Friday, July 3, 2015

Critical Mass

Father Anthony Elzi mentioned sin and forgiveness in his homily. She had no way of knowing it, but surrounded by a church full of faithful parishioners, his message was aimed at an audience of one.


By the time she landed on her knees during Sunday morning Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Colorado Springs in the autumn of 1950, Victoria Bonita Maday Matson harbored a nagging fear that perhaps she was beyond redemption.

Victoria at 19 (1930, Fairmont, Minnesota).
In this book I’m writing, my father’s mother blew through a few Sacraments on her alcohol-fueled spiral to rock bottom. At 19, her marriage to my father’s father started out idyllic, but soured. Ten years, several abandonments and other sordid experiences later, a transport ship evacuation of women and children from Anchorage, Alaska in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor was her escape. 

Back on the mainland, Victoria was a single mother in a male-dominated culture. Her 1940s were consumed with poor choices and decisions. (More in the book).

But her younger sister introduced her to a compassionate priest in Colorado Springs and over time, Victoria re-constructed a life which culminated in a career as a social worker.

As a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic, the rules were clear. Her belief was intricately intertwined with her interactions with the church. So for my grandmother – recovery was belief, then action, with the help of a human intermediary.

My own experience is flipped. I’d proven to myself and to all around me that “no human power could have relieved” my alcoholism. I’m convinced God removed my genetically-inherited compulsion to abuse alcohol. When that began to sink in, then came 12-steps and organized religion, in the form of my wife’s Catholicism. The bottom line, boiled-down premise of each is, “trust God.”

God did not create religions, denominations, 12-step programs or governments. We, his children, did that. They change and evolve with the times. 

I belong to the Catholic Church because it means something to my wife. My Mom’s a Protestant. Pop grew up Catholic, but rebelled against the rules and his stiff-arming Rome is a defining moment in his emancipation from Victoria. (More in the book). 

Viewed from a few thousand feet, my Johnny-come-lately Catholicism seems a misnomer. Divorced Protestant. Strike 1. Pro-choice. (Roe v. Wade is my generation’s Obergefell v. Hodges). Strike 2. I support marriage equality. Strike 3? 

It’s not really ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ No one within the church hierarchy has ever asked me. If they did, I like to believe I’d be rigorously honest.

Victoria at 50 with her grandkids (1961, Rooks County, Kansas).
Man-made systems adapt and change with the times. The times are defined by the human beings alive, well and plugged in to the life around them during the time they’re upright and interacting with one another on the globe. 

We’re God’s experiment. In the early 1960s, Vatican II was a reaction to cultural changes on the planet after the Second World War. My point is, the Catholic Church is not as dogmatic as some would have you believe. We can change and adapt.

Vatican III anyone? 

We’re all flawed. Walking, breathing imperfections. The essence of humanity.

And when I get past the system to the essence of my belief, it’s pretty much me and God.  For Victoria, it was the system which led her back to God – the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, with all its rules and dogma, which, on the surface should have turned her away.

But it didn’t. Because of one human being. Father Elzi got below the surface to the essence of the woman and saw a human being eager to confess her sins and repent.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Genetic Predisposition

So, I’m writing a book.

Literary non-fiction. The story of a man, a woman and their little boy. They were a family but the ties did not bind. I guess it’d be more accurate to say they bound for a little while, but unraveled.

Ell was 25 and Victoria, 19, when they fell in love and married in the autumn of 1931. For their honeymoon, they piloted a houseboat christened Bonita down the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans.

A glimpse through the eyes of newlyweds at the start of the Great Depression. A look back in time into the heart, soul and psyche of a man already deep into alcoholism and his young bride on its cusp. A seat on the bow of a houseboat making headway on a course plotted due south.

Jim Matson, née Champ. Wichita, 2015.
Ell and Victoria were real people who were born, grew up, met each other, lived, loved and died. They led impulsive, obsessive, self-driven lives. For a finite period of their separate Earthly chronologies, they loved one another. Their only son, Champ, is my father.

Champ subconsciously planned his escape from the madness for years. Twenty-four hours after graduating Plainville High School, he joined the Navy and changed his name from Champ to James. Jim Matson’s 83 and for the last few months I’ve been interviewing him about his troubled childhood – which in itself is pretty revealing (another blog).

So why tell their story? Why me?

I share Ell and Victoria’s name, genetics and tendencies. Call it working knowledge, or better yet, insight, into my grandparents’ choices and decisions. I’ve made the same ones. I inherited their alcoholism.

I’m fortunate to have experienced a few moments of clarity in my recovery. One of them is the realization that I owe something to the next generation of our family. My son, niece and nephew. And eventually, if the trend holds, their children.

