Emerging from the stare of the chicken

Jenny's sweet Lincoln by Jenny Pierson.

Jenny’s sweet Lincoln.

Sit down, open a vein, and a couple hours later walk out with a 20- or 30-page novella that a panel of thoughtful experts will comb through to judge your scholarly worth.

At least that’s how an academically weary doctoral student described the comprehensive exam experience as we sat in a classroom one floor above the watchful bust of Walter Williams.

Stuff your brain with research data, compile a stack of notecards with names, theories and facts connected to whatever it is you’ve spent the last few years keyword searching in academic journals. And then unleash it.

Of all the heady stuff that bounced around the room during that methods class, the thing that sticks with me the most is the anxiety we get to enjoy while anticipating comps.

Now, I sit 95 miles from the stony gaze of Mr. Williams, and I open a vein. Not to expel exam anxieties or anxieties about methods courses and doctoral seminars to come. No, something happened at the end of my summer break – something that compelled me back to this column after almost a year.

My wife and I reconnected with some old friends on the outskirts of tourist-choked Branson. Just being around them reminded me how satisfying it is to make art.

For me, writing is like sculpting. You mold paragraphs, chisel away flabby passages, delete words and add back what you hope is good stuff.

Jenny and Angi inside RockBottom Studios

Jenny and Angi inside RockBottom Studios

Anyway, Jenny and Olof Pierson are two working class artists who make you want to get creative. You look around at all of the good work they’ve done and you wonder what the heck you are waiting for. When they aren’t making art or helping others make art, the Piersons are building or remodeling or being cool parents of really creative children.

After we left, I thought of all the excuses I made for not writing anything besides academic papers, grocery lists and sticky notes to myself. Well, there’s no excuse for inaction. If you are not working on something creative, you are simply existing. And that’s not living.

This summer, we certainly lived it up. But we needed a change of pace after a few days of living next to the unblinking stare of a giant chicken that guards the entrance to a family restaurant, illuminated by the billboards and theaters for Baldknobbers and countless other comedic and country gospel singing sensations.

So, we found a nice pebble beach, swam in cool, clear water and then found our friends and met a few new ones.

Branson is fine, but on the other side of the tracks is this peaceful little place called Kimberling City. You can breathe there and look out at Table Rock Lake and not wonder when you will be able to make that left turn so you can make it to the show on time.

And Jenny and Olof brave Silver Dollar City traffic to call that peaceful little place home. Back in Branson, they ponder the future of public art from their new gallery, RockBottom Studios, next door to a massive outdoor shopping mall called the Landing where a fountain synchs fire and water to “Moondance” as fog rolls off the frigid waters of Lake Taneycomo.

In the meantime, they contemplate ways to lure anyone who appreciates art to the cool basement space they remodeled into an art gallery and social club. Their kids and skateboarders and other folks from the community paint and congregate in the main gallery surrounded by serious, some seriously expensive and some seriously inexpensive, original artwork.

So, here I am 160 miles from Kimberling City, wondering what’s new at RockBottom Studios, creating something new during the last weekend before classes begin.

I’m still getting used to the overwhelming feeling of meeting new students, reuniting with old students, hearing their success stories and having my heart broken by watching others drift away.

Art is an anxiety killer. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience a touch of it while making this, but who cares? That’s just part of the process.

Let’s make stuff.

By Jennifer Pierson

By Jennifer Pierson

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The art of looking back

It’s that time of year when you start to see all of those “year-in-review” stories on the front page of the newspaper.

Most small town papers do it because recapping the year fills space. Remembering the “big news” of the year, we’re reminded of the highs and lows, of tragedy and victory.

And you can insert your own cliché here.

Like I said, rerunning stories fills space. That’s all it does. There’s no other reason for it.

The readers are none the wiser or richer. Our community doesn’t rally behind old news. Those stories, if they are reread at all, don’t make us feel anything. They don’t inspire action, outrage or satisfaction.

