Archived Oleander commentaries, March 2008, back to February 2002

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on April 3, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on March 28, 2008.

Martha Peet Wore Flowers

Folks, Here, Kansas, was blessed with Martha Peet, who every day of her life wore a flower.  She grew up in There Country, where her mother grew every flower possible in the hot, dry climate of Kansas.  She knew the name of every bloom.  When she walked our streets, we noted her comings and goings.  “There’s Martha,” we’d say.   We knew it was Monday, because that was the day she wore blue: an iris in the spring, an aster in the fall.  Sunday was always a white lily.  Each day of the week was a different color, and a different flower.  Some days we had to ask her the name of the flower she wore.  Most of them she grew herself.  During the winter, they were delivered to her from Wichita.  We did not know why she insisted on her custom, at what must have been some expense.

When her husband Fred was alive, he called her his flower, and often wore her on his arm.  And why not?  She was a small woman, slender as a stalk, but strong.  Her face was radiant, glowing pink as any soft rose.  She raised her children with the same love, care and attention she gave to her flower garden, which was modeled after her own mother’s.  Her garden attracted all of us of an evening walk.  When our kids came back to Here to visit, they’d soon slip out to pass the Peet house, where the whole yard was a bed of flowers, something always in bloom.  Nobody could imagine her effort to create such beauty, but she was always outside, as though she, too, needed sunlight to bloom.
When her husband died, Martha gardened less.  But she still wore the beauty she’d accustomed us to, and instead of walking by her place we walked by her when she was out, blessing our streets with her radiance.  When Martha Peet died, we’d never seen such flowers.  Everyone tried to give back to her what she’d given.  I was nearly overwhelmed at the door of the There Funeral Home by the scent alone.  When I walked in out of a grey day, I felt like Dorothy opening the door of her tornado-swept Kansas house to find herself in Munchkin Land, such was the full Technicolor of flowers.  As we left the service, we did not yet know how much we would miss her flowers.
We also did not know that Martha was a drier of flowers.  Each day she pressed into a book the wilting flower that had spent that day pinned to her hat, or her bosom, or just carried along with her purse.  The daily blossom marred the texts of the volumes of There County histories her father published.  Therein, the portraits of the founders of the county were streaked by yarrow lace, creating jaundiced faces.  Her Bible stored the miracles of roses, dahlia, and lilies

Even her diary, her son discovered when he came to close up the house, was not the language and story of the past, but a journal of days spent carrying beauty.  And what was her past anyway?  It was something that grew each day as she tucked away the flower.  Her son showed us the withered flowers—stamen, pistil, petal.  We breathed in dust, but we smelled honeysuckle, jasmine, rose.  We smelled Martha Peet.

Listen to this commentary via Kansas Public Radio.

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 5, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on March 14, 2008:

Purple Prose

             Folks, Mabel Beemer, the best gardener in Here, Kansas, came into the Co-op last month with a stack of seed catalogues.  “I know what to celebrate, and I know how to celebrate it!” she announced. None of us interrupted our sips of nickel coffee to ask what she meant.  We already knew what she was celebrating.  You know how some people just will not let something go? We watched Mabel thumb through her catalogues, preparing, as she does each spring, for the garden she will soon plant—some seeds outdoors after danger of first frost, some in the egg cartons she uses for flats, to sprout on her sun porch.  While she thumbed, she hummed the K-State fight song.

I couldn’t help myself.  I hummed “I’m a Jay, Jay, Jay, Jay Jayhawk.”

“Doesn’t this look nice?” she interrupted me.  She pointed to a heritage plant, the Purple Cherokee tomato.

“Just perfect for your Willie Wildcat,” I said.

“My whole garden will be purple,” said Mabel.  “Do you see these purple potatoes, this royal kohlrabi?  How better to celebrate . . .”

“Isn’t it a little sad,” I interrupted, “when all you have to celebrate is the snap of a 24-game losing streak at Bramlage?”

Mabel went back to her seed catalogues. “Isn’t it sad when you get so old you can’t celebrate the future?” she asked.

Folks, planning a garden is planning a future.  Whether planting a purple garden will help the future of a basketball program, I can’t say.  But Mabel did not tire of circling ruby chard, purple cabbage, beets, radishes, radicchio, turnips and red onions.  Seems everything called red is actually purple.  “And those are just for my spring garden,” she said.  “See what I can start in my flats.  She pointed to pictures of purple basil, purple snap beans, red and purple chiles, amaranth, eggplant.

“And you already have grapes,” I pointed out.  “I’ve seen your hands stained purple with juice, as though you were bleeding purple.”

“Would you like a turn with the catalogues?” she asked.  “You could plant a red and blue garden.

“Blueberries don’t grow in Kansas,” I said, “and I can’t think of any other blue foods.”

“So your garden won’t celebrate your Jayhawks.”

Folks, I opened my mouth for a huge yawn.  “When you’re a Jayhawk, you get tired of celebrating,” I said.  “You almost get tired of winning.  Kind of nice when the Wildcats stir up a little defeat.”

“Do you get tired of eating?” asked Mabel.  “Because next fall, when K-State beats KU in football, my garden will be ripe.  You and Iola can come over for borscht, followed by a basil, radish and purple chile salad.  Main course—a Wildcat ratatouille of eggplant, purple tomatoes, beans and red onions.  Served with grape juice.”

“I’ll put it on the calendar,” I said.  “And I’ll bring blueberries for dessert, just in case.”


The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on February 29, 2008, and published in the Topeka Metro News on the same day:

The End of Winter, The Call to Spring

            Folks, these grey days at the end of a grey month are deceptive.  If you go out in your garden, you’ll see little hints of green, ready to thrust themselves skyward when they feel the change in the air that announces spring.  Even we old Hereins, gathered at the Co-op, may have grey hair and grey beards, but we’re ready for a change.
            Seems like the country might be, too.  Everywhere I look, folks are waking up.  We had a caucus at the Neither Here nor There Consolidated School.  All eighty-seven Democrats showed up.  The older the Democrat, the more likely to stand for Hillary—that was seventeen of them in their nineties.  The younger folks, Hereins and Thereins in their sixties, seventies and eighties, stood for Obama.  There County went about like the rest of the state.  We are ready for a change.
            Of course what people want and what they get can be different.  Take the coal-fired plants near Holcomb that will pollute not only Kansas, but the entire region.  The Department of Health and Environment wanted to go green, so they said no to the expansion.  At first, a poll said that the majority of Kansans agreed with this green decision.  But the legislature, in its grey-haired wisdom, is working toward not only approving the expansion, but without any caps on the pollution it will spew.  They don’t see why the state should have a higher standard than the federal government does.  Of course it turns out the federal government has no standard at all.  If they can’t get a veto-proof vote, our green governor will win in her opposition.
            When California, another green place, decided to limit carbon emissions, the federal government took them to court.  So green governors meet the grey of the Bush administration, which will keep skies as grey as February until next January.
            Folks, from where I sit in the Here, Kansas, Co-op, it looks like the Republicans might well nominate John McCain as their candidate for President.  If so, he’ll be the oldest candidate, as grey as the last day of February in a leap year, ever to run for the office.  He has had a long and distinguished career in the United States Senate, and I wish him well.  But his mind is overcast with the hunched brow of militarism.  He will be clouded by his, “Bomb, bomb, bomb.  Bomb, bomb Iran.”  He will wander through the mist of Republican fiscal policy that has created what some are ready to call a recession.  In this election year, it will be: Iraq, stupid.  Health care, stupid.  And, of course, the economy, stupid.  I don’t know who the Democrats will nominate.  But after eight years of George W. Bush, their policies will try for the new, for the green.
Folks, I have a suggestion.  Instead of Red States and Blue States, why doesn’t the media do Green States and Grey States?  At no time that I can remember is the future more important.  I’m looking for the green among the grey, in my garden and in this country.  This year, I’m hoping Kansas, with the example of its green Governor, would be a green state.  Happy Spring!


The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on August 31, 2007, and published in the Topeka Metro News on the same day:

Oleander on Air Fresheners

     Well, I walked into the Co-op after my vacation to find a lilac air freshener in an electric outlet only a few feet from the table where I drink my nickel cups of coffee and hold forth as Honorary Mayor of Here.  “When did this happen?” I asked Claude.
     “Mabel Beemer plugged that in, just last week,” he said.
     Folks, I have no power to tell Mabel what she should smell, but that lilac was awfully strong.  “And you let her?” I asked Claude.
     “Don’t take offense, William,” he said, “but maybe she likes the smell of lilac better than ...” he trailed off.
     “Better than what?” I asked.
     “Depends,” he said.
     “Depends on what?” I asked.
     “Depends,” he said flatly.
     “Okay, okay,” I said.  “I take no offense.  But that smell, stronger than any flower, plugged into an electric outlet, isn’t much better.”
     “I agree,” said Claude.  He sat down next to me.  “We used to live with smells, didn’t we?  Honest smells.”
     Folks, I miss those smells.  Used to be a person could sit in the Co-op blindfolded and know who had just walked in the door.  When Claude pumped gas, that thin acrid odor lived in his clothing.  Barney Barnhill, of the Demolition Derby Museum, always carried rags stained black with the redolence of thick, musty oil and transmission fluid.  Old “Bill of Rights” Liedicker, the last of us to quit smoking, wafted Albert in a can, a thick tinny richness that made us envy him.  Mabel Beemer smelled of the rose sachet she safety-pinned to her purse, except during canning season, when she could hardly wash the pungent smell of tomato vines from her hands.  Iola Humboldt favored talcum powder.  Elmer Peterson of the Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash was a walking whiff of the iron of an old vitamin.  And me?  “William,” Claude said, “on a good day you smelled of fresh cut hay.  On the weekends, more like a tackle box.”
     “I could bring my old tackle box,” I suggested, “put it next to my chair.  Counteract that nuclear lilac bush plugged in over there.”
     “Nope,” said Claude, “or we’d have everyone competing for how this place smells.”
     “And what’d be wrong with that?” I asked.
     “My Matilda would catch wind of it,” he said.
     “Her favorite smell is liver and onions.”
     “That stinks,” I said.
     “Enough to keep it at home,” he said.  “Sit down.  I’ll make you a fresh cup of coffee.”
     “That’d smell nice,” I said, happy to be back from vacation.

To listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives, follow this link and click on Fragrant Familiarity.

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on June 22, 2007, and published in the Topeka Metro News on June 8, 2007:


            Well, folks, Iola Humboldt handed me the phone, so I put down the newspaper for a polite, “Hello.”  Seems it was a call from the State Troopers.  “You’re not in any trouble,” a young man reassured me with one of those half chuckles, half sneers that must have been part of his script.  I hate that implied intimidation.
            “Have you heard of the new law?” he asked.  “The one that requires you to move to the outside lane when you pass a State Trooper stopped at the side of the road?”
            “I have,” I said.
            “And isn’t that just common sense?” he asked.
            “It is,” I said.
            “It’s going to save lives.  And the life of a trooper is very important, wouldn’t you say?”  I didn’t answer because I didn’t think he expected me to.  But his script required me to say something.  “Mr. Oleander?” he asked.
            “Common sense,” I said.  “Why, I think they ought to take everything that’s common sense and make a law for it.  When I was a boy, we had an ordinance against public spitting.  And it’s common sense not to litter, so we have fines.  Common sense not to run out of gas.  Ought to be a law, ‘cause no doubt that wastes Trooper time.  Yes, sir, I’ll move to the other lane just like I did before the law.”
            He told me he’d send a bumper sticker that’d remind people of the new law.  In exchange, he asked, how much money would I donate to the Troopers?
            “Don’t send me a bumper sticker,” I said.  “Last one of those I stuck on my International Harvester truck said, I LIKE IKE, and by the time I scrubbed it off, my fingers were raw.  Didn’t much like IKE by then.  Wouldn’t want to feel that way about the Troopers.”
            “Can I count on you for $25?” he asked.
            “You can’t,” I said, “what with the Social Security not stretching like it used to.  Why,” I told him, “I might just call you tomorrow and get you to raise funds for retired farmers.  We’ll make us a bumper sticker—I  SUPPORT 128 FARMERS AND YOU.”
            “Every little bit helps,” he said, still on script.
            “I’ll say,” I said.  “I saved gas money by not driving yesterday.  I have it in mind to test the minimum speed limit.  Common sense to have a minimum speed.  But will a Trooper pull me over?”
            “I don’t know about that one,” said the young man.  He sighed.  Finally, he was off script.
            “Let’s say a Trooper pulls me over going 35 in a minimum 40.  I’ll roll down my window.  ‘Officer,’ I’ll say.  ‘I’m not in any trouble, am I?’”  Folks, after my little sneering chuckle, I heard the click on the other end of the line.
            “Hang up on you again?” asked Iola Humboldt.
            I nodded.  Folks, I don’t really have anything against the Troopers, the Police, the Firefighters and the rest.  But these are taxpayer services.  If their professional organizations want money from me, they’ll have to go off script.  They should start without intimidation, tell me three good things they do, then let me suggest a contribution amount.  Otherwise, I’ll perfect my rambling until they give up.

To listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives, follow this link and click on Telephone Solicitors.

