A Mid-Winter Weekend in Wichita

The past weekend was full of national and international news well worth pondering, what with the latest developments in the impeachment trial and the mostly bad reviews of the big trade agreement with China and all the rest of it, but local events proved more preoccupying. There was another earthquake that awoke us from our post-church nap on Sunday, both bitter losses and a huge win for the local sports teams, heartbreaking news that a dear old friend of ours from the local music scene had died, and another glorious celebration of the city’s very vibrant subculture at Kirby’s Beer Store’s annual Meat Fest.
The earthquake was unsettling, as they always are, but we looked around and saw no apparent damage was done and quickly resumed our nap. They’ve been happening less often since the Okies started regulating all the fracking they’re doing for oil and gas, and the price of oil and gas is still low around here, so we regarded it as no big deal and made our way to the Meat Fest.
Our beloved Wichita State University basketball team had a horrible week, losing to a lesser Temple University Owls squad on the road and then suffering a Saturday home loss to a University of Houston Cougars team that we have to admit is probably better, and they’re likely to fall several spots in the rankings. They’re still an ahead-of-schedule freshman-laden team with a fairly promising half-a-season left and a very promising season awaiting next year, however, and after Sunday’s American Conference Championship game the Kansas City Chiefs are heading to their first Super Bowl in 50 years. As much as Wichitans resent Kansas City’s condescending big city attitude, pretty much everybody around here roots for the Chiefs, and even at Kirby’s Beer Store, even during Meat Fest, the win was carefully watched and wildly celebrated.
If you should ever find yourself in Wichita we urge you to enjoy the many fine restaurants and the surprisingly fine collection at the Wichita Art Museum, or the unexpectedly excellent offerings of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Wichita Musical Theater, and to drive through the picturesque College Hill and Riverside neighbors and take in the Keeper of the Plains as the beautiful sunsets fall over the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers, and take in all the other impeccably old fashioned and classy charms of the city, but we also recommend Kirby’s Beer Store. It’s a tiny and dingy dive in the heart of the ghetto and just across the street from the WSU president’s residence and next door to a currently defunct laundromat, but enjoys a national and international reputation as a delightfully eccentric joint with a delightfully eccentric clientele.
The mostly older and university-employed afternoon regulars make for formidable competition in the ritualistic daily watchings of Jeopardy!, and provide plenty of the interesting conversation that is so hard to come by these days, but after dark the bar is usually full of subcultural twenty-somethings hypnotically swaying to the weirdly wide range of music that Kirby’s nightly offers. Some of it is cacophonous awfulness to our aged and highly educated ears, but you’d be surprised how much of it is fresh and fun and very well done. At the this point we’d put the local music scene, which begins at Kirby’s Beer Store one leads up to the concert hall at Century II, up against most of those condescending big cities.
Kirby’s has been around since ’72, and for the past quarter century or so has hosted an annual Meat Fest at mid-winter, which involves the regulars grilling all sorts of meat for one another anyone else shows up on the frigid patio during an opening-to-closing and well-attended four-day music festival. For the most part they book the best acts of the past year, and for the most part it’s an impressive showcase. This year’s lineup didn’t include The Haymakers or Sunshine Trucking or anything with Nathan Williams, among several other excellent Wichita musicians, and there were a couple of bands we found cacophonously awful, but there was a lot to like.
If you like your rock ‘n’ roll hard and fast and full of catchy pop hooks False Flag ICT delivered it’s usual solid set, and our pal Jesse Howes once again demonstrated that the saxophone is a punk rock instrument with The Giant Thrillers, and those Dios Mofos also sounded pretty good. If you prefer something more acoustic, there’s a long-haired and bearded guitar-and-mandolin and bass trio called Pretend Friend that we highly recommend, and a more pinkish long-haired and bearded banjo-and-guitar-and-bass trio called The Calamity Cubes that we quite like.
Petitions were passed around to save the iconic Century II building and its perfectly fine concert theaters from greedy developers, which is a matter of local concern to all sorts of culture vultures, and a good time was had by all. For many of us there was a certain pall cast over the affair, however, by the death on Saturday of Tom West.
West had his first beer at Kirby’s on the first day it opened back in ’72 as a replacement to A Blackout, the notorious hippie bar the cops had recently shut down a few blocks away, and he was well liked by everyone he met there. If you’ve seen “The Big Lebowski” you might imagine him as a more countrified and overall-wearing version of “the Dude,” with the same sublime counter-cultural insouciance, but that wouldn’t quite get it. “Fats” — as he didn’t mind being called — was sui generis. He spent his last days in the south-of-Haysville town of Peck, and if you’ve seen “Green Acres” you can quite accurately imagine it as “Hooterville,” but he was a knowledgeable and resourceful fellow and his even more countrified-looking wife can dazzle you with her knowledge of history and current events, as well as her quilting.
He was also a top-notch guitar picker and a mainstay of the local music scene for a long while. He was the formative leader of such locally influential groups as The Cornfed Rubes and The Bluegrass Spiders, any always welcome guest at the Winfield Festival and other jam sessions, and arguably the inventor of the hipster-meets-hayseed style that makes Wichita music so cool. He’d drop into Kirby’s every year around Christmas time and bring candy that he and his wife had made, and on other occasions he’d come in and pass around peculiar-looking cigarettes, and everything was always mellow with Tom West, which came in handy on a cold winter day in Wichita.
The Meat Fest bacchanal always winds down on Sunday with biscuits and gravy and sausage and mostly acoustic and folky sets, and West would have been pleased. There was a fine set by the beguilingly emotive Kaitlyn Meyer, who West had praised last year, and the Meat Fest also introduced to the Wichita barroom stage the remarkable talent of a local 15-year-old girl named Evann McIntosh. You can see for yourself that she’s quite good, and she wowed a crowd of afternoon regulars and her family and friends during her set, was utterly charming in a brief conversation, and she didn’t even get the three free Old Milwaukees that Kirby’s performers are usually paid.
All in all, it gives us hope that he earthquakes will dissipate and spring will come, that the ‘Shockers will be in the tourney and the Chiefs will be Super Bowl champions, and that the best of Wichita will persist. We wish as much for the rest of the world.

