Friday, June 30, 2006

writing remote

I did the Motel 6 thing again.

Early on Thursday morning I checked into a dingy room in the big Motel 6 at I-435 and 87th so I could knuckle down and write my damned proposal. Almost as soon as I got into the room and plopped down my brief case I regretted. The room was just so bleak.

I thought for a minute about driving to Powell Gardens, which is a fair distance away -- as if this would "inspire me" to "unleash my creative spirit."

Instead, I tried reworking a sentence on a paper draft. Soon I found myself flipping on the lap top to record the thoughts as they were coming. And they were coming, steadily but still painfully at first, as if I were coaxing a spiky tape worm out of my throat. On several occasions my brain and typing fingers misconnected and my whole system would shut down suddenly. I'd got up and pace the room, pining for escape. But with nothing immediately available to command my attention I was back typing again within a few minutes. Had a been at home I would've been out in the garden, and the whole day would be shot.

I continued thiis way until about six last night, not counting my two-hour lunch and impulsive shopping spree at Dick's Sporting Goods. By the time I drove home (you didn't think I'd sleep there, did you?) I had about 4,500 words down. Good day.

I woke this morning before four and I couldn't go back to sleep, so I headed back to the Motel 6 and, with a tall cup of QT coffee by my side, I was back writing before sunrise.

And then I was done by 8:45!

Which is all a longwinded way of saying the Motel 6 thing works!! I know it's just a stupid trick. I still have home and all the distractions of my home city an easy car ride away. Yet the prospect of a 15 minute drive is enough of a deterrent to get past the initial impulse to flee, which emerges every single time I find myself struggling for a word (which is often). Add to this the $45 investment for the room itselfv -- not a lot of money, but enough to raise a second thought about bailing. For the most part, these two buffers are enough to send me back to the computer to try to peck out just one little sentence. And usually that's all it takes -- one sentence, and I'm rolling.


Allie was searching the Netflix queue for movies she would like but I would hate. She asked how I felt about Mr. and Mrs. Smith and I grunted in dissent. I said I hate Brad Pitt, and I'm not a huge fan of Angelina Jolie. "I mean, she's kind of pretty," I said, "but--"

"but you don't like her acting?" Allie tried to finish my thought.

"No," I said, "it's more like every time I go to the supermarket she's on the front cover with a baby or a starving African or some beautiful man ... and I'm just sick of it."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I made a terrible mistake.

Yesterday I got real into Mariah Carey's song We Belong Together and listened to it a dozen or so times on my iPod. Sorry, but I think it's a good song.

But now, a day later, I still have Mariah in my head, on that part where she goes all high-pitched and emotional for a final pass through the chorus, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Oh well. It beats this.

Monday, June 26, 2006

good news

This is very, very good news.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

news and history

I've been working through Taylor Branch's trilogy on America in the King Years. One thing I find particularly fascinating is its tengental critique of daily journalism. Branch blends newspaper accounts with myriad source material, and he often plays the supposedly unbiased news against what actually happened. Too often, the news comes off looking like a loser.

One passage in particular struck me, because it called to mind an earlier post I wrote about a KC Currents segment about the N-word. This anecdote is about a campaign stop in New Orleans in 1964, where President Johnson addressed an audience dense with segregationist Dixie-crats, many of whom were tacitly supporting his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater out of spite for the Civil Rights Act.
"Whatever your views are," Johnson added with a significant pause, "we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land. And two-thirds of the Democrats in the House and the Senate voted for it, and three-fourths of the Republicans. I signed it. And I'm going to enforce it. And I'm going to observe it."

Having hushed his audience in the coded language of Sothern politics, without mentioning the new Civil Rights laws by name, Johnson pushed on.

"I am not going to let them build up the hate, and try to bury my people by appealing to their prejudice," he vowed, and lean forward to tell "you folks" a tale of death-bed lamentation over a wasted political career. Johnson recalled how an old senator, "whose name I won't call," once beseeched speaker Sam Rayburn for encouragement to make just one speech toward the common good of his dispoiled state.

"I feel like I have one in me," Johnson quoted the senator. "The poor old state. They haven't heard a Democratic speech in 30 years. All they ever hear at election time is nigger, nigger, nigger!"

The audience gasped, reported one historian. An eye-witness called the shock in the banquet hall a physical thing. Surprise. Awe. Ears heard what they plainly could not hear. A president of the United States had shouted the word three times, in a context that at once revealed and rejected a racial core of politics.

The initial grudging and scattered applause grew into an ovation that lasted fully seven minutes.

But the next day, the reporters lacked the nerve to quote him exactly. From Jet magazine to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the president's climactic phrase was rendered "Negro, Negro, Negro." The New York Times dosged the word choice by ommitting the passage all together...

It was not until Johnson wrote his memoir that the word "nigger" was put into the mouth of a president of the United States.

If you recall my earlier post, I mentioned that the two gentleman in the radio segment were local journalists, and one said that the Star has a policy against use of the word. But above we see an incident in which the word was bellowed in a pivotal way during a pivotal period in history. Now, in Johnson's memoir, and Branch's phenomenal book, and whatever other historical materials exist, this has emerged as what is true, and it carries with it profound significance.

Yet those whose duty it was to report what was actually happening in the world chose instead white wash it (full pun intended). And the so-called paper of record for the nation, the one that declares its impossible mission everyday, "All the news that's fit to print," winds up codified in history -- at least in this instance -- as an agent of evasion, or worse, deception.



I think this will be a key piece of evidence in the coming debate season:
There was no historical precedent for Birmingham, Alabama, in April and May of 1963, when the power balance of a great nation turned not on clashing armies, or global commerce, but on the youngest student demonstrators of African descent, down to first and second graders. Only the literature of Passover ascribes such impact to the fate of minors. And never before was a country transformed, arguably redeemed, by the active moral witness of school children. Children who marched day after day from the csanctuary of black churches onto segregated streets to face hostile police, dogs, firehoses, and ultimately, jail.

I really like that.

From the preface of Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire.

χαιρετίσματα (chairetismata)

Hi Jane!

