Saturday, June 30, 2007

To the stars through a cool ad campaign

This is my first column to appear in the Hutchinson News.

“Ad Astra Per Aspera?”
“Too high falutin’ nobody goes around speaking Latin. It sounds more like we are selling cars. Test drive the new Chevy Astra Per Aspera, today!”
“The Sunflower State?”
“Too cutesy, people will think we wear flowers in our hair like Haight Ashbury hippies.”
“The Jayhawk State?”
“That just ticks off the K-State grads. Maybe we should stay with Kansas, As Big as You Think?”
“I still don’t know exactly what that means, besides if someone thinks we’re Rhode Island small it does nothing to show them the error of their ways.”
The preceding conversation was made up, which I suppose is pretty obvious because no one actually says things like “the error of their ways” in real life. Otherwise the conversation does seem plausible because Kansas is forever trying to re-define its image.
I am a life-long Kansan. Sorry, this is a newspaper, so I suppose I need to come clean with full disclosure. I was born in Nebraska, but I moved to Hutchinson when I was five and have not claimed any allegiance to the Cornhuskers since Tom Osborne retired. I lived in Los Angeles for fourteen months. Then I came to my senses. For about two years I lived on the Missouri side of Kansas City, but I could throw a rock into Kansas from my apartment. Well, Roger Clemens could, but only after sitting out half the season and getting a contract paying him more than the entire day shift at Wal-Mart, not a particular Wal-Mart, all of Wal-Mart. My nearly-life-long Kansan status should allow me to give some suggestions for making Kansas more appealing to outsiders.
First, I think we need to let go of the stereotypes. Even though I currently reside in Dodge City and therefore could be bludgeoned by the butts of replica six-shooters for saying this, I think it may be time to stop trading off of the Gunsmoke television show. It went off the air 32 years ago. Don’t get me wrong it was a great show and Marshal Dillon was a true hero to more than one generation. However, we have to face facts. Most people under 40 do not remember the show. If you walk up to people in any bustling metropolitan area and ask, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Festus’?” most of them will back away slowly hoping you don’t follow them as they scurry into the nearest Starbucks for refuge.
It is also time to distance ourselves from Dorothy. Every time I told people out in L.A. I was from Kansas they felt it was required to make an inane Toto joke. The first few months I didn’t mind and I even laughed occasionally. Towards the end of my time in tinsel town my response got a little harsher. I asked them to check out my ruby slippers. The person bent down to look and before he could remark how I was simply wearing Chuck Taylors I smacked him on the back of the head with my limited edition hardback copy of L. Frank Baum’s Rinkitink In Oz. The outstanding warrant for assault with a blunt literary instrument may have contributed to my return to Kansas.
The most egregious misconception about Kansas is that the entire state is pool table flat. Dodge City has hills. This can be attested to by my fourteen year old daughter who has been spending great portions of June peddling her bike around town as part of a summer physical education class. Not only can my daughter attest to it but the pharmacy bill for Ben Gay and ibuprofen does as well. Besides, the gentle rolling of the high plains is much more interesting than those ostentatious mountains over in Colorado. Any yutz with an instamatic camera can claim oceans and mountains are impressive. The beauty and grace of the grassland requires a more restful and intellectual appreciation. I’ve got it, let’s start advertising in the Mensa newsletter.
Maybe I should re-evaluate the whole thing. We can just cave into the big city snootiness and start a whole new ad campaign.
The following should be read by an actor with a commanding, authoritative voice: “Tired of the hustle and bustle of big city life. Tired of never getting the rest your body and soul requires. Want to get away from it all? Go where there isn’t anything…Kansas.”
Wait a minute; I’m not sure that came out right…

