Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Yesterday, as I headed out for a midday run, I spotted my neighbor, who is black, in white face. She was washing her car.

As I passed, I said hello and then asked, "Are you a mime?" It seemed plausible because she was also wearing black tights.

She smiled and shook her head. And I continued on my run.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Just finished Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers. As always, his writing is beautifully simple and compelling. And, as with the two other books of his that I've read, this one will shape my thinking for years to come. Gladwell is a master at framing big ideas in ways that really stick with you.

His basic point is that there are no super humans. Chart-breaking success is the result of hard work and the opportunity to work hard. And it's the result of unfair advantages and disadvantages.

This book has a major flaw, though. There aren't really any women in it.

At the end, he shares the story of a 12-year-old girl at a school in the Bronx, and the story of his grandmother. But none of the chart-topping success stories are of women.

I frankly can't believe that he and his editors let this omission slide. From a writer's perspective, it seems an enormous screw up, one that unnecessarily mars an otherwise terrific book.

stop the presses

In my world, this seems like BIG news. But I found it buried in a blog on Runner's World's site, a week after the fact. No mention on NPR, Fox, Rachel Maddow, nothin'. What gives?

[Not that it matters to me anyway. After the ban, I gave up on running with headphones and fell in love with the quiet.]

the boss's wife

When I was at the Pitch, we used to read Rhonda Chriss Lokeman's columns out loud to one another and laugh. We couldn't believe that a major paper give one of its top Sunday op-ed column spot to such a bad writer.

But then, she was the editor's wife.

Now she's the publisher's wife, and the two are doing cartwheels to prove she doesn't work for the paper anymore, even though her column still runs in the same spot every week.

As with most newspapers, the Star claims that it's opinion side is separate from its news side. So when Lokeman's husband, Mark Zieman, was editor, there was supposedly no conflict. But when he became publisher he also became boss of the opinion staff. As a result, Lokeman says, "I left behind a good salary at The Star in order to remain ethical, avoid any conflicts which might arise from my provocative writing style and subjects." Now she's supposedly a syndicated columnist, though neither she nor her syndicate will say what papers, besides the Star, carry her column.

But wait a minute. The Star announced Zieman as its new publisher on March 6. Then, on April 13, Lokeman filed a blistering screed about Kansas City's mayor. Not a column like the stories that ran in the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press recently, one intended for a national audience that's unfamiliar with the ins and outs here. This was a locals-only column about a state investigation of Funk's campaign finances.

Maybe that's why she doesn't have many national customers -- too local on her debut.

black and white and white all over

But still, he has a point.

The recent article in the Star about my neighborhood was ridiculously white. They missed a truer, far more interesting story about how immigration is the best hope for our dying city. For all dying American cities, frankly.

During the second half of the last century, all cities suffered from white flight. Most, like KC, are still suffering, with miles and miles of virtually abandoned urban core. But some -- New York, LA, Chicago, for example -- are comparatively robust. That's because they have huge immigrant populations and local governments that embrace them.

It makes sense. It's immigrants who made the cities in the first place. They all grew exponentially in the late 19th and early 20th century, when millions of Europeans fled to America in search of opportunity.

Not coincidentally, that's when the United States emerged as the world's super power.

tipping point

Former Bush aides are pointing to Katrina as the event that undid his presidency. It's a fascinating perspective that I hadn't considered. True or not, it makes sense. And it reminds me of my recent foray into politics, and the folks I left behind.

Monday, December 29, 2008


When Allie and I bought our house five years ago, the old storefront across the street was abandoned. Then one day we noticed someone had fixed it up a little. The next day It was fixed up a little more, and then some more the day after that. Pretty soon it had a sign out front: Carneceria El Torito.

It was an immediate blessing. We could run over there any time we wanted a jug of Coke or whatever. And it got better a year or so later when they opened Taqueria El Torito in the space next door. At lease once a month I load up on real tacos and tortas.

The only complaint I have about the place is that it's almost too successful. Just about every time I go there for something they've got a line clear to the back. And talk about a good neighbor. We've seen the owner out before dawn on winter mornings scrubbing the sidewalk. In a neighborhood where litter and graffiti is everywhere, his place is spotless.

Whenever I go in everyone is speaking Spanish, which is cool, because I speak a little too (though I'm sort of a Gringo version of Borat). But I never took that to mean that they're illegal immigrants. Maybe some are, but I'd bet most are in America legally -- especially the owners. In fact, I'm so sure of it that I wouldn't even ask for fear of offending them.

I mean, for god sakes, they've got health licenses prominantly displayed. That alone suggests that the proprieters are law abiding.

So it's a little disturbing when I see people cling to racist assumptions.

It's this kind of stereotyping that blinds us to the benefits of immigration. Were it not for our neighborhood entrepreneurs from Jalisco, we'd have a boarded-up eyesore, most likely covered with graffiti. Instead, we've got some mighty fine eco devo.

you never know

Allie waited in the car while I ducked into the Walgreens to pick something up real quick. The line was long when I walked in, and it hadn't appeared to have moved by the time I'd snatched up my goods and took my place at the end of it.

