A Strike Against SIDS

18 Sep

In July of 2011, the Kansas City Royals were stumbling their way through yet another losing baseball season, their 26th in a row without a trip to the playoffs.

In July of 2011, our volunteer board for SIDS Resources Inc. gathered in Columbia, Missouri, for our annual face-to-face meeting. In case you haven’t heard of it, SIDS Resources is an organization dedicated to educating the public about ways to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and also supporting families that have lost a loved one to SIDS. It is a small nonprofit that serves Missouri, as well as parts of Kansas and Illinois. I started serving on the SIDS Resources board in 2007, and I became its chair in 2010 through 2011.

Strike Out SIDSBecause our board was split between people who lived in Kansas City and St. Louis, most of our interactions were conducted through monthly conference calls. Each summer, most of the board members would drive to the middle of the state and meet for a few hours in a hospital conference room in Columbia. It was a chance to brainstorm new ideas, get to know each other, and enjoy pizza from Shakespeare’s, Columbia’s best-known restaurant. During our brainstorm in 2011, one of our members had a very good idea. Our Kansas City office was lacking in an annual marque fundraising event. St. Louis already had a couple of big fundraisers, including one that involved the beloved St. Louis Cardinals. Why not do a summer event around baseball in Kansas City, the board member suggested. Perhaps it could be one of those events where kids and their families could run the bases, or do batting practice on a real baseball diamond?

That idea became “Strike Out SIDS” which debuted in 2012 at Community America Ballpark, home to the independent league Kansas City T-Bones. The event was fun – kids ran the bases, adults hit batting practice, we had hot dogs, Cracker Jacks and a couple of the usual bouncy houses – but the crowd was fairly modest. Only about 200 or so people attended. I left the SIDS Resources board after 2012, but the nonprofit moved forward with its plans to turn “Strike Out SIDS” into a big event. Last year produced a breakthrough as the big-league Kansas City Royals agreed to host “Strike Out SIDS at the K.” The “K,” in case you don’t know, is shorthand for Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals play. This was a fantastic opportunity for SIDS Resources, and last year’s event turned out to be a big hit.

This year, it will be even bigger. The once-maligned Royals are in the hunt for the American League Central crown. Friday’s “Strike Out SIDS at the K” will be a crucial game against the division-leading Detroit Tigers. It will be a sellout, and perhaps the most important baseball game in Kansas City since the 1985 World Series.

A big baseball game in September represents the kind of exposure and awareness that SIDS Resources has always lacked in Kansas City. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is the third-leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, claiming 2,226 lives nationwide as recently as 2009. While there is no known “cure” for SIDS, organizations like SIDS Resources do important work teaching parents and day care providers how simple steps like putting an infant to sleep on his back on a firm mattress can sharply reduce the risks of SIDS. Despite all the access we have to information, there is still a lot of misunderstanding and mythology about what SIDS is, and how it can occur.

This afternoon, I picked up some “Strike Out SIDS” T-shirts for my wife, myself and our son. We’re looking forward to joining 45,000 other fans at the K tomorrow night and watching the Royals win.

We already know it will be a big victory for our friends at SIDS Resources.

Ode to IKEA

10 Sep

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Today an IKEA store opened in Kansas City.

The local newspaper has been making a big deal about it for months. Apparently, some people camped out several days in advance to be among the first to walk through the new building’s glass doors.

Each morning on my way to work, I drive pass the IKEA store, which looms over the Interstate like a blue-and-yellow fortress. The towering IKEA store sign alone is imposing. It has the exact same color scheme as the CarMax dealership at the next exit.

I have heard a lot about the IKEA brand over the years. Earlier this week, we received the company’s free “Book-Book” in the mail. Skimming through it, I thought the furniture looked streamlined, cold and impersonal. I understand IKEA is the leading furniture provider of single, male apartment-dwellers in most major cities. Now I know why.

I have never been inside an IKEA store. I am sure I will visit the new one in Kansas City sometime. I could use some help organizing some shelving in our laundry room. Right now, the room suffers from an inefficient use of space.

Kansas City is usually the last metro area to get a newish retail chain store. That was the case with Crate & Barrel, Trader Joe’s, and countless other trendy merchants. It seems we are something of an afterthought here in America’s Outback.

