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?

 

America in 2018: Where do we go next?

As many of you know, I was not happy about the results of the 2016 presidential election in my country. “Not happy” is an understatement. “Extreme sense of dread” is more like it. So far this year I’ve written a few columns, blog posts and shared the link to the full album of Funkadelic’s “America Eats it Young” and trusted that people would just get it. But today I’d rather speak directly about what’s going on in America.

I am very concerned about who we are as a nation, and where we go next.

Never in my life did I expect to see a reverse Kindertransport in my home country.

For those who did not study WWII, that’s the network of transporting children to England and in some cases, North America, an underground railroad of sorts for the young European (mostly Jewish) emigres and refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Many of them never saw their parents again. One of my favorite books, W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz,” covers this subject from the perspective of one of the children.

I never thought I’d see official government video of asylum seekers in this country detained in an old Wal-Mart. If someone had told me that was possible, I’d have laughed it off as overwrought dystopian fiction, something George Saunders might have written and then discarded. But here we are. Land of low prices, low value for human life, as long as those living it look different than us.

(On a side note, in light of what’s happening on our southern border right now, is anyone willing to vouch for the humanity of our foreign policy in countries mostly hidden from our daily media diet?)

I keep wondering what stories those children will grow up to tell, where they will tell them, and who they will tell them to.

Our elected leaders and their selective mouthpieces will cite all kinds of verses and statutes to uphold the legality of what they are doing, and in may cases, they will succeed in convincing today’s audiences that it’s all above board. But historical witness may not be so kind, or so easily fooled.

The main thing my German-born history teacher emphasized to me was how all of the entire process of the Holocaust was technically legal, done incrementally, carefully and skillfully by Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels (just read a few of these quotes see if anything sounds familiar).

Things are super messed-up here now, largely because we’ve gotten so jaded, disaffected or beaten-down to where what used to be scandalous is now just cynically accepted.

The governor of Missouri (where I work) resigned last month following credible allegations of sexual assault, but the pressure to step down didn’t really arrive until we was being forced to disclose his list of secret donors.

The leading candidate for governor of Kansas (where I live), who rode in a children’s parade last month in an American flag-wrapped jeep mounted with a massive machine gun replica, just got censured by a federal judge for his successful but illegal efforts to bar tens of thousands of people from voting in the last election. He could easily still win.

None of this is normal, and none of this is OK.

I’ve lost my temper with some about these things (my dad and I on the birther issue back in 2012) and silently fumed about those around me who I know voted Republican (How can they claim to support schools when those they elect cut their funding every year? How can they hug their kids without thinking of those forcibly separated from their parents? How am I any better if I sit by and do nothing?)

I’m not going to convince a hard-headed MAGA Twitter user of the error of his ways, but I can quietly but clearly urge my Republican-leaning family members and neighbors to look at what’s happening and consider not supporting these people again, even if it means voting outside their usual party lines. And if the leaders I help elect begin violating human rights, I’ll vote differently next time as well. (update: I’ve had a few friends and not-friends point out how many of Obama’s policies helped make this possible, even if he didn’t actually enforce the same “zero tolerance” policies — And they’re right, I should have been paying more attention).

We also have a choice to choose constructive speech — and constructive thinking — over destructive speech and not-thinking.

Destructive speech tears down, seeks to obfuscate, misleads, accuses, presents false choices (such as either “zero tolerance” or “total lawlessness”).

Constructive speech gives. It seeks to build an understanding, including those that take years to develop. It may challenge or pointedly inquire, but it does so in the spirit of inquiry, understanding, and growth

People are smart enough recognize the difference, and even in a time when it’s tempting to adapt the syntax of anger and constructive speech, we have a choice to speak positively, about who we are as a people and how we should treat others.

And I know talk itself is cheap, but speaking out with purpose — on our own behalf as a nation and on behalf of those without voices — is still worth something.

I’m not going to stop trying to connect with those who may have voted differently than me, but whom I believe want the same level of decency and humanity for themselves and for others. And I won’t stop listening to those who are actually experiencing suffering, and not just a sense of dread and unease.

I think the only way we win this is with heart, by not losing our own as a nation, by recognizing where we have been cold-hearted in the past and seeking to elect good, smart, humane people who represent our better principles.

Even if America may never have really been the beacon of hope, security and opportunity that I was raised to believe it was, these are ideals that should not be so carelessly thrown away.

America, we need to be better than this.

