Thursday, November 30, 2006


I got my first bad review -- from my old high school newspaper. The place where I started out. The Smoky Hill Express

Under the headline, "Cross-X educational but boring," critic Kaely Moore writes:
Don't pick [Cross-X] up for a bit of light reading unless you're an insomniac and are looking for a new way to fall asleep.

She adds:
it is sorely lacking in entertainment. Perhaps because Miller is a journalist, his book is written in a relatively journalistic style. It's almost like a documentary, with no real feeling, no deep emotion, no true heart to his story. What's the fun of reading 480 pages that sound exactly like a newspaper?

Counting how many times Miller used the word "bureaucrat" (at least 17) was more fun than reading the rest of the book. Cross-X tells the stories of individual people, of their struggles and aspirations in the field of debate, but it doesn't really say anything about who they really are.


Call it karmic retribution, from back in the day when I'd load a blank sheet of paper in the old type writer and just go off. Kaely's an Express reporter cut from the same cloth as me!

Fist up for disaffected suburban youth!!

(BTW, they did also run a real nice article by Alan Dicker, who, judging from his story, actually read the book.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

illinois public radio

I was on WILL's show The Afternoon Magazine today. Real Audio.

university news

I got a review from UMKC's student paper.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

news and notes

I was on NPR's News and Notes with Ebony and Marcus yesterday. Listen here.

Friday, November 24, 2006


funny cats

This is for Lynn and Lora:


Amid all the mid-term hoopla, I missed out on Bernie Sander's election to the Senate. I don't know much about him, but what I've seen I've liked. He gave a great speech a couple of years ago during the House's hearings on steroid use in pro sports, in which he lamented our cheating culture. Now, as he prepares to join the House of Lords, he gives some good words to Mother Jones:
I want to focus on an issue that is almost never talked about on the floor — that is the power of big money. What are the moral implications? What do these people do when they have tremendous amounts of money? They use that money to perpetuate their own wealth and their own power. Every day, Congress works on behalf of big-money interests.

So, what is he?
You can call me anything you want. I won with the label "Independent" next to my name. If you ask me, "Are you an independent democratic socialist?" — yes, I am. But then we have to talk about what that means.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Is this true:
In Kansas City - Installation of bathtubs with four legs resembling animal paws is prohibited.

More here.

stumble upon

My aunt Lynn got me all hooked on this new Stumble Upon thing. She says I'll get sick of it soon, but for now I'm enjoying all the random internet wonders.

trent lott

It seems nobody cares that Trent Lott has risen to the top of the Republican ranks in the Senate. But FAIR points out that he's still the same good ol' boy he always was:
As a member of the House of Representatives in 1978, Lott was behind a successful effort to re-instate the U.S. citizenship of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1981, the year Lott became majority whip in the House, he prodded the Reagan administration to fight for tax exemptions for racist private schools like Bob Jones University. (The Supreme Court turned down the administration’s plea in an 8 to 1 decision.)

In 1982 and again in 1990, Lott voted against extending the Voting Rights Act. In 1983 he voted against a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1994 voted to de-fund the Martin Luther King holiday commission. In 1990 Lott voted against the continuation of the Civil Rights Act. In 2005, Lott scored 5 percent on the NAACP's civil rights legislative report card (, 1/06).

And no mainstream media outlet seems to have reported that Trent Lott has never even motioned toward apologizing for his long association with the Council of Conservative Citizens, or for the lies he told denying his links to the group.

In late 1998, when it was learned that the then-Senate majority leader had had a long-term association with the CCC, a racist group the Southern Poverty Law Center described (Intelligence Report, Winter/99) as "the reincarnation of the infamous White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s,” Lott responded to questions about his appearance at a CCC event by denying, through an aide, any detailed knowledge of the group, and said he only “vaguely remembered” giving a single speech to the group more than ten years earlier (Extra!, 3-4/99).

In fact, Lott hosted CCC leaders at his Senate office in 1997 and addressed its events at least three times in the 1990s. As a keynote speaker at a 1992 CCC convention, Lott heaped praise on its members: “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy…. Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries!"

