Foundation, reminded me of how much musical innovation is alive in Kansas City. During a three-song set of new music, J. Ashley Miller ran his mythology-inspired lyrics through a vocoder, while Pat Alonzo Conway musically weaponized cell phones in the audience to stage an unexpected intro to the meditative tones of his gamelan ensemble. The upbeat, joyful compositions of Bolivian musical polymath Amado Espinoza showcased the scorching violin solos of Tina Bilberry, and bassist Jeff Harshbarger debuted a composition that appeared in his head while suffering from viral meningitis, performed by a dozen guitarists obscured in the recesses of the balcony level.

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J Fernandez at Holy Cow, 10/13/17

On a much smaller stage, a DIY showcase by local bands The Shy Boys and The Fullbloods, and Chicago group J. Fernandez reminded me that the best shows are often $5 and require drinking beer in an alley because the venue has no liquor license and nobody want any heat from the cops. I saw a lot of people I knew, or knew by sight, although none of us wanted to talk through the music. It was an ordinary weeknight show that managed to feel like something special, if for no other reason than KC’s own Kyle Rausch adeptly played drums in all three bands.

But much like my beer buzz that night, the invigorating effects of my concert bender eventually wore off. After a show at the Bottleneck by Brooklyn band Big Thief — my second show in a row that week — I woke up with a headache, an empty wallet, and a wife who had run out of patience. It was a good run, and I’d gladly do it again, but for the time being it was back to the more customary evening routines of loading the dishwasher and reading stories to the kids.

Still, it had felt good to stand in a crowd of strangers and friends — drinking, smiling and nodding along to the beat. Watching performers of all genres, genders and geographical origins share their talents, I was reminded of how our species, while capable of hate, destruction and violence, can also produce moments of profound beauty, harmony and vision. Even in times likes these, the shows must go on. And we, for our part, must keep showing up.

***

Addendum: Two new releases I’m super excited about — “Nothing Valley” by Melkbelly, the Chicago band my brother James plays drums in. It’s an amazing record. They’ll be in Lawrence Nov. 17 and KC on March 6. Earned some nice write-ups from The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Reader and Pitchfork. I also really like the new John Maus record. If you fit into that weird venn diagram of people who like leftist neo coldwave synth jams and also watch football unironically, this video will be perfect for you. And in case you’re wondering where the title of this blog post is from, allow me to (re)introduce you to my good friend Kevin Ayers.

 

 

An ode to the Entercom tower, and a new era in Westwood

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Tonight I am up late in observation of this being the last night of the Entercom radio tower dotting the neighborhood skyline. Sectional dismantling of the main tower is scheduled to begin tomorrow. The Mayor of Westwood sent out a message the other day detailing the deconstruction process, pointing out that a radio tower has been on site since 1933. For a city of just a couple thousand, this is truly a historic event.

The tower’s peak has been a familiar presence in my backyard reveries, blinking red through the tree branches, a pattern whose meaning — if there ever was one — I never discerned. Once in a while you could see it get struck by lightning. The tower has kept good company over the years and I’m going to miss it. Still, if the school district does wind up building a new elementary school on the site, it would be hard not to call that an improvement. Only a few years ago they weren’t sure if Westwood View would stay open at all. Fortunately it looks like it will, and our daughter starts Kindergarten there next fall.

In the meantime, I’d like to propose that the smaller tower be preserved on site. Even if no longer functional, it’s like our own mini Eiffel tower, certainly much nicer to look at than the power lines and water towers that dominate residential skylines everywhere else. Once the main tower is gone, its cables cut and mounts uprooted, I would also like to see a good portion of the land restored to its pre-tower purpose: sheep farming. So far I have brought up the sheep farming idea to a few colleagues and even the mayor, though I’m not sure they took me seriously. But I actually think reintroducing sheep farming, or other agrarian activities, would be a progressive move. Look how popular Overland Park’s Deanna Rose Children’s Farm is. Families flock to that place like it’s the last working farm on earth. In addition to wool, the Westwood sheep would also provide a humble terrestrial counterpoint to the now-outmoded tower’s sonic, sky-spanning grandeur.