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

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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The sun may be setting on this site. I’m not sure yet. I’m still writing, still busy, still enjoying life. But I don’t want to spend much more time in the shifting sands of WordPress, which in addition to adding video ads seems to have stripped the formatting and sidebars in the most recent update. You get what you pay for, I guess. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch by email, or phone, or by saying hello.

praise and prose for ‘Until It’s All You See’

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A few months ago, my good friend Robert Bingaman asked if I would be interested in writing something for his upcoming painting show at Studios Inc. He told me to just come by the studio once in a while to observe and chat, and we’d take it from there. We spent the following weeks talking about art, watching the World Series, playing ping pong and working on our respective projects. On the day of the parade, I sent Rob a text expressing my uncertainty about how to approach the project. He replied:

Don’t beat yourself up. This is all about doing something good and worth doing and beyond our grasp and beyond our ability to always succeed or find it. Trust the process.

I wound up writing an essay about the exhibit, and also made 100 prints of the prose poem above. I’m not sure I pulled it off, but I learned a lot in the process, and I’m happy Robert took me along for the ride. If you get the chance to visit the exhibit or check it out online, I encourage you to do so.

“Until It’s All You See” is on display at the Studios Inc exhibit space at 1708 Campbell through Dec. 18. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday,  10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed from noon to 1 p.m.) and Saturday from. noon to 4 p.m.

The Subways of Kansas City

It was a stormy Sunday night and I was out too late, hours later than I meant to be. Nothing had been open for hours, but I’d managed to drink and drug my way into the early morning. I didn’t want to call a taxi and there was no one I could ask for a ride, at least not without angering or embarrassing my family. I’d fallen asleep on a bus or something and didn’t know where I was in the city except that it was far from home. The late hour and the impending storm had all but cleared the streets, so I decided to look underground. Surely there was a subway line that could get me close to where I needed to go. I found a cellar door with a stairwell that led into a station, which was almost pitch black. It looked like a service depot, with hardly any signage except for a dusty electronic ticket booth which I swiped my debit card on and which spit out a ticket from a dot-matrix printer with perforated margins. The ticket cost me $16.17, but the route numbers listed on the ticket were unfamiliar. I looked at a map on the wall, but it appeared to be of an island, and everything was in German. The stops along the route were neighborhoods or municipalities I had never heard of before, including one — possibly the station I was at — called Abaddon. I saw no other passengers, and on the tracks different trains went by without stopping. Box cars, wooden crates, steel rail cars with no engines attached. I walked to the far end of the platform where a man behind a murky bulletproof glass window offered to help. I showed him my ticket, which he collected under the counter and looked at with confusion, shaking his head. He sold me a new ticket for $7 and asked where I needed to go. I felt foolish asking for help since I had never seen a subway station anywhere near my house before, or anywhere in the city for that matter (except of course the Amtrak station downtown, and this was clearly something much older, more surreal and subterranean than our nation’s official subsidized rail service). But when I told him I needed to get to Westwood, he nodded and pointed to a stop on the line that would let me out at Southwest Boulevard, a low-lying urban thoroughfare near the railroad tracks. The train should be down there in just a few minutes, he said, nodding toward the dark end of the platform. Would there be a sign? I asked. No, but you will see the other passengers. A minute later, an engine with a single cattle car attached pulled up, but no one else was on the train or waiting to board. It slowed down long enough for me to jump on, but sped up again before I could make my move. It must have been almost light outside by now, but it was hard to tell since the station did not have any clocks. I began to doubt whether I would ever get home. The other trains and train fragments continued to race past at increasingly faster speeds. A few moments later I was woken up by a particularly loud peal of thunder. The faint smell of soot and axle grease lingered in the morning darkness.

Spring time

Hi friends. I have not posted much in 2015 so I wanted to share a few links to recent projects. My piece, “15 Reasons We Didn’t Respond To Your Email” was included in the summer edition of The Artist Catalogue, based in NYC. Not sure if/when a print version is available, but you can read it in PDF form here. My selection is all the way toward the end but there is a lot of great stuff to look at before you get there.

As part of my inclusion in the Charlotte Street Studio Residency Program, I started an interview series with other artists and writers in the program, called “Pavilionaires” (since most of our studios are in the Town Pavilion building). You can read those here.

And consider coming out on Thursday, May 21 to “Displacement/Thisplacemeant,” a group show curated by Israel Alejandro Garcia Garcia, which opens at Paragraph Gallery (12th st. between Walnut and Main). The opening runs that evening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will be open into early July. I’ll be featuring an installation of typewriters pedestals featuring writing composed on site.

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Thanks for following along the daily posts these pasts 7 weeks or so. I’m still writing each day and wrapping up a few personal projects, but I want to start out 2015 by following up on some interviews and write-ups of other people’s work. Feel free to send me a message in the meantime. Or just check back in later this month. Happy New Year.