I like wearing a mask. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s a face scarf, it allows me to visit and support local businesses, the pattern is the same as a shawl worn by my aunt, the baroness, a design that features embroidered teeth, each one stitched with gold leaf, in tribute of the rapper who died last year, and in memory of my face before it changed. While masked up these days I catch myself making the most bizarre faces, which no one sees, but still I wonder: When did I give the muscles permission to just slacken, to contort with my moods and change shape with the thoughts that get pinched between the light of day and whichever nook they are seeking to escape. My mask holds it all in, like a steaming teapot beneath its ceramic lid. I am awake and vapid with the vapors of a vacant city, teeming with life, a blip in the sound file, a light on the projection screen. But I can’t help but wonder. When it’s time to take the masks off, will I succeed in squeezing my face back into shape?
Congratulations on the new you! It’s quite an accomplishment to completely reinvent yourself at this point, to start over and rid yourself of all those things that were holding you back. But I have some news for you. It’s all an illusion. You can and will not fundamentally change.
I know. It’s disappointing. But deep down I know you are not surprised. I’ve gone through the same thing, and I’m here to tell you: At this point we are who we are. We can pray and strive and read and try out new methods, but nothing will really fix us. That’s the bad news, or at least I suppose you could look at it that way.
The good news is we can improve. We can become better versions of who we are. How do we do this? I don’t know, but I have some theories.
Worry less about your daily methods and practices and habits. Instead focus on the inner flame, the deepest parts of your self that you want to honor and keep alive, be it family, God, creative visions, personal truths, creative projects, visions of beauty. Keep your gaze above the immediate surroundings, over the city, past the next year of appointments and disappointments, to the beyond, the mountains, a glimpse of the sea, the face of the creator, the flash of the eternal. If you close your eyes and breathe and open up a new line of sight, the rest will, in time, fall into place.
You are strange and creative person, subject to forces of inspiration and despair, quick fluctuations in mood that work unpredictably and mysteriously. Any other influences you introduce may temper or enhance these conditions, but they can not conjure or recreate them out of scratch. There are potions that should only be used when the need is most great, or the conditions just so. Strive for self-animation. Ride the tailwinds when you find them. Your ability to fly is not an illusion, but it is only granted so often. You will have to travel in bursts.
In light of the recent passing of Dodgers Legend Tommy Lasorda at age 93, I’d like to revisit this excellent and somewhat under-the-radar regional release from 2012. I think either Scott or David must have helped me edit this feature I wrote for the Pitch, because it’s a much cleaner piece than my usual lapses into criticism and personal mood. Worth a listen on Spotify, and maybe even a few records still out there in the wild. My favorite tracks? The piano/sonic crunch of “Of Little Faith,” and eerie, swirling outtro, “His Laugh is Love.”
While driving over the Biloxi Bridge, I squint at the sunlight and find the oldies station on the dial, first some Christmas songs and then “Never My Love” by The Association. We make a U-turn on Beach Blvd. and park at the beach. My son is sleeping in the car so I sit on the bench outside our parking space and watch my wife and daughter fly a kite. This is not the first attempt this year. That effort ended with a tangle of string and broken flaps in a parking lot at Kansas City’s riverfront park, with a methhead driving his truck over to laugh and commiserate and tell me about a boy scout kit you could order to build your own. Instead I bought this one at REI. It flies gloriously. Even a child can do it. Even an inept dad. It depicts a blue and orange and yellow scene of the mountains. There is no snow here, just white sand, and it’s enough to make angels out of, which my daughter does, though curiously while lying on her belly rather than her back.
I look over and see a couple who has just parked and walked out to enjoy the sunset, which according to my phone is only 10 minutes from now. This far east in Central Standard Time you feel like you’re being cheated of evening daylight, sunset is probably a good 35 minutes later in say, Russell, Kansas. But who wants to be in Russell. I look over toward the casinos, in the direction of the bridge, and see the couple is now standing together near the water in a back-hug, an arrangement you almost only see in photographs and not in real life. So perhaps that’s why looking at them I get the sudden sense I’m witnessing an important moment in their lives, a snapshot in which they fully realized and melted into their romantic love for one another, or maybe a moment in which something was renewed, restored. Perhaps.
