At Long Last, a Writing Adventure Awaits

A few years ago, a colleague suggested I look into a writing residency. While my intentions are good, it is difficult to follow through on writing each day, especially with long work hours, family, and that pesky social calendar. A residency or retreat offers a writer space and lots of time to get lost in their work. A friend actually finished the rough draft of her first novel, which she published a year later.

So, during the winter break I decided to do a little research.  In 2013, my husband and I spent an extended weekend in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We stayed in The Treehouses and fell in love with this open and creative community. While sightseeing, we discovered The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow tucked among the trees. I made a mental note and it was the first one on my list of residencies to research. I applied and on January 25, I received notification I was accepted on a subsidized residency.

Originally awarded for a week in August, I was contacted by the director when a slot opened in July, which works best for my day job schedule. I leave for Eureka Springs on July 5th. One week until my writing adventure begins. I’m acting like a kid counting down to camp, making lists of what I will pack, what I will need to stock the kitchen in my suite, creating a Writing Residency Playlist, making more lists, and counting down “how many sleeps” until I head to Arkansas.

I hope to blog about my residency, as well as my time in Eureka Springs. My goal is to complete a rough draft of my novel. I’ll be armed with a synopsis, the first three chapters and a whole lot of research and journal notes, plus a very special packet given to me by my Aunt Graciela. This packet contains a history of my paternal grandparents, including notes from my grandfather’s diary, the inspiration for my future novel.

Just me, my laptop, that packet of treasure, and  a private suite tucked into the splendid hills of Eureka Springs. I love a journey. Looks like this next one begins at The Writers Colony of Dairy Hollow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Course of a Life

Each morning, as I sit for the light to change at 21st and Oliver, I cannot help but stare at what was once Braeburn Golf Course. Once a significant aspect of the campus of Wichita State University, orange construction cones now contain the high mounds and deep hollows of dirt, sparse trees, and the steel skeletons of what will soon be Innovation Campus. And while change and vision is exciting, the loss of this golf course resonates within my family, especially my father. It has nothing to do with sport and everything to do with opportunity and hope. On October 31, 2014, I met my father on the grounds of Braeburn to take photos of the course as he played his final round. I then wrote the following piece, in hopes of capturing that single moment tied to a long and unexpected history and the relationship between a game, some land, and a bunch of boys from the North End.

As is custom with my father and his golf buddies, their tee time was scheduled for 7:30 am. I’d just pulled into the parking lot when he called to tell me they were being delayed for possibly an hour. It was October 31, 2014 and Old Man Winter had decided to provide us with a preview. North winds buffeted my car as I pulled on my heavy winter gloves and wondered how I was going to manage a camera. I was meeting my father near the practice green tucked between two buildings on the campus of Wichita State University. Braeburn Golf Course would be permanently closing on November 3 to pave the way for an Innovation Campus, and my father and his troupe were scheduled for one final round.

My father was waiting just under the green awnings of the brick clubhouse, his tan and navy striped beanie crooked upon his head. We hugged and headed inside for Styrofoam cups of black coffee poured from the ever-present and stained coffee pot. I looked around at the black and white photos of championship golf teams, the now almost-barren pro shop, its racks like silver leafless trees. I stared out the large windows onto the golf course, for the first time noticing the unusual quiet. It felt less like a clubhouse and more like the visitation room at Old Mission Mortuary, located just north of campus.

“You want to take some pictures of the course before the guys get here?” my dad asked, gesturing toward the east entrance.

“Sure,” I said, setting my coffee atop one of the aged concession area tables to remove my gloves. Beneath the cloudy glass tabletops were old maps of the course from the early 1990s. Originally Crestview Country Club, Wichita State purchased the property in 1967 and in 1993, the WSU Golf Course was renamed Braeburn.

We walked in silence through the door and stood facing the pitching green, the sun peeking through the old trees that had weathered the straight line winds of Kansas, but would not withstand the vision of an ambitious university president. I took a few photos and stood sentry with my father, who was gazing along the path leading to the driving range.

“Right here, this is where the old clubhouse used to sit. Or, close to this spot. We’d line up and wait for our assignments or for the regulars to choose a caddy.”

I aim the camera in the direction he is pointing, trying to envision the old clubhouse. I’ve heard my father’s stories from his days as a caddy, at least a hundred times, but never before had I been standing on these hallowed grounds.

“A few of the regulars always picked me, like this really nice couple, the McMasters. I think that was their name. They were really good golfers. Taught me a lot about the game. They were good to me, even paid me a little extra,” my father says, his breath visible in the October air.

We stand for a bit longer before he heads toward the putting green. As I turn to follow him, I notice a sign taped to the glass near the east door, “Come Play Braeburn One Last Time.” I walk briskly to catch up to my father. He has left his monogrammed golf bag standing next to the green. Large and black with his USGA membership tag from 2008-2009 still zip-tied to his golf pushcart, it seems to be patiently waiting his return. My father pulls his putter gently from the bag and pauses. Again, he gazes toward the morning shadows where the old clubhouse used to stand. It seems as if he is listening for something. I push my own cable knit cap away from my right ear and listen, too.

“None of us caddies were allowed in the clubhouse, you know. But, whenever I earned an extra nickel or dime, I’d head to the back screen door to the kitchen where I could buy a pop and a bag of peanuts. I used to dump the peanuts into the bottle, making the pop all fizzy and salty. It was my favorite.” He takes a sip of his lukewarm coffee before setting it gently on the cold ground next to his bag. “We’d hang out back and wait for one another. You usually knew when a caddy was finished by the slam of that screen door.”

