Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sounds from a road trip

I tossed a CD case into the company car for my road trip to Norman, not really sure what was in there since I hadn't opened it for many months.

I unzipped it at a rest stop to find some music to listen to for the drive, and smiled at the array of tunes. It brought to mind the baffled look on a clerk's face at Barnes & Noble when I plopped several CDs in front of her one night.

"You certainly have eclectic tastes in music," she offered diplomatically.

My CD case echoed that: "Super Groups of the '70s." Mozart. The Eagles. The Beach Boys. Jim Brickman. Wyndham Hill piano instrumentals. Beethoven. Mahler. The Doobie Brothers. Phil Collins. The Chieftains. James Taylor.

Hmmmm.....looking at that list, the CD case could be subtitled "Oldies."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Echoes from the Orpheum

Old buildings have always fascinated me. I find myself drawn to their history, to reflections on what was going on in the world, in the nation, in that city when the building if the building at its birth was a snapshot of a time and place.

The Orpheum in downtown Wichita opened in 1922, thrived during the age of vaudeville, and showed films from the Golden Age of Hollywood when they were fresh from the studios. Its latter years were a struggle, and it deteriorated dramatically before closing in the mid-

It seemed doomed to demolition, like so many other historic theaters in Wichita, before a group of investors purchased it. Restoration has been slow and piecemeal, and there are times I wonder whether it'll be completed before the sun burns out.

But stepping into the theater for one of its periodic events reminds me of what's possible some day. The sense of history is unavoidable. Serving as an usher at Gridiron the other night, I looked up at the niches and wooden lattice work along the side walls, the massive arch that dominates the auditorium.

The theater is designed to resemble a garden in Andalusia. Having never been to Spain, I can't speak to how effectively it captures that atmosphere. But I nonetheless value the Orpheum's attempt to create a sense of place, so that what's on stage or screen isn't the only experience of the evening.

After the bane of cookie-cutter mall theaters that replaced so many movie houses, the Orpheum evokes times when a night at the cinema was an event. The Warren Theatres around the city have had success mirroring that concept, marrying it to modern technologies.

Yet I find myself thinking of the Orpheum every time I step into a Warren theater.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Change one life, change the world

I wasn't even supposed to write about them.

I was asked to write about Kansas high school students who placed in the 2000 National History Day competition in Washington, D.C. Four girls from Uniontown High School flubbed so many lines that they didn't place in the competition.

But their play, "Life in a Jar," still turned heads. It was about Irena Sendler, a Catholic who led the efforts to save the lives of an estimated 2,500 children in Warsaw before she was captured by the Nazis in World War II. They were interviewed on CNN, and were invited to perform the play in New York for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

"A Catholic woman being discovered by Protestant kids who saved Jewish children," their history teacher, Norm Conard, would tell me later. "If this is not a story for the ages, I don't know what is."

I wrote a short piece about the schools that placed in the competition, but told my editors, "The real story is these kids from Uniontown." I talked them into letting me do a story on the students, who had discovered Sendler was still alive and based much of their play on her letters to them. The students were gracious to me, happy to tell Irena's story one more time. They admitted they were likely going to perform the play only a couple more times for family and friends, then tuck it away in their scrapbooks.

After my story ran, their phone began to ring with requests to see the play. Stories in the Kansas City Star and elsewhere brought even more requests. A performance of the play in Kansas City so inspired one man that he raised the money to send the cast, their teacher and family members to meet Irena in 2001. Their visit was national news in Poland, where Irena's efforts had been buried by a Communist regime that considered her subversive. When her work during the war became public, she became a national hero.

The original students who put together "Life in a Jar" have all graduated from college and are now married, but the play continues to be performed by Uniontown students. It's been performed more than 270 times in the U.S., Canada and Poland.

On Sunday night, "Life in a Jar" achieves another milestone: "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, will air on CBS. I'll be in Norman for a violent weather conference, so I won't be able to watch it. But I've got my VCR programmed, and I'll be eager to see it upon my return.

I'm so proud of those students and their teacher, and by how deeply Irena's story has touched the tens of thousands of people who have seen "Life in a Jar."

Sadly, Irena didn't live to witness this latest milestone. She died last May 12 in Warsaw at the age of 98.

Only days before her death, she was visited by her beloved Uniontown students one last time. She told them, “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world. I love you very, very much."