Sean is fine.

We've had some moments here and there with tense stand offs and whatnot. But we've had a few talks, too, and all is well. Still not the chipperest guy on earth, but he has surprisingly sunny moments, too.

Today he earned 30 bucks helping with some yard work. Did a good job. He seemed to like it, though he didn't say much and he merely grunted when I asked him how he was doing. Reminded me of when I was 17 and I spent afternoons doing awful crap that I hated for the sake of 30 bucks. I wouldn't trade those experiences for the world.

He's got two blogs:

the woods


debate crap

The latter Allie and I force him to write.

Like a slave, he says.

between the lines

My favorite reporter at the Star is DeAnn Smith. It might be because she was my main competition when I worked for the weekly, so I'm inclined to pay more attention to her stuff. But she really is a master at slipping in those little details that signal the real story to folks who know a thing or two about how power works in KC.

Like, I love this piece about Gayle Holliday.

It's all packaged like a total puff piece. But then Smith slips in these breezy little asides to let you know what's really going on. Like when she follows a praising quote from Emanuel Cleaver with:
And Cleaver should know. Holliday is chairwoman of the executive committee at Cleaver’s church, St. James United Methodist, which makes her his boss.


Or when she sets up a kiss-ass quote from outgoing school superintendent Bernard Taylor with:
Taylor gushes when it comes to Holliday, who helped organize his going-away party.

I spoke with Holliday recently for a story I wrote for the premiere issue of KC Business, which will hit the stands next week (I think). She wasn't too keen to talk with me, saying that I always seem to find something bad to write about here. Which is true. And true.

She said to me, "I really am a nice person."

I actually felt a little bad when she said that, because, yes, the upcoming article will be most unflattering, and, yes, she really is a nice person.

But no one's doubting the nice person part. With so many connections, one would assume a level of niceness. The question is more a matter of public trust. Are certain people automatically qualified for no-bid, six-figure contracts simply because they're nice to all the right people?

proper noun

From today's paper:
Verdict is guilty in stabbing death

Whose verdict? Or should I say who's Verdict?


I got an e-mail last night in response to my earlier post about good news from the Kansas City School District. The post contained a link to a blog entry reporting that Kathy Walter Mack, the district's top in-house counsel, is leaving. That was the good news, in my opinion.

So, someone wrote asking:
just out of curiosity, what makes kathy walter mack an idiot?

how come you think this way?

I replied:
I don't think she's an idiot. I think she's extremely smart. In fact, I don't think the problem was so much her as the disproportionate power of her position. I think it got in the way of what I believe the district's mission ought to be, and that is to work to empower our children through education. I think KWM's level of authority was a relic of the deseg days, and it has long needed to be reduced or eliminated.

For as long as I've been around the district folks have acknowledged that Walter Mack ran that place. Would you want your kids attending school in a district run by lawyers?

That district is long overdue for a top to bottom cleaning out. This is apparently what is happening in preparation for the new superintendent. And I'm all for it. I just hope they make one more cut. They need a new chief financial officer. This position is critical in these lean budget years. And the person they have in there now has been there since before Brown. Let's get some fresh eyes on those books.

Friday, June 23, 2006

my dad's funeral

My grandparents are sitting in the front row. This was an awful experience. My dad died in a construction accident. His face was bruised, his tongue swollen and, as I recall, there was some green goo prutruding from his mouth, presumably to slow the rot of his body in the tropical heat of Minatitlan, Vera Cruz, Mexico. It was an open casket and someone lifted me to see into the casket. I was eight years old.

Me at my dad's graveside.

headlines redux

Today was a particularly bad day for headlines at the website for our local daily newspaper.

  • Digital doc works tirelessly
  • Hoop It Up tourney
  • Ready for a hike?
  • Lone Jack
  • Affordable living
  • Police stay mum on case
  • Attempted burglary indictments
  • Consolidation frenzy grows
  • His family felt the love TRIBUTE
  • Gloomy path ahead Analysis
  • Proposal would unfreeze the secrecy

Is there anyone out there who can tell me what these headlines mean and why I should click on them to read the story on the other side?

This is ridiculous.

When are they going to give the same love and attention to the web (a growing audience and expanding market) that they give to print (dying audience and shrinking market)?

I don't get it. They spend all this time and energy (and, presumably, money) doing blogs and video. They obviously know it's important. But they won't take the most basic essential first step of offering headlines that make sense.


I've updated the sidebar. There's another blurb for the book, some new links to blogs, and the recommended reading and viewing links are all new.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Quite a parade of color in the yard these days. I've been planting lotsof annuals, and the lillies are exploding.

Click the picture above for a stunningly beautiful slideshow of pictures Allie took today of our pretty flowers.


This is Allie's office. For today, anyway.

We are a very fortunate couple.


I've been thinking about this post for the past couple days. I found it interesting, but I don't agree with the basic framework for the professor's approach to answering the question, "Who's a journalist?"
Asked about factors that should be considered in determining whether someone can be described as a journalist, Wilkins said the first one is whether they are paid by a news organization.

"There's an ethical issue here: To whom do you owe allegiance?," Wilkins said. "If your allegiance is to the public interest, then you might make a claim that you're a journalist. You're certainly not acting exclusively to yourself.

"If you're allegiance is to you or the x-number of hits on your web site, than that's a different problem."

Having been paid by a wide variety of news organizations, I can say without hesitation that the public interest is not the primary allegience for a journalist. We could argue this point, but I would maintain to my ink-stained grave that the primary allegience of a journalist is to his or her editor. And, like any true reporter, I can say with even more confidence that I don't have the slightest clue where editors' allegiances lie. (As Edna Buchanan said, there are three rules reporters absolutely must follow: Never trust an editor; Never trust an editor; and never trust an editor.)

Deeper still, I have a problem with the whole "public interest" thing. What is the public interest, really? How can anyone presume to know it well enough to claim allegience to it?

Like, we could argue that the Star and KCTV five claim such an allegience. My sense is that the professor would concede that both are staffed by legitimate journalists.