— Bud Norman

Seismic Shifts in Paris, Wichita, and Elsewhere

Last night’s earthquake was the longest and strongest we’ve felt so far. There were no reports of injuries or property damage or anything that would impress a longtime Los Angeleno, but it rattled our old house with an unprecedented violence for an eternal 30 seconds or so, and as we are still relatively new to this sort of thing it rattled our nerves something awful. Although our prairie town has responded mostly with nervous humor, one can’t help noticing a widespread worry that the next one might prove worse. Alas, earthquakes aren’t the only thing in this unstable world giving us such an unsettling feeling.
The head-chopping, crucifying, gang-raping nut cases calling themselves the Islamic State continue to rule an Indiana-sized caliphate in the heart of the Middle East and have recently downed a Russian airliner over Egypt, launched deadly bomb attacks against formidable Muslim rivals in Beirut and Ankara, killed more than 130 infidels in six coordinated attacks on Paris, and threatened to do worse yet somewhere in America. Our leaders assure us they’re on the job of protecting the homeland, but they also assure us that the Islamic State is in no way Islamic and that they’re a “jayvee team” that has been “contained” and will “eventually” be eliminated, and that there’s no need to worry that a small but deadly number of its operatives might be among the many thousands of refugees seeking asylum from a Middle East and a North Africa that are on fire and being rapidly abandoned by millions of refugees despite our unquestionably successful foreign policy, and that the majority of Americans who harbor doubts about it are racist and xenophobic and religiously bigoted and downright un-American. Such arguments are somehow not reassuring, however, no matter how much petulant and un-presidential sarcasm they come with.
We’ve been reading up on basic seismology lately, just as we started reading up on basic Islam during the Iranian hostage crisis and then delved even further into the subject after the 2001 terror attacks on America, and both studies have reminded us how very unstable the world has always been. So far as we can tell from the seismology stuff, the world is riddled with fault lines where two great tectonic forces are in constant tension against one another, and although a stasis usually prevails there are occasional eruptions that shift the world into new shapes and sometimes do great damage to what had been built on the old shape. Along some of the fault lines one side has such a significant advantage in strength that it can push the other one in ways that do devastating things to the people who happen to be living there, but Tokyo and San Francisco and Los Angeles and some other modern metropolises located in such inconvenient places have largely coped with it through modern science and engineering, while such unfortunate locales as Iran and Haiti have not, and despite our post-earthquake nerves we still hold out hope that the Sears & Roebuck Company’s famously well-built Craftsman homes of the 1920s will survive the relatively mild rumblings we’ve been having here on the south-central plains.
This recent spate of terrorism by the Islamic State and other “on the run” terror organizations, on the other hand, seems indicative of a more significant seismic shift. Even the most peace-loving and clock-building Muslims of the politically correct imagination will acknowledge that the Koran specifically describes a world divided between Dar al-Islam, the “House of Submission” where Muslims are the ruling majority, and Dar al-Harb, the “House of War” where people go about their days according to their own more westernized and individual notions, and even the most politically correction imagination is forced to concede that over the past 1,400 years or so this fault line has occasionally shifted in ways that did great damage to the people who happened to be living there. Our leaders assure us that it’s all a misunderstanding about that awful George W. bush and the still-pesky-after-5,000-years presence of Jews in the Middle East, but Islam had conquered a large of chunk of Christiandom by the time the first crusades were launched, Europe’s white folks were entirely unaware of