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A Family’s Leave From the Daily News

There’s no escaping the news lately, but we did a pretty good job of dodging the worst of it on Wednesday. A gorgeous first day of summer on the southern prairie was instead to devoted to a celebration of a beloved cousin’s 50 years of fruitful marriage to about as a great a guy as you’d ever hope to meet, complete with a most ameliorative reunion with some other beloved family members, and some classic regionalist school prairie scenery and some excellent music from the classic American songbook coming direct from outer space along the way.
The day began damnably early at 11:30 a.m. when we arrived groggy-eyed but fully intact and neatly-pressed at our folks’ swank and hard-earned retirement village, where we had coffee and french fries and some convivial conversation with the folks. Our beloved Pop also dearly loves our beloved cousin and that great guy she’s been married to for a noteworthy 50 full years, along with the rest of his beloved wife’s complicatedly extended family, but some recent back problems prevented him from attending the party, so the drive from Wichita, Kansas, to Edmond, Oklahoma was just us and our beloved Mom.
As usual the folks’ television was tuned to Fox News, and although the sound was muted the caption at the bottom of the screen explained that the special counsel investigating President Donald Trump on various possible charges had hired as an investigator yet another donor to the presidential campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. We’d been listening to Rush Limbaugh on the way across town and we’re already hipped to that fact on our way from the heart of the city to its far-eastern edges, but were fortunately distracted from all that by a tricky shower curtain Pop needed installed, and which eventually brightened up the bathroom. After brunch we headed south with Mom toward good old Oklahoma in the folks’ swank and hard-earned Lexus, with the default Fox News playing on the radio from outer space, but when it started repeating itself on the way down I-35 we agreed to switch over to the outer space station that plays Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett and Blossom Dearie singing the songs from when Mom was young and before we were born.
That lulled our also nocturnal and less caffeinated Mom into a half-sleep, not quite sleepy enough to prevent her fine harmonizing to the standards, while the folks’ fancy car did half the driving for us in a strangely unfamiliar smooth way, and except for the blight of those windmills that pepper the route we enjoyed the music and the sight of the southern plains on a gorgeous first day of summer. A sultry-voiced global positioning expert guided us to our destination, and after we punched in the correct address she led us through a complicated maze of the northern greater Oklahoma City area to our actual destination, where we got to spend some quality time with a beloved aunt and her damnably beloved husband, who is after so many years of fruitful marriage a fully-fledged whether-he-likes-it-or-not uncle. Our Mom and our aunt are the last surviving sisters of beloved grandparent’s four daughters, and it was good to share in their hard-earned intimacy, and to share some guy talk with an uncle who is a guy we can’t describe without going novel-length.
From there we went to the swank and hard-earned venue where that beloved cousin and her greatest guy you’d ever hope to meet husband were celebrating 50 years of marriage and and wonderful children and wonderful grandchildren, and along with everything else the food was great. We’d been ring-bearers at the couple’s wedding and our cuter selves were featured in many of the photographs, and we shared a much-needed hug with the bride’s younger bachelorette sister, who might even be a more favorite cousin of ours, and we shared a couple of slightly salty doctor jokes with the couples’ doctor son, which he seemed to enjoy, and shared a delightful hug with the still-gorgeous second cousin or cousin one removed or cousin-in-law or whatever she is who had been the flower girl. All the couple’s grandkids were seated at a nearby table, and we noticed that the girls were all quite pretty and the couple of grandsons quite handsome, and they were all so well-behaved.
The trip back was under a starless sky, but the great old American songbook was still coming in from outer space and the ride was still seductively smooth and Mom was at her nocturnal best. There was the kind of frank family talk that only comes after 57 years or so of intimate familiarity with one another’s depressions and ecstasy, some shared appreciative chuckles about that crazy but uncannily brilliant uncle who’s been so happily married to her sister for all these years, fond reminiscences of that beloved niece and cousin celebrating 50 fruitful years together, worries about Dad’s back, and us impressing Mom with our ability to identify all those singers of songs from back when she was young and before we born..
There’s more than a couple of hours between the northern part of the greater Oklahoma City area and that far-flung fancy-schmantzy northeastern part of Wichita where our parents reside, so at some point politics came up in the conversation. Our Mom was worried that the special counsel and all his Clinton donor colleagues were out to get Trump, and although we couldn’t deny the possibility we also warned her that there might be plenty to get him on.
That’s how it looks to us, as we scamper across the broader dreary media landscape after a daylong road trip, but we’re nonetheless hopeful. There are well-married couples out there with promising grandchildren, and great American music is being beamed into cars from outer space, and there are loving Moms and Dads and their disappointing children, and summer has just begun here on the southern plains of the United States of America. It’s bound to be damned complicated, but it might just work out in the end.

— Bud Norman

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The Country Mouse and the City Mouse in the Age of Bumpkin Trump