Over the past few years, KCTV has increased its audience, while the Star's readership has declined. I'm not saying that the two are diirectly correlated. But I will point out that KCTV has made some dramatic changes to the content of its newscasts. The Star probably made some changes as well, but not ones so dramatic as to warrant a comment like, Good Lord! They've really changed!!

So does this mean KCTV has become more closely allied with public interest, while the Star is falling out of step? Perhaps, but I doubt it's an argument the prof would make. Indeed, I'd bet money that she's say KCTV's changes undermine the integrity of journalism. (I would!)

And this kind of gets to the underlying context for the question, which was the more specific question about whether or not bloggers can be considered journalists.

Folks like me who make no money off of this 21st century hobby have little allegience beyond the things that interest us. For the most part we don't hide our biases and conflicts of interest. We just write stuff. If people want to read it, they will. If not, they won't.

True, a lot of what we write is drivel. It's polemic, partisan, and full of gramatical errors. But collectively we offer a vast selection of ways to absorb information about the world we live in.

For instance, dreadnought gives me the inside scoop on what it's like to be a teen in the Northland, and with it a unique perspective on cultural phenomena like the new Cars movie. Lately, pomegranate has been running a poignant, touching and well-written account of dealing with a serious illness in the family while trying to keep up with the rigors of nursing school. It's the kind of real-life drama daily newspapers' features departments seem to desperately want to convey, but can never quite do. I can get an in-depth look at life in Antarctica in the dark middle of winter. And yes, I can even get a steady stream of tidbits gleaned from the notebooks of the staff of a daily newspaper.

And there's millions and millions of information sources like this -- some of it brilliant, some of it awful.

On the political side, one does find a lot of shamelessly biased and partisan stuff, like the Fired Up Missouri blog that recently sparked this question about who is a journalist. But here again, I think this is valuable information (not that I pay attention to it everyday). Aren't these massive waves of commentary that rise up from the blogosphere in the wake of "big news" also big news in their own right? Aren't these musings a hyper-current, ever-shifting representation of who we are right now? Isn't it in the public interest to know who we are?

Well, who better than us to report it?


Finally, some good news from the Kansas City School District!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

the writing life

Last night I stumbled across a mention of my book on The Wombat File. So I e-mailed the author. I was curious to know how he got a copy.

He wrote back this morning.
So when I came across an ARC of Cross-X at work (I'm a features editor at Barnes &, even though I hadn't heard about it from the FS&G people yet I picked it up. I found the whole story quite riveting, and have basically recommended it to everyone I can think of. I've stuck it in front of the people at work who merchandise nonfiction (I don't), so hopefully it'll be more in their minds to give it visibility when it comes out.

When I told Allie this she jumped up and down excitedly.

Yet... I'm in agony. My aim is to write a first draft of my proposal for a second book by June 30 and I'm so freaking blocked I can't stand it. The other day I wrote down some of my fearful/resistent thoughts to try and get over them. Among them was: "My entire career, financial well-being and very life rides on this proposal."

Which isn't true, of course, but it sure feels like it is.

Such highs and lows. All in the span of a morning cup of coffee.

Monday, June 19, 2006

various updates

A book tour of sorts is shaping up.

As of now, I'm slated to headline The Big Read in St. Louis on October 7. I'll be on the main stage, apparently, in the five o'clock (culminating) slot. I'm told C-SPAN will be there. This might well be my first reading ever, so I'm feeling more than a little nervous.

At the moment, my Kansas City debut will be the morning of October 20 at the Rotary Club meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Plaza. On November 1, I'll be at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and on November 7, I'll give another, more public and publicized reading in Kansas City for Rainy Day Books.

There might be a few more. We're shooting for something in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in late October and Chicago on the weekend before Thanksgiving, followed by something in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. Also, I'm hoping for a couple of events in Louisville, Kentucky, so that Ebony Rose can get down with the festivities.

Also, check out the July issue of Vibe. It contains a story I wrote about Jada Pinkett Smith's heavy metal band.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Please click on the image above of Florence Coyote, public relations director of The Homeless Museum, for a virtual tour of HoMu. Another fine mid-summer offering from Grand Arts.

Sean learned a new word on the tour. He found it "pretentious."

Allie and I kind of liked it. Especially the reception at the end, where Mr. Noterdaeme, founding director, offered us milk, eggs and mussels.


I have some serious writing to do over the next two weeks. Barring rain, this is where it will happen.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I'm subscribing to C-SPAN's Road To The White House podcast, even though I don't much care for the way politicians peacock.

That said, I heard some stuff I liked in the Russ Feingold and Mark Warner episode, especially Warner's bit. He makes a good case for himself. Virginia seems a mighty conservative state (witness the George Allen episode), so an incredibly popular and effective Democrat governor of that state is impressive indeed. The Feingold stuff is cool too, I suppose. The Democrats certainly need backbone and a sense of purpose. But I'm getting so tired of the partisan venom that's infected national politics. I'm so tired of it that I can't even bear to hate Bush anymore. So it's so refreshing to hear a guy like Warner talk about all the ways he's worked to find middle ground and create policies that actually make a difference in folks' lives.

Then there's these great speeches by John McCain and Newt Gingrich. I know a few of my relatives back in Indiana are gasping, especially at the Gingrich nod. But I've got to praise what's praiseworthy.

It's not that I connected with either of the Republicans' policy positions, especially the laundry list of reactionary crap Newt tossed out at the end of his speach. But the core of these philosophical speeches transcended difference of opinion. They drove right to the heart of what I think it means to be American.

Gingrich talked at length about Lincoln, focusing on his debates against Douglas, his speech at Cooper Union before the Civil War, and his second inaugural address near its end. He marveled at the change of perspective these speeches convey. He held up these moments from an agonizing political career as a lens through which to view the dischord we're experiencing now. It was an eloquent and moving narrative essay, and I pumped my fist in affirmation as he suggested that the nation's leaders resuscitate the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 21st Century. Hold them in every state, and broadcast them on C-SPAN. Let's just have it out, politely and in public, and let's make sure we shake hands at the beginning and end of each round, just like high school debaters do. Oh how wonderful that would be.