the North American continent until shortly after the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim occupiers, the west’s survival wasn’t assured until hard-won victory at the Gates of Vienna in 1683, America was newly born and blameless when it launched its first war against an Islamic country that had been enslaving its sailors for the plainly stated reason that its religion demanded it, there was that British disaster in Khartoum when the natives went wildly religious, the Ottoman Empire’s role on the wrong side of the First World War, the Arab world’s similarly problematic involvement in a Second World War, all before there was an Israel or a cartoon drawing of The Prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him! — or even a George W. Bush. France’s difficulties with Algiers and everybody’s problem with Pan-National Arabism during the Cold War, or the slaughter at the ’72 Olympics and the bombings at so many long-forgotten nightclubs and cafes and South American Jewish centers, or the countless internecine wars with countless millions of fatalities, that long-forgotten hostage crisis and fare more recently but just as easily forgotten Boston Marathon massacre, none of which seem to have anything to do with Israel or George W. Bush or even the Koch brothers, all suggest that it’s a fault line that persists no matter how genuinely outreaching our foreign policy might be. One side has Baptist churches and gay bars and capitalism and busy-body bureaucracies and man-made constitutions and women driving cars and showing full facial nudity, while the other has very different ideas about such things, and it’s hard to how see they’ll ever comfortably settle up against one another no matter how soothingly blind to the facts of the matter our the leadership of our fissiparous side of the fault line might be.
So far as we can tell from all this seismology stuff the the seismologists still don’t have any reliably predictive understanding of when these fault lines wind up doing significant damage to the people living on them, and we expect it will take another couple of generations of historians to explain why things went so very wrong between Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, so for now we’re left with that unsettling feeling. All our liberal Facebook friends are insisting the the local earthquakes have been been man-made by the lubricating waste-water disposal of the hydraulic fracturing method of petroleum extraction going on down in Oklahoma, which might even be true, although gasoline is currently selling for $1.88 cents at the nearest convenience store and we’d hate to be paying $4 for Iranian supplies and still suffering the occasional house-rattling earthquake, but at least there’s no denying the human agency in the Dar al-Islm versus Dar al-Harb fault line. To explain the sudden rift, we figure it’s a weakness on one side. The west still has the decided advantage in economic and scientific and military terms, but the strength of its belief in Baptist churches and gay bars and capitalism and bureaucracies and man-made constitutions and women driving cars and showing full facial nudity is invitingly weak to a more culturally confident enemy.
As nerve-rattling at the latest earthquake was, and in a state that’s also been tormented by the usual number of autumn tornadoes, we expect the next big event will be along that Dar al-Isam and Dar al-Harb fault line. The chances of mankind screwing that up seem far greater than it’s influence on nature. There’s also the fault line that’s looming on the public debt, too, and the looming realization that the $20 trillion of debt and zero interest rates that have kept America’s economy can’t continue forever, and that the rest of the west’s finances are similarly beset, and how that might affect all those poor refugees, and our nerves are rattled something awful. We hold out hope that our old Craftsman bungalow will preserve, and that the western world of Baptist churches and gay bars and capitalism and bureaucracies and man-made constitutions and women driving around showing full facial nudity will as well, but it’s hard to shake that nagging doubt. We don’t mean to go all Book of Revelation on you, but we can’t shake that unsettling feeling about this unstable world.