The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on May 25, 2007, and published in the Topeka Metro News on the same day:

Kansas Trivia

            Folks, we used to have a public radio in Here, Kansas.  Yep, an old Zenith we all chipped in to buy.  Anyone could listen.  Farm reports, country music, talk radio, you name it.  It was a public radio, but it wasn’t public radio.  Especially not the Kansas Public Radio we have now.
            My grandson gave me his old computer when he bought a laptop to take to college.  I donated it to the Co-op, then we chipped in on an Internet connection, and now we stream Kansas Public Radio all the way from Lawrence, Kansas.  Especially on Fridays.  Because we love Kansas trivia.
            We love it so much we’ve started making up daily quizzes for each other because once a week isn’t enough.  Barney Barnhill, of the Demolition Derby Museum, asked us what town boasts the Walter P. Chrysler Boyhood Home and Museum.  Elmer Peterson, of the Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash wanted to know in what Kansas town Mentholatum was  invented.  Mabel Beemer, our best gardener, made us name the town near where George Washington Carver established a land claim in 1886.
Of course, if we have Internet to stream KPR, we can also search that same Internet when we’re stumped.  Chrysler’s home town is Ellis.  Mentholatum was invented in Wichita.  Carver farmed near Beeler.
            We like complicated trivia, too.  Last week, I gave them a stumper, seven questions, with eight answers.  “Listen up,” I said.  “Because if you take the first letters of the eight answers, you’ll have the letters that spell a state whose official state song spells out their state name.
             “OK,” I said, “are you ready?”
“Yep,” they all said.
“O …K …,” I repeated, giving them a hint.  And now the trivia questions:
* Name two importance industries in Kansas that both start with the same letter.
* Name the Kansas State insect.
* Name the first official Kansas State March, composed in 1935 by Duff E. Middleton.
* Name the title of the poem that later became “Home on the Range.”
* Name the Kansas folk song about a bachelor stuck “out west in the county of ­­____?"
* Give me the first name of the first woman, a Kansan, to fly over the Sea of China.
* Name the candy bar, invented in 1919 in Arkansas City’s Peerless Candy Factory, that was later sold to Curtiss Candy of Chicago, which gave it a permanent name and home.
            Folks, my quiz sent the Hereins to the Internet.  I hoped it would occupy our time for several days.  But those old folks pushed each other out of the way for turns at Google.  Solved the quiz in less than an hour.  Yep, they did OK.
            If you think you’re so smart, you can solve my Kansas trivia and send the answer to the e-mail address of a certain professor at Washburn University.  Why not prove you’re as educated as the old folks in the Here, Kansas, Co-op?  Or at least just as trivial?
And your prize?  Well, same as at the Co-op.  Bragging rights.

To listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives, follow this link and click on WJBO: I like KPR and Kansas Trivia.

The following appeared in the Topeka Metro News, to answer the Kansas Trivia questions above, on June 22, 2007:

Kansas Trivia Answers, Okay?

            Folks, since nobody who reads this paper was as trivial, or as quick, as we Hereins, and since questions deserve answers, I’ll help you out.  Here was the Kansas trivia quiz I gave to those gathered at the Here, Kansas, Co-op a couple of weeks ago: the seven questions, with eight answers.  Remember, I told them, “If you take the first letters of the eight answers, you’ll have the letters that spell a state whose official state song spells out their state name.
             “Okay,” I said, “are you ready?”
1.  Name two important industries in Kansas that both start with the same letter.  I had in mind Agriculture and Aviation—‘cause it sure as heck isn’t art, architecture, or apiaries (that’s bee keeping, if you didn’t know).  Which brings me to the second question:
2.  Name the Kansas State insect.  Answer:  the Honeybee.
3.  Name the first official Kansas State March, composed in 1935 by Duff E. Middleton.  Not many people know this one, even though it’s an official state symbol, and try as hard as some folks did to replace it, the “Kansas March” still lives in the law books, if not in the repertoires of local bands that play in gazebos on hot summer afternoons all over the state.  Remember it this way, the Kansas March follows the Kansas February.
            Okay, for another state symbol:  4.  Name the title of the poem that later became “Home on the Range.”  Folks, this is one of our exciting stories.  “Home on the Range,” which regained popularity in the 1930s when FDR counted it as a favorite, was traced back to the Smith County Pioneer of the 1870s, which first published Dr. Brewster Higley’s “My Western Home.”
Okay, folks, so far we have two As, an H, a K, and an M.    Another song:  5.  Name the Kansas folk song about a bachelor stuck “out west in the county of ­­____?"  The man singing that song of despair on the plains is Frank Baker.  In one of the choruses he laments, “Hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,/ the home of the grasshopper, bedbug and flea./ I’ll sing loud its praises and tell of its fame,/ while I’m starving to death on my government claim.”  That gives us an L.
I’m sorry the next one is a trick question:  6. Give me the first name of the first woman, a Kansan, to fly over the Sea of China.  But folks, you’ve got to get past Amelia Earhart and remember that Osa Johnson, of Safari Museum fame, was also a pilot, and set many “first woman” records.
Finally, we need another O.  Hence, 7. Name the candy bar, invented in 1919 in Arkansas City’s Peerless Candy Factory, that was later sold to Curtiss Candy of Chicago, which gave it a permanent name and home.  Oh, boy, you should have known about Oh, Henry!
            Now, since I’ve led so many sentences with Okay, you’ve probably figured out that the state whose official state song helps spell the state name is Oklahoma, as in the musical.  Osa, Kansas, Lane, Aviation, Honeybee, Oh, My, Agriculture.
            Okay, so it’s only trivia.  But at least it’s Kansas Trivia!  If you know some of it, you’re on your way to owning up to being a Kansan.  If you don’t know it, perhaps you should take a minute, at least memorize the state symbols, or the second verse of “Home on the Range.”  Now there’s a challenge few can rise to, unless they’re Hereins.


The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on April 5, 2007, and published in the Topeka Metro News on March 30, 2007:

Four-Letter Words

But folks, before I begin, let me warn you that I'm exercising my free speech rights, and if you don't like the word "butt," the one with two t's, just turn down the radio for a few minutes.

Why, you might ask, would I want to use my free speech to comment on the word "butt"?

Well, folks, someone has to put his "you know what" on the line. You see, I read about the legislative researcher with the bumper sticker that uses the "f" word in front of the word "war."

And, of course, I read about House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, who objected so strenuously. He was especially concerned about the "ladies" who might see such a word as they walk through the Capitol parking garage on their way to and from work.

Now the word "war," I agree, is an obscenity. Think of what it represents. Especially our current war in Iraq. Have you noticed all the ribbons on cars that purport to support the "troops"? I have yet to see a bumper sticker that says, "Support the Iraq War." People don't like the policy, or the word.

About the "f" word, well, everyone already knows it's so obscene a fellow can't even say it on the radio. But, free speech is free speech, no matter in private or public space, and everyone agrees with that, from the Governor on down.

So what does this have to do with the double-t "butt," as in "kick butt," and "butt head" and "headbutt"? I'll get to that. But first, let an old man gripe. Many of us saw the famous Zidane headbutt in the final game of the World Cup. That was followed by a headbutt in Big 12 play. Okalahoma State University suspended Mario Boggan for the aggressive action.

"Kicking butt" is a phrase once used only by bullies and immature sports fans. Nowadays, a boss is likely to use it to energize his staff in a morning meeting. Folks, the first time my grandson told me about "Beavis and Butthead," I told him to watch his mouth. He said he was watching it on TV.

Politicians on the opposite sides of the aisle once butted heads over legislation. Now, they butt heads over the "f" word when it comes before "war."

But I read it's all over now, and Representative Merrick welcomes the opportunity to get back to a substantive legislative agenda. As he put it: "We get accused that we're not doing anything. We've been working our butt off to get tax cuts done."

Folks, I didn't know the legislature had a collective butt to work off. But if they do, perhaps they should take their collective heads out of it, forget about the "f" word, and, as Merrick said, try "to get policy done."

To listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives, follow this link.


The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on February 27, 2007, and published in the Topeka Metro News on February 16, 2007:

Packing Heat on the Prairie *

Folks, when I walked into the Here, Kansas, Co-op the other day, Claude Anderson came from behind the cash register to greet me. I was stunned. But I remembered that old Mae West line, "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

"Both," said Claude.

"I’m happy to see you," I said. "But not the gun."

We all knew Claude had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He paid his fee, took a safety course, had his background checked. After all that time and money, we knew he’d pack his heat sometime.

But I didn’t realize how much heat he’d create. When Mabel Beemer heard he was carrying a gun, she hand-delivered a note. "Dear Claude, I no longer feel safe at the Co-op. I will shop for incidentals elsewhere."

Elmer Peterson hung a sign - a pistol in a red circle with a line drawn through it, downloaded from the Attorney General’s website - in the Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash window. "If Claude wants his medications," Elmer said, "he’ll do it unarmed."

I looked up the regulations on concealed carry. No guns allowed in government buildings. Well, I am honorary mayor. I do my business at my table in the Co-op. So I downloaded a sign to stick on the wall.

Our other Claude - Hopkins, down at the Mini-Mart - heard about the fuss and put a sign in his window: "SAFE SHOPPING–no guns allowed!"

Then Pierre Small, President of the International DENSA Society, walked into the Co-op with his hands up. "Don’t shoot me," he said to Claude.

"I ain’t going to shoot you. I have a weapon for the same reason as 3,000 other Kansans. So we feel more secure."

"I’ve read up where you can’t carry that gun," Pierre said. "And the DENSA Society has posted signs at the abandoned library, the failed bank, the closed school. Oh, and Mabel sent me one for the Co-op."

"Tell Mabel the Co-op is my business," Claude sputtered.

"She says you’ll have to remove your checkerboard, then," said Pierre, his hands still in the air. "Law says you can’t carry arms at sporting events."

"Oh, for God’s sake," said Claude.

Barney Barnhill walked in. He looked happy to see us, too. He’s among the 3,000. I stood up. "You can’t have a gun in here," I said.


When he instinctively reached for his pocket, I did, too. Took out my pocketknife. "Go ahead, make my day," I said.

He laughed, as I knew he would.

Folks, Mabel's campaign means Claude and Barney can carry their concealed weapons only behind the Co-op counter or at the Demolition Derby museum. At those places, they can feel secure. The rest of us Hereins can feel secure everywhere else.

* This commentary was first place winner in the Nonprofit Radio Editorial/Commentary category, Kansas Association of Broadcasters.

To listen to this commentary via the Kansas Public Radio Archives, follow this link.


The following commentary was aired on Kansas Public Radio on December 6, 2006, and published in the Topeka Metro News on December 27, 2006:

Kansas: The Flyswatter State

                    Folks, just the other day Iola Humboldt had me chase down the last fly in the house. I smashed it against a window pane, and put the flyswatter away until spring.
     Folks, every Kansan should swell with pride, for it's the centennial of the flyswatter. In 1906, Samuel J. Crumbine, Kansas Secretary of Public Health, published his first "Fly Bulletin." He exposed the fly as a germ-carrying spreader of diseases. A public nuisance. In his bulletins, he wrote things like: "The fly is the disseminator of the three D's: Dirt, Diarrhea and Disease; which often result in the three T's: Typhoid, Tuberculosis and Toxins; and which should teach us to cultivate the three C's: Care, Caution and Cleanliness." He even wrote doggerel: "I'm not an orientalist-/ I never wash my feet;/ But every single chance I get/ I walk on what you eat./ Buzz, buzz, busy fly ..."
     Such discourse would not change public habit. Then, one night, at a baseball game, Dr. Crumbine saw a batter hit a high fly ball right over the fence. An excited fan screamed, "Did you see him swat that fly!" Crumbine had found a campaign slogan; he soon beseeched the world to "Swat that Fly!"
     But swatting flies was not easy without a flyswatter. Enter another Kansan, Frank Rose, of Weir City. He and his Boy Scout troop were following Crumbine's advice and helping the good folks of Weir City to screen their windows. Crumbine's motto: "Screens are cheaper than doctor bills." Crumbine had also offered a bounty for dead flies, and to make that easier, the boys nailed small squares of fine-mesh screen to the ends of yard sticks to make "Fly Bats."
     Frank Rose traveled to Topeka for an audience with the Kansas Secretary of Public Health. Crumbine examined the invention, declared it wonderful, then said, "But that's not a fly bat, it's a flyswatter!" Word spread, and soon people all over the state were wielding swatters. They were handed out at the State Fair, county fairs, and at fly parades all over Kansas.
     Never been to a fly parade? Children, dressed as flies, pushed baby carriages with coffins in them through the streets of their towns. They created huge flyswatters and chased each other down Main Street. They marched with bushel baskets of dead flies. In 1914, the school children of Hutchinson killed 224 pounds, 37 bushels of flies, for an estimated 7 million dead.
     Crumbine's film,"The Busy Fly," shows a mother dipping milk from a pail to feed her baby. "The Vile Fly" buzzes into the milk pail, and the mother dips another ladle full. Enter Sammy, "a Smart Little Boy," to prevent the mother from feeding her baby with the contaminated milk. He kills the fly and saves the day.
     Folks, maybe the world was simpler in 1906. But the propaganda Crumbine developed against the fly was later used in China in the 1950s. And in Africa today. The flyswatter celebrates its centennial, perhaps not as cherished, but ubiquitous and useful.
     Before 2006 is over, think of the flyswatter. Be glad you live in the Flyswatter State, and remember to always "Swat That Fly."

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The following commentary was published in the Topeka Metro News (in a longer version) on October 27, 2006 and aired on Kansas Public Radio on November 16, 2006:

Following Dave Crockett

    Folks, Kansas writer Joseph Stanley Pennell, wrote: "There are no dreams of now that were not then." I've been thinking about how  the past marks the present ever since my son took my grandson to the Alamo last summer. My son grew up in the '50s, when Disney resurrected Davy Crockett. Hence the pilgrimage to San Antonio, site of the 1836 battle, the one where Crockett and the rest had no exit strategy.
   My kin came back with a coonskin cap and the 1834 autobiography of David Crockett, then a representative of Tennessee in the U. S. House. The book purports to correct a "counterfit,  biography, written "with out" authority.  Davy's real purpose comes at the beginning of Chapter V.: "I must give an account of the part I took in the defence of the country. If it should make me president, why I can't help it; such things will sometimes happen; and my pluck is, never to seek nor decline office." Crockett lost his House seat in the next election and never held office again. He migrated to Texas, found himself at the Alamo, and died an American hero.
   Though Crockett was never President, his attitudes seem reincarnated in George Bush. Take Crockett's logic about going to the Indian Wars, against the wishes of his wife: "... but my countrymen had been murdered, and I knew that the next thing would be, that the Indians would be scalping the women and children all about there, if we didn't put a stop to it. ... until we would all be killed in our own houses. The truth is, my dander was up, and nothing but war could bring it right again."
   Folks, remember Bush's rhetoric?  Fight the war against terrorism over there, before we have to fight it here. And Bush's dander for war, especially in Iraq, was expressed in his  Axis of Evil  State of the Union address in January 2002.   Bush went to war in spite of world-wide protest.  Was he channeling Crockett, who, when he went to war against the British, again brushed aside his wife and then wrote: "For I always had a way of just going ahead, at whatever I had a mind to."
   This blind impulse to just go ahead is part of the American character.  Go-ahead Crockett was martyred in the conquest of Mexico that would complete our Manifest Destiny.  Bush's Manifest Destiny presumes a world like the United States: democratic and capitalistic. Bush's simple vision may have energized some folks, but the recent election, if it's a referendum on Iraq, shows second thoughts.  Whether Bush develops an exit strategy in the next two years, or not, he ll be back in Texas, Davy Crockett country.
   All of us will take the Iraq War, and its consequences, into the future..  As Joseph Stanley Pennell wrote, "There are no dreams of now that were not then."  Folks, if the past comes into the present, then the present is our future.  Both dream and nightmare.