Will the illness prompt loss in their lives similar to mine, Champ’s, Vic’s and Ell’s? Because I love them, I hope not. Honestly, I’ve learned not to sweat it. For one very simple and compelling reason.

There’s nothing I can do to prevent it.

But I can share my experience and the history of our family, warts and all. Armed with knowledge about the insidious dysfunction wound tightly around and embedded deep within our DNA, will they make better, more informed decisions?

Can knowing the truth lead to solid life choices, peace of mind and happiness?
Champ, Vic & Ell. Spokane, 1938.

Here on Father’s Day 2015, my book consists of a working framework and three or four dozen pools of word vomit, fluctuating from varying degrees of omigod this is absolute crap to hey, that’s not too bad if I do say so myself.
Plus, I guess I figure if I telegraph the move here, it’ll provide impetus. If I’ve said out loud that I’m writing a book, a layer of motivation gets added. It’ll also provide blog content along the way. Everybody wants to read about an author’s trials and tribulations, right? Or maybe no one cares about the labor pains. They just want to see the baby.

Non-fiction because there’s much I know about them. When, where, what. Literary because I can apply my experience, not only in spiritual recovery, but everything that preceded it. I approach this effort fully armed with understanding and knowledge of alcoholism. How and why. 

Ell did not have that. Victoria did, but only after the damage was done. Champ doesn’t
drink, but look up Adult Child of Alcoholics.

The characters are not only real people, they’re my family.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Miss Kansas and Me

In the newsroom, earlier in my career, the subject of scholarship pageants arose. A female colleague expressed her opinion about the nature of these things visually, getting up from her desk, sashaying six or eight steps, thrusting out her chest, then gracefully pirouetting a 1-80.

“These are my t-ts... and this is my butt.”

So when I was asked this year to serve as a judge in the Miss Kansas competition, my feelings were mixed. First, and always (though I’m getting better), I thought about...

“Oh, so I’ve reached the point in my career where others recognize I possess the skills needed to impartially assess pageant contestants,” I thought, patting myself on the back. Then it hit me. As a VP for an outfit containing two key words, “Kansas” and “leadership,” it’s the title that brings the legitimacy and, no doubt, the invitation. 

There’s another reason I’m qualified, he said, modestly. I happen to know a lotta Miss Kansas’s. A second runner-up was a bridesmaid in our wedding (they met in K-State Blue Key). My son’s best man dated a Miss Kansas. I worked side-by-side with a Miss Kansas at WIBW-TV in Topeka. Friends have served as judges. I am surrounded by Miss Kansas. 

One story. WIBW Miss Kansas once asked an admiring photog to “run down to Vista and get me a brownie.” While many of her friends and colleagues encouraged her to “run down to Vista and get your own damn brownie,” admiring photog, of course, did.

Not to say that kind of admiration is produced only by Miss Kansas, because it’s not. But the tiara can’t hurt.

So I made a mental list of some women whom I admire and respect and set about purposefully to seek their opinion. 

First, my wife. “If you want to do it, do it. Don’t hide behind someone else’s justification.” Whaaaaat? It’s almost as though she thought I’d work up a list of those whose opinions I value while already knowing the outcome.

Strange, these marital goings-on. 

Next, my daughter-in-law. A pediatric cardiologist. She has friends who have competed in Miss Kansas whom she loves and admires. No problem with the concept, wonders why they have to prove their leadership abilities while wearing swimsuits.

The remaining opinions ranged from “under no circumstances” to “Omigod yes and take me with you.” 

So I struggled between two arguments: Hasn’t Our Society Evolved Beyond Pageants and  What Miss Kansas Means to Pratt. My God, it’s the community’s claim to fame. For lifelong Kansans such as my own bad self, it’s a comfortable knee-jerk. When I hear Cawker City, I think Ball of Twine. Hutchinson? State Fair. Lebanon? Geographic center of the continental U.S.

Pratt? Miss Kansas. Untold civic pride is engendered within the community by playing host each year to the Miss Kansas Pageant.

Vast amounts, I say!

And in 21st century rural western Kansas, one simply cannot put a value on that civic pride.

In the end, I pleaded schedule conflicts. (Sorry, or you’re welcome, depending upon your argument). It’s a helluva commitment. They want the judges on the ground in Pratt for the better part of a week. 

But it’s also a copout. If I really felt strongly about it, I could have re-arranged my schedule.

Miss Kansas 2015 will be crowned in a couple of hours in Pratt. Without me. I have confidence the judges will make the absolute best decision and Ive no doubt Miss Kansas 2015 will represent my home state with skill, talent, poise and aplomb.