Our own scene is less romantic. Our son is crying because the kite isn’t flying. The wind has died down, he was napping in the car, and it seems we woke him up too quickly. Christmas has been a long day for them. How can you sleep through the night when you know Santa is coming? At 4:30 in the morning I thought I heard a voice, and went toward their room and heard them both talking to each other at normal conversational volume. The overhead light was on and they were playing Kariba, a card game. What are you doing? I asked incredulously. Mom told us just to play quietly until you guys woke up, my daughter said. But it’s 4 in the morning, I said. You still need to sleep. We didn’t know what time it was, they protested, and we couldn’t go out in the kitchen to look. Fair enough. Here’s my phone, I said. Push this button and it will tell you what time it is. I turned up a few blinds so they could see the sun come in. And don’t get up until it’s light outside.
We had mixed luck with trails. One was beautiful, sunny, with palmettos and pines and wildflowers, a habitat for the rare sandhill crane, which there are only 100 of left in the wild. The other was set along the sparkling waters of the bay with trails through the woods and wooden platforms overlooking the bayou. But much of it was closed, visibly destroyed by the pair of hurricanes earlier in 2020. We spent most of our improvised walk through the park talking about hurricanes, tornadoes, Katrina. My son was alert and interested, my daughter was sad and wanted to talk about something else. But it seemed like a disservice not to discuss them, given how much these events are likely to be present in their lives.
Driving back from the beach later, I ask my wife to drop me off on the eastern side of the Biloxi Bridge. It’s only a 1.7 mile pedestrian path across, then another mile or so along the beach back to the house. The lane is protected but still the cars race by, roaring and whooshing. I feel a rush as I break into a run, buttoning up my raincoat and palming my water bottle in one hand and my cloth mask in the other. There is no one else in sight and I feel free. I stop at the mile markers which are decorated with bronze relief landscapes of fishing, boating, and other gulf coast scenes. One of them displays a bridge buckled into fragments, a clear depiction of the Biloxi Bridge after Katrina. It was only 15 years ago, but in this medium it feels historic, even Biblical. Destroyed bridges, houses, even the famous souvenir shop, Sharkheads, which was gutted in 2005 and reopened 7 years later with a giant shark mouth entrance.
Tracing my fingers over the image of the bridge, I think about what it means to rebuild, when by the time the rebuilding occurs so much of the community has already been reshaped—people moved away, jobs changed, relationships severed, a trust broken. I’ve seen it in Joplin, my wife’s hometown, which was wiped out by a tornado a decade ago. But that destruction and recovery was quick, at least physically. Katrina was so much more widespread, a clear era of before/after, and for someone like me who never went to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast before 2005 we probably have no idea what things were like before. We’re experiencing something similar now with COVID, an even slower-moving wave of destruction, this one quiet and invisible, as restaurants and businesses close their doors, schools are shut down, and loved ones say goodbye over iPads.
It’s a nightmare. And it’s still going on, even if many of us don’t see it. Meanwhile I’m traveling across the country, wearing masks and staying out of public places but still out in society in one form or another. What makes us think this risk is OK? To be honest I’m not 100% sure that it is. But as long as we limit our interactions to the same or less than at home (carryout, groceries, brief visits to stores or museums), stay outside as much as possible, and wear a mask everywhere we go, I’m hoping that reduces our risk to ourselves and others to the point of not being entirely irresponsible.
Having been home an entire year and canceled all of our spring and summer travel plans, I wanted to make sure our kids got at least some glimpse of the world outside their neighborhood, their family unit, their school-issued iPads. Even if it’s as frivolous as seeing seagulls on the beach, street musicians in New Orleans, and driving a rented golf cart drive through the Christmas-light-covered ironwork and magnolia trees of the American South. The world still exists, even if we can’t participate in it in quite the same way.
And for me, running wild across the bridge and only stopping to yell at a tugboat to sound its horn in a Merry Christmas salute, I haven’t felt this unburdened all year. For a moment the 25-hour round trip feels worth it. To quote an ancient proverb, never underestimate the wanderlust of the landlocked water sign, the spirit of renewal, the miracle of rebirth.
Looking back through my photos from 2020, I spent a lot of time playing disc golf. This is no surprise to anyone who knows me. Once I’m free of work or family responsibilities for an hour or more, my preferred way to get some fresh air is by walking through trees and parks, hurling brightly colored plastic discs at aluminum baskets along the way. And since this year was one of working at home, needing to keep distance from others, and seeking to balance the mental insanity of checking news with more restorative pursuits, disc golf took on an even larger role in my staying-sane-and-healthy regimen.
