Wednesday, September 28, 2005

it's all so fast

I don't think I've ever gotten access so quickly.

Today I met with a person I'd like to write a book about. This means I would be hanging around this person almost daily for more than a year. He didn't even hesitate. Full access. No secrets. Anything I want.

We talked for about an hour and a half, and it's clear he's a great character. I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like him. He defies so many stereotypes. Outspoken. Doesn't mince words. No sacred cows.

He's built up something huge and amazing here in our fair city (or rather, on its outskirts), and he yearns to make it all bigger and more amazing.

It seems so right. I know there's a story here. Really, a matrix of interconnected stories, which is the kind I love to tell. But it's all happening so quickly, it's easy to second guess.

And it's still a bit early for certainty. Now I've got to hang around for a while, find other interesting people associated with this guy, and persuade them to let me in. I have no reason to believe that this will happen as easily.

But still, it's days like this when I love being a journalist. When I feel most at home in my career.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

ylimaf kcalb eht

So, the Black Family was eliminated from the Amazing Race.

This is a conspiracy.

measuring prejudice

I just took the Harvard Implicit Association Test to determine my level of prejudice. It was made famous in Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller Blink.

I did alright:
You have completed the Black-White IAT.
The line immediately below summarizes the results of your task performance.

Your data suggest little to no automatic preference between White American and African American.

I also took the presidential preference test. I had to choose between Reagan and Dubya. (Some choice.) Apparently, I hate Reagan more:
Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for George W. Bush compared to Ronald Reagan.

(Seems about right.)

Lastly, I took the gender test.

Uh oh.

Allie's gonna kill me:
Your data suggest a slight association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts.

Interesting tests. They have a lot of them. I'm a little scared to take them all

Monday, September 26, 2005

the black family

It's always bothered me that reality TV shows and game shows only allow one, maybe two black contestants to participate (to say nothing of Latinos, who almost never get to play). It's so obviously a forced, restrained concession. Like February.

Now comes a new season of The Amazing Race. A family edition, with teams of four. And, of course, there's one black family.

Thing is, their last name is Black.

So when they come on screen, "The Black Family" flashes across the bottom.

Now, I don't mean any disrespect for the Blacks. They worked hard to get on the show, and they deserve to be there, and I, for one, hope they win.

But if there was ever a time to have more blacks on the show, this is it. With the Black Family being the only black family, it feels a lot like a Wayans Brother skit.

good ole joe

I know I'm a little late with this eulogy, but lately I can't stop listening to Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. And I'm not exactly sure why. I usually can't stand late career solo stuff by heroes of yesteryear. And I'm hard pressed to explain what makes Strummer's stuff so special.

In principle, there's not much to it. It's basically just grown-up rock, with some bare-bones drinking music (a little British, a little Irish, a little American) mixed with dub and a bit of world music and just a touch of punk. But I find it to be profoundly beautiful. It's mature and authentic, which is probably why it's tough to pinpoint or describe, because such things are intangible.

Still, it's inspiring. Here's a guy who, in a past life, helped change the landscape of pop culture. Twice. Then in the last years of his life he put out this string of albums that were unremarkable in almost every regard, except that they were profoundly true.

Like so many rockers, he died too young. But, when it comes to creative careers, one can only wish one so full.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


My buddy Joel is a finalist for the 2005 Online Journalism Awards. Way to go Joel!


The writing life comes with severe mood swings. It's something I've struggled with ever since I sold the book. Something cool will happen, like the sale or a favorable response from the editor, and I'll be sky high for a while. Then normal life kicks in and, by contrast, it begins to feel an awful lot like depression. Worse, bona fide bummers happen now and then, and I'm sent reeling.

I think I've always experienced this, it's just always been on a much shorter cycle. Like, when I was working for the Pitch, I always had ups and downs. I'd have a breakthrough on one story, or I'd get a bunch of response on another, and I'd be all high. Then I'd have days and weeks when it seemed like I was just treading water, and I'd get pretty bummed. Difference is, it didn't last long. There, I was riding a high frequency wave, and now I'm trudging down a low, long one.

But there is relief. Today I was feeling like cold putty. I decided to go for a run. While on the run, I put together a few more pieces of a big idea I've been working on since last week. When I got home I had a phone conversation with a key source regarding this idea, and I set up a meeting for tomorrow. Then I e-mailed the idea to Agent Lydia and she replied:
Joe, NOW you're thinking along the right lines. My immediate reaction is great, really like this idea, and think you're the guy to do it.

No need to be in a funk--you have the goods, and you're coming up with great ideas. Do you want to talk about this, or to you want to start working up a proposal? I think this is it.

So the trick now is not to get too high.

Friday, September 23, 2005

low speed chase

Driving home from the dog food store tonight, I heard sirens echo all through my neighborhood. They got louder and louder until I spotted a line of cop cars slowly following an ice cream truck. Apparently, the chase had been winding its way through the neigborhood for some time because as I drove along I noticed people standing out on their front yards trying to figure out what was going on.

I didn't follow the action. There were a whole bunch of cars around me when the parade went by, so I couldn't change lanes. Maybe there'll be something about it on Tony's Kansas City tomorrow


Had a longish chat with Agent Lydia today. She confirmed what I suspected. The proposal isn't quite cooked yet.

Here's the intro:
I've been born again, twice, yet I don't feel any closer to Jesus. I've been baptized two times too: once as a baby, though I didn't hear about it until much later; and once as an adult, in front of a full congregation, dressed in a suit and a tie. Both experiences feel meaningless now. Yet the very failure of my salvation is significant, especially now, as our nation bends to the force of so-called fundamentalist Christian principles. During the most recent presidential election, the victorious party drew momentum and power from a grassroots network that spread deeply through church communities. Afterward, the newspapers and the TV pundits told us that the people had voted with their religion. True or not, it’s clear that, more than ever, the personal is political. Yet in this era when the nation’s moral compass seems so certain, if polarized, I’m drawn to my own story, my family’s story, our three-generation tale of faith and lack of faith, because I’m still unsure —not only of what I believe, but of whether or not one can be American and fundamentally Christian.

This story is an ellipses, a space between the news making moments where belief and political power intertwine. It begins in 1968, the year I was born to a pair of teenagers in northern Indiana, a month after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, taking with him to the grave an entire religious and political movement. It ends with the death of my father, in 1976, near the time when Ronald Reagan gave his seminal speech at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, a moment widely regarded as the flash point for the rise of the Christian right. During the eight years in between a Christian revolution flourished and faded away, and is now almost forgotten. They were “The Jesus People.” The movement grew so large it twice made the cover of Time magazine, and unwittingly formed a foundation for the faith-based political forces that enjoy so much power today. My father could have been the movement's poster child, following the path from drugs to God, taking both to extremes. For my grandparents, my dad’s salvation was bittersweet; they were pleased to see him clean from drugs, of course, but pained by his new faith, which differed so greatly from theirs. The family clashed on several epic occasions because my dad was convinced that his parents and two younger brothers were being led astray by false prophets, that the church had become staid and complacent at a time when Christians ought rise up and evangelize with the commitment and conviction of revolutionaries.