Monday was one of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that Nat “King” Cole used to sing about, at least as far as the news cycle was concerned. An American jet shot down a Syrian jet over the weekend, and one of the president’s lawyers spent the weekend insisting the president wasn’t under investigation despite the clear implications of the president’s latest “tweet,” and there was yet another terror attack in London and some questionable verdicts in some high profile domestic legal cases, but these days that’s a fairly calm news cycle.
The Washington Post has lately been on roll unlike anything they’ve had since the good old Watergate days, but over the weekend they found room on the front page for one of those perfect-for-a-slow-news-day think pieces, this one about the growing cultural and political divisions between the rural and urban portions of America. We’re the jaded yet still curious types who relish those slow news days and their big newspaper think pieces, and in this case we were especially interested in the subject. Having lived here in the very heart of the heartland most of our lives on the relative edges of both rural and America, and with a well considered fondness for both, we consider ourselves rather expert on the matter, so we were eager to see what those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment newspaper would make of it.
Alas, we really couldn’t argue with their main thesis that there is a growing cultural and political division between rural and urban America. If we were right wing radio hosts wanting to ridicule the article, we’d feel entitled to say “well, duh.” They cite all the polling data that indisputably prove the rural and urban political divide, and have no trouble coming up with colorful quotes from the rural natives that clearly illustrate the cultural differences to their urban readership. To be fair about it, we also think they made every effort to be fair about it and did a pretty good job.
Still, we don’t think those young whippersnappers from Back East and their fancy-dan establishment paper know the half of it. We’re sitting here in the very heart of the biggest urban area in our very rural state in the middle of that big rural area in the middle of the country, and at this lovely time of year we’re a short drive from those amber waves of grain that you really ought to see at least once in your life, along with some delightful small town conversation and conviviality, and as we traverse the boundaries the difference between the two regions is almost painfully palpable. There’s a certain suspicious reaction you’ll notice when you tell someone in the rural rest of the state that you’re from Wichita, and we notice that our friends in the city also make certain assumptions about the country folks who have come to town for their shopping or financial affairs or the big-name country music concerts at the fancy new downtown arena.
Wichita is only the fiftieth or so most populous urban metropolitan area in the country, but by now it stretches into three counties from Valley Center down to Mulvane and west of Goddard to east of Andover, and by regional standards it’s the big bad city. The per capita crime rate is lower than most of those other 50 most populous cities, and even lower than in some of the still old west small towns around the state, but with some 500,000 folks around here a certain percentage of them are going to be raping and robbing and murdering, and the worst of it always goes out on the top the evening news to all those small towns. Although the volume-priced shopping is cheaper than at the dying main street businesses in their home towns the financial deals struck here by those small town folk don’t always turn out, the parking for those downtown arena shows is atrocious and often involves encounters with homeless panhandlers, and if they were in town the past weekend they might have encountered some unexpected goings-on at the big Gay Pride Festival, so we can well understand their trepidation about urban America and the rest of modernity.
Wichita is one of the very most conservative of those 50 most populous metropolitan areas, with so much of the educated population being engineers and entrepreneurs and agricultural financiers and other practical people, and the rest of the population largely drawn from those dying small towns, but even here there’s a certain cosmopolitan sensibility in effect. There’s a big state university with a very promising basketball season coming up, a better collection than you’d expect at the local art museum and a surprisingly good symphony and local music theater troupe, along with the nice botanical garden and nationally-recognized local zoo and all the local parks and a film festival that gets some occasionally good entries from around the world, and it’s hard to not get snobby about it.
The basketball team and the art museum and the symphony and local music theater and botanical garden and zoo and pretty much all the rest of the local high culture around here enjoys the generous contributions of Koch Industries, which did its business just down a country street from us in our elementary school days and is now the James Bond villain of every left-wing conspiracy theory, but it still has a certain liberalizing effect. We sense a certain apprehension of foreigners among our small town friends, and although we share their preference for secured borders we buy our beer from Laotians and our donuts from Mexicans and sundries from guys from India, so we’re not as enthusiastic about a border wall or mass deportations. They tend to have a personal conviction against baking cakes or otherwise celebrating same-sex marriages, which we well understand and would not prohibit, but here in Wichita you’ll probably wind up making enough gay friends that you don’t make a fuss about it. In a variety of ways, Wichita winds up more conservative than most of those other top-50 metropolitan areas but more liberal than the parts of the state where the fields take up most of the room.
Those young whippersnappers from The Washington Post eventually wound up with another inevitable think piece about why rural America is so much more supportive of President Donald Trump and than is urban America, and we have to admit that is a poser. Trump grew up in the Queens borough of New York City as the dauphin of a ruthless real estate mogul, made and lost several fortunes in casinos and other financial dealings, married three times and never learned a Bible verse, and until his recent weekend at Camp David had never encountered bare wood. His protectionist trade talk never played in either the rural and urban parts of our portion of the prairie, where the big money is in exports and he finished a distant third in the Republican caucuses, and the insult comic schtick also grated on Kansas sensibilities. Replace Eddie Arnold and Eva Gabor with Donald and Melania Trump in “Green Acres,” and that classic sit-com would be funnier yet.
Trump is getting a lot of support out there where the traffic dwindles down to a gorgeous and almost empty country road, though, and we think we know why. The president clearly resents those smart-alecky young whippersnappers Back East as much as any of those small town folk, and he states it more recklessly than any of them would dare while in town, and at least he’s not that darned Hillary Clinton woman or any of those other Democrats who sneered at them for their gun-and-God-clinging ways and preference for a country that’s not overrun by crazy jihadists, and there’s something to be said for that,
There’s also something to be said against Trump’s reckless rhetoric and frequent incompetence and often consequential lack of cosmopolitan couth, while that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia merits all the ongoing investigations, and all those political appointments are going unfilled and all the bills aren’t getting passed, and even here among those amber waves of grain of we can see the point. The arguments will be shouted across a widening divide, though, and we doubt if either side will hear the other.
The next election will probably be settled once again in the suburbs, though, and there’s no telling how that will play out. Some of the suburbs around here are pretty swank, others are former small towns swallowed up by the urban sprawl and lately getting all their crummy convenience stores robbed by methamphetamine and opioid addicts, and Trump’s popularity predictably but somewhat inexplicably varies from one precinct to another. We imagine the electoral map is just as complicated in all those coal-mining and software-writing jurisdictions spread out around this great and varied land of ours, and we hope that some productive conversation among us is still possible.