Nevertheless, it is a big deal in Kansas City when something new opens, not unlike a Taco Bell finally arriving in a farm town. There will be big crowds at the IKEA store for several weekends to come. I think I will sneak over there during the week, when I can examine the flat, efficient furnishings with minimal disruption and leave, more than likely, without having made a purchase.

Afternoon Lunch

3 Sep

It was cool and overcast on the Friday they made him turn in his ID badge
and laptop computer, and gave him a cardboard box to collect his things.
The dashboard clock read 2:05 as he pulled out of the parking garage.
Twenty minutes later, he walked into the daycare classroom to surprise his son.
“We can go anywhere you want,” he said as he strapped the 3-year-old into the car seat. “Where to?”
“T-Rex Cafe,” the son murmured, groggy from his nap.
A life-sized, snarling dinosaur greeted them as they walked into the empty restaurant.
They dug for rare bones, wore paper T-Rex hats,
and wandered around the dining areas to marvel at the animatronic beasts.
The cheeseburger was overcooked, but the Dino-Nuggets weren’t too bad.
“I want this,” the son said, holding up a spiky plastic toy. “It’s a Stegosaurus.”
“What do we say?”
“Please?” the son asked.
The long drive from T-Rex brought wind and rain.
It was dark by the time they got home.
For months afterward, the son recalled that afternoon as the best one of his life.
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Good Luck

2 Sep

imgresAround 20 years ago, I was playing tennis with a friend at a park near my home in Mexico, Missouri. At some point during our match, I noticed a familiar-looking car cruising through the parking lot next to our court. I quickly realized that it was my car, or it used to be. It was the grey 1987 Ford Taurus I had sold to a local dealership a couple of weeks earlier.

The driver rolled down the window and called out, “Stephen, is this your old car?”

I set down my racquet and walked over. The driver was a woman who had worked with me on some videos for the local TV station. She and her son were test-driving the Taurus, thinking it would be a good car for him now that he had his license.

“This was my car,” I said. “How did you know it belonged to me?”

The woman reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a box of new checks from Commerce Bank. The blank checks had my name and address on them. “We found them under the front seat,” she said. “You might want them back.”

“Yeah, I do,” I said, somewhat puzzled. “Thank you so much.”

She asked me a few questions about the car. I told her that the Taurus had a rebuilt engine and its radiator was on borrowed time. She thanked me and pulled out of the parking lot, probably thinking that I was a complete idiot.

I recall that exchange from 20 years ago and I still marvel at how lucky I was, how several things had to mesh perfectly for that event to occur. First, I was extremely lucky that someone I knew test-drove my old car and found my checks under the front seat (though I had a balance of about $500 in the bank back then, someone could have found those checks and starting floating them around town). Secondly, it was pure coincidence that the woman and her son were driving through the park and saw me playing tennis. What are the odds of all of these things working together for me to get my checks back?

I know that is a small thing in the grand scheme, but it makes me think of all the times I have been lucky or blessed in my life. I might not even be aware of some of those instances when my luck was strong, when a road not taken might have rescued me from disaster. I have had some hardships and tragedy in life, but I have also been very fortunate for the many times when forces out of my control somehow worked in my favor.

What about you? Can you recall a moment in your life when somehow, against the odds, different forces pulled together to bring you good luck or, even, a blessing from above?

Another Review on Pridemore

29 Aug

I have been so very fortunate to have received lots of praise for A Plot for Pridemore. Currently on Amazon.com there are 16 consumer reviews that give the book the maximum five stars, which is almost a little embarrassing. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by comparison, averages a mere 4.3 stars on Amazon. There is no way my book is five-star worthy, but I do appreciate the enthusiasm.

The big banner will travel with me this summer as I share the good word about Pridemore.

The big banner will travel with me this summer as I share the good word about Pridemore.

The book has also been fortunate to have collected some positive press in Foreward Reviews, The Kansas City Star and my hometown LaGrange Daily News. The most recent review is from Southern fiction blog Dew on the Kudzu. I don’t know that the writer enjoyed my book very much. She found many of the characters to be unlikable, which I can understand. Everyone in A Plot for Pridemore has a dark side, some darker than others. All in all, it is a pretty cynical tale.

At any rate, I am grateful for what publicity I can get. I’ll let you know if I see any more reviews of Pridemore posted in the near future!