And McCain's address to the graduating class of Liberty University inspired me greatly. Again, I can't say I agree with the policies he claimed to stand behind, but that was the whole point of his speech -- that we must, as Americans, actively but respectfully disagree.

He told a story of a fellow American who had protested the Vietnam War while he was held in a prison camp. Images of the protests were broadcast into McCain's cell. Both McCain and this other fellow were, of course, very young at the time, with impassioned convictions, and they might well have come to blows if they'd met then. But years later their lives intertwined and they became friends. Neither let go of the opinions they'd held about the war in their younger days. But now they could not only respect one another's opinion, but could actually embrace their differences as the very freedom they both fought for way back when.

alpha update

Allie e-mailed me something she found on a web forum about dogs:
I've read every dog book, listened to every video, read hundres of posts, and here is what helped me the most. I figured out that my dog needed a champion. As much as I tried to exude pack leader, I finally realized that he still figured that no one was going to protect him from harm except for himself. I have to make up senerios in my own mind to understand this. Like, a battle is going on and there are two generals. One is shouting out orders telling the troops to advance, but all his soldiers are still scared and getting killed right and left. The other general doesn't say anything but walks out on the hill bombs dropping all around him his shoulders out head up in defiance. He walks back and calmly tells them, today I'm going to lead you into victory!

So on the our afternoon walk yesterday I strutted with my head cocked absurdly high and my chest out. I flexed my arms at my side. (Later, when I got home and showed Allie, she burst out laughing. When she immitated me she looked like a gorrilla.)

At any rate, it worked. Gobo obeyed my Heel! commande forevery step of the walk -- even when we passed the home of one of his villains, the black lab mix at the end of the block.

Whenever I affected my mucleman pose, Gobo would look up at me in complete awe. Perhaps this whole dog problem was simply a matter of posture.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

rites of embarassage

One of my uncles once told me that one of the most important tasks of parents is to routinely embarrass the hell out of their children, particularly during the teen years. I'm not a parent, but dig this:

Sean used his considerable skills of persuasion and emotional manipulation to procure from me a generous offer. I would end his agony and make it possible for him to see his "lady friend" tonight. The trade off? I drive him to her home, a little over a mile away, to inspect the scene and to meet whatever parental force is on the premises.

So we're driving toward Sean's promised land when, after a couple of questions, he finally comprehends the fact that I intend to meet this girl's mom. He's silent for a block or so. I glance over and see that his face is buried in his hands, his mouth agape. I can't help but laugh.

As we near her house he asks what the plan is, how it will all go down.

"I'm just going to go up and meet her mom and leave," I reply.

"Shouldn't I go up first and set the stage?" he pleads.

"No. It's best to just get it over with."

"So what's my role in this?"

"You're role is to be embarrassed. I'll handle everything else. It'll be over in less than three minutes."

We drive a couple of blocks in silence.

"I'm prob'ly gonna get dumped tonight," he pouts.

"That ain't on me," I chirp.

At last, we're parking in front of her house. I stride up to the front door. Just before I knock Sean says, "Now I'm gonna have to marry her."

I begin to respond to this, but then the absurdity of it dawns on me, and I display my palm to him and look away. "Please!" I say.

Turns out the girl is all smiles, friendly and sweet. She gives no hint that she'll be dumping Sean tonight.

The mom seems a little tired, but she's cool with it.

As I turn to leave, I notice Sean leaning against the porch rail, his head sunk low, looking utterly defeated.

Mission accomplished. I guess.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

teen age

Allie and I now have a teenager living in our house. His name is Sean and he'll be here through the end of the month.

Sean showed up last night. Almost as soon as he arrived he said he wanted to go for a walk to get a feel for the place and to clear his mind. Not a big deal, I suppose, except it was getting kinda late, and Alllie and I sort of live in the 'hood, so we were like, Ok, just be back before dark.

And so it gets dark and he ain't back.

I sent him with my cell phone, just in case something like this might happen.

I call him up.

"It's dark," I say.

He laughs. He tells me he's at the house of "a lady friend."

So I'm thinking, Ok, we got the whole trust-issue thing going full blast on the first night. Which translates me into telling Sean that we'll have a chat next Sunday night about whether or not he's earned the right to go over to this girl's house. Meantime, she can come hang out over here.

"On our porch," I say. "Or we can all watch a movie together."

Which Sean interprets to mean, You are now imprisoned by unreasonable, white freaks.

Sean starts whining and wiggling. All day. And by and by we agree that we might let him chill at this chick's house -- maybe even tonight -- if we can talk to her parental figure first.

For reasons Allie and I can never quite understand, this is unacceptable to him.

But he keeps working it. He demands to know why. "Because I don't want you knocking anybody up on my watch," I say.

We appeal to his debate coach, who backs me and Allie up. We even put in a call to Ebony, for a young, black opinion, but he doesn't answer.

Not that it would matter. My mind's made up. Allie's got my back. Case closed.

The ball's in his court.

(And, yes, I can hear my mom, and grandma and aunts and uncles all howling with laughter at this former rebel turned hand-wringing, draconian overlord.)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

kc confidential

On Saturday, Allie and I went on a scavenger hunt hosted by Grand Arts. It had gangsters, dead fish, a human corpse and white people in vintage suitsplaying cards in an abandoned field in the ghetto. We went into dangerous places where we aren't supposed to go. In the end, we saved Kansas City, but we still don't know if that's a good thing.

The hunt began at the gallery, at 18th and Grand. We were given an envelope that contained the following:


We drove as close as we could to the 1400 block of Main. It was blocked off, due to construction of the Sprint Arena and all the mayoral hoo-haw crap going up downtown. There were people dressed in 1950s attire standing outside the Drum Room at the President Hotel, HTNB's offices, and some other building. A man and a woman looked through binoculars into the distance. A woman in a streamline blue dress gracefully smoked a cigarette.