He grabs a few golf balls from his bag and begins to strategically place them on the green. He continues, “I don’t know if I told you, but Father Giles was one of the reasons I started caddying. He used to play with Frank Hedrick, who worked at Beech Aircraft. Later, he became their president. He and Father Giles always chose me as their caddy.”

I watch my father practice his putting, oblivious to the biting wind. This was the first time I’d heard he’d caddied for Frank Hedrick, who was president of Beech Aircraft from 1968-1982, which meant my father worked at Beech during Mr. Hedrick’s presidency. I bet Mr. Hedrick never knew one of his favorite caddies became one of his best assembly workers.

My father sinks a putt from four feet, then moves over to his next placed ball and easily putts out from almost seven feet. I recall the stories about the McMasters couple and how when they learned he walked to and from the golf course, almost four miles one way, they insisted on picking him up and taking him home on the days he caddied for them. The first time they drove him home, he was nervous about them finding out he lived “on the north end.” But, as he’d told me, “they didn’t blink an eye. But, I shouldn’t have been worried, because where else would a bunch of Mexican caddies live.”

I try to ignore the tingling in my fingers as I take photos of my father, a few of his bag, and the spot where the ghost of the clubhouse shimmers between the shadows of the buildings and trees. As my father continues to practice, I try to imagine what it was like being an eleven-year-old boy caddying for seventy-five cents for eighteen holes, especially a Mexican boy who’d recently lost his father in a train accident at a salt plant in Lyons, Kansas.

Oscar Castro moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1943, following the tragic death of his father. One of seven children, he wanted to help out his mother, who was devastated by the loss of her husband and fearful of what the future held for her and her children. Father Giles told him about caddying at what was then Crestview Country Club golf course, so my father walked the 3.7 miles and stood outside the clubhouse, hoping to be picked. The first time he showed up to caddy, the pro sent him home because my father was barefoot. My father saved his only pair of shoes for school or church, not wanting to ruin them. The pro was surprised when my father returned an hour later, his shoes shined and laces tightened.

But, my father was not alone, as the majority of caddies were Mexican American kids from his neighborhood, the north side of Wichita where the early Mexican immigrants gravitated for jobs with the railroad and meat packing plants. It also helped that the assistant pro at Crestview Country Club was Mario Renteria, whose influence encouraged the young boys to caddy. It was good money, but it was an even greater experience for these kids whose futures were as long and solemn as those train horn blasts along 21st and Broadway, their lives in sync with the shift changes at Cudahy Meat Packing Plant. Caddying changed my father’s life.

My father approaches me, “Did I ever tell you that Father Giles used to excuse me from school to caddy for him and Hedrick?”

“I guess it was easy since you were attending his Catholic school,” I say.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he answers, “It never bothered me since I figured if it was a sin, he could forgive me.”

We laugh, my father smiling for the first time that morning.

“Dad, was it on Monday the caddies were allowed to play?” I ask, knowing it was but wanting to hear him tell me, again.

“Yes, we really looked forward to Monday,” he answers, leaning on his club. “Mario would let us use the mismatched and worn clubs, and some practice balls. We’d go out and do our best by mimicking the golfers or coaching one another on the tips we learned. I learned a lot from my golfers, they showed me how to grip, how to follow the ball,” my dad begins to laugh. “We were awful in the beginning, but after a while, I don’t know, we just loved to play. We had fun and it was something different, something so different.”

My father and his friends would play together for more than forty years; forming a group they called Los Patos, or The Ducks. Depending on which golfer you ask, the stories vary on how they came up with the name. A few say it came from wading through water hazards to scavenge for shanked golf balls. Others say it came from their code name for those golfers who were cheapskates and didn’t pay their caddies well. Pato was a code name, as in “don’t get stuck with the pato, he’ll just lay an egg.”

However they decided upon the name, these men from hardworking backgrounds met every Sunday at one of the public golf courses where they picked teams, placed bets, heckled one another, and cheered the longest drive or putt. After bets were paid, they drank cold Budweiser fished from Coleman coolers, while seated under the shade of the trees in the parking lot.

They organized their own Mexican American golf tournament, which was held during the month of September on the Saturday closest to September 16, Mexican Independence Day. For 35 years, the tournament brought together these men and their families, creating generations of Mexican golfers from across the state of Kansas. Being invited to play with the Patos became a rite of passage for their sons and grandsons. I remember how proud and excited my brother was when he was asked to play, the honor bestowed upon him at the age of thirteen.

“They’re finally here,” my dad says, motioning toward the parking lot. Four of my dad’s  golf companions are heading toward the clubhouse. As dad and I leave the green to follow them, I realize how small his golf group has become over the years. Many of the original Patos have died, while others have lost the mobility or strength to play. My father, at age 82, is one of the last of the caddies who still plays on a weekly basis. He hits balls at the driving range and practices putting three to four times per week, which is why he was still “hitting his age” in his late seventies.

Inside the clubhouse, Marion, Joe, and two others are paying their fees and grabbing cups of coffee. Only one of the golfers remembers me, which is not surprising since daughters were a rarity on the golf course with the Patos.

“I can’t believe we’re playing in this cold,” says Marion, “Loco, I tell you.”

“I can’t believe it’s the last time on Braeburn,” my father answers. They all nod and fall silent.

The silence remains until we head back to the practice green. There are two groups in front of them to preparing to tee off, but no one seems to be in a hurry this morning. Golfers linger in the entry of the clubhouse and along the cart path. The five of them putt around, catching up on the latest news regarding ailments of fellow Patos or the deaths of folks from the north end. I take photos of them, watching how familiar they are with one another on the green and I recall the one and only Patos golf tournament I attended.

