Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Scuzzy Penny Loafers

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” 
                                                            -Rick Blaine, Casablanca 

OK, she was actually there first. So technically speaking, I walked into hers. And it wasn’t a gin joint so much as it was a restaurant.

I’m slated to meet a friend and colleague in Topeka at 12:30 p.m. before a joint 1:30 p.m. appointment down the street. He’s coming from Wichita, me from Manhattan. I get there about 12:20 and as the hostess is showing me to my table, I notice a colleague of my wife’s sitting with a group.

“Hi Katie,” I wave with a smile.

Then I notice another. “Hey Susan.” More smiles.

And a third. “Hi Greg.” More waves.

They’re all looking at me kind of strange, as though my button-down collar is unbuttoned or something.

I takes me a few seconds before I realize whuddup and recognize another of their number. It’s my wife, her back to me, at the same table. I’m standing right next to where she’s seated.

If ever a moment called for some witty repartee, this was it. (BTW, do you ever see the word, “repartee” unless it’s preceded by the word, “witty?”)

“Hey, it’s my wife,” I say to the assembled group. “Imagine meeting you here!”

(Sorry, it was the best I could do on the fly – in the moment. I’ll do better next time.)

It says something, though I’m not altogether certain exactly what, that completely unbeknownst to each other, my wife and I wind up:

a. In the same city, 56.9 miles away from Manhattan.

b. In the same restaurant.

c. On the same day.

d. At the exact same time.

After the pleasantries are exchanged and the poor excuse for witty repartee (see?) offered, Jackie says to me, “You’re prolly gonna have a salad, right?”

(Lately we’ve been tryna help each other modulate... or at least temper... the caloric intake.) 

“Prolly.”

We used to have a general sense of each other’s comings and goings through shared calendars, but Google keeps changing the rules and I can’t keep up. Or maybe I'm just prioritizing what to care about.

We could also talk to each other on the phone, text, read each other’s minds or I could pull off to the side of the Interstate, rustle up some wood, pound a couplachunks o' flint together (Flint Hills,) start a fire and communicate via smoke signals. But not today. My penny loafers mighta gotten all scuffed up. And I prefer to leave a good impression.

“Dude, what happened to your shoes?”

“Well, Google calendar went south...”

A lot of husbands and wives engage in verbal exchanges in the morning about their pending days. We normally do this when we walk the dogs at 6 a.m., but not today, since I didn’t get up until 6:15 a.m. and made a unilateral, executive, husband decision to let sleeping wives sleep until 7 a.m. Then it was hustle, bustle, haveagreatday, loveyababe, seeyatonight and out the door.

When you think about the work we do and the circles in which we run, when you factor in our respective statewide venues, it’s really surprising this kinda thing doesn’t happen more often. I am all the time running into friends in coffee shops and restaurants in Wichita, Topeka, Johnson County, Lawrence, Salina, et al.

Today, my charming bride. In Topeka.

And I had a cup of soup (165 calories, dear.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played

“You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” 

                                                                                                  -Jim Bouton, Ball Four

A 29-year old second-year medical resident texted me that quote from Denver just a few minutes before the end of the greatest baseball game ever played. The young man bleeds powder blue and I blame myself. My son, Scott, was a babe in arms, a mere eight months old when Bret Saberhagen and George Brett embraced on the mound.

Jackie I and share Royals season tickets with friends. Last night, our seats were right next to the Royals bullpen.


Hat on, hood up. Glove on.
Danny Duffy spent the entire game in a brand new MLB-marketing driven hoodie emblazoned with “Always October.” Hat on, hood up. Glove on.

A little kid, prolly 9 or 10 years old, sat in front of us. Between innings, he’d make his way over to the fence and gaze down on his heroes. After his third or fourth trip over there, Duffy picks up a baseball and chucks it up to the kid. He turns around beaming, with wide eyes and shows it to his father, who encourages his son to “tell him ‘thank you.’” 

Gripping his new treasure, the kid runs back to the fence and yells, “THANK YOU!” Duffy gives him a smile and a thumbs-up. 

That’s how it starts.