In the accounts of these fights lie lessons, not answers so much as questions to challenge human certainty about the divine. The stories upon which fundamentalism is based are maddeningly vague, open to interpretation and perversion, and my family's stories reveal ways in which this is so. The first eight years of my life marked a time when the nation’s religious calling was uncertain and up for grabs, and my family was living out all the ambiguity and potential. Now, as we gear up for another election where the debate is already being framed narrowly around moral issues, I offer our story as a means of broadening the conversation, of casting new parameters for the debate about the politics of God's will.

She said the whole connection is too forced, and I agree. Like I really have two stories here -- a family memoir, and an amorphous idea about Fundamentalism. And I'm basically too young and inexperienced to write a memoir.

So the plan is to slide all that family stuff into the background, and try to find a more contemporary narrative. All that family stuff can inform the main story. Like, I might want to bring it in at key moments for perspective and such.

So, I guess it's back to square one. Or maybe square three.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

esmie chronicles: good journalism

Baby picture from Esmie Tseng's blog, possibly of her

I've finally listened to KC Currents's interview with Anthony Tao, a reporter at Kansas CIty Chinese Journal, about case of Esmie Tseng. Fascinating piece. In my opinion, Tao offered the best reporting on the situation in his three-part series that began on August 26. Of alll the stories that have been published after the incident (including those posted here), his were the only ones that tried to bring some honor to the life of Shuyi Zhang, who, after all, is the victim.


Alright, here's the deal. I did not go to Marshall, Missouri, tonight to see Claire, and I'm probably going to pull a TKC back-flip on this whole new-direction-take-the-blog-to-another-level thing, because I ain't making any money on it, and it just seems nuts, and, above all, it's not fun.


I'm starting to worry that I'll broke come June, and I just don't have the energy or time to do a lot of work for free. Well, actually, I've been doing nothing but work for free for the past couple of days, in that I'm working on a book proposal I'm starting to have grave doubts about, and writing queries all damn day, and so far getting no bites (duh! I've only been at it a day), but, by June, by God, I'll be coasting on the buck-a-words, just wait and see.

So there. No Claire.

Instead I had dinner on the Plaza with rising political star Marcus Leach, president of UMKC's student government, and we had a good time talking about how stupid local Democrats are. He said, with total confidence, that he could help a virtual unknown beat Sam Graves on a $30,000 campaign. That's better than anything Claire would've said, guaranteed.

Oh, I'll still follow the Claire/Jim Showdown, but it'll be more along the RSS feed line (as in I'll be just another Joe Schmoe Blowhard). And I'll keep a toe in the Esmie story. I've still got some thoughts there.

But I want to go back to just writing random stuff and posting random pictures. So what if I never get four-or-five-figure hits. At least I'll be having fun. And isn't that what this is about?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

esmie chronicles: some research

I think my radar is tweaked toward race and class issues.

In my ongoing investigation of the case of Esmie Tseng, who stands accused of murdering her mother, Shu Yi Zhang, I started a broad search to learn more about how the juvenile justice system works in Kansas. My initial forays into Google were frustrating, so I decided to broaden it to a national search, in hopes of finding someone I could call in, say, Washington, who might know of an expert or activist in Kansas.

And I wound up at this site for Building Blocks for Youth, and they have all these studies about racial disparities in juvenile justice (though they're all based in other places, like Chicago).

One in particular seems apropos of Kansas City: A Tale of Two Jurisdictions: Youth Crime and Detention Rates in Maryland & the District of Columbia.

Looks like I've got some reading to do...

Sunday, September 18, 2005

show-me showdown: advanced aristotle

Here's how it looks to me.

1. Republican Party: A really slick, well-oiled, greedy patronage machine

2. Democratic Party: A totally disheveled, bumbling, greedy patronage machine.

So the question is, what makes the GOP so slick and well-oiled?

When I was looking through Senator Jim's quarterly financial report the other day, I paused for a while on the part where he reported spending $2,750 on software from Aristotle, Inc. My immediate thought was about an article I'd read some time ago in the New Yorker about how campaign managers -- Republican ones in particular -- have become masters at using computer data to pinpoint potential voters. It was fascinating how penetrating these numbers could be. I seem to recall, for instance, that they could determine things like whether or not a particular voter had kids who play soccer, and that this fact would make them more open to, say, a pro-life message. (Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the article archived online.)

This is what I mean by slick and well-oiled. It's like the GOP is a cruelly efficient and profitable private business, driven by no-nonsense economic algorithms, while the Dem Party is a cruelly inefficient and profit-less government agency, driven by whatever it is that drives (or parks) government workers (too many of them, anyway).

I checked out Aristotle Inc's website, half expecting to find hints that it's a right-leaning operation. But they're openly proud of being nonpartisan. They also brag that:
Aristotle customers had a 92% win rate, raised nearly twice as much money as non-customers, and were able to turn out voters 47% more effectively.

So what does this mean if I find mention of Aristotle Inc. in Claire's financial reports?

Mostly, though, I want to know more about this software, see it in action, correlate it to real-life stories. Once I get a few questions in mind, I'll give the Aristotle Inc. folks a call.

At risk of getting no responses, I ask you: Is there anything you want to know about the contemporary, digital political campaign? How computer software fuels (so-called) democracy?

As always, you're welcome to post comments, and I'll get busy hunting down some answers...

arm chair editor

You may have noticed a few whispers here and there on this blog lately about my desire to change things up. And if you're a regular reader you've no doubt noticed less of the random musings and more serialized entries tracking a couple of stories. (Three, actually, now that I've started a thread about my adventures as a new inner-city debate coach.) I know the start-up is a bit slow. New stories usually are, but I'm fairly confident that the stories will get a lot more interesting the more I dig.

Anyway, now I want to start another thread, called, as you can see in the bold type up above, "New New Journalism Journal." And what I have in mind here is a running account of me feeling my way through blogging and journalism, and trying to figure out where the two meet, or not.

Honestly, I'm not yet totally sure what will go in this thread, except for this "Armchair editor" idea I have. And basically it's just a weekly check in, like the kind I had with my editor back when I had a steady job, where I'd get a sense of where I am in the various stories I was working on and, most importantly, I'd find out where my editor wanted me to go.

But in this case, you're the editor.

Sounds hokey, I know. Blame Rupert Murdoch. I caught one of his speeches on C-SPAN where he said the new generation of information consumers resent the God-like perspective of newspapers and TV news. They (we) want more control.

So, here I am, digging into these stories that I find interesting, and that you do too, presumably (otherwise you wouldn't be reading them). So why not pick your brain about where I ought to head?

OK then.

On the Esmie front, what I have in mind for the coming week is to make some early stabs at trying to understand the justice system Esmie finds herself at the mercy of. I want to know how often juveniles are tried as adults, and under what circumstances. I also want to find out if, or in what ways, these numbers are distributed demographically. Meaning: are poor or minority kids more likely to be tried as adults? And, if I have time, I might do a little comparing between wealthy Johnson County and poorer Kansas City, Kansas, or KCMO (actually, I already have a bit of a line on this).

The other thing I could do is go back. As I've mentioned, I saved all of Esmie's blog entries before they were taken offline. I could start to piece together a story out of those.

What would you like to see?

For the Senate race in Missouri, I'm seeing all kinds of paths open up. As I said earlier, I want to know more about how Senator Jim and his Republican pals use technology to get power. I want to know more about this E-85 stuff, and Senator Jim's drive for more ethanol.