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The following commentary was published in the Topeka Metro News on October 13, 2006 and aired on Kansas Public Radio on November 2, 2006:

Plutonic Love

     "My very educated mother just served us nachos."   Or at least that s what my great-grandson said when he came home from school.  Iola Humboldt and I were in Topeka for a visit.
     "What?"  I asked.
     "My very educated mother just served us nachos.  It s something we learned today.  Can you guess, Grandpa?"
      "I could guess,"  I said,  "but I don t think I d guess correctly for a very long time."
      "Here s a hint.  Mercury."
       "Go on,"  I said.
       But Iola, ever sharper than I am, recited the rest of the planets:  "Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune.  My very educated mother just served us nachos."
       "Phooey!  I said.   That's my P for Pluto."
      The very next day I took that boy to a Sonic Drive-in.  He ordered the ki' s meal, Wacky Pack, they call it, and included with his meal was a small educational book, All About Space.  Guess what?  Sonic, like me, has not yet responded to the decision to strip Pluto ofits planetary status.
     Folks, this is a tough one for us Kansans.  After all, Pluto was discovered, against the great odds of low-grade technology, by a Kansan.  Clyde Tombaugh, from Burdett, was just 24 years old.   His story fits the Kansas mythos perfectly.  We imagine a young boy way out in Southwest Kansas, where the night sky is shot through with brilliant stars.  We know that our landscape-prairie and plains-is two-thirds sky to every eye.  It is a place of the imagination.  Historian Kenneth Davis once called Kansans "a  race of sky watchers."  Our state song,  "Home on the Range,"  contains the verse:  "How often at night, when the heavens are bright,/ with the light of the glittering stars/ have we stood there amazed, and asked as we gazed,/ Does their glory exceed that of ours?"   We think of that boy, imagining what glory might be in the heavens.  And then seeing what no one had ever seen before.  A planet for the 20th Century, discovered by an American, a Kansan.
     Folks, it's hard to give up such legend.  But the International Astronomical Union (the IAU) decided to reclassify Pluto as a "dwarf planet"-not really a planet at all, but a round object that "has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and is not a satellite."  Some protested, but not me.  You see, as much as I love the story of Claude Tombaugh and Pluto-I call it  "Plutonic Love" -I am between a rock and a hard place, or maybe an astral object and a planet on this one.  After all, Kansans have a reputation for spitting in the face of science ever since the State Board of Education gave creationism and intelligent design equal footing with evolution in our science classrooms.  If I complain too much about the IAU decision, how am I any different from those religious conservatives, guarding a world view against scientific evidence?
     Pluto is named for the Roman god of the underworld, who could make himself invisible.  Although still visible, especially given contemporary astronomical technology, our little Pluto is no longer in the pantheon of the planets.  So be it.  Even Sonic will eventually change their educational book.  And me?  The story is the same.  A young star gazer saw what no one had seen before.  Call it a planet, or a dwarf planet, nobody can take that accomplishment away from Clyde Tombaugh, of Kansas.  My final word?  My very educated mother just served us nachos.  Period.

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The following commentary was published in the Topeka Metro News on June 23, 2006 and aired on Kansas Public Radio on August 17, 2006:

Cell Phones

    Folks, Elmer Peterson has taken to talking to himself.  I'd be sitting on my porch on Kansas Street of a morning, drinking my usual cup of coffee, and Elmer would be walking to work at the Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash.  Only instead of waving, or greeting me with a nod or a tip of his hat, he'd be gesticulating, shaking his head, laughing, talking or listening to something, his head cocked like a bird's.
    Also, he began to call me on the weekends.  "What do you want," I'd ask him.
    "Oh, just wanted to visit," he'd say, and when I'd ask him what he wanted to visit about, he'd say, "Just visit.  How are you?  How's Iola?  What are you doing right now?"
    "Talking to you," I'd say, and he'd ramble until he'd run out of pleasantries.
    One day Claude asked me if I'd seen Elmer on the road recently.  "He's driving erratically," said Claude.  "Damn near took out my gas pump at the Co-op."
    "Who hasn't in this town?" I asked.
    But Claude reported he'd been hearing Elmer at the back of the Co-op, sitting alone with his nickel cup of coffee, mumbling, conversing, God only knew what or to whom.
    "You suppose he's had one of those strokes?" I asked.  "One of the little ones you don't even know you've had except your memory gets bad and your coordination goes?"
    "We've all had that stroke of bad luck," said Claude, "and it's called aging."
    "Have you called Constance?" I asked.
    "Maybe Iola should.  Women will tell more to a woman."
    I promised to ask Iola to investigate.  Meanwhile, Elmer just kept it up.  Barney Barnhill went in to fill a prescription one Saturday and Elmer was back behind his little wall of glass just jabbering away, seemed like to nobody in particular.  "I believe he's mentally ill," said Barney.
    So next day, when I saw Elmer walking Kansas Street, muttering again, I grabbed the bull by the horn, faced him square, and he seemed to have a horn.  Looked like he'd tried to put a fat pen over his ear and stuck it inside instead.  "Stop," I said.  He did, once he heard me through his fog.  "What's that in your ear?" I asked, loud as I could.
    "Gotta go," he said.
    "Go where?" I asked.
    "Not you," he said to me.  "Goodbye."
    "What do you mean goodbye?" I asked.
    "Not you," he said.  "I'll call you right back.  William wants to visit."
    "You don't need to call me," I said, "we can visit right here."
    "Not you," he said.  Then he explained.  The piece in his ear was a Bluetooth.  Allowed him to talk on his new cell phone without using his hands.  "Great plan," he told me.  "Free calls on the weekends, talk to my kids on the same plan anytime for free.  Wouldn't be without it."
    "Well, you're hardly yourself with it," I told him.  "And just cause you use your cell phone without hands doesn't mean you can drive with no hands.  People want to greet you in person, live, full attention.  Maybe he should moderate a little," I suggested.      "You're the mayor," he said.  "Make an ordinance.  In the meanwhile, I got my minutes to use.  I may occasionally get distracted, but right now, you're distracting me."  And off he went, muttering, though I don't know if he'd made another call, had a mini-stroke, or was just getting a little odd.

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The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on July 11, 2006, and was published in the Topeka Metro News on July 21, 2006:

Flint Hills Symphony

    Folks, last month Iola Humboldt and I attended the First Annual Symphony in the Flint Hills, making us among the lucky 5,000 at this sold out concert.  The day was predicted to be hot, with possible storms, but we'd bought the tickets, so we drove to the Tallgrass Prairie National Park near Strong City and hoped the National Weather Service was wrong.  They were only half wrong: hot as blazes, no storms.  From then on, our day went pretty much in halfs. 
    Half the crowd looked like tourists.  The other half tried to match the Flint Hills-cowboy hats and boots in the style of ranchers.  Nobody but me had on overalls.  Half the crowd arrived too early, Iola and I among them, to hear presentations on birds and ranching and rocks.  To take a covered wagon ride.  We early birds did the activities, but we also sat, drank water, found shade, sweat, then drank more water.  So we were half happy-glad to be there, sorry it was so hot with so little shade.
    Half the crowd waited too late to eat the food brought to the concert site, a mile up from the ranch house and the highway.  I waited in line for about 20 minutes in a mighty warm sun.  At one point, the line moved faster when a woman fainted and she and her friends dropped out to speak with the EMS people, some of the many waiting to help.  That only made me half happy.  The food was fine, and we stretched our usual half hour dinner into an hour to stay seated in chairs in a shady tent, with a little breeze.  Some folks waited in line for an hour.
    Half the crowd set up chairs, their own or rented, in the concert area as soon as they arrived.  We found a spot and did the same.  But few wanted to sit in the heat waiting for the concert to begin, so the site looked half empty even a half-hour or so before the symphony began. 
    And the symphony?  Folks, the music was written by Kansan Eugene Friesen, cellist with the Paul Winter Consort.  He is loyal to his prairie roots.  Seemed like about half the pieces were inspired by sections of PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon, what he calls a "deep map" of Chase County.  The excerpts Friesen used showed off wonderful writing, particularly about the prairie chicken.  Mark Twain's words about the coyote were equally winning.
    I heard about half the concert.  I listened for it all, but couldn't pick up half of the voices in the choir, or half the instruments.  Sound was difficult, of course, and the balance put together by the folks running the sound board sometimes left a little too much out.  Occasionally, the bass notes thumped like the vibrating doors of a Wichita street rod.
    When I did hear, I was more than half pleased.  Unfortunately, much as I admire and respect Wes Jackson of the Land Institute of Salina, the piece he wrote and read during the final number had all the elegance of one of his fund raising letters, which I always read with interest, but don t often imagine set to symphonic music.
    Folks, the day finally began to cool off, and the walk back to parking was full of friendly, satisfied folks, happy to have spent a day in such a beautiful place.  Iola Humboldt asked me what I thought as we hit the road back to Here.  "Not half bad,"  I said.
    And for a Kansan, remember, that's quite a compliment. 

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The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio and was published in the Topeka Metro News on April 14, 2006:

Gordon Parks:  Homecoming  

        Folks, Gordon Parks was laid to rest last month in his birthplace and boyhood home of Fort Scott, Kansas.  We Kansans celebrated his return, as well we should have.  He was, after all, one of our true geniuses.  Photographer, poet, novelist, filmmaker, musician, Parks was a true Renaissance man.  And when he made The Learning Tree, his autobiographical novel of growing up in Kansas, into a film, he became the first African-American to produce and direct a major motion picture for a Hollywood studio.  He adapted the screenplay from his book, and wrote the musical score, as well.  And, he returned to Kansas to film on location in the places depicted in The Learning Tree
        Last month, we warmly welcomed him home, but we were chilly back in 1969, when he returned as filmmaker.  Parks describes the earlier homecoming in his memoir To Smile in Autumn:  "The residents of Ft. Scott were wary and suspicious of that book Jack Parks' boy had written about his hometown. . . . One farmer, whose place we wanted to use, yelled, 'Git off my property!  I don't want nothing to do with that dirty, lying book . . .'"  Finally, Parks called on the mayor.  He writes: "Once he learned that nearly a quarter of a million dollars would be spent with local merchants . . . he called the town fathers together . . .  Not only did we get cooperation from then on, but the following Sunday was proclaimed 'Gordon Parks Day.'" 
        Parks first left Kansas at the age of 16, after the death of his mother in 1928.  In The Learning Tree, the mother character says of  Cherokee Flats (Parks' stand-in for Fort Scott), "I hope you won't have to stay here all your life, Newt."  In his memoir, A Choice of Weapons, Parks is more specific about not staying in Kansas: " . . . although I was departingfrom this beautiful land, it would be impossible to ever forget the fear, hatred and violence we blacks had suffered upon it." 
        After such a past, such a personal history-and this is Kansas racial history-we celebrate the reconciliation with Gordon Parks.  We celebrate his desire to return home, to be buried in the soil of his birth. 
        But we must also ask ourselves why Parks returned only in death, 78 years after he left.  Parks was a very long time in making peace with Kansas.  Now, we can visit his grave, we can see his photographs on display many places in the state, we can read his fine work that tells us something of who we are. 
        But we might also resolve to make our soil richer and our land more open, so that the next Gordon Parks will not have to leave in order to grow.  We would benefit more from the vital presence of a living writer than from the presence of a tombstone.

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The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on March 8, 2006, and was published in the Topeka Metro News on March 3, 2006:

Capitol Steps

    Folks, my legs are still cramping, my knees are creaking and I'm not going to wash the top of my hand anytime soon.  A rubber stamp figure of "Ad Astra," the Native American on the very top of the Kansas State Capitol, rests just below my knotted old knuckles.  Every time I look at it, I remember my recent climb to the very top of the Kansas State Capitol, 296 steps, dizzying heights, narrow metal stairs and the constant reminder to myself: Don't Look Down!  At the top, a heck of a view and a stamped hand.
    I heard that public tours through the dome and to the top, not available for over thirty years, had resumed for the duration of the legislative session.  I heard myself telling my little great-grandson that I'd once climbed up there when I was about his age.  I heard him say he wanted to go.  I heard myself agree to drive to Topeka and take him.
    Folks, our State Capitol is impressive.  The third tallest in the country, the dome is higher off the ground, at 300 feet, than the nation's capitol.  The murals around the rotunda on each level are intricate, finely-wrought, and, when you're up that high, death-defying in their execution. Once you climb above the rotunda, and see the real dome, 75 feet above the interior glass dome, you think again of defying death.  You imagine the bravery of the workers who in 1885 riveted steel to steel to create the skeleton that would hold the copper plates of the upper dome.  You see graffiti from years past, some so high and far from the stairs you can only imagine someone climbing a steel beam, 50 feet or so above certain death, in order to be remembered.  Then you think of yourself.  If your great grandson doesn't change his mind, you're going to defy death, too.
    You're going to climb the final 110 stairs that take you away from the dome wall, out into space and up into the circular stairs that wind to the observation deck.  Your legs turn to rubber.  Your overalls begin to absorb your cold sweat.  You hold your great-grandson's hand a little too tight.  Your tour guide tells you others have done this.  Nobody's been hurt.  When you get up there, she says, don't spit, don't throw anything off, enjoy the view.  You close your eyes.  You don't want to see what's on the ground, you want to be on the ground.
    But you've taken up a space, and you go on up, one stair at a time, knees popping, hands now on the side rails.  You hum "Home on the Range" to distract yourself.  Finally, you make it.  As a flatlander, you understand the fear and fascination of being so high, and it's a beautiful day, and you think of the state motto, Ad Astra per Aspera, which you translate Up the Stairs through Difficulties.  You climb back down, still trembling with fear and excitement.
    Your little great grandson says, "We'll have to go up every year, Gramps."
    You're impressed by the Capitol and proud of that little stamp on your hand.  But you're old enough to say, "You do that.  It's definitely a twice-in-a-lifetime experience. And that was my second time."

