Sunday, July 23, 2006

martyrs no more

Yesterday was a good day for "lapsed Mennonites," as my good friend Joel calls them. He should know, because he's one of them, and his Saturday was be pretty darn damn good. His wedding ceremony was at two o'clock on the sixth floor of the Kansas Union on the KU campus, and it was a lovely affair. Joel got a little choked up as he said his vows. And I was so tickled I leaned over to Allie and said, "Maybe we should have one of these."

Two days earlier I met up with Joel and a couple of his buddies for a night of mild man stuff, cigars and booze (for them -- I stuck to Kaliber), and Joel mentioned that our fellow, more famous Anabaptist, Floyd Landis, appeared to be headed for a loss at the Tour de France. He'd had a bad day in the mountains, Joel explained, and it didn't look like he'd bounce back. Then this morning I picked up a paper and saw that Lancaster County Landis had mounted one of the most incredible comebacks in the history of the Tour and clinched the yelllow jersey.

As Joel said in the comments on my blog a few days back, "Lapsed Mennonites rule!" I can't help but believe that Landis's victory and the Mathis wedding are cosmically linked. A special day indeed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


The Star ran an interesting story yesterday about how a white collar crime impacted the inner-city. There was just one thing about it that irked me. One paragraph:
Beyond the quiet shuffle of paperwork in the Jackson County recorder’s office, (Brent) Barber didn’t make much noise as he bought and sold houses between 1999 and 2001. But since he pleaded guilty to more than 100 federal felonies earlier this year, neighborhood leaders, community development officials and others have begun to assess how his conduct affected the city’s social fabric.

Actually, he made a lot of noise. I began hearing about him in 2001, and I seriously pursued the story. Back then he was known around the city as "The Yellow Sign People," because his rentals all displayed yellow signs on the front lawn. The story was this: The Blue Hills neighborhood had long struggled with an absentee landlord who rented dozens of houses under Section 8 contracts with the federal government. These places were decrepit, and in one instance the landlord -- who lived in Boca Raton -- even continued collecting federal rent checks on a house with a dead body in it. It took the feds years and years and years and years to dump this guy from their contract and seize control of the properties. When they finally did, they sold them at auction -- where a good nonprofit, Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance was outbid by Brent Barber.

Even though I fiiled an FOIA request and got stacks of documents, I couldn't quite bring the story home. So it went to a better journalist than I -- Allie. And her story, written three years ago, totally kicked ass. In fact, I think it's safe to say her story kicked the federal investigation into high gear.

Friday, July 21, 2006

my first google video

Gobo is scared of the camera, and coffee

man health

Last night I helped a friend savor his waning hours of freedom. He was able to eat as many chicken wings as he wanted and afterward we settled in a bar where we smoked long cigars and my friend got a little silly on $12-a-glass scotch.

I haven't smoked a cigar in years. I can still taste it today. And my lungs hurt when I resumed running, thanks to the break in the heatwave. I used to smoke cigars quite a bit. Back when it was trendy, I'm afraid to say. Yuck.

His wedding is tomorrow. Allie and I bought him and his wife a nice present.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tut barking



Tony pointed me to a Star story about plans to make Berkley Riverfront Park better.

But the story fails to mention that this is the fourth or fifth design for the park since 1987. I wrote about this park almost four years ago. When the story came out, the Port Authority Director Pat Sterritt complained to me (in a very nice way; he's a super nice guy) that I didn't pay enough attention to all the positive things that were happening down there on the riverfront. And it's true. Near the end of the article I cavalierly tossed in these details:
Other ideas hatched years ago are finally beginning to crystallize. A few weeks ago, Port Authority officials cut the ribbon on a hip-looking pedestrian walkway stretching over the river's edge. It cost a little more than $4 million to build and was paid for with money from the casino lease, an insurance settlement and several state and federal grants.

By next summer, that bridge is supposed to be connected to Berkley Park by a serpentine bike path, promises Sterrett. (It will cost $908,000 and be paid for with city and federal funds.) In between, on a lot overrun with cracked asphalt and tall weeds, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to use $2.8 million in federal funds to create a wetlands with ponds and footpaths, also expected to be open by next summer. And Port Authority officials hope to announce in a few weeks the long-awaited addition of a boat ramp downstream.

And, yes, four years later, there is a bike path between the bridge and the park. But it has been blocked off by a locked gate every time I've been down there in the last three years.

And the wetlands? Nope. It's still a field of cement with stubborn weeds popping out here and there.

I'm not sure, but I don't think there's a boat ramp either.

But here's the thing I really don't get. When I wrote my story, I revealed that three separate design companies had proposed an amphitheater, the most recent being Kansas City's Bucher, Willis & Ratliff, in 2000. This Star story says the newest design was "prepared by Civitas Inc. of Denver and Atelier Dreiseitl, a German firm."