And, of course, I want to know more about Claire -- a lot more, and to that end I'll be going to an event she's hosting in the boonies later this week. If I get a chance, what should I ask her? Any burning curiousness out there?

I'm also fairly well connected in the local political scene, which is overwhelmingly Democrat, so I aim get a better sense of how she fits in with the local machine(s) -- and I have no doubt that she is. I had an interesting talk last week, for instance, with a local insider friend, and I learned there's a sizable political rift between the black and Hispanic community. This could have serious implications on the race because it threatens to break up a potential base for Claire. And I heard similar rumors about weakening union support for Democrats like her.

Do any of these leads interest you more than others? Or is there something else I'm missing that'd be fun to investigate?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

debate diary: teacher's pet

On Thursday, I met with the teachers at De La Salle Education Center, to fill them in on my plan to start a debate program there. We gathered in the library. I was pleased to see that more than a few of them were white, somewhat old and, by all appearances, not particularly cool. Pleased because I've really been stressing about whether or not I'll able to connect with the kids. So when I saw all these old white people fairly nicely, I though a'ight, a'ight.

What was cool about the meeting was that there seemed to be no concer whatsoever about decorum and protocal. It was decidedly unbureaucratic. Which is why I chose to approach De La Salle about starting this thing. I steared clear of Kansas City School District schools because I know that it's entirely bureaucratic, that protocol and hierarchies and protection of the system trump all.

So I started telling the teachers what I had in mind, making a concerted effort to tone down my usual radical rhetoric (like, "what I want to do is take these kids out in the 'burbs, have them get in white kids' faces, and tell it like it is"). And right away they got into it and started suggesting alterations to the plan. They said I'd have a hell of a time getting kids to stay after school, that what I'd really need is a class during the school day (which is what I'd been thinking all along). They tossed out ideas. I could team up with a teacher in English and social studies. All the teachers could recruit kids who would get into debate, and they could send them all to a separate classroom to meet with me. These folks were ready to go!

On my way home, I called Jane, the coach at Central, and told her about my experience. She was impressed, and more than a little jealous. At Central, every idea has to be brooded over by handringing administrators. If a decision finally is made, it's got to be documented from all angles in an endless stream of paperwork before it can actually be carried through. But, more often than not, the idea is simply shot down.

I've only been working with high school students for a couple of years now. But it's clear that spontaneaity and adaptability are key to success.

So then yesterday I got a call from the woman I'd been working with at De La Salle. They've got it all figured out. I'll be working with one of their social studies teachers, and she's young and energetic and ambitious like me, and she's just totally pumped about it.

No paperwork, no waiting. Just, here's a here's a challenge, here's good idea. Let's do it.

esmie chronicles: it takes a village

My first reaction to news of fellow blogger Esmie Tseng being arrested for the brutal murder of her mother, Shu Yi Zhang, was that it's not right for this precocious 16-year-old to be charged for first-degree murder as an adult. Of course, I wasn't alone in feeling this way.

Last week, Jacob, a sort of digital pointman for a group known as "Friends of Esmie," sent me an e-mail with comments he'd gathered from adults who know Esmie, and who want to see her tried as a juvenile. Here are some of those testimonials:
It's a real shame, what happened to the poor girl. I'd like to know how she gets tried, but it seems all the websites that talk about her are written by idiots who think the whole thing is funny. She doesn't deserve to be tried as an adult, she's just a confused kid who did needs help.

As the administrator of the Church Of Lazlo Message Boards which Esmie frequented, I had the pleasure of talking to her every week. Having a little more inside information than the rest of you, I'm relatively certain there is much more to the story than what you're finding and writing. When the trial's over, those of you who've written about how Esmie is a murderer and a criminal and deserving of this whole thing, are going to feel like you owe this little girl an apology."
Church Of Lazlo Message Boards Administrator (Note: Church of Lazlo is a popular KC radio show)

Esmie is the kind of person you always want to include with your social activities. For our family this includes; camping, dinners, movies, holiday outings, family functions, sleep overs, etc. She always makes us proud. Her manners are excellent. Conversations are different, and unique. She always wants to help."
Linda S.

My name is Cindy Chang. I am an Emergency physician. My husband and I have four children who take piano lessons from the same teacher who taught Esmie Tseng. My oldest son is a year younger than Esmie and has always looked to Esmie as a role model in her talent and dedication to the piano. Esmie has always been a well-behaved, courteous, respectful child to our observations and I would be proud to have her as my child.
Cindy C. Chang, MD

I have known Esmie since Kindergarden. She caught my attention as an amazing child when she read to the class the first week. I'm happy that my daughter, Katie, is friends with Esmie as I saw her develop through grade school years and into high school. Esmie is one of Katie's close friends and a beautiful talented girl. As a parent I feel connected to her as one of my girls and love the girl she had become. I give my support to her at this time fully and with love.
Nancy O'Brien

Since we met Esmie about 1-l/2 years ago, she always treated us with respect being polite, well-mannered and engaging in conversation. She impressed us as someone who would go really far in life.
Ross & Ruth

Hello Esmie,
I am praying for you and trusting God to deliver you from all of this, i know what you did,if you actually did it, was at a moment that your mind had just blanked out, this happen to me at the age of 9 when my mother was whipping me with a leather belt, i came back to myself while my mother was whipping me,and she was saying "are you going to hit me again?" and i said no...but i did not know i hit her and i swear to God that i still don't recall ever hitting my mother. this is what i would call temperary insanity, honey i am standing for you and praying for you every moment of the day and night since i heard of this on tv. i don't think they should ever try you as an adult,and my reasons are clear... my story above explains this to you and them. it cam happen, but sweetie i am praying that God will intervene for you.i would love to be your friend. please pray yourself and believe God for the miracle, as Jesus said whatsoever you ask in my name i will do it.honey just keep your head up high and trust God.
Wayne W

When I talked with jacob a week or so ago, he told me that he would, without hesitation, open his home to Esmie, even though he has not met her, and only came to know about her through news reports about a grizzly crime. He prefaced this statement by carefully pointing out that he has children of his own, and he would never do anything to put them in harm's way.

This struck me as a very powerful statement, as do the ones above. Clearly, a community of people has been touched by this girl and her story, and this is something I want to explore much more deeply, as I am keenly interested in how communities foster succeeding generations, particularly during the teen years. I believe the ways in which we relate to teens, especially under the most extreme circumstances, can tell is a great deal about ourselves

What is your immediate reaction to the comments posted above?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

esmie chronicles: jacob's ladder, part 3

Last weekend, Jacob write a letter to the district attorney for Johnson County, Kansas. He's a man in his mid-40s, and he'd never written to an elected official before. But the case of Esmie Tseng, a 16-year-old girl who stands accused of stabbing her mother to death, moved him to change his policy.

It wasn't just that. There were larger systemic and societal forces at play here. Throughout the weekend, he had heard people, random strangers, talk about Esmie's case, and they were all in agreement: It isn't right for this young girl to be tried as an adult.

In listening to this story during a recent chat with Jacob, I sensed that he was moved into action by what felt like a groundswell of common interest and concern, and his letter to Paul Morrison was a wholy democratic act, a gesture Jacob hoped would carry impacts beyond the parameters of this sad story about 16-year-old girl facing a long stretch in jail.