Four months ago, Brandon Finnegan was pounding down the ramen noodles and cutting Sociology class at Texas Christian. Now, at 21, he brings the stinky cheese and mows down big league hitters in the playoffs.

A World Cup-inspired rhythmic chant cascades throughout Kauffman Stadium as the Royals come to bat in the bottom of the 12th. 

“I be-lieve that we-will-win... I be-lieve that we-will-win... I be-lieve that we-will-win.” 

I thought of Jackie, who shares George Brett’s birthdate and like most 40-something females in the Great Plains, grew up admiring his hustle, his passion for the game and his biceps. If you think I love Royals baseball, please allow me to introduce you to my wife.

The next Best Catcher In The Game who has recently looked like anything but, scalds a breaking ball down the left field line.

Directly in front of us.

We’re going b-a-n-a-n-a-s with 40,500 of our closest friends.

I thought of Scott and all those games we went to in the ‘90s and the First Decade of the 21st Century That No One Has Yet To Develop An Effective Shorthand For.

Where have you gone, Danny Tartabull?

Christian Colon, whose name means ‘dove,’ flies around third and wins the game.

That bears repeating. 

Wins the game.

Tears are flowing. 

I thought of me and Willie Mays.

Friday night, August 2, 1968. I’m the same age as the kid Duffy tossed a ball to. Candlestick Park, San Francisco. Mays hits a home run and the Giants lose to the Bucs, 3-1. The Kansas City Royals were born eight months later and I was in their grip.

The narrative is set. The Hunt for Blue October. Take the Crown. 

29 years in the desert. We’re the darling, the underdog, the nation’s new fav.

We won a five-hour game that mattered. It started in September and ended in October. These guys, this team, this game, it just swallows your heart. I am in its grip and today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In Harm's Way

“Man, my PTSD’s really affecting me hard today.”

He said it three times in the space and time it took to cut an 8-foot 2-by-4 into four very specifically-sized lengths for a backyard fence gate repair project. Operating a high speed table saw in the chaos that is Saturday morning at a big box home improvement store is stressful. Before you even get to the PTSD.

Add to this milieu dozens of kids and their parents/grandparents perched on upside-down orange buckets hunched over a makeshift plywood worktable, cacophonously hammering away. Bring the kids in to build a birdhouse and maybe Mom and Dad’ll buy a gallon of paint on the way out.

Manhattan, Kansas is a college town, but it’s also an Army town. Our community is just a Flint Hill range away from Fort Riley, home of the First Infantry Division. ‘Infantry’ is just what the word implies: face-to-face, tip of the spear, at the front. 

In the thirteen years since 9/11, thousands from the Big Red One have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, experienced terrifying events and made their way back. Many stay after their hitch and get jobs cutting 2-by-4’s. 

He’s measured and marked the 2-by-4 but can’t get the table saw to work. Eventually it will take his supervisor and then her supervisor huddling, pushing buttons and jiggling cords to achieve the desired objective. Then something went awry in the actual cutting process and the lengths are off by a half-inch.

I’m no head shrinker, but I know Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. Add layers of noise, helplessness, frustration, a table saw and you can only imagine how this poor guy is feeling.
 
“Were you in the Army?” He asked me after his second PTSD mention. It was not a ‘then how the hell do you know how I’m feeling?’ question. It was more of a ‘if you’ve walked a mile in my combat boots, then maybe you can understand.’ 

“No, I wasn’t. Have some friends who served.” Seemed like he wanted more from me. Empathy is intuitive, but it’s also something I can work on intellectually and spiritually. 

As a species, I am optimistic we will eventually evolve to a point where we need no longer ask the youngest and strongest among us to sacrifice their health, well-being and in far too many cases, their lives.

God didn’t ask us to organize in nations and religions. We humans did that.

That evolution surely won’t take place in whatever time I have left. Now the template’s pretty clear. If there’s a threat to security – existential or otherwise – young people will be sent in harm’s way. They will experience terrifying events. The kind of things those of us who fill our weekends with ballgames and backyard fence gate repairs can’t even begin to fathom.

Was my guy’s thrice-mentioned PTSD suffering a cry for help? To a middle age precipice-approaching total stranger? Maybe a realization he understands his condition, knows how it manifests itself – to telegraph to me that we’ll get this 2-by-4 sliced up right, but it may take a while? 

If it was the former, did I do enough? In the moment, I did what I could. Thanked him for his help, his service and encouraged him to have a good rest of the day.

Then I went home, fixed my back yard fence gate and vowed to do more. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Watergate Lesson

“PEOPLE, YOU ARE LIVING IN HISTORY... RIGHT NOW!”

John Delbertson’s* voice thundered through the classroom at Wichita Heights High. U.S. History was a requirement for high school juniors. Talk of subpoenaed tapes, non-denial denials and executive privilege was in the air and in the lessons learned in the spring of 1974. 

Like all good teachers, Delbertson had a little ham in him. He wore longish hair, a beard, no necktie and positioned himself on the banks of the faculty mainstream. He’d read the daily school announcement sheet as though he was Olivier on stage.

IT SAYS HERE...” looking over his glasses, holding the piece of paper at arm’s length, “... that effective IMMEDIATELY, meetings of the Chess Club will be moved from the floor of the Commons Area to the cafeteria.”

As an editorial aside, and as a valuable lesson in human motivation, our history teacher would interpret the story behind the story.

“If you play chess on the floor, you’ll get stepped on. When you get stepped on, you get angry. Anger leads to violence. Ergo... ipso facto... THERE’LL BE NO chess played on the floor of the Commons Area. The Man solves another problem! CHECKMATE!

The highlight of his daily shtick involved a dramatic unfolding of the stapler, making his way across the classroom to a floor-to-ceiling cork bulletin board and haphazardly pounding today’s sheet atop yesterday’s. By the springtime, the cumulative accumulation (is that repetitive... or at the very least, redundant?) was impressive.

As the school year progressed, a sense of inevitability hovered near the surface. What would fall first – the announcement sheets or the President of the United States? On the last day of school in May 1974, our U.S. History teacher encouraged us to pay attention as history unfolds over the summer. 

That fall as seniors, we matriculated to a mandated semester of American Government, taught by Adam Patrick.* By now Richard Nixon had fallen, and Delbertson had started a new school announcement paper buildup with a new junior class.
 
Patrick assigned us to split up, organize, caucus and vote. The girls huddled quickly, calling themselves the “Ms. Magnum” Party, as if to drive home their motivation (It was 1975, after all.)

I urged my chums not to take the bait and instead carve out our own political niche, reflective of the values and traditions we held deeply as strapping young red-blooded American males. Deep-sixing our first name suggestion, “Keg” Party, consensus emerged rapidly around the less authority-threatening, more family and voter-friendly “Birthday” Party.

In the elections, the Ms. Magnum Party kicked our strapping young red-blooded American male hindquarters. Their victories were assured when a handful of erstwhile Birthday Party loyalists jumped ship and voted for the girls.

Some of us had agendas beyond mere classroom politics, thank you very much.

On August 9, 1974, the day Nixon resigned, I went to work, bussing linguine-encrusted plates off tables at Angelo’s Italian restaurant. I was saving to buy a car.

As a high school kid focused on sensory and material pursuits, U.S. History and American Government were forced in front of me an hour a day for a year-and-a-half during Watergate.

In time, I would enjoy professional success as a political journalist and later as an aide to the Governor of my home state. As I ease my way down into the precipice of middle age, I find myself grateful to have experienced teachers, who, forty years ago, recognized the power of current events as teachable moments. 

One man resigned the Presidency of the United States and the nation survived. A pathway  was introduced to a teenager.

The system works. 
___________ 

* Not their real names. If they were to write a blog about me, I'd appreciate a courtesy 'heads-up' and I've neither the time nor the inclination to track 'em down (goes to motivation, your honor.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Second Reaction

We’ve just taken two from the White Sox in Chicago. We’re back to .500 for the fourth or fifth time this season. We’ve won 50 games and lost 50. That leaves 62 games in the season. If we win ‘em all, we’ll finish 112-50. If we lose ‘em all, that’ll put us at 50-112.  

“We” are the Kansas City Royals and this was supposed to be the year. If the current trend holds, it will not be the year after all, though we’ll likely remain mathematically alive through Labor Day-ish.

The numbers can add up. It’s mathematically conceivable. It is within the realm of possibility that the exact combination of Royals victories, Detroit and Cleveland losses could propel Kansas City into the playoffs for the first time since winning it all in 1985.

The chances are slim.

It’d be easy for me to default to cynicism. A snarky Royals blogger says if the Mariners offer the Royals “a bucket of baseballs” in a trade for Billy Butler, we should jump at the deal. My first reaction is, “Yes!” With extreme prejudice.

My first reaction is these guys get paid millions to play a game, so earn it already. Which, in its own incendiary way, only sharpens the cynicism.

As the precipice of middle age draws nearer, I’ve come to appreciate that my first reaction is very often flat wrong.

My second reaction is to think of Billy Butler, the human being.

In the second reaction, I imagine his offensive struggles this year are taking an emotional toll. The man has one job. Hit the baseball. Everyone on his team and in the stadium expect him to do that one thing. How badly must he feel when he doesn’t?

I think of Butler’s father, who accompanied his son with other players’ dads on a Father’s Day road trip to Chicago and Detroit.

During a TV interview, you came away with just exactly how much the man loves his son. Pride, sympathy, wanting to do nothing more than crawl inside his son’s psyche and take the pain and hurt away.

But he can’t.

In the second reaction, reality emerges.

Billy Butler is my guy. Mike Moustakas, Nori Aoki and Brett Hayes are my guys. Just like Bobby “The Hammer” Hamelin was my guy in 1995 when he struggled after winning Rookie of the Year in ’94.

Just like Mark Davis was my guy when he couldn’t find the plate in 1990 after his ‘89 Cy Young Award season.

Just like all the underachievers, all the guys who have donned the Royal blue and white since 1969, striving to fulfill their potential.

Every Kansas City Royal desperately seeking the Mendoza Line.

In the second reaction, I am thankful to have a big league ballclub in the area and I am loyal to the guys on my team, regardless.

Guys with fathers, mothers, wives and children who love them. Guys who have good years. Guys who have miserable years.
 

The second reaction allows room for a little grace.

Friday, July 4, 2014

In a Hurry

Accompanying music.

Her blue eyes widened as she slid tight next to me in the lecture hall, excited and nearly breathless.

“Mike, have you heard the new Gerry Rafferty song, ‘Baker Street?’” 

A farm girl from Arlington, South Dakota, Paula wore boots, a blonde pageboy and her feelings on the sleeve of a rabbit fur jacket.

“Yeah, it’s his first solo shot since splitting Stealers Wheel, right?”

Our clique numbered four. Paula, Mark from Sparta, Wisconsin, Gregg from Minneapolis and me. The geographic outlier from Kansas.

The three boys were in love with the one girl, in that nature-takes-its-course way when 20-year olds with common interests are thrown together in close proximity. A year-long, intensive broadcasting technical school. Lectures in the morning. Hands-on studio work in the afternoon. Tests every other Friday morning. We’d finish around noon and repair to the bar a couple blocks west on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

Closed it down a time or two.

Paula was the most naturally gifted of us. Female deejays were somewhat of a novelty in 1978 and Paula didn’t lead with breaking ground. She just wanted an opportunity to talk on the radio.

Mark was the ladies’ man and the ladies knew it, which says something about his conquests. Gregg was a tall, skinny drink of water with an innate grasp of the underlying electronics which actually allowed for the broadcasting.

“Without me, you guys are just pissing in the wind.”  

We had stars in our eyes. Lake Calhoun’s nice, but where’s the ocean?

The curriculum was geared toward job placement, so we honed our sparkling personalities, direct eye contact, firm handshakes and audition tapes.  

I sought Paula’s advice on the songs to use on mine. No hesitation. “Love Will Find a Way” by Pablo Cruise, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and of course, Baker Street.

One by one, we charged into the real world. I went first, landing a sweet foot-in-the-door gig loading up all night movie reels at KAKE-TV back home (there’s a blog, please remind me.)

Mark went somewhere in Indiana, I think. Gregg followed me to KAKE. Paula did a perfunctory six months in Ottumwa, Iowa then on to WNFL in Green Bay.

We’d call each other late at night. Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and me in Wichita. Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle and Paula in Ottumwa, commiserating about the entry level.

“If God were to perform an enema on the Earth, Ottumwa, Iowa would be the point of entry,” she lamented.

Four years later, when we’d all moved up a rung or two, the four of us reunited in Arlington for Paula’s wedding to a play-by-play guy she’d met on the way up. 

That’ll happen.

Paula went on to large market deejay success in Detroit and Washington. Last I heard of Gregg, he was a tech at KSTP-TV in the Cities. No clue what became of Mark and I came home to Kansas.

I wish I had photographs. Apparently, while living all our years in a single minute, we didn’t think to bring the Kodak Instamatic with, to the lecture hall, the studio, the bars, the lakes.

“Bring it with...”

One year in the Twin Cities a lifetime ago and I still talk like a Scandihoovian-American.

Real good, then.

I think of my friends from 1978 on occasion. Especially when I hear the music. The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with them.

In my favorite year.  
 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Life Without Father

The transport ship pulls away from the Anchorage dock where his father stands. 9-year old Champ Matson runs down the deck to the ship’s stern, waving goodbye. 

He will never see his father again.  

A couple months before Pearl Harbor, J. Ellsworth Matson II, a land surveyor, is first on the ground at what would become Elmendorf Field near Anchorage. Spooked by early Japanese war momentum, the women and children are being evacuated to the mainland. 

At the dawn of the Great Depression, through determination and mettle, “Ell” Matson teaches himself a trade.  The Works Progress Administration creates jobs building essential public works. A government policy solution to human misery. 

An itinerate existence, they follow the work. Grand Coulee in Washington, Shasta in northern California, Elmendorf in Alaska. But it’s also an adventure and suits Ell Matson’s personality perfectly.  

Champ, Vic & Ell. Spokane, Washington, spring 1938.
Ell has been drinking since he was a teenager. All Prohibition did for guys like Ell was fuel the fire. A devout pre-Vatican II Catholic, Victoria Bonita Maday is eager to break away. With alcohol intake trend lines skewing north, their lives together spiral south. After a roller coaster decade with Ell, Vic has finally grown weary of the false promises, the lying and the bullshit.

At 29, the ship from Anchorage is her escape valve.
 
Back on the mainland, Vic goes weeks without a drink. Then the dreaded, inevitable first one and Katie bar the door. A revolving door of men. Champ picks up the dead soldiers, cleans up the puke and runs the overnight paramour out of the house with a shotgun because in his drunken stupor the paramour is beating up his mother and in hers, she doesn’t even know it.
 
Conscious or not, Champ begins plotting his escape at an early age. Vic’s last husband is from Plainville, Kansas. As a sophomore in high school in 1948, Champ arrives on the High Plains grudgingly.
 
It’s flat out here. And windy.
 
Two days after graduating from Plainville High and one day after becoming legally emancipated from Victoria at age 18, my father drives two hours east to Salina and joins the Navy. Pop will later say the Navy seed was planted at age nine on the evacuation ship from Anchorage to Seattle.
 
Half his young lifetime later, Champ is at last free to reinvent himself.
 
“What’s your name, son?” The recruiter had a live one. J. Ellsworth Matson the third. What’s the “J” stand for? Beats me. Let’s go with James.
 
Champ Matson walks in to the recruiting station, dragging all the baggage of his troubled upbringing. Out walks Seaman Recruit James E. Matson, United States Navy, with a clean, fresh white duffle bag on his shoulder. 
 
Being the child of alcoholics brings its own duffle bag. Jim (née Champ) Matson takes himself very seriously, is ultra-responsible and has trouble expressing his feelings. For years, I think he had trouble actually feeling, though as he ages, I see some of those walls coming down. As a kid, I tried to steer clear of him.
 
The pain and neglect of his youth deprived him of his personal power back then and that doesn’t mean it comes automatically as an adult. Despite a vast intellect and natural curiosity, Pop knows precious little about the spiritual aspect of addiction recovery. He’s never had to.
 
Until the last couple of years, Pop never talked about his father unless prompted. So I prompted him. Then one day, doing some cursory research online, I find a guy named J. Ellsworth Matson II, born in 1906 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin who had died in 1981 in Fresno, California.
 