We wandered aimlessly for a while with the other scavengers, trying to find the bars. Finally we found them, on the back of the Empire Theater. Ribbons of paper had been rolled up and tied to the bars on a window. We grabbed one and read our next clue:

From there we drove into the West Bottoms and promptly got all confused and lost, driving back and forth through the warehouse district. Finally Allie figured out that "Big Blue" meant a blue building, and we turned right onto a bridge over the Kansas River that I didn't even know existed.

While on the bridge, two men in masks quickly pulled up beside us in a car and handed us another envelope and a paper torso. Inside the envelope was a photo:

And another type-written clue:


The tall man with a beard was a statue of John Brown, at the site of an old negro college, long abandoned:

From there we went back to West Bottoms, to an old railroad bridge just north of the Kemper:

On it I found a ladder. I climbed it to a small room where I found a man in a striped suit and fedora.

He was smoking a thin cigar, and cutting fish. He said that whenever he dumps a body in the river, he likes to take few out. He said there are many kinds of fish. Smiling fish. Dancing fish. And talking fish. For the talking fish, he pointed at a fish with a ziplock bag containing a piece of paper stuffed into its cut-open belly.

"What kind would you like," he asked.

"Talking fish," I said.

He wrapped one up in newspaper and handed it to me.

He also told me to reach into a wad of goopy soap and pull out another ziplock. This contained a paper leg.

Allie and I had a hard time deciphering the clues contained in the fish:



Finally, we figured out that we had to line the square clue up with the markings on the paper torso and read the words showing through the holes in the torso. The words spelled "1826 forest at 19th".

We sped over there and found an abandoned building. An insane man beckoned us from a second-floor window. We climbed the fire escape and went inside. He was tied up in wire and babbling about how we needed to find the Pretty Lady and talk to her. We found the Pretty Lady in a backroom. She handed us an envelope and told us to get out quick, before They get to us.

Inside the envelope was a paper leg stump, a drawing of an alligator head with a crown, and this:


At 31st and forest, we found these people:

They were playing cards and talking to each other. They ignored us, until the woman shouted something about blood and a stabbed back. They both suddenly pointed past us. We turned around and looked. There was a smashed car.

We walked over and looked in the window. There was a corpse inside:

There were envelopes stabbed into its back with a knife. We took one. Inside was a clue telling us to go to 21st and Vine, park, and walk to the space between the towers. We went into the old abandoned building that looked like a castle, following the smell of incense. Inside there was a room with trees growing in it and doors high up in the wall. In each doorway was a man.

On one side was Mr. Black:

Mr. Black asked us questions about the creature we had constructed out of our paper torso, limbs and gator head. He said the building we were in was once a prison. He examined our paper creature, which we called Bitey, or something like that. Mr. Black deemed Bitey satisfactory, and told us to show it to Mr. White.

Allie handed Bitey to Mr. White:

Mr. White qave her a map:

We followed the map to a hole in the ground behind another ruin. There was a basket tied to a rope. Smoke wafted out of the hole. We placed Bitey in the basket and lowered him into the hole:

Someone in the hole put things in the basket. We pulled it up and I displayed the things:

There was a playing card with instructions on it. And three masks:

And a key:

The key said, "Destroy KC".

The text on the card told us to drive to Cleveland and 28th and wait for instructions. We waited for a long time. Then a man drove up and parked. He told us to take our key and masks and follow him.

We walked a block to the corner of 27th and Cleveland. He led us to a set of stairs that led below the sidewalk to a passageway that went under the intersection. There were lots of people in this litter-strewn tunnel. Many of them wore masks. One man in a mask led us to a wall full of keyholes. High on the wall was a screen with a clock counting down minutes and seconds.

The man said, "Don't put your key in one of the holes, or else you will save Kansas City."

But all of us scavengers put our keys in the holes. When the last key was in place the closk stopped and Kansas City was saved.

The scavenger hunt was a work of art by Ars Subterranea. I need to research more about the group.

Of course, the piece got me thinking about Mayor Kay Barnes, who was symbolized by the torn Queen of Hearts. "KC Confidential" was about white flight, gentrification, so-called urban renewal and the destructive nature of it all.

The tone was set when we started at the rubbled-out site of the Mayor's big downtown revitalization ballyhoo. From there we were led through the abandoned bones of the city, forced to really meditate on all that we ignore. All along the way we saw out-of-place people dressed in 1950s garb -- spiffy duds from the halcyon days of white flight and suburban expansion. In the end, we were given a key with which to "save KC." But the guy was warning us not to do it.

To me, that's Kay Barnes in a nutshell. A sort of artsy, oblique nutshell, I suppose, but a nutshell nonetheless.

You know. Mayor. Key. Save the city. Stamp a suburban model on it, ghetto fall-out be damned.

All the other stuff kind of adds up, too. Like the mafia motif. Whitney Terrell's recent book hinted at the mob's role in white flight in this city, in the 50s. Plus the mob is kind of a universal symbol for corruption. And the mayor's regime is corrupt; like, is there much difference between cosa notra and good old big-city patronage? And all the allusions to Disney. Seems an apt metaphor for the false front of Herroner's campaign to "save" the city.

Probably a stretch, but this is America and I'm entitled to my pretentious interpretation of a scavenger hunt work of art.

At any rate, the whole experience kicked ass. I have a renewed enthusiasm for the city; the place suddenly looks fresh and exciting to me, full of potential and mystery. And ragardless of whatever sort of meaning anyone might (or might not) glean, it seems the least art should do is give a fresh sense of the world. I doubt any of my other scavengers would disagree that we all got that out of it. I'm sure we're all looking at Kansas City through new eyes.

I wish I could do something like this once a month. I might actually plan a vacation around one of this crew's events.

i come by it honest

Soon after I started bitching about the Star's headlines on their website I got an e-mail from my grandma.
I just read your criticism on local headlines. The old Truth'ers would say sounds like what we heard for a good many years. Carl would be chuckling.

Carl would be grandpa. The old Truth'ers would be the editorial staff of The Elkhart Truth, where my grandpa was the top news editor for decades. He passed away a couple of years ago.