Then, after a brief procedural hearing in the case, Jacob sent me a rather lengthy e-mail in which he tried to explain some of his motivation, and my earlier hunches were confirmed.

Regardless of which where you stand on this case, whether you think Esmie ought to be tried as a juvenile or an adult, I hope that you will appreciate the spirit behind Jacob's words. These are feelings I have felt, feelings that have moved me into exciting but challenging circumstances.

I find it comforting to hear another person express similar feelings and desires. It makes me feel that I'm not alone, and there's power in that.

Jacob wrote:
There is a lot of crap that we see out there every night on our TV. Most of it revolves around such big issues that we don’t feel we can make a difference. Whether it’s a war in Iraq, Al Qaeda, the hanging Chad’s of Florida or the frustration of a verdict like in the OJ trial – hell what can one person do. In the scheme of life I think we all feel pretty powerless to make change / to right the wrongs of the world.

But yet look at Cindy Sheehan, whether you agree or disagree with her politics this one woman believed enough in an issue that it took a hurricane to get her off the news.
There’s an old quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has...

So Joe – for me it’s the issue that I feel I can make a difference and I believe its worth fighting for. If I could stop the war in Iraq I would – I just feel I can’t. So here I am.

the money's on talent

I got an e-mail from Jean Carnahan today (mass-mailed, of course). She's all excited about the latest poll data on the Missouri senate race. It's a dead heat, and the Dems are already crowing victory.

Well, I called a few of my subterranean friends yesterday, and, at least on the gossip level of this race, things don't seem quite so rosy.

Word is the Missouri Democratic Party is a disorganized mess. They're rarely meeting, and they haven't come close to meeting their fundraising goals. So far, it's looking like Claire McCaskill's campaign is going to ride, at least in the beginning, almost entirely on Big Democrat Money from Back East. More on that later...

Meantime, I decided to look at what evidence there is in the public record. I snooped around the FEC's website for a while last night and dug up Senator Jim's most recently quarterly report (Claire's aren't up yet). It's 574 pages long, so I skipped to the good stuff -- at least the stuff that looks good at first glance: The disbursements. That's where you can get an idea of how Talent's campaign is shaping up.

Well, Duh! He's gearing up to smash Claire.

Talent has doled out tens of thousands of dollars to high-powered GOP consultants and fundraisers. They're all heavily credentialed folks who are right there in the inner-circle of the Great Republican Election-Winning Machine.

Senator Jim spent a few thousand, for instance, on the services of Capital Campaigns of LA, run by Anne Dunsmore, who was head of finance for Bush's campaign in California (and, oddly, according to FEC documents, a "PGA Tour Caddy").

Our senator gave even more money -- about $100,000 to Steve Gordon and Associates, owned and operated by a man of the same name who was one of Bush's "Pioneers," meaning he pledged to raise $100,000 for the 2004 election.

This is all pretty much "no shit" stuff, I know. The Elephants don't want to lose Senator Jim's seat, and they're rallying the troops. But, so far all anyone seems to be talking about is the meaningless dead-heat scenario.

And here's a tidbit I found fascinating, which ought to be talked about:

Talent spent $31,350 on "research" research from American Viewpoint of Alexandria, Virginia. I poked around on their website and was delighted to see that our recent governor's race was one of their case studies for success.

Obviously, Claire doesn't come off looking very good in this story:
When Matt Blunt first decided to run for Governor in early 2003, he was planning on running against a very unpopular incumbent whose job approval was under 30%...

(But then Claire won the primary)

The day after the primary the Missouri press focused on McCaskill as a giant killer and the new front-runner in the race for Governor. The premise of Matt Blunt’s vision for Missouri did not change, but the comparison of his background to McCaskill’s did. Through a post-primary benchmark and dial testing of potential advertising, several things became apparent:

1. Matt Blunt’s background as a naval officer was a strong selling point and demonstrated the leadership necessary to be Governor.

2. Claire McCaskill was very vulnerable on issues dealing with past personal tax issues as well as dealing with her husband’s nursing homes.

3. While Matt Blunt’s values matched closely with out-state Missourians, Claire McCaskill’s did not.

4. The three key swing groups were women, suburban voters and seniors. American Viewpoint conducted extensive sub-group analyses of the voting blocs to identify key issues that would move them to the Blunt side.

This all reminds me of a road trip I took in fall 2004, when I listened over and over to a radio commercial Claire ran in rural Missour-uh.

But I'll save that story for a later post...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

esmie chronicles: jacob's ladder, part 2

A few days after Esmie Tseng was arrested for the murder of her mother, Jacob read a letter in the Kansas City Star that spurred him into action.
A call for compassion

I applaud the Aug. 24th column by Mary Novaria (Blue Valley/Leawood Neighborhood News). I, too, am the mother of a 16-year-old student at Blue Valley North. Like Ms. Novaria and other parents and members of our community, I am shocked and saddened by the death of Shu Yi Zhang. My heart goes out to Tao Tseng, whose terrible loss of course extends beyond the death of his wife.

I share Ms. Novaria's concern and anguish for Esmie Tseng's classmates and friends - young people who now must grapple with a reality far too horrific for kids of their age and innocence to comprehend. Perhaps most of all, my heart breaks for Esmie, who I believe, despite her actions, must also be seen as a victim. I also believe that if we are to make any sense of this at all, we must look beyond the obvious and awful facts and carefully consider Esmie's mental state leading up to Aug. 19.

Clearly, no sane child stabs a parent to death. I think if we look at Esmie's life before Aug. 19, we'll see that Esmie is a very sick child who was screaming out for help. One plea was her apparent break from reality during the summer incident at the synagogue, and other cries for help were her desperate Web log entries in which she spoke of her depression, fear and
despair. Her final and perhaps most telling cry was her odd behavior at school on the day of the stabbing. As we wonder how Esmie could do such a horrible thing, there are a few other "whys" we must address. Why did no one see this child's state of mind and intervene? Why, if anyone noticed, did they remain silent? Why didn't her own parents see how troubled their daughter had become? I fear that we in this intelligent, educated and privileged community have failed Esmie horribly, by not hearing her cries for help and responding.

The district attorney intends to try Esmie as an adult. But clearly this 16-year-old girl is not an adult. Any parent of a teenager knows how truly far from adulthood even the most precocious 16-year-old is. Because there were multiple stab wounds, premeditation is assumed. But doesn't a prolonged attack suggest (as do so many other factors) that this kid was out of her mind, literally? Does the likelihood that she was psychotic somehow make her an adult? Can't an adolescent break with reality, too, and still be an adolescent?

Esmie has no history of violence or misbehavior of any type. Esmie is not a monster nor a cold-blooded killer. Esmie is a child of our village, and she deserves our compassion and our help. If the laws insist upon destroying what is left of Esmie Tseng by locking her up for life, we should be both ashamed and afraid. Ashamed of our failure to hear her and help, and afraid for our and our children's future in an uncompassionate, unseeing and vengeful world.

Diane Kruse
Overland Park

After reading this, Jacob looked up Diane's number and called her. He soon discovered that there were many parents who felt similarly, and that they were coalescing around Esmie, trying to figure out how they might persuade the district attorney to take a more "compassionate" course in this case. Jacob quickly surmised that the group had little computer savvy, and that they would need to accomplish their task, so he offered to help.