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The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio on January 26, 2006, and was published in the Topeka Metro News on February 3, 2006:

Back to the Future

     Folks, Iola Humboldt and I took a Sunday drive west after the New Year, and I swear we saw the future.  We drove by M. T. Liggett s metal sculptures near Mullinville.  Every Kansan should make a pilgrimage to those wonderfully expressive, challenging, political pieces of welded metal and slogans.  Liggett is one of our homegrown cranks, what he calls  a town character,  and Kansas needs to keep producing them.
    We were hungry, so we drove on to Dodge to eat at the Thai Angel, open daily like the restaurants of so many hard-working immigrants.  Over our Pad Thai, simple noodles with chicken, sprouts and peanuts in a sweet and spicy brown sauce, we observed our dining companions.  Two Hispanic groups, both speaking Spanish, were enjoying their Thai food, soups and platters much more exotic that our Pad Thai.  Two Mennonite couples joined us. So there we were: the old , Iola and I; the new, our Spanish-speaking immigrants and Thong Phanthong in his Thai kitchen; and the true, Mennonite farmers still tied deeply to the land, and to the culture in agriculture.
    We left Dodge and drove 56 to Montezuma to see the big wind generators, tall as buildings, with wing spans like prehistoric birds.  They were majestic, in their way.  Artistic, in their way.  And quiet in the way of wind.  We were impressed.
    Next morning I woke up thinking,  Fear No Future.  
    You see, everything Iola and I had seen the day before was part of the past.  M. T. Liggett was like a turn of the century farmer, recycling implements, spare metal and junk into what might still be useful.  Like a lot of Kansans, he s reworking the past into a usable, forceful statement.
    And the Thai folks, the Vietnamese and the Hispanics at the Thai Angel reminded me of our immigrant past.  Kansas attracted Swedes, French, Irish.  Pittsburg once boasted 40- plus languages on its main street.  The mining industry brought those immigrants from all over the globe.  In Dodge, it s the meat-packing industry.  I liked hearing Spanish spoken over Pad Thai.  Kansas once recruited Germans with the promise they could speak their native language in their churches and schools.  These days we shake our heads at any language but our own.  One of our school districts suspended a Kansas City student for speaking Spanish in the halls, against school rules.  At the same time, state universities require a foreign language as part of many degree programs.  They want young people prepared for a diverse world.  Why not recruit more immigrants, willing to start fresh here, as Kansans have been doing since we became a territory?
    And why not support the wise and time-honored agricultural practices of the Mennonites, Amish and Dunkards, people who give as much of themselves to the land as they take.  Our future depends on that conservation.
    And the big wind generators?  Well, settlement in Western Kansas was made possible by the windmill.  Now, pumping water out of the ground is becoming too expensive, but the same wind can harness electricity.  So be it.  Wind generation has its place in our future, in the right places and in the right concentrations.
    So Kansas should go back, to the future.  But folks,   Fear no Future  has its other side.  We could have NO future.  Let us fear depopulation, aging population, no population.  To avoid NO future, we should embrace our eccentrics, our immigrants, our agricultural people who are not caught up in agribusiness alone, our renewable resources.  We should lay aside our fears, and put our future first.

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The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio, in slightly different form (listen below), on December 6, 2005,
and was published in the Topeka Metro News on December 23, 2005:

Intelligent Design is Male, Evolution is Female

      Folks, Here, Kansas, is old school when it comes to men and women.  I'm the odd man out.  I learned how to plan a menu, shop, cook, sew, launder and clean during my days between Martha, my late wife, and my current at-home companionship with Iola Humboldt.
      But Claude Anderson's wife, Matilda, carries through on everything he sets in motion.  If he asks me and Iola to dinner, and Iola asks him what we should bring, he says, "Call Matilda.  Tell her I've invited you.  She'll take care of the details."  After all, he's a busy man, presiding over the cash register at the Here, Kansas, Co-op.
      Or let's say Elmer Peterson, of the Here, Kansas, Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash, decides maybe he really does need better lighting, as we've told him many times.  Rather than research it himself, or make calls, he just tells Constance, "Let's get us some light."  She takes care of the what, who, how, when, and pretty soon there's light enough to read the fine print on the vitamin bottles.  Elmer's a busy man, dispensing the medications that mean the difference between life and death for some of us Hereins.
      Barney Barnhill and his wife Beatrice have a similar arrangement.  He says, "I need a book to read."
      She says, "I can go to the Near Here Library tomorrow, after my beauty appointment.  What would you like this book to be about?"
      "Surprise me," he says.  And he doesn't complain when she brings him a biography of Charles Darwin and a novel about secret symbols in religious art.  He reads them both.  After all, he's busy arranging and re-arranging the world of his Demolition Derby cars.
      All these Here women are forces of nature.  The Here men have the ideas, but the Here women carry out those ideas.  You can see the difference a woman makes when you look at Pierre Small, President of the Here, Kansas, DENSA Society.  No wife.  As a consequence, he doesn't accomplish much.  Should he ever get a great idea, it'd just stay in his head.
      As for me, if I want a book, need something fixed, or wish to reciprocate a meal with the Andersons, it's all up to me.  And to tell the truth, I'm as happy with the process of carrying out an idea as I am with having it, even if Claude and Elmer and Barney scratch their heads.  Sometimes they feel sorry for me.  Sometimes I make them mad.
      Why?  Because there's a big comfort in staying with old habits, with old ideas of man and woman, male and female, with our same old stories. Why, this recent Kansas ruckus about evolution and Intelligent Design just proves what I'm saying.  Evolution is the province of Mother Nature.  Like a woman, nature does things at a basic level, making adjustments and changes and last-minute decisions, all to find a successful process that will get things done.  Intelligent Design is the province of the male, the "Let's get us some light" big bang type.  The Intelligent Designer, you see, thinks up Mother Nature, sets things in motion, then lets her take over.
      Comforting, really, especially if you're a man like Claude Anderson.  I push back my chair after a second piece of pie, and thank Matilda for everything from the candles on the table, to the succulent roast, to the place settings with her mother's best China.  And then Claude speaks for her.  "I'm darn glad I invited you over," he says and pats his stomach.  A satisfied patriarch if there ever was one.  And Matilda?  She's heard this story before.  She gives me a wink.  She's not the little woman behind the big man.  No, sir, she's the creator of the feast.

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The following commentary aired on Kansas Public Radio November 3, 2005,
and was published in the Topeka Metro News on November 11, 2005:


    Folks, I was buffaloed recently.  I could blame Iola Humboldt.  She was the one who went to Near Here for pizza.  She was the one told by the cashier that the new Jefferson buffalo nickel, released by the US Mint with such fanfare, was being recalled by Kansas banks.  She was the one who came home to Here, where I was innocently enjoying a warm Fall day on the porch, and asked if I had any of the nickels, and had I seen the buffalo up close?  I sure enough had a nickel, and we looked.  "See there?" Iola pointed.  "That's why this coin is being taken out of circulation."
    "You mean that little dot beneath the belly there?" I asked, adjusting my trifocals.
    "That little dot happens to be the proof of anatomical correctness," Iola said.  "Seems they've had complaints." 
    Folks, this was too good.  If Kansas banks wanted those nickels, I thought I might just want them, too.  After all, I have several buffalo nickels from when I was a young man.  And I can tell you the US Mint wasn't a bit squeamish about anatomical correctness between 1913 and 1938. 
    We studied one.  Folks, Kansas had the decency to give a front view of our state animal.  The thick fur on the front legs obstructs any view of what's between the back legs. 
    "I suppose the Jefferson buffalo nickel will be a rare item soon," Iola said.
    "Maybe Claude has some in the cash register at the Co-op," I said. 
    Folks, I should have stayed on the porch.  But I hightailed it to the Co-op.  Now, I didn't hightail like a buffalo, who runs with his tail erect.  But I did an old man's version, occasionally flourishing my cane between hobbles.  The thought of fattening my coin collection downright energized me.  Claude had four nickels, but said he'd have to charge me a dime for each one of them.  Elmer Peterson at the Drive-Thru Pharmacy and Car Wash had three.  He'd already had a call from Claude and charged me a quarter per nickel.  Folks, by the time I made it to Near Here, to Harvey O'Connell's Tavern and Mini-skirt Museum, the nickels were costing a dollar each. 
    Obviously, the word was getting out, and I'd run through my week's allowance.  So I called my grandson in Kansas City.  Urban folks won't care so much about the business end of a buffalo.  "I'll be on the lookout," he said.  I sat on my porch, quite pleased with myself again.  For five minutes.  That's when my grandson called back.  "It's another urban legend," he told me. 
    "What's an urban legend?" I asked. 
    "A story we want to believe is true, because it has poetic truth, even when common sense says it isn't so." 
    I hurried back to the Mini-skirt Museum, the Pharmacy, the Co-op, tail between my legs.  Nobody would buy back the nickels for what I'd paid.  Iola Humboldt refused to apologize for starting it all.  I sat on my porch a poorer and wiser man, but one thing puzzled me.  Why the legend?  Do we believe we live in a repressive time?  Do we think our kids need protection from animal parts?  Do we know we're being nickeled and dimed by prudes?  Do we buy the notion that Kansas banks would be at the forefront of recalling nickels?  I asked Iola for her opinion. 
    "Yep," she said.  "That'd be my five cents worth."

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The following commentary aired on October 6, 2005:

The Price of Gas  

    Folks, Here, Kansas, has been paying the price of gas these days.  And in more ways than one.  First, there's the pricing roller coaster that has Claude Anderson of the Co-op calculating almost hour by hour what he should, could, or might charge for a gallon of gasoline.  He tries to cut us Hereins as much of a bargain as possible, and most of us just pump gas at the price he's dictated.  Whatever we pay, we spend our time gassing about the price of gas.  I realized how far gone I was when I pulled into the Co-op in my old International Harvester truck one day and was delighted to see the price per gallon was down to $2.60.  I pumped and hurried to the register, bragging about catching prices on the downswing.  "Just shows you've been completely manipulated by the oil companies," Barney Barnhill reminded me.  "Two months ago you'd've raised hell at 2.60 a gallon."  Folks, that put my glee on empty.
    Of course, Claude Anderson is paying the price of gas, too.  Back in the corner of the Co-op, over our nickel cups of coffee, we whisper about the prices we've seen in Near Here, or in There.  We grab our calculators and figure price per gallon, and how low our tanks are, and how much, given miles per gallon, the trip would cost us.  Every once in a while, someone will get up and walk out the door.  An hour later, say, Pierre Small will be back at the Co-op.  He'll have a sly smile on his face.   "What?" we ask.  And he'll tell us he just saved three dollars on gas.   "And it only took an hour's drive to do it,"  he ll brag. 
    Two hours later, Elmer Peterson will be back, mad as hell at Pierre.  "I thought you said the Near Here Mini-Mart was selling for 2.39," he'll fume.
    "Gas prices went up forty-five minutes ago,"  Claude will pipe up from the register.   "Might should have stayed put." 
    Folks, there's another kind of gassing going on.  Farmers, even retired ones like most of us in Here, understand the relationship between fuel costs and the farmer's bank book at the end of the season.  When fuel costs rise, we can't just raise the price of our goods.  Our earning potential is dictated by futures and Chicago markets and the vagaries of weather all over the world.  But we can complain.  We can talk conspiracies, accusing agribusiness of trying to push the little farmer out of the market-after all, the larger the business, the more ability to weather rising fuel costs through more than one season.  We can wonder at the double stroke of bad luck, Gulf War and Gulf Coast-both Iraq and Louisiana once helped our access to oil.  We can make each other paranoid about the Chinese and their fuel-hungry economy.  Folks, we can, and we do, spend hours in such conversation.  Around Here, anyway, the gassing about the price of gas seems to be the cheapest gas, the one that never runs to empty. 
    Meanwhile, I'm turning it all to my advantage.  I've taken to walking to the Co-op.  If the price is right, I'll walk home and drive back for a gallon or two.  Of course, whatever the price of gas, I'm not saving much money.  But my health is improving.
    Here's to yours.