Even with the small tower, new school and working sheep farm, there might even be room for a few new houses. Possibly even — gasp! — a tasteful townhome or two. Whether to allow multiple family dwellings is currently a big issue of contention in my neighborhood, where people display “No Medium Density!” signs as if promoting some humorless new fad diet. I even thought about dressing up as “medium density” for Halloween last year just to spook the neighbors, and a couple times I’ve even sketched the words MAXIMUM DENSITY in the driveway using my kids’ neon sidewalk chalk. When I see the “no medium density” signs, I can’t help but wonder who exactly we are trying to keep out. Will it really destroy the fabric of the city if a few families who can’t afford several hundred thousand dollar homes are able to live in Westwood? I know there are good reasons to be wary of residential zoning changes, but I also think we should be open to discussion on the issue. (As always, feel free to do so in the comments, provided you use your real name).

My main argument, whether it be for sheep, diversified housing, or some other issue, is that a city’s character necessarily changes over time. We might not always like it, but we can make an effort to shape that change for the greater good. I’ve talked with developers, city planners and consultants who were impressed by progressive attitudes and approaches in Westwood, yet also taken aback at how much public opposition there is to things like townhomes or bike lanes. I’ve talked with residents who appear baffled by the notion that anyone would even consider challenging the single-family status quo. I’ve fallen on both sides of these issues myself at times, often rolling my eyes, if occasionally in opposite directions.

Cities and neighborhoods also go through cycles. Urban areas are becoming denser again, which has a ripple effect on inner ring suburbs like Westwood. The KC streetcar doesn’t extend to 45th and State Line like it did in my grandparents’ time, but at least there is a KC streetcar again. New business are opening, bolstered by people’s desire to walk somewhere close or locally owned. People ride bikes to work and want (deserve, I would argue) protected lanes. Even Woodside Village, the upscale apartment building I wrote skeptically about years ago on this very blog, has proven viable in attracting residents and tenants, while also encouraging new investment along the 47th Street corridor.

Earlier this evening I walked past the tower with my family and saw the sun set behind it for probably the final time. I’ll miss the tower’s gravity and lightness, the way it seemed to be a divining rod for whatever mood or atmosphere was hidden in the clouds. I realized I will *definitely* never climb it now, and not just *most likely never* climb it (a bit of a somber thought, as a former schoolmate died years ago after falling from its summit). On a positive note, I will finally be able to play my Fender wah-wah guitar pedal without signal interference from talk radio, sports scores and weather updates, which my 13-year-old self would be delighted by.

Yes, change comes to us all, even here in Westwood. Tomorrow the communications tower comes down, but the communication itself continues. More than any outward landmark, it’s what defines us as a city.

UPDATE: At 10:37 p.m. Tuesday evening, the tower was still standing. Now it is raining. I suspect it will still be there tomorrow, if maybe not the next day.

(All links courtesy of Shawnee Mission Post. In lieu of defunct radio stations and print newspapers that no longer cover neighborhood issues, I highly recommend subscribing to SMP for Westwood-related news and updates).

 

 

Artboards

 

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Recently a design of mine was featured on the MoBank Arboards, a double billboard canvas that features rotating visual art, photography and design from Kansas City artists. On the other side are two images by artist Jillian Youngbird. You can find them at 125 Southwest Boulevard near the old Hamburger Mary’s spot, just down the street from the westernmost Town Topic. My design will be up until June or so. I was excited to be part of this program, which is one of my favorite public art initiatives in the city. Thanks to MoBank and the Charlotte Street Foundation for the opportunity, installation, and overall support of local artists. Below is my statement about the Artboard, which you can either read or ignore in favor of drawing your own conclusions. I suppose there is no good reason you can not do both.

It’s easy to say what you would do in someone else’s shoes, but what about our own? What keeps us from doing what we want to do? From being who we want to be? Are these forces external, or do they come from within? To entertain one question is to invite a host of others.

For my Artboard, I wanted to present something that at first appears to be a marketing campaign until the viewer realizes it’s not actually advertising anything. Instead it poses a surprisingly personal question in order to encourage contemplation. 

The backdrop is a panoramic photo I took in 2016 on the Rozarks Trails, designed by community volunteers near the memorial arch in Rosedale, Kansas. It’s a scenic place, but not overly dramatic — in the middle of the city, yet unseen by most. The natural beauty, light and detail are a reminder that the search for self is also reflected in our our outer environments.

 

‘This is what democracy looks like’

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First tennis, then outrage.