Jacob's a little uncomfortable with my writing about him. As I was on my way out of Olathe yesterday, stopped at a stoplight near the courthouse, Jacob spotted me and approached my car. We talked for a moment through my open window. He said repeatedly that he didn't want a story about him, for the focus to all be on him. The story, he insisted, is about the system.

And I agree, but I'm telling this story here -- focusing on him as a character, if you will -- because I think it'll help people relate to the drive to become involved with a case such as this. In particular for a person who, like me, has never met Esmie.

Jacob has written me several e-mails. His most recent contained a number of moving comments by parents and teens who are friends with Esmie, which I'll share here over the next several days. But I was most struck by Jacob's explanation as to why he's so engrossed in this case, because they remind me a lot of myself, and my own activism as a member of what is, at least at first glance, a very different community in Kansas City.

More importantly, I see universal themes in these comments, and so they're valuable, I think, to the growing readership of this blog. There's an implied challenge in them, and it's a challenge I'd like more people to consider.

Tomorrow I'd like to share these comments with you...

show-me showdown: got gas?

Ok, Mr. Senator, you saidwe can get cheaper gas here in Missouri. Where is it?

This morning I e-mailed him this message:
Dear Senator Talent,

I appreciate your efforts to help bring renewable fuels options into the American marketplace. I am concerned about our dependence on fossil fuels, and I'm also feeling a hit in my wallet with the high price of gas. I welcome more options!

The other day I clicked on a link on your site to hear your comments at the Energy Committee meeting. I was excited to learn that some gas stations in Missouri are offering E-85 (an ethanol blend) for as little as $2 per gallon. I looked for this gasoline in the Kansas City area, but all I found was a 10-percent ethanol blend. Though this was a higher-octane gasoline, it wasn't any cheaper than the regular gasoline sold at my corner gas station.

Still, I would more than likely use this gas, because I would like to do my part to reduce our nation's dependence of fossil fuels. Problem is, the nearest gas station offering this fuel is on the outskirts of the metro area, more than ten miles from my home.

What is being done to make these allternatives more widely available here on the western edge of Missouri.

Yours very truly,

Joe Miller

Let's see what he has to say...

national disgrace

What I found most disturbing about the images coming out of New Orleans after the storm was that almost all the white people were carrying rifles. This struck me as distinctly racist, considering that images of white people were relatively rare, that almost all the victims of the storm, the folks the white people were ostensibly trying to help, were black, and unarmed. My instincts interpreted these images a symbol for race relations as a whole in America.

It was a gut hunch, really; an impression.

Then, last night, I listened to This American Life's report on the the disaster, and I was absolutely astonished by the depth and brazenness of the racism that drove policy on the ground in New Orleans.

It turns out those guns were actually trained on the victims of this disaster. The soldiers' orders, delivered down through the federal chain of command, I assume, were to detain these American citizens in an area where they had no food, no water, and no clean place to go to the bathroom.

These folks were not allowed to cross a bridge -- a bidge in plain sight, just a few blocks away -- to water, food and electricity on the other side.

Why? The answer seems clear: They were black and poor, and the other side was the dominion of whites.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

esmie chronicles: 9/13 court appearance

The court room was so packed for Esmie Tseng's hearing this morning that a clerk had to tell people they couldn't sit on one another's laps. It was a small place, just two benches for an audience, so a lot of folks had to wait outside. All during the proceedings people peeked through the narrow window on the door.

There were quite a few teenagers there, some dressed appropriately for court, others in T-shirts and shorts and flip flops. There were just as many adults, most of them white, though a few appeared to be of Asian descent.

Esmie's father attended. According to media reports, he hadn't showed up for the first proceeding. He was a thin man, with graying hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried a wooden cane and sat very straight in the front row.

At a few minutes after nine, Esmie was escorted into the room. Her hands were cuffed together in front of her, and she was frowning, until she noticed a friend of hers who was sitting near I was, and she smiled briefly.

There wasn't much on the agenda. Esmie's attorney, Robb Edmonds, merely wanted to get a continuance on the case so that more research could be done. The court had appointed an investigator to look into the matter, and so far more than 250 pages of evidence have been generated, Edmonds said.

The judge, Brenda M. Cameron, quickly agreed to his request. She scheduled the next hearing for Wednesday, October 13, at 9 a.m.

Then Edmonds asked the judge to ask Esmie some questions about his representation of her.

"Can you talk to your lawyer?" Judge Cameron asked.

Esmie appeared to be in tears. She answered by barely moving her head. The court officials told her she had to answer out loud.

"Yes, your honor," she replied, very softly.

Then Judge Cameron asked Esmie if she were "getting along with" her attorney.

Again, Esmie tried to gesture her answer, until finally saying, barely above a whisper, "No, your honor."

Judge Cameron appeared to find this information unsettling, and she informed Esmie that she "got very lucky" when she drew Edmonds as her counsel (Edmonds is part of a pool of private attorneys who represent defendents on a rotating basis). "You couldn't get anybody better."

Cameron warned: "If you want to hire another attorney, do it right now."

Cameron asked Esmie's father if he could talk to Edmonds.

"Yes," he replied. "Very well. I trust him."

He added, "My daughter is getting adverse advice from others. I don't like that."

Judge Cameron decided to not dismiss Edmonds from the case.

Esmie was escorted out of the room. Just before she reached the door she cried, "I want to stay here. No." But the court officials pushed her forward, through the back door of the court room. The door closed and everyone stayed where they were for a moment, not moving, not saying a word.

esmie chronicles: context

Such odd juxtapositions in Kansas City.

This morning I was standing in the hallway of the Johnson County Courthouse, in suburban Kansas, eavesdropping on a group of adults who had attended a brief, procedural hearing in the case of Esmie Tseng, who is accused of stabbing her mother to death. The adults all seemed to be deeply moved by the case, and were interested in seeing the appropriate form of justice brought to the situation. It's safe to say that their mood was deeply sad. There were a number of misty eyes in the crowd.

Then, a few hours later, I went to Kansas City Central High School, like I do most afternoons, to help the debate squad. The mood in the room was upbeat. The kids were all into building their cases. (Esmie was a debater, BTW.)

Then, about 20 minutes into practice, one of the kids said to me, rather cavalierly -- and, if I'm not mistaken, with a smile -- that one of their fellow students slashed another student's throat earlier that day.

I've been going to Central most afternoons for the better part of three years, and I've heard from time to time about violence breaking out during the school day. But never anything as bad as this.

Yet there was no somber mood. No grief or trauma counselors, like they had at Blue Valley North after news of Esmie's arrest spread. I don't have a sense that grown-ups from the community will appear at this kid's inevitable court hearings to show their support and sorrow. And I doubt that my blog will receive hundreds of hits a day from people wanting info about the situation, as is the case with my Esmie posts.

It's a top story on the evening news, of course; the local TV news hacks seem to love to cover stories of violence at Central High while ignoring the deeper cognitive and institutional violence that occurs there day in and day out.

I gleaned some sketchy details about the alleged slasher, namely that he was a troubled kid, perhaps with mental problems, but that he was, by all appearances, nice and seemingly harmless.

But, as with Esmie, there's a whole history here, and it's an adolescent's history, and somewhere in the core of it is an unclear, painfully nuanced lesson about juvenile justice. Social justice, really.

Such odd juxtapositions, though few experience them.