— Bud Norman

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Another earthquake rattled our old house today, and we still haven’t quite become accustomed to it. It only lasted a few seconds, and doesn’t seem to have done any noticeable damage around here, and residents of Los Angeles and Tokyo and Teheran and other earthquake-prone places probably wouldn’t have thought it worth mentioning, but during our first half-century here on the once-solid plains this sort of thing was unheard of, and even after the last few years of earthquakes becoming a rather regular occurrence it’s still a topic of local conversation.
Before the local old media could provide official confirmation that an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale had emanated toward us from the not far away small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, we were happily assured that weren’t going crazy by all the alarmed posts on our Facebook page. Folks of various degrees of familiarity spread across the entire city were describing the same unsettling phenomena we experienced, with most of them sounding even more rattled that we had been, and of course more than a few them were assuming that all the “fracking” going on down in Oklahoma was to blame.
We remain agnostic about the theory, as we have to admit that the earthquakes didn’t start around here until the “fracking” did, while at the same time we can’t help noticing that earthquakes are happening in all sorts of unlikely places where no “fracking” is going on and that “fracking” is going on in places that aren’t experiencing earthquakes. Most of the scientists who presumably know more than us about these sorts of things are admirably frank that they don’t know what’s going on either, and we rather like having the local convenience stores selling gasoline for $2.41 a gallon, and would be quite annoyed by paying $4 a gallon for Iranian oil and still experiencing an occasional earthquake if the theory is wrong, so we aren’t jumping to any conclusions. Still, we can understand the temptation to believe that there’s something we can do.
One of those Facebook friends from the local university was angrily demanding that these earthquakes be immediately stopped, just as his preferred presidential candidate vowed to stop the rise of the oceans, and if it were truly that simple we’d probably go along as well. Few things in life are so simple, however, and if more of them were we’d also be demanding an end to the tornados and hail storms and droughts and floods and miserably cold winter nights and swelteringly hot summer days that are the more traditional banes of Kansas life. The tornados and hail storms have lately been unusually and quite pleasantly uncommon around here, despite the dire predictions of our university-affiliated friend’s preferred presidential candidate, and last winter was no colder than usual and this summer has been only as hot as our lifetime’s average, with no recent floods but enough rain to bring an unmistakable end to the most recent drought, and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and the bumper wheat crops have helped with the state’s budgetary woes. A lifetime on the prairie has left us in awe of nature’s power and skeptical of mankind’s, so we can’t quell a certain suspicion that the former has more to do with these occasional rumblings of the earth than the latter, and we’ll patiently await the conclusions of those scientists who supposedly know more about this stuff than we do. In the meantime we’ll be checking the basement for cracks and perusing the news for about the more consequential earthquakes that seem to keep happing elsewhere, and hope that our brother in southern California doesn’t fall into the Pacific Ocean as has long been predicted, and continue to worry about the national debt and the nuclear bomb that the Iranians are building with their oil revenues and the rise of Donald Trump and the greater possibility of a Hillary Clinton and all of the other disasters that can only be blamed on mankind.