But I do hope she fetches her own damn brownies.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Apples and Cocker Spaniels

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” 
                                                    --A Tale of Two Cities, Chas. Dickens

Met over coffee (actually, she had Raspberry Iced Tea, Panera’s caps) yesterday with a rural Kansas county commissioner carrying a familiar lament: A vocal minority lobbing grenades, poisoning the water on deliberations and actions taken by the governing body.
Tap your foot or sing along if you’ve heard this refrain before.

Last week, some colleagues and I were privileged to present to a gathering of Kansas county commissioners in Wichita. We shared thoughts and ideas about adding some value to achieve more meaningful civic engagement. Raspberry Iced Tea buttonholed me and followed up.

This morning, here in Manhattan, our 23-year old niece and I arose at oh-dark-thirty to run in the Inaugural Bill Snyder Highway Half-Marathon and 5K. She’s a grad student in Iowa, Neosho County native, back home in God’s Country for the holiday weekend. 

The 5K route (we’ll do the 13.1 next year) started in the front courtyard of the new K-State basketball training facility, then on to the new Vanier football complex construction. South on College Avenue past the site for the new women’s soccer fields, east past the re-furbished Jardine student apartment complex. Back north, directly across the street from the fledgling National Bio and Agro-defense facility, a $1.25 billion complex that will ensure cheeseburger safety for generations to come. 

NBAF will sit just catty–wompus from the new KSU Foundation complex, yet another construction project we ran past. One simply can no longer swing a dead cat in my community without the carcass coming into direct contact with a hard hat, construction crane or stack of limestone facing.
Granted, Raspberry Iced Tea’s community does not have a land grant university as the focal point driving all this growth, so it’s unfair to compare her community to Manhattan. It’s not even apples and oranges.

More like apples and cocker spaniels.

But Manhattan’s experienced our share of grenade lobbing and water poisoning in civic discourse.

My elderly downtown barber recently regaled me with 60-year old tales of soon-to-be-displaced Blue Valley landowners who actually brandished firearms over what they considered “big dam foolishness” and squeezed off a few rounds at the construction crews building what today is Tuttle Creek Dam and Reservoir north of town.


Our niece (Jackie’s sister’s daughter) is a graduate student in Iowa. She wants to help people suffering with speech disorders. The demand for that kind of empathy, skill and talent is ubiquitous. She can go anywhere on the planet and succeed. But her current choo-choo train of thought is aimed at Manhattan, Kansas. 

I’ve lived in Kansas all my life (save my 20th year when I followed a girl to Minneapolis. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair). Long enough for me to get a sense of community leadership, vision, collaboration, consensus building – simply by driving around with my eyes open.

Those who pioneered the ideas my colleagues and I work with believe there’s no such thing as a dysfunctional system. Every system is perfectly aligned to achieve the exact results it currently gets.

The implication is clear. Garbage in. Garbage out. The hard, but essential work is engaging the lobbers and poisoners before they lob and poison. 

Change. Adapt. Add value to the process.

Maybe it’s because I live in a growing, thriving community where our niece is considering starting her career. Might be because of the work I do. I’m confident a big part of it is because I now find myself at the precipice of middle age, I have enough experience to know – not just assume, wish or hope – but to know, that community – however you define it, can get better.

Viewed from that perspective, I will posit here, that these are, in fact, the best of times.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Land of Baloney on White Bread with Miracle Whip

I was an impressionable child of eight when our family moved to Wichita in the summer of ‘66, literally fresh off the farm. Wichita in the ‘60s and ‘70s offered about as predictable a baby-boom, middle-class, suburban American existence as one can possibly imagine.

Evening games of kick-the-can (“Come home when the street lights come on,”) a paper route, a dog, Boy Scouts, baseball, church on Sunday mornings. Sting-Ray bicycles morphed into ten-speeds, then cars. Crewcuts grew to long hair. Horn rims gave way to wire frames.

A gang of neighborhood kids who grew up and came of age together. Doing what's expected. Operating from the template. The idyllism accurately reflected the name of our neighborhood.

Pleasant Valley was interrupted and later defined by the Wichita-Valley Center flood control project (the Big Ditch). Like most flood control, the Big Ditch was a reaction. Heavy rains in the spring of ‘44, a generation before we got there, sent the waters of the Arkansas* River spilling into basements and crawlspaces.

Maybe because the land is flat? Not a valley at all? Pleasant or otherwise.

