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Joe Rio, RIP

Sunday was another one of those bittersweet winter days we sometimes get here on the harsh Kansas plains. Until the sun set in beautiful pink pastels the endless prairie sky was brilliantly blue, the temperatures were as moderate as one can hope for this time of year, and our day began with another invigorating worship service at the West Douglas Church of Christ over in the rough Delano neighborhood, where we joined the small low-church congregation in singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the earthly birth of Jesus Christ.
A good friend of ours delivered the communion message, and he spoke eloquently of how a good friend of his had recently prevented another good friend of his from committing suicide, and the guest lay preacher’s sermon was about Christ coming to earth to redeem all of us sinners, so we went home with a hopeful feeling. During our usual post-church nap we had a very modern nightmare about losing our debit card, however, and then were obliged to head to one of the musical joints in the rough Old Town neighborhood to attend a memorial service for a weird but dear rock ‘n’ roll friend of ours who recently shot himself in the heart.
You’ve probably never of the guy who called himself Joe Rio, but judging by the standing-room-only crowd at Barleycorn’s on Sunday afternoon he had a lot of friends around here. One of them, a fellow we vaguely know but can’t quite name, asked us how well we knew Joe, and we had to admit we only knew him well enough to appreciate his unique creativity, and to consider him a friend, and to appreciate the friendship he generously extended to us, and to sympathize with the obviously troubled life he chose to end. That was more than enough, though, to make Sunday one of those bittersweet Kansas days.
Joe wasn’t a notably gifted musician if you’re judging by strictly technical standards, but he always added an irresistibly human thing to the old-timey country and post-punk bands he played with in Wichita’s roughest musical joints, and even his most talented former band mates were at Barleycorn’s on Sunday to attest to his expressive gifts. He had a knack for the visual arts, too, and we also enjoyed his similarly primitivist verbal skills, and we’re told that in his younger days he was one hell of a skateboarder. He more or less made a living for himself as a handy-man, plastering all the dives in town with stickers promising that “If I can’t fix, I know who can,” and although he never came through on that promise for us for us we know he was a an undeniably resourceful fellow. For all the undeniable flaws that everyone at Barleycorn’s could to attest on a bittersweet Kansas winter Sunday, Joe was an irresistibly likable fellow, even if he never much liked himself.
Joe had tattoos up to his neck, a scary surgical scar running down his body from the shoulder to the belly button, and deeper psychological scars from an unhappy childhood in small town Kansas. We were also “Facebook friends,” and every Father’s Day we’d read Joe’s posts about the drunken old man who would daily beat him. We’re even older and dearer friends with one of Joe’s ex-wives, who is also the mother of one of his children, and she’s a Wichita school teacher and we trust her confirmation of every tragic detail. Joe apparently ran away at a young age to the big bad city of Wichita, where he lived for a while under one of the bridges over the Arkansas River, and given everything we’d have to say he made the best of it for a while.
By weird coincidence today is the 85th birthday of our beloved Dad, who is about the best earthly father one can hope for, although he still he insists that his own beloved Dad was the better man. We can’t brag much about what we’ve made with that blessing, however, so we’ll leave it our merciful heavenly father to judge how Joe Rio played his hand. We wish the best to all those friends of Joe who showed up at Barleycorns in their biker gang jackets and neck tattoos, and those who brought food and donations and pamphlets with the 1-800-273-TALK suicide help line, and especially to all of the children he has left without any earthly  father. We also wish  a Merry Christmas to all of us sinners in need of Christ’s redemption.

