Saturday, June 27, 2009

So the Oscar for Best Song goes to a song not even in the movie????

Just watched "Slumdog Millionaire" tonight. Yeah, I may be one of the last people in America to see it, but what can I say? Just never got around to it before.

The film's power was enhanced by my knowledge that the children who played the youngest versions of the main characters went right back to the slums they were living in when they were plucked for the film -- and that their homes in those slums were torn down not long after "Slumdog" won 8 Oscars.

I can't quibble with almost any of those Oscars. But one bugs me. "Jai Ho" won for Best Song....but it wasn't even in the movie. It was a dance routine to distract audiences from the final credits.

Colorful? Yes. Memorable tune? Absolutely. But music that was central to the movie's mood or woven into a pivotal scene? Unequivocably not. I'm suspecting the song got swept up in the momentum that "Slumdog" generated leading up to the nominations -- and rode that wave to Oscar victory.

I don't remember being terribly impressed with the other nominees, which may have had as much to do with "Jai Ho"'s win. But to me, there's still something tainted about this award of that shiny statue. Oscar should go to music that helps define a movie - not dresses up its credits.

A night in Delano

The cool air inside Chiart was a welcome embrace as I stepped inside on a sultry, sunny evening. I was back in the Delano neighborhood for another Final Friday, stopping by this shop for the first time ever to listen to my friend Nikki Moddelmog and Emily Scheltgen sing together.

I've written about them before on my blog, but this would be the first time I had heard Emily perform since then. I hadn't been inside for more than 30 seconds before I could feel the tension of a long day...a long week...begin to melt away. Part of it was the pleasant contrast of the cool air after time out in the muggy heat.

But most of it was the mellow setting and the lilting harmonies of Nikki and Emily. They were the audible equivalent of a fresh glass of flavorful ice tea, and I found myself mentally saying "Ahhhhhhhh."

Nikki (in glasses in the photo) and Emily were so playful and relaxed in their playing I almost felt like I was sitting in someone's living room while the host and a friend pulled out a couple of guitars and just winged it. To be honest, I didn't recognize any of the songs. But I enjoyed myself nonetheless. I recognized a few faces in the crowd, and after Emily closed out her show I made it a point of buying her CD. She's still young - a student in Andover - but it will be fun to watch her career blossom.

Nikki was in good voice, and I marveled at how she could harmonize so effortlessly and effectively. I left Chiart and strolled down Douglas, not sure where I'd stop next but not ready to call it a night. Part of Final Friday's magic is spontaneity anyway.

It was only a little after 9 p.m., and fading sunlight still streaked across the sky. I love that about this time of year; sunlight seems to last for ages. Cars rumbled down Douglas, windows down, stereo volumes up, laughter echoing off the buildings. The Wichita Wingnuts were playing at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, and when I strode past empty lots I could hear the public-address announcer intone the next batter and music implore the crowd. It was a pure summer tapestry, including the unyielding heat and humidity that seemed to cling to the pavement.

A couple of photos in the gallery Blank Page caught my eye, so I stepped inside to take a look. They were images taken by Nathan Buhr, in locales ranging from just down the road in Kansas to around the world in places such as China, Poland, and war-torn Sarajevo. Among the photos to catch my eye was one of a woman's eye in Prague.

It immediately took me back to my time in Prague, where one of my most enduring memories was how beautiful and stylish the women were - as if they had one eye on how they'd look in a photograph as they dressed - and the young adult men seemed intent on throwing on whatever jeans and shirt they found rumpled on the floor next to the bed when they got up that morning. The contrast was remarkable.

A photo of a narrow street in Poland took me back to the medieval streets I strolled in so many European towns and cities, reminding me how young a nation America is in comparison with so many cultures around the world. Ache filled me as I gazed upon a photo of a woman in a train's "speisewagen" - meal car - on her way to Berlin. I loved riding the trains in Europe, watching the landscape fly past, sipping a wine or beer, lingering over a meal and conversation with whomever you shared the table. I hope to do more of that some day.

A small cup of wine, a cookie or two, and it was back to the street. To the heat. To the darkness that had settled on the city with sunset. A few of the people I knew from the Chiart duet had said they were headed to Melange to listen to musicians jam. I had not been to Melange before, so I decided to walk down there. It was a few blocks away - nearly to Hatman Jack's, a store I know all too well, having a healthy collection of fedoras - and by the time I got there I had the sense that the music's crescendo had already been reached. Idle strums on a guitar seemed mere musical backdrop to the buzz of conversations.