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fun and Games at the Games

Everybody’s heard of Wrigley Field. Even people who are not big baseball fans know about the ivy walls, the bleacher bums, and the fans who sit on the rooftops of nearby buildings to watch the games. There is also a history of broken hearts for the fans of the Cubs who play their home games in this historic venue. This heartache may be one of the reasons so much beer is consumed at the park. Frequently the aforementioned bleacher bums are pretty well lubricated by the time the seventh inning stretch rolls around. This brings me to something I find inexplicable.
But first, a digression: you know how sports teams often have free giveaways at the gate for the first so many fans who attend? T-shirts, hats, key chains, or the ever popular bobblehead dolls. I went to Royals stadium on the night they were giving away Denny Matthews bobbleheads. When you pushed a button it played sound bites of Denny calling unforgettable moments in Royals history. The sad part is these moments occurred twenty some years ago. End of digression.
The inexplicable thing happening at Wrigley Field was one of those giveaways. On June 17th the first 10,000 fans were given a Cubs Sharpie. Yep, pens which write with permanent ink. This ink resists a variety of cleaning fluids and possibly even napalm. The brain trust in the Cubs promotions department willingly handed 10,000 fans (adults, children, and drunkards) 10,000 pens enabling the greatest single day event of “For a good time call…,” “Cubs Rule,” “Cubs Stink,” and “I’ve had Rubella, Shigella, and Salmonella. Now I’ve got a bad case of Piniella,” graffiti and vandalism in sports history. From 2000 to 2006 I worked for the Dodge City Legend. Running the game night festivities was a major portion of my job description. I can just imagine the looks on John’s, Tom’s and Jimmy’s faces (the guys who worked at the Civic Center) if I told them I was going to hand out super-indelible, never-come-off-unless-a-nuclear-device-is-detonated-nearby, markers to the fans. What’s next, they say, “Rustoleum Spray Paint Night”? Or how about “The Legend, in conjunction with Smith & Wesson, present Small Hand Gun Night (BYOB – bring your own bullets)”?
All the extra showmanship around a sporting event, or game operations, (game ops as it’s said in the biz) is an industry unto itself. It takes a certain kind of genius to put a college-educated grown man into a suit designed to resemble something from a Timothy Leary hallucination (i.e. Stuff the mascot for the Orlando Magic) then place him on a large four wheeled scooter. Take the guy on the scooter and stick him in the pocket of a gigantic sling shot device. Stretch the sling shot device to its fullest, releasing the mascot guy making him a projectile rolling across the court running into giant foam rubber bowling pins which causes a crowd of 23,000 people to cheer loudly when he makes a strike or groan if one pin stays standing. Sheer poetry in motion and well worth the $2,250 (price includes shipping) it takes to buy the ten five foot tall foam rubber bowling pins. The “price includes shipping” statement begs one question. How angry is the UPS guy going to be when that box shows up on his route?
Another question may have occurred to some readers. How did he know how much ten five foot tall foam rubber bowling pins would cost? Easy, I went to Where else would one find such wonderful stuff? Some of these things would be great just around the house. What rumpus room would be complete without 2 foot wide, 2 foot tall Jumbo Inflatable Dice? Just $250 for a pair. This bit of information was included on the description: No air pump is included, but is recommended for inflation. Darn, I wanted to spend a week and half light-headed as I blow 16 cubic feet of air from my own personal lungs into these vinyl shapes. For you Yahtzee fans out there you have a price break. A set of five 2 foot inflatable dice only costs $600, a savings of twenty-five dollars. Honey, where’s the checkbook?!
Now for my favorite item in the catalog. Everyone knows you can pick up 7-foot inflatable spheres known as Human Hamster Balls at every discount and convenience store in any town in the state, but only at can you find the Human Hamster Ball Repair Kit. For a measly $48 you get a piece of poly vinyl, industrial strength ultra vinyl glue and a bottle of Zippy Cool. What’s Zippy Cool? Zippy Cool is a lubricant for the Hamster Ball zippers, because everyone knows what a pain it is when your Hamster Ball zippers stick.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The sweet smell of success, or is that pie?

Everyone wants to be a success. The issue seems to be what qualifies as a success. If I were to score a single basket in an NBA playoff game I would consider that a success of epic proportion, and I do mean epic. Mel Gibson would be chosen to direct the movie version. I don’t know how he will explain having the whole thing subtitled because the characters are speaking the ancient Polynesian language of the Maori tribes in New Zealand, but I guess it just makes it more epic. On the other hand, LeBron James is deemed a failure if he scores less than 20 points. Success is relative.
Shooting for success can cause a lot of angst. The key is to keep the goals realistic for the person and situation at hand. I have worked in schools for a lot of years and some kids are adept at some things and not at others (Warning: making a statement of such insight and acuity of perception comes from years of intensive training and should not be attempted by an amateur.). Let’s say a student is asked to solve for X using the following number sentence: X + 17 = 18. Now a kid in middle school can have success with such a task and therefore feel good. Another example could be like this: A train leaves Sacramento at 2:00 AM on a Thursday. A second train departs from Chicago at 6:00 AM on the same day. If both trains travel at an average speed of eighty miles per hour, each stopping once for forty-seven minutes apiece (the first train stops at Winnemucca, Nevada and the second train stops at Ottumwa, Iowa), using only an abacus and a sharp stick in the dirt explain why the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union was unable to maintain political control after 1923. Trying to answer such a question would cause great anxiety or even a sense of abject failure in many folks. While we all knew one guy in our high school class who could actually answer the preceding question, we also knew the chance he would get a date for the prom was as likely as a Shakespeare in the Park production of “King Lear” starring Ashton Kutcher. Which kind of success would you prefer? A scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study how quarks are affected when one reverses the polarity or getting to second base with Heidi Harris on a sultry April night. Personally, I received no scholarship and spent the night of my senior prom in my parents’ living room watching “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters” on TV, that Irlene was a cutie.
A favorite movie line of mine was in “Heaven Can Wait.” Buck Henry is talking to Warren Beatty and he asks him to not so much lower as broaden his standards. That is probably good advice when one is deciding how to measure success in life. When I moved to Los Angeles my goal was to become the next Richard Donner (the director of “The Three Musketeers”, “The Omen” and “Superman: The Movie.”). I then broadened my idea of success. Instead of emulating Mr. Donner (director of multi-million dollar movies) my goal was NOT to emulate the Donner Party by getting stranded in the mountains and resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. I did get stuck in St. Johns, Kansas during a blizzard, but my mom had sent a bag of groceries with my family so once we borrowed a can opener from the nice lady in the motel office starvation was no longer a concern.
In America success is most often measured by the money and power one has accumulated. Since I am a married man with three children I do not have much of either. So I did a little research on what makes rich and powerful people. Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author and consultant to big companies was interviewed about what are the traits of highly successful businessmen. He pointed to two characteristics which are shared by most. The first is something he called “explanatory style.” This refers to how an individual explains failure to himself. Truly successful people do not immediately dismantle their egos when the have a set-back. There is not a lot of wallowing in self-recrimination which leads to a “what’s the use I’ll just fail again” mentality. The truly rich and powerful simply blame their staff, fire a few folks, and move on to the next triumph. The other characteristic is stamina, but I’m kind of tired now so I don’t think I will continue writing…