— Bud Norman

A Morning in Washington and an Evening in Wichita

Unless you had the good fortune to be in Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday, where the all-time great gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples was wowing a vast and varied River Festival crowd under a starry sky on the banks of the Arkansas River, the big story of the day was probably the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation’s testimony before a Senate committee about that Russia thing with President Donald Trump and Russia. Much of it had already been leaked weeks ago and then confirmed by Wednesday’s written statement, but it was something to see a longtime public official coming right out and saying under oath and live on all four broadcast networks that the president is a liar, and by the end it was all the talk.
There was some new stuff, too, including James Comey’s admission that he leaked information to The New York Times through a law professor pal about his private conversations with the president, and Flynn’s claim that the president said he hoped the FBI’s investigation of the president’s recently fired National Security Advisor would wind up without any charges, and asked for the director’s loyalty. That was a big talking point on the conservative talk radio shows, who were more outraged about the leaking part than any of the rest of it, but we don’t expect that argument will resonate far beyond their audiences. Trump’s lawyer, the same guy who handled his divorces and bankruptcies, tried to impugn Comey’s testimony by noting that the leak occurred before the presidential “tweet” about possible White House that was given as the reason for the leak, which was reported as a fact on one of the conservative talk radio shows we heard on the way to the concert, but our reading of the published record suggests he was wrong about that.
Comey testified that “lordy” he hopes there are White House tapes to back up his sworn testimony and contemporaneous memos and administration officials who can back up corroborating details such as the president ordering everyone else out of the room prior to one uncomfortable meeting, so a lawyer more seasoned in these political matters might not have brought that up. Trump’s lawyer’s other big argument was that Comey confirmed Trump’s claim that he had been assured on three separate occasions that the president was under an individual criminal investigation, but by now it’s pretty clear that the FBI as well as the House and Senate Committees and a special counsel are investigating the heck out of Trump’s campaign and some very, very close associates. He also seemed pleased that Comey had confirmed there was no o evidence the Russians electronically altered any voting machines, but nobody ever said they did.
Having a longstanding public official testify on live television that the president is a liar is a public relations as well as legal problem, especially when more than 60 percent of the country had already concluded he was a liar on election day, which included a significant number of people who voted for him rather than his similarly distrusted Democratic opponent, so even the most seasoned lawyer would have his hands full. Trump claimed in a famously against-his-legal-interest interview with the National Broadcasting Corporation that he never asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty, although he immediately added that “It wouldn’t be a bad question to ask,” and that he never said anything that could possibly be interpreted as a request for leniency to Flynn, but by now no one finds it hard to imagine him saying either thing. Trump’s most strident critics will find it characteristically unethical and heavy-handded, and his most stance supporters will consider it just the kind of tough tactics against the hated establishment that they voted for.
There were plenty of intriguing questions that went unanswered, too, but the senators apparently learned more in closed session that followed. Questions that could not be answered without divulging classified information included: What Comey knows about the sanctioned Russian bank that the president’s son-in-law met with during the transition; was the FBI able to confirm any of the salacious allegations in a leaked dossier compiled by a British intelligence agent; does Flynn remain a central figure in an ongoing investigation concerning the Russians and the Trump campaign; was he aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the government that have not been acknowledged by the White House; several questions regarding recused-from-the-Russia thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and does Comey have reason to believe that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.
That’s a lot to ponder, but fortunately there was no time for all that when Mavis Staples was in town. The grand dame of gospel and soul is 77 years old, 67 years removed from her first classic recordings as the prodigy daughter of all time great gospel guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and lead singer of The Staples Singers, but we can testify that she’s as good as ever. She had a crack band and a couple of perfectly simpatico backup singers, her voice was full of the spirit and her joyous charm was irresistible. Her set dipped into that deep gospel vein that began her long career, slipped into the funky and danceable social justice soul songs that landed her top of the pop charts and continued her family’s ministry, and occasionally dipped into some surprisingly cutting-edge blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
She did such expected hits as “Come Go With Me” and “I’ll Take You There,” and although we were disappointed she didn’t do “Sit Down, Servant” or that spooky death song “I’m Coming Home” she did do “Wade in the Water” and added plenty of other heartfelt gospel and shouts of the savior’s name to the show, and it was a much-needed boost to our soul. We kept running into dear friends who aren’t so attuned the spirituality of Mavis Staples, but they all know good music when they hear it, and they shared our bliss in a very heartening way.
She also did a memorable rendition of “Shake a Hand, Make a Friend,” and at that point several thousand Wichitans seemed on very friendly terms with one another on a perfect summer evening on the banks of the Arkansas River. These annual River Festival crowds are a remarkable bunch, full of tattooed south siders in wife-beater t-shirts and east side corporate family guys in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts as well as housewives and hipsters from all over, all in search of turkey legs and Pronto Pups and bouncy houses for the kiddos and zip rides across the river for the teenagers and cheap entertainment for all. Lots of very fat people, no shortage of attractive young lasses in slutty short shorts and fashionably retro summer dresses, and all the race and class and gender and intersectionality a multicultural studies major could hope for.
We stood next to a woman in a hijab and her westernized-looking kids at a table where a guy was daring people to cover a red square with five smaller discs, had a pleasant interchange with a pretty young black woman whose view we had inadvertently blocked, and chatted briefly with a muscle-bound cop about how great the show had been. There were a lot of cops, too, probably a continued consequence of a few years back when they had a block party a little too far east on Douglas and close enough to the bars it went bad, but they all seem happily bored. Everyone was getting along, people were shaking hands and making friends, and there was great American music on a great American night.
The River Festival rolls on through Sunday, when they have the big fireworks finale, and they’ve got the estimable musical talents of Randy Newman scheduled for tonight, so if you’re in the vicinity of Wichita we urge you drop by and shake a hand and make a friend. Our best guess is that the president is a liar, and most of the country seems to agree, including a lot of the people who voted for him, and so was his arguably worse Democratic opponent, but we can testify that there is still great American music on great American nights out there.