After watching a recording of the Australian Open final Sunday morning, a welcome respite from the national news, we turned our phones back on and saw a protest against Trump’s executive orders on immigration was scheduled to take place at Kansas City International Airport in less than an hour. Within a few minutes we were making signs and getting the kids loaded up for the drive out to Terminal C.

There was no real question of whether we should attend. On Friday night, I’d posted an angry Facebook screed about the travel ban, and on Saturday I exchanged messages with a friend who had just learned that her Iranian-born / German-passport-holding boyfriend would likely not be able to join her to visit her immediate family in the States. They were super bummed, but also the first to point out how much worse the situation was for all the refugees and others whose lives had been upended in an instant.

As another friend of mine wrote on Friday, “This is why I wept on election night, not because a candidate I supported lost, but because I listened and understood what the policies of the candidate that won meant for this country.” For native Kansans, there’s a special horror in seeing our own former Secretary Kris Kobach behind Trump’s immigration policy. Kobach’s methods of trying to prove/prevent voter fraud were thrown out at the federal level, and he was unable to prove even a single case of voter fraud taking place in Kansas, where he is now widely regarded as a xenophobe and a disgrace.

On the radio this morning, I heard someone saying how “at a humanitarian level, (the travel ban is) an abomination.” I figured it must be some partisan public radio commentator. But no, it was former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden. Later, I read a thread from an American civil servant in Iraq explain how the executive order is not only heartless, but makes us dramatically less safe. Even the Koch brothers and NASCAR stars are against it. The world has truly turned upside-down.

There are many more stories than I care to link to here. Ever since Steve Bannon said that “the media should shut its mouth,” a statement that by logic extends to every one of us who reads or watches the news, I haven’t been able to read enough. But if one isn’t careful, the head-spinning cycle of news-reading outrage never stops. So being able to show up on a decent Sunday afternoon and express our opposition with a bunch of fellow Kansas City residents felt like a nice alternative to sitting around and feeling helpless.

The protesters at KCI included students, older people, students and quite a few families. It was a diverse group, certainly a much larger crowd than the expected 500-600 people. Most of us were there because we thought it was the right thing to do. For others in the crowd — a family wearing headscarves, for example, whose children of different ages were walking around taking pictures with their phones or smiling — I imagine it’s much less abstract.

Most of the signs at the airport protest looked like they were written in a hurry. Many of them were disarmingly personal. “I am a Muslim who loves Kansas City.” “I am the son of two peaceful immigrants.” “I am a person, not an alien.” These signs reminded me that the people being maligned by our government and fellow citizens are not distant phantoms, but our very neighbors here in this city. As I scanned the signs, I found myself making eye contact with the people holding them, exchanging nods or glances as if to say “I see you; thank you for seeing me.”

Our 4-year-old daughter brought a picture of the Statue of Liberty that she had drawn at our encouragement. On the drive to the airport, she explained to her brother that the statue means that “people from all over the world are welcome in Kansas City.” Her localization of Lady Liberty was charming, if a bit childlike. And yet that same sentiment echoed in the first chants we heard at the protest:

No ban! No wall! Kansas City welcomes all!

I thought the event was a good showing by the people of Kansas City. It was peaceful, made up of people of all ages, with an atmosphere where it felt like anyone would be welcome. As mayor Sly James later told the crowd, “You’re doing it the right way.” Although there were predictably a lot of anti-Trump signs, it’s also not hard to imagine disillusioned Trump voters eventually deciding they don’t like what’s happening and would like to speak out as well.

I also liked that the protest was held outside Terminal C, the airport’s unimpressive international wing. Gathering in that liminal space, which all of us have traveled through at some point, made the event feel refreshingly ordinary, like we were all just standing around waiting for our arrivals or departures and looking out for each other’s freedom of movement in the process. I later learned that similar (and significantly larger) protests took place at airports across the country, a symbolic but meaningful connection to our fellow citizens.

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Standing behind the airport barricades, it was hard not to think of what it would be like to be stuck in a generic airport lobby or waiting room without a valid ticket, unable to visit friends or family, being asked strange questions, our personal documents confiscated or rendered suddenly valueless. If we don’t want to go through that ourselves, it stands to reason that we should limit that experience to as few civilians as possible, reserving such methods only for specific security threats.

Other nations are paying close attention to what we are doing. It’s naive to think that their governments and citizens will not treat us accordingly. Our ability to travel, study and work outside our borders is not a given. If we throw respect, diplomacy, due process, good faith and common sense out the window, the opportunities my generation has enjoyed to go virtually anywhere in the world will likely not extend to the next, even in nations with which we’ve traditionally enjoyed friendly and peaceful relations.