Uptown Reunion

22 Aug

billy-joel-christie-brinkley-kids-lg
Remember the rock video from about 30 years ago in which the auto mechanic meets this gorgeous blonde supermodel? He and his buddies serenade her and attempt a few awkward dance moves, and somehow the supermodel ends up riding off with the mechanic on his Harley. Remember that one?

Well, the mechanic and the supermodel stayed together for a few years, had a kid, then split up. A week or so ago, the two of them briefly reunited for the above photo.

The 60-year-old supermodel still looks gorgeous. The auto mechanic still looks like an auto mechanic. Good luck to both of them!

Pridemore Excerpt: Pete Schaefer

13 Aug

One of the key characters in A Plot for Pridemore is a young, frustrated newspaper reporter named Pete Schaefer. As a journalist, it is his job to peel aware the layers of what could be most scandalous story in the history of Pridemore, Missouri.

This is NOT Pete Schaefer.

This is NOT Pete Schaefer.

There is no reason, however, to believe that Pete is up to the task. He spends most of his time mired in loneliness and self-pity, occasionally summoning the ambition to scroll through job listings in the latest edition of Editor & Publisher.

As a former small-town reporter myself, I can relate to Pete’s anxieties, although he is not a carbon copy of me in my 20s (at least I hope not). Anyway, here is how we first get to know Pete in A Plot for Pridemore

____________________________

Expelling a long, low groan, Pete Schaefer slapped the facsimile from Edwards Funeral Home on the computer clipboard and started typing:

Naomi D. Elbert of Marshall City, formerly of Brush Hill, died Sunday, May 25, at Truman Retirement Center. She was 81.

Before anything else Monday morning, Pete’s job required him to type the obituaries of everyone who died over the weekend – often a lengthy assignment given the number of blue-hairs in the region. Right now he was on Obit No. 8, his mind so far removed from what he was doing that he’d unwittingly invented two new ways to spell Naomi.

Pete found it hard to concentrate on the obits, or “Oh-bitches,” as his coworkers sometimes called them. After a year at the Pridemore Evening Headlight, the formula was so ingrained that he would merely slap the funeral notice on the clipboard and let his fingers clack away at their 50-words-a-minute pace. This freed him to contemplate the newsroom’s avocado green decor, the fluorescent light that flickered annoyingly over his head and a faded poster that advertised the Affair on the Square arts and crafts show from 1986.

Funeral services will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Edwards Funeral Chapel with the Rev. Edwin Hodge officiating. Visitation will take place prior to services.

Edna Bright fastened one of her Jimmy Carter grins on Pete as she waddled past his desk. It was a rare morning he beat her to work. Plump and cheery as a Christmas ham, she was the Headlight’s society editor and probably the most contented person Pete had ever met. Watching her swing an oversized purse around the back of her chair while singing an off-key version of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” he wondered if Edna Bright wasn’t the source of the old notion that all fat people are jolly.

Pete kept his head down, pretending to focus on his work: Survivors include one sister, Maureen Dowell of LaGrange; two sons, John Elbert of St. Louis and Duane Elbert of Wellsville; and a daughter, Yula Mae Lowry of Forest Park.

Edna nibbled a doughnut and slurped her coffee while reading the St. Louis Intelligencer, occasionally clucking an “Oh, my,” or a disapproving “Ewww!”

Then silence. No slurping. No ewwws. Peter sensed her beady eyes, dark as night, watching him.

“Hiya Pete,” she said when he finally looked up. “How’s your morning?”

Slowly turning from his computer, Pete decided to shock her with a smile of his own. Not one of those put-on numbers he gave the cut-and-paste girls in production that even they could see through, but a real, genuine smile.

“How are you, Edna?” he asked so naturally as to make you think he said it every morning.

Edna wasn’t surprised. If anything, she seemed encouraged.

“Say Pete, did you catch The McClusky Files last night?”

The McClusky Files,” he said, vaguely recalling the show in which an aging actor plays an aging detective. “Is that the one that’s set in Miami?”

“No, you’re thinking of Randy Slaughter, Medical Examiner,” she said. “McClusky Files is in L.A.”

“Of course.”

“I just really love that McClusky, don’t you? I mean, he’s nice and polite like a gentleman should be, but he’s tough, too. He always gets his man and he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, if you know what I mean.”

Edna smiled. “I can tell that’s probably the way he is in real life, too.”

Pete gave one of those half laughs that most people would read as a sign of disinterest. Not Edna.