Anyone who thinks one person can't make a difference in the world needs merely to read about Irena Sendler...and a few students from Uniontown.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

28 Steps

We had been in Rome for several days by the time we reached the seemingly inauspicious building next to the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

Fr. Conley, the guide for our pilgrimage (he's a bishop now, based in Denver), told us the building held the holy staircase, the Scala Santa, that Jesus reputedly climbed on his way to trial before Pontius Pilate in Rome. He told us it was a tradition for pilgrims in Rome to climb those stairs one at a time on our knees, saying a prayer on each step.

There were more than 20 of us on the pilgrimage, and most of us quickly agreed to climb those stairs on our knees. It can't be that bad, I thought.

And the first few steps weren't. But then the stairs, worn to the consistency of a roiling sea by centuries of foot steps, began biting into my knees. Marble just doesn't give much, and it kept finding nerves I didn't even know I had. At least, I think it was marble. Bishop Conley tells me the stairs were covered with wood even then...but I didn't think wood undulated that much from wear. No matter what we were kneeling on, every step became painful.

Skin began to burn as I slowly, carefully climbed. I tried to scoot up on the stairs to shift the "landing point" to spots that didn't hurt so much. But the steps gnawed on my shins. My prayers were filled with pain -- and I wasn't even halfway to the top.

Yet what I was feeling was a faint echo of what the man who climbed these same stairs on His way to being crucified ultimately endured. And that's what kept me going. By the time I reached the top, my knees were bloody. My shins felt like notches had been carved into the bone.

For months after that, it was quite painful to kneel. To this day, 15 years later, I can't kneel without thinking of that journey up the Scala Santa --- and by extension, Jesus' Passion.

When Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" came out, Protestant ministers admitted to me they focus on Easter and bypass Good Friday because the crucifixion isn't pleasant for their flocks to reflect upon. My brother recently told me the parish council at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic parish in Andover chose a crucifix for its new church that only has a faint hologram of Christ because they feared having a crucified Jesus up there would scare children.

But they're missing the fact that Christ knew full well His Passion was a fundamental piece of His mission. He warned His apostles repeatedly of it.

His suffering and death served as ransom for the souls of all mankind. If that seems challenging to grasp, ponder this: He knows what it's like to be wrongly accused and to suffer for it. He knows what it's like when we wonder if God has abandoned...or is After all, He asked from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

He knows what it's like when we're facing difficult times and we're tempted to find a way to not drink that "cup." He's been there, too, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

His excruciating journey to and death on Calvary should serve as an invitation to turn to Him in difficult times...because He understands. I suspect that could resonate with even non-Christians.
While Christ's resurrection is the culmination -- and the ultimate purpose -- of His ministry, I'm convinced His Passion is a core part of His message: "This is how much I love you."

We deprive ourselves of something profound and powerful if we ignore it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Seat cushions

Once upon a time, I rolled my eyes at those commercials that claimed you could buy such-and-such with only the money you had in your couch's seat cushions.

Nobody leaves money in seat cushions, I told myself. That's just silly.

My coin comeuppance arrived tonight, as I retucked the sofa cushions in anticipation of my nephew's overnight stay. I spotted a paper napkin that had fallen beneath the cushion frame, and before I knew it I had fetched a flashlight and was removing an archeological collection of knickknacks that had slipped down below.

A half-dozen pens.
Two or three small handy-wipes from Buffalo Wild Wings.
Several rubber bands from the morning paper.
Receipts and slips of paper with scribbled numbers and notes whose significance had long since faded from memory.

And....what was that? A glint in the flashlight's glare?

A dime.
A quarter.
A penny.
Another quarter.
A nickle.
Another dime.

All told, 76 cents emerged from the depths.

I won't be able to retire on that. But somewhere, a commercial scriptwriter is smirking.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Job description

I've been working on my taxes this weekend, and when I came to the line that said "profession," I had to smile.

The correct answer is journalist and author.

But in my heart of hearts, I'm a builder. A builder of relationships. Of stories. I love to get to know people....and get to know people better over time....with each conversation, each get-together, each gathering a new layer, a new chapter.

My favorite stories have substance, depth...and leave people saying or thinking, "I'm glad I read that."

But you can't fit all of that on one line.