The blocks of words are just cold column inches.

But the folks who put the paper together (and I’ve been there) will justify this tradition by telling you this is a slow time of the year for news. There isn’t much on the council’s agenda. The boards are wishing one another happy holidays. The budgets are behind us. Winter break is upon us at the university, and public schools are about to let out.

The news is yawning and ready for a nap.

I always thought that was such a load of crap.

There are stories all around us, stories that will never be told because we’re too busy recapping, rehashing and reliving.

Instead of digging into the top stories of the year and working on follow-up stories, it’s easier to treat stories like sentences – something that ends with a period.

But the stories we write never have a clear beginning or ending. We try to find a logical place to begin so the reader understands where we’re going, and then we try to end gracefully if possible.

But the people in the story do not become frozen in time after we punctuate the last sentence in the story.

William Woo said journalism is a public trust. It’s more than simply being in the information business and it’s more than supplying the news. It’s certainly more than just filling space.

The public trust is served when we tell our stories and when we tell it plainly.

The public trust is served when we continue to ask questions and tell the story that lies beneath the surface.

The public trust is served when we write about the poor and the homeless throughout the year and not just during the holidays.

Let’s talk about health care navigators and people buying health insurance. We can talk about a clunky piece of legislation, but it’s high time to talk about what we can do about it.

Let’s talk about crime and the work of law enforcement — the positive and the negative. Let’s talk about safety and defending yourselves.

I’m not saying we should never look back. Journalists should always look back. When we do, we should do it because we’re telling another story about where we’re going.

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Put people first

I teach young men and women how to be journalists.

It’s a strange thing for me to think about because it’s not something I ever wanted to do.

I just wanted to report and write.

But things change. And here I am, telling young men and women to snap out of this inverted pyramid sleepwalk.

But let me back up a minute. A speaker at a recent Associated Press conference addressed a room full of pros about how to write enterprise stories.

Jack Lessenberry admonished us to put people first.

“Unless you want to start working for a living,” he said.

Indeed. People first.

You hear that? Unless you want to start working for a living, how about we look at the world like a person?

It’s funny how we have to constantly remind ourselves about this simple fact.

The stories we write, the tales we tell, each one touches a person in some fashion. So, how about this? Instead of running the news release and moving on, let’s take a closer look.

Last April, for example, our student publication received a news release from the police that officers shot and killed a man named Beau Appleton as they served a search warrant on his home.

There were few details because the investigation was ongoing, both regarding the original case and into the shooting.

Months passed, but I refused to allow our student reporters to let the story die.

What happened? What did the police find?

Today, the efforts of our Sunshine Law requests for reports paid off and we published more details about the raid.

Police kicked in his door, tossed flashbang grenades inside and entered. Beau shot at the police with a double-barreled shotgun and the police shot him dead. His wife was on a bed between him and the police. His two teenaged daughters were in adjacent rooms.

Apparently they found a little baggie of pot.

There are still plenty of unanswered questions. Will our readers ever get to know who this guy was as a person? Or will they only know him as the guy on the east side of town where the houses are small and unadorned as the person who shot at police after they broke down his front door?

Will we ever know why the police chose this tactic while the man’s family was home? Can a person hear someone yelling at them to put their gun down after experiencing a flashbang grenade?

It begs the question, wouldn’t it seem probable that a suspected drug dealer who is known to have guns would shoot at someone who breaks down his front door?

Drug dealers tend to deal with scallywags who are known to break into places to steal things like other people’s drugs, money and guns.

How and why the police decided to do what they did is irrelevant now. Obviously they had their reasons.

We should trust the police. We should be able to trust people in authority.

But journalists must hold them accountable. It’s a harrowing task to question authority, but it’s an important job.

Believe it or not, it takes hard work and persistence to find the truth or at least a clearer picture that lurks behind a sterile, impersonal news release.