— Bud Norman

The Chill and the Boom

There’s no way to stretch out the holidays any further, and unless you’re lucky enough to occupy a high government office it’s time to get back to work and the long, hard grind through winter. For us that means resuming our reading of the news, among other things, although with all those high government officials still on vacation there’s not much there except the miserable weather.
Last year around this time the weather was just as miserable, but many of the media were eager to use that as an explanation for the upcoming miserable data showing a quarterly contraction in the economy. This time around the same media were disappointed that the holidays distracted attention from a robust 5 percent in the gross domestic product over the past quarter, and don’t seem eager to speculate how the frigid temperatures prevailing just about everywhere north of the Florida keys might slow the long awaited Obama boom. This is no time to be touting the president’s, so they’re filling the news hole the airtime with talk of that GDP figure and the the recent decline in gasoline prices and the slow but steady growth in the jobs market and the record highs in the stock market. Except for the college and professional football playoffs and the usual internecine Republican squabbles and the miserable weather there’s not much else, so their giddiness is understandable.
They won’t want too much attention paid to the economic news, of course, lest the public notice how the rosy reports differ from it own frost-bitten reality. The smart guys at Zero Hedge always manage to find the dark cloud within any silver lining, and they noticed that much of that 5 percent growth last quarter was achieved by an increase in consumer spending on higher health insurance premiums that was supposed to be counted in the contracting winter quarter that the government had already written off and was instead added to the far most robust report they’re now crowing about. Such Chinese-style statistical legerdemain is by now a common feature of the long awaited Obama boom, as is the apparent assumption by many of the media that paying higher health insurance premiums rather than the lower ones promised during the Obamacare sales job is a benefit to the economic well-being of the nation, and has thus gone largely unmentioned by many of the media.
That slow but steady growth in the jobs market has not raised the labor participation rate from the lowest level since the ’70s, largely because the number of legal and illegal immigrants has increased at a slightly faster and just as steady rate. The president’s extra-constitutional to confer amnesty on millions of illegal immigrants and thereby invite millions more is being touted by many of the media as part of his remarkable comeback after the mid-term election shellacking, along his with extra-constitutional agreement with the Chinese to combat global warming, but they probably won’t too much attention paid to that.
Those plunging gasoline prices are hard to ignore while shivering next to the pumps, but it will take a lot of doing by many of the media to make anyone think that the president’s policies have anything to do with it. The same president who made a campaign promise of skyrocketing electrical rates and appointed an Energy Secretary who openly pined for European gasoline prices and has denied drilling permits on federal land deserves no credit for America’s frackin’ oil boom, and any attempt he makes to claim credit will only make him seem all George W. Bushy and diminish his standing with the environmentalists of his party. The happily deflationary effects of lower gasoline prices will only encourage the Federal Reserve to keep up the money-printing that has fueled those bubbly record stock market indices, however, and somehow the president will get credit for that without losing his standing among the Wall Street-hating socialists of his party.
Nor will many of the media wonder if the Republican obstructionism and gridlock they’ve decried the past four years have anything with those rosy numbers they’re touting. Since the Republicans gained control of the House of the Representatives after two years of complete Democratic control of the Congress and presidency, and the officially reported deficits have gone down and government spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product has also declined, both which conservative economic theory considers a spur to economic growth, but better to report on those crazy conservatives’ challenge to the relatively timid House leadership. No use pointing out that most of the nation’s economic growth has occurred in states controlled by Republicans, either, especially when the governors of the most successful of them are among the contenders for the ’16 presidential race that is already affecting the reporting of many of the media.
Judging by the miserable weather forecasts we probably won’t be getting out of the house until then, and although the question seems of little interest to much of the media we can’t help wondering what effect it will have the economy if the rest of the country is similarly to get out to the store, but at least we’re back on the job and following what there is the of the news.

— Bud Norman