Saturday, October 30, 2010

Without Gretel I Would Stay Lost

I have a constant companion since moving here recently. She’s bossy and speaks in a monotone that grates on me. She doesn’t always know what she’s talking about, but I literally would be lost without her. Her name is Gretel, and she is a GPS. Gretel spreads electronic breadcrumbs along whatever trail I’m traveling, saving me lots of time backtracking, printing out Mapquest directions, or trying to use Google maps on my iPhone while driving — not the safest of practices.

I bought Gretel a little over a year ago after getting hopelessly lost near the DFW airport, trying to find a hotel in the dark in an area where one shopping center followed another. At one point I pulled into a Hilton hotel. I was staying in a Hilton, just not that Hilton and tried to talk a cab driver into leading me to the right hotel. He was willing to do it for money, of course, but convinced me finding the hotel I sought was a simple matter. An hour later and three more desperate pleas for help later, I found my hotel. First thing I did upon returning home was plunk down a C-note on a simple GPS.

This likely is the best investment I’ve made in saving my sanity, always a tenuous affair. I come from a long line of short people who are directionally challenged. My late father once headed down a highway, the car loaded with three tow-headed sons in the back — my mom in the front seat telling him he was going the wrong way. As usual, cigarette ashes were being flicked out the front window and flying into the back seat, which we unsuccessfully tried to dodge as they argued back and forth. As usual, my mom was right. My dad finally acquiesced when the road — under construction and not actually open, petered-out in the middle of nowhere.

My middle brother Scott, who lives in Four Points, bought his first GPS back when they were novelties and cost several hundred dollars. I made fun of him back then. To be fair, the boy could get lost in his own apartment, while I lived in East Texas in a town where I hung out off and on for nearly two decades. I didn’t need no stinking GPS.

Well, times and circumstances have changed. I can get to work here without turning Gretel on, though it took a few days. The route to the post office and the grocery store closest to my house still requires a quick check with my constant companion, just to make sure I head from home the right way. Scott suggested I use the water tower looming near my house as a landmark. I pointed out there are two Cedar Park water towers within sight. Taking directional advice from any of my family members is fraught with peril. My daughters aren’t any better at finding their way around than me. We all should have bought stock in Garmin.

Sadly, I can’t use Gretel when walking at 6 in the morning in the dark. I purposely devised a simple route that looped around the elementary school where my oldest daughter teaches, with minimal twists and turns. I’ve already gotten lost once while walking this year, on a foggy morning in Kansas — an experience I’m loath to repeat. I use Kasey’s elementary school as my beacon point, because I know how to get to my house from there, just three blocks away.

The other day I became distracted while listening to something on KUT, missed a turn and became uncertain of my bearings. Not to worry. I could see the school in the distance, so I hoofed it over there. Dang. It was the wrong school, the elementary campus on the other side of the subdivision. It took about 15 minutes to figure out my way back in the dark.

I know I have to wean myself from Gretel at least for daily basic travels. Codependency is a terrible thing. For now, though, I need this crutch. Otherwise, I’m liable to head down a highway to nowhere, just like my dad did all those years ago.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), October 28, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Governors

Outgoing Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson shares a few superficial traits with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Both are tall and thin. Parkinson’s sandy hair can’t compare, hirsute-wise, to the man dubbed Gov. Goodhair by the late Molly Ivins.

Both governors switched political parties after a number of years in elective office. Perry, then a two-term state representative, became a Republican in 1989 before taking on and defeating Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner the following year. Parkinson, seven years younger than the 60-year old Perry, served first in the Kansas House and then the state Senate starting in 1990. He switched to the Democratic Party when he became Gov. Kathryn Sebelius’s running mate in 2006, as she sought a second term. When Sebelius was appointed HEW secretary in 2009, Parkinson became governor.