— Bud Norman

Covfefe and Kerfuffles

The news slowed enough on Wednesday that the talking heads were reduced to talking about a minor celebrity’s bad taste in propaganda and the latest bizarre presidential “tweet.” Neither story was very consequential, especially compared to what else has been going lately, but they provided something to talk about.
The minor celebrity is Kathy Griffin, an unfunny comedian we’re usually happy to ignore, but there was no ignoring the outrage that resulted when she published a picture of herself holding an effigy of President Donald Trump’s bloody severed head. As a joke it was unfunny even by Griffin’s usual standards, as a political statement it was completely pointless, and as an effort to undermine Trump it proved counterproductive. Trump and his supporters could rightly point to it as an example of how mean spirited and meaningless so much of the criticism of his administration has been, while Trump’s more respectable and reasonable critics also condemned it lest their more substantive arguments be tarred by association. Eventually the Cable News Network wound up canceling Griffin’s annual gig co-hosting a New Year’s Eve show, the usually unapologetic comic was profusely apologizing across the internet, and as we scanned the news nobody seemed to be coming to her defense.
That lack of solidarity on the left took a lot of the fun out of it for those on the right who wanted to talk about how appalled all the liberals would have been if anyone had said or done anything similarly disrespectful about President Barack Obama. Some of them talked about it anyway, so some people on the left talked about all the times the numerous times people on the right did do and say similarly disrespectful about Obama, including that time when heavy metal guitarist and recent White House guest Ted Nugent regaled a concert crowd with some between-song patter about beheading Obama and various other Democrats, and as all usual the various charges of hypocrisy from both sides carried some truth. Such pop cultural outrages are by now so common they’ve become banal, to the point they don’t warrant mention except on slow news days or higher-profile celebrities, and the angle almost everyone seemed to miss is that both sides of the political divide our degraded our civil discourse to such a sordid state.
The other big topic of water cooler conversation was Trump’s early-morning “Tweet” declaring “Despite the constant negative press convfefe.” That cryptic sentence and its baffling neologism lingered on the internet for six hours or so before being deleted, but by then a lot of Trump critics far wittier than Griffin were having great fun poking at Trump’s characteristic unintelligibility without resorting to gruesome decapitation gags. There were plenty of “memes” and “gifs” and other internet hilarity, too, and even the right wing talk radio hosts were trying to get in on the joke. One wag “tweeted” that Covfefe is New York’s hottest nightclub, adding that “It has everything: Russian entanglements, spray tans, creepy handshakes, surprise trade wars.” Another predicted that White House Sean Spicer would once again say “The ‘tweet’ speaks for itself.”
Spicer seemed unamused during a press conference where new rules were introduced to limit the press corps’ recording rights, which might have been a story on an even slower news day, growling that “I think the president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.” This cryptic statement led one of the callers on a right wing talk radio show we heard while driving around town to speculate that “covfefe” was a code signal to a cadre of Trump co-conspirators, much as “Jean has a long mustache” tipped off the French Resistance that the invasion was starting in “The Longest Day,” but even the host wasn’t buying that.
Most people on both sides of the debate figured that Trump had started to write something about negative press coverage before either falling asleep or being distracted by some pressing crisis or nearby shiny object, or otherwise losing his bullet train of thought, and it was just one of those things that happens to people in the internet age. This “tweet” didn’t accuse a former president of wire-tapping and being either sick or bad, and it didn’t threat any trade relations with longstanding allies, and Trump himself  with a more-lighthearted-than-Spicer and more-clever-than-Griffin “tweet” that “”Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe??? Enjoy!” That’s not at all reassuring, though, and despite the undeniable humor it was still yet another daily grim reminder of how very degraded our civil discourse has become.
It was nonetheless a welcome relief from the daily screaming matches about all the latest scandals and attempts at censorship by sides and the hypocrisy about it that so rife there’s plenty spread around. On the next slow news day it would be nice if the president didn’t “tweet” and his fellow celebrities somehow refrained from attention-grabbing outrage, and the talking heads are forced to calmly talk about whatever became of that health care bill and the similarly forgotten tax reform bill and America’s role in a global economy and the rest of the boring stuff that people used to talk about before the discourse became so degraded.