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The following commentary aired on June 3, 2005:


     Folks, the other day I woke up, threw on a pair of overalls, and spent the entire morning padding around the house and puttering in the garden.  Iola Humboldt fixed tomato soup for lunch, and I spent the afternoon reading on the porch, talking to my grandson on the telephone, visiting with neighbors as they walked by.
      That evening, Iola sent me down to the Co-op for a quart of milk.  When I reached for my billfold to pay, I realized I'd spent the whole day without that big wad of wallet in my pocket.  Of course, Claude Anderson trusted me for the milk, but not before he gave me something to think about.  "Soon you'll need a lot more ID just to get ID," he said.
      "What do you mean?" I asked.
      "Driver's license," said Claude.  "Folks in Washington think you ought to have to present more identification to get one.  Like in New Jersey, where you need a briefcase of documents."
      "Like Social Security card.  Payment stub from your job.  Birth certificate.  Bank statement.  High-school diploma.  College photo ID with transcript.  Property tax statement.  William, the list is so long it includes your New Jersey firearm purchaser card, if you have one."
      After hearing that, I walked home feeling almost weightless, like I did as a boy--just overalls and milk and everybody knowing who I was and trusting me.
      Folks, when was the last time you spent a day without your wallet or your purse?  A day with no driving, shopping, or air travel.  Nobody asking who you are, even though they know who you are.  Why, over at the There County Bank, they've taken to asking me for my driver's license, the same young woman studying me as though I might have changed into somebody else overnight.  Same with the clerk at the Near Here grocery store.  "Do you have some form of identification?" Maude Perkins asks me every two weeks.  "I need it to process your check."
      I pull out my billfold, and say, "I'm Bill Oleander.  I once had a date with your Grandma Mathilda."  She writes down my driver's license number anyway, citing, "Company policy."
       Folks, I like just being myself, no ID required.  If someone sighted me, they'd have to already know who I was, like a bird watcher does the birds.  "I spotted a shuffling, red-faced Oleander," someone might say, watching me shamble to the Co-op.  "Endangered species, you know.  Habitat shrinking every day."
      I wonder what ID I'll need to take with me when I die.  I hope none.  For me, heaven is the place where, instead of saying, "Excuse me while I process your check," they'll say, "Excuse me while I check your process."  And I'll be light as a feather.  I'll be the child, entering the kingdom.  They will have been expecting me.  They'll all know my name.   They'll be calling it out to me.

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The following commentary aired on May 10, 2005:

New Tourism Slogan      

    Folks, for months now people have been asking me what I think of the new Kansas Tourism slogan: Kansas:  As Big As You Think.  I've simply nodded my head and said, "Yep."  In the Here, Kansas, language, "Yep" means acceptance.  Claude Anderson once told me a tornado had ripped through his property, taking his barn.  "One heck of a tornado," Claude added.
    "Yep," I said, and nodded my head.
    Claude's tornado was as big as you think, big enough to do damage.  A lot of people have criticized the new tourism marketing slogan, like it's going to do damage.  But it's not as big as you think.  Like most slogans, it'll have its day, then meander off into the sunset like any other kind of ugly weather.
    Folks, I remember the days when Kansas defined itself by simple, literal images.  Sunflower StateWheat State.   Midway, USA once adorned our license plates.
    Then we dived into the difficult waters of image creation.  An early promotion called us The Land of Ahhh's, spelled a-h-h-h-s, not O-Z.  Even the Wall Street Journal wondered why we'd promote ourselves with our worst stereotype.  But we made bumper stickers.  Oz characters in costume took bus tours.  We designated U.S. 54, from Ft. Scott to Liberal, The Yellow Brick Road, though we stopped short of creating the signage.
    Soon we had other images.  On the occasion of our 125th anniversary of statehood:  125 and Coming Alive!  As though we'd been dead up until 1986.
    After that we were America's Central Park.  Then we reminded everyone that The Secret's Out!   I hadn't known Kansas was a secret our history, culture, beauty and environmental diversity.  After that, I liked Kansas: Say It Above a Whisper! because I never had whispered about Kansas.   And Simply Wonderful was simply wonderful as a marketing slogan.
    One problem, though.  Land of Ahh's soon became Land of Blahh's125 and Coming Alive! evoked images of zombies.  Some folks changed one letter in whisper to make the slogan Kansas: Say It Above a Whimper.  And now I'm seeing bumper stickers that have turned Kansas:  As Big As You Think into Kansas:  As Bigoted As You Think.
    Folks, marketing campaigns come and go, none of them as big as you'd think because none of them change perceptions.  Fact is, if the powers that be in Kansas are really concerned about tourism, about the cultural image of Kansas, they might halt the evolution hearing circus, boost school funding, bridle a grandstanding attorney general and fund health care for children.  If we'd renew our historical past of Progressive, public-minded reform, we wouldn't have to spend tax monies on attempts to create snappy slogans.  We might actually have a Kansas that is as . . . Big As It Used To Be.

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The following commentary aired on February 24, 2005:

Black History Month, 2005, Kansas and Race

        Folks, it's Black History month.  Should we Kansans celebrate with pride?  After all, our state was once known as Free State Kansas and Bleeding Kansas.  We were the home of fiery Abolitionist John Brown and the chosen destination of the first Black migration from the South after Reconstruction failed.  Exodusters, they called our new citizens.  We attracted such educated Blacks as the great poet Langston Hughes' ancestors, the Langstons.  Early on, we elected Blacks to public office.  Among the lawyers who brought the original Brown v. Board suit were Black Topekans educated at the Washburn Law School.
          But, wait, we wouldn't have needed Brown v. Board if segregation hadn't been the norm in Kansas by the early 1900s:  schools, work places, restaurants, hotels and theaters.  Free State Kansas saw 14 Blacks lynched between 1886 and 1925.  In 1924, William Allen White ran as an independent for Governor because Kansas Democrats and Republicans both kowtowed to the Ku Klux Klan .  Two of our best-known Black writers, Langston Hughes and Gordon Parks, one writing about the 1910s, the other about the 1920s, call Kansas a Southern State.
        Seems we have histories both positive and negative when it comes to race, and much to contemplate.
        Folks, I like to read.  Our writers so often help us understand our complications.  Gordon Parks writes about being black in Kansas in these terms:   "Cherokee Flats (read Fort Scott) wallowed in the social complexities of a borderline state.  Here, for the black man, freedom loosed one hand while custom restrained the other.  The law books stood for equal rights, but the law . . . never bothered to enforce such laws in such books.  . . . the whole state was a plateau of uncertainty."
        Langston Hughes shares this sensibility about Kansas, wondering just where Blacks might fit in.  His poem "Colored child at carnival" starts with a child asking, "Where is the Jim Crow section/ On this merry-go-round,/ Mister, cause I want to ride?"  In the deep South, Blacks knew the expectations, knew, like it or not, their place.  But Kansas was that place, where, like the merry-go-round, ". . . there ain't no back."  So, Hughes asks, "Where's the horse/ For a kid that's black?"
        White writers wonder about racial place as well.  Kenneth Porter recalls innocently and courageously finding a seat next to a "brown" girl at a Sterling, Kansas, school function of the 1910s.  He teams with her to win a prize for who can identify the most flowers from a catalogue.  The girl knows them all.  "And still," Porter writes, ". . . when I see a plot of brilliant flowers,/ I also hear a low soft voice/ calling their names."
        Another Kansas poet, William Stafford, from Hutchinson, recalls the good old boys of The Legion Hall, recalls the Coca-cola served in glasses by the pharmacist at the drug store, recalls the Coca-cola served in a paper cup to the Black elevator man who was expected to drink it elsewhere.  Stafford ends his poem, "Serving with Gideon":   Look down, stars-I was almost/ one of the boys.  My mother was folding/ her handkerchief; the library seethed and sparked;/ right and wrong arced; and carefully/ I walked with my cup toward the elevator man."
        Folks, we Kansans still struggle with integration, with rights, with opportunities.  We are still making choices about race.  These days, we can live as segregated or as integrated as we want to.  We can do the equivalent of sitting next to the brown girl, walking towards the elevator man.  Our choices are not only about integrating society, but about integrating ourselves.

The following commentary aired on January 20, 2005:

On Gay Marriage

    Folks, moral issues played a big part in the last election. Especially gay marriage.  You know, I married my first wife before a Justice of the Peace in Here, Kansas, more years ago than I care to remember.  This was a civil ceremony, without the blessings or requirements of religion. My wife and I satisfied civil government and after the ceremony we had a little piece of paper to prove our marriage. And let me tell you, even without the religion, we proved our marriage. We were civil to one another, with more good times than bad.
     After my wife died, and after a period of mourning, I met Iola Humboldt.  One Fourth of July she came to live with me, and we've been house mates for over ten years now.  We consider ourselves married.  The state allows us to declare that through common law.  We have good times and bad, like when we argue over who left the freezer door open a crack and melted the ice cream.
   During this last election, the whole country argued about gay marriage, the crack in the door that's supposedly melting down the traditional values of our society.  I've had experience with the civil side of marriage.  I suppose the state can decide who can marry and who can't, since marriage is a civil contract, not a religious one.  Some religions may sanctify marriage, or make it harder to get married or divorced.  But outside of your religion, you can marry and divorce in a court of law, all quite legally.  Folks, the law is a particular thing. In fact, the judges reading various state constitutions had to allow the unions of same-sex couples as the particular rights of those citizens. In reaction, eleven states changed their constitutions this past November 2.
     Folks, you can sure enough change the constitution that is the law, that piece of paper.  But what about the constitutions of people?  Years ago, the psychological and psychiatric associations abandoned their diagnoses of homosexuality as mental illness, something a person changes through therapies or drugs.  They admitted, in short, that for many, homosexuality is constitutional.  Seems wrongheaded to change the paper constitution if it means denying the physical constitutions of citizens.
    True, we can do it.  After all, the concept of slavery was an accepted fact in the original constitution.  Further, we made race a central fact in our legal system even though race is constituted as much of social and cultural factors as of physical realities.  But we learned from that.  The best of our most recent history has been the progress of civil rights.  We have let go the boundaries of race, of gender, of disability.  Folks, I know it's hard to turn loose of boundaries.  They are so reassuring.
     But reassurance for some at the expense of others is anti-American, and should be unconstitutional.  Kansas will keep debating this issue.  Traditionalists will want to change the state constitution to make it more traditional.  Let them clear this up soon, and then I can go back to the front porch, sit with Iola Humboldt, and peacefully enjoy my civil union.

The following commentary aired on January 6, 2005:

Oleander Removes his Kerry for President Bumper Sticker

     The other morning Claude Anderson greeted me with a rag and some window cleaner at the door of the Here, Kansas, Co-op.  Wouldn't let me in, he said, until I rubbed the Kerry for President sticker off the bumper of my pickup truck.  "It's 2005, and the election is long over, William," he reminded me.  "And besides, I'm tired of your sour grapes."
     Folks, was it sour grapes to keep up the election post-mortem over our nickel cups of coffee?  True, Claude didn't appreciate my quoting the Internet site that shows Kerry voters with higher IQs than Bush voters. I knew that was true in Here before the election, when Pierre Small, the President of the International DENSA Society, and not our brightest bulb,
declared for Bush.  I mean, Pierre still thinks "bi-partisan" might be a form of homosexuality.
     Folks, was it sour grapes to note that although gay marriage and abortion played big in the minds of Here voters, all of us are well past our hetero- or homosexual primes, and none of the women are young enough to get pregnant?  "It's not what we do that's important," said Claude Anderson.  "It's the rest of them, flying in the face of time-honored traditions."
    "You're just using tradition to live in the past," I told him.
     Folks, that's why Claude greeted me at the Co-op door.  "The election is over," he said, thrusting cleaner and rag in my hand.  "Who's living in the past?" he asked, pointing at my bumper sticker.  William, stop the post-mortem.  Get yourself a life."  Folks, it was cold and that Kerry bumper sticker had been made to last, but I rubbed and rubbed, and finally my bumper came clean.  Claude let me inside, even motioned to a table where he'd set down a free cup of coffee.
     But I wasn't quite finished rubbing.  "Hand me your glasses," I demanded.  He did, and I cleaned them for him.  "Put them back on," I commanded, and he did.
     "Thanks," he said.  "You might just be getting over your case of the sour grapes."
     "And you might start seeing things more clearly," I said.
     "Like a Republican?" he said.
     "Like a Democrat," I said.
     "Sour grapes," he said.
     I let it go.  I sat down to my coffee.  I nursed that dark drink, and kept my thoughts to myself.

The following commentary aired on  October 7, 2004:

Wet Weather and Mabel Beemer's Garden

     Folks, Mabel Beemer is threatening to leave Kansas-again.  You see, Mabel is the garden queen of Here, Kansas.  If anyone can grow anything, it's Mabel.  If anyone has the largest, most colorful, most diversified, most plentiful garden, it's Mabel.  Claude Anderson stopped racing her for Here's first red tomato years ago.  Elmer Peterson, who grows nothing but eggplant in his garden, has to admit that Mabel's fatter, sleeker, purple-black eggplant is not only prettier, but tastier, too.  I used to go up against her for sweetest corn, but I soured on that competition after losing for too many years in a row.
    So why does our best gardener want to leave Kansas?  Every year Mabel laments the usual August drought.  "There's a mighty short gardening season in Here, Kansas,"  she says.   "May to mid-July.  Everything is dead by August." Mabel gets discouraged.  She threatens to leave.  Maybe Iowa could sustain a garden longer, she speculates.  Or maybe Illinois.
    Still, her roots are here in Here.  So, instead of leaving, Mabel plants twice as much of everything in her garden.  "That way,"  she says,  "when everything dies in August, I already have a whole season s worth of vegetables harvested."  Anyone who has seen the line-up of Mason jars in Mabel Beemer's pantry knows she's not kidding.  Her cabinet doors open onto a rainbow: the green of beans, peas and pickled okra, the purple of pickled beets, the scarlet of tomatoes, the yellow of corn, the orange of carrots, the gold of the world's best bread and butter pickles.
    Of course one day last month, Mabel stormed into the Here, Kansas, Co-op to get out of an uncharacteristic August rain shower.  If you've heard the expression Madder than a Wet Hen, you might be able to imagine the look on her face.   "What's the matter, Mabel?" I asked.  "You can't beat this good weather.  Everything's still so green.   
    "I'm leaving,"  she said.  "This time I mean it."  After she calmed down, she explained.  She already had her garden year's worth of vegetables.  She d spent the first half of the summer in hard labor, getting everything into Mason jars, the freezer, the potato pit in her back yard.  And then, when the garden should have died, it kept on thriving, producing, making work.  Her garden, it seemed, was like some zombie horror movie-the living dead marching forward to claim her attention, her time, her energy.  "This is the first August in years I've had to pull weeds," she said, disgusted.
    Folks, Mabel's strategy of overplanting backfired.  While the rest of us were reveling in the continuing productivity of our gardens, thanking the Kansas weather gods for rain and mild temperatures, Mabel looked to the sky and cursed.  And threatened to leave.  We could think of only one rescue.  We thinned her plants-what gardener can stand to pull up a tomato plant that might still bear fruit?  We helped her harvest.  Then Elmer Peterson took a truckload of Mabel's surplus to a food bank in Wichita.  He returned with a receipt for the donation.  "Claim it on your income tax," he told Mabel.  "You'll get enough back to pay for your seeds next spring."
    "If I'm here,  she said.  "And if I garden.  Kansas," she muttered, and shook her head.
    Which just goes to show you:  some Kansans like adversity better then plenty.  They get awfully attached to the difficulties alluded to in our state motto.  Makes it hard to enjoy the stars.