I'm not into handmade jewelry, so little in Melange piqued my curiosity. But it reminded me of my ex-fiancee's aunt, whose handcrafted creations included wedding rings. I talked to a couple of friends briefly, then decided to call it a night. On my stroll back toward my car in the La Galette parking lot, I passed T.J.'s, an old-fashioned burger joint - and felt a pang of regret that I hadn't stopped in there for the night's repast. Instead, I had spontaneously chosen a take-out Chinese restaurant I liked whose daily special had proven surprisingly disappointing.

Another time, perhaps.

Three new places, familiar faces, comfortable paces. A satisfying dose of Final Friday once again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I went to a reunion at Wichita State University's Newman Center Saturday night (Newman centers are Catholic parishes located on university campuses). It was a nice opportunity to see once again friends I made years ago, and reflect on those now living only in our memories.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening came when one of the attendees talked of his brother, who died a couple of years ago. He spoke movingly of how his brother wrestled with drug and alcohol addictions - until he became involved with people from the Newman Center.

They reached out and took him in, and he found the acceptance and strength to overcome the addictions and blossom as a person. All because people took an interest in him and showed they cared. Knowing the people involved, I'm sure they didn't think they were doing anything extraordinary.

But it clearly meant the world to the man who turned his life around because of what they did - and to his family.

Sometimes we can tell when we have touched other people's lives. But all too often, we never have a clue.

That's why I believe it matters how we conduct ourselves, that we display "the better angels of our nature" as often as we can.

Because we never know who may be paying attention - and how much of a difference that may make to them....for better or for worse.

We're all human, and we all have bad days. Heaven knows I do. I guess the key is consistency. And forgiveness - for both others and ourselves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And down the stretch......

Kansas was known for years as the Breadbasket of the Nation, because so much hard red winter wheat is grown here.

By mid-June, wheat fields along the Oklahoma border would be waves of gold undulating in the whipping south winds, as farmers waited, poised with their combines and grain trucks, for the moisture level in the heads of the stalks to reach the optimum numbers.

But this time of year can also bring explosive thunderstorms packing heavy rain and huge hail - and just one storm could wipe out the entire crop. That happened more than once to Mom and Dad in more than 50 years next to the Sawmill Creek in central Kansas.

Farther north in the state, the wheat is typically still be green in mid-June, but farmers there are no less nervous than their brethren on the border. A hard rain or strong wind as the wheat begins to "turn" - changing from green to yellow/gold as the grain reaches maturity - could knock the stalks down. If that happens, there's little or no chance for recovery, because a plant's elasticity vanishes once it changes colors, and it can't stand back up - meaning a combine's header can't efficiently reach the heads bowed down with the kernels in their crowns.

I liken it to a racehorse that has been carefully bred, raised and running beautifully during the race....and then fractures a leg as it nears the finish line. No winner - just heartbreak.

How challenging it is for farmers to lie in bed at night this time of year, listening to rain or hail - or both - pound the roof of the house, wondering how much damage is being done to the wheat.

And the balance sheet.

And the farm's future.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dreaming up some answers

Every once in a while I come across a story to which my reaction is, "And the 'experts' didn't already know this?????"

That happened again last week, when a national story reported that a good night's sleep or a 'hard nap' improved test scores or proved inspirational in solving a vexing problem for the person who slept.

And in other news, sunrise comes in the morning.

I've lost count of the number of times I went to bed wrestling with the lead for a story (or simply what to say to a friend struggling with a problem) and awakened the next morning with the problem solved.

Dad never went to college, let alone get an engineering degree, yet he built more than a dozen bridges across the Sawmill Creek on our farm so the wheels of an irrigation pivot system could safely cross the creek bed. No two bridges were the same. Each had unique length, angle and track issues. Yet Dad figured each one of them out --- often by sleeping on it. Several times he mentioned how he awoke one morning with answers that came to him in his sleep.

I'm no sleep scientist. But I suspect this happens because while we sleep, the brain can devote resources that might be otherwise deployed to handle the daily business of distractions and duties to the pressing problem of the day (or night, as it were). A similar scenario may be how doctors will place a critically injured patient into a medically induced coma so the body can devote more energy toward healing by minimizing other needs.

Despite this "official" confirmation that sleep helps us work through challenging problems, I seriously doubt this means an editor's going to give me the green light if I say, "I'm struggling with this story; I need to go home and take a nap."