Do we really believe that a blanket ban on hundreds of millions of people will actually make us safer in the long run? Do we really want to take actions that will limit the ability of ourselves and our children to travel freely and safely to other countries? If we do believe these things are important, is a hurried, unilateral executive order the right way to go about addressing them? If you supported Trump for perceived tax/financial benefits, at what point does the infringement of others’ human rights make it no longer worth it?

I expect that in the coming weeks there will be additional attempts to divide us as a nation, whether it’s by gender, religion, class, race, sexual orientation, political party, urban/rural residence, you name it. We should not let that happen, especially not by unvetted actors in government, hostile strangers on the internet, or via labels and libels hurled at one another.

My plea to anyone reading this: Talk to each other. Read newspapers, blog posts or magazine articles from different sources, cities, countries. Make up your own minds. Reject the violent and oversimplistic “punch a fascist” / “hang a journalist” extremes. Exchange ideas as respectfully as possible, establishing your own talking points rather than parroting those so helpfully provided for us on TV or social media. Interact in real life whenever possible. Stay positive. Go to protests, or stage your own.

As another civil servant from the Bush era argued today in The Atlantic, this is a “clarifying moment” in our country’s history. Neutrality at a time like this is not an option, and the stances we take — or don’t take — will continue to define us as for years to come.

Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.

The author was addressing conservative thinkers, experts and politicians in that statement, but he very well could have been talking about us.

Our taking part in a protest yesterday was a tiny thing, but you’re going to see more and more like it. Maybe next time I’ll see you there.

(protest photos by Jennifer Wetzel)

Blogging in the dark

I realized earlier this evening while reading a compilation of Paul Bowles letters given to me for Christmas by my sister that the kind of blogging renaissance I wish to bring about on this site is unlikely to succeed, if for no other reason than the intimacy I’m looking for is inherently inimical to the format. It’s too scattershot, a blunderbuss aimed into the intervoids rather than a clean feather-penned dart thrown with discretion and from a safe distance.
A blog post will never be as private as a journal, but is probably still too personal to be of interest to a wider public. If I think of the people who might read this I’d rather address them directly. “You looked wonderful in the photograph you posted tonight.” “I am glad to hear you are OK.” “Your baby is beautiful. I can’t wait to meet her.” “I miss you and I hope that I see you again at some point in this life.”
A blog post will always be inferior to a letter. All the same, people I know and love and temporarily lose touch with do occasionally click on this site, and I’d like to give them something to read.
As I type this there is a rapidly accumulating layer of ice all across the city. They’ve even rescheduled the football game, so you know it is serious. News reports are running about how everyone is stocking up on generators, white bread and ice-melting salts. It’s Y2K all over again, with even less of a threat to our survival as a safe and overfed species. Schools were canceled across the metro yesterday even though we didn’t get a drop of snow or ice. It all makes me want to get involved in extreme mountain climbing or something in which there’s an actual threat of peril rather than this contrived and artificial panic.
Right now I’m drinking a glass of Leopold Bros. absinthe, which is certainly the best small batch absinthe made in Colorado. Having forsworn the neighboring state’s other green intoxicants, this creamy herbal spirit suffices quite nicely to simultaneously dull and awaken the senses. I’m complementing it with “The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986,” a 2-hour compilation of instrumental trance-inducing proto new age music just released by Light in the Attic records. It’s mesmerizing. I highly recommend, especially if you own a bottle of absinthe and a candle and a basement with a comfortable couch and/or floor rug.
One of the minimalist composers whose work I’ve been enjoying is Eliane Radigue, a French composer. All I knew when I first heard her was her name, texted to me the other night by my friend Todd. I was about to go on a long walk to the Plaza and along Brush Creek before the holiday lights went off for the last time. I put on the top track of hers on Spotify and listened to the music that began as a drone and shifted only gradually. I walked for several miles before looking at my phone and seeing that the running time of the piece was over an hour. It was a fitting soundtrack for empty winter sidewalks, contemplative and pleasant, especially along with the Christmas lights and the creek’s year-round-gushing fountains.
Until I passed under one of the bridges and saw the stirring of people camped out in the cold. The music turned darker almost at that very moment. I walked along further down the waterfront, hoping not to be seen, thinking of what I might have to offer but realizing I had nothing. I began thinking about death, not as an idle musing but because I couldn’t help but think about anything else. I wanted to skip forward to the next track, but since this was an extended piece I felt like I needed to see it through. When I looked at the title of the piece I saw the word “mort” in the title and realized that’s what this was about the entire time. Let the thoughts come, then.
People are afraid to talk about death, a friend of mine said recently after I called to extend sympathies. It makes them uncomfortable, he said. They don’t know what to say. He thanked me several times for reaching out, not realizing how much of both those things I was feeling at that moment. It’s better to try, though. Even though I’ve so far been spared serious loss and only know what it looks like indirectly, I still think we should talk about it. How has losing someone close to you affected the way you view and live your life? These are things I’d like to hear about. Things we can all learn from.
However, lest anyone complain that I am leaving them on a morbid note, I will close by recounting some inspiring signs of life I saw today as well. At the Museum at Prairie Fire, an impressive new complex south of Kansas City, the unusual creatures exhibit featured an entire exhibit on my favorite microscopic animal, the tardigrade. Also known as waterbears, tardigrades are bizarre eight-legged critters that look like something from a science fiction film turned into a plush toy.
By retreating into a dormant state known as “cryptobiosis,” waterbears can withstand insane levels of radiation and even survive a couple weeks in outer space. I saw one of them beneath a microscope all blurry and wriggling, indifferent to my spying, unafraid of nuclear war, election results or ice storms. To paraphrase Keats: the next time I have fears that I may cease to be, I will think of the hardy tardigrade, and go on blogging blissfully.
The ice is really coming down thick now. I wish it wouldn’t do that. Snow is aesthetically so lovely, while freezing rain is gross. Freezing fog I could live with. Freezing fog would probably inspire me to go for a long walk even though it’s almost 1 in the morning. My friends in northern California, where it is only 11, don’t appreciate my romanticizing of fog. But when it comes to unusual atmospheres, here in the Great Plains we take what we can get.