The following commentary aired on September 22, 2004:

Dollars for Fear, Dollars for Hope

    Folks, back when I was a boy, two Here, Kansas, farmers had apple orchards, and the apples were, as the expression goes, "the apples of their eyes."  Of course, both their orchards were regularly terrorized by boys.  Farmer Tremble became angry, and determined to stop the vandals in their tracks.  He built, at great expense, a huge wooden fence, topped with barbed wire, around his couple acres of trees.  He posted signs:  "Trespassers will be shot on sight."  He bought a couple of Doberman and turned them loose to roam the orchard at night.  In his fear of the loss of his apples, Farmer Tremble had zero tolerance for anyone who threatened them.
    Farmer Art, on the other hand, started an apple festival.  He invited everyone and anyone to help with the harvest.  He put together a booklet on the history of his farm, on the planting and care of apples.  He offered trees to anyone who wanted them.  From the time I was a child, I looked forward to at least one day of dressing up like Johnny Appleseed, bobbing for the apples I'd picked, drinking cider fresh from Farmer Art's press.  Women brought apple pies, men helped prune trees.  Everyone in Here went home with mouths fresh with the taste of Farmer Art's free apples.
    Farmer Art's orchard thrived.  With all the help, he planted more trees.  Before he died, he had the largest orchard in these parts.  To this day, old folks like me can eat an apple at the Co-op, sigh, and say, "It's good, but it's not a work of Art."
    Farmer Tremble didn't fare as well.  His fear and his increased security doubled the appeal of stealing his apples.  His trees continued to be vandalized.  His crop couldn't pay for the fences, the wire, the dogs, the shotgun shells.  His orchard shrunk, his apples shrunk, and when he died he was as bitter and wrinkled as his final apple harvest.
    I tell you about these farmers after reading in the paper that the federal government spends $32.34 per Kansan on homeland security.  There's an $8.2 billion budget for the states and territories.  The article I read asked why the heartland was getting such a big piece of the pie when the obvious threats and expenses are more prevalent on the coasts.  I understand that argument.  But let me make another one.
    Folks, I'm happy to be secure.  But I also have to compare the $32.34 per Kansan being spent on my security to the 57 cents being spent per Kansan on the Arts.  And to the 68 cents per Kansan spent on the humanities.  And to the $2 per Kansan spent on fostering our knowledge of our history through the Kansas State Historical Society.  Maybe some of you will think I'm mixing apples and oranges.  But I remember Farmer Tremble and Farmer Art.  I think we should spend as much on the pen, the brush and the musical note of the arts as we do on chemical suits.  I think the understanding brought to us by the humanities is just as important to our security as the production of bomb-sniffing robots.  I think a knowledge of history helps us make the present into a history we might be proud of.
    After all, the United States is a Farmer Art:  we gained our reputation for freedom and we are respected not because we guard our goods, but because we have tried to do good.  We've kept our doors open because we know that closed doors are the ones broken down.  We must protect ourselves, yes.  But we must also remain inviting, expressive, understanding, creative, knowledgeable.  We must put as much money into supporting arts, humanities and history as we do supporting our fears.  Folks, the Governor has declared it Preparedness Month.  Let's prepare in more ways than one.
    As Farmer Art always used to say.  "How do you like them apples?" 

The following commentary aired on May 20, 2004:

Here, Kansas, Displays Support of America

    Folks, you might remember how I got on Claude Anderson's bad side.  Made him move his Ten Commandments plaque from the wall next to my Honorary Mayor's chair in the Here, Kansas, Co-op.  He still has it leaning on the cash register.  For all the world, that commandment plaque looks like a cowboy, half resting, half alert, leaning against a fence post.
    Claude claims I'm a bad citizen, a poor American.  And he set out to prove it.  Announced the First Annual Here, Kansas,  Support America  display.  The challenge: for every home and business in Here to publicly demonstrate support of these great United States.
    Iola's first reaction was,  "Whatever happened to quiet strength, to dignified integrity, to dutifully fulfilling the obligation to vote, to considered alertness to the rights of others?  Proof is for cowards." 
    "Still,"  I pointed out, "as Honorary Mayor, I'll have to think of something."
    Barney Barnhill, of the Demolition Derby Museum, spent two weeks sorting his demolished vehicles-American only, by the way-into a pattern of red, white and blue that turns into the American flag if you step back far enough and squint hard enough.
      Claude Anderson, of course, cast the Ten Commandments in cement-two tablets-and hauled them out to the front of the Co-op.  The sign over them reads, God Loves America &America Loves God.
    Mabel Beemer, our quilter and gardener, was more subtle.  She patched together a garden of faces-white, yellow, black, red-all planted happily on a map of the United States.  Her sign reads: I support America's garden of diversity, the crazy quilt of that speaks of freedom.
    Pierre Small, the lifetime President of Here's DENSA Society, and never the brightest bulb to hit a socket, decided to build a plywood platform, paint it camouflage, label it TROOP SUPPORTER, and glue little plastic soldiers all over the top of it.  He held up his Wal-mart plastic sack.   "They sell these little warriors for practically nothing,"  he said.  "You lose some, you just go get you a whole 'nother bag of soldiers."
    Pierre's Wal-mart bag finally gave me my idea.  I took the sack, then started collecting others.  K-Mart, Target, Blockbuster, Hastings, Dillon's, Alco, and wall-to-wall Walgreen's.  I filled the bags to bursting with paper trash I picked up along a Wichita highway one day-KFC boxes, McDonald's bags, Taco wrapper from John's, Via & Bell, not to mention the Wendy's, the Arby's, the Burger Kings.  I hung those stuffed plastic sacks on the branches of the two trees in my front yard.  They sway in the wind, they rotate colorfully, they show all of America s colors, brands and logos.
    Claude doesn't much like my display.  But, as I said to him, "I supported American business when I bought all those things I didn't need to get those plastic sacks.  And I cleaned up America along a Wichita highway.  Those sacks aren't quite flags, but they do wave.  Come over and see them sometime, in the twilight's last gleaming."
    Claude has yet to drop over.  Just as well.  He'd probably just want me to highlight my display with some rocket's red glare.  He'd like more than just my trash, bursting in the air.

The following commentary aired on February 11, 2004:

Keeping the Ten Commandments Holy

    Folks, with this Kansas winter weather, we in Here haven't had much to do but shovel out and go for a nickel cup of coffee down at Claude Anderson's Co-op.  But if it's cold outside, you'll be glad to know we have plenty of heat inside.  You see, Claude decided to post the 10 Commandments in his business.  Now This is America, as Claude is fond of saying, and Claude's is a private business.  I suppose he has just as much right to post the 10 Commandments in the Co-op as he does to switch brands of coffee, or raise the price of his gasoline at the pump.  So there it was, a placard, right above what I usually think of as my table.  I sat in what everyone in Here knows to be my chair, and read:

    Thou shalt have no other Gods before me
    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
    Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
    Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
    Honor thy father and thy mother
    Thou shalt not kill
    Thou shalt not commit adultery
    Thou  shalt not steal
    Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor
    Thou shalt not covet

    "Kind of a short version, ain't it?" I asked.  "Where'd you get it?"
     Claude showed me the catalogue.  "You have to agree with this, don't you?" asked Claude.  The catalogue copy read: "While some are trying to drive the Ten Commandments out of public view, you can show your support for them. This lightweight sign made from corrugated plastic is shipped with a frame for easy display."
     "Lightweight, huh," I muttered.
     "The sign, not the message," Claude said.  "No, sir, the message is the foundation for all our laws in this great country.  And I support them."
     "But there's separation of church and state, too," I pointed out.  "And you've hung your 10 Commandments . . ."
     "The Lord's 10 Commandments," Claude interrupted.
     "You've hung them above my chair and table, where I do all my business, such as it is, as Honorary Mayor of this town.  Besides, they're the 10 Commandments.  They'll live with or without your support, Claude."
     "They'll live on my wall, right where I have them," said Claude.
     I walked home.  The Declaration of Independence opens, in part, with: "All men are . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
     I marched right back to the Co-op to ask Claude to compromise to at least move the sign away from my Honorary Mayoral table.  "You see," I argued, "we may have a creator, but we're endowed by that creator to institute our own laws.  Of the commandments up there, only four bear any resemblance to state or federal law: murder, adultery, theft and libel.  The rest are religious.  So you're not even batting .500 with your corrugated plastic."
     "They're still the foundation, William, and you shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge that."
     "Let's acknowledge it somewhere just a little bit farther away from the government of Here," I pleaded.
     Claude shook his head, but he took down the framed commandments.  For now, they're propped up next to his cash register.  Not bad, I thought.  Another foundation of our great nation.

The following commentary aired on  January 20, 2004:

Oleander's State of the State

     Folks, Kansas is due for an auspicious year of celebrations.  In 2004, we denizens of the Sunflower State have a lot to look forward to.  Unfortunately, all we have to look forward to is in the past.
     We will acknowledge the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  We will celebrate the 150th year since the opening of Kansas territory.  Likewise, we'll be there for the 150th birthday parties of some of the territory's earliest towns like Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence.  And we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka.  This bold and necessary move ended the separate but equal (actually completely unequal) racial segregation of school children in the United States.
     You know, I love celebrations and anniversaries even the hard-to-say sesquicentennials.  These time markers of give us reason in the present to be proud of the past.
     Why not brag about our contributions to the United States?   Historically and culturally we're probably one of the most important states carved out of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  Lewis and Clark explored us in 1804.  We took over in 1854, and what other state has in the forefront of such movements as Abolition, Prohibition, Populism, Progressivism, and Public Health like Kansas was?  Did any of the other states invent the flyswatter?  I rest my case.
     Why not celebrate our Free-State past, born 150 years ago?  Our oldest towns and cities courageously played out their role in the Bleeding Kansas struggles that eventually led to the Civil War and the end of slavery in this nation.
     Why not educate towards the positives in Brown v. Board, namely that Topeka was one of five places in the nation with enough people of courage-black and white-to organize and bring suit against racial segregation.
     Yep, folks, we have a lot to celebrate and a lot to learn, and so I look forward to 2004.  But I also want to look forward to what's ahead of us, and I'm not sure 2004 will be one of those years we end up celebrating in the future.
     We heard the State of the State speech, for example, with the governor's Education First plan.  But we heard no details.  Those were given to the press so we could read about tax increases the next day.  If Education is First, why not educate Kansans in the State of the State speech?  And the Republican response was no better.  One party says we ought to think big, but without specific details.  The other party, in the person of the Speaker of the House,  says we ought to think small, but without specific details.  Both want time to wrangle.
     That's all well and good for the present.  But the future demands something to celebrate.  Let education come first.  We must acknowledge that a well-educated citizenry is one of the top  natural resources a place should have.  But what of our other resources?  For example, if we're so hell-bent on gambling in Kansas, let's take a real gamble on organic farming and renewable energy technology.  If we're so worried about our economic future, let's remember our agricultural base and agree to tougher zoning and environmental laws to restrict the pillage of arable land- those acres deemed prime for farming, grazing and timber.  In other words, let's be certain we have a physical state worth celebrating in 100 or 150 years.
    Details on that, of course, to come later.

The following commentary aired on October 2, 2003:

On Obituaries

    Folks, my grandson has made it clear: I'm not to die in Topeka.  I can come visit my great-grandchildren.  I can take them to the World Famous Zoo-although the orangutans are dying from a virus given them by a rabbit, for goodness sake.  I can attend performances at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, or the Civic Theatre-even buy a nearly nude calendar to help TCT raise funds and blood pressures.  I can even come to Topeka to take advantage of good medical facilities.  But I'm not to die in a Topeka hospital, unless I want to pay, and pay a lot, to have people know about it.
    You see, the Topeka Capital-Journal has given up the newspaper's classical role as historical record.  If you want your obituary published, you have to pay for it, just the same as if you were having a garage sale or renting your house.
    You can still get in the paper if you're part of a fancy cat show.  Of if you participate in the Sunflower State Games.  Or if you're selling homemade lemonade out of your Kansas City barber shop.  You can still get a line in the Daily Record if you call the fire department.  Marriages, divorces and births are all still free.  But, irony of ironies, death costs you.  Or it costs your family.  My grandson talked to a friend whose family would have felt guilty unless they printed a notice of their loved one's passing.  So, they ended up not only with a death in the family but a $350 newspaper obituary bill.
    Folks, you'd think the high price of obituaries in the capital city would make for short notices.  Not so, from what my grandson tells me.  In another irony, once people are paying, they make sure to say exactly what they want to say.  A matter-of-fact obituary used to read something like this: "Maude Parsons is survived by her husband Robert, of the home, and two sons, Robert, Jr., and Bobbie, of Houston, Texas."  The language of the paid obituary tends away from concision towards inflation, something like this: "The dear and gentle deceased, Maude Parson, a homemaker and knitter beyond compare, is survived by her grieving and mournful husband, Robert, in their lovely home in southwest Topeka, and by her distraught sons, Robert, Jr., and Bobbie, of Houston, Texas, who flew all the way home to be at her bedside, and to hear her final wisdom."
    Folks, I spoof the florid because you shouldn't have to pay for the historical record.  But when you do, the temptation is going to lean toward personal quaintness.  For my money, I'll stay in Here.  Or if I die in Topeka, I'll do it famously, like the orangutan at the Zoo.  My grandson said they ran that article as news, and for free.