I'm beginning to suspect that this park is less about being a park than it is about providing pretty "we're making progress" pictures to the Star. Which would be fine, I guess, if those pretty pictures didn't cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if it didn't mean we're not even as cool as Davenport, Iowa, when it comes to embracing our riverfront.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Saturday, July 15, 2006


It's Allie's birthday today, so we celebrated at the new woopty-doo public pool up in the Northland. Hands down, the best public pool in the metro area. The covered slide is a rush -- pitch black inside and fast. They got two high dives, an inner-tube river, a big kiddy jungle gym water deal, a bunch o kiddy fountains, and other refreshing stuff.

Allie and I haven't been to a public pool since our early dating days. We used to do it a lot. I still like it when they play that Lifehouse song on the speaker sound system. It's like the best mid-summer, Midwestern public-pool song. It sort of makes time stop when you're standing up there on the high dive.

Friday, July 14, 2006


The Kirkus review was a bigger deal than I thought.

I talked with Agent Lydia yesterday. She told me it's quite a coup to pull off a "clean sweep" of starred reviews the pre-publication industry mags. Kirkus is quite a bit snobbier than Publishers Weekly. Sometimes they're down right snarky. So a star from them is a score indeed.

Anyway, the review sparked a fire at FSG. The head honchos there are going to have a meeting next week to discuss the marketing strategy for my book -- just my book. The other cool thing is that my editor has recently been promoted to editor-in-chief of FSG. So now the top dog in the whole company is going to throw his weight behind me. They're also ordering a second printing of the galleys, which is a pretty big deal, because they're expensive.

I'm not sure what all this means just yet. It's possible they'll be buying display space at Barnes and Noble and such. Agent Lydia wants to push for a radio tour. And I think there'll be a reading tour of fund-raising events for Urban Debate Leagues around the country that'll take me to New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Miami, Austin, Seattle and, hopefully, Chicago, Atlanta and LA.

the mennonite rider

My kinfolk back in Indiana are probably already on top of this. As is Joel. But just in case...

The current leader of the Tour de France is a Mennonite. Or was a Mennonite. Some say Amish. Regardless, he was one of those really conbservative, no-electricity Anabaptists from Lancaster County.

Here's a story. And another.

(Grandma, is he my cousin?)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

the review

Heidi and the folks at FSG have provided a copy of the review:
A Turbulent, Triumphant Season with an Inner-City Debate Squad

Author: Miller, Joe

Review Date: JULY 15, 2006
Publisher:Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Pages: 496
Price (hardback): $26
Publication Date: 10/1/2006 0:00:00
ISBN: 0-374-13194-5
ISBN (hardback): 0-374-13194-5

A star is assigned to books of unusual merit, determined by the editors of
Kirkus Reviews.

Both the author and his subjects come of age in this thoughtful portrait of an urban debate team struggling to win matches on a playing field clearly stacked against its members.

Each morning in Kansas City, Mo., the students at Central High-nearly all African-American, many of them poor-pass through metal detectors to enter their academically deficient school. One bright spot is the debate squad. Coached by a middle-aged white woman named Jane Rinehart, it has fielded several successful teams on the national circuit. Local journalist Miller followed the program through the 2002 season, focusing on four kids who made up two teams. Seniors Marcus and Brandon ended the season as one of the top teams in the country. Ebony and Antoine, both new to the game, became competitive as they learned the style as the season progressed. Miller does not tell a simple story of triumph over the odds. Instead, he depicts the complicated relationship between Rinehart and her team, the kids' sometimes bratty behavior, the vast backdrop of negligence and misguided ideology that have helped put Central's students at a serious disadvantage in American society. His descriptions give the debates the drama of a championship football game. The style of debate was arcane: Kids purchased complicated "evidence" off the Internet and literally speed-read their arguments as fast as they could rather than engaging in debate in the traditional sense. While the author at first believed that debating offered inner-city kids a ray of hope, he came to see its current emphasis on winning instead of genuine argument and dialogue as reinforcing the privileges of wealthy suburban kids while discouraging the participation of teens like those from Central. Deeply changed during the reporting process, Miller became the team's assistant coach, working to develop ways to bring new voices and styles to the debate circuit.

A provocative portrait that uncovers entrenched racism and class disparities in the debate community and in America as a whole.

Very exciting.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The second review is in. It's another starred one, from Kirkus Reviews.

Unfortunately, I can't read it yet, without a $49.95 subscription. All that's up is this:
Miller, Joe CROSS-X
July 15, 2006 - Each morning in Kansas City, Mo., the students at Central High—nearly all African-American, many of them poor—pass through metal detectors to enter their academically deficient school. One bright spot is the debate squad. Coached by a middle-aged...