Put people first.

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Something about the economy, Egypt and education

The president is the tiny man getting mugged by all those movers and shakers while a vulture-like press corps looms above.

The president is the tiny man somewhere in the middle getting mugged by all those movers and shakers while a vulture-like press corps looms above.

The president’s team shook the trees and Warrensburg plopped to the ground.

“I’ve asked my team to shake the trees all across the country for some of the best ideas out there for keeping college costs down, so that as students prepare to go back to school I’m in a position to lay out what is going to be an aggressive strategy to shake up the system to make sure that middle class students, working class students, poor kids who have the drive and wherewithal and want to get a good college education, they can get it without basically mortgaging their entire future,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday to a crowd of – well I understand 1,400 tickets were given away – people in a UCM gymnasium where the mercury must have topped 90 degrees.

And so, after all the shaking came the planning as White House staffers called newsrooms with a detailed agenda:

“Hey, the president wants to visit the university in Warrensburg.”

“OK, how come?” says the editor.

“Something about the economy.”

“Sounds good. Hey, Sally, go cover the president at the university in Warrensburg.”


“Warrensburg. You know, they got that dog on the courthouse lawn.”

“Oh, sure, sure. What’s the topic?”

“Something about the economy.”

The patriotic bunting was unfurled on porch railings. Flags and flag-decorated balloons lined Holden and Pine streets. The Highway Patrol locked down DD Highway, and just about every piece of heavy machinery from Warrensburg public works blocked the sidewalks into the campus quad.

A voracious line of nine, wait, 16…hang on, someone said more showed up later…protestors queued up along the “free speech zone” by the amphitheater along Holden Street.

A man dressed in a black T-shirt with the word “Infidel” below some Arabic writing walked around carrying a sign that said “Illegal Prez,” or was it the sign that said “Egypt Got it Right.” No, I think it was the sign that said “Impeach Obama.”

I asked the guy who held aloft the “Egypt Got it Right” sign how Egypt got it right. He said they overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.

“So, you think we should resort to violence?” I asked.

“Well no.”

But he insisted that we must overthrow our elected leader.

I asked him how it’s going in Egypt.

“It’s unstable,” he said.

But Egypt got it right.

Who wants a president who can fly into town, complain about an obstructionist Congress and then lay out a nebulous plan that targets our children?

Our children!

He actually thinks it’s OK that the university allows a public school district to train youngsters in high-tech gadgetry, get an internship at a high-tech firm and use that money to pay for a bachelor’s degree in two years.

Health insurance! Whatever Obama! I eat dirt like all good Americans. It’s full of minerals and that healthy bacteria stuff.

“But we have to get back our focus on what’s important,” Mr. Obama said. “An endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals can’t get in the way of what we need to do.”

Nothing phony about that IRS scandal. Some guy in a trucker hat with a deer inside crosshairs that says “The buck stops here” told me you ordered that scandal.

And you think helping kids get a high-tech education is what’s important? Hey, we got the vo-tech. Leave that electronic wizardry to the Yu-Gi-Oh losers at the comic book shop.

“I’m not going to allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in this country’s way,” he said. “Where I can act on my own, I’m going to. I’m not going to wait for Congress.”

Whoa there! You mean as hard as the Republicans try to block, you think you can still do stuff?

Invest in education. Invest in manufacturing. Invest in science and research. Invest in transportation. Invest in information systems.

Great, more spending.

Let the bridges fall. That creates jobs right there.

You just wait, buster. Pretty soon I’m going to coin another catchy slogan to snub you but good.

“If you think education is expensive, you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st century.”

Hey, what? Wait a second.

Alright, fine.


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Ernie Pyle vs. The Usual Suspects

ernie_pyle2Tucked somewhere between the panzer uniforms studded with death skulls and the wooden shoe mine display is a two-panel tribute to a journalist.