My sibs and I attended South Pleasant Valley Elementary. There was a North Pleasant Valley on the other side of the Big Ditch. The kids from SPV and NPV matriculated to the creatively-named Pleasant Valley Junior High, literally four doors down from our house.

Our next door neighbor was a retired detective and like clockwork, every Monday night, would show up on our doorstep in his bright yellow Pleasant Valley Lions Club vest to invite, cajole and otherwise twist my father’s arm to join the ranks of his fellows in service to their community.

“But we're doing great things for the kids, Jim!”

Pop ultimately realized it’d be simpler to join than to politely fend off the weekly sales pitch. This guy must have been a helluva cop. He’d wear the criminals out with his annoyingly persistent good nature and eventually they'd confess just to get him out of their hair.

It was the era of forced integration. My younger brother was plucked from the comforts of Pleasant Valley and bused across town to spend the 6th grade in the inner city. Likewise, the inner city kids were shipped out with us.

Welcome to the Land of Baloney on White Bread with Miracle Whip. Now, assimilate.

Visit Pleasant Valley today and you’ll see the demographic panoply of 21st century American society. If the desired outcome of busing was to prime the diversity pump, one can make a compelling case that it worked.

Status quo. That's the way it's done. It’s easy to conform. But pushing the envelope and occasionally breaking through can lead to new and unimagined opportunity.

Build a big ditch to contain the floodwaters so when it rains, lives are spared, homes and businesses are saved.

Put children on a bus to force people with different skin color to deal with each other and half a century later, diversity occurs naturally.

I guess to change nature, sometimes you have to actually change nature.

*Here in God's Country, it's pronounced ARE-kansas.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

(Alternative) Universe

Listen here.

Driving home from Nashville last Sunday, we land on AltNation (Channel 36 on SiriusXM).

At about Paducah, In the Valley Below is freezing on the beaches, reaching for the sweetest, sweetest peaches.

I’m just letting the art wash over me.

Stuck in Interstate 57 road construction somewhere in southern Illinois, Elle King tells me her ex’s and oh’s always wanna come but they never wanna leave. I start to wonder, at what point do alternative artists become mainstream?

I learn later that Elle’s Rob Schneider’s daughter (“Makin’ copies...”). So the old man may have shared some pearls about niche-carving.

AltNation’s Madison (deejay) says Vinyl Theatre is inspired by all manner of music. “We’re like human sponges, absorbing just about everything...” In less-than-exhaustive research for this blog entry, I found that quote 2-3x. Trouble with spin in an online world is one set of talking points wears thin PDQ.

By St. Louis, I feel like I should be wearing a hipster hat and black horn rims. I’m ready to exit the freeway and get a tattoo.

Big Data, The Business of Emotion. Twenty One Pilots, Tear in My Heart. A Silent Film, Tomorrow. The Griswolds, If You Wanna Stay. Night Riots, Contagious. 

“Look out and into the sky... full of light, full of life.” 

About the time we’re crossing the wide Missouri west of Columbia (“M-I-Z...”), It strikes me. 

This music. It’s all so... earnest. 

But is it any less so than the music of my life? You gonna tell me Lindsey Buckingham, clad in his peasant shirt and white man’s ‘fro didn’t bleed when he wrote The Chain? Really, audiences pretty much stopped breathing when they heard Art Garfunkel croon For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.
“And when you ran to me, your cheeks flushed with the night...” 

By the time we hit KC, I’m getting smarter. Bands I already considered mainstream (Coldplay, Panic! At The Disco) are staples on AltNation. 

I Write Sins Not Tragedies is so... 2005.

“It‘s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality.” 

Driving directly into the sun at Lawrence, Walk The Moon’s Different Colors prompts a memory fade to Pleasant Valley, cruising Doodah in the 1970 harvest gold Chevrolet Townsman station wagon with the 8-track tape player mounted on the tranny hump.

At 15 with her learners’ permit, my older sister would look for excuses to drive, which included ferrying her pain-in-the-ass little brothers to our various and assorted pressing engagements. Viki had Jethro Tull’s Aqualung squirrelled away between The Ray Coniff Singers and Boots Randolph's Yakety Sax in my folks’ faux-alligator 8-track case.

“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea.” 

By Wabaunsee County, it’s dark. Jackie’s napping. 

I ponder generational comparisons, our tastes and our uniforms. A scarf around the neck and a hipster hat is really not that much different from my generation’s feathered hair and platform heels or my mother’s saddle shoes, bobbysocks and poodle skirts. 

And if that’s the case, maybe the music’s not that much different either.

Some things just transcend time.

I mean, c’mon... Matt & Kim’s Get It is every bit as rhythmic as Earth, Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland.