Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Friday night in Wichita

The last Friday of the month is something special in Wichita. That's when "Final Fridays" come along - a night of celebrating music and the arts in the heart of the city.

Folks can stroll through numerous venues to listen to musicians; study paintings, crafts and sculptures; sip wine and nibble on hors d'ouevres - and it doesn't cost a thing.

Needless to say, it's something I've always enjoyed. When I learned a friend of mine was performing this Friday night - someone I haven't seen sing for several months now - I made it a priority to make it to her venue.

So off it was to Savage Threads in Delano to hear Nikki Moddelmog sing. Nikki isn't just a talented musician, she's been one of the massage therapists I have seen to deal with the stresses from work and the echoes of the whiplash I suffered in an auto accident in 2005.

I was delighted Final Friday fell on an unseasonably warm day for late January. This Final Friday would be crisp but clear. No ice or snow storms to derail the evening.

Nikki's talent is no secret in Wichita or the surrounding area; she's a fixture at the Wichita River Festival food court and the side stages at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, as well as several venues in and around Wichita. She's putting the finishing touches on another album, and I was curious to see how many of her new songs she would perform.

It was a little after 8 by the time I found a place to park and made the two-block walk to the store. Nikki was in mid-song as I walked in. There was a modest crowd browsing merchandise and listening to her and a couple of her friends perform.

I spotted Teresa, a friend who told me she would swing by the store to see me for a bit before heading to Twist next door to pick up some yarn. We chatted softly while the music was playing. I don't know what it's like for others, but I'm one of those people who enjoys the human tapestry in crowds --- what they wear, how they talk, how they interact. It's like a moving mosaic, and it's almost never dull.

Nikki was in fine form, and her friends accompanied her well. My only frustration was with the noise level of the swelling crowd, which treated her music like background instead of a bonus feature. Too often I couldn't hear the lyrics as Nikki sang, and I felt cheated.

I welcomed it when the crowd thinned and the noise dimmed, so those of us who were actually there for the music could enjoy it more. I've known Nikki for a few years now, and one of the small pleasures that blossomed from my time on her massage table was discussing the intricacies and challenges of writing melodies and lyrics - the creative process, if you will. How rhythms and tones can help shape a song every bit as much as its words. How changing just a word or two can have such impact; not just for the unfolding story but for the flow.

Listening to Nikki sing filled me with both gratitude and see her lose herself in the music, singing with passion and assurance. I'll be watching for that new CD later this year with great interest. From Friday night's evidence, she's better than ever.

One of the treats of a Final Friday is stumbling across talent you didn't know about before - and that happened at Savage Threads. During a break in the session, I saw Nikki talking to a young woman in the store. I didn't think anything about it until Nikki asked her if she wanted to sing something, and she agreed.

I figured she'd strum her way through a folk standard. Instead, she offered up an original piece with such conviction and clarity a hush fell over the crowd in the store. I had to fight to keep my jaw from dropping. "Who is this?" I asked myself.

She asked if she could sing a second song. Duh. This one, about love and loss, riveted the crowd anew. She sang with her eyes closed and with a freedom that left me thinking it was as if she were alone - even with dozens of sets of eyes watching her.

When she finished, there was a momentary pause, as if the crowd collectively went "Wow" before offering applause.

"That's the kind of person that should be on 'American Idol,'" I thought to myself, "if they didn't frown on the singer-songwriter format."

After she had finished, someone near her asked, "You wrote that?" as if they couldn't believe someone so young could write something so poignant and pleasing to the ear.

Teresa, who knows a thing or three about music, marveled at how effortlessly she had captured the crowd's attention. My years as a reporter have given me a courage that I didn't possess when I first left the farm many years ago, so I didn't give it a second thought about going up to say hello. She was warm and gracious and told us she hoped to perform again in the next week or so if she could find a venue.

Her name's Emily Scheltgen. She has one CD out and hopes to do more recording this summer. Rest assured, I'll be looking for that CD around town.

After listening to Nikki play 'til well past 9, I decided to head to my other mandatory stop on this Final Friday -- a showing of photographs from a road trip to Obama's inauguration taken by a group of people I chat with regularly on Twitter.

Twitter is a social networking site that asks users to answer "What are you doing?" in 140-character bites. It's blossomed into much more than that over the past several months, but Twitter is best tackled in another blog post.

This group of six blogged about their journey for the Eagle, posted "Tweets" on the site, and asked me for weather forecasts and travel tips at different stages of their journey. I wanted to see the fruits of their travels. Plus, while I "tweeted" with several of them, I'd actually only met a few of them in person. So I headed over to ROKICT, just a few blocks from Savage Threads, to see some pictures and some peeps.

I was pleasantly surprised at what the group, dubbed ICT2DC (translated 'Wichita to Washington'), had put together -- a combination of photographs and Twitter posts that, while modest in number, offered nice glimpses of a firsthand brush with history. I admired their courage and inspiration to hatch a dream and then turn it into a reality they'll share with their children and grandchildren some day. My trip to Rome with a group in 1994 was like that, so I can relate to their enthusiasm.

I enjoyed seeing Tweets I'd met before, such as Amy and Josh, and meeting people I'd only known through their Twitter names before; folks such as Shea and Dustin and Lynette and Sam and Al and the Tarms - Victor and Julie.

And I smiled when Jared cut loose on the keyboard with a riff that seemed to vault the energy of the gathering to another level. I'd never heard him play before...and he's good. I could feel the bass pulsating through my legs.

"That's when you know it's good," Amy said.

Soon there was a quartet up there with one guy on bongos and another on guitar and another singing into a cordless mike. There would be awesome jazz and blues later, but I wouldn't be there to enjoy it. I was getting sleepy, and I had family coming to town on Saturday morning, so I left before 11.

A sliver of moon shone in the western sky, the air so cold you could see your breath as you exhaled. It had been a good night.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Notes that echo through the centuries

On the day before he became president, Barack Obama paid a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A bugler played "Taps" --- and my evening came to a standstill.

I thought about all the soldiers buried there....the wars they fought in....the sacrifices that they made......and the price we've paid for freedom.

I thought of my Dad, and that warm September day we laid him to rest more than two years ago now. A color guard from Fort Riley came to salute a World War II veteran who had fought on the front lines of France and Germany.

I was standing next to the coffin and never saw the 21-gun salute or the bugler playing "Taps"....but those sounds pierced my soul. They reflected that he had joined the generations of soldiers, sailors and aviators who had fought to create, preserve or protect our nation and now live on only in memory.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Life on the edge

.....a knife's edge, that is.

I've always been a little nervous around knives. I know that probably sounds silly, but...that's how I've felt. Why? Because they're so sharp. And if you make a mistake around them, bad things can happen.

Take Wednesday. It had been a pretty good day, actually. I got home from work at a decent hour, put in a nice workout at the Y, and was nearly finished preparing dinner when I reached into the dishwasher to pull out a drippings tray for the George Foreman grill.

And sliced my left palm.

Just like that, in the blink of an eye.

A steak knife had shifted in the silverware tray and was jutting out at just the right angle to catch my hand.

At first I thought stitches were a foregone conclusion. But I was fortunate: The bleeding stopped rather quickly, the wound - though perhaps an inch long - wasn't deep, and the cut closed pretty much on its own.

Just typing that paragraph made me shudder.

Some generic antibiotic cream, a large flexible bandaid, an Advil for any swelling and pain, and ... well, I won't say "I was good to go," because my left hand was definitely limited in what it could do for the rest of the night without irritating the injury.

Just to be on the safe side, I wrapped my hand in a plastic bag and rubber band in the shower this morning and did everything right-handed. That slowed me down noticeably, since I'm a southpaw, but I still managed.

Writing notes at City Hall with a pen proved too painful yet this morning, so I relied on a digital voice recorder to handle briefings and interviews. But typing has been fine.

All in all, I feel fortunate - even blessed. I could have been cut in much worse places on my hand, rather than on the palm below my pinky, about halfway down.

For those who believe in such things, it didn't cut through my life line, or my love line, or any other "lines" your palm supposedly contains. At worst, it'll be another "line" on my palm. At best, the scar will fade away over time as my skin gradually sheds cells.

I do know this: I don't care if the so-called kitchen experts say silverware should be placed handles down in the dishwasher tray so the pieces can be properly washed: from now on, the knife blades are going in I used to do it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

"When I was a boy, I was told that anybody could become president. I'm beginning to believe it."
Clarence Darrow (1857-1938)

Nearly 2 million people jammed the Capitol today to watch the inauguration of America's first minority president. Along the way, he beat back a stiff challenge from a woman candidate. In fact, I suspect that if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination for president, she would have been taking the oath of office today - such was the level of disgruntlement with the Bush administration.

Today felt anti-climactic for me, and conversation with a friend over lunch helped bring into focus why: I have always judged a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Why not a minority President, if they are the best candidate? Or a woman President, for that matter?

But I know that stance is far from universal. Take, for instance, these words from a letter to the editor in today's Wichita Eagle: "Much has been written about the inaugural celebrations. However, since this is coincident with the death of America as the Founding Fathers envisioned it and with the way many of us remember it, please tell us where the wakes will be held."

Excuse me? The Founding Fathers signed a declaration of independence that began with the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

"All men are created equal."

If nothing else, today's inauguration is the long-overdue fulfillment of those words.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Boy Wonder in Bronco land

Friends have been asking me what I think of Denver's new head coach, Josh McDaniels.

Well, by gosh, Josh, I hope you can coach.

I can't say the choice has me as excited as when Mike Shanahan was hired 14 years ago. At 32, McDaniels is awfully young. And coming from the Bill Belichick coaching tree is losing its shine, despite the Hooded Snarler's three Super Bowl titles tarnished by Tapegate. Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini have been fired - though I think the Jets (like the Broncos) overreacted to a late-season swoon - and Charlie Weis' record at Notre Dame earned pink slips for predecessors.

Having said all that, I'm willing to give McDaniels a chance to be the next Madden or Gruden - coaches who excelled at similarly young ages. You can't ignore what he accomplished with Tom Brady and the offense for the 16-0 Patriots last year or with perennial back-up Matt Cassell this year. 11-5 would have made the playoffs almost any other year. In fact, the last team to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 mark was......the Broncos.

But one of the new coach's first hires leaves me with a sinking feeling. He chose former 49ers head coach Dick Nolan as the latest defensive coordinator. Nolan's resume as a defensive coordinator is mired in mediocrity.

It's not like he forged the mighty Ravens defense that took Baltimore to its Super Bowl title several years ago. He took that squad and made it....middle of the pack. In fact, "middle of the pack" seemed to be where most of Nolan's defenses gravitated, no matter where he served.

Mind you, a mid-level defense might be enough to win a Super Bowl in Denver, with the offensive talent in place....but that seems a risky approach given the strength of so many other defenses around the NFL these days. Baltimore? Pittsburgh? Tampa Bay? The New York Giants? Tennessee? Did you notice three of those teams play in the same conference as Denver? And that doesn't even mention McDaniels' former employer, the Patriots.

Nolan's arrival doesn't inspire confidence. He'll have the opportunity to show me I'm wrong...and I hope he does.

This Broncos fan wants to buy more Super Bowl champion memorabilia before my current sets are old enough to drive - and that won't be long.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sox and the Single Guy

I'm not sure what the world record for single socks is, but I have to be a contender. I must have 25....or 35.....or 45.

See, it's hard for me to tell. I hang on to all of 'em, convinced their partners are They have to be. I can't imagine where they got off to.

I can't bring myself to toss any of 'em, because I want to believe I'll find the second sock for each of 'em.

Well, not each of 'em. Probably not even most of 'em. But some of them? Yeah. Because the fact is, several times the second sock has I don't give up hope.

But that translates into what seems to be dozens of single socks.....waiting to be reunited with their partners. Talk about a hopeless romantic......

Or, actually, just someone who doesn't want to waste socks unnecessarily. I guess that's my farming roots surfacing: everything has value, even if how it can best be used isn't immediately apparent.

That can make for crowded spaces, though......

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Denver debacle

I've been a Denver Broncos fan ever since I barely needed my other hand to show how old I was. There wasn't any profound reason for it: I turned on the television one Sunday to see what was on, saw a football game on and liked the helmets of one of the teams.

They had a Bronco rearing in the heart of a large D. It just looked cool, I thought. Denver won that game, in the late '60s, so I figured they were good.

Little did I know.

Oh, sure, I found out most folks in central Kansas - where our farm is - were Chiefs fans. But I've never been one to do the same thing everyone else did, just because they did it.

Even when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

In those days, I soon discovered, 5 wins was a good season for the Broncos. A .500 season? That was almost a pipe dream. The playoffs? Those seemed to take place on an entirely different planet...a place the Broncos had no clue how to reach.

The playoffs weren't even part of the considerations as Broncos fans talked about the upcoming season. That would eventually change, of course. When the Broncos won their first division title in 1977, thanks to the "Orange Crush" defense, I almost didn't know how to act. Is this real? Denver just doesn't win this many games. After they were dominated by the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl, I thought they'd never get there again.

Oh, sure, there were other playoff games, but the Broncos never seemed like serious threats to reach the Super Bowl again.

Then John Elway arrived. He redefined expectations in Broncoland. I remember watching "The Drive" with my girlfriend at the time, thinking "What a great game!" and "What a remarkable drive" ---- but it didn't hit me that Denver was going back to the Super Bowl until after Karlis' kick had sailed through the uprights (and, yes, it was good, Browns fans, if you see it from a camera angle shown during "NFL's Greatest Games").

Ah, the Super Bowl. Three times the Broncos would beat the Browns in the AFC title game, only to lose in the Super Bowl; each time in more convincing fashion. I never blamed Elway, but each time it was clear the Broncos weren't the better team. Oh, the Giants took advantage of a series of breaks to win (people seemed to forget Denver led at halftime of that game), but I also knew that the Broncos had to take full advantage of their opportunities against that strong Giant defense to have a realistic chance, and that didn't happen.

I only needed to see about 20 minutes of the next Super Bowl (when Denver jumped out to a 10-0 lead, only for Washington to score two quick touchdowns in the second quarter to take the lead) to know how it would end. "Why'd you do that?" my girlfriend at the time (no, not the same one) asked me.

"It's going to be a blowout," I said.
"How can you say that? It's a close game."
"I just know."

A half-hour or so later, I turned the game back on, it was halftime - and Denver trailed 35-10. "Wow," she said.
"What'd I tell you?"
She never questioned my football instincts again.

We'll never know what the final score would have been had the referees not blown the call on Doug Williams' fumble deep in Redskin territory when he hurt his knee (recovered by the Broncos) with Denver still up 10-0. They ruled him down, though he clearly wasn't when he dropped the ball. But I have a feeling the final score would have been 42-17, not 42-10. The Bronco defense was cheddar cheese, and the Redskins were the grater.

It reminds me of what Slingin' Sammie Baugh said after the Bears beat his Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 NFL Championship. A Washington receiver had dropped a sure touchdown pass with the game still scoreless. Reporters asked him what he thought the final score would have been had the receiver caught the ball. "Oh," he drawled, "73-7."

Things got so bad for Denver fans that after the San Francisco pounding there were those who said it would be better for the Broncos to not go to the Super Bowl rather than to go there and lose. Which I always thought was absurd. You can't win it if you're not in it.

I had a feeling Mike Shanahan would be the coach to win a Super Bowl for Denver after he was hired, because of his experience with the 49ers, his relationship with Elway when he was a Denver assistant and his acumen at play-calling. When Terrell Davis arrived to balance the Bronco offense, I knew our moment was at hand. It took some tough wins at Kansas City (remember what playoff football was like, Chiefs fans?) and Pittsburgh, but the Broncos won the AFC title in 1997.

I may have been one of the few people in the country outside of Denver who thought the Broncos had a chance against the Packers. When Denver won in what I still consider to be a strong candidate for best Super Bowl of all time, I sat on my couch (recovering from the flu) and wept.

I always wondered where I would be and what I would do if Denver ever won the Super Bowl......and I was couch-ridden with what I called "The Fiesta Flu" (several of us who covered the Fiesta Bowl a few weeks earlier came down with this nasty bug). So my answer was "Alone, with a glass of 7-Up."

And then came the sequel....a flirtation with perfection and then a march through the playoffs that was little more than a coronation of the reigning champions. It was awesome. Shanahan seemed a genius, and more Super Bowls a certainty.

Denver had gone from laughingstock to one of only a handful of hallowed teams to win back-to-back Super Bowls. Only Steelers fans old enough to have lived it can relate. Pittsburgh had been losers for decades before skyrocketing to the summit in the '70s, and avoiding a lengthy plummet ever since.

I'm not sure anyone else who has a rooting interest in an NFL team can relate to what Broncos fans feel. The Chiefs and Raiders? Please. They were early powers in the AFL, giving their fans a false sense of entitlement that changes even now how they respond to success.

I share all of this to offer a sense of the hallowed place Shanahan has in the hearts of Bronco fans. That's what makes his firing such a jolt for many of us (not to mention most of the NFL).

Oh, on paper you can see why Pat Bowlen decided a change was needed. A .500 record over the past 3 years. One playoff win (against Tom Brady and the Patriots, no less) since Elway retired. A defense that seemed to redefine "dreadful" year after year. A disturbing pattern of late-season fades.

Yet this was Shanahan, the mastermind who brought Denver Super Bowl titles. Coaches like that can't be found just anywhere. Frankly, I didn't expect more than an 8-8 season at the start of the year, given where the roster was. To go 8-8 despite losing 7 running backs to season-ending injuries, along with your entire linebacking corps and half your secondary.....that's pretty remarkable.