All poetry is local

Last summer I had a poem featured in KC Studio magazine. I’d met the editor, Alice Thorson, during a studio visit, and she encouraged me to send her some poems after seeing the concrete/zigzag poems I had taped up on the wall.

It took me a few weeks to send anything, since I hadn’t written any actual poetry in years. The poem-ish things I had written were more design than language-based, funnel-shaped clouds of text that took the reader (if there was a reader) in several directions at once. I spent several nights cranking out pages on the refurbished Lettera 32 I keep on the work table in the garage, with the door cracked open to let the rain in a little bit. Jenn found most of them disorienting, but liked this one, and so did Alice. I called it “To Alfonso, Gardener of Moon-Dried Tomatoes.”

I didn’t know the magazine had come out until my friend, poet Jason Preu, sent me a message. The only other people I heard from were a senior editor and my managing editor at work, and some friends of my parents. One of my parents’ friends, intrigued by the title and confused by the byline, apparently thought it had been written by my father. “It’s so neat that your husband writes love poetry,” she told my mom. “But who is Alfonso?”

All of which drove home the mildly unsettling reality that publishing poetry in your home town is not necessarily the most comfortable experience. In Ben Lerner’s book-length essay, “The Hatred of Poetry,” he frequently quotes the Marianne Moore line about poetry (“I too, dislike it…”), musing about how admitting that you write poetry as an adult is a dangerous thing to say, in that you invoke not only resentment of the writer (“can’t you find a real profession?”) as well as resentment of self (“I used to appreciate/write poetry, but somehow lost the capacity to do so”). Lerner’s analysis of the leisure vs. industry conflict surrounding poetry from Whitman through his own career is an interesting one that certainly holds true to my experience.

At the time, I felt a bit awkward about how something I wrote in a moment of inspiration and honesty was being interpreted by my elders as something curious, secretive and homoerotic. But I’m over that now. Any embarrassment I might have felt is canceled out by the knowledge that I did my best to write a good poem, beginning with a line that came out of nowhere and provided the central motif of flight (“there are only so many sounds…”) and sustained throughout the work itself, which is addressed to someone who has suffered loss but come out resilient, closing with a passage that is an almost direct homage to Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”

(Lone quibble: I’m still not sure why exactly I wrote never as “ne’er,” except perhaps to double down on my sense of poetic entitlement to do whatever I want. It certainly helps one’s confidence to write from commission rather than as a submission, perhaps to a fault.)