It was 2001, the year of their 30th tournament and they needed someone to take photos of each group. A few of the Patos were in poor health, some already unable to walk the eighteen holes. I remember one of them saying, “We need some pictures before half of us are dead.” The mist was heavy upon the fairways that morning as I took photo after photo, listening to their stories. In each group was a patriarch or original Pato joined by his son or sons, son-in-law, or nephew. In one group, there were three generations of Mendoza men. One of my father’s favorite photos is the one I took of him, my brother John, my uncle Otis, and my father’s best friend, Ray, walking down the fairway into the gray mist. I remember watching them and thinking how this group of men was forever bound, not only by the circumstances of their lives and heritage, but by a game long identified with white males. As young men, they were not allowed to sit at the local drugstore counter, or even inside the clubhouse to order a soda, and yet, they walked those same fairways, stood upon manicured greens, and fell in love with a game never intended for the sons of Mexican immigrants.

“Let’s go,” says my dad. When we get to the tee box, I group them together for a photo. Their smiles are wistful and again, the silence descends. I watch them tee off, momentarily forgetting about my camera. My father is the last one to drive down the fairway. He outdrives them all. Marion and Joe buzz down the path in a golf cart, while my father slips his driver into its cover before walking with the others. He turns to me and waves, the smile of an eleven-year-old boy wide across my father’s face. As he pushes his cart and begins his final round on Braeburn, the sun fully breaks through the trees and I fight the urge to follow him. I raise my camera and take my last photos before letting him go to say goodbye to those ghosts, to walk this ground so entrenched in the hearts of these men, and maybe buy a Pepsi and a bag of peanuts for the road. From behind, the sound of voices and clinking of golf clubs reminds me another group is preparing to tee off. I tuck the camera in my coat pocket and head toward the parking lot. When I reach my car, I stop to see if I can catch my father in the distance, but he and his Patos are no longer visible. I realize I am standing, waiting, possibly to hear the slamming of a screen door and in that moment, somewhere on 21st and Broadway, a train whistle sounds, long and solemn.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving…in March

Every day since the first of the year, I open Pandora and listen to George Winston radio. And almost every time, the first song to play is Thanksgiving from his album, December. I usually only listen to George from November to January, his piano playing reminiscent of frost on fallen leaves, the hush of snow, sleigh bells, and evenings spent by the glow of a Christmas tree.

But, not this year. It is early March and still I find myself spending time with George while sitting at my desk at work, in my car on the drive home, or like now, reading or writing in the dimness of the day. Tomorrow is March 9 and spring is just a few weeks away, and yet, here I sit listening to Night, Part One: Snow. At this very moment, I am longing for snows that will not come and staring toward the spot near the large window where the Christmas tree stood sentry just a few months ago.

This past holiday season seemed vague and disjointed, at best. The moments of childlike anticipation and joyful weariness were few, the majority of time spent carrying the weight of a sorrowful heart. It was like reading a story with an unrealistic plot set against the backdrop of the holidays and told by an author unsure of his or her own voice. Some of the characters were familiar, even some of the settings, and there were a handful of chapters so beautiful it was hard to imagine them tucked between such chaos. But, I couldn’t stay focused and found myself rereading passages, as if I was afraid I’d missed something between the lines and pages, all the while wishing I could just get to the end.

Maybe that is why I find myself spending time with George. For someone who loves the holidays and looks forward to the shortening of the days, the headiness and pace from Halloween to New Years, and the wearing of Christmas like a coat of metallic colors, possibly I feel cheated. Christmas always weighs upon me like a down comforter, providing warmth and a sense of security. Instead, I feel as if I spent October through January barely covered by a short cotton sheet and no matter how tight I curled myself up, hugging my knees to my chest, my feet and head were always exposed, the cold air seeping through the thin threads.

So, I listen to George in hopes of recapturing a bit of what went amiss. And now that the initial guilt has somewhat worn off and I’m less embarrassed by my obsession with Holly and the Ivy at this time of year, I find myself filled with bliss when I hear those first refrains of Some Children See Him. I don’t know if I will still be listening to December come the 100-degree days of July, but for now, George and I will continue our post-holiday venture. Like one of Dickens’ ghosts, George will bring to mind many a holiday past and I will swear there is a faint scent of pine in the air, all the while my Christmas heart will heal with the budding of the daffodils. Come October, I hope George will be waiting, like the old friend that he is, to drop in during the holidays. And like a dear friend, he won’t mention our time spent well into pints of Guinness and colored eggs and how it took me until the rains of May to read the final chapter and finally close the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

50 for 50: A Year Celebrated in Music

On February 14th, I will celebrate 50 years upon this planet. It is amazing to think I have spent 50 years breathing, walking, eating, experiencing, enjoying, laughing, crying, and loving this life. 50. I cannot even begin to explain how excited I am to begin a new decade. If my 50s are anything close to what my 40s were, it’s going to be one hell of a ride. I am not one to deny my age, as I believe growing older is to gain experience and with experience comes wisdom. My plan is to be brilliant by the time I reach the grave. Each year we celebrate the day of our birth, is one to cherish and embrace. I’ve earned this 50th year. I have fought hard for it, army crawling through my twenties, tiptoeing through my thirties, finally high-stepping through my forties, and hopefully, boot-walking into my fifties.

Everyone has asked how I plan to celebrate the “big 5-0.” A party? No. I put the kibosh on a party more than a year ago. Parties are fun for those invited, but for the honoree parties are work. Honorees spend so much time mingling and ensuring everyone is greeted and thanked that soon the big day is over and all that’s left is a half-sipped lukewarm beer, a dry piece of cake someone wrapped in a napkin ‘to save for you,’ gifts you explicitly asked not to bring, and the realization you hardly danced or sang, never truly celebrated. No thank you.