But just then a woman took her place behind the photo counter and said, "I can help whoever's next." And I was right there; just two steps away. That never happens to me. I always intuitively pick the slowest line.

As I placed my stuff on the counter, I noticed a man approaching with a scowl. He'd gotten there before me, so I'd basically stolen his place. He was a tough looking black guy, with a nylon skull cap. He was big, and I think he might have had a gold tooth or two.

Rationally, I didn't think he would hurt me. But a nexus of white-man fear nexus in the inner core of my reptilian brain stem went into alert. I dared not look him in the eye.

The clerk took my money and handed me my change. As I scooped up my goods, I watched him set his items down. First, with an emphatic clunk, a tall can of high-energy drink. Then, with a quiet slide, a box of tampons.

Friday, December 26, 2008

new traditions

On Christmas Eve, we hung ornaments on the tree. 

There were all different kinds, some shaped like cows and dogs and even an octopus, crystal balls and shiny stars, and others made of cloth, bunnies, tiny teddy bears and an enormously fat cow.

Dozens of them, store bought, hand made. Each, it seemed, with it's own story. 

Like the otter on its back, acquired because Allie looked like an otter when she was a baby in the bath. And the abundance of frogs because Sylvia loves frogs. Every year they pick up a few more. 

On the big day, gathered around the tree and dug into our stockings. And into our stocking overflow bags. 

Every year, the Johnsons stuff each other's stockings with neat little nicknacks and treats. They even wrap them, so you find yourself unwrapping a whole lot of presents. It feels kind of like being a spoiled little kid.

I got some carrot-flavored lip balm, philosophical post-its, gourmet dark chocolate, a kangol hat, fleese gloves, herbed barbecue skewers and a lot of other little luxury items I probably wouldn't buy but am glad I now have. 

I got Allie a couple of pairs of earrings that she loves.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

acquired memories

One of the best parts of being married is visiting her family and hearing their stories about her. Like the punched hole in the wall and the guinea pig essay (which I've read; it's fantastic) and the crush on the mulleted heart throb. She's so embarrassed but I adore her all the more and feel lucky.

I tell them my favorite picture is the one with her in the new suit of clothes, all bright colored, even the socks. And she's posed just so and smiling, proud as can be. She can't stand it, of course. Wouldn't be caught dead in the get-up today, much less the hair, but it makes me so proud of her.

And lastly, there's her senior picture in the room where we're sleeping. She has the quintessential 90s hair, straight bangs and long flowing perm, but not super puffed out like in the 80s. She's so beautiful and I'm amazed because there's no way she would've been with me the way I was back then. But times change and it's so good they do.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

social apps

There was a time when I was ahead of most trends. Just ahead. Not a trendsetter.

But now I'm older and more sluggish and I'm stuck in the middle.

Lately, we lemmings have been swarming the social apps. I've tried a bunch but have settled on three -- Facebook, and Twitter.

On Facebook, I have befriended 72 Joe Millers from around the world. It's pleasantly strange to see my name beside pictures of men who bear no resemblance to me, who post status updates like "
Joe Miller was riding shotgun in Daryl's car, and is still cleaning his underpants..." and "Joseph Miller is like yes..roommate is da dorm myself..and aint got a final till thursday.YESSIR." is self-explanatory and obviously awesome.

And twitter is completely baffling. It seems absolutely worthless. But I keep going back to it as if I'll find the answer there.

Anyway, I'm going to twitter -- or tweet, as they say -- our holiday trip. I'll post short dispatches and photos via phone. I'd do it on this blog, but my phone is not compatible.

You're welcome to follow, if you like

Sunday, December 14, 2008

best story

Last summer, Allie and I went to Lucas, Kansas, to celebrate my birthday. I'd first visited the town in the mid-1990s, after I graduated from college, on a road trip with my buddy Roger. Back then, the only attraction was The Garden of Eden and the bologna shop. Since then, it's become a grassroots art Mecca. For years I've wanted to go back.

While we were there, the Grassroots Art Center was hosting an art contest and we decided to enter. We spent a lot of the weekend working on our art, and we had a blast doing it.

And we'd pretty much forgotten about it until yesterday when we received in the mail two awards for "Best Story."

From kansas city soil

Their made from TP rolls!

And we also got certificates granting us lifetime privileges at Bowl Plaza:

From kansas city soil

Our entry, The Real Original Sin (scroll down and check out #5), got $40 at the silent auction, with proceeds going toward the previously mentioned civic amenity.

To say we're proud would be an understatement!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I took my first grad school class this semester, a lit class about life writing, or autobiography. Right now I'm procrastinating my final paper, which is about The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I first read that book in college, almost 20 years ago, and it had a profound impact on me. It gave me a completely new perspective on America, one that turned this nation's values upside down, revealing their hypocrisies and hidden injustices.

