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.

Yikes! 

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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Saying Goodbye

Gladys, Myrtle, Marjorie, Helen, Betty and Evelyn carefully snaked their way through the family photographs of the dearly departed and the funereal appurtenances in the front of the church.

Gladys was in the lead and stopped in the middle of the chancel when she should have kept walking. Because when she stopped, she ‘bout caused a blue-haired chain reaction.

Two biddies deep, Myrtle catches on.

Since she can’t say it out loud in a silent church packed for such a somber occasion, Myrtle just kinda leans out and scowls at Gladys, silently telepathing, “WTF, Glad? Keep movin!’”
    
Five of the ladies of the Order of the Eastern Star are holding a flower of a different color, each representing a point on the star, a virtue and heroine of the Bible. The sixth holds a vase.

Gladys cuts loose: 

“Ruth is the second point. Its color is yellow and its symbol is a sheaf of wheat. Ruth represents the ideals of loyalty and friendship.”

Gladys and the girls each brought talking points, or more accurately, verbatim scripts. Helen’s not wearing her bifocals, but between her notes, her memory and her ability to ad lib, she sufficiently conveys the notion that “Electa is red, representing fervent love and faith.”

Helen’s a trouper, vanity notwithstanding.

Next up, Harold, Earl, George, Walter, Raymond and Melvin. Masons, these duffers, clad in their best Sunday-go-to-meetin’ with the pièce de résistance, square white lambskin aprons with triangular flaps tied around their waist.

A nod to the traditions and tools of actual latter day stonemasons, I was to learn.

Harold (this guy was 85 if he was a day) launches into an eloquent declamation about death, freemasonry, life everlasting, grief, loss and sorrow. 

No crib notes, no talking points. All from memory. A full 15-minute soliloquy, leaning in dramatically, though by no means obtrusively, toward the bereaved daughters during moments apropos.

“Human companionships are temporary in this world of change. It is not possible that the associations of a lifetime should be broken without a pang of pain and a wrench of parting which seem to rend our very souls.” 

Wow. I wanna be this guy in 30 years. Phhht, I wanna be this guy Thursday when I speak to the Pratt Rotary. 

We were saying our last goodbyes to Jimmie Poe, a 5th grade teacher and Mason all his adult life. I was privileged to represent the thousands of 5th graders whose lives he touched. 

I suspect none of us knew Mr. Poe was a Mason. It would not have crossed our 10-year old minds. But it makes sense. It’s what civic-minded rural Kansans of his generation did. 

The underlying premise of the Masons and the Ladies of the Order of the Eastern Star and the Rotary and the Lions and the Jaycees and the Methodist Youth Fellowship is like-minded humans gathering in groups to accomplish some higher purpose.

It starts with fulfilling the basic human need to socialize. Any bidness conducted is gravy. If we get carried away, a motion to adjourn is always in order – and non-debatable.

In a previous career, I didn’t fully appreciate the power behind a meeting of the County Farm Bureau (x 105 in Kansas) until I got my heart around the notion that for many, if not most – just seeing friends was enough.

In the long pull of time, Gladys, Harold, Myrtle, et al, won’t be with us much longer. I’m confident at their funerals, their Mason and Eastern Star comrades will shed a tear, wax as eloquently as they can and mourn their loss. 

We should all be so fortunate.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Low Expectations

I don’t have many expectations from a bag of Cracker Jack. Some sticky popcorn, a half-dozen dinky peanuts at the bottom of the bag...  and a toy.

And my expectations for the toy are equally low. A plastic choo-choo train, a horseshoe, maybe a compass like the one Matthew McConaughey gave Jodie Foster in Contact (so she won’t lose her way.)

Just gimme a friggin’ trinket.


Something that takes me back to my childhood.

At the ballpark the other day, I rip into a bag of Cracker Jack, fish around a little bit and, voila’.

A little striped envelope with these words printed on the outside:

“Surprise inside” and “Guess what’s inside?” and “Lift and peel right to open.”

After lifting and peeling right to open, I’m greeted with:


For a chance to win cool
Cracker Jack and
Louisville Slugger
prizes visit

www.slugger.com

No purchase necessary.
See official rules for
details. 

and

Now you can download fun,
authentic
Cracker Jack prizes to your
smartphone at
crackerjackapp.com


Palpable antcipation. Dashed.

No plastic choo-choo train.

No horseshoe.

No compass.

The chances of me downloading fun, authentic Cracker Jack prizes to my smartphone are slim and none. And Slim just left town.

Oh, I get it. The powers that be at Cracker Jack, Inc. have long since given up on us precipice approachers. We’re way outa their target demographic.

Crackerjackapp.com? Pphhht.

I’m done with Cracker Jack. 

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack Twizzlers. I don’t care if I never get back.

 My Twizzler expectations are even lower.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Literally. Right?

There are California connections going back two generations on the Matson side of the fam. I feel comfortable here in San Diego.

I can do laid back.

Dude. 

Did it in ’06 on a road trip with the then 21-year old undergrad.

I’m at a mega-conference with 2,500 of my closest friends. It’s designed to empower me with social media marketing ideas. There are pros and experts here from all over the planet – on the cutting edge of social media.

It’s seriously legit, though I skipped karaoke night. Sorry.