A trip? Yes…well, maybe. Last year, I began planning a trip for my 50th, but scratched out Paris, Key West, and New Orleans when I realized each of those destinations would be packed with Valentine’s Day lovers and hungover Mardi Gras revelers. Then, I couldn’t decide between a cabin in the mountains or a resort on a beach. When I began to exhibit signs of stress at the mere mention of my 50th birthday plans, I realized a trip and all of its planning was not the route I needed to take. Plus, since it is my 50th year upon this earth and not my 50th day, why not celebrate for an entire year. But, how?

History of Concerts II

This photo is just a sampling of keepsakes I affectionately call my “history of concerts.” I believe my first concert was, now don’t laugh, the Osmond Brothers. But, since no one in my family will own up to taking me, as I was only eight or nine years old, I’ll defer to my first self-purchased concert ticket: Foreigner at Henry Levitt Arena with opening act, Bryan Adams. I was sixteen. From that moment, I was smitten, not with Foreigner or Adams, but with live shows.

I don’t know the exact number of concerts I’ve attended, as I’ve never counted my ticket stubs (yes, I’ve kept them all), but it has to be a couple of hundred or more. Concerts have included: Foreigner, Journey, Rush, Def Leppard (with a two-armed drummer), Van Halen (with DLR and with Sammy), Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, John Mellencamp when he was John Mellencamp and one year as John Cougar, Metallica (with Cliff Burton), Ozzy (with Jake E. Lee), W.A.S.P (that was a memorable show with Stormtroopers of Death and Slayer at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago), Dio, Duran Duran, U2 in Chicago during their Joshua Tree tour and later, Arrowhead Stadium during their Achtung Baby tour, The Rolling Stones, Alice in Chains (with and without Layne), Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Grateful Dead (including Jerry’s final show), The Wallflowers, The Police, The Cult, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, James Brown, Luciano Pavarotti, The Black Crowes, Counting Crows, Elton John…and on and on.

From this history was born the idea of attending 50 shows during my 50th year, or “50 for 50.” My plan is to see 50 live shows: big name, up and coming, old school, new school, big venues, intimate venues, and local. I’ll have my photo taken in front of every marquee with its allotted number. My hope is to have others join me for some of these shows; after all, some of the best concerts I’ve attended were with the people I love the most.

I have a few tickets already in hand and will be kicking off 50 for 50 tonight with Arlo Guthrie at The Orpheum. My husband gave me an early birthday gift, so we’ll be heading to Kansas City to see Black Sabbath on February 17 and less than a month later, Robert Plant at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In April, The Who and I will celebrate 50 years in KC. That’s four artists off my Concert Bucket List.

Music has always been such a big part of my life: dancing with my parents to Little Joe or Vicente Fernandez; sleeping with my Beatles Help album; listening to Barry White on my sister’s eight track player; picking out 45s at David’s Department Store; sitting for hours listening to a new album while reading the liner notes; creating mix tapes of my favorite bands; and saving my hard earned money to attend concerts.

No jumping out of a plane or base jumping for me. I want to welcome 50 with dancing and singing and the kind of euphoria that can only come from a live show. I hope you’ll join me and if you are unable, please offer up some suggestions. I’m always open to hearing and seeing artists who are new, at least to me. So, here we go…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

When you wish upon a…

Mid-January and I’m still answering the usual question. Did you make any resolutions? I wonder at times why we hang such hope on a new year. Why we burden ourselves with resolutions and determinations that will only bring guilt or a sense of failure to our freshly swept doorstep. I confess I used to make resolutions, only to break them before the cold snows of February. It seems an unneeded stress to weigh ourselves with such expectation, especially when the majority of these resolutions do not come to fruition. Life brings enough unexpected and sometimes unwanted gifts to our door without our adding to the pressures of our daily lives.

This year, I’ve decided to try something different. I made a wish list. Now, many would argue resolutions have become just that, simple wishes. The definition of a resolution is to make a firm decision, and yet each year we fall off the resolution wagon so easily since it seems no clear path or guideline is created to maintain and reach the resolution. Possibly this failure is due to making the wrong resolutions. To me, resolutions seem to be more determined by our society or the expectations of others. This year, I will exercise more (because I’m supposed to be fit). I will eat greens and cut out sugar (because I’m supposed to eat healthy foods). I will add to my savings (because I need to be financially secure). Yes, all of these are beneficial to us, but is it what we truly want?

What if resolutions were more like wishes? True wishes. I know, I know. What is the good in wishing for something? Again, no specifics, no timeframe, or clear set goals in making a wish. Plus, wishing will not make it come true, right? Or does it?

The definition of a wish is to “feel or express a strong desire or hope for something not easily attainable.” Some define wishes as lazy because the person making the wish believes it will come true by some magical force, not by hard work. I believe there is magic in wishing, but the magic is the power the wish gives to you, the wisher. Sure, some wish for the obscure or the unattainable, but the majority of wishes come from the inner yearnings of the soul and the magic is the lifting of any self-imposed limitations. I’ve always believed dreams are achievable when you refuse to limit your possibilities.

Once upon a time, I wished to work on campus at Wichita State University. It was never an annual resolution, nor did it have a calculated plan attached. Much like the Merlin Electronic Game I wished for as a child, I opened the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Catalog of Life and circled “work for WSU,” maybe even drew a disproportionate pointy star next to it. Regularly, I opened the dog-eared catalog and re-circled the item. While as a child I made sure I completed chores to perfection and worked even harder at school to make my Merlin wish come true, as an adult I opened myself to opportunity and pushed aside limitations and self-doubt.