But here (yes, finally) is where it gets interesting. At the time I wrote the poem I had no idea who Alfonso was exactly. I did have a recipient for the poem in mind, but I had no clear reasons for choosing that name. Until just last month, when re-reading my favorite anthology of Latin-American poets in search of a Nicaraguan poet whose cosmic verse I remembered liking. And there it was, “Space Song,” by none other than Alfonso Cortes.

Cortes wrote his best poetry in lucid intervals between schizophrenia, and his Hölderlin-like struggles with sanity combined with his extraordinary vision and lyrical gifts were exactly what I was addressing in my poem — to Alfonso, to myself, and to the reader. The moon-dried tomatoes are of course the poems themselves, the lines we store up and hold closely, the songs we compose in the quiet moments, while flying true if not exactly straight. If you write poems (or make works of art) and release them to the world, you’re going to confront a lot in yourself that is naive, clouded, embarrassing. But sometimes they work, or stick, or soothe — providing a postcard of somewhere you might have forgotten but can now return to.

In the end there’s nothing like waking up to find out your dream was real. Heirloom moon-dried tomato-poems. The inner treasures we inherit from ourselves.

(note: you can actually subscribe to print editions of KC Studio for free. It’s an excellent publication that makes it much easier to keep a pulse on what is happening in the Kansas City arts scene)

musique, 12/12/16

Let’s talk about music for a little bit. As I recall in my early days of blogging there wasn’t much point in having a blog if you didn’t use it to share or talk about music you’ve been listening to lately. Especially when it arrives in thematically specific waves, as it has for me lately. If a bit darkly so this time around.

Last night I video-conferenced with some family members about planning a summer retreat, which we decided to hold in Albuquerque, a town I have been to once before and can now spell with ease. After the booking went through I wanted to send a celebratory confirmation song their way, but after listening to Neil Young’s “Albuquerque,” I remembered just what a downer it is. Not surprising, as it’s from “Tonight’s The Night,” the 1975 album written around the same time two good friends of the band died.

I remember Andrew strumming this song in the dorms, and how the lyrics about “fried eggs and country ham” sounded so unexpectedly serious. I guess maybe you’d remember it too if it was someone’s final meal, which is possibly what Neil’s singing about here, or just a breakfast from simpler times recalled after someone has passed away.

It’s a good song, and it gets stuck in my head, and it’s not the first serious or dirge-like number to lodge there lately. Last night I also watched Patti Smith’s performance of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” at the Nobel Prize ceremony, performed on behalf of Bob Dylan. What a brilliant and beautiful way to accept the award by proxy, with Smith’s singular ability to inhabit the song’s gravity, lyricism, starkness and urgency through her voice and presence. I was crying from the opening minute until she unexpectedly stopped, which took me out of the moment completely, especially after my attention strayed to the comparatively boring article surrounding it. When I read the part about how Dylan wrote it in a 17th-century ballad style, I got distracted thinking of another, even more heartbreaking ballad in a similar vein, Abner Jay’s “Lord Randall.”

This, to me, is as heavy and soulful as it gets. The thickness, resonance and bounce of the upright bass keeps it lively, while Jay’s voice and the song itself ache with loss and memory. These things have been on my mind lately, and I didn’t realize how much so until I heard this song.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death, at age 16, of one of my grade school friends. A group of us are gathering to mark the occasion, but I won’t be in town and have been trying to organize my thoughts about the occasion, bringing language to it in a way I could not have then, looking at it from a parent’s perspective as well as a peer’s, retroactively applying all of our cliches about mourning to see if they fit. “He lives on in all of us,” is a cliche yet true statement, in all of its varied individual permutations. But it’s also murky, mysterious. Lives on how exactly? Easier for me to define are ways in which someone influenced you. What did they have that you admired, that you wanted to incorporate into your own character? In what ways did you consciously hope to be different? In a more general sense, how much of us is us and how much is other people?

I don’t know, but I do appreciate being able to inhabit and explore these feelings even so far removed from the occasion — and the person — that inspired them. I thought about all this while walking around in the stillness of a 27 degree near-full-moon night amid the glimmering Xmas LEDs. One block away from me was a tree wrapped in tiny silver lights, the stuff of near-Narnian/Biblical visions. Another few blocks away a neighbor’s tree was decorated with a bunch of those blue and white lights in which the color seems to drip down the light strands, willow-like, so that the branches look like they are melting, or weeping. It felt a bit like I was tripping, so supreme was the emotional-visual transformation of my everynight suburban surroundings. Making it even better was this soundtrack, the entire 2015 album “Odyssey” by Rival Consoles. The sound textures, light twinkles and winter temperature all intermingled perfectly.