There are separate universes -- many, many of them -- operating side by side in this mid-sized American metropolis.

Am I wrong to grasp at connections amid such disconnectedness?

Monday, September 12, 2005

show-me showdown: ethyl who?

Ring. Ring. Click.


"Yes. Do you sell that cheaper ethanol gas?"


"Ethanol gas. It's cheaper."

"Cheaper gas?"

"Yes. Ethanol."

"Cheaper gas. Yes. Unleaded. We have cheaper gas. $2.69. That's the cheapest."

"No, I'm looking for cheaper ethanol gas. Our senator Jim Talent said that in some parts of Missouri you can buy this ethanol gas that's like a dollar less than regular."

"Dollar less? No."

Which is pretty much how it went for a dozen calls to gas stations in my zip code, until I wound up talking to a friendly man at Campbell Oil Co. who said QuikTrip carries it. So I called them, but the number I had was to their maintenance shop, which turned out to be good thing because there was another friendly man there who didn't know the answer but he promised to find it and to call me back.

And... Bingo!

I just got off the phone with him:

Friendly QuikTrip Man: No, none of our Kansas City stores carry it. But Casey's does?

Me: Casey's? Like the Country Store Casey's? I thought they were only in the, uh, country (I was about to say "boonies").

Friendly QuikTrip Man: No. There's one on 23rd St. I think.

Which sounded close. But, wouldn't you know it? It is pretty much out in the boonies, way on the other side of Independence.

Oh well. I wanna save me ten bucks on this tank. Let's go gitter done...

show-me showdown: ethanolics anonymous

Well, I'll be darned. You can get ethanol gas in the KC metro, and it is cheaper than regular gas.

Sort of.

The thing that got my fingers doing the walking on, and had me wasting gas to go all the way out to the outer tendrils of our mini-megalopolis, was what Senator Jim Talent said at the Energy Committee meeting last week:
We conducted an informal survey of gas stations in Missouri that were pumping E-85, which is an 85 percent ethanol blend. And, uh, in a number of places it was selling for $2 a gallon. A dollar less than unleaded was selling in Missouri.

Well the stuff I found at the Casey General on the edge of civilization, 12 miles from my home, was a higher-octane 10-percent ethanol blend selling for $2.75 (minus .1 cent, of course), which was four cents less than the lower-octane regular. Which is kind of cool, I guess, except it's still more expensive than the cheapest stuff I found within two miles of my house.

If the gas cost what the Senator said, I woulda saved almost eight bucks, which would justify a trip out into the inner rural-o-sphere. At a tank a week, that's, like, a new iPod or something a year. But as it stands, I'm saving 40 cents a pop, which might earn me a CD in twelve months (and I'd steal thirty online by then).

Now, if I could guarantee that I'd get 10 percent less Iraq war by filling my tank on the edge of Independence with 10 percent ethanol, I'd be all over it.

So it might be time to write the old Senator a letter, to tell him that I couldn't find the bargains he bragged about. And what is this E-85 anyway? Will it even work in my car?

esmie chronicles: jacob's ladder, part 1

Jacob's never gotten involved in social or political activism. Never put a campaign sign on his front lawn. Never even written a letter to an elected official.

But that all changed a couple of weeks ago, when he turned on the TV news and learned that a 16-year-old girl from suburban Johnson County was in jail, charged with the brutal murder of her mother.

"I got sucked in," he tells me.

Turns out his kids knew the girl, Esmie Tseng. They'd gone to summer camp with her, and they'd chatted from time to time online. He's never met her.

He spent three hours that night reading Esmie's blog entries, hundreds of them, dating back to 2002, when she was twelve years old. And he felt, I would venture to say, some of the same feelings I felt when I read and saved all of the blog entries several days later.

"It was a scream for help," he says of her writing.

The story haunted him. He lost sleep over it, especially when he watched the news on the following Monday and learned that the district attorney for his and Esmie's county planned to charge her with first degree murder, and as an adult.

Again, his first thought was like mine. It didn't seem fair.

Which is interesting, because I sense that he stands a bit to the right of me on justice issues.

I've only talked with Jacob briefly, over the phone, but the impression I have is of a fairly typical Johnson Countian. Mid-forties. Wife. Kids. Good job. Nice house. Your basic law-and-order type.

He told me he lays down the law for his kids, and that when OJ was declared innocent he thought, Oh my God! This is not right!

Initially, he hadn't planned on getting involved in Esmie's case, certainly not as a sort of digital point man for a group of perhaps 20 adults who call themselves "Friends of Esmie."

But then he opened up the Kansas City Star one day and read a letter that nudged him into action...

Sunday, September 11, 2005

show-me showdown: oil spill

Election season has begun, and it looks like we have the makings of a doozy in the race for US Senator. Claire McCaskill's only been in the race against Jim Talent seat for, like, five minutes, and already it's a dead heat. Early spin is it's a referendum on Bush, and Bush is about as popular a kid with gas.

Speaking of which...

The Washington Post reported late last month that Bush is running on empty because of, among other things, "spiraling gas prices." Which makes Talent's ride with the fumes-burning president all the more perilous, because our incumbent Senator happens to serve on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Here he is talking about the high cost of gas.

The Senator is already feeling some heat about the situation. On August 31, the same day the Post blamed Bush's unpopularity on high gas prices, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that:
Several hundred members of the United Auto Workers protested outside the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse [in] downtown [StL].

Most protesters had gathered carried posters criticizing President George W. Bush and accusing Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and other Republicans of contributing to the skyrocketing gas prices.

Amid protest signs calling Bush the "best president the oil companies ever had," Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, told the demonstrators, "He's going to take care of those guys who took care of his election."

Which is a fair shot, near as I can tell, insomuch as Talent backed Bush's energy policy in 2003, though I haven't yet dug into that policy and how it led to the current situation (I will; I plan to do some real digging around this race and hopefully use this blog to spread some dirt on both candidates, neither of whom I'm particularly fond of).

I looked up his contributions on Open Secrets expecting to find proof that he's a total whore of the oil industry. And he may well be, though Big Oil ranks only 13th among industry contributors, just behind "Republican/Conservative," with $149,824 since 2001. <

esmie chronicles: flip flop

got an interesting comment on my first post about Esmie Tseng, the girl who's accused of killing her mom:

This is something that is out of cold blood. She was mad and like all other teenagers that get mad, they feel like they want to kill their parents. Just like some that feel like they want to kill their fellow classmates...

They think they can get away with it because they are a minor. I'm glad she's being tried as an adult.

She was "beyond her years" and knew what she was doing was wrong. Killing is wrong and she understood that when she killed her mother, her mother was dead, never to come back again.

She did this because she couldn't take it anymore. She had an easy life. A lot easier then the rest of us. She was "bright," she was "intelligent," she KNEW BETTER and you can't tell me otherwise.

Burn baby burn.

The "burn baby burn" part is a little much, but I've been having similar thoughts ever since I posted about my bias on this situation. I started doing some research on Kansas's juvenile justice laws, and the general phenomenon of charging minors as adults, and I found myself losing sympathy for her. Like, what makes her so special? Should she get special treatment for being middle class and smart? Or just because the murder is an anomoly in her life?

Honestly, I'm feeling embarrassed about my earlier posts and my interest in the case.