Mostly I went to Rosedale, the sprawling park in Kansas City, Kansas, that features an expansive “up top” course in the main park and also a densely wooded “down under” course along the urban hillside. You have great views of downtown, wide open fields, and this year, a lot of helicopter traffic heading to nearby KU Medical Center. My love of Rosedale is also no secret, and it’s an easy place to meet friends or my brother David for a quick round. At one point in the spring I played a quick round over lunch break almost every weekday.
But I did my best to branch out as well, and this post will be a quick tour of 10 other courses I was able to visit and explore this year, almost all of which are within striking distance of the Kansas City area.
Disc Golf “Course” is an imperfect term, as it implies something manicured and finite, while in many cases a course is just a bunch of baskets and tee pads arranged in a forest setting. This was definitely the case for Longview Disc Golf Course in Lake Perry State Park, a well organized course where you will likely see more deer than humans. Lakes (or technically, reservoirs) in Kansas are strange places, resembling lakes anywhere except they are often only around 50 years old, so you get a feeling of being in an old-growth forest while knowing it was likely just fields or farmland a hundred years ago. Doesn’t matter as long as you turn your phone off and are able to tune out the world for an hour or two.
Cedar Ridge Disc Golf Course in Bonner Springs, Kansas, provides a similar experience, though not as expansive or isolated as Lake Perry. The throws are short and ace-able, the course filled with pine, cedar, and oak trees and a large pond at the center of the course.
Cliff Drive Disc Golf Course at Kessler Park is a mix of city and wilderness, snaking along the cliffs and valleys of one of the city’s most scenic roads. I like to play on weekends when the road is open to pedestrians only, though often I abandon playing disc and just take up one of the hiking trails instead. I haven’t had any problems but have run across some sketchy actors here and there, so I’d recommend not going alone on your first visit.
Waterworks Park, just north of downtown KCMO on North Oak Trafficway, has the most brilliant views of downtown. I like to go just at sunset, or in the fall, when the massive sycamores and oak trees are turning. I played here on Monday, Nov. 3, the day before the election, and probably the most optimistic I felt all year, knowing in the back of my mind how messy things were likely to get but choosing to remain naively positive. Walking out onto the green of hole 14 at night (I play with little blinking LED lights taped on the bottom of my discs) is highly cinematic. You’re headed straight toward a large water tower, with the small biplanes and commercial aircraft flying directly overhead into the Downtown Airport in the river valley below. As you get closer to the basket the lights of downtown come into view. If I was a film director looking to capture a unique night scene in Kansas City, I would definitely scope out this location.
Shawnee Mission Park is nice, too. It gets busy on the weekends but is a great place to play at sunset. With tall grasses, high winds, and lone trees dotting the course, it has much more of a wild, Kansas feel than the aforementioned KCMO parks. Though often by the time I drive all that way I opt for a longer outdoor excursion and walk the red and orange hiking the trails instead.
Other parks I played this year include some further afield. In far Western Kansas, the little 9-hole course at Historic Scott Lake is among the most scenic, arid, and unusual. I love the sign warning park visitors to look out for flying discs. It almost looks like code for keeping your eyes open for UFOs. Kansas may be the center of the country, but considering how far it would take for people from coastal capitals (and even Kansas City) to reach this particular spot, it may as well be the end of the world.
In Frisco, Colorado, Doozie and I played the Peak One Disc Golf Course, situated along the shores of the Lake Dillon Reservoir and with surrounding views of the mountains. An extra bonus here is the benches made from old ski lifts.
And at Shepard State Park in Gautier, Mississippi, I found an interesting and experimental placement of baskets along the bayou, including some right by the water and others placed up on five-foot poles. (If you get tired of disc, the park also offers an archery target range).
Other courses I enjoyed include Paradise Point at Smithville Lake, which is actually three courses, all hugging the lake at different points. Though I definitely chose biking in favor of disc in my 2020 visits to this park. Also the newly expanded McLelland Park courses in Joplin, Missouri, set along a scenic hillside in this gateway to the Ozarks (just try to go when the nearby police shooting range is not in session or it will seriously harsh your mellow).
And of course my favorite or at least most accessible course of all, my own backyard.