— Bud Norman

Reality Intrudes on a Otherwise Nice Weekend

The weather around here was atypically perfect over the Memorial Day weekend, with none of the vicious thunderstorms and potential tornadoes that usually drive all the campers away from the nearby lakes at some point in the holiday, and the news cycle was as slow as one can hope for these days. Still, there was no shaking a certain sense that real life and all its discontents would start up again today.
We did our best to put it aside for a weekend of gratitude to fallen heroes and other uplifting thoughts, attending church and doing some pressing chores and pursuing plenty of procrastinating, while sticking mostly to the sports news. On Monday we slept late and eventually got together with some gray-haired hippie friends who meet every year on the date at a charmingly dilapidated house in a charmingly dilapidated neighborhood, and we had some barbecue and drank some beer and talked mostly about music.
They were playing the Allman Brothers Band on an old stereo sound system, apparently in memoriam of Gregg Allman, one of the eponymous co-founders of the band and its longtime vocalist and organist and songwriter, whose obituary we had noticed in the news over the weekend, and we have to say it sounded great. As natural born rockabillies our tastes in rock ‘n’ roll tend to the pre-hippie generation, and in our relative youth we embraced the punk sensibility that rebelled against those aged hippies, but we could never resist that Allman outfit doing “Crossroads” or “Whipping Post” or especially that enticingly melodic “Jessica,” which we played over and over on our old stereo until it drove our mom crazy, so we shared with our hippie friends a sincere toast to an undeniably crazy old hippie who was also an undeniably great and quintessentially American musician.
There was plenty of grousing about President Donald Trump, too, of course, but our natural born rockabilly punk and old school Republican sensibilities weren’t much stirred to offer any defense. We left early and dropped in an another old friend, a woman who is a bit younger and far punkier than ourselves, and still quite attractive in an exotic and ripened sort of way, and after she she showed us some cell phone video of her cute grandsons she also started grousing about Trump. After such a long friendship she usually avoids political topics with us, but we invited her to vent her spleen without any fear of recriminations. This lead to an eerily civil discussion about our bedrock conservative principles, however weird they might seem at the moment, and even some lengthy discourse some about the authoritarianism on her side of the political divide, and it ended in a hug.
After that we still managed to make the last inning of the Wichita Wingnuts’ home-opening victory over the Salina Stockade at the old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on a glorious early summer night next to the Arkansas River, and although our New York Yankees lost to the Baltimore Orioles the Boston Red Sox also so lost so the Yankees were still comfortably in first place in the American League East. In our perusal of the sports pages we also noticed that Frank DeFord had died and Tiger Woods had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, so it wasn’t a great day in sports. DeFord was until his final day the best sportswriter of his generation, and at one point around 2008 Woods seemed poised to claim the title of greatest golfer and most heroic sports hero ever, and both of those stories came to a sad end over the weekend.
We dropped in on the last Wingnuts inning with a couple of our cigar-chomping friends in the smoking section of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, one of whom is a graying hippie professor at the local university and the other a gray-pony-tailed hippie who still musters a full-throated defense of Trump, and they briefly filled us in on what they’d been arguing about during the home team’s victory. At that point we tried to talk about the home team’s victory, and if we’d arrived early enough to purchase a beer we’d have raised a conversation-changing toast.
We can’t help a late night glance at the news, though, so naturally Trump came up in that. They don’t observe Memorial Day in Germany, so Chancellor Angela Merkel went ahead with a speech that didn’t mention Trump by name but made clear that in “my experience of the last few days” she spent with Trump she had concluded that Europe could no longer count on the support of “outside sources,” and her opponent in the upcoming election more explicitly agreed with her more subtle denunciation of Trump. Our liberal Facebook friends were meanwhile exulting in Trump’s admittedly unusual demeanor during the national anthem at Arlington Memorial Cemetery, and although we don’t think it necessarily damning we have to admit it is unusual. There’s the carry-over from the previous work week’s stories about Trump’s son-in-law and all-purpose appointee, too, and we had to warn our Trump-apologist friend that the upcoming testimony of the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director will likely require some difficult apologetics.
He seemed to take our warning to heed, and inquired about the well-being of our folks, whom he has also lately befriended. We appreciated the sincere inquiry, and assured him they seemed to be doing fine, and felt a hopeful thought that all this politics and sports and whatnot doesn’t really matter.
We also took a moment or two to remember Jerry Clark, who grew up in the Depression at an Atchison orphanage and got his toes blown off at the Battle of Manila in World War II and somehow wound up in the darkroom of the newspaper where we worked as young punks,  where he became one of our very best friends ever. For all the difficulties of his life he was one of the funniest fellows we’ve ever known, and as we face the coming week we’d love to hear what he would say about this particular moment in time.

— Bud Norman

A Pause for Memorial Day

The news should start up again with its recent ferocity tomorrow, but until then the country deserves a brief respite. Today is Memorial Day, a chance to relax, light up the barbecue, knock back a beer, and reflect for a moment or two on the heroes who made it possible. We’ll not intrude on any of that with news, which is mostly pretty bleak these days.
Thanks for dropping by, though, and allowing us to wish you a great day in in the great land of America.

— Bud Norman

Trump on Mother’s Day

There was nothing going on Sunday but Mother’s Day and the latest re-hashings of that complicated story about President Donald Trump firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so we chose to spend the morning and the early afternoon with Mom. All in all, it proved the far better choice.
She and Dad started worshipping at Riverwalk after our family’s congregation had folded and back when we weren’t so diligent about weekly worship, then went off to the Philadelphia in pursuit of Dad’s career and wound up involved in the many good charitable works of a Church of Christ there, and in the meantime we desperately re-connected with that much smaller and older Church over on West Douglas. Mom and Dad have joined us there for worshipping and found it reassuringly familiar, so much like the church where they were married and where we once served as a ring-bearer at a cousin’s also very happy marriage, and although there’s usually an Arkansas River and a full hour dividing our Holy Communion it was nice to share it with Mom. She’s the reason that dad worships every Sunday, and her and our Dad’s combined example is the reason we continue to do so, too, even if it’s over that Arkansas River Bridge and deep in to Delano, and there’s no doubting that Mom’s mother was mostly responsible for that. The subject of the sermon was honor they Father and Mother, and given our family history that seems wise counsel on almost any old weekend, and we took it to heart
Dad wasn’t there because he’s recently had some pretty serious spinal surgery, which also involved a neurosurgeon, which worried us plenty, Dad being such a great guy, but he seemed in high spirits when we and Mom joined him apres church, and very much abreast of the latest developments in that Trump and Russia thing, when we met him for a lunch in the health care unit of his very nice retirement home. The lunch wasn’t bad, by semi-hospital standards, and he was in such a good mood that he encouraged us to take Mom out for an afternoon of Wichita culture. Mom had already introduced us to the local arts and music and all the test of the surprisingly rich culture rich traditions of Wichita, Kansas, so it was a delight to drive her over in her fancy care to the WAM’s annual art and book fair. There was a nice collection of pieces from the permanent collection chosen by some of our fine local artists, that internationally iconict and perfect-for-Mother’s-Dy painting by Mary Casatt of a mother and infant child, and we also had a chance to introduce our Mom to a couple of very idiosyncratically Wichita women of our more secular acquaintance.
Before we headed home we warned our Dad that the whole Russian thing with Trump and Russia seems to be closing in on Trump, based on the foreign and and non-cable news we follow, even though we share his hope that it’s all fake news. No matter how that turns out, it was a a great day with Mom and we’ll give thanks next Sunday over on West Douglas.