When my mentor suggested taking a part-time position on campus, I applied. I didn’t want to work part-time, but I knew this position might be my only chance to get in the door. I worked diligently at my 25-hour per week position while finishing my degree and learned as much as possible about the inner workings of the university and its history. As the university breathed its life into me and my passion expanded, becoming more evident, other opportunities revealed themselves and I went through those doors, even when I was a just a bit unsure. The magic was the freeing myself from limitations and pushing aside that self-doubt and creating openness and willingness for the wish. I will celebrate ten years this August.

Sometimes, it isn’t the plan, the calculations, or the check list that brings a dream or a goal to reality, but the desire itself and the understanding of how life works. We need to take those opportunities when they arise and with little or no hesitation remove any over-rationalization and self-doubt. When we engage, we better ourselves and better our path. And, it helps if we look out for one another. We need to be better at helping others recognize their potential, as well as ensure we bring to light opportunities to those whom might benefit. As we become more hopeful, more selfless, and make ourselves and others available to opportunity, it is then wishes come true.

So, no more resolutions of weight loss or joining a gym because you feel you should or simply because it’s the resolution you make each year. Instead, wish for the opportunity to spend more time with your best friend and since she loves Zumba and Pilates, open yourself to joining her for a few classes. Even if you don’t completely fall in love with Pilates, the company is worth the sweat. Instead of buying a bunch of high-priced, organic groceries from your chain grocer and stressing over learning new meals, participate in a Community Garden or Community Supported Agriculture and introduce local produce into your diet. You may discover having your hands deep in the earth was what you were truly missing and meet some like-minded people who will offer their favorite butternut squash soup recipe or how to perfect steamed asparagus. Plus, you’re supporting your local community and local farmers. Bonus.

This year, skip the redundant resolutions and make a wish. Just remember, there are no stars to wish upon, no birthday candles, and no wishing wells. The talisman is you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Life Measured by the Soul- A Tribute to Jeffrey Lane Graber

The album was filled with glossy 4×6 photos. Photos of the red rose-bush tall against the wood fence; an upward shot of the aging basketball goal framed in Kansas blue sky, one single white cloud in the backdrop; a robin perched on the edge of the stone bird bath; a cardinal balancing among the branches of the juniper; a mug shot of Puggie, the gray muzzled pug dog. I never before realized the beauty of your backyard, the color, the life contained within its fences of wood, chain link, and evergreens. Later, I went home and sat on the back porch and gazed upon the everyday wonders of my own backyard. It was if I was seeing the green of the grass, the yellow of my mother’s daffodils, and the uneven gray of the patio for the first time.

My cousin Jeff was born with neurofibromatosis, an incurable disease which affects the development and growth of nerve cell tissue. The disease causes the growth of benign or malignant tumors, especially near the brain and spinal cord, as well as skin abnormalities and disfigurement. As a kid, I didn’t know the name of the disease, I just knew it limited Jeff, kept him from going with us to Joyland Amusement Park or to movies at Crest Theater. The disease attacked the right side of his face, rearing its ugliness when he was just a toddler, causing large, benign tumors to stretch and deform his appearance. Born in 1955, the medical field was still learning about the disease, working to understand its manifestations, and attempting to help patients live with the disease. His future was uncertain. We were told he might not live as long as the rest of us, his cousins. The disease was a mystery. The disease was selfish, keeping Jeff to itself. It was the first thing I remember ever hating.

As one of the cousins, Jeff was no different from the rest of us. We celebrated birthdays, read comics, and shot hoops for hours on the dirt court in his backyard or the makeshift goal at the farm. It was at the farm he experienced the most freedom. He helped bait hooks as we all fished, sitting along the old wood bridge, sneakered feet dangling a few feet above the creek. He swam with us in the large above ground pool, went on hikes with us through the pastures, spun us younger cousins on the tire swing, and played ping-pong in the damp basement of the old farm house. On the Fourth of July, we tossed firecrackers, lit smoke bombs, and waved sparklers. I’m certain he instigated the whole “let’s take the Black Cats and blow up cow pies.”

Like the majority of us, he even graduated from North High School, although he earned his degree while being tutored at home, having been pulled from the public schools when he was twelve. When my aunt and uncle sold the farm, Jeff’s outings became fewer and fewer, secluded to the house just a block from my own. Older than a handful of the cousins, Jeff became the family babysitter, but he was more like a teacher. He educated us on music, movies, and sports. He fed us Red Baron pizzas topped with his own special ingredients and the creamiest macaroni and cheese; served us cold Cokes in coffee mugs with tiny ceramic frogs hidden in the depths, and played board games with us seated around the kitchen island. He would tell us jokes, be stern with us when needed or threaten us with “tickle time” if we misbehaved. He taught us to appreciate the soundtracks to movies, corrected our song lyrics (no, it’s not elected boobs, it’s electric boots) and inherently provided the simplest of life’s lessons.

And as we grew up together, we transitioned from the babysitter and the babysat, to best friends and best cousins. We replaced Monopoly and Sorry with hours of Music Trivia and sipped our first German beers while sitting around that same kitchen island, eating Big Cheese pizza. We talked about books, cocooned in juniper trees on the front porch while listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. The first time I heard Cheap Trick, I was sitting on the floor in front of his stereo, passing the album and liner notes back and forth, Jeff schooling me on the talents of Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson. My sister may have sparked my love of music, but Jeff provided the kindling to ensure the flame burnt bright and long. He was one of the first in the family to own a stereo that allowed you to record albums to cassettes and he spent hours creating the perfect mix tapes, introducing me to Elton John and Led Zeppelin.