“Last night was one of the better ones,” she said. “McClusky and these other people are guests on this millionaire’s yacht, you see. And, almost as soon as they all get on board, the millionaire disappears.”

“Really?” Pete said.

“So all of a sudden, people just start disappearing: the millionaire’s wife, the movie star—”

“—the professor and Mary Anne?” he offered.

Edna giggled to show she caught the reference, and went on.

“Usually I’m pretty good at picking out the murderer before everyone else. But I didn’t have a clue on this one. Jerry thought it was the millionaire, but what does he know? I mean, he’s the only guy in Rotary who thought O.J. was innocent, you know?”

“Right.”

“Just when we’re at to the part where McClusky’s gonna nail the bad guy, I get this phone call from my daughter, Alicea. She’s about your age, you know.”

Edna was shaking now, her banshee cackle filling the mostly empty newsroom.

“So I get off the phone and I rush back to ask Jerry whodunnit. Well, he’s already switched the channel to SportsCenter. Took me six phone calls to find out it was the Portuguese deck hand who strangled ‘em all with a piano wire and threw their bodies overboard.

“Ewwwww,” she said. “I almost strangled someone myself last night!”

“That’s funny,” Pete offered in a tone that suggested he didn’t think it was funny at all. He gave her a tight smile and returned to his computer.

Edna let out a huff and left her desk for another cup of coffee. Peter felt pretty evil for leading her on like that. He could be pretty mean when he was depressed, and he was depressed nearly all of the time lately.

He thought about starting another conversation when Edna returned. But the other staffers were ambling in and he needed to call the area cops to see if there‘d been any overnight car wrecks. Obits and road fatalities – it was some sweet gig he’d scored for himself more than a year removed from journalism school. Woodward and Bernstein had better watch their jocks.

From the corner of his eye he watched Edna settle into her seat. He’d come up with something thoughtful to say to her first thing tomorrow, even if he had to watch network television to do it.

____________________________

The afternoon sun sprayed rivulets of light through the dusty blinds that hung over Pete’s futon. Angela sat up, crossed her skinny legs under the sheet and watched Pete sift through the dirty clothes, old magazines and sports gear that cluttered his bedroom closet.

“What are you looking for?”

He smiled as his fingers grazed the beat-up leather briefcase.

“My soul,” he said, pulling the briefcase out of the closet and opening it.

“Wow,” she said as he pulled out a fistful of typed pages. “You wrote all
that?”

“It’s nothing. Maybe 200 pages in all, double-spaced.”

“That’s nothing?”

“Not for a book,” he said. “You heard of Schubert’s unfinished symphony? This is Schaefer’s unfinished novel.”

“Wow,” she repeated, plopping next to him on the floor. Save for the three-legged recliner that tilted like a sinking ship in Pete’s living room, there were no chairs in his one-bedroom apartment, so the two spent most of their time on the futon or the floor.

“You never told me you were a writer,” Angela said.

“I’m a newspaper reporter. You know that.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know you were a writer,” she laughed, folding her arms across her chest. “What’s it about?”

“Oh, your typical Coming-of-Age, Loss of Innocence, Love Story.”

“Sort of like Great Expectations?” Angela suggested.

“Yeah,” Pete said, and he gave her a soft kiss. “Except with zombies.”

“Can I read it?”

He flicked through the pages before finding a chapter he liked, the one in which Sully and Bart take Bettger down to Creepy Woods for one last bong hit. He ran his hand through her long hair and studied her crinkled brow as she read, making note of whether she smiled at the funny parts. She giggled once or twice, always a good sign.

It was that giggle that reminded him of Angela’s current status on the high school varsity cheerleading squad. Most of the time, Pete thought her comparable to the somber, artistically inclined women he’d dated in college. The crinkle in Angela’s brow gave her a thoughtful look that seemed older than her years and she could quote whole passages of Dickinson or Thoreau. He would almost start to take her seriously until, in a beautifully unguarded moment, she’d relate a fart joke she learned in study hall or clumsily pick the chords to “Smoke on the Water” on his guitar. That’s when the giggle came out and it was suddenly Saved By The Bell time at Pete’s place.

He loved and detested that giggle. Loved its affirmation that he could make someone laugh at a time in his life when he didn’t laugh much at all. Hated how it reminded him that what he was doing with Angela went beyond the bounds of acceptable adult behavior. He’d tried many times to tell her this. Well, once or twice. But Angela would just giggle and kiss him and tell him to shut up, and Pete would mind his manners as they crawled back onto the futon.