— Bud Norman

The Cussed State of Civil Discourse

Two of the late night comics who lampoon the newsmakers have lately found themselves in the news, and neither comes off any looking any better than their targets. Such is the sorry state of both politics and political satire.
One of the two is Stephen Colbert, host of the Columbia Broadcast System’s “Late Night” program, is being widely criticized on both the left and right for a particularly vulgar joke he told about President Donald Trump. Pretty much the entirety of every episode is devoted to Trump jokes, so far as we can tell, except for when the guests are plugging their project, but this one involved Vladimir Putin and fellatio and a word that was censored even late at night, and that was a punchline too far. There were outraged editorials in the most respectable publications of the left, partly because they like their anti-Trump jokes more acerbic and partly because they thought the gag seemed slightly anti-homosexual. On the right they denounced Colbert for all the usual reasons, and there’s even a “hashtag” going around to boycott his advertisers and force his firing. Most folks in the middle probably found the joke tasteless, and not at all funny.
So far Colbert is unapologetic, though, and has every reason to expect that he’ll emerge from the controversy only slightly scathed and far more famous. He’s getting some unexpected support from several of the right-wing talk radio hosts, who of course deplore the joke but have reasons of their find advertiser boycotts and mob censorship even more deplorable. All the pundits on the left seem content with some mild scolding, and will no doubt be back to praising Colbert’s more clever Trump-bashing soon enough. By now most folks in the middle are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Such vulgarity as Colbert used is almost ubiquitous by now, showing up on t-shirts and bumper stickers and shock jock radio shows all those endless cable channels, and it long ago invaded the political realm.
Even before the Colbert incident people were noticing the Democratic National Committee chairman’s very public penchant for barnyard epithets, and how commonly profanities are used in all sorts of leftist venues, and how vicious it has become. The right must grudgingly concede that the Republican president also has a habit of cursing in front of the kids, and revels in an ad hominem slur as much as any of his late night tormentors, and that some of cause’s allies of convenience can get pretty vicious themselves.
Both sides of the street will probably continue to slide into the gutter. There’s an assumption among too many people that cursing and trash-talking signals some of sort of proletarian authenticity and honest, and we’re often tempted to sell them some ocean-front property in *$%*@ Arizona. All of the fuss about Colbert should be focused on this general decline in political discourse, but everyone would probably just shout about it.
The other comic in the news is the eponymous host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on the American Broadcasting Company, who more quietly stepped into a controversy. In a recent monologue he took a break from his usual smart-aleck comedy to speak softly and tearfully about the recent birth of his son, who was found to have serious congenital heart defects, and spoke passionately against some of changes that Republicans have proposed making to the nation’s health care laws. The speech was respectful and reasonable, and we were heartened to see that so were most of the rebuttals. A few writers chided him for using the story for political purposes, and of course the comments sections were filled with the usual bile, but the response from the sorts of conservatives we read and even from the White House was also respectful and reasonable, and dealt only with the facts and the logic of the broader issue at hand.
We’re inclined to agree with those who have expressed their polite disagreement with Kimmel, but we’ll be willing to listen to what he has to say in response, and we thank him for furthering the discussion on such civil terms, and we’ll hope and pray that son of his lives a long and happy life. That’s the way politics is supposed is to work.

— Bud Norman

Fake News and Real Life

Our Tuesday morning started before sunrise and stretched into the afternoon in the lobby of a local hospital, where we anxiously awaited the outcome of our father’s spinal surgery. The rest of the day’s news seemed unimportant, but while our mother was getting some much-needed napping done there was nothing else but pacing to occupy our interminable wait.
Once upon a fairly recent time in Wichita almost any significant medical procedure would take place at the Wesleyans’ Wesley Hospital or the Catholics’ St. Francis or St. Jude hospitals, which still remain the big three under national corporate ownership, but these days there are gleamingly ultra-modern specialty facilities spread all over town. We wound up way out on the east side, across the street from one of the local corporate airports and not far from swank restaurants in trendy shopping centers, at a well regarded place where they work pretty much exclusively on spines. The workers were friendly and professional, the coffee was free, and they had several of those big high-definition televisions tuned into the various cable news channels.
An old family friend and a new friend from the parents’ elegant nearby dropped by to offer some much-appreciated moral support, as did an elder from the parents’ church, and Mom got cell phone calls from our brothers in Colorado and California and a cousin in Oklahoma, but that only took up some of the time. The local newspaper doesn’t take up much time these days, even if you do the crossword and jumble and crypto-quip puzzles, and we’d forgotten to bring along the laptop to take advantage of the free wi-fi we should have expected at such an up-to-date facility, so when Mom dozed off we wandered over to see what was on those newfangled high-definition TVs.
One was tuned into Fox News while another just a yard or so away was showing MSNBC, and it was pleasantly diverting to watch the captions and the scrollers and see what the two polar ends of the cable spectrum were choosing to yak about. On “Fox and Friends” they were making a big deal of the black-masked “antifa” idiots who had staged some destructive May Day mini-riots in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco and Chicago and New York, while the folks at “Morning Joe” on MSNBC didn’t seem to get around to mentioning them at all, and in both cases we thought their news judgment was skewed by bias. When our Fox-watching folks showed up for the check-in they both mentioned they’d heard how that awful Michael Moore guy was going to stage an anti-Trump Broadway play, which was still big news an hour later on “Fox and Friends,” and we assured our parents that Moore’s pretty much a left-wing has-been these days and nothing to worry about it at a time like this, and they’ll be heartened to know that MSNBC seems to agree, as we didn’t spot a single picture of Moore’s jowly face during the hour so we spent glancing at “Morning Joe.”
The guy we assume is the titular “Morning Joe” and his comely sidekick Mika with the same foreign-sounding and hard-to-spell last name as a past National Security advisor were mostly interested in yakking about some interviews that President Donald Trump gave over the weekend. We could hardly deny them their fun, as the interviews were so undeniably disastrous that we’d already gotten our own kicks in from the right, and we couldn’t really criticize their critiques from the left. Even the exceedingly Trump-friendly panel on “Fox and Friends” was forced to address the unavoidable topic, and their guest, thetalk radio hostess Laura Ingraham, who is usually so Trump-friendly he seriously considered her for the job of Press Secretary, was forced to concede that the interviews “didn’t do Trump any good.” Fox’s regular panel of “Friends” tried to mount a defense, especially that pretty young woman that we have no idea who she is in the middle of the couch, but their hearts didn’t really seem in it.”
The handsomely aging guy on the left of the couch at “Fox and Friends” we recognized as Steve Doocy, and in our sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated and highly anxious yet profoundly bored state we recalled the couple of times our paths had briefly crossed on the Wichita media scene. He was a reporter for one of the local TV stations, we were clerking at the local newspaper, which was a whole lot thicker and more time-consuming and far better than TV way back then, and although he seemed a nice enough guy we couldn’t help but resent how all the women at the paper seemed slightly smitten by him, especially one that we happened to be smitten with. He seemed rather tongue-tied trying to defend those undeniably disastrous Trump interviews, and looked at least the same three years or so older than ourselves, and we couldn’t help chuckling about what all those left-wing babes at the paper would think of him now. We’re not at all famous and as plain and right-wing as ever, but our hair’s still full and we’re not obliged to muster a defense of those undeniably disastrous interviews.
After a few fitful moments of sleep in the chair next to Mom the newfangled beeper machine they’d given us went off, and then a very fit-looking and handsome young surgeon that our Mom told us had attended a Christian college came out to tell us that the surgery had gone well. We were advised that Dad would be waking up from the anesthesia in an about an hour, and after two and a half hours of fitful sleep and pacing and news-watching the beeper went off again and we were sent in to see him. He’d gone off to surgery far more calm and confident and ready to get it over with than anybody else, as usual, and he awoke from the ordeal his same mellow self. He was in intense pain and dreaming the dreams of Morpheus, but still lucid enough to inquire how his beloved wife and family and were doing, and offering reassurances while making some minor complaints, and all the news was good.
A while later he reassured us we could go home, and after we pressed him for more reassurance we somehow made our way back across town for a much-needed nap. We woke up to check the internet for the usual news feed, found nothing that seems especially pressing, took notice that The New York Yankees are back in first place in the American League East and The Boston Celtics are up two-to-none in the second round of the National Basketball Association playoffs, and at the end of it we gave thanks for a pretty good day. We’ll drop by the hospital way out on the east side tomorrow, where Dad’s going to be laid up for a days, and try to adjust our news judgment to what really matters.