Happy disc-ing and see you on the course in 2021. Played my first round yesterday, in fact. A bit cold, but had it all to myself.
Rob’s paintings. Much will be made of the subject matter, the fires. That’s fine. It’s hard not to feel the heat emanating from those canvases, the same heat curdling the headlines. But these paintings are evocative of the times beyond the contents. The sight of fires and damage is not just depicted in the paintings, it’s a component of the technique. On first glance the pool is swiped with painterly’ “noise,” a la Richter, but the impression it leaves on the viewer is that of a scar. For someone who has seen Rob paint these scenes for nearly a decade, it’s jarring, like seeing an old friend or family member emerge from a health crisis with a from-this-point-on-distinguishing scar. It’s how they look now. How we all look in 2020, and certainly after. So hard to believe we’re still in it, but not in the small room where Rob’s paintings are displayed. It’s the most intimate public space I’ve been in in months. If Rob’s pieces have been critiqued as a reflection of privilege, a claim that may or may not have merit or be immaterial, he also shows that these objects are not immune to erosion, decay, or even complete destruction. Rob’s paintings have always existed in their own plane, so it’s striking to see them altered, to see that this plane is also subject to the same rules of physics as our real-world landmarks. Not because it’s such a foreign experience, but because it’s so recognizable. We are all scarred by this year, we recognize our own crises and traumas in these pigments. The artist depicts but does not judge, our damage is safely contained within the contemplation of each scene, which in other circumstances or conditions might be beautiful. But that is not the timeline we were given. So here we are, huddled apart for warmth, scared and shaken but also beginning to suspect that we can survive/”overlive” the gray months as long as fireworks of color like these adorn the walls of the gallery, and even in our darkest moments, continue to exist and shine and even thrive.
– my published comments on “There in Spirit,” a recent exhibition by my friend and favorite painter, Robert Bingaman. The paintings were on display until just recently at Haw Contemporary. You can check out the rest of the series and his personal reflections on the subject matter at his website.
My son played in his first piano recital last Sunday. It was Halloween themed, the teacher rewarded the participants with candy and “orbs,” or a paper mache pinata painted up like a spooky head. Emil chose to dress as a ghost, a white frayed and fringed sheet worn in two parts, a frock and a mask. His mom warned him that he should take off the mask while playing, otherwise he might not be able to see the sheet music. I knew he had memorized the piece, though, so I supported him leaving it on, which he did. It also seemed important to him to stay in character. He did a bang-up job, plunking out the piece’s spooky, staccato rhythms, his legs swaying in rhythm below the piano bench because they were too short to reach the ground. Afterwards we took a picture with his teacher with his mask off, the bottom half of the costume looking like a frayed acolyte’s robe. I felt a bit bad for my parents, who were also in attendance, sitting a safe several rows behind us, because this is the closest they are likely to see their son get to a first communion. Still, it suits us. Our little nontraditional family unit. Instead of sacred rites and holy water and incense, before this altar stood an older piano teacher and her young student, side by side and smiling after a wildly successful rendition of “The Ghost Who Couldn’t Say Boo.”
letter to Don Iguanadon / circa 2015, CSF Studios, KCMO
Recently I revisited the Rozarks, one of my favorite places in the city, which I thought had been destroyed but in fact is still—at least partially—intact. I hadn’t been there in years. Not since Earth Day 2017, when I arrived and saw a large swath of trees had been clear-cut, an entire hillside grove leveled for a new power substation, an act that seemed unconscionable and yet which, as a user of electricity, I also felt complicit in. But last week Neal reminded me that the trails were still there, and the main intact portion at least I should revisit, especially this time of year when everything is green and yellow and not yet deep orange or brown.
While on my walk I decided to put on my blue surgical mask for some reason, even though there was no one around. A few moments later, a couple deer—I would guess a mother and a fawn—appeared on the path. Instead of running away, they walked toward me, looking at me curiously. Maybe with my mask on they did not perceive me as a human danger, but as a less harmful animal. Or maybe they were just bold, reckless city deer. Eventually they heard a small animal moving in the brush and wandered off.
These trails have been used by Rosedalians for generations, as shortcuts to school, dogwalking routes, a refuge for crazies, motorbikers, teenagers, or dads who want to smoke or birdwatch, the way we pass the time in the Dale. The hill overlooks Southwest Boulevard, the diagonal thoroughfare of Mexican restaurants, like the nearby red lights of Sol Azteca, Sabor y Sol, Bohemio, all of which are the same place except at different eras. The first place I went after we found out we were going to have a kid, the place we returned to a few years later with a kid who knocked over my massive Coca-Cola.