They met in October at a downtown festival called Olde Pridemore Days. He’d seen her around town a couple of times, hanging at Truman’s Malt Shop with her high school buddies or passing through the newspaper office to drop off her “Teen Beat” column. But Olde Pridemore Days was the first time they really talked.

He remembered almost every detail of that day: she wore a spaghetti string halter top and a pair of ripped-up blue jeans, edgy stuff for a Sunday in Pridemore. They spent the day walking around, eating Sno-Cones and funnel cakes, making fun of the lame country/western act on the main stage. They talked about books and music, and how cool it would be to move to Paris, just living and writing like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and those other Lost Generation guys.

They made out that night on the courthouse steps, an encounter that soon led to Angela’s afternoon visits to Pete’s apartment when she could slip out of her independent studies class. The first four visits, Pete was able to pull back, throw on his jeans and mumble something about getting Angela back to school before the start of seventh period. The fifth time they reached the precipice, an unseasonably warm February day when Pete was supposed to be covering a livestock show in Hodgeville, Angela straddled his waist, grabbed his shirt with her fists and said in a husky voice, “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Pete gave in. He hated himself for it, but not enough to stop meeting Angela at his place most Wednesday afternoons. He was weak. He was stupid. But mostly he was bored. She was the only girl he’d met since moving to Pridemore, and he was tired of pretending he didn’t like having her around.

“How long ago did you write this?” Angela asked when she finished the chapter.

“It’s been a while. I haven’t really touched it since college.”

“You ought to finish it,” she said, pulling him close. “I mean, think how much you’ve improved as a writer since then.”

“Really?” he asked. “You think it needs work?”

“I dunno. I mean, this part about the guys drinking and partying, making all the pop culture references – it’s funny, but it’s kind of played out, you know?”

She wiped a strand of hair from her mouth and gave a half-smile.

“It kinda reads like a beer commercial.”

He was still reeling from the blow as they drove to the high school in his beat-up Ford Explorer. Kinda reads likes a beer commercial. This from someone who ate Oreo cookies icing first, who’d only recently shifted her musical allegiance from Beyonce to Taylor Swift. It was a mistake letting her read his book, he thought. Did he expect an educated response from someone who was struggling to maintain a B average in junior English?

Come to think of it, this whole thing was a mistake. And driving Angela to school was beyond dangerous. They were getting very careless, Pete thought. He watched her light a Marlboro while grooving to a pop song on the radio. It was amusing to watch her smoke because she hadn’t mastered how to tap the ash off a cigarette.

“What did I tell you about smoking in my truck?” he asked.

“That I’m allowed to do it except when you’re pissed over something I said about a book you wrote.”

“I’m not mad.”

She leaned across the gear shift and kissed his cheek.

“I’m such a meanie,” she said with a pout that was both cute and condescending. “I guess when you’ve been reading Crime and Punishment for two weeks, everything else reads like a beer commercial.”

“Oh, so now I’m not even as good as Dostoyevsky?” he said, breaking into a grin as they approached their drop-off point near the gym.

She gave him a kiss that surprised him with its deepness. It was the kind she planted on him that night at the courthouse steps.

“I love you,” she said in a throaty whisper. “I know you hate that, but I do.”

“Okay,” Pete said, handing Angela her books as she stepped out of the truck. “Just don’t tell your daddy.”

____________________________

Pete was explaining his premature baldness to a waitress when his buddy, Headlight sportswriter Dave Felton, walked into One-Eyed Willie’s, the only Pridemore establishment left with a liquor license since the Lizard Lounge closed.

“Yeah, my brother’s losing a little on top himself,” the waitress said. “He’s pretty freaked out about it.”

“It’s genetic, you know,” Pete told her after a sip from his longneck. “It’s passed down from your mother’s side of the family.”

The waitress pondered this for a minute.

“My mom’s not bald,” she said.

Felton and Pete exchanged the same weary look they shared in the newsroom whenever Edna referred to the president’s anti-terrorism policy as The War on Towel Heads.

Like two strangers in a strange land, Felton and Pete clung to each other almost out of necessity. They were both about the same age and both St. Louis natives. They both enrolled in journalism school with grand thoughts of someday working for The Washington Post or The New York Times, and they both graduated into a crappy job market with $18,000 salaries at a newspaper they’d never heard of (“This,” Felton said after a couple of whiskey shots one night at Willie’s, “is what is known as paying your dues.”).