— Bud Norman

The Wrecking Ball and the Press

Our local newspaper’s longtime headquarters is slated for demolition this week, so on Saturday they invited all the former employees to drop by for a last look at the place. The event offered an opportunity to see some cherished friends and respected colleagues we haven’t seen in a long while, and some of the conversations were quite convivial, but there was a funereal feel to it that lingered through the weekend.
The paper isn’t going out of business, and the reunion also included a tour of the swank new digs located nearby in the trendy Old Town drinking and dining district right next to the ritzy Warren Theater, where you can watch movies in an easy chair and have waitresses bring you cocktails, but the whole affair was nonetheless a frank acknowledgement of an institution in decline. Although it has ultra-modern and remarkably comfy chairs and two computer screens at every desk and all the steel pipes and chrome doors and sharp angles you’d find in some cutting-edge start-up venture, the most conspicuous thing about the new place is that it’s a whole lot smaller than the last one, and by far the smallest building the paper has occupied since Civil War veteran and founding father Col. Marshall Murdoch moved out of the clapboard printing shop that’s still lovingly preserved at the old-west reenactment Cowtown Museum over in Riverside.
There wasn’t any sense of a cutting edge start-up to the new place, despite all the up-to-date accoutrements, and neither did it suggest a more venerable enterprise. As we walked from the new office to a nearby after-party on top of some young people’s bar, a good friend who used to be a very good aviation reporter for the paper and now gets by on free-lance work remarked that it didn’t seem at all like a newspaper office, as it didn’t have the smell of hot lead and photographic chemicals and cigarette smoke, or the sound of clacking typewriters and telephones ringing rather than warbling, or that big imposing block-long presence that a city’s newspaper is supposed to have, and we couldn’t argue.
The old building was an architectural monstrosity, a concrete and feces-brown blob typical of what was being built for expanding businesses back in 1961, when the paper moved from a smaller but much more elegant building nearby, but you used to be able to walk in from Douglas Avenue and be transported back to a more pungent and noisy and vibrant era of American journalism. Our first visit was on a school field trip, where they took us down to the printing presses and let us watch the typesetters do their Ed Sullivan-worthy legerdemain and see actual reporters shouting into telephones while pounding out the next days stories on typewriters, and it seemed way cooler than the field trips to the Steffen’s Dairy or or the Kansas Gas and Electric Company or the Coleman factory or any of the other very important and now long-gone  local institutions. The folks had already inculcated in us their daily habit of reading pretty much the entirety of both the morning and afternoon papers, and the old black-and-white movies on the late with the fedora-topped reporters shouting “get me re-write” into candlestick phones fascinated us, and we also started noticing that Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Jim Thompson and Tom Wolfe and most of our favorite writers had worked on newspapers.
And so it was that we walked into the local paper as a newly-hired 20-year-old with all sorts of literary ambitions and romantic notions, way back in the white-hot summer of ’80. We’d dropped out of college and fallen in with the local punk rock crowd, which included a most delightful fellow who’d written for the paper some years before, and he suggested we apply for a newsroom opening he knew of, telling us which people to drop his name to and which not to, and because we could type fast and had a couple of relatively impressive jobs on the resume and seemed very enthusiastic about the newspaper we became “editorial clerks.” That’s a rather fancy term for what the old-timers called a “copy boy,” and although it was hard work it was often fun and a better education than what we’d been getting in college.
We typed up enough obits to fill several cemeteries, answered phone calls from angry readers and people trying to get in touch some reporter who wasn’t around, copied and distributed the daily budgets to all the departments, sorted mail, ran errands, listened to the police scanners and alerted the crime desk to the latest atrocities, watched the local news broadcasts just in case they might have something the newsroom didn’t know about, took dictation from reporters in the field, and reveled in the frantic atmosphere. They were still typing on typewriters back then, with a conveyor belt sending hard copy from the copy desk to those typesetting magicians downstairs, and although the state-of-the-art IBM Selectrics didn’t make quite the right clickety-clack sound it was still pretty noisy, and there was this great old guy developing all the pictures in photographic chemicals back in the dark room, and not only could you smoke cigarettes in the newsroom, pretty much everyone did. It looked and sounded and smelled and had a feeling right down to your bones of a real newspaper, just like in the movies.
Nearly all of the then-numerous reporters and editors and everyone else outranking us on the staff had been more inspired to enter the newspaper racket by “All the President’s Men” than by “His Girl Friday,” and when we all watched Ronald Reagan being elected and started getting the headlines downstairs we were the only ones celebrating, but for the most part they were a good bunch. There was still a lot of the wise-cracking and banter we’d come to expect from the old movies, and some of the same instinctive anti-authoriatian streak, and several of them took a liking to a punk college drop-out and generously shared their considerable knowledge with us. Although we’re still pure-bred prairie Republican goyim our most influential mentors about the craft turned out to be Jewish Democrats from Back East, who really were so common in the press back then they even wound up in such remote places as our hometown, and we also lament that the latest iteration of the hometown newsroom lacks a certain Jewish favor.