It’s not the sexiest display, and it has little direct relation to the museum’s namesake, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Ernie Pyle, the Soldiers’ Reporter, has his own place inside the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan.

I once had a crusty editor at the newspaper where I worked who bristled at stories filled with “the usual suspects.” It was infuriating for him to read the stilted government-speak of these talking heads.

“Goddammit, talk to some real people,” he’d say.

That’s a lesson I carry over to my students – tell readers what regular people are doing. Tell us how they feel and how they are affected.

That’s what Ernie Pyle did. He cared little for the generals, the officers, the diplomats, the presidents and the prime ministers.

He traveled with the soldiers, dodged the same bullets and told their stories. So, maybe that’s where he fits into this museum dedicated to one of the world’s greatest talking heads.

Ernie Pyle was there to experience the decisions made by generals and presidents and prime ministers.

One of the two panels reprinted a column that Pyle wrote about soldiers mourning the loss of an officer while fighting in Italy. He won a Pulitzer Prize for these columns.

This is a well-known column about the death of Captain Waskow, which the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana, Ind., and the Scripps Howard Foundation make available for reprinting from time to time. It’s plainly written and stark, yet there’s this sensitivity that permeates the whole column.

“Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:

“I sure am sorry, sir.”

We didn’t plan this trip to the Eisenhower library and museum on Sunday. It just sort of happened. And I’m glad we went. Experiencing a piece of Ernie Pyle outside of a textbook and classroom was quite thrilling.

And experiencing Eisenhower in the same fashion was just as exciting. As we made our way into a modest theater to view a historical film about Ike, I couldn’t help but reflect how fitting our visit was on the eve of Memorial Day.

What an excellent way to honor the day.

We all need these historical reminders. Ike was an interesting man – the kind of Republican anyone could get behind. He was truly a forward thinker, a global leader and a remarkable ambassador for peace.

Ike may have ripped off R. Buckminster Fuller in his April 16, 1953 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors when he said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

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Hay Ball and a Smile

Michael Shaughnessy and his hay ball in the rain at the Expressways.

He leaned into the engine compartment, the rain misting and blowing like a giant, continuous raspberry from the sky, and he checked the oil as a perfectly round, woven ball of hay sat fixed to the roof of his Toyota Yaris.

“Excuse me, sir. What’s the story with the hay,” I asked, ranging over from my gas pump at the Expressways at 13 Highway and Business 50.

“It’s an art project but also a roadside attraction that travels,” said Michael Shaughnessy, throwing away the oily paper towel and returning to graciously talk about his adventure.

I thought maybe he was on his way to feed some spoiled heifers or maybe he was delivering yard art to a friend out in the country.

This was an installation at Lehman College.

No, turns out Mr. Shaughnessy is a serious artist from Portland, Maine. And he’s driving his woven hay ball across the country. He made a brief stop in Warrensburg Friday on his way to Kansas City. And he’s headed to Portland, Ore., documenting his encounters and trading photos with curious people like myself.

“OK, look at the hay ball…smile!”

Mr. Shaughnessy is quite pleasant and our brief visit was nice. But it wasn’t until I lurked on his website when I felt the gravity of this guy. And that’s when I recalled seeing one of his installations at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City years ago – some massive woven hay installation.

“We don’t have enough wonders in the world and things that just make people smile,” Mr. Shaughnessy said.

He’s shown his work all over the place, from the Lehman Art Gallery in the Bronx, New York, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Kansas City and the University of Missouri in Columbia.

This one was part of a Bates College Museum of Art installation.

“For many years my work has involved the sculptural use of hay. As a grass it is a material that is familiar and accessible. It is used across cultures and it carries a depth of history and associations. It is seasonally based and regenerative, according to the artist’s statement on his website.

“Formally, my works embrace multiple aesthetic sensibilities ranging from minimalism to intuitive abstraction. It is highly social with a strong populist concern. It values artisanship and common and collaborative labor. By virtue of its material, its handling and forms it resonates with social/political and environmental associations and concerns.”