Today I got another note from my aunt.
Joe - I have to tell you that I take great delight everytime I read your blog entries about terrible headlines. They always put me back in the Elkhart Truth newsroom in about 1972 when I was working as a summer intern. At the horsehoe-shaped editors desk, your Grandpa Miller sat in the middle of the horsehoe, like at the head of the table, writing headlines to all of the stories he selected for that day's edition. When he was done counting characters in headlines, he would lean back in his chair, grin ear to ear, laugh, and say "This is the best job in the world!" And, wonderfully, he meant it!

It seems ink is passed down through blood.

(A variation on this story: In his obituary, Grandpa's former co-workers wrote that when the last bit of copy was sent to the presses each afternoon he would invariably shout, Easy money! "It wasn't," they wrote. "But he made it seem like it was.")

I have this picture of my grandpa hanging over my work desk:

It'll stay there for as long as I'm a journalist.


I turned 38 on Saturday. Allie treated me very well.

She gave me a 12 pack to begin the day.

Then something I probably wouldn't buy for myself, at this particular point in time.

Then we had a delightful lunch of Indian food. Then a scavenger hunt. Then steak.

Good day.

run gobo run


very bad headlines

Today the Star's website had the worst headlines imaginable:


Saturday, June 10, 2006


I had an interesting exchange last week with a fellow journalist about the trustworthiness of bloggers versus the mainstream media. I've been thinking about it ever since. The upshot was this: the MSM has systems in place to verify the info they put out; bloggers don't. So the info put out there by bloggers requires a little bit of extra work on the part of the reader, or the linker, to doublecheck it and make sure it's ok.

Fair enough. Seems to make sense.

But then, the context of our conversation was about political info. So that kind of muddies things in my mind. Like, what is the "info" of political reporting exactly. Quite often it's just powerful people saying stuff. Almost as often it's two or more powerful people saying things that directly contradict. So I suppose that you might say that up to half of the info offered in any given MSM political article is complete bunk -- which half depends, I suppose, on which party you belong to.

But seriously. There's a real point here: A lot of the "info" in news stories is just stuff folks say. Sometimes it's verified. But a lot of the time it's just written down, typed up and distributed, where it solidifies into a truth of sorts.

I'm not saying there's necessarily anything wrong with this. When newsmakers speak, it's news, I guess. But everyone knows newsmakers lie. (Of course they do -- they're people.) So what does this say about the info they offer through the MSM? And why do their lies not merit extra effort for verification, simply because they're filtered through the AP or Slate? Indeed, I think there's a strong argument to be made that the powerful's lies demand more verification precicely because they're uttered by the powerful. Their impact is arguably much greater than the potential impact of falsities offered by bloggers, or everyday citizens.

In the end this conversation reminds me of the old journalism movie, Absense of Malice. It was kind of an awful movie, much of its premise absurd. But it did hit a couple of points dead on. A recurring motif in that film was the journalism establishment's deferrence to power. Sally Fields's character ran with the info that had been leaked to her by the DA's office. She trusted the info, no questions asked. Of course, the info turned out to be totally false. Then, when an everyday citizen tried to tell her the truth, she viewed this person with suspision bordering on contempt. Whereas she granted the people in the DA's office anonymity, she turned around and sandbagged this average citizen (who later killed herself).

Which brings me to the point where I drag out my old red-white-and-blue soap box and warily climb on top to toot my tin horn:

It seems like my ally in news has it back assward. Aren't we supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? And if you don't buy that old pollyanna cliche, you probably won't buy this:

Ours is a democracy, not an aristocracy, right? So doesn't the true power lie -- at least potentially -- among us out here in the cheap seats, with our laptops and our cups of coffee?

If you can trust Kit Bond with power, why can't you trust us?

community grows

I've added a few more links to the community section on the right. Check them out.

good editing choices?

From the local news site:

Link is one hot walkway
The AC is turned off between Union Station and Crown Center.

Impressions of power of art
Economic role is often overlooked, backers say in urging KC to take a leadership stance.

PERUVIAN DIG | Surprise of a lifetime
Ancient stone face ruled lives
MU anthropologist’s find predates known use of rudimentary astronomy.

keester the garage cat only wanted in


You've probably all already seen this. But, just in case.

Friday, June 09, 2006

rock star

This is my cousin Jake, formerly of Jake Miller and the White Belts.

podcast freak

I know I've mentioned it before, but I'm just thrilled with podcasts. It's easily the best thing that's ever happened, in the humble opinion of this news consumer. And now that it's summer, I have all kinds of time to listen as I garden, ride my bike, walk dogs, etc. So I added a bunch o new subscriptions to my iTunes.

  • C-SPAN Afterwords

  • C-SPAN Podcast of the Week

  • C-SPAN Q&A

  • C-SPAN The Communicators

  • C-SPAN Classroom

  • NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

  • NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Newsmaker Interviews

  • KC Currents

  • PBS : NOW

  • NPR : African-American Roundtable

  • NPR : Religion

  • Tavis Smiley Show

  • Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

  • Bible in a Year

Looks like a lot. I'll likely drop a few of these. But so far, I highly recommend them all.

I wish Kraske would podcast his show. I need another local news source.

morning surprise

I always thought the singer of this song was black.

Groovy, anyways.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

monkey man

I'm probably a little late on this Internet sensation, but maybe some of you are too.

A lot of times the internets are dull, dull, dull. But then every so often you find someone out there who's doing something delightfully weird and it makes it all so worthwhile.

I spent a delightful half hour this morning with the man surviving only on monkey food.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

mayor kay bricks

This picture kind of gives me the creeps.

new product

Sometimes you stumble across a product that you know instantly will be with you for the rest of your life. The product displayed above is perfect in every way.

pretty flowers

Click image above for more images.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Every morning I check out the local news page of my local paper's website, and every morning I get frustrated. Most of the headlines kind of make sense. But at least a few make no sense whatsoever.

Examples from today:
Lots of space, top attractions are lures
Maybe next year, kid
They’ll scream at queen of mean

But then you click on the links and you discover these cryptic lines are part of a cluster of headlines that make more sense:

PARKS AND RECREATION | Bringing in the visitors
Lots of space, top attractions are lures
By using economies of scale and letting volunteers pitch in,
park efficiencies go up.