In many ways, I considered this was Shanahan's best coaching job in years. And now there a tiny voice inside me asking the same question it did after Denver lost Super Bowl XII: "Will we ever get back there again?"

Broncos fans everywhere can relate.

Oh, Christmas Tree

After more than three weeks of gracing my living room, my Christmas tree is coming down today. It's a tradition in our family - indeed, in many Catholic families - for the tree to stay up until the first Sunday of January, the Feast of the Epiphany, honoring the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the manger in Bethlehem.

For most of my childhood, we selected freshly cut trees for the holiday. Artificial trees just didn't look good. My brothers and sisters were anxious to have the tree up as soon after Thanksgiving as possible. But our parents made us wait....and wait......and wait - typically until mid-December.

Looking back, I understand why. We kept the tree up into early January, not the day after Christmas. If we put the tree up in late November, that meant it would stand for up to 6 weeks. Six weeks of falling needles, a drying tree and eventually a significant fire hazard.

Once we found an artificial tree that looked nice, the safety and maintenance concerns went away, and it's become a tradition for the kids and grandkids to set up the tree at the farm on Thanksgiving weekend.

But I wonder if, in its own way, the old timing wasn't the better idea after all. While we little ones were anxious to have the tree up as soon as possible, the wait reminded us of the real reason for the season: an infant born in Bethlehem.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Remembering Joyce

Joyce had already retired by the time I met her several years ago at my parish church.

Even though it had been decades since she left her roots in war-ravaged Holland for a fresh start in America, she never lost strong traces of her native tongue.

She was the essence of hospitality and Old World grace, and had an upbeat outlook on life despite hardships that would have crippled countless others.

I heard about them over time, during prayer group discussions or lunches she prepared for us – which always felt like a trip back to the Holland of her childhood: wonderful homemade soup, sandwiches and other dishes. I felt like a sponge at such moments, just wanting to savor it and soak it all in.

Though they never met, she grew up in the same city and at the same time as Anne Frank. If I remember correctly, they only lived a few blocks apart, though they never met. Joyce had her own heart-rending experiences during the war: She was awakened in the middle of the night by the Nazis storming into her home and arresting her father. When he told her good-bye, she said, she never realized it would be the last time she would ever see him. She was sleepy, wanted to get back to bed and figured he’d come home again soon. Instead, he was shipped to a forced labor camp somewhere in the East. In his last letter, very late in the war, he wrote that the Russians were closing in from the front and the sea was to his back. She never learned how he died.

It’s difficult for people who didn’t live through it to comprehend how evil the Nazis were, she said. I think that’s why I was all the more impressed by her approach to life: she didn’t let the wounds of war – of unimaginable cruelty – or other painful experiences later on steal her ability to experience joy, to marvel at the wonders of life.

She came to America with her husband, Ray, to build a new life some years after the war. They bonded with other “Dutchies” who had made Wichita their home, and it was a treat for me to see them come as a group to our parish’s sausage dinner every March. I’d hear them speak in Dutch or heavily accented English and could sense the strong, deep ties they shared.

One of her children died and another would never walk, doctors told her. But with fierce love and determination, she worked and worked with her son, and together they proved the doctors wrong. He has a wife, family and successful job in another state now.

Joyce was always quick with a smile and a word of support whenever one of us in the prayer group was going through a painful challenge. It wasn’t a form of denial…more a wisdom and belief borne of a strong faith and the conviction that good people outlast hard times. She was one of those select people I particularly enjoyed hearing talk in our prayer groups, because I always came away feeling enriched. I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. Our group enjoyed each other so much we would meet for lunch or tea just for the pleasure of each other’s company. And it wasn’t the same if Joyce wasn’t there.

Joyce suffered a stroke and left us a few days before Christmas. I have tried to console myself with the knowledge that she is able to be with her daughter, parents and other loved ones now. I’ll miss her, but I’m feeling grateful that she was part of my life – even if it now seems for far too short a time.

Thank you, God.

And thank you, Joyce.

The first day, the last day.......they all matter

For us Christians, all time is sacred; either in its beginning or at its end. All time is God's time.
Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette

I've never been a huge fan of New Year's resolutions, because they just seem a blueprint for disappointment. Having said that, I do have some goals for 2009:

Make every day count.
Give more compliments.
Hold my tongue more often when I'm having a rough day.
Smile more.
Save more.
Speak from my heart more.
Worry less.

Let's hope those goals remain vibrant throughout this year......