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Being part of something bigger, which is part of something bigger...

From time to time I feel the urge to be intellectual. The most common way for me to do this is by reading a science or philosophy book. Now, I know some people think any adult reading a book which does not revolve around a detective or a raven-haired beauty suffering from amnesia, has to be a guy who ate paste in grade school and only kissed one female in his entire life, his mom. I beg to differ. I never ate paste, maybe a couple of tastes of Elmer’s glue, but I didn’t like it. (Quick note to my wife: I have only kissed one female over the last eighteen years.)
Before any readers of this column start accusing me of being an intellectual snob let me say I seldom finish any of these books. After a couple or three chapters my brain starts swelling like a tick which has accidentally hooked on to the femoral artery of the most recent Belmont Stakes winner. Really, I was fifty pages into my most recent book before I realized the author was not talking about Ray Nitschke, the middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, but rather Friedrich Nietzsche, the middle linebacker for the Prussian Existentialists (their cheerleaders’ favorite cheer is: “What does it matter. We’re all going to die eventually.”). Uh, sorry, I am now told he was a German philosopher of the late 1800’s. This heavy thinker said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” In my life I have to admit what doesn’t kill me usually makes me whine and complain like a debutante whose father took away her credit card. I can’t understand the paradoxical nature of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, nor can I drop a 230 pound running back behind the line of scrimmage. I’m afraid neither Mr. Nietzsche nor Mr. Nitschke would be very proud of me.
The work I am wading through now is a book by Ken Wilber called A Brief History of Everything. First of all I have to wonder about Mr. Wilber’s grasp of the English language. In my dictionary “brief” means something of short duration. His book is 548 pages. That ain’t brief. Brief is the attention span of my children as I explain why they…well, why they should do anything. Brief is Billy Donavan’s tenure as the head coach of the Orlando Magic. Brief is the amount of time I spend contemplating whether I should have that second doughnut at breakfast. (The answer is always an emphatic “Yes”.) Brief is not 548 pages.
Okay, here is what I think I learned within the first fifty pages. Everything, and I do mean everything, is a holon. (There will now be a slight pause while everyone looks up at the ceiling as if the answer for each confusing question in life is written up there.) What is a holon?” You ask (as you notice a water stain which looks remarkably like a hedgehog riding a unicycle). I just told you. It is everything. Try to keep up, will you?
Anyway, Mr. Wilber explains the word holon was coined to denote something which is at once a whole unto itself and a part of something else. Since Mr. Wilber is one of the most widely read and influential American philosophers of our time (not my idea – it was written on the back cover of the book) he explains the term by talking about the atom is a whole by itself yet part of a molecule. A molecule is a whole by itself yet is a part of cell. A cell is a whole by itself yet…well you get the idea.
Allow me to try to put the concept into terms of the more common man. A hamburger patty is a whole unto itself. A special sauce is a whole unto itself. Lettuce is a whole unto itself. Cheese is a whole unto itself. A pickle is a whole unto itself. An onion is a whole unto itself. A sesame seed bun is a whole unto itself. Yet they are all components of a Big Mac. A Big Mac is a whole unto itself, yet it can become a part of an enlarged waistline requiring elastic pants. Elastic pants are a whole unto themselves, but they are also part of my wardrobe because I keep saying yes to the second doughnut at breakfast. Which is a part of my crummy diet, which is part of the reason my wife keeps telling me I need to exercise more, which is part of…well, you get the idea.