Yet I'm picking up some interesting threads, all of which I want to explore:

1. In Kansas, kids as young as 10 years old can be tried as adults for any crime.

2. The person who started Friends of Esmie, a group that's launching a full-on campaign to have Esmie tried as a juvenile, has never even met her -- his kids attended camp with her a couple of years ago and had stayed in touch via the Internet. He told me he was shocked by the situation and simply got sucked in.

3. There's a Chinese community in Kansas City, and this murder has really affected it. I know I sound like an idiot, but I honestly didn't know we had a Chinese population significant enough to support a news website. With its three-part series on the case, Kansas City Chinese offered by far the best coverage. In the final installment, the reporter, Anthony Tao, wrote:

"I don't know how many of the parents thought of [the Tseng] incident as a wake-up call, but some of them probably thought, 'If this could happen, then anything can,'" said Abigail Chang, former president of the Greater Kansas City Free China Association.

Chang said that it might be helpful for one of the Chinese organizations in Kansas City to create a counseling service or hotline to deal with problems that may arise between parents and their children. She stressed that communication is essential for a healthy parent-child relationship.

Johnny Kung, president of the Chinese Club of Greater Kansas City, said his organization would consider organizing a discussion group for people to talk about the incident in a formal setting.

"It's such an interesting case because it gives an image that is the antithesis of the minority image that we have," Kung said. "I think her being Asian, it happening out in the Blue Valley school district, where it's a 'safe' place..."

Saturday, September 10, 2005

colby cheese

I am in Colby, Kansas, about a mile south of that red dot pictured above, in a Comfort Inn that offers WiFi, and I'm sitting in the hotel's restaurant trying unsuccessfully to construct a very long grammatically correct sentence about how I suspect that there's a big volleyball tournament in Colby this weekend because the place is overrun with tall girls wearing knee-high athletic socks and T-shirts that have "volleyball" printed on the front ("Husky Volleyball" to be exact) who move about in packs of six or eight, which is frustrating because whenever I approach a door I notice one of them on the other side and I step back to politely let her through only to find her attached to a phalanx of other volleyball girls boldly pushing through the door in a breathless blast of adolescent energy, until one of them sees me there and the great injustice of the situation registers with her, and she steps back and opens the door a bit wider and says, "Go ahead, sir," and I'm grateful for this, but it does little to assuage the fact that I'm in Colby, Kansas, and the WiFi isn't as satisfying as it seemed when I pulled off the highway after reading the sign that read "High Speed Internet, and the only thing I can think of to write is this awful sentence, though the burger I just ate wasn't half bad.

Friday, September 09, 2005

esmie chronicles: legalese

In Kansas, there are eight points to consider when deciding whether or not to prosecute a juveniile as an adult:
(1) The seriousness of the alleged offense and whether the protection of the community requires prosecution as an adult or designating the proceeding as an extended jurisdiction juvenile prosecution; (2) whether the alleged offense was committed in an aggressive, violent, premeditated or willful manner; (3) whether the offense was against a person or against property. Greater weight shall be given to offenses against persons, especially if personal injury resulted; (4) the number of alleged offenses unadjudicated and pending against the respondent; (5) the previous history of the respondent, including whether the respondent had been adjudicated a juvenile offender under this code and, if so, whether the offenses were against persons or property, and any other previous history of antisocial behavior or patterns of physical violence; (6) the sophistication or maturity of the respondent as determined by consideration of the respondent's home, environment, emotional attitude, pattern of living or desire to be treated as an adult; (7) whether there are facilities or programs available to the court which are likely to rehabilitate the respondent prior to the expiration of the court's jurisdiction under this code; and (8) whether the interests of the respondent or of the community would be better served by criminal prosecution or extended jurisdiction juvenile prosecution.

Quite a wide net.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

esmie chronicles begin

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a little entry about Esmie Tseng, the teenage blogger who stands accused of stabbing her mother to death. Then, earlier this week, I got an e-mail from a group called "Friends of Esmie" saying only, "If you are interested in helping Esmie please drop us an email." I wrote back saying I was interested, but that i wanted to know more about what they're doing. I definitely don't want to support folks who are doing stuff like this.

I haven't heard back. But the e-mail sort of riled up my feelings about that case, as did the longish story in the Star Wednesday. The feelings are conflicted, and more than just a little bit embarrassing, because what I feel is a sense of loss, real loss, like the kind where you're pissed because you have no power to turn back time. And that's embarrasing because I don't even know her. It's just that her story clashes up against some internal sense of justice I'm holding onto -- not necessarily because she appears to be going to trial against ambitious and aggressive prosecuting attorneys, but because her story goes against the larger narrative I have for things, even things beyond my circle of influence.

So what I'm going to do is cover the trial as a reporter. But with a twist. Since this is a blog, it seems I have not only the freedom but the obligation to be utterly subjective.

As with any story I've ever done, I'm going in with a bias and preconceptions (which, as always, I'm eager and willing -- indeed hoping -- to be disabused of). Unlike the other stories, I'm not going to try to hide it.

In this case, my bias going in is the strong opinion that Esmie ought not be tried as an adult, nor for first-degree murder, and that she shouldn't go to prison for life, and (so long as I'm being longwinded and unrealistic here) that she be sentenced to a program or facility that truly is rehabilitive.

It's kind of an experiment, and more like it might follow.

Ultimately I hope that reporting a story such as this on a blog will allow readers to connect with it on a deeper level, because the reporting is a personal quest. There's no paycheck involved, no editor, no demographic demands -- just me and my own drive, and I can take it wherever the hell I want. I can -- and probably will -- cite Foucault's genealogy of prisons, and other dense philosophical works about so-called justice. I can, and will, compare Esmie's story to my own history growing up in the suburbs. And I'll try to put myself in the prosecutors' shoes as well, matching their professional drive with mine as a reporter (like when I was investigating City Hall and always eager to "nail someone").

The drving, unasked questions might be less Why did Esmie do it? and more Where am I in Esmie? And I'm gonna gamble here and say this will make the story more universal, not narcissistic. Because like Terrence told us, "I am human; nothing human is alien to me."

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

nyt and the squo

When I first heard the criticism of the New York Times as a defender of the status quo, I thought it was baloney. The New York Times?! Why, they're the best journalists on earth!

Then I got rejected by them.

About a year and a half ago, I pitched a story to the New York Times Magazine about the University of Louisville's debate squad. For those of you who haven't read this blog regularly, Louisville directly attacks the lack of diversity on college debate, arguing that the way the game is played prevents diversity and supports white privilege. It was a good pitch, and I even had an agent to make sure it passed over the plate.

A week later, I heard back from my Agent Lydia. She said they'd seriously considered accepting my pitch, but they decided to pass on it because it was "too polemic" and that the claims I made in my pitch about institutional racism (these were in reference to the education system, mind you) were unwarranted.

I was taken aback. Institutional racism unwarranted? What country are you living in?

About a year later, I learned that the Magazine had bought a pitch from another writer about the Louisville squad. And I was furious this time because I felt like I'd been royally screwed over. Agent Lydia checked into it, and found that the editor she'd pitched my story to didn't even know the mag had bought the other dude's pitch. She surmised that the latter pitch was less forthright about racism than mine.

Now I come to learn that the Magazine has rejected that piece. And we're talking a story they spent thousands on: they sent the reporter to follow the squad to two tournaments, he wrote it over the course of the summer, there were rewrites, etc. And, in the end... not fit to print.