I often thought, and still do, that Jeff would’ve been an incredible radio disc jockey because he listened to every nuance of an album, read Rolling Stone magazine front to back, and was passionate about passing along his newfound knowledge, summarizing articles, and introducing the cousins to new music. It would have been a perfect job for him. And when MTV launched onto the music scene, my younger brother and I watched many a World Premiere with him, including Pat Benatar, Sting, and Van Halen. He would rate the videos, as we watched them over and over, Jeff always recording them to make sure we didn’t miss a thing. He loved those early days of MTV, especially the concerts. And in 1985, when the Young Ones crossed the pond, we watched many an episode at the Graber’s abode hysterical over the antics of Vivian, Rick and Mike. Jeff’s impression of Neal, his favorite, was spot on.

But, as the cousins grew older and became more involved in sports or school activities, and friends, our time spent with Jeff decreased. We grew socially, fell in love, went to college, moved away, married, and had children. Jeff stayed his course. He began babysitting the next generation. Later, he became the Commissioner for our family fantasy football league, keeping track of stats by hand, waiting for our phone calls to verify our standings, reprimanding us if we called too early before he’d had a chance to update scores following Monday Night Football. He would answer the phone, ‘The Commish, here.” Even after our family league disbanded, he remained the Commish, to me. But, the disease remained relentless, tightening its grip, and soon visits to his home became limited by his immediate family. Now living across town from one another, we kept in touch by phone, instant messenger, and later, Facebook. His birthday became the only day I would see him and the visits were brief, but he was never far from my mind. A song, a movie, a pug dog meme, and every Shocker game I thought of Jeff.

Neurofibromatosis is the disease, but it is not Jeff. It is easy to look upon his life from the outside and feel sadness and pity for a life so contained, but for us who knew and loved Jeff, his life was inspiring and profound, especially for us, his cousins. I know I speak for all of my cousins when I say that knowing and loving Jeff transformed our lives and embedded within our souls the gifts of compassion, empathy, and unconditional love. As children, we did not see the tumors, only Jeff, and at times, it was easy to forget about the disease until that moment when we would think or say aloud, “we should all go to the drive in,” or “let’s go to the game, this weekend.” It was then we hated the disease, as it stood between us and Jeff, separating us, pushing us away. Jeff was intrinsic to our development, educating us in so many ways, but for me especially, he taught me to realize and appreciate what I had in my own backyard. Jeff helped to recognize the beauty of that within our own fences, to look inside our windows and not just outside or beyond. So often, we look over the fence and long for what is not ours, while what is most important is sitting next to us on the porch swing, laughing with us at the kitchen table, and holding our hand.

The Kansas wind blew loud and strong the day we took turns sprinkling soft Kansas dirt over the small box in the ground which held the earthly remains of Jeff. It seemed at times we might topple over and roll comically down the hill of Calvary Cemetery, one last prank by our cousin whose bag of tricks included “tickle time” and “the Cucuy.” I could almost hear his boisterous laughter over the wind and afternoon traffic on Kellogg. Jeff would’ve celebrated his 60th birthday on December 18, defying the age expectancy given to him by his doctors so long ago. As we drove away from the cemetery, I thought of Jeff and his life, his world filled with movies, National Geographic magazines, the roar of the crowd through the speakers of his radio, and music, lots of music, and the love of cousins. It was then I understood the strength and forcefulness of the wind that sad day. Jeff is free. Free to see the sunset over places he learned about between the pages of those magazines. Free to gaze upon the ocean waves. See his beloved Yankees. Hear the roar of Shocker Nation in Koch Arena.

Forever a part of our lives, our souls, the intrinsic make up of our being, but free. Finally, free.

Thank you, Commish.

“If I could reach from pole to pole Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul; The mind’s the standard of the man.”

– (adaptation) Isaac Watts- False Greatness

A Visit to the Mother

At times, even a Mermaid of the Plains needs to visit the Mother. It had been too long since I felt her salty kisses, listened to her deep, rhythmic voice, and felt her presence wrap around me, pulling me into her great womb. She scolded me for not coming to visit more often. She scattered my whispered prayers upon her seas and embedded my confessions upon her shores. She filled me up so I might continue my journey, then gently let me go.

“When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Behind the Light

This past July, I wrote a piece about women being light bearers, the brandishers of flames whom we follow and emulate. But lately I’ve been given pause to think and try to understand what might be hiding behind a few of these beautiful torches.

Late September, we lost another incredible woman within our circle of friends and community. A wild, bold bearer of light, her memory now seared upon the broken hearts of many. Angela Mallory was smart, savvy, brash, passionate, and quick to turn strangers to friends. Her eulogy, a patchwork of memories and love penned by family and friends, captured the women we all knew and loved, a woman who approached everything she did with childlike abandon. Angie laughed loudly, cursed heartily, hugged ferociously, loved passionately, danced wildly, and gave of herself fearlessly.

And yet, unbeknownst to many, she was hiding behind her light, fearful something or someone was attempting to douse her flame, and instead of asking for help with her burden, she extinguished her beautiful light. She was hurting and her quiet suffering remained unseen by many who were unable or not wanting to see beyond her glorious blaze. The pain of her loss is deep and aching, felt in the bones and the recesses of our hearts, and partly because we cannot help but feel we failed her. How did we fail to see those hints of darkness piercing through her radiance?

I wonder how many others feel the need, the urgency to hide behind their flames. Do we place so much pressure on others to always be as the women (or men) we believe and want them to be, so much so they feel they cannot appear otherwise? When others revel in your joy of life, how can you possibly show them your sorrow of self. The stigma of being considered as damaged or weak pushes many to hide their feelings of sadness, self-doubt, fear, or hopelessness and yet, we all, at one time or another, have experienced one, if not all of these emotions. Everyone wants to be liked, to be accepted, and to be loved. No one should ever feel shunned, betrayed or unwanted. For none of us are perfect. Not one of us. We all have our faults, we all have our sins, whether spoken or unspoken, we are all imperfect, and that is what makes us all so incredible and believe it or not, so lovable.