But more than that, it provided a model for how one ought to live.

Malcolm was one who strove to be the very best at everything he did -- whether he was a street hustler or a minister in the Nation of Islam. And he was one of those rare geniuses who was able to achieve the pinnacle of success in every endeavor.

But what most impressed and inspired me was the way he embraced change. At several points in his book he describes his life as a series of changes. And when he changed, he went all out.

As a kid, he put everything he had into his school work, earning his way to the top of the class. But when a teacher told him he should lay aside his dreams of being a lawyer because he's black, he chucked his whole good-student life and through himself headlong into being a street hustler.

In Boston and Harlem, he was known by one and all as Detroit Red. All the big band stars knew him, and he was raking in the dough and walking around town with a beautiful white woman on his arm -- what was for him, at that point in his life, the ultimate prize.

In jail, he embraced religion and devoured books, building his vocabulary by meticulously copying down every word in a dictionary. Upon release, he devoted every waking minute to preaching the message of Elijah Mohammad.

Then he discovered that the man that he literally worshiped was not only an adulterer but one who would destroy the lives of the women he knocked up in order to maintain his own image. For a while, he tried to rationalize, to scheme ways to protect his leader. But eventually he severed ties, knowing it would mean his life.

I decided to focus on Malcolm X for my final project after I read an essay comparing his autobiography to that of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's is a cornerstone of the genre. Whereas before the bulk of autobiographies were about spiritual awakenings, his was the first story of the self-made man, the remarkable tale of a remarkable man. It was meant, quite literally, as a story to live by. It was something everyday schlubs like me to could aspire to and look up to.

Franklin's was also the story of a young nation coming of age told through the story of one of its greatest men coming of age. It was also totally propagandistic. It contained nothing of Franklin's philandering, his Machiavelian politics, the way he could stab a rival in the back. Instead, it offered a step-by-step plan to acheiving perfection. I detested every word of it.

Malcolm is the anti-Franklin. His is the portrait of an opressive nation (world) at a time when revolution was in the air told through the story of one of its oppressed who was fanning the flames of revolution.

But at the same time, Malcolm is a lot like Franklin. He advises every step of the way, and much of his advice is very conservative. Always wear a watch and be on time. Don't take drugs. Don't drink. Don't smoke. Pursue knowledge relentlessly. Respect women. Don't fornicate. Tell the truth. And, ultimately, don't judge anyone solely by the color of their skin (event whites).

It was interesting reading the book a second time, a decade or so and lots of life experience down the road. And as a writer and a student of literature. What I most appreciated was Alex Haley's epilogue, because it exposed some of Malcolm's self-creation and propoganda. As a college kid, I naively looked up to Malcolm as a saint, unfallable, incapable of distorting his own story. I mjust have skimmed Haley's account, because he lifts the curtain a bit.

Still, it's refreshing to go back and find that one of my heroes remains much the way I first experienced him, as a model I could never live up to, but one that could make me a little better person if I tried.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


When Allie and I went to the open mic at a coffee shop on Troost last night we expected a cool, inner-city black-white thing. After all, Troost is the racial dividing line in this city.

But when we arrived, a group called the Sugar Plums was singing a folk song.

We bought our hot beverages and found a couple of seats in the back. There were dozens of people there, only one of whom was black. Just then, one of the Sugar Plums took the mic and said she was going to sing Edelweiss. Allie said, "Oh my god. Can you get any whiter?"

While the woman sang the song, and as others lifted their coffee cups and sang along, we tried hard not to stare at the black man. Sitting alone, he smiled, though not broadly, and we imagined that he was, with great effort, suppressing laughter, and wondering how on earth he wound up in this place on a Friday night.

But who knows? Maybe he was digging the hell out of it.

We quietly left after the song ended and went to Chipotle for McMexican.

Friday, December 05, 2008

spreading the word

This morning, Allie got an e-mail from her dad saying this story ran in today's Jamestown Post-Journal. They were surprised -- and thrilled, because they know a lot of the inside story. 

Word sure does get around.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I was away from my desk for about two minutes -- enough time for Scamp to knock a full water bottle over onto my laptiop. Completely fried.

I'm surprised it didn't happen earlier. I've had the thing for almost five years, and Scamp has been knocking over water vessels for at least ten.

Here's the good news. Just last week, after four years of procrastination, I finally signed up for an online backup service. So my most important stuff -- like my book proposal and book materials -- is safe.

I feel a little down, but actually in a good sort of way. A shade better than melancholy.

At first I was shocked. I sat there staring at a pile of stuff on my desk. Then, in my head, I started hearing that old Peter Tosh song where he goes, And I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over. Corny, I know. But I just started attacking my to-do list and adding more items to cross off.

Now I actually feel kind of good to have the stupid thing gone. It's a little liberating. I'm not going to rush out to buy a new one.