I got to thinking about Lott while listening to Robert Caro's Master of the Senate as I drove to Indiana last week. It contained a quote from one of Lott's predecessors James O. Eastland, who, while still a senator representing the great state of Mississippi, declared at a 10,000-strong rally in opposition to the Montgomery bus boycott:
In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers.... African flesh-eaters. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.... All whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.

Yep. That was just 50 years ago.

Friday, November 17, 2006


From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
The minute I finished Joe Miller's "Cross-X," I held the book out in front of me -- amazed, rapturous and hopeful... There are plenty of great books that argue how to fix problems. But there are very few, like "Cross-X," in which the author, with a front-row seat, finds he can't help but roll up his sleeves and jump in. It's an incredibly powerful, daringly hopeful book.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

education week

From the November issue of Education Week:
Disadvantaged Students
by Joe Miller (Farrar, Straus & Giroux,; 496 pp., $26 hardback).
Book cover: Cross-X

A journalist, Miller first visited Kansas City (Mo.) Central High School at the request of its student body president, who was frustrated by its negative reputation in the news media. He found an inner-city school in which 99 percent of the students are members of minority groups, less than 1 percent score at the proficient level, and only one-third graduate, but which also is home to a prize-winning debate team that routinely beats nationally known competitors. Miller shadowed the team through its 2002 season and ultimately became an assistant coach as his involvement deepened. In this book, he describes the black debaters, their dedicated white coach, and the obstacles they faced, such as poverty, foster care, and a lack of support from school administrators and in the greater debate community. The team not only challenged its circumstances, but also took on the modern style of debate (in which high-speed recitation of evidence dominates) by emphasizing social issues and wordplay during matches. Miller’s account of the team’s year sheds light on both the state of urban education today and the status of an evolving academic sport.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

teacher magazine

An excellent review from Teacher magazine:
Published: December 1, 2006
Book Review
A Turbulent, Triumphant Year With an Inner-City Debate Squad
by Joe Miller, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pages, $26)

You don’t need much imagination to see this book as a movie. It has all the ingredients to warm the hearts of an audience. Picture Stand and Deliver meets Hoosiers.

Reporter Joe Miller followed Kansas City Central High School’s debate team through the 2002-03 season, which ended, to the surprise of many, with a top-10 finish at the national championship in Atlanta. Miller brings to the story not only a novelist’s eye for detail and a historian’s grasp of context, but also great empathy. He got so caught up in the lives and struggles of the young black debaters from the inner city that he ultimately abandoned journalistic detachment to become their friend and mentor.

Readers are likely to be similarly moved. Central is, as Miller describes it, “little more than a dangerous day care for teens.” Its neighborhood unemployment rate is 42 percent. Debate represents the best and maybe only hope that Ebony, Marcus, Brandon, and other team members have of ever escaping poverty and neglect—and of making something of themselves.
Meanwhile, their coach, Jane Rinehart, faces her own set of problems. To take the team to tournaments, she must overcome institutional inertia, lack of resources, and plain old administrative incompetence. And at the tournaments, she must deal with the the debate community’s subtle racism. It’s a constant fight, and though she often feels like giving up, the kids keep her going. “I owe my life to her,” one of them says.

Miller has written a big, sprawling book, with almost as many characters and philosophical asides as a 19th-century Russian novel. Not that it isn’t exciting—the scenes describing Central in face-to-face showdowns with snotty private schools may have you leaping ahead to find out what happens. But despite the team’s miraculous finish at the nationals, we shouldn’t forget an important fact: In a truly free and equal society, it wouldn’t seem to be a miracle when black kids succeed.

—Reviewed by Howard Good

Howard Good is coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is Inside the Board Room: Reflections of a Former School Board Member (Rowan & Littlefield Education, 2006).

cat zen

funky town

I owe a lot to Mark Funkhouser . He taught me more about the nature of modern-day big-city power than anyone else.

When I was a full-time reporter, Funkhouser was my favorite source. He loved good investigative reporting, and he wasn't afraid to support it. He would actually call after I'd written a particularly hard-hitting story to commend me. (On the other hand, after I wrote one of the Pitch's first forays into spoof stories, he lambasted my effort -- in front of the entire city council at a business meeting -- as "absolute drivel.")