There will always be unresolved questions, but I hope we fight to find answers for those who still struggle and will struggle. A woman whose flame we are drawn, should never feel she cannot set down her torch and ask for help. There is no shame in saying aloud that our heart is hurting, our soul is crying, and we can’t and don’t want to keep walking the path. There is great strength in knowing when we need someone to hold our hand or rest roadside with us. Every woman should know there are others readily available to carry her torch and should her light dim ever so slightly, know we will still find warmth beneath its glow.

Angie’s light will never be extinguished; she will forever guide us with her colorful fire. While she may have veiled her pain behind her splendid light, the torchbearer we will forever remember is a sensitive soul given over to compassion and unconditional love. She will continue to illuminate our lives, the shadow of her magnificent hat dancing along the path beside us in times of joy and in times of sadness. She has become our teacher, urging us to recognize a quivering flame or a muted glow, not only in others but in ourselves, and to understand when and how to reach out in times of need, not only to others, but for others. As torchbearers, we must illuminate the dark of depression and eliminate the shadows of suicide.

Angela Mallory-beautiful soul (photo by Paula Love Moore)

Angela Mallory-beautiful soul (photo by Paula Love Moore)

Dos

It’s been two weeks since our whirlwind weekend of back-to-back concerts and I am still stirred by each of the performances. While we hadn’t planned to travel from Wichita to Kansas City on a Friday, then travel from Kansas City to Salina on Saturday (I bought the tickets thinking the concerts were a week a part, not realizing they were 24 hours apart until about three weeks prior), it was one of the best mistakes I’ve ever made. The combined performances, the venues, the company, even the travel, made for one memorable weekend. And, while the acts could not have been more different musically, I was slightly surprised by their similarities.

On Friday, we were treated to Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings at The Folly Theater. If you get the opportunity, you should experience a show at the Folly, a beautifully renovated venue whose history began in 1900 and included such acts as the Marx Brothers and the Gypsy Rose Lee. Currently, they feature a Chamber Music series, a Discovery Series featuring young talent, and they have a Folly Jazz Series that is tempting our immediate return. We first saw Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings at Wichita’s own historic theater, The Orpheum, in 2011. As she has not released any new music and announced they “are not really on tour, so there’s no set list,” the show seemed impromptu with the two of them deciding songs between sips of water and tuning guitars. The set up was simple, their performance captivating, and I was moved to tears when their third song of the evening was The Way It Will Be, a song which seems to haunt its way into my dreams and linger as backdrop music for days and days. Rawlings was remarkable, at times shooting notes machine gun-like into the audience while Welch lulled us into their stories. Mike Warren with The Pitch does an excellent job of describing the evening, so I won’t go into much more detail but, as is every time I listen to Gillian Welch, I hear the creak of footsteps on an overused wood porch, taste the tartness of loneliness, smell the warmth of whiskey breath, and sense the long days and dark nights of dust-smattered hope. I thought they were brilliant. Friday night came to a close with late night conversations over beer with my brother and sister-in-law in the comfort of their living room in Overland Park. Success.

Round Two: Rodrigo and Gabriela at The Stiefel Theater in Salina, Kansas. I have been waiting to see this duo since we discovered their live show with the Cuban orchestra, C.U.B.A, on Palladia one Friday night. I was immediately drawn in by their intensity, an intensity most likely drawn from their heavy metal background. Yes, heavy metal. As Rodrigo stated during one of their breaks, “when you think of two Mexican acoustic guitar players, you think traditional, flamenco, maybe mariachi, not…rock band.” But, that is exactly who they are. A rock band. Their style is unique and while many describe their music as Nuevo-flamenco-folk-rock-instrumental, I’m not sure it can be clearly labeled, other than Jose Feliciano meets Metallica. They are concise, melodic, quick-fingered, energetic, aggressive, and a hell of a lot of fun. When Rodrigo inquired if there were any metal heads in the audience, I knew we were in for a hip-swaying-head-banging evening. Again, with no set list, they took requests from the audience, playing Metallica’s Orion and segueing into Battery. Within a lengthier solo, they tucked in refrains of Stairway to Heaven, and Rodrigo even performed and sang Radiohead’s Creep, again, at the request of an audience member. Soon, the audience was standing, dancing, throwing the goat, head banging, clapping, and completely fueled by their frenetic playing on stage. (Performing Hanuman in 2010)

When it was her turn to engage the audience while Rodrigo took a break, Gabriela spoke truth when she said she was “the drummer of the band.” Throughout the night, I was mesmerized by the shapeshifting of her hand beating against the body of the guitar, her hand  at times appearing deformed or fingerless beneath the red hue of the lights. I recalled reading an article about how they’d had to take a hiatus due to stress fractures in her hand and the how and why of that hiatus became evident. She utilized every part of her guitar, swinging her long black hair over the frets, reminiscent of adolescent boys at a Megadeth concert. She blew me away. Their long relationship and musical partnership was evident in how they read one another as they played, with one look or quick movement they would shift into a different song, stop, or turn up the intensity. Simpatico. They are an act you hope never leaves the stage. True to their hard rock influence, they exited as ACDC’s For Those About to Rock blasted through the speakers.