Arrgh!! I want to read it!!

(From their FAQ Page: "A star is assigned to books of remarkable merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus Reviews.")


Tuesday, July 11, 2006


No more two-week out-of-town debate camps.

I miss my woman. I miss my dogs. I miss my garden. I wanna go home.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

debate camp

I've written a few more debate cases:



Now, before you get all in a tizzy about how I'm corrupting the youth you should know that the first two are clearly defined early in the debate as metaphors, that they act as a sort of rhetorical shock to the system. They both hinge on the idea that education itself is political, and that the most important place to affect change is in educational spaces, and in the mind. The third does a bit of that, too, but it's more defendable as a policy. It's actually quite conservative, believe it or not.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

king conspiracies

While researching the final months of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, life, during which he was planning an unprecedented act of civil disobedience, I came across some of the cospiracy theories surrounding his assassination. Most interesting is the Memphis bar-owner one, which resulted in a little-publicized guilty verdict in a civil court in 1999.

It didn't take much digging to figure out that the trial was pretty much bogus. But I was taken aback when I first discovered it, at the online home of the King Center, King's official living memorial, established by Coretta Scott King in 1968. They offer the full transcript of the trial, as well as a forthright press statement by Coretta Scott King and her children.

This, I thought at first, is incredible. I still think so, really, even now that I know that the trial was pretty much rigged. I'm amazed because the event of Coretta Scott King's funeral last year is still fresh in my mind, all the nation's most powerful gathered to honor her, all ignoring the fact that she went to her grave believing that her nation conspired with the mafia to kill her husband.

I'm hesitant to say so, because I don't like coming off like a wingnut, but the whole conspiracy thing starts makes sense the more I learn about what King was working on at the end. His proposed Poor People's Campaign must have scared U.S. leaders to death.

Think about it. You have this incredibly charismatic leader. He's already led mass movements of poor, disempowered people that actuallytook control of this nation and demanded and received change. With school children in Birmingham he forced the nation's leaders to create federal laws for equal access in public accomodations. With weary marchers in Selma he did the same for federal voters' rights legislation.

And these were local events, comparitively small grassroots drives. For the Poor People's Campaign, he was going big time. He was heading straight for the Capitol, and the Capital.

He never overtly said so, but he was calling for a revolution. From his August 16, 1967, address to the SCLC in Atlanta:
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here?" that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. (Yes) There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. (Yes) And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. (Yes) But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (All right) It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" (Yes) You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" (Yes) You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?" (All right) These are words that must be said. (All right)

Then, I dig a little deeper, and I learn in this essay by Robert Chase that says that it was Democratic presidential front runner "Bobby Kennedy who... told Martin Luther King to "bring the poor people to Washington." See, the Poor People's Campaign, went on without King. Thousands of demonstrators actually camped out in DC for six weeks. But it ended a couple of weeks after Kennedy was assassinated.

I'm not saying I believe it was all a conspiracy. But it's funny how it all worked out. Even though the Campaign had a vast array of obstacles arrayed before it -- not the least of which was a fractured Black community -- the fact is its two most powerful proponents were gunned down before it even had a chance to get moving.

And if there's one thing King's legacy shows, it's that the impossible can be possible. The disempowered can get together and claim power.

Monday, July 03, 2006


I'm in Norman, Oklahoma, for the next two weeks at a debate camp. I'm one of the instructors, and for now I'm working mostly with Sean and James of KC. I'm pumped because this is the best debate topic ever, and our case is completely kick ass.
The resolution:
Resolved: The United States federal government should establish a policy substantially increasing the number of persons serving in one or more of the following national service programs: AmeriCorps, Citizen Corps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, Learn and Serve America, Armed Forces.

Our plan:

We're going to write an actual grant proposal for a Learn and Serve America program to be established in Kansas City which will take on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, plan to abolish poverty. It's what he was working on when he was assassinated. Our initiative will focus on the poorest Census blocks in the 64128 zip code.

I love this idea for so many reasons. For one, a successful Learn and Serve America grant proposal is a lot like a debate case. But it's tougher to attack because it's so tightly focused and inherently good. But I also think it's cool because it helps kids learn that there are ways they can actually access power and resources and make a difference in their communities. Ande the fact that we're basic it all on MLK is just over-the-top cool, because King has been mythologized over the past several decades. He's detached from the kids we teach, he seems to no longer be human being just like them, someone whose shoes they can strive to fill. With this, the students can not only claim his words as their own, they can learn the many ways that students made the Civil Rights Movement possible. Indeed, they'll learn that King wouldn't have been able to do it without kids.