Meeting once or twice a week at Willie’s had become something of a social highlight for Pete. He cringed to think what Pridemore would be like without having a friend around.

He nodded toward the baseball highlights on the overhead TV. “Cards took a pounding today.”

“No pitching, yet again,” Felton replied.

Pete ordered a Bud Light and surveyed Willie’s decor of birds, bayonets and batting helmets. It beat looking at the clientele, which this night consisted of two utility workers and a woman with mall bangs dancing alone. The jukebox was playing its usual mix of Three Dog Night, BTO and, in a token nod to the ‘80s, Night Ranger.

“Larry asked about you today,” Felton said. “He’s starting to wonder where you’re spending your Wednesday afternoons.”

“I’m spending them at home,” Pete said with a shrug. “Comp time.”

Felton shook his head and laughed. “You’re an idiot.”

“What?”

“He’s gonna find out.”

“I guess I’ll be out of a job, then.

“It’s kind of like detonating a highly sensitive explosive,” Pete added after some thought. “You never know when it’s going to just blow up in your hands.”

“Don’t romanticize it, Schaefer. You’re screwing your boss’s daughter. Your boss’s 17-year-old daughter.” He laughed as he fished his shirt pocket for a lighter. “You’re just an idiot, that’s all.”

“You said that already.”

The door creaked open, and Felton and Pete glanced back as if they expected Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson to drop by for drinks on their way through town. But it was just some grubby guy in a shirt with his name on it. The dancing woman left her spot at the jukebox to give him a lingering hug.

“Done any work on your book lately?” Felton asked.

“Looked at it today, that’s all,” Pete said with a sigh. “How’s yours coming?”

“I can’t summon the muse,” the sportswriter said. “Every night, I sit there, blinking at a blank screen. I end up watching re-runs of Seinfeld and falling asleep on the couch.”

Pete laughed. “It’s this town, you know? It’s sapping our brains.”

“Yeah,” Felton agreed, mashing his cigarette into an ashtray. “I need to get out of this fucking town.”

Pete looked at the TV, which was flashing highlights from the previous night’s Marlins-Phillies game.

“Florida would be nice,” Felton said, reading Pete’s mind.

“I’ve got an uncle in Jacksonville,” Pete said. “We could crash at his place until we found jobs. Maybe we could open a hot dog stand on the beach, or whatever.”

“Felton’s Franks, we’d call it,” Felton said.

“That could give us some cash until our novels got published. We’d open for lunch at eleven and close around two so we could get some beach time—”

“—and watch the sun go down each evening with our beautiful, bikini-clad girlfriends,” Felton added. “When do we leave?”

“Tomorrow,” Pete said instinctively. “How much money you got saved up?”

“About two hundred – give or take a hundred.”

“I’ve got about five hundred,” Pete said, really thinking now. “So we’ve got enough for the drive and maybe a week after that.”

“Should we give two weeks’ notice?”

“In two weeks we’ll lose our nerve,” Pete said. “It’s gotta be now.”

Felton took a thoughtful drag from his Camel and grinned. Meatloaf was on the jukebox now, wailing about how two outta three ain’t bad.

“You don’t even have an uncle in Florida, do you?”

The door opened. Felton and Pete glanced back, in case a starlet appeared.

The Crayon Box

8 Aug

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I met Michael Schwartz during my first semester at the University of Missouri in 1989. We shared an English class with about 10 other easily startled freshmen. Our instructor was a slightly mad fellow by the name of Aristotle Baklava, who did everything in his power to turn English 101 into a left-leaning political science course. Each week, he had us write term papers on different chapters from a book called Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court. We wrote about gay rights, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the uniquely American right to burn the country’s flag at the Republican National Convention. I have to admit I learned a lot about writing in that class. Once my terms papers started taking on a decidedly liberal slant, my grade average magically rose from a low “C” to a solid “A.”

I digress. When you’re in a class that is being led by a crazy man, it is natural to bond with the other inmates, um, students. Michael and I got to know each other because he decided to hit on one of our female classmates. One Friday afternoon, shortly after we were dismissed, he approached Jen, a bubbly girl with long, dishwater blonde hair, and asked if she would like to go with him to a movie that night.