That’s where the similarities end. I recently completed a five-month stint running a small daily newspaper in northeast Kansas. I was the paper’s sole editorial writer and had to quickly educate myself on state politics. The legislature was in the middle of an epic budget battle. The gap was smaller in scope, certainly, than the up-to-$20 billion shortfall Texas legislators will face in January. But the task of coming up with a balanced budget was formidable in a state whose legislature contains as generous sprinkling of right-wing nuts, no-new-tax, slash-and-burn politicians as one finds in Texas.

Parkinson, an attorney who owns a string of assisted-living facilities with his wife, Stacy, announced not long after being appointed governor that he would not seek election to a full term. In an interview just more than a month before the general election, in which right-wing Sen. Sam Brownback was widely expected to win, he told me that choosing not to run freed him to work with a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to come up with a package of spending cuts. That budget also relied on a one-time federal extension of jobless benefits that nearly cratered after the session. He ended up lobbying hard in Washington for its passage and in Topeka for passage of a three-year, one-cent sales tax increase.

The result: Kansas passed a balanced budget that, as long as economic growth stays in the 3-percent range, can easily continue to educate its children and fund a new, ambitious 10-year transportation program. (Kansas was recently touted by Reader’s Digest as having the best highway system in the country. I can tell you that it has surpassed Texas. No longer does Molly’s joke about Texas being “Mississippi with good highways” hold true. We don’t even have that to brag about anymore.)

The budget passed largely because of Parkinson, who avoided ideology and worked hard at coming up with a package that didn’t gut education, kept the state’s infrastructure in reasonable shape, and laid a groundwork for future governors and state leaders to continue along that path.

Contrast that with what likely will occur in Austin starting in January. I have recently returned to Texas, where I’ve worked for newspapers for more than three decades. I’m glad to be back home. I have been writing editorials since 1982, including a few dozen opposing the election of Rick Perry to any higher office he sought, as well as regularly criticizing his performance as governor. I have talked to him in editorial board meetings a few times, and last year even introduced him at the Texas Daily Newspaper Association convention. I was outgoing president, and he was the keynote speaker. Talk about irony. The man may be the World’s Luckiest Hack Politician. He is, after all, probably about to be re-elected to govern the nation’s second-largest state, setting a record for longevity.

Perry has sagely adopted the Tea Party rhetoric and declared War on Washington. It will probably work in November, since voters are just pissed at the world. Why these same pissed-off voters would put back in office a professional politician who hasn’t held a real job in a quarter-century is beyond me, but there you go. The real ugliness begins in January. I read Paul Burka’s piece in Texas Monthly the other night, with his not-quite tongue in cheek proposal on how to close the budget deficit. Even after shuttering the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Department of Agriculture, the Public Utility of Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, even after that, plus some other draconian cuts, Burka was still forced to raise fees by 20 percent, legalize casino gambling and tap in to the state’s rainy-day fund for $4.5 billion.

None of this will happen, of course, though I don’t disagree that we could probably get by just fine without a toothless TCEQ (let the EPA run the state’s environmental program) and the hidebound RRC. But the chickens are coming home to roost in Texas come next session. Damn, it is going to get ugly. I’m glad I’ll be back here to watch, sort of like watching a car wreck.

I asked Parkinson if he regretted not running for a full term. In the two occasions we talked over five months (it’s a small state), he struck me as someone with no BS about him, who tried to figure out the best course of action and then took it. He paused for a moment before replying. The Democratic nominee is a nice guy, an obscure state senator with virtually no chance of beating Brownback. Kansas soon will have a governor who governs, well, like Rick Perry. Wing-nut ideology will matter more than actually trying to achieve meaningful results. Parkinson said he hoped things turned out OK, that the groundwork he had helped lay would hold. He was being, well, politic.

Parkinson said on the record that giving massive amounts of bucks to industries to persuade them to come to your state was almost always a waste of money. Best to spend that money shoring up the state’s educational system, highways, providing a safety net for the state’s poorest. And this man used to be a Republican! I can’t imagine Perry, who used the Texas Enterprise Fund like a piggy bank to benefit projects that also brought him political largesse, saying something so heretical.