It's a nice thought, though.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Morning thunder

Thunder rumbled with the dawn, and then a heavy rain started pounding the roof like a sudden ovation at a concert.

Lightning flashed, its bright intensity defying the window curtains and snapping me more quickly awake than I wanted to be.

No need for an alarm clock on this Friday morning.

But the rain and the lightning didn't last long. By the time I was leaving for the office, the rain had ended and patches of clear sky were visible.

The trees, the flowers, the bushes all looked freshly washed and sparkling in the splotchy morning sunshine. The air was clear and smelled wonderfully fresh, and I wondered how many photographers were drooling at the prospect of shooting images moments after a summer shower had passed.

As I turned onto the street, road crews were on the phone - almost assuredly to supervisors - to discuss the lakes that their holes in the asphalt had become. I'm sure they weren't asking for fishing poles.

Driving to the office, I noticed disintegrating cumulus clouds in the upper atmosphere and light wisps of cottony cirrus clouds flying beneath them toward the north at a lower altitude. Any teacher wanting to demonstrate how the atmosphere is like several layers of air stacked atop each other would only need that scene to demonstrate the point.

Already the morning sun was warm. I would have loved to sit on a porch with a cup of coffee and my laptop and soak in this pleasing summer song of a day. But I didn't have that luxury.

It was a disappointment to have to step inside. Anywhere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

No tornado outbreak? That's a blessing, not a curse

I shake my head at folks who express disappointment that an expected tornado outbreak doesn't materialize.

Whether it's by e-mail, phone, text message, Twitter or Facebook (or even honest-to-goodness face-to-face conversations!), there isn't an event (or non-event, as it were) that goes by without someone griping about the fact that tornadoes didn't touch down. Or that if they did, the twisters were just short-lived wimps.

I celebrate such outcomes.

I guess I've climbed through too much rubble on too many farms and in too many towns, seen the faces of too many people sifting through rubble looking for loved ones or precious keepsakes, and interviewed too many survivors about what they went through to react any other way.

My fascination with thunderstorms and tornadoes has always been interlocked with an acute awareness of what they can do. I guess that comes from those times in my childhood when Dad would load us up in the car and take us to where that tornado we may have seen the day before struck; or simply seen and helped clean up the damage done to our own farmstead or a neighbor's. Our farm has been hit many times over the years, and I consider it a tremendous blessing that our house was spared each time - more than once via remarkable circumstances.

As far as I'm concerned, every "storm chase tour" should take its groups through a town or by a farm that's been hit, and talk to those cleaning up - so they can be reminded of the high price tornadoes can exact. The "tourists" may not like the "downer" that such a stop may produce, but it's a critical piece of perspective that everyone who has any level of interest in tornadoes needs to have.

I don't blame people for finding tornadoes so interesting - they are an incredible display of nature's raw power. One of the indelible qualities of watching a tornado in person is that time seems to stand still. No matter what vantage point you have, a personal encounter with a tornado (even if it's just as a distant witness) can make you feel mighty small. Powerless. Humbled.

But I cringe every time I hear chasers cheer whenever a tornado touches down. It tells me they've lost the proper perspective. That invariably diminishes them, and it's destructive to the important work of learning about tornadoes so we can better protect ourselves, our livelihoods and those we love.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Foreshadowing? Or merely symbolism?

I had a rather vivid dream last night. I was among a group of people helping a friend clean out her garage in rural Butler County when I happened to glance out the open garage door and notice a large tornado on the ground.

No one else had said a word, and I was amazed a tornado that big had gotten that close to us without anyone noticing. It was an unattached garage, and her house seemed too far away to go for shelter. I found myself telling people to take cover - but having no idea where they (or even I) should go.

As a last resort, I told people to grab cushions from an old couch pushed against a far wall, and shelter our heads with them after we'd squeeze between the couch and the wall. It wasn't much, but it was about the best I could do.

I woke up before we had hunkered down behind the couch, so I don't know what happened next. With news that tornadoes are possible in southern Kansas on Tuesday, I find myself wondering if it's a premonition of sorts (no, I won't be cleaning anyone's garage tomorrow) or simply a metaphor for something else.

I suppose I could do some dream analysis by tapping into some online resource, but I won't bother. At least not tonight. Sleep beckons, and I wouldn't be surprised if Tuesday's a busy day for me...especially if that forecast proves to be accurate.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cutting in line

Ever since I got the phone call about George Tiller being shot on Sunday morning, the week had been a blur. Meals were afterthoughts at best.