Funkhouser wasn't a dirt-disher, though. He'd never call me and whisper the latest City Hall gossip in my ear, like so many (thankfully) did. And I hardly ever quoted him. In fact, he was quite coy. He'd never give any info until I asked the right questions. And even then his answer was usually to read such and such report or audit.

But after I got to know my way around, I could come to him and tell him everything I knew and say something like, "This TIF policy seems like legalized graft." And he might say, off-the-record of course, something like, "That's right! It is!!" (Meaning, of course, that the city's tax incentive program is perfectly legal;-)

Two of his reading suggestions completely solidified my understanding of Kansas City. One was a book called Regime Politics, which is actually about Atlanta. And the other was the Holy Grail of Kansas City documents:

The Financial Condition Forum of 2002.

Can you hear the choir of angels?

Yeah. This report is all that.

It offered everything I needed to explain to my readers how this dumb city works. (Or, more accurately, doesn't work.)

And it's written in the most clear, unbureaucratic language. Like this:
There are difficulties unique to Kansas City’s governance structure. The Mayor and City Council’s ability to provide leadership is reduced by the diffusion of power in Kansas City government. One participant characterized the structure as “cul-de-sacs of power.”

I loved that "cul-de-sacs of power" detail. Used it in several stories. Nice way to say "fiefdoms."

And this is even more direct:
The city’s financial condition is precarious and unstable, and the situation is worsened by a lack of direction and priorities.

And this, too:
The future might be a problem, according to another participant, who said the city is like a large corporation that could go down the tubes with a couple of bad decisions.

Can you believe that? A government report that actually says "down the tubes."
Kansas City, like other older urban cities, balanced its recent budget by using reserves and deferring maintenance.

Ok, so that's a little wonky. What that means is we're spending our savings and letting our house go to shit just to keep up our lavish spending habits. As in:
The condition of streets has gotten worse over the past twenty years and infrastructure has decayed.

But here's the money quote. The part where they lay out in brutally honest terms how this city is run:
Through the course of discussion, the (forum participants) listed the most powerful influences on the political environment, saying that politics is largely driven by five elements, all of which have their own political agendas:

  1. Investment in my area or community (district) [meaning, council members' pet projects]
  2. Proponents of the “big idea” or sexy idea [meaning the Jack Henry crowd and their costly schemes, like a tenant-less arena]
  3. Labor unions
  4. The development community
  5. To some extent, neighborhoods
That's right, dear reader. You and I are dead last on that list. And we only have power "to some extent."

Ah, Mark. I'm sure the reporters in town will miss you! I know we mere taxpayers will.

reviews and news

Boston Globe:

"Forget the nerdy reputation that debate has. Instead think of a scenario as exciting as a sports game with high stakes like triumphing over racism, bad politics, and abject poverty... While Cross-X might have started out as a Rocky-like story of a team conquering great odds, it morphs into an important, thoughtful, and provocative look at race and class in America, celebrating the tiny -- and triumphant -- inroad that these kids made in their lives and in the world of debate."

Rocky Mountain News

Cleveland Plain Dealer

And I hit the bestseller list in Denver.

Friday, November 10, 2006

amazon top ten

Cross-X was named one of the ten best nonfiction books of 2006 by

Thursday, November 09, 2006


I voted against Clay Chastain's light rail plan. Now I'm really sorry I did. What a great opportunity to stick it to The Man.

I voted against it because Clay is annoying, and because my good friend David Martin said it was a bad idea.

But now that the measure won, I'm bummed I wasn't part of the rebel party.

Whether the actual plan was a bad idea or not doesn't matter. What's great is that an outsider who is pretty much disliked by all the folks in power managed to push a major public works project past voters.

That never happens here!

Bond issues are the domain of the dumbass in-crowd.

Or they're supposed to be.


I love it!!

I wish I could share in the credit.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

attack ads

Salon's Video Dog offers a top ten list of the worst attack ads of the year. The one above is an absolute classic.

These are pretty funny too:

I guess politicians aren't beholden to libel laws.


A weekly paper in Louisville has written an excellent article on how the University of Louisville's debate program had an influence on me.