So I’ll end on that shimmering note. Or I would, if I didn’t have one last song in my head this past 24 hours. The Kinks’ “I’m On An Island,” is the ideal ditty for anyone currently wishing for a bit of isolationism (physical, mental or otherwise) from our current national climate.

It’s also just a fun song.

I’ll be back with more another time soon. Maybe next time it will be a mini-collection of songs that touch on death but in a more uplifting and ethereal way. I can already think of a few…

Unsubmitted proposals, pt. 1

I finally saw Lawrence/KC artist Judith Levy’s 2013 film “NV in KC,” in which conceptual artist Lee. J. Ross (played by Levy) undertakes a quixotic quest to rank every visual artist and museum/gallery in Kansas City by order of importance, upsetting almost everyone she knows along the way. Even if “NV in KC’s” appeal is necessarily limited, it’s a delightful, professionally made little film that gently skewers the tempest-in-a-teapot that is the local arts scene (Kansas City, in this case, though it could just as easily be any mid-level metropolis).

Lee J.’s preoccupation with envy, jealousy and hierarchy in the arts feels a little misguided — even unhealthy — but Levy pokes fun at her protagonist through the comments of the other characters. The fact that there seems to be genuine curiosity behind the satire (both in the character and the writer/director) gives the film some depth and purpose. My favorite sequence is the support group that convenes by saying the serenity prayer as an actual prayer, then speaks exclusively in inspirational quotes (except for Lee J., who responds to their robotic platitudes as if it’s a totally normal conversation). I also enjoyed the interviews with the principals of the city’s arts organizations, which work in a scripted line or two while allowing them the chance to speak from their actual (and considerable) experiences, offering thoughtful insights and nuanced perspectives.

I also saw echoes of my slightly younger self in the spurned twin, Patricia, who only makes an appearance in the film’s final scene. Patricia, a middling ceramicist, is upset that she’s excluded from the list, and she lashes out with language in spite of her otherwise soft-spoken demeanor. I remember getting turned down from a handful of awards and grants for Kawsmouth and working through that frustration and disappointment through sarcasm and satire. One such expression came in the form of my list of fake award winners for Rocket Grants, a thinly veiled spoof of some of the past/perennial winners of awards in Kansas City (the title refers to my friend’s comment that local arts orgs support stuff that’s “weird, as long as it’s their kind of weird.”). I don’t know that it’s aged that well, but here it is. (Incidentally, Levy was a panelist the year my proposal got turned out, which kind of of brings this full circle).

In 2014, after unsuccessfully applying for a different grant for Kawsmouth (albeit with a helpful exchange with the administrator), I channeled it with a fake proposal of a different kind. This one was a response less to my own disappointment or envy as much as a sensation of burnout from reading “artspeak” in exhibition previews, the statements of peers, calls-for-entries, etc. I’m sure most everyone who has had any involvement with the arts feels this way at some point or another. I’ve cut and pasted a scan of this at the bottom of this post, as it was written by typewriter — an ideal medium for writing proposals you’ll never, ever turn in.

Fortunately, much like Patricia, who excitedly (and hilariously) remarks that she just got accepted to a group show, which “changes everything,” I’ve also had a few acceptances come through in the past few years, including a residency, several publications, readings, exhibits and a few more things I’ll share more about in early 2017. If I had to summarize my own experience with envy and the arts, I’d echo Sherry Leedy’s comments in the film about identifying and focusing on who you are as an individual rather than worrying about why others got something you didn’t. Sometimes your stuff just isn’t that good, but in other cases it’s just not the right fit for the project, or not the best expression of yourself and what you have to offer.

Anyway, here’s that “proposal.” As usual, thanks for reading and turn in for a follow-up in this 2-part series next week.

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Kidspeak, 12/7/16

Last night while buckling Emil into the car I asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” realizing as I said the words that this was a ridiculous question to ask a 2-year-old. Still, he tried to answer. “I’m going to the hospital and be born,” he said, pronouncing it “bone,” so that his sister had to clarify to me what he meant. She then told him: “You silly, you already are born.” “Oh,” he said, and reconsidered. “I’m gonna be Simba from the Lion King.”

back…?

In 2010, after moving away from Kansas City for a year, I said goodbye to my old blogspot page — a hodgepodge of local color, music links, commentary, photos and creative writing, some of which has gone viral in or after its time — in favor of what I hoped would be a more “professional” portfolio-ish site. That hasn’t really happened, though. I already had a job and several steady side gigs, so there wasn’t too much incentive to market myself. Add to that a 4-year stint running a lit site, a two-year writing residency from 2014-2016, and co-raising two little kids (now 2 and 4), and I didn’t do a lot of “brand management.” In fact, as Instagram took off and posting on Facebook became more and more a proxy for interacting with the world / other human beings, the whole notion of self-promotion seemed more and more absurd. Why post about my own interests and thoughts when everyone else is already doing the same? What makes me so special? I can hardly even decide on what my first name is  (Lucas? Luke? Luc? Lukas?), much less try and get it out there.

Still… I miss writing about random bullshit. Not least because what I choose to write about isn’t really all that random, and also because even the most trivial subjects can be interesting and worth reading or writing about (i.e. the trivial within the essential). The remaining local reporters do their best, but there are often things of local (or universal) interest that no one seems to be writing about. So here we go … another flurry of activity, probably a site revamp of some kind, and probably a lot of links and screeds and questions and updates on actual real-world published/exhibited work. If you know me, live in Kansas City, or are interested in odd or experimental writing, there might be something for you here. There’s probably some link or button you can click to follow and get updates, or you can just bookmark the page and check back in whenever you feel like it. Either way, I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks for reading + see you around. – LW

‘Sincerely Yours’

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For the past month, some of my writing has been featured in a group show at Paragraph gallery along with visual artists Neil Goss and Monica Dixon. I tried something a little unusual for this show, which is titled “Sincerely Yours.” Instead of standard wall text or a booklet, I constructed writing panels that look almost like kitchen cabinetry, with titles on the outside and continued text within. To fit with the theme and title of the show, I called it “Cover Letters.” The pieces are short — only about 500 words total. The goal was to address personal/intimate topics to create short moments of communication with the reader. I like the way the show turned out. The expansive fabric, varied textures and colors of Neil’s and Monica’s work creates a pleasant, slightly dreamlike atmosphere, and the writing is presented in a more interactive fashion than past shows I’ve been a part of. If you’d like to see it in person, drop by Paragraph on Saturday, Aug. 6 at 1 p.m. We’ll be giving a short talk (30 minutes total) and answering questions, along with curator Michael Krueger, a visual arts professor at the University of Kansas. There will also be coffee.

For further reading, here’s Annie Raab’s review in The Pitch.

And here’s some background about my portion from the Charlotte Street blog.

 

366 days in pursuit of the ridiculous

The most recent project I’ve got going over at the Charlotte Street studios. Will keep you posted once it’s wrapped up and available to read in some form. In the meantime, I’d be happy to show anyone around that would like to see the work in progress.

CHARLOTTE STREET FOUNDATION STUDIO RESIDENCY PROGRAM

Hello, friends. With Open Studios only hours away, I thought I would share a sneak peek at a project I’ve been working on this past few months. It will be on display for a while, so stop by and check it out sometime. A short statement is included below this photo.

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How many different ideas, observations or stories do we come up with every day?
How many of them are worth remembering, or writing down?
What does a year’s worth of these thoughts look like at a single glance?

These questions are at the heart of the Multicolored Story Calendar, an ongoing series of observations, questions, theories, statements, mythologies, meditations, microfictions and mini-epiphanies I’ve been chronicling throughout my Charlotte Street Residency.

Inspired by daily comic strips, the pictorial calendars of Plains Indians, the annual notebooks of Joseph Joubert, the heteronymns of Fernando Pessoa, the aphorisms of James Richardson, the wit…

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Turkey Creek hijinx

Last year I saw this video, which was filmed by the music ensemble Quadrigarum at the mouth of the Turkey Creek tunnel, and I made it my mission to find out what this challenging, fascinating piece of art was all about. A few months later, I published this feature in the Pitch. Thanks to Tim for showing me around, Ashley for the musical/philosophical insight, the folks at Mid America Regional Council for the numbers/perspective, and to Scott at the Pitch for the helpful editing. You can read the whole thing here.

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