The Boulevard, too, used to flood. Turkey Creek would rise up every so often from its banks, just look at the pictures from 1951. The smaller streams that feed it are mostly buried now, which I know because at a spot in the Rozarks you can hear the water trickling beneath the sewer grates, right along the powerline path. Tamed but the forces live on.
While in the Rozarks you can see the sunset on mild days in winter, see the trains pass, the traffic headed out from downtown, where you should probably still be working, but you took off early, and by this point you’ve been “off” for so long you can’t remember when you last went to the city. Still working at home, in your basement, or on your phone, on the trail, in your waking dreams, exhausted. Now you need more than a break. You need a new path forward.
I’m glad these trails still exist. That the woods are still here. The colors. The sounds, of birds and insects, planes and traffic, a few other families, dogwalkers, a couple. Signs of life ahead of a long winter. We’re going to need every bit of light we can find.
As for the doe and the fawn, I’ll never know exactly why they approached me instead of darting into the woods like usual. But I very much appreciate that they did.
In the playoff baseball game, the DJ plays “every body clap your hands,” which is ridiculous since there are no people in the stands. The baseball stadium in Taiwan is filled with onlookers, except they are made of cardboard. The crowd goes wild at the football game, but it’s just some guy pushing buttons on a keyboard. The COVID-era adaptations in professional sports are stark and strange, but you can see them at the little league level as well. In my daughter’s soccer games, instead of lining up at the end of the game to give the other team fives and then run through the parent tunnel (in which all of us form a pyramid with our arms for the kids to run through, a joy that seems to instantly make them forget the pain of losing) the girls face the other team from their spot on the sideline and clap appreciatively from a distance. Makes sense, of course. But strange to see. And it’s hard for me to imagine the indignities of losing or the thrill of winning in youth soccer without having to face our opponents up close, to touch the hands of the other team, limp and sticky with orange slices and sweat, imagining briefly what it would have been like to grow up in a different neighborhood and have a totally different set of friends and teammates and parents cheering you on. Maybe next year, or at some point in the future, those traditions will return. But for now, no more “good games.” A small thing, but a strange one to do without.
Voyage twenty twenty / The greenhouse gases have escaped and it’s far too late for irony / Father, you rested your convictions / like fine china / on the collapsing coastal shelf / The countess sits on the lounge chair / frying in the sunlight / She counts flying sheep and dreams / of what’s on the other side of the hotel ivy / The ghost of the cactus wears a brimmed hat / adorned with arsenic and phoenix feathers / We are febrile and flightless / in the land of plenty / The countries part ways / with themselves and with each other / We make cheesecake and place our faith / in the children we neglected to empower / We have been burned and won’t give up / But right now I want to shrink to the size of a seed pod / float on a cocktail umbrella / across the evaporating water table / tap dance along the eroded high road / over the fault line tablecloth / Like we can really love / Like we really knew / what it means to love
A poem reconstructed from semi-legible rainstained sharpie on a folded office envelope, located in the trunk of my now defunct Saturn when I cleaned it out the final time January 2020. The line about irony is a quote from Robert Montgomery, spoken during our many rounds of cognac at the Chateau Marmont last December, the last time I flew anywhere. The line about love is paraphrased from Neil Young.
Lately I have been trying to remember the good times just before everything stopped. One example is The Freedom Affair’s video shoot on the 5th floor of an old warehouse building in the West Bottoms, a small live audience on hand including me, Elvis, and Kimberly. It was the last concert I saw before the shutdown. The Freedom Affair is one of the finest soul bands this city has ever seen, at least in my lifetime. That Sunday night they were performing several original songs with strings, strong drinks being sold for a couple bucks each, video cameras and couches on set, a requested muted color dress code. They performed each song two or three times, but we could have listened twice more and never gotten bored. The band’s members reflect the diversity, talent, and heart in the community (just check out this new video for “Give A Little Love” and the lyrics dig into a variety of social issues. Their soul and positivity is contagious. You can see and listen for yourself below. If you like soul/jazz/funk music an miss going to concerts, I can almost guarantee it will lift your spirits.