The following commentary aired on July 25, 2003:

Summer Garden Giveaways

    Folks, last February I was paying attention.  When all the other old coots at the Co-op were drowsing through the cold, or standing at the window listening to the sleet skitter along the glass, or contemplating their next move in checkers, I was watching.  Because I knew exactly what would happen in July.
    You see, besides weather and checkers and naps, February is the month of the seed catalogue.  There's always a dozen of them at the Co-op, and in that cooped-up, sun-deprived season, we old folks plan our gardens.  Our eyes are always bigger than our vegetable plots, and our needs always seem huge.  After all, when you've been eating squishy pink tomatoes that have all the flavor of soggy styrofoam, why wouldn't you order enough Big Boy and Early Wonder seeds to meet all the tomato needs of Here, Kansas?
    That's exactly what happens.  February is a time of hope, of filling a garden with the imagination.  I see Barney Barnhill circle the purple green beans.  As a K-State graduate, he calls them, "My purple prides."  Their stems are purple.  The beans are, too, until cooked.  Then, they turn as green as the envy of a Wildcat watching a KU basketball game.
    I watch Mabel Beemer with her organic seed catalogue, going for the heirlooms, the variegated colors and textures of squashes--zucchini and crookneck in particular.
    Elmer Peterson goes for varieties in corn--dwarf, white, shoepeg and so on.
    Folks, if I pay attention in February, I'm prepared for right now.  Because if gardens are filled with imagination in the middle of winter, believe me, they are filled with vegetables in July, and since no Kansan likes waste, midsummer becomes the great giveaway season.  What's wrong with giveaways? you might ask.  Well, I just said Kansans don't like waste.  Here I am, my garden meeting all my needs, proud to be using everything as it comes into season, and suddenly I find a big bag of "purple prides" on my doorstep, left there by "you-know-who" Barnhill.  What do I do?  I have plenty of green beans of my own.  Since I paid attention in February, I march the "gift"  right back to the giver.
    Mabel Beemer is the same dang way with her stealth squash.  You'll wake up to find some striped zucchini on your back porch, a rumpled crookneck on your glider, both as lonely as stray animals, only these strays are begging to be eaten rather than fed.  Again, I refuse.  I have planned so well I have just enough squash.  I'm not even tempted by the recipe for zucchini bread that Mabel has taped to her overgrown green giant.
    Elmer Peterson doesn't fool me when he has his annual Garage Sale and Giveaway every summer when his corn comes in.  I go over, browse his usual junk, then head back to my truck.  I look closely in the back and on the seat.  Sometimes he's clever last summer his extra corn was under the seat.  When I find the bag, I take it back to him.  "I'm up to my ears in, well ... ears," I tell him.  "Planned ahead.  Planned carefully," I brag.
    Folks, don't think I have a bad attitude.  I just don't like being overwhelmed by the abundance of others.  Maybe you know how I feel.   Maybe you have a neighbor who comes up the drive with a grocery bag stuffed full of what you can't eat either.  On the other hand, if you need some tomatoes, give me a holler and don't tell Here, Kansas.  In spite of my planning, my Big Boys produced beyond expectation.  I'll have to work that out next February, if I can plan and keep an eye on my overly generous neighbors.

The following commentary aired on June 3, 2003:

Reading my Kansas Gideon: William Stafford

     Folks, like a weary traveler checked into a motel might turn to the Gideon Bible for comfort, when I weary of the craziness of current events, I turn to my Kansas Bible, the poetry of William Stafford. This Hutchinson-born National Book Award winner kept Kansas and the simple lessons about life he learned here close to his heart, and, right now, I can use all the heart available to me.
    For example, we at the Here, Kansas, Co-op didn't much like Saddam Hussein. But we were skeptical about an aggressive foreign policy based on the fear that someone else might have the same weapons of mass destruction we do. We weren't sure we should start initiating regime changes just because we perceive evil in the world. I made a few calls to my Senator, thinking all the time of William Stafford's poem "Aunt Mabel": "Our Senator talked like war, and Aunt Mabel/ said, "He's a brilliant man,/ but we didn't elect him that much."
    Then the war began. I watched TV, and thought of Stafford's poem, "Our City Is Guarded by Automatic Rockets,"

        Breaking every law except the one
        for Go, rolling its porpoise way, the rocket
        staggers on its course; its feelers lock
        a stranglehold ahead; and-rocking-finders
        whispering "Target, Target," back and forth,
        it freezes on the final stage. I know
        and then the power. Power is not enough.

    I wish, like William Stafford, we could celebrate life without soldiers and battles and monuments, as he does in his "Un-National Monument" poem:

        This is the field where the battle did not happen,
        where the unknown solider did not die.
        This is the field where grass joined hands,
        where no monument stands,
        and the only heroic thing is the sky.
        . . .
        No people killed-or were killed-on this ground
        that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

     Then, if the war wasn't enough craziness, we Hereins read about William Bennet's gambling habit. Morality Czar Bennet commanded huge speaking fees, and I thought of a stanza in Stafford's "Things I Learned Last Week": "A man in Boston has dedicated himself/ to telling about injustice./ For three thousand dollars he will/ come to your town and tell you about it." Bennet not only preached at us, he put himself above us. We Kansans tolerate everything but pretension, as Stafford pointed out in "Religion Back Home": "The minister smoked,/ and he drank,/ and there was that woman in the choir,/ but what really finished him-/ he wore spats.
    Folks, as so many Americans are pledging allegiance to money and power, but are so afraid and insecure, I turn to William Stafford's poem "Allegiances":

        It is time for all the heroes to go home
        if they have any, time for all of us common ones
        we live by.
        . . .
        . . .
        Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
        while strange beliefs whine at the traveler's ears,
        we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
        where we are, sturdy for common things.

    As we say at the Co-op, "Nuff said." Thanks to William Stafford, Chapter and Verse.

The following commentary aired on April 11, 2003:

Pierre Small Becomes French

  Folks, you might remember Pierre Small, the current president of the Here, Kansas, DENSA Society.  He's not always been the brightest bulb in town--who is, in the DENSA Society?-- but he's a good bowler, and we love him.  Pierre came to Here, Kansas, from France, a war baby adopted by J.W. and Minnie Small at the end of WW II.  There's not much of the French about him now, except for his ever present beret and the way he says "Non."
   Pierre eats all his meals at the café over in Near Here.  Just last week he was forced to order what they called "victory" toast.  For lunch, they served him "freedom" fries.  For dinner, they wouldn't let him order anything but Chicken.  "We've got one with a nice yellow stripe of mustard down it," the waitress taunted him.  For dessert, they forced him to eat what they were calling "I hate the French-vanilla ice cream on his pie a la mode.  Pierre wasmystified.
   "You're being haunted by your Frenchness," I told him.
   "It ain't un peu fair," said Pierre.  But after that, he started researching the attitude inthe United States towards the French.  "Don't they have enough to make them mad in Saddam?" Pierre asked me.
  "We seem to have plenty of anger to go around," I said.  "Comes with our fear these days."
   "You mean you believe in this war?" Pierre asked me.
   "I don't much believe in any war," I told him.  "As the French would say, this war is a crepe shoot."
   "Wars make victims," Pierre said.  "And now I'm one of them.  I can't buy champagne at the liquor store in There.  Dry cleaner won't clean the wool beret I've been wearing all winter.  Vet won't look at my poodle.  He told me, 'Poodles've been biting the hand that feeds them.'"    Folks, the last straw came when Pierre read about the Kansas legislature.  Those of us at the Co-op saw him throw down the local paper.  Seems our representatives listened to and clamored their approval when Rep. Larry Powell, a Republican from Kalvesta, added a measure into a proposed budget bill that would make certain no state pension funds will invest in French companies, or companies with affiliates or subsidiaries in that recently- reviled country.   The measure moved forward even though nobody knew if the state has any French investments.  "Mon dieu, it's just blind hate, combined with blind ignorance," said Pierre.  And with that, he stormed out of the Co-op.
    For a few days, Pierre was holed up, feeling like a target, as isolated and alone as an enemy.  Americans, he said, like to find targets.   They're good at target shooting," Pierre told me over the phone.
   Then he read about the legislative misfire.  Seems the $150 million in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System is just too much money to reinvest in this scary stock market.   "Voila!"  said Pierre.   And this after the French were accused of not supporting the Iraqi War because they had too many economic ties with Saddam Hussein.   Pierre is thinking of introducing a resolution condemning the Kansas Legislature during the very next meeting of the DENSA Society.  It ll be called  The Pot Calls the Kettle Black.
    Pierre's a brighter bulb than we thought.  If we aren't careful, he'll graduate from DENSA.  Maybe some Kansas legislators can take his place.  Non?

The following commentary aired on  February 25, 2003:

School Consolidation

    Folks, those of us from Here, Kansas, are meeting with folks from There, and from Near Here and Almost There.  The topic is school consolidation.  We meet at the Neither Here nor There High School, home of the Unicorns, the school we built in a cornfield between Here and There during the consolidation push of the 1980s.  We're no strangers to the challenges of bringing two schools, educational traditions and sports teams together.  Take our mascot.  Here High School had always been the Hopping Horned Toads.  There High was the Mustangs.  Put them together and you get a horned horse, the Unicorns.  During the transition, some fans cheered, "Go, Must...uh...corns," or "Hop  em, Unicorns."  But eventually, the students became used to the long bus ride-an hour and a half a day, for some in our part of the state-and we saved money on teacher salaries, administrative duplication, and building maintenance.
    Now, of course, the Kansas legislature is talking consolidation again, and Near Here and Almost There are targets.  They might be forced to join us at Neither Here nor There High.  They're mad, but willing to talk.  Will we change the mascot again?  The Near Here Mountaineers seem odd to Central Kansas-no mountains, trapping, exploration.  The Almost There Armadillos came from a random sighting of that creature during the building of their small school back in 1909.  They'll argue that Unicorns have no connection to Kansas- no sightings, and as imaginary as mountains.  Who knows, we could end up with Neither Here nor There, but Near Here and Almost There High School, home of the Armed Mountain Unicorns.
    People hereabouts fuss and fume about the seemingly trivial.  How else can they voice their real concern?  School consolidation further erodes their sense of the local, of being who we are in a given place.  After all, we know that rural Kansas is shrinking.  We've heard the proposal for 105 school districts, one for each county.  We're practical people.  We realize governments, local and state, must avoid duplication to save money.  But we also wonder if people know how hard it is for us to give up our identities, small as they might be.        Folks, did you know that over 60% of our population now lives an hour's drive from either Wichita or Topeka?  Perhaps we should have only two school districts: Wichita Central West and Capital City Perimeter.  Sound appealing?
    And if we're going to save money cutting duplicate administrative costs, why stop with school districts?  Look at those 105 counties, each roughly a 30 x 30 mile square.  Early organizers wanted Kansans of the 1800s to be able to get to the courthouse and back in a day if they had business.  If that's the standard, we could consolidate at least half our counties, making for all kinds of efficiencies.  But I can hear the outcry.  Why would six Southwestern Kansas counties-say, Stevens, Stanton, Seward, Morton, Grant and Haskell-want to be one big S.S.S.Mor-gran-skell?
    Come to think of it, if we have consolidation fever, why stop with state boundaries?  We could put old animosities and identities to rest and cut costs by merging Kansas with Missouri, Jayhawkers with Bushwhackers.  We could call the new state Missouri-Kan, as if they ever could.  Or Miss-Kan, as in "I miss Kansas."
    Folks, I'm being facetious, but we rural Kansans feel for our schools.  We will miss them if we're forced to consolidate.  The issue goes beyond economic savings, to what makes us who we are, where we are.  Think about yourselves.  How many of you want to end up Jay-whackers?  Bush-hawkers?  You'd miss Kansas as much as we miss the old Here High School, home of the Hopping Horned Toads.

The following commentary aired December 5, 2002:


     Folks, we're halfway through the shopping season, and I'm ready to quit.  Used to be that Here, Kansas, had about all a body could want-the groceries for Thanksgiving, the simple gifts for Christmas and Hannukah.  That was before the IGA closed, before the Co-op and the Mini-Mart and Elmer Peterson s Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash became our only stores. These days, all us Hereins hit the road, ice in our veins, fear in our stomachs.  Why?  Because the art of shopping is not for the simple, the weak, the inattentive.
     In the old days, my wife sent me to the grocery with a simple list:  meat, butter, eggs, potatoes, coffee, some vegetables, milk.  Now, Iola Humboldt annotates her list with so much fine print I need a magnifying glass.  It's not just milk, it's skim milk-a half gallon, watch the expiration date, and remember that now it's labeled fat-free.  Next on the list is low-fat margarine-one of the kinds made with plant sterol esters, if you can find it.  Then it's popsicles-little Billy likes sugar ones, but get fruit juice ones.  And so on.
    I might come home with a jug of milk, correctly dated, correctly fat-free, but Iola finds a dent in the plastic that might, as she speculates,  Cause leakage.   And I've bought the right margarine, though she doesn t approve of my butter purchase.
    "What if I want to fry an egg?"  I ask.   "You can't cook with your product."
     Then there's the popsicles for Billy s visit.  Not only mostly fruit juice, but, I say with pride,  "I found one labeled low-fat."
      "What?"  asks Iola, and proceeds to read down the ingredients until she finds some artificial sweetener that'll give the boy cancer.  Of course, I don t ask her to read the ingredients on the margarine I bought her-a long list that's more complicated than the back pages of a contract.
     I got through Thanksgiving, each trip to the store followed by a return trip the next day to exchange purchases because of expiration dates on bread, cancer-causing popsicles and coffee-right brand, wrong something about grind or roast.
     Seasonal gift shopping is worse.  Sure, I can drive to Wichita and get what my extended family wants by typing their names into a chain store computer.  Out comes a sheet that tells me item, price, even aisle.  Most of what they want I can't abide giving them.  But the opposite is true, too.   "What you want to give them, they don t want,"  says Iola as I steer her towards some fuzzy slippers for the men of their houses.   "Not everyone pads around the house most days,"  she reminds me.   "And they don't wear hats.  Nor scarves."
     Simple things aren't in, folks.  Too many choices, labels, brands and sizes.
     "Let's please just send them each a check,"  I finally plead."
      "That s so impersonal,"  says Iola.
      "More than a computer printout?"  I ask.   "More than including a sales receipt?   It was your great granddaughter who exchanged Doctor Barbie for archeologist Barbie.  How were we to know which one she wanted?"
     "You're being lazy,"  says Iola.
      "Maybe I'm worn out from the trips to the grocery,"  I say.
      "I told them to buy you slippers,"  she says.   Come the New Year, you can stay home.  For now, go warm up the car."
      So off we go, to Wichita, ice in my veins, fear in my stomach.