When I told a millennial colleague whom I trust, of my destination, her advice was, “Wear your retro glasses.” I have a pair that are the 21st century equivalent of the ones I sport in the 5th grade school pic above. 

Good advice.

In the sessions and networking (I have two entrées, the Eric “Otter” Stratton: “Mike Matson, damn glad to meet you!” and “Hi, My name’s Mike, where’s home?”) I detected three distinct vibes as it relates to Life on the Internet. 

First, the “celebrity” factor. It’s all about me. More likes. “He was literally unknown and then...” More retweets. Look at me. (Yawn).
 
Second, what I like to call technology for technology’s sake. Tweeting live video? Too many people have failed to ask the fundamental, natural follow-up question to “WOW!” 

Why?

Before I die (unless the plane goes down tomorrow), my washing machine will talk to my refrigerator through the Internet. Imagine that ACTUAL CONVERSATION:
 
Washing machine: “Uh... think that egg salad’s gone south, my friend.”
Refrigerator: “You oughta know, you and your grungy jockstraps.”

We human beings have simply not evolved enough yet to keep up with our technology. If you doubt it, click on over to your fav newspaper site and read the comments attached to any article. Or if you don’t read the paper, check out the comments on pretty much any YouTube video.

Which leads to my third point. The “social” factor. It is real and can “literally” change lives. Social media can bring us together as a community, add legitimacy to ideas, give a voice to those who should be heard. This week I met real influencers. We should all be influencers.

BTW, every single speaker I heard (couple dozen) would infuse their comments with... “Right?” I do the same thing and am working consciously to knock it off. At least I’m in good company.

I guess it’s our subconscious way of saying, just like me, please.

At the end of the day (and it is “literally” the end of the day here in Cali) social media is the most powerful communications vehicle to come along in my precipice-approaching lifetime.

It’s an amazing, astounding tool, filled with vast potential for connection and engagement.

It is not life.

I can do laid back. Dude.
Today I heard a guy say, “If I’m breathing, I’m on social media.” That was my cue to bust a move. 

So I walked along the boardwalk (it’s actually concrete) to the Embarcadero Marina Park, perched myself beneath a palm tree and thought about being in this exact same space nine years ago with my son, who took me to a Radiohead concert.

Half a continent away from my home in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I watched the sailboats.

Everything in its right place.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Generations

Inherent within this business of approaching the precipice of middle age is the unrelenting march of time. The more time one collects, the greater the opportunity for comparison, contrast and inevitable (if you’re me) conclusion drawing.

Or at least assumption making.

Think of a slide rule. If the ruler part is a horizontal family tree, the slider allows focus on a specific, particular chronological sliver.
 
My mother’s brother, the Reverend Dr. Robert Keith Ordway, died this week in southern Texas at 82. Mom lost her sister, my Aunt Linda, a couple years back. Move the slider to the left a notch to find their parents, Victor and Elizabeth (Bemis) Ordway.

Over the river and through the High Plains to grandmother’s house we would go. Vic and Libby lived in a sprawling farm house in Rooks County, Kansas. Our family gatherings were happy and joyous. We kids would assemble in our grandparents’ pine-paneled basement, pump up the volume on the record player and air guitar/lip sync our way right on to Ed Sullivan’s stage.
 
We called our band The Cousins. What we lacked in creativity, we made up for in enthusiasm.

After Uncle Bob and Aunt Eva divorced it was never really the same. All clouded up in ‘70s-era stigma over divorce, our generation never really mastered the protocol that spells out what a family’s supposed to be like, post-divorce.

Then my parents got divorced and the cloud got darker.

Then I got divorced and it really hit home. The truth is not always kind. Engage clumsily or don’t engage.

Time plows forward, society evolves, mores nuance and each succeeding generation gets smarter. My son, niece and nephew’s generation appear unshackled by the fears and false pride of their forebears and engage with ease and aplomb.

As the slider moves to the right, there’s more enlightenment.

What I’ll carry from my Uncle Bob’s life, stems from the brief period when we all lived in the same city, Wichita, ca. 1970. Our pre-divorced families would engage on weekends. Eastsiders them (Vickridge), westsiders us (Pleasant Valley).

Three kids in our family. Six in theirs. Talking individually with his boys, Uncle Bob would call them, “Son.” It seemed to mean something to my cousins. When Scott came along, I made a conscious choice to call him, “Son.” Still do.

Thanks, Uncle Bob.

Mom’s now all alone in her generation, the sole survivor of her nuclear birth family. Sadness, also, when I think of my fatherless cousins. Makes me want to cherish and honor my parents more. While they’re still here. Let’s keep the slide rule static for a while, thank you very much.

Headed to Nashville next month where my siblings and our kids will gather with Mom. 

Pop’s in Wichita and I see him at least once a month. Lately I’ve been interviewing him about his troubled childhood. Formal, audio recorded interviews. Pop sees the end and we both know exactly what we’re doing (more this summer, in this space).

One day very soon, in the blink of an eye, really, we’ll all be just a fading memory in the hearts and minds of those whose DNA we share and whose blood courses through our veins.

The bonds formed by air guitars in pine-paneled basements... the love and respect inherent in a father addressing his male offspring as “Son.”

These are the important things. This is why God put us on the planet. Everything else is just window dressing.