TFA’s debut album, Freedom is Love, can be purchased/streamed here.
The other day I lost six months’ worth of voice memos. They disappeared when my phone broke and couldn’t be properly restored. Notes to self, stories I was composing on the spot and planned to transcribe later, impromptu interviews with the kids, scraps of music, fleeting jam sessions, things I don’t even want to think about now that they are gone.
For a long time I have defended having a smartphone even though I experience its mentally deleterious and socially distracting effects every day. It can be a tool for creativity! I tell myself optimistically. A camera, a tape recorder, a note-taking machine. But then I wind up losing the exact materials I wanted to preserve.
One of those memos I recorded one night while nearly asleep, a moment of clarity and calm in which my sense of purpose and beliefs about life became so clear to me that I reached over to the phone to record them, dictating in a whisper so as not to disturb my sleeping family. In a rare act of categorization, I labeled the file “Whispered Truths.”
I felt comforted knowing the voice memo was there, but I didn’t go back to listen to it. What was on the recording? I will never know. Any truths uncovered in that moment will have to be rediscovered elsewhere or remain forever just below the surface. Past experience tells me I am not missing out on much, that any “truths” contained are likely intrinsic and only felt like revelations in the faux profundity of half-sleep.
On the other hand, my favorite part of “Kubla Khan” is the part Coleridge couldn’t remember, and what I actually succeed in transcribing almost never compares to what I had in my head once but can never recover.
So here’s to the eventual arrival of new ideas, to less digital dependence, to more reliable systems of channeling creativity and harnessing the unreliable mystic. If I am successful with any of these efforts I promise to post about them here, likely using my old-school computer rather than my double-edged smartphone. But right now it’s late and I must go to sleep. Who knows what truths may visit?
Konnor Ervin and his friends in local bands ACBs, Fullbloods, and Shy Boys — whose debut LP for me will always be the sound of a certain KC time and place — are a group of incredibly talented musicians and songwriters who switch instruments and songwriting credits almost interchangeably. They have their own sound, their own nicknames, their own senses of humor, simultaneously esoteric and inclusive. My good friend Mike Nolte has run several of their recording sessions, so I got to drop by the studio a few times to check out the progress and listen to rough mixes, careful not to stick around too long.
On occasional group hangs I always asked Konner to play one song in particular, a super catchy number with a sunshiny chorus that I think started as “ooh, Diane” and later morphed into “Glue Diet” on the woozy finished mix. I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of his solo album. So when I saw his Instagram post earlier this summer announcing the record release, nearly five years after the initial recording sessions, I immediately decided to write about it for the local magazine of record.
In spite of not being able to tour, Koney and friends have maintained a steady slate of record releases. Ross’s latest Fullbloods album is also a 2020 favorite, as is the newest STRFKR album, which Ross produced and Shy Boys sang on. Shy Boys’ newest offering came out a few weeks ago on Polyvinyl recordings. Any live shows or tour are obviously still a long way off, but in the meantime this talented group of friends is giving us a lot to listen and has made my own 2020 much more bearable.
It is almost midnight on April 23, one month after Kansas City’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. At least I think it’s been one month. Time right now is filled with strange air pockets and dead weight, each week its own weird season.
Still, it’s hard to believe we’re only one flip of the calendar from that fateful week when basketball was canceled and our offices closed until further notice, the downtown Kansas City streets empty except for a few bewildered Big 12 fans aimlessly riding the streetcar.
After work that Friday March 13th, I paid a visit to Caravaggio’s John The Baptist in the Wilderness the day before the Nelson-Atkins Museum closed. I wanted to consult with someone who had been around for centuries and had seen it all before. John looked radiant that afternoon, impossibly young, all shadow and light. But instead of offering comfort or counsel, he just stared at the floor, lost in his own troubles.
That night I met my friend Dave at Grünauer, where I drank several steins of Stiegel Goldbräu beer, suspecting that restaurants, too, would likely be closing soon. It felt like the last night of socializing for who knows how long. “You know, if the world needs to take a time out for a while, I think that’s all right,” Dave said.
But the peaceful notion of a “time out” and the panicked reality of a pandemic are two different things. The first time I went to the grocery store, I almost cried. It felt like such a slow motion waking nightmare. Masked customers seeing you at the other end of the aisle and immediately steering their cart in the opposite direction. The impossibly vulnerable cashiers, risking their lives by doing their jobs, performing an essential service on an hourly wage.
There are other worries. Worry for friends, family, doctors and nurses, first responders. For all the local businesses that began announcing they were closing, first voluntarily, then by city order. For all the people losing their jobs. Worry that I will get sick myself and start “shedding virus,” any public outing or shortness of breath leading to pensive moments at the kitchen counter with a thermometer in my mouth.
In some ways it reminds me of the deadly tornado that struck my wife’s hometown of Joplin in 2011. Some people’s homes were destroyed, others remained intact. Not everyone survived and no one who lived through it would forget. After the initial shock passes, the realization sets in that nothing will ever be the same. But what that will look like nobody knows yet.
Like you, I read a lot of news. If you scroll far enough, you start to feel like you are falling. The words begin to blur and just the images remain: the terrifying roller coaster climb of infection rate graphs. The pathos of a playground spring horse wrapped in yellow caution tape. Pictures of statues wearing masks — clever at first, though pretty soon the statues themselves begin to look weary of being used as props.
“The virus doesn’t recognize borders,” public health officials remind us, leading me to picture a fuzzy, bug-eyed virus ball disguised in a trench coat and traveling without a passport, sneaking past border police at the speed of a sneeze. And every time I see one of those graphics that makes coronavirus look like a spiky chew toy, I want to grab a tennis racket and slap it into oblivion. If only it were that simple.
I worry about the country. The spats between different levels of government feels like watching your parents arguing while the house is burning down. “Are we watching a superpower implode?” asks German magazine Der Spiegel, and though they’ve been writing that same headlines since 9/11, it does feel like we’re at a tipping point. Are we going to place our faith in science and public policy, or light torches and set cell towers on fire? Will we protect our elections, or send those we disagree with out to vote in the middle of a pandemic? These are not hypothetical questions.
Home life, on the other hand, is an oasis of imagination and play. Our situation is a privileged one. My wife and I are able to do most work from home. Our kids do lessons on school-issued iPads and then practice the piano. Inspired by Harry Potter, they conduct “flying lessons” for their stuffed animals. On rainy days they set up Rube Goldberg-esque “obstacle courses” involving dominoes, marbles, light switches, and copious amounts of scotch tape. Eventually the stuffed animals graduate flying school and open their own hotel, adorned with inexplicable handwritten signs like “Party Camels only alowd.”
Life right now feels full of contradictions. I am grateful to have a job, though at times I find it hard to picture ever setting foot in an office again. I am happy to be eating healthy, but fall asleep dreaming of Hana’s donuts. I am fascinated by the fact that we are living through an unprecedented time in history, and I desperately want life to go back to normal.
I am trying to stay present. That is not a new challenge, but it feels magnified now. “So what’s your story today?” Todd messaged me one morning while trying to arrange a phone call. I never closed out the chat window, so each morning when I sign on to email the question pops back up, still bulleted in green. “So what’s your story today? is probably the closest thing I have to a mantra.
Lately sitting on my back porch and bird-listening has become my favorite pastime. I recently read that people have been doing web searches asking “why are the birds louder now?” The answers explain that it’s as a result of the sudden quieting of our cities. But I like the notion that the birds are getting bolder, that they sense an advantage in the species and are now chirping with confidence and singing with impunity. It’s the kind of thing you want to cheer on.
I ride my bike around the neighborhood, collecting images as I go. The painted banners in front doors reminding us to “stay strong KC.” The unicorn piñata that dangled from a nearby oak tree for over a month, surviving frost, hail, and multiple thunderstorms, never surrendering its smile. Red tree blossoms carpeting the street at night after a heavy rain. New parents out for a stroll, looking perplexed. An elderly woman wearing a mask and riding to Wal-Mart on a very slow motorcycle.
I read meaning into signs that are probably not there. The black trash barrel in the park with “COVID-19” spray-painted on the side is ostensibly a warning to stay home, but it looks like gang graffiti from the 19th Street Covids, a shitty gang that terrorizes old people and keeps kids home from school. A friend sends a “save the date” postcard but forgets to include the wedding date, just the address of an event venue and “five o’clock in the evening.” Instead of a mistake, I prefer to view it as a statement of determination to celebrate whenever it’s possible to safely do so again. And the Community America billboard featuring a smiling Patrick Mahomes and the slogan “We’re Just Getting Started” has taken on an ominous new meaning. But I love that people are displaying the “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign as a profile message, devoid of any alteration or irony.
Without sports, shopping, concerts, or social events, I mostly turn to music. Making coffee and blasting Joy Division’s “Isolation,” which is more uplifting than it sounds. Playing trap remixes of the Caillou and Peppa Pig theme songs to amuse the kids. Grilling burgers while listening to Magic Sam. Lying on the floor listening to Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” before the kids go to bed. Listening to Low’s “Silver Rider” on a sleepless night, pondering the question of God.
Music also connects me with friends and with the city. Instead of an album release concert on April 3, Kansas City group Fullbloods (the mostly solo project of Ross Brown) hosts a live streaming event during which we chime in via chat and he narrates moments of doubt and inspiration behind the songs. It lacks the sensory impressions of a live show, but somehow all of us sitting at home listening on our headphones feels no less intimate.
My favorite anthem of hope during this time is KC native Kevin Morby’s “Congratulations” from his newest album, Oh My God. Congratulations / You have survived / Oh, you stayed alive / This life is a killer / But, oh, what a riot / Just to wake up each morning / Just to open your eyes. It sounds like a triumphant message from the future, the kind of thing you can’t wait to play at a party for all your friends once this whole thing is over.
Though who knows when that will be. Driving down I-35 one night, I see that the Mahomes billboard has been replaced by a picture of the skyline with the words “This is our 3rd-and-15,” a reference to Super Bowl LIV’s pivotal play. But as much as the crowd loves a hail mary touchdown-cure, the only clear play call in this situation is a months-long timeout. So in a world in which leadership is lacking and sports metaphors fall short, what do we do?
My short list: Stay home. Wear masks. Donate. Reach out. Listen to the experts. Stay balanced, no matter how much things continue to shift. Recognize that there is only so much you can control. Take things one day at a time, accepting that some days will be better than others. Keep on living as much as possible. Don’t kill yourself worrying about things that haven’t happened yet.
I try to take joy where I can, calling friends or setting up Zoom calls even if they quickly devolve into contests of who can create the weirdest background. I hug my children close and try not to lose patience. I find it can help to get a bit drunk, but not too drunk, and not too often.
I am curious how you are dealing with things, too. Each day I see entertaining videos, livestreamed music, improvised meals, rambling hikes, autobiographical comics. I hear people discussing new habits, things they are ready to leave behind, the ways they are beginning to imagine living differently in the future. At a time of relative confinement, I am curious what new spaces are opening up for people mentally, creatively, and spiritually.
While the most important thing right now is to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, it also feels like an opportunity to consider what changes we’d like to see in ourselves and in society. And as we experience those changes on an individual and family level, the world will begin to shift as well. The micro becomes the macro.
For now, with the traditional calendar exerting less pressure than usual, we are free to assign the days and weeks their own unique identities. The Night of the Pink Moon. The week of Ruby’s Birthday. The Weekend of the Tent, which we set up in the backyard in late March, stuffing it with sleeping bags, coloring books, and a cot, thereby creating an oasis for naps, reading poetry, and listening to the wind.
I would like to close with a short poem by Alejandra Pizarnik that I read that week, knowing full well that no lines of verse can make a sick person well, or a loved one get their job back, or a city burst full of life and commerce again. But words can affect the way we feel, think, and deal with reality, and it is in this spirit that I share this entire lengthy message and these short closing lines:
though it’s late, though it’s night,
And you are not able.
sing as if nothing were wrong.
nothing is wrong.
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
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.
by Tyler Lockett
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
by Greta Bellamacina
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
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
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
Patrick 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!
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.
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.
* * *
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?
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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 moral 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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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?
* * *
“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.
* * *
I was not expecting your explicit text, which caused me all kinds of anguish as I tried to decide what not to do. The moral imperative was clear, but that made it no less disappointing to say no to your faux proximity, your hot tub temperatures, your trick photography, your disregard for consequences. And of course the grand promise of Historical Mistress, the kind all biography junkies grow up believing they must have at least one of. Only this affair was over before it began, dream crushed by dreamcrush. I suppose we will always have tomorrow. And perhaps only tomorrow. But for now, please please disappear!
* * *
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)
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”
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
(image courtesy of @brrinvestigators)
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.
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.
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
Why do I mute it?
drown it out?
why don’t I listen