Why? I mean, this story is fantastic. It's an incredibly fascinating development in a incredibly fascinating section of American culture. It's unexpected, full of surprises, with connections to larger political issues. In short, it's a dream magazine story. You can bet the story was true and accurate. The reporter was certainly a professional. And I know from some of the subjects that he didn't handle them with kid gloves.

So, why?

The bearer of the bad news to me speculated that it's because White America only wants stories about poor downtrodden blacks being saved by whites.

That might be it. But whatever the myth may be, I think it's best to simply know that the New York Times has a myth to protect.

Monday, September 05, 2005

a year in the life

I didn't even realize it, but a week ago Friday marked a year since I started this blog. I guess it's served it's purpose, and it's accomplished more than I'd ever expected. For one, I've made friends through the damn thing, while I've only lost one friend, which is a pretty good net gain (especially considering that the lost friend wasn't much of a friend to begin with, if she was gonna wind up bolting over something so petty).

I put up two posts on the first day -- one about a world-famous dog psychologist in JoCo, and another about an asshole I'd seen on The Amazing Race. I started the blog because I was sort of blocked. I was then three months into a year-long assignment to write the first draft of my book, and I was feeling overwhelmed. I thought the freedom of a blog would loosen me up, and it did. In fact, when I was in the final stretch on the book, and my mind was really clamping shut in fear and anxiety, I would tell myself, "This is just like a blog entry. Just write it out and don't worry about it." It worked.

The other cool thing is that I'm turning some of my earliest posts into a proposal for what I hope will be my second book. I just sent a not-quite-completed draft to Agent Lydia, so we're moving along, I suppose, thanks to the blog.

All in all, a pretty cool year. And now it's all frozen in cyberspace.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

i want

I made two major purchases last week: an iPod (60 gig model) and the new Kanye West CD. I got the latter for obvious reasons, and the former because I've always kind of wanted one and because I was gearing up for a drive to Denver and I thought it would be convenient (almost cost efficient) to have every sound file I own at my finger tips. It seemed a better way to survive the drive than my usual habit of burning a stack of CDs before hand.

But really, I bought the damn thing to get high. I wanted the rush of a big purchase. Problem is it didn't work.

First there was the disappointment of how it sounded on my car stereo -- all staticky with the weak radio transmitter ($40). So I returned that transmitter and bought a more expensive one ($80), an absurd white-plastic apendage that stuck into the lighter and stuck out a good foot or so, getting in the way of the air-conditioner controls and swaying and bouncing around as I drove. Worse, it didn't work: Still static. Andthat's why I bought it, for my car, since I don't need it at home, where my stereo is hooked into my computer. So I look up ways to attach it directly to the factory stereo in my car, and that appears to be a $200 ordeal, and for what? I drive a lot. But do I really need 15,000 songs rolling with me?

Then there's the way it organizes songs. Since a lot of my music is stolen, there's no uniformity to its coding system, so there are files on the iPod like <..00instrum.kd.track.4.m,p3--, which is as annoying as hell, especially in a small machine of such austere beauty. So I've spent hours upon hours going through each of my 3,785 songs, cleaning up their titles, so that they'll appear all clean and orderly on my iPod, which is a pain in the ass because I can't figure out how to code batches of files in iTunes.

Meantime, I'm listening the new Kanye album, and I'm hearing stuff like, I'd do anything to say I got it/ Damn, them new loafers hurt my pocket and Claiming money is the key, so keep on dreaming/ And put them lottery tickets just to tease us and:
Good morning, this ain't Vietnam still
People lose hands, legs, arms, fo' real
Little was known on Sierra Leone
And how it connect to the diamonds we own
When I spit the diamonds in this song
I ain't talkin' 'bout the ones that be glowin'
I'm talkin' 'bout Roc-a-Fella, my home
My chain, this ain't conflict diamonds
Is they Jacob? Don't lie to me, man
See, a part of me sayin', "Keep shinin'"
How? When I know what a blood diamond 's
Though it's thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today
Over here it's a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless
'Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
And here's the conflict
It's in a black person soul to rock that gold
Spend your while life tryin' to get that ice
On a Polo rugby it look so nice
How can something so wrong make me feel so right?

Which is deep. He's testifying on several levels here. And I'm listening to it and looking at this $400 suped up Walkman I don't need, didn't even get high on, didn't make me "feel so right", doesn't really work the way I want it to, and meantime all the images from New Orleans are driving home a clear message about inequality.

So I'm going to take the stupid thing back. Though it ain't gonna be easy. As unsatisfying as it is, I still want it. It's the wanting that's the thing.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

tony's kanye city

In the spirit of good debate, I want to respond to a post on my favorite blog (and primary news source) about Kanye West's comments about Katrina.

First, the minor stuff: Dude, those sites you've linked to discrediting Kanye are not the least bit credible. One of them speculates elsewhere that his dad might be Cornell West, which is aboslutely absurd. Coonsider this: If these allegations were remotely true, do you honestly believe that with all the attention Kanye has received from the media -- the so-called liberal white media -- that there isn't a single ambitious reporter or news organization would pounce on the opportunity to discredit a black man? And he's not a "third rate rapper" by any measure. He's obviously at the very top of the game. Moreover, he's reacquainting the medium with its original socially conscious spirit. (More on that later.)

But with regards to what Kanye said, I think he was on point. Yes, it's an exageration to say that Bush doesn't care about blacks. But Bush is the figurehead of a vast and historical policymaking apparatus that, the overwhelming evidence indicates, has little regard for blacks (or, in more plain, frustrated English: "doesn't care"). And I fail to see how one can see the images coming out of New Orleans and not see it as clear evidence of the racial divide in our country.

Of course, it seems an over simplification to say the slow response to the needs of those stranded in the city is due to a lack of caring for blacks. But it's true if you tease out the genealogy of the situation. Consider the report KC's own Jamie Metzl helped to write regarding America's ability to respond to terrorist attack. It pointed out that first responders -- fire fighters, cops, emergency crews, etc. -- are underfunded and poorly trained. Sure, the report was about terrorism, but these are the same tools our government uses to protect the public's well-being in natural disasters. Why are these first-responders ill-equipped? Because, under Bush's leadership, our nation's priorities are elsewhere, namely in tax cuts for the rich and an imperialist war in Iraq.

So how does this relate to blacks? Well, history has clearly shown that disasters of any kind disproportionately affect the poor. And the poor in this nation is disproportionately black (and I might mention here that the very existence of New Orleans, the fact that it's situated below a floodplain, is because of "King Cotton" and all the enslaved Africans who picked it, not to mention the stolen, bloody land it was grown on).

For the past five years, we've seen Bush spend a lot of capital advancing the interests of the white and well-to-do in this country. And this has left us vulnerable to suffer the sort of problem that we, as the "most advanced country on earth," should be able to easily solved. What I'm saying is, we're advanced enough to know that this was an inevitibility. You don't build a river under water without knowing the potential consequences. And you don't have cities that are predominantly black and poor without knowing that those cities are black and poor and knowing that when the inevitible comes that its inhabitants will be fucked.

So, I agree. Bush, and all that he represents, doesn't really care about blacks. Not in a significant way. That's what I see in the images on my TV screen.