— Bud Norman

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The Longest Day

There’s nothing the least bit Pagan about us, as we’re far too Christian and Burkean and Rationalist and downright fuddy-duddy for all that veneration of harsh nature and dancing-naked-in-the-moonlight nonsense, but as is our wont we nonetheless took time out on Sunday to observe the summer solstice.
After our habitual Sunday morning worship at the West Douglas Church of Christ, where our learned preacher delivered an inspiring sermon drawn from Hebrews’ chapter two, verses seven through 13, and shared the pain he feels following the recent deaths of some long-cherished friends, and his looming sense of his own mortality, which had a special poignance for us after the last rough couple of weeks of death we’ve endured, we drove with the top down on our aging but still chugging automobile to Riverside Park. A couple of local artists whose work we enjoy have built a decorative solar calendar there, right near the fountains where the impoverished but adorable children from the nearby barrio frolic in the cool respite from the summer heat, and at high noon of the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes the sun will shine on a cloudless day through an eye-shaped hole in colored glass directly onto one of three precisely placed pieces of marble. It’s really something to see, and there are always at least a handful of interesting people who show up to see it, and as always one of the artists was on hand to explain how the miraculous alignment of the Sun and the Earth and its tilting rotations and constant revolutions create this pleasing artistic effect. He explained it terms of how the Sun is moving across the horizon, then quickly corrected himself that the Sun is keeping its usual place while we’re the ones moving along through the universe, but in either case the gist of it was that at approximately 1:27 p.m. in the lovely Riverside Park of Wichita, Kansas, right near where the barrio children were frolicking in the fountains, the sun shone through the cloudless skies right onto that precisely placed piece of marble and summer had officially and meteorologically and undeniably arrived.
This was much-needed good news, and it was nice to have it meteorologically and artistically confirmed, as summer is our favorite time of the year. We attribute this to our childhood memories of summertimes with no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks, and the exhilarating freedom of nothing to do that the season provided. Summers are hot as hell around here, and this one already has been even before the sunlight hit upon that piece of marble, and given our warm-blooded and cheapskate ways we haven’t yet turned on the air-conditioner, which has had a discombobulating effect on our sleeping, but all that seems a small price to pay for the glorious feeling of summer. Even when the thermometers hit 115 and the electric bills start climbing, this is a good time around here. The city looks great, with a veritable forest of trees and grass and gorgeous flowers flourishing in the middle of what the original Spanish explorers described as a “treeless desert,” and our cheap-but-fashionable Riverside neighborhood looks especially good and full of flowers, with even our own neglected yard in pretty good shape thanks to the delightful high-school girl who just moved in next door with her friendly and artistic parents and mowed our lawn just because she’s so damned nice, and the city work crew that showed up and trimmed the front lawn tree, albeit so early that it further discombobulated our sleeping, and the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers that border the neighborhood are still high from all the drought-ending rains that came in Spring. Last week we joined a dear friend at the Wichita Botanical Gardens just down the street for a concert by some more musically-talented dear friends, and with the latest impressive improvements the garden has made that’s also really something to see.
Sunday was Father’s Day, too, and we had a heartening telephone conversation with our most excellent Pa, who will be be coming back to town with our most excellent Ma soon. We also got the news, via the miracle of Facebook, that two of our most favorite people gave birth to a son on Father’s Day. All the world really is a stage, as William Shakespeare shrewdly observed, and it truly is full of entrances and exits, and we hew to a faith that this most recent entrance and newly-fledged friend will eventually prove a full recompense for all the painful exits. Our newest pal picked a good day to be born, because those lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer really are the best the time of year. It’s the time of year when we adjust the playlist on our cheap stereo, adding The Rascals’ “Groovin'” and The Rivieras’ “Warm California Sun” and almost anything by The Beach Boys, and the many versions of Irving Berlin’s “We’re Havin’ a Heat Wave,” and all of  the even more numerous versions of the Gershwins’  classic “Summertime” to our turntable, and of course the great Jonathan Richman’s cautionary song about “That Summer Feeling.”
Summertime is when there’s things to do not because you gotta, when you run for love not because you oughta, when you trust your friends with no reason notta, when the cool of the pond makes you flop down on it, when the smell of the lawn makes you drop down on it, when the Oldsmobile has the top down on it and when the teenage car gets the cop down on it, and as the great Jonathan Richman also reminds us, if you’ve forgotten what we’re naming you’re going to long to reclaim it one day, because that summer feeling is going to haunt you one day in your life.
We also head down to Riverside Park’s solar calendar for the the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and especially on the winter solstice, when on those occasional cloudless days the sun shines through that eye-shaped colored glass and assures us that we have reached the shortest day of the year and that the sunlight will begin to linger two minutes longer with each inevitable rotation of the Earth. The summer solstice also proclaims that the days will grow shorter by the same inevitable measure each day, but until the autumnal equinox the days will be long, and our daddy is rich and our mom is good-looking, and the cotton is high, and the livin’ is easy. We hope it is for you, as well, and wish you a happy summer.

— Bud Norman