By Thursday, I knew I had to pry myself away long enough for a trip through a drive-through lane. I turned into the McDonald's at Broadway and Waterman, and was thankful that the line wasn't long. Of course, it shouldn't have been, since it was already approaching 1:30 p.m.

As I crept forward in the line, a battered pickup that looked like its replacement parts were being held together by duct tape and rust drove forward perpendicular to the drive-through lane. I thought she was wanting to cut through the line and exit the lot - but she turned in front of me.

I growled under my breath, in part because I was really hungry (and I get grumpy when I am really hungry) and because I knew I needed to get back to the office quickly.

But as I idled in line, with the windows down in anticipation of placing my order, I could hear her pickup's engine huffing and puffing like a 3-pack-a-day smoker hiking in the Cascades. It sounded like it would give out any second.

The pickup itself looked like an amalgamation of second-hand parts, with a bumper dangling at one corner. Her clothes were dirty and faded. By the time she placed her order, all she asked for was an apple pie. At lunch time. It made me wonder if that's all she could afford.

As I took in the totality of it all, my anger dissipated like a puddle of water on a sunny June day. If anything, this woman deserved my sympathy. Even if her order was merely dessert for a more balanced meal she'd had earlier, it was clear she was struggling just to get by.

And I surely didn't need to add to her burden.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Words on the tips of our fingers

I just finished watching the movie "Starting Out in the Evening," a thought-provoking film about a master's student striving to write a thesis about an aging writer whose books are out of print.

The movie resonated for the writer in me, recognizing so many facets of the writer's experience in the story line: how devotion to the craft can create distance and alienation from those you love; how the challenge to continue to write well never fades, no matter what you've done in the past; how the source of the words can baffle others...sometimes even the writer as well.

For some, the keyboard is a canvas. For others, a blank page a word painting waiting to take shape.

The keyboard can be your mistress, your taskmaster, your paintbrush --- sometimes all in the same day.

For me, the keyboard is a conduit between my mind and spirit and the computer screen. Once upon a time, the recipient was a sheet of typing paper, though I found most typewriter carriages couldn't keep up with me when the words were flowing.

Regardless of the technology, however, there's something timeless about the writing craft. Indeed, I know I'm in a rich writing rhythm when time seems to stand still. It feels like you've been writing for 10 minutes, and you look up and the sun has set, even though you could have sworn you just had breakfast.

It'll be interesting to see what becomes of novels in this new era of technology. People are reading more now than ever, though it is happening in a dizzying array of formats. But humans have used storytelling to convey wisdom, history, culture and knowledge throughout their existence, and that's not going to end.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A layer of bricks

I went for a walk tonight, eager to enjoy a sunny, pleasant summer evening and clear my head a little from the frenzy of news coverage in which I've been immersed since abortion doctor George Tiller was shot to death Sunday morning.

It wasn't a long walk, really...a little over a mile through the neighborhood that surrounds my apartment complex. I heard the clinks of a pair of men pitching horseshoes in a front yard, the idle bark of a fenced-in dog, the rustle of a woman working on the landscaping next to her house.

But what caught my eye was a torn-up street in front of my complex - or, to be more precise, the layer of bricks that was now exposed as workers had stripped away the decaying asphalt they plan to replace. The bricks were small, packed tightly together, and often on their sides - as if to fill uneven spaces.

And suddenly I was taken back to a story I wrote about paving bricks I wrote as an intern for the Larned Daily Tiller & Toiler nearly 30 years ago now. Larned's side streets are almost entirely brick, and driving over them delivered an almost staccato rumble that seemed to me the automotive version of the lulling clackety-clack of the railroad tracks for a train.

I found myself wondering what year those bricks had been laid, and thumbed through the sheafs of knowledge in my memory to see if I could recall much of what I learned about paving bricks. Bricks used for streets were different than those used for houses, because they needed to stand up to the weight of persistent traffic.

Alas, I couldn't spot any identifying markers in the bricks on Douglas, so all I could do was guess at their age. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they dated back 80 years or more, to the era of the flappers and Calvin Coolidge and vaudeville. Back then, this would have been close to the western edge of the city. After all, West Street is less than a mile away.

Soon enough, they'll be covered up again, by a fresh layer of pavement that's smoother to drive on and easier on tires. But I've long believed brick streets have more personality, and I'll be sorry to see them vanish.