Meanwhile, I’m back in Texas, where Gov. Goodhair will likely slip by former Mayor No-Hair in November. That’s depressing. The upside is that the next session is going to be so gruesome it’s likely voters will run the whole lot of them out in 2012.
Maybe there are some Mark Parkinson-types out there in Texas, just itching to run. Let’s hope.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I'm Not in Kansas Anymore

WAMEGO, KANSAS — It seemed fitting on my final weekend to live in Kansas to attend a stage performance of “The Wizard of Oz” in the historic and exquisitely restored Columbian Theatre, in downtown Wamego. The Columbian’s auditorium is festooned with six huge paintings from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which banker J.C. Rogers bought when the fair ended and hauled to Wamego to decorate his new music hall.

This Mayberry-like town about 14 miles northeast of Manhattan has ably profited from J. Frank Baum’s creation — with the Oz Museum, Oz Winery and even Toto’s Tacos — not to mention the recently concluded OztoberFest. I wanted to say a silent goodbye to this place, since I’ve been publisher of the weekly Wamego Smoke Signal as part of my job description — an easy gig since the paper has an able editor.

An additional incentive: Someone had told me the Wicked Witch of the West actually flies across the stage. Actually, there were several flying characters, from Glinda the Good Witch, those infamous Flying Monkeys and even Dorothy Gale. A company called D2 Flying Effects, based out of Johnson City, Tenn., was in charge of rigging cables to actors and actresses up in the air and sending them floating across the stage smoothly and safely. The grumpy Miss Gulch even floated across riding a bicycle. Hey, I was impressed. It looked like fun.

Area children of varying sizes, in this all-volunteer production, portrayed the Munchkins and Winkie Guards. The main cast members appeared to be college-age students. A well-behaved Yorkshire terrier named Rupert — though two dogs appeared at the curtain call — played Toto, according to the program. Maybe the other dog was an understudy. Before the show started, we sang “Happy Birthday” to two patrons with 10/10/2010 birthdays. Little kids comprised a goodly portion of the audience, unsurprisingly. It was a happy afternoon as clouds gathered outside, and it threatened to rain.

I sat on the third row, taking occasional notes, reflecting on the strange turn of events that brought me to Kansas in the first place, and the equally unexpected change of fortune that is propelling me back home to Texas. A change in ownership at the newspaper company for whom I worked for more than 20 years in East Texas meant I was out of a job earlier this year. I found the ad for this job running a family owned newspaper and soon came to an agreement with its owner. Our relationship has been wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer boss or a better group of folks to work with here at the paper. But the transition from Texas to Kansas, leaving a fiancée and her daughter, my grown children, Mom, siblings, etc., behind has been wrenching.

So, like Dorothy — only in reverse since I’m in Kansas while she was in Oz — I concluded that this isn’t home. I’ve tried hard to make it feel like home, but it hasn’t worked. I’m too used to living in Texas. That state has plenty of flaws, but I’m used to its idiosyncrasies. When the chance fell into my lap to run a newspaper in the Austin area — well, you have to listen to that sort of answered prayer. It’s where my oldest daughter teaches school, my middle brother lives, where we’re about to move our mom, and where most of my friends from high school and college long ago settled.

When Dorothy laments, “I’ll never see Kansas again as long as I live,” toward the end of the play, I thought about the long nights I’ve spent wondering how long I could live this split life, flying back to Texas every other weekend to see my family, loved ones and friends. The Flint Hills is a beautiful piece of country, with good people, but it’s been a lonesome existence for this Texas expatriate.

So it’s goodbye after just five months. I am confident that my successor will be able to build upon the work that this paper’s fine crew and I have done in my short time here to make this newspaper better.

As Dorothy says at the close of the play, “There’s no place like home.” It is time for me to go home.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union on October 16, 2010.