“That sounds great, Mike,” she enthusiastically replied.

Then Jen turned toward me.

“Hey Steve,” she said, “would you like to go to the movies with me and Mike?”

“Sure,” I immediately said, oblivious to Mike’s withering glare. I was an out-of-state student with no friends at school, so the idea of taking in a movie with other people was positively irresistible.

We went to the movies. We saw Sex, Lies and Videotape. I must say, if Mike intended to take Jen on a first date, he could not have selected a more awkward film to watch.

After the movie, the three of us wandered the streets of Columbia, Missouri, talking about our respective upbringings. It turned out that Mike and I had a lot in common. We both came from the South with dreams of hitting it big in journalism. We liked history and politics. We shared an appreciation for dry, sarcastic humor. All in all, Mike and I had a really nice date.

I am not sure what became of Jen. I think she left Mizzou after fall semester to study botany at North Dakota State. Mike, however, is still one of my best friends. Our friendship has survived several moves around the country, careers in newspaper reporting and broadcast news, and get-togethers in Las Vegas, Birmingham, Colorado Springs and Memphis.

Today, Mike has a video production business in San Francisco. He loves the Bay Area, but his time there has come with some challenges. Mike has been blind in one eye since he was a teenager, and his sight in the other eye has continued to deteriorate. He now faces the prospect of losing his vision altogether.

Mike, being the most positive and resilient person I know, has taken a will-do approach to this setback. He recently started an outstanding blog that outlines his next project: to see different parts of the world that he has always wanted to visit. The plan is to experience these places while he can see them for himself. Though his writings on the blog, Mike will take us along on his adventure.

When you have a moment, I strongly recommend you check out Mike’s blog, which is called The Crayon Box. You can also find his twitter feed here.

My college buddy is an excellent writer, and the way he frames up his next challenge is truly inspiring.

I’m Not a Big Fan of the Suburbs

5 Aug
The suburban parks are pretty, but often under-utilized.

The suburban parks are pretty, but often under-utilized.

First off, I admit it: I live in a self-contained neighborhood with lots of cul-de-sacs and two community pools. So even though my address is technically within the limits of a major U.S. city, my environment could be considered suburban. I prefer to think of it as more of a rural area. There are two-lane routes and cow pastures on three sides of our neighborhood. On a warm, breezy day, you can open the windows of our house, hear the cows moo and sometimes inhale the faint scent of manure.

Still, some people would say I live in the suburbs, and I’m okay with that. But I certainly don’t live in The Suburbs, with its high-end shopping, beige tract housing, mega-churches, soccer complexes, and obsessive attention to zoning ordinances and the city master plan. I know I don’t live there because, currently, I work there. Each morning I drive about 40 minutes to my job in a suburb called Lenexa, Kansas. I like my company. The work is challenging and fun. The people I work with are bright and cheery, even when the temperature dips below freezing outside. I’m not so crazy about Lenexa, however. After 5 o’clock each evening, I am happy to see it in my rearview mirror.

Lenexa is in the middle of Johnson County, Kansas, which is the most affluent, fastest-growing part of the Kansas City metro. Most people who live in Johnson County seem to love it. The area has lots of trees, well-maintained lakes and parks, and all the retail and restaurant franchises you could possibly want. The highways are newly paved and there is a QuikTrip on every corner. There is even a natural history museum and a playhouse that employs sitcom stars from the 1960s and 70s.

Johnson County is nuts about youth soccer. Nearby Overland Park is home to U.S. National Soccer Team star Matt Besler. There is a soccer complex near where Matt grew up that is roughly the size of Belgium, and it accommodates thousands of little soccer players and their minivan-driving parents every single Saturday morning. All of these people are bright-eyed, blonde and lightly tanned. They are all trim and athletic-looking, and most of them wear something with the University of Kansas Jayhawk emblazoned on it. It is almost like there is some kind of social experiment going on in the Johnson County suburbs.

Suburbanites seem breezy and beautiful when you pass them in the soccer complex parking lot, but beneath that placid exterior lurks an angry beast just waiting to pounce at the first mention of the word “rezoning.” Just contemplate building a charter school, health clinic or even a Panera’s near a neighborhood entrance, and watch the stylishly dressed men and women of suburbia descend upon the city council public hearing armed with their legal pads, photocopied blueprints and prepared speeches. When I was a reporter I covered these hearings, some that were longer and filled with more pomposity than a Third World dictator’s speech. I once watched one well-heeled woman break down in tears when contemplating the impact that a planned auto mall might have on her home’s market value. Her husband walked the woman slowly back to her seat, where she dissolved into a sobbing mass of blonde highlights and Ralph Lauren apparel.