We literally fell in love with one of those mentors, a wise-cracking and rule-breaking and very tall woman who reminded us of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” and when she split town for a job at the bigger paper in Kansas City we followed her there. Our title at that paper was “dethwriter,” the abbreviated journalese for the guys who wrote death notices and the local’s out-of-town traffic fatalities and the murders too petty for the crime reporters to bother with, and as gruesome as it was it provided enough oft-told stories to make for a novel we hope to write someday, tentatively titled “Dethwriter Takes a Holiday.” The newsroom had these pneumatic tubes that brought clips down from the library upstairs, which usually included some fishy news about the many Italian businessmen in Kansas City whose jukeboxes unexpectedly exploded, and there were a couple of very sound and educational friends on the “dethwriter” desk, but all the reporters seemed kind of snooty, and although we still miss her we had reasons to break off the relationship with the witty and rule-breaking and very tall woman, and we wanted to be back at the hometown paper.
After a short stint of cleaning houses we were back at clerking at the paper, doing a very fine job of it if we do say so ourselves, and angling at that up-from-copy-boy story we’d seen in all those late night movies. Eventually we’d done enough favors to the editors and cleaned up so many of those stories the college kids were phoning in to earn a byline, and then a column about the local music scene, and despite the newspaper’s recent fetish about college credentials we eventually wound up with “Staff Writer” under the daily bylines. We like to think of ourselves as the last of the up-from-copy-boy breed, but it also had to do with the fact that newspapers were so big at the time they could afford to take a chance on a punk kid.
This was at a time when almost every city in America was becoming a one-newspaper town, talk radio and cable and the internet didn’t yet threaten the local newspaper monopoly, and the business of printing all those papers and all that money took up an imposing square block and the building was bustling to the seams. Our paper could be purchased for a quarter in racks everywhere from Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill to Mount Sunflower on the Colorado border, with bureaus across the state providing locals news for the trucks that sped out as we walked home from day. The paper had reporters snooping around every office in City Hall and County Hall and the statehouse, the fashion reporter and the drama critic were flying off to New York City for the latest shows, the aviation reporter was at the Paris Air Show, and several we times found ourselves flying on chartered plains through scary thunderstorms to far-flung stories as we rose through the ranks.
We were there when they started bringing the computers in, which at first were shared by every two reporters. The bosses promised these devices would herald a new gold age of the American newspaper, but the time we left after 25 years it didn’t turn out that way. All those magical typesetters were the first round of layoffs, and then a lot of those deaf pressmen who were hired because they communicate over all the news were laid off, and eventually they figured out how to do a lot of the work we’d done as a clerk, which saved the company a lot of the money that was still coming in. Then the computers started letting people buy classified ads on Craigslist, though, and all sorts of internet news sites were popping up that allowed advertisers to buy more specifically-targeted ads, and then the money started going away.
More lay-offs followed, of course, first in the no-longer viable classified ad departments, and the circulation area was limited to the metro area, which allowed all the statewide bureau staffs to be laid-off, and the cuts eventually reached the metro newsroom. The paper has less than a third the number of reporters and photographers snooping around the city as it did back in our good old days, and a big share of that is devoted to local sports, and they laid off all the pressmen when they outsourced the printing of the relatively few on-paper copies they sell these days to that former rival in Kansas City, which also provides the bulk of the state political news, and even in its shiny new but conspicuously small building the old gray mare clearly ain’t she used to be.
Still, it was nice to see all those old friends and respected colleagues we hadn’t seen in years. Several people we would have loved to have seen weren’t there because there because they’re dead, others had their own good reasons, but one formerly helpful editor came all the way from Florida and a guy we kind of like came in Minnesota, and there were some great stories about all the scandals and screw-ups and general editorial ineptitude at the paper at the over years, as well as a few political scoops and astute theater reviews and off-beat feature stories that did the public a full quarter’s worth of good. There are still a few folks at the hanging on the paper the worked with, some of whom we well regard, especially a couple of photographers and a savvy second-generation editor, and it felt good to offer them our best wishes. After all the fond farewells we walked by the cranes and the wrecking balls that are going to tear down that ugly old building, though, and happy ending somewhere out there on the internet seemed far less tangible.

— Bud Norman