A postcript: As I pulled out of Junction City Friday morning with a utility trailer filled with yard implements and other items the mover wouldn’t take, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” performed by the late Hawaiian singer and ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwoʻole came on the satellite radio. Talk about providential.

Note to readers: I start in a few days as publisher of the Hill Country News in Cedar Park, in the Austin metroplex. I’ll continue to post this column here each weekend. Thanks for dropping by.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vibrating Cell Phones and Small Planes

I headed back to Texas last weekend for a reunion with my peeps in Austin, a chance to savor the second weekend of fall in our favorite city. The weather actually behaved like autumn, a rare event in Central Texas — where fall usually doesn’t arrive until mid-November and leaves in early February.

Winter: Fuggedaboutit. It doesn’t actually exist in Austin.

But the air was crisp enough in the mornings that my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I were scrambling for outerwear for our morning walk, reveling in the fact that we were forced to do so. I had flown there, while she had driven the five hours west from East Texas.

I’ve been flying more often this year than ever before, because the BMC is still in East Texas, and I’m in Kansas. I am grateful that a well-run and convenient small airport is 15 minutes from my house in Junction City, meaning I can print out my boarding pass the night before and show up 30 minutes before the plane takes off. Plus there’s free parking at Manhattan Regional.

I have taken this trip to Dallas and then either to East Texas or to other rendezvous points roughly a dozen times in the past six months. The folks who work at the airport are familiar faces. The ruddy-faced fellow who operates the scanner gives out stickers to little kids after everyone is seated in the sole gate area. The young woman who checks baggage when I’m forced to do so — and I try not to since it’s $50 for one bag on a round trip — also waves the orange traffic directors on the tarmac as the jet backs out to head to Dallas. She has double duty.

Most flights are at least one-third filled with soldiers from Fort Riley. Some soldiers coming back to Manhattan are met with excited spouses and children, greeting a soldier coming home on R&R. They’re invariably holding digital cameras and signs inked on poster boards, held by the children. It’s a humbling sight to see those families, waiting for their loved one, home for just a little while.

The small jets have a single flight attendant to attend to the 50 or so passengers. Most flights are full, or close to it. She (so far it’s always been a female) plays a recording with the standard safety message about emergency exits, buckling up, using the seat cushion as a flotation device, to turn off all electronic devices.

I check and make sure the iPhone in my pocket is off. Yep. For some reason, I always get sleepy as the jet prepares to pull out and take off. I doze off until we begin hurtling down the runway. Then I say a silent prayer and watch out the window until we’re safely in the air, enjoying the top-down view of the terrain. On this trip I think I finally figured out when we were crossing over the Red River as it snakes between Texas and Oklahoma, though it could have been another ribbon of water seen from 26,000 feet.

I started to doze again, then jerked forward. The Blackberry. I had completely forgotten about the accursed second cell phone in my briefcase, stowed beneath the seat in front of me, my feet propped upon it. It’s my work phone and rarely rings on weekends away. Out of sight, etc. What to do?

The phone was buried inside a bulky canvas Land’s End briefcase. There would be no subtle way to pull it out and turn it off, especially seated in Row 5, Seat A. I would be outed as a miscreant. For the next 45 minutes, every time the plane bumped in the turbulence, I imagined it was my cell phone accidentally left on that was fouling up the plane’s electronics.

We landed safely, of course. Just seconds after we touched down, I could feel a vibration beneath my feet. The Blackberry had found a tower and was relaying a voicemail from a few hours earlier. Since we were now allowed to turn our phones on, I listened to the message, which of course was of no consequence.

I went online to judge the risk at which I had put my fellow passengers. Little or none, it turns out. The prevailing wisdom appears to be that airlines figure there are always a few doofuses who forget to turn off their phones. It’s the fear of 50 disparate cell signals seeking towers that make airlines nervous.

Lesson learned, though. I will turn off all phones well before getting on a plane. I can’t take the guilt, and I’m certainly not important enough that a phone call can’t wait.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, October 9, 2010.