The following commentary aired on November 7, 2002:

Ad Astra

    Folks, it's time to quit griping. Ad Astra is atop the dome, after fourteen years of difficulties. And if I can quit complaining, you can, too. After all, I voiced my disdain for the project from the beginning. I was against Ad Astra, even though I wanted more than a light bulb adorning the topmost perch of the Capitol. After all, a light bulb is the symbol of getting an idea, of creative thinking. Did our Statehouse light bulb ever inspire the many dim bulbs who held legislative seats over the years?
    My objection was not to adornment. Nor against reinforcing the dome for whatever might sit on top of it. Nor against having a Native American. My objection was simple. I didn't like the design. The face reminded me too much of the cover of a Big Chief tablet and I didn't believe an Indian would waste an arrow by shooting it into the air. That gesture seems more the drunk cowboy with his pistol than the Native American with his bow and arrow.
    But now I've driven by for my look at Ad Astra. I can't see the face anymore, so there's goes half my objection. And about the arrow in the air-well, up that high it merely seems symbolic, as public art is meant to be. Like a lot of the Kansas public, I've been dragged towards this moment. I'm willing to let go my objections and enjoy our new look, our very public art.
    Folks, we Kansans seem suspicious of art. We censor art because of its pagan roots-that was the objection to Ceres when she was supposed to crown our dome. We worry about nudity, so we slash it away-that was Carrie A. Nation's objection to John Noble's "Cleopatra at the Bath," hung in a Wichita saloon. We censor art because it doesn't look realistic to us-that was the objection to the pigs' tails John Steuart Curry painted for the Statehouse murals. We censor art because we think it represents us unfairly-that was the objection to Curry's fanatical John Brown. Better no art than controversial art, we seem to think.
    Some people think of art as a frill, too, something that frosts a cake. Most of us in Kansas feel like we don't even have cake these days, let alone icing. But art is not frill. We don't do everything else and then art. We didn't when we built the Statehouse, though the same kinds of people didn't like the fancy marble, the copper, and brass back then. The Populist candidate for Governor, in fact, was so outraged he promised any citizen a bath in the fancy marble bathroom attached to the Governor's office. One voter was said to have taken him up on the offer.
    I'll make an offer, too. Drive by our newly adorned Statehouse. Ad Astra is free for the looking. It's public. It's monumental, just as it should be. It offers us something to argue about, something to enjoy, something to define us, something to either live down or up to. Now that Ad Astra has a home, I'm ready to quit complaining. Hope you'll join me.

The following commentary aired on October 29, 2002:

Obsolete Phrases

    Folks, we obsolete old folks were sitting at the Co-op the other day drinking nickel cups of coffee, swatting flies and talking in our antiquated way--or so says Barney Barnhill.
    "Heard that Mabel Beemer drove to the West Coast on the spur of the moment," Claude Anderson said. "Rented a car because she didn't want to fly. Heard it cost her a pretty penny."
    "She said she was going to travel," said Elmer Peterson, of the Drive-Thru Pharmacy and Car Wash. "And I said I'd stock up on energy supplements. Found a catalogue. I can get vitamins and herbals dirt cheap."
    "I'll buy if I can spare a dime after I pay my electric," I said.
    "Electric will be down, William," said Iola Humboldt. "I've been hanging laundry, like in the old days."
    "Dirty linens?" asked Claude.
    "Nope," said Iola, "just hanging things out to dry, like we're being hung out to dry by this current economy."
    "Right," I said. "Pension funds are all gone. Will they bankrupt Social Securitynext?"
    "Don't worry," said Claude, "no Congress is going to rob Social Security."
    "Don't bet on it," said Iola. "I used to think they'd get it all ironed out, but not with this War on Terrorism and the talk of Iraq. Bombs cost more than spare change."
    Barney Barnhill began to laugh. "The way you old folks talk," he said.
    "You don't agree?" we asked him.
    "I agree. I'm talking about the way you talk. Don't you hear yourselves? Mabel's car cost a pretty penny. Dirt cheap, Elmer says of his vitamins. William says he'll spare a dime. That's Dust Bowl talk. Pennies aren't worth anything, dirt isn't cheap, and anyone can spare a dime. Kids won't pick them up off the sidewalk!" He turned to me and Iola. "And that clothesline stuff--airing dirty linen, being hung out to dry, having new wrinkles. It's against the law in California to hang laundry outside. And everyone I know wears permanent press clothes."
    "Are you done?" I asked. "Because I don't see your point."
    "I've run out of steam," said Barney, "though where are the steam engines? I'm saying you make sense, but in the language of the bingo parlor and the Co-op."
    "Are you saying we need contemporary expressions?" asked Iola. "To talk like our children and grandchildren?"
    "Then I couldn't tease you," Barney said.
    "And you wouldn't learn," I said. "We old folks have history even in our expressions. Pay attention. You can find out about a whole way of living that's gone. From the things we valued to the way we did our washing and drying. That's worth a pretty penny, Barney."
    With that, we old folks continued to chew the fat even though we knew full well that, in these contemporary times, fat should not be part of our diet, or our speech patterns.

The following commentary aired on October 11, 2002:


    Well, folks, football season under way. The folks in Here, Kansas, have been wondering about the University of Kansas decision to continue to allow tailgating--in other words, drinking alcohol--in designated areas before football games. Claude Anderson tells me that attendance is up dramatically, that school spirit seems to improve in proportion to other spirits. Of course, when I watch football on television, I'm told over and over by beer companies that I'd be havingmore fun if I had a brew in hand, a nagging or invisible wife, and lots of buddies.
    But the consensus in Here--since most of us lack the testosterone to really enjoy football, anyway--is that a person would have to be full of spirits to find much pleasure in the game. Multiply that by what has been a lackluster KUfootball program, and tailgating makes good sense. They used to say that things go better with Coke. Now, with beer.
    But why stop with KU football, especially in Kansas? You see, Kansans believe in equality, and there's no reason KU should have the monopoly on tailgating. Washburn football fans have certainly had discouraging seasons. Who knows what Ichabod supporters would do if well enough lubricated? And why stop with football? K-State basketball fans could surely enjoy lifting spirits, too, given some of their defeats.   I
    n fact, Elmer Peterson, at the Drive-thru Pharmacy and Car Wash, wondered if the universities might eventually allow students to tailgate before classes. "Some of those courses can be as punishing as watching football," he told us at the Co-op. "Something should make class time more palatable."
    "Why stop with the universities?" asked Barney Barnhill. He reminded us of a local effort to lift spirits. Several years ago, the Near Here theater league realized that theater in our part of the state would do better if patrons were offered a steak and a stiff bourbon before they saw actors and actresses singing and dancing their way to unpaid, minimal glory. The local sheriff looks more handsome, and Mary Jane, who styles hair all day, sounds better, when eyes and ears are a bit fuzzy with booze. Season tickets to the Near Here Theater League dinner extravaganzas outsold high school football passes to the Neither Here or There Consolidated School season.
    Folks, if they can do it to enhance interest in football and theater, maybe they could expand it to politics. After all, lobbyists, for years, have known that the political process is well-enhanced by the flow of spirits. But why wait until after hours? Perhaps more Kansans would attend legislative hearings, even come watch the Senate and House in session, if they could tailgate on the Statehouse lawn beforehand.
    In fact, tailgating could transform the entire state. Wherever interest wanes, wherever we need better spirit. Folks, we know the answer. We could even change our state motto.
    How do you like: Seeing Stars Through Difficulties?

The following commentary aired on April 4, 2002:

Food Terror

     Folks, last summer at the Co-op in Here, Kansas, we had some heated discussions during our regular vegetable exchanges.  Mabel Beemer became angry when Claude Anderson confessed that his bright red tomatoes were earlier and bigger than her tiny green ones because he used huge amounts of Miracle-Gro fertilizer.  "Unnatural," she huffed.  She refused to take Claude's tomatoes, even though the rest of us, juice dripping down our chins, seemed healthy.  "Poison yourselves, I don't care," she said, and left.
     Later in the summer we got wind that Barney Barnhill was seen taking a leak in his melon patch again.  "In broad daylight," said Iola Humboldt.
     "Moisture and fertilizer combined," said Barney, refusing to be shamed.  But Iola refused his cantaloupe, even though I scoffed at her squeamishness.
     I'm thinking about our vegetable wars because I hear lots of folks are afraid of food contamination.  In fact, the Kansas legislature wants to call it bio- or agri-terrorism and stiffen the criminal penalties for it.  I can understand this impulse. What if someone put something in our water?  In a farmer's field?  In a rancher's livestock?  What if bacteria or virus or disease were introduced into a packing plant?  Into a feed mill?  Into a factory that produces cereals?  Or sausages?  Or potato chips?
     We've all heard the reports.  We're vulnerable to this terrorism, say the experts, and we need to do something about it.  And what we need to do about it, according to other experts, is to beef up security.  These days, I'm told, our food travels an average of 1300 miles and is handled six different times before we buy it.  Think of the security at all those checkpoints:  field, elevator, plant; let's check trucker, grocer and fellow shoppers.
     Nobody seems to be asking the Here, Kansas, questions:  Why is our food shipped from so far away?  Why is our food supply so concentrated in feed lots and packing plants and huge factories and giant bakeries?  Why have we traded the quality of our food for off-season availability, breeding tomatoes for shelf-life and shipping hardiness instead of taste and texture in our mouths?
     I call these Here, Kansas, questions because Hereins don't eat soggy tomatoes in the off-season:  better canned from our gardens.  We don't buy bread from Grant's/Pepperidge Farm we bake it ourselves.  We don't buy Farmland/Tyson, we go to Near Here for local meat.
     But some of us like this food security legislation.  Mabel and Iola will now have grounds to prosecute Claude for contaminating his tomatoes.  And Barney Barnhill will no longer be able to violate his melons with impunity.  In Here, Kansas, we can rest easier:  Our food supply will be secured!

The following commentary aired on February 7, 2002:

Kansas Day Weather Watch 2002

     Folks, I was sitting in the Co-op in Here, Kansas, on January 30th, feeling a bit disappointed that the people in Here hadn't made more of Kansas Day.  Claude Anderson actually had to get out a calculator to figure out how old Kansas was.  "There's a sign of age," I told him.
    And Barney Barnhill still couldn't give me the second verse of "Home on the Range," even after I reminded him that it was the very worst of the lot: "Oh, give me the gale, of the Solomon Vale/ Where life streams with buoyancy flow,/ On the banks of the Beaver, where seldom if ever/ Any poisonous herbage doth grow."
    And when I gave her the State Symbols quiz, Mabel Beemer couldn't remember the name of the Kansas March, even after obvious hints, like asking her who was buried in Grant's tomb.  "The name of the Kansas March," I finally had to tell her, "is  The Kansas March.'"  She blushed.  "It follows the Kansas February," I joked, to remove a bit of the sting.  But  you can see why I was a bit morose after Kansas Day.
   Then, folks, something happened.  Pure serendipity.  Claude got on the computer so we could listen to public radio.  Northeast Kansas was having the weather you know how we old folks like anything to do with sky and clouds, heat and cold, storm and calm so we tuned into KANU.  And I received a Kansas Day gift: school closings.
   Now closings might not sound like a gift to you, unless you're a child who doesn't have to go to class for the day.  But to me, closings mean I get to hear all those wonderful town names that make up our great State, the one said after the other as in an honor roll.  Imagine a half-dozen Hereins, listening to place names, and smiling:  "Also closed, Osawatomie, Oskaloosa, Osage City, Wellsville, Tonganoxie, and Baldwin schools."  Some of the names seem to describe a place in terms of hope: to Wellsville,  add Pleasanton and Havensville and Fairview.  Some remind us of the Native American past: to Osage City, add Wyandotte and Shawnee.  To those odd sounding, like Osawatomie, add Netawaka and Muscotah.  To those, like Oskaloosa, who bring their names from other states, add Princeton and Manhattan.
    I love the simple names some person's first name with "-burg" or "-ine" or "ville" added to them: Pauline, Louisburg, Harveyville.  And then there are those towns that seem to belong to each other linguistically as well as geographically: Corning and Goff, Whetmore and Whiting, Horton and Holton.
    Folks, we Hereins sat quietly, listening to a mellifluous voice give us the roll of closings.  Since everything was closed, we sat for a long time.  And once the local news spot was over, and we knew we wouldn't hear anymore of Kansas, Claude shut down the computer and we all enjoyed the silence.  I was the only one to break it.  "Happy (late) Kansas Day," I said.  "To all of you in Big Springs, and Rock Creek, and Hillsdale, and Ottawa, and . . .

Note:  This commentary won first place in the Kansas Association of Broadcaster's competition for editorial on a non-profit radio station.

Address all comments to
Tom Averill
Washburn University of Topeka
1700 College
Topeka, KS 66621

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