So, yes, his excursion across America is part traveling art exhibit and part social experiment. And it worked. On me at least.

That ball of hay pulled me from the daze of a long day staring at a screen, meetings and all-pervasive thoughts of “What next.” And, yeah, I may have smiled, too.

Go lurk for yourself: www.thehayball.com.


A Good Day to Battle


The soldier lay dying. He clutched at his canteen for a drink and the water spilled down his chin. He let it go and tried pushing himself up but slumped back down. He reached up, his hand clenching into a claw and it began to twitch.

“Hey Mark, are you dead or wounded?”

My son looked up at me as soon as he heard the question, and we both laughed as the guns exploded and men in impeccable period costume reenacted the Battle of Lone Jack.

Smoke from canons and black powder guns wafted over the battlefield Sunday as hundreds of people in colorful and comfortable summer clothes safely watched from behind a roped-off perimeter as men in drab gray and blue wool uniforms blasted one another.

August 16 marked the 150th anniversary of this terrible battle, and the Lone Jack Historical Society put together an unbelievable weekend to commemorate the event. There were reenactments on Saturday and Sunday, along with a candlelight tour of the old farmhouse near where Confederates conspired to take on the Missouri militia men who just rode into town from Lexington.

The battle actually took place in the middle of town. The reenactment was moved to the old farmhouse a bus ride away down U.S. 50. The owner of the house, Steve Brown, told multiple groups of people who filed into the house after the reenactment that it was built in 1882 by James Washington Noel, whose grandson lives at John Knox Village.

The house was temporarily named “Cave House” for the hotel where Union Major Emory S. Foster set up his headquarters. A yellow flag was hung outside, as it was Sunday, to designate the hotel as a field hospital.

Foster, you see, arrived in town the previous night, blasting away at a Confederate camp and inspiring Col. Vard Cockrell and his rebel buddies to take it to the militia early the next morning. Well, both sides tore each other apart – literally. After the ammo was gone, they used their hands to kill one another.

My boys and I arrived just in time to catch the next-to-last bus to the reenactment. I hustled to find the ticket table and immediately recognized the lady making announcements over a PA system. It was my old friend from Lee’s Summit, Kathy Smith. Kathy is one of the coolest people on the planet. And I realized as soon as I saw her that I missed her terribly. We only chatted briefly, but as my sons and I walked away she made an announcement that Matt Bird-Meyer, former Lee’s Summit Tribune editor, was there. Then she announced a Lee’s Summit councilman was also there.

Kathy is so cool.

Anyway, we made it to the reenactment site and watched the action with the mayor of Lee’s Summit, Mayor Randy Rhoads. I know, probably the coolest name for a mayor ever.

The battle was good, but the Confederates chased the state militia away, again. It was impressive to see the amount of detail that went into the battle, from the uniforms to the bits of action. The only thing missing was the hand-to-hand combat.

They dropped the ropes after the battle and allowed the spectators onto the battlefield, the ground littered with spent black powder paper packages. We mingled with the troops, gawked at the guns and artillery. I jumped in line to go into the old farmhouse. Meanwhile, my boys scoured the grounds and came back with handfuls of caps and even a paper package still full of black powder.

It was a fantastic way to spend a Sunday. The sky was brilliant blue with big, puffy clouds. The action was exciting and the occasion was historic. I was happy to reflect on its significance with my boys, even if they were more interested in the guns and the old stuff.

The retreating militia takes its final shots.

It was all rather loud.

This young man helped run the artillery.

And lots of folks gathered around.

The “Cave House.” The real house was in town and was the home of Bartlett and Lucinda Cave, who ran a hotel until it was burned during the battle.

The guy with the bandaged head admonished the man with the white beard that “No one talks about my mother like that!” Maybe a little stranger than asking a fellow soldier if he’s dead or wounded.









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