(And a terrific picture of Ebony Rose, too.)

election time

When Allie read the news this morning, she hooted and jumped up and down. Still excited, she went back to the Star's webpage to soak it in and gloat. Of the picture of the victorious McCaskill, she said, "She looks like a snake who swallowed a rat."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

radio days


This morning Marcus and I met at the KCUR studios to record a segment for NPR's News & Notes. Ebony Rose joined us via high tech wiring from Louisville, and Farai Chideya interviewed us from Los Angeles. Best quote came from Ebony: "The master has lots of tools, but they need to be stole."

Then Coach Jane Rinehart joined us for a Steve Kraske's Up to Date. This was a great show. In my opinion, the best yet. Kraske's a deft host.

And you can now listen to my reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. It's probably the most debate-focused one so far. There were a lot of debaters and debate coaches in attendance. Honestly, I don't think I did so good at this one. I said "sort of" a lot. But it was a good crowd, and they seemed to like it.

tattered cover

Last week I had the great honor of giving a reading in the bookstore I pretty much grew up in -- The Tattered Cover.

It's hard to imagine a better bookstore anywhere in the country, or maybe even the world. It's huge, cozy, and independently owned. And I got the best treatment there out of all the places I've done readings so far. They even gave me an engraved bookmark, pictured above (click on the image for more pix from the event).

Since Denver is a hometown of mine (along with Elkhart, Indiana, and now KC), the place was packed with friends and family, and I sold 47 books, which quite a haul. My mom deserves most of the credit, though. As people came up to the table to get books signed they introduced themselves to me as my mom's lawyer, neighbor, bunco partner, etc.

Truly an awesome experience.

It was especially great that an old teacher of mine showed up, Paul Epstein, a man I mentioned in the book's acknowledgments. Twenry years ago he basically taught me how to write, taught me that it's not the writing but the rewriting that makes a writer. He now owns the best music store in the country -- Twist and Shout, which, like its new neighbor, the Tattered Cover, is huge, cozy, and independently owned.


While in Denver I had the privilege of visiting the Denver Art Museum expansion, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Wonderful building. I didn't get a sense, though, that it had resolved the challenge of incorporating the original building, which I had grown rather fond of during my years in the Mile High city.

Click the above image for a slideshow.

local news

The Star story came out today, and it's a rather glowing article. I was also on Fox 4 last night, but the video doesn't appear to be archived.

I'll be on Kraske's show with Coach Jane Rinehart and former debater Marcus Leach at 11 today.

(One of these days I'll go back to writing actual blog entries.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

best books of the year

Publisher's Weekly has named Cross-X one of the 100 best books of the year.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

more a.p.

Well, the Star story didn't run today. But the AP story was picked up by the websites of more than 50 major newspapers and TV news outlets, including FOX News, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune.

Most carry a variation of the same headline: "Poor Debaters Triumph Over Rich Kids." Which is alright by me.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

denver and the a.p.

It's been a heck of a week. It was so amazing to go back home and see so many people I haven't seen in so long. I've got lots of pictures, and a handful of posts I want to make (like how my mom is the best book marketer on earth, or at least in Denver), but I've been insanely busy (proposal rewrite due today). But for now I've got some media updates.

That AP story released last month has got some legs. This weekend both the SF Chronicle and Yahoo! News picked it up. Man, a lot of people read that Yahoo! I've gotten several e-mails, and have found links to the story on debate sites. And my Amazon rankings shot back up again.

Tomorrow the Star will be running a story, from what I understand. And I'll be on Kraske's show Tuesday. And on that same day I'll be taping for News and Notes.

Tonight me and the woman is going to see Borat. We need an obnoxious laugh.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

tayari jones

Super author Tayari Jones put up a nice post about my book.

I'm going to buy her book, Leaving Atlanta, today. It's set inthe summer when dozens of children were murdered in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I remember that time. I was only eleven or twelve myself. But I don't recall the specifics. Only that the story unfolded slowly on theevening news, and that it haunted me.

Thecool thing is Tayari offered to talk with me by phone today, to strategize marketing schemes. What a blessing! There've been amazing moments like this, when folks have just come out of the blue to help me.

But the SUPER cool thing is she's goingto send her copy of my book to Niki Giovanni, and, cooler still, she urged me to write a letter to one of my heroes, bell hooks. Turns out hooks is now in Kentucky, so perhaps I can meet her when I'm passing through in a couple of weeks.