As we stepped out into the humid night, still reeling from the show, I thought about the similarities between the two concerts. Two couples, two guitars. Simple stage set up. No tour. No set lists. Familiarity. A shared secret of rhythm and song between each couple. Musically different, captivatingly the same. There was even dancing. Gillian Welch performed a little hambone/clogging during Six White Horses. And, while it wasn’t Rodrigo Y Gabriela, their opening act, a local Kansas City band Making Movies, featured their percussionist dancing a traditional sones de tarima, where a dancer performs atop a wooden pallet or crate, amplifying the sounds of their feet. The dance pushes itself into the beating of your heart, increasing the pulse of the music, which was definitely experienced in both performances.

Two nights, two cities, two couples, two guitars, and two old theaters. A weekend long to remember.

No Place Like Local

I was a little ambitious when I thought I would post on a semi-daily basis regarding all Wichita has to offer when it comes to local businesses. My excuse is that I was so busy experiencing this abundance of goodness, I didn’t have time to write! But, since I’ve promised many family, friends, and even my staff, that I would direct them to local establishments, I thought I should make good on those ICT promises.

In the past two weeks, my husband and I have put our hard-earned dollars back into our community by shopping for groceries at the Kansas Grown Farmers Market, The Spice Merchant, and the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop. Plus, we’ve enjoyed a few on-the-go meals at favorites like TJ’s Burger House, The Anchor, Picasso’s Pizza, Hungry Heart and T.O.P.S. And, I’ve kicked off a few mornings with a delicious sugar rush from Juarez Bakery and The Donut Whole. As for local watering holes, we’ve enjoyed the recently opened Hopping Gnome and were fortunate to attend a soft opening for Central Standard Brewing Company.

The choices we Wichitans have when it comes to dining out or meeting for a few drinks is nothing short of amazing. There is no reliance on big chains for sustenance and conversation over ales, not with the bounty of local businesses offering unique, tasty, and somewhat addictive fare. Since I could dedicate an entire post to each of the establishments listed above, I decided to break it down in a simple, descriptive paragraph for a few. If you need more, click on the name, as I’ve provided a link to either their website or Facebook page. Then, do yourself a favor and share in the dream.

Kansas Grown Farmers Market: Kansas grown. Need I say more? From farm fresh eggs and blood-red tomatoes to bowls of purple radishes and sweet corn from Gaeddert Farms in Buhler, KS. Open from April to early October.

The Spice Merchant: A Wichita landmark brimming with tubs of coffee beans ready for purchase, an entire room to entice tea drinkers, oodles of kitchen accessories, hard to find spices, snarky magnets and birthday cards. Oh, and incense. Warning: do not plan a brief trip to The Spice Merchant. You will need time to get lost in the aisles and corners. Plan accordingly.

Douglas Avenue Chop Shop: Schane Gross expands her reign as the Matriarch of Multiple Businesses (Hell Bomb Tattoo, The Anchor, Fork & Fennel, and the DACS) with this butcher shop featuring Kansas raised meats and locally grown produce. Currently, we are addicted to the Red Wattle pork chops and bacon wrapped tenderloin. Laid back atmosphere, knowledgeable staff. My favorite Saturday afternoon consists of errands completed, a rewarding beer or two at The Anchor, and meat and cheese from the Chop Shop to take home for a home cooked meal.

Hopping Gnome: “Brewed for the Locals.” Located in the Douglas Design District and owned by Torrey and Stacy Lattin, their ICT tribute craft beers are brewed on the premises in served in full pints or samplers. Front window seating is great for people watching. But, probably avoid if you have a phobia of gnomes. My heart belongs to the barrel-hopping gnome logo and the Earl of ESB.

TJ’s Burger House: Delano District. While I’m not a fan of the 1950s décor, the burgers are scrumptious. Big, beefy, ruin-the-red-and-white-sandwich-paper-they-came-in greasy and messy. Cheeseburgers are my weakness. My last meal better be the mushroom Swiss burger from TJ’s.

TJs burgerhouse

T.O.P.S (Taste of Philadelphia Style) Steaks and Hoagies: Owned by local general contractor, Bernard Knowles, and located in a small plaza just west of Grove and 21st Street, T.O.P.S is a must-visit. I do not profess to know what makes a cheesesteak an original or Philadelphia style, but I do know a great sandwich when I taste one. Cooked on a grill located behind the storefront window, you watch as the meat is skillfully browned along with the peppers and onions, the white cheese added, then piled into a hoagie bun that perfectly retains the drippings. The place is very small, but the sandwiches, wrapped carefully in sandwich paper, foil and bagged, travel well to their destination.

The Donut Whole: Cool, inventive, and resourceful Kansas proud owners; creatively, quirky and delectable donuts; an adult space to enjoy live music, poetry readings, retro films, and celebrate turning in your thesis (okay, that last one might be solely me, but I remember the afternoon very well and maple bacon donuts can spur the memory with one bite). Oh, and the wildest, entertainiest, funnest, birthday bashes, ever. I enjoy their birthday bazzazzle so much, I made up a word to describe it. The Donut Whole does that to you.

Juarez Bakery: Go. Delight in the wall of breads and pastries. Grab a pink tray and silver tongs and pile to your heart’s content. Their conchas are the closest to my mother’s homemade Mexican sweet bread I can find. One bite and I’m a little girl sitting at the kitchen table dunking pieces of my bread into Mexican hot chocolate, the sugary topping crumbling into the cocoa, the sopping bread melting on my tongue like a communion wafer.

Wow. Where was I? Oh yes, local establishments. Those are just a few of what Wichita has to offer. I will warn you, so many choices make for sometimes strenuous decision-making on where to dine or stop for a cold beer. But, I’d rather fuss for a few minutes over whether to grab a large slice of The Kansan or The Kitchen Sink at Picasso’s Pizzeria or salmon sliders at The Hungry Heart then not have any local choices, at all.

Thank you, local ICT business owners. You make it easy to advocate for this hometown of mine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.