The people are not what bother me about the suburbs, however. What I dislike is how the suburbs are laid out. Years ago, I interviewed the city planner for Overland Park, and he was one of the most somber, boring individuals I have ever met. The rigid grids of Overland Park and surrounding communities mirror his lack of passion and personality. In fact, they seem to be the work of a deeply depressed control freak. Every single four-lane thoroughfare in the suburbs is split by a big, concrete median, as if people could not possibly be trusted to keep their cars from swerving across the center line. The medians can be frustrating when you are trying to navigate you way across one of the boulevards to pull into a McDonald’s drive-thru and get your ambitiously named Southern Style Chicken Sandwich. If you don’t know exactly what you are doing, it could take you three right turns and two lefts just to work your way around all those infernal medians.

Of course, all suburbs were planned for the automobile. Some of the nicer suburbs, like the I one work in, designate areas for foot traffic as well. Most of the streets of Lenexa are lined with sidewalks that are wide enough to drive a golf cart on. There are some lovely parks, including one with a man-made pond that I visit sometimes over my lunch hour. The sad thing is, you rarely see folks walking around and enjoying the natural beauty. There always are a handful of parked cars. These cars are occupied with people staring at their phones, getting some sleep, or enjoying a stolen moment with a co-worker or, possibly, a spouse. No one emerges from the cars. They pull into the park, hang out for a while, then return to their desk jobs.

That’s the irony of The Suburbs: walk just a few paces from the noise and commotion of the four-lane thoroughfares, and you’ll find yourself completely alone. You can hear the birds chirp and, sometimes, from a distant soon-to-be-developed field, you can hear a cow’s plaintive moo.

Stephen Roth is author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Be sure to “like” his author fan page at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRothWriter

Pridemore Visits the Southland

31 Jul

PlotForPridemore (2)I have always considered A Plot for Pridemore to be a Southern novel, even though the fictional town of Pridemore is set in Missouri. A lot of Southerners do not recognize Missouri as a part of the American South, and I can understand their feelings about that. A couple of years ago, when the University of Missouri’s athletic program joined the Southeastern Conference, a lot of SEC diehards took offense. I think some of them still do.

Missouri is one of those states that has a bit of an identity problem. It’s not quite the South, and it’s not completely Midwestern. St. Louis has the style and feel of an East Coast town, while Kansas City looks more toward the West. Springfield, Mo., is like an extension of Arkansas. Branson is its own island of patriotism, homespun values and camp, a sort of Las Vegas for Baptists. In terms of the state’s most famous residents, Mark Twain seems like a Southerner to me, while Harry Truman is staunchly Midwestern. Tennessee Williams was from St. Louis and a frat boy at Mizzou, but I feel like he should have been from Louisiana. Brad Pitt is from Missouri and so is Sheryl Crow, but they both live somewhere else now.

The state can’t even decide if it’s Democrat or Republican. Missouri’s perpetual swing-state status garners a lot of attention come election time, when it gets more visits from presidential candidates than most states not named Ohio or Florida.

Despite Missouri’s vague geography, I see the characters of Pridemore as very Southern in their values, quirks and stubborn sentimentality. Maybe it’s because I’m from Georgia, and I wanted to write the book with a Southern point of view. I don’t know.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I am thrilled and very honored to be invited to a couple of great book conferences in the South this fall. The first one is the Southern Festival of Books on Oct. 10-12 in Nashville, which features readings and panel sessions with about 200 authors. The next stop is the Georgia Literary Festival on Nov. 7-9 in Augusta, which will feature Georgia authors like Terry Kay, Raymond Atkins and Philip Lee Williams. I do not know what I am scheduled to do at these conferences yet. I will share more details about them soon.

In the meantime, I am also doing a reading from Pridemore at 7 p.m. Friday, August 15 in Kansas City. I will be sharing the stage at The Writers Place with another Kansas City author, Catherine Anderson, and poet Alarie Tennille. It should be a wonderful evening event!

That’s all the news I have about my book at the moment. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find information here, here and here.

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