Seriously?
 
I debate with myself a few days whether to tell Pop what I’ve learned – that since the last time he saw his father, the man lived another 40 years and never reached out.  

No letters. No personal visits. No Howyadoin’ Champs. No Christmas cards. No birthday gifts. No wires. No phone calls.
 
Pop deserved to know. Not sure how I expected him to react, but what I got back didn’t surprise me. No sadness, no anger. Nothing.
 
You see, Champ Matson had long since cut Ell loose and James E. Matson never had a father.
 
Period.

What would possess a young man to turn his back and walk away from his 9-year old child? What forces are at work that lead to these heart-wrenching, life-changing, irreversible choices?
 
I think I know. Self-driven thinking. And not the good kind. Not the rugged American individualism, entrepreneurial spirit kind. It’s the bad kind. The selfish kind. The middle finger in your face kind. The apathetic kind.
 
Stubbornness, pride and fear. Over all.
 
I have long since forgiven Pop. He did the best he could with what he had. And what he had was crap. It’s also not difficult to forgive Victoria. All my personal memories of her are warm and positive.
 
Which brings us full circle to J. Ellsworth Matson II. With God’s help and my right thinking, I hope one day to find it in my heart to forgive Ell.
 
But not today.
 
Not yet.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Blissful Ignorance

Like many coming of age American males, life was pretty much sports, cars and girls. S0 the Memorial Day weekend Indianapolis 500 covered two-thirds of my worldview.

Back then, the television broadcast of the Indy 500 was tape delayed. The actual race occurred in the afternoon and ABC would air it in the evening. Catching the tape delayed broadcast on the family black-and-white Zenith became a planned and subsequent memory-searing event. Mario Andretti in 1969, Al Unser, Sr. with back-to-back wins in ‘70 and ’71. Rick Mears jumping around his pit, literally on fire in ‘81.

Jim McKay, Jackie Stewart’s Scottish brogue and Chris Economaki in the pits.

In the Paleo-Internet Era, the trick was to stay away from the television, radio, phone calls and personal encounters with friends who had knowledge I did not want – the winner of the race.

Was it asking too much to simply enjoy the race broadcast as if it were live, without knowing the outcome? Funny, because I only feel that way about sporting events, not other forms of entertainment. I’ll re-read books and watch movies to the point where I’m quoting the dialogue (actual conversations, even) before it happens. 

Travolta wooing Karen Lynn Gorney on the streets of Brooklyn in Saturday Night Fever:

“... come on Stephanie, I can walk you...” 

Memorial Day 1983, I’m a young upwardly mobile professional mobile-ing (mobiling?) about Hays, Kansas in my 1981 red-over-black 2-door, 5-speed Toyota Corolla, sometime in the roughly 3-hour window after the Indy 500 has ended before the tape delayed broadcast begins.

For a reason that escapes me today, I felt compelled to turn on the radio.

Perhaps I wanted a weather forecast, though I doubt it, since then and now, I tend to just stick my head out the window. If it comes back in wet, I know it’s raining. Foolproof. Maybe I just had to hear The Human League crooning (Keep Feeling) Fascination one more time. 

Just looking for a new direction... in an old familiar way. 

Regardless, no sooner than I switched on the radio, two words emanate from the Realistic AM/FM/Cassette Stereo System (Radio Shacks caps.)

“Tom Sneva...”

Aaargh.

Watched the tape-delayed race broadcast that night, but it was anti-climactic.

The thrill was gone.

The advent of digital video recording means if I don’t want to know the outcome, I gotta be even more disciplined about avoiding information. With the Internet at my fingertips, I am forced to take conscious action to remain ignorant.

I gotta work harder to stay dumb than I do to get smart.

These days, Jackie and I often record Royals games of an evening and watch ‘em an hour or so after the actual first pitch, fast forwarding through commercials for which advertisers have paid good money, with the specific, underlying intention that I will actually watch them.

Woops. Guess we need another marketing meeting.

Two current options I’m working though involve chucking the smartphone in a desert or ocean, though living in Kansas make those ideas somewhat problematic.