Maybe next year, kid
Michelle Wie did not qualify for the U.S. Open,
Monday at Canoe Brook in N.J

And the last is a Steve Penn column, which is a whole other subject entirely.

So why can't they put this little bit of extra info on the main page? It would really help me figure out what I want to read.

Like, if they think this extra info is important to provide to the dying breed who read the news on paper, why wouldn't it also be important for those who've already embraced the new tomorrow?

Monday, June 05, 2006

it's starting

My book isn't even out yet and already I'm checking my sales rank on Amazon. From what I understand authors obsessively check the stats when their books come out, so I'm probably due for a miserable fall.

I have no idea how they work or what they mean. But I was surprised to find that I was ranked 297,305th, right between the unabridged audiobook of The Courtship by Catherine Coulter and the Microsoft Reader download of Collared & Leashed, A Novel of Female Domination by Chris Bellows.

Which would seem pretty dismal, except the last time I checked a week or so ago I was languishing somwhere in the 750,000th place range. So I've suddenly jumped about a half million places.

What could this mean? Did a relative of mine stealthily order a bunch of copies? Or does the sale of one or two books catapult one astronomically up the ranks?

The good news:

I am now the undisputed leader of the Joe Millers.

the n-word

KC Currents had a segment recently about the N-word. Glenn Rice and Lewis Diuguid of the Star talked about the impacts the word has on the community. Fascinating segment. Really got me thinking.

My first reaction was kind of negative, truth be told. I bristled when Duiguid said the Star has a policy against using the word in print, even in a quote. My immediate reaction was that as journalists our job is to report the world as it is. I don't think it's our job to clean things up.

Indeed, I use the N-word in the epitaph of my book -- in the best quote I've ever gotten in my decade or so of reporting: "Nigga, you white! You can't dictate the revolution!!"

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed appropriate for the Star. Like network TV, they bleep out curse words and uphold certain decency standards that are generally considered appropriate for venues that kids have easy access to. And it seems that my argument for quoting the N-word is most applicable to narrative journalism, of which the Star engages very little. They do, though, from time to time. And it would seem that in such instances -- if they were, for instance, to run a series of narrative immersion journalism pieces about black teens in the inner-city -- they'd probably be remiss not to print it.

But journalism aside, the segment really got me thinking about the kids on the debate squad. They use the N-word all the time. In fact, they even call me nigga (to which I respond cracka!). And as I thought about Duiguid's comments about the effect of this negative word on one's psyche and spirit I started wondering if it might not be a good idea to try to persuade the kids not to use the word. Perhaps propose it as a collective effort, like getting down with the coalition, or something like that.

Because, truth be told, self esteem is something these kids are struggling to find. And it's something the coach and I are struggling to help them find.

Lately, we've toyed with the idea of having them do affirmations as part of the debate preparation routine. And I read with intense interest the parts of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink in which he reported that black students have been shown to perform better at academic challenges after listening to speeches by the likes of Malcolm X. For a while I've considered playing "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech for them before they go into a debate round (and I've also thought about what a great intimidation tactic this could be to use against their opponents).

I don't know. I'll have to talk with Sean about it. He's emerging as the new squad leader.

It would be sort of an odd campaign for a middle-age white guy to lead.

cucs and zucs

For the past two years, I have failed to raise healthy cucumbers and zucchini. The plants have died early on. This year I'm determined to break the cycle.

Allie and I went to Longview Gardens Saturday. I asked the sentient beings there how I might escape this cycle of wilt and death. I've asked before, of the same sentient beings, in summers past, but the desperation must have shown on my face, because they chose to take me to their leader, the co-owner.

When we finally found her, she appeared to be imbued with golden light, like the good witch in The Wizard of Oz. She winked at me.

She told me to get some large empty cans and cut the bottoms out. Then bury them in the dirt so the tops are almost flush with the top of the soil. Then plant the plantlings inside those submerged cylinders.

The reason: bugs crawl up to the plant at soil level and lay eggs inside the stems. And that kills the plant.

She also said to spray the stems regularly with diluted neem oil.

So this is what I have done.

May God have mercy on my soil.


More linking words that make little sense from my local paper's website:
A cheaper day in the park awaits
What’s changing? Here’s a look
Foes, beware: She’ll be back
About the series
Yes, we’ve changed

A couple of these are about the paper's redesign. That's nice. I'm sure I'll enjoy it next time I'm having breakfast by myself at Waids. Meantime, what about those of us in the already-arrived future of news consumption? Where's our redesign?

Where are our headlines/links that make sense?

scavenger hunt

Got this in the Gmail today:

I'm Gayle, and I'm part of the New York City-based arts organization Ars Subterranea. We are holding an event/scavenger hunt in Kansas City this Saturday, with Kansas City's Grand Arts (, as part of its 'Urban Test Sites' two-weekend event.

I'm e-mailing you because you are interested or knowledgeable about Kansas City architecture, KC art, or both.

We're still looking for participants for 'Kansas City Confidential.' Below is a description of the event, which is 4 hours of FREE FUN. The scavenger hunt will be conducted in groups in cars.

Please join us or forward this e-mail and info on to people that you think are interested in a fun, interactive experience with Kansas City's "forgotten places" this Saturday. We promise those attending that they will never see Kansas City in the same way again!

Anybody 18 + over is welcome to attend this event; our sold-out events in New York appeal to a broad age group. No previous knowledge is required. Please post this information on blogs and websites. We are looking forward to sharing this event with the people, as well as the spaces, of Kansas City!

See you Saturday?

Best regards,

Saturday, June 10, 3 - 7 pm

Kansas City Confidential

City-wide scavenger hunt organized by Ars Subterranea, New York (

Meeting place to be announced at time of RSVP.

Based on the film noir from 1952, this urban scavenger hunt will send teams of explorers into the neglected underbelly of Kansas City. Participants will use architectural clues to foil a dark conspiracy hinted at in the film, which threatens to engulf the City Beautiful. En route, the teams learn to read historic buildings for messages that will
bring them closer to their goal. This game will take place on the streets of Kansas City with 52 participants, one for each card in a deck. This event/ /requires pre-registration by e-mail to:

Ars Subterranea is an artistic preservation group based in New York City whose goal is to bring attention to forgotten yet historically significant locations through site-specific events and other creative projects, including publishing and exhibitions. Previous projects have included an exhibition on subterranean art inside an abandoned rail tunnel, a scavenger hunt based on underground streams in New York, and a planned commemoration of a lost Paleozoic museum in Central Park, among others. (

I'm game. Anyone else?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

dog show

garden documentary

debate champ

Allie and I were on our way to Longview Gardens to buy plants. Allie said she wanted to leave a snarky comment on this blog. It would have been in response to my post about the owner of Joe's Burgers, who chose not to sell his property to a payday lender. She said burgers are as bad as, if not worse than payday loans. They clog arteries and are a public menace.

A minor argument ensued, one which I quickly conceded. One rarely beats Allie in an eating-animals debate.

Then, after her victory seemed so firmly in place, I casually asked, "Which would you rather see me bring home, a bag of Joe's Burgers or a receipt from a payday lender?"

Case closed.

Friday, June 02, 2006

moral code

This week my main news sources have been offering a lot of info about the role of so-called morality in public health policy.

On Tuesday, Frontline ran an epic masterpiece of journalism on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It cited numerous instances in which the spread of the disease could have been lessened if policies had been shaped by scientific reality, not moralistic theory. And I just listened to a KC Currents piece about a recent change in Missouri law making it harder for poor people to get contraception.

And it occured to me that the privileged folks in power treat the less fortunate like children.

All these policies do is take choices away from people who can't afford to choose. The well-off -- those who fill a similar demographic as those making the policies -- have the luxury of so-called immorality without consequence. Contraception, clean needles, abortion, expensive medication -- they'll be able to get these things regardless of the changes in the law.

And the rich -- just like their fellow humans, the poor -- will continue to indulge in so-called immorality.

So those in power are daddies. Bad ones, to tell the truth. They're stern, punishing daddies who, despite the best intentions of their draconian ways, only wind up making the family more dysfunctional with their iron fist.

el migre

I'm kind of on a KC Currents praise kick right now. I hope Sylvia can handle it. But I keep listening to these shows and my mind is so stimulated.

Their coverage of the immigration debate has been supperb. I especially enjoyed the April 2 edition. Once you get past the opening segment about the stadium tax (that kind of glosses over all the patronage connections of the main sources on the piece) you get a fascinating diversity of perspectives within the Latino community.

I remember talking to Sylvia while back. She mentioned that she was really stressing about how to cover this story in a not-so-predictable way. Well, she did what other reporters ought to do. She looked past the usual suspects that reporters always go to on this issue, found some new voices and put a microphone in front of them.

Sorry, Sylvia, to embarrass you, but this is great stuff.

(I'll probably have more throughout the day, as I'm gardening iPod, and KC Currents is the audio du jour.

the revolution ends now

With sincere apologies to Steve Earle, I must formally announce what regular readers this blog probably already know:

My campaign to force Knight-Ridder (McClatchy?) newspapers to make websites that don't suck has fizzled out in a flurry of summer distraction and better-things-to-do-ness.

In the end, it's yet another example of the capriciousness of my obsessions.

I'll still toss out the occasional WTF?!?! headline from the Star's site. But other than that, I'm officially bailing on the cause -- humbly reacquainted with the ineffectiveness of my tin horn.

more good news

God bless this guy:
Westport Flea Market savior Joe Zwillenberg had one word for the bevy of payday loan businesses who wanted to take over his Joe’s Burger at 4101 Main: No.

“I’ve had three major check-cashing companies wanting to buy it or lease it,” Zwillenberg says. “I turned down two and one-half times what I paid for it to one because I didn’t want it to be a payday loan place. Because I care about the people in the neighborhood, and I want something (there) that’s going to help them, not take advantage of them. You’ve got the Community Blood Center and St. Paul’s.”

(full story)

Cross-X by Joe Miller

Thursday, June 01, 2006

good news

I fell behind on my podcasts of KC Currents. Remind me to never do that again. For the past several days I've been listening to shows dating back to early March thinking, How can I afford to miss this stuff?

Allie and I are good friends with the show's producer. So maybe you ought to ignore my praise. But still. The show kicks ass.


  • UMKC's new provost unwittingly (?) reveals that he doesn't even understand the meaning of "institutional racism."
  • There are Bollywood movies in JoCo.
  • Lewis Diuguid and Glenn Rice talking about the N-word.
  • A provocative interview with an author who started a black-and-white-member book club.
  • Cool "taking it to the streets" interviews about race, immigration and money.
  • Great coverage of the immigration controversy (including a tough interview of Dennis Moore).
  • Michelle Singletary!
  • An interesting story (for a change) about Buck O'Neil.
  • Good perspective on the Boys and Girls Club racism lawsuit.
  • A terrific personal essay about race and the movies by host Delores Jones.

All of these are great fodder for blog entries. And I'll probably tee off on a couple of them at some point. But for now I just want to express my general appreciation.

What I like is how they have enough time and space to give these stories, issues and ideas the room they need in order to be developed and understood. I can't think of any other news source in town that's doing that right now. Maybe Kraske's show does. But I can't find a podcast of it, so it's hard for me to be a regular listener. At any rate, this is something Kansas City really needs.

And since I'm friends with the host, I know she wouldn't truly appreciate the praise without a little criticism mixed in. So...

I'd like to see hear them offer a little more reporting on whiteness. Definitely tough to get at, though I think they got it in their segment about race and film, in which they interviewed an unusually aware white film critic, and the piece about the guy and the mixed-race book club -- he was white and honest about whiteness.

The show would be a true maverick nationally if it were to plunge fearlessly into the Heart of Whiteness from time to time. It's definitely the elephant in the room, um, of diversity. (And, yeah, it's actually kind of pink, so I think the metaphor works -- until the room part.)