Birthday madness


Perhaps the most amusing part of throwing outlandish birthdays for our children is that we openly complain about the majesty of it all to any adults within earshot throughout the course of the event.

“Can you believe we do this?” we will ask one another. “Back in our day…”

Indeed, back in our day…

Birthdays are, of course, awesome as kids, no matter how titanic or low-key the party.

Cake. Gifts. Friends. Games. I mean, come on, it’s built in fun.

My most memorable birthday as a child was the surprise I had when my mom drove me to one of the greatest places, at the time, a kid could get lucky enough to enjoy – Showbiz Pizza Place. Inside were a dozen of my best friends, my siblings and family. Oh, and wall-to-wall video games (this was the 80s so it was nonstop Mrs. Pac-Man, Moon Patrol and Donkey Kong for me), pizza and those creepy bears and other assorted animals that played in a band behind the curtain.

As an adult, now, we seemingly look for the most outrageous ways to say “happy birthday” to our children. And maybe outrageous isn’t the correct word. Certainly, though, we can agree that our parents and grandparents are most likely snickering at the massive events we are throwing today.

Addy loves a good birthday party. And a good wedding. She’s like her dad in that regard.

In the last few weeks, she’s been fortunate enough to be invited to a “princess party” for a friend’s daughter and a 1-year old extravaganza out at Legacy Park in Lee’s Summit.

The princess party, if I can look at that through the eyes of the 4-, 5-, 6-year olds, had to have been just spectacular to them. The fact that you can “rent” princesses is something that I chalked up to “things John didn’t know.” But these two ladies had captivated the room the entire time, telling stories, doing activities and giving the little girls makeovers.

Since the 1-year old wasn’t quite ready for that, the party at the park was a little more subdued, if not outright fun, still. These parents opted to entertain the adults as well as the kids, offering food and drinks and the built-in bonus of having right there in a park.

When Addy turned 2, we hit up the birthday party wonderland, Paradise Park, for that occasion.

At 3, it was a bouncy castle in my backyard and catered food from Hy-Vee East in Lee’s Summit.

Just around the corner now is 4. I am sure Addy’s mom has some fun plans up her sleeve. And it will probably involve ponies.

I am certainly not bemoaning the new world of birthdays and kiddos. I am sure this isn’t a fad that just started a few years ago. It’s just all over my radar now with a child of my own.

I told Addy recently that one of her birthdays was just going to be cake and games at the house.

She asked, “Can my friends come?”

A gentle reminder about what really matters most to them.


School’s out … past summer


Hundreds of kids are getting an extended summer break in Ferguson, Missouri.

It’s not a break they want.

While teenagers in other communities may openly scoff at the notion that Ferguson has yet to come off of summer break, the sentiment among most kids here is that, indeed, they are ready to go back to school.

Allisha and A’Nais, both 9, attend Johnson Wabash Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

Both took advantage of the open library time this week made available when school officials felt compelled to cancel classes until at least next week due to the unrest in Ferguson connected to the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown. Brown died during an altercation with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

School was actually supposed to start the week before. But was pushed back. And back. And back again.

And while the adults outside of the library work to calm the community, the children inside have a simple message – open school back up.

“Sitting at home is boring,” Allisha said, the room around her buzzing with creative and artistic energy.

Added A’Nais, “I hate it. I would rather be in school to learn.”

These are canned answers during a media blitz interview, either. These are the most candid of thoughts from the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas that are the most affected by the turmoil.

“I went to a rally and it’s not as bad as it looks on the news,” Allisha said. “This is not a bad town. They have parties for us to go to.”

Indeed, Ferguson does much to encourage health play and children’s activities.

The city has been named to the Playful City USA program – four times, more than any other city in Missouri. The awards go to cities that take bold steps to ensure that children have easy access to a balance of active play in their communities.

Amairis, 11, is having a blast at the library on this particular day, making braids and bracelets. But she, too, misses school. And she has a most poignant message for those out on the streets.

“I want them to sit down and talk it out,” she said, a smile replaced on her face with seriousness.

Teachers and parents alike would like nothing more. Dr. Gloria and Laura, who helped bring kids in from the street corner to the library, said there is a definite void in the community with school out. And it reaches other communities, too, as the Ferguson-Florissant School District reaches into Berkeley, Florissant and touches other areas.

“We’re confused, sad, kind of resigned,” said Laura, a 24-year resident in North County and a 13-year teacher in the district. Gloria said not being in school is “disorienting.”

“The dialogue needs to start and healing needs to begin,” Laura said. “Public opinion is overriding the process.”

This is Ferguson … right here

Janeatha Evans and her daughter used to live in the Canfield Green Apartments.

She’s lived in Ferguson, Missouri, for five years now, having moved from another location in North County.

And on this day, she joins a dozen parents, grandparents, teachers and more than 60 children at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library to bring some normalcy to their lives.

Evans, like many in Ferguson, are adamant about what their community is. And what it is not.

“It’s not this,” Evans said, quickly adding, “This is Ferguson … right here.”

Evans moves her hands about as if to encompass the entire room of education and opportunity. And in every way, she’s right. Ferguson, at a little over 21,000 residents, may be two-thirds black. And it may have a disproportionate amount of white-to-black police officers. But on this day, in this library, everyone colors, plays, talks and sits side-by-side while anger brews a mile away.

Evans worries about her daughter and her future in the community, as it relates to police, specifically.

“She’s scared of cops; I don’t want her to be,” Evans said.

Outside influences have hampered so many parts of this process that those dug into the community feel like their sense of themselves is slipping away.

Many news outlets, including Fox News, are reporting that of the 78 people arrested Aug. 18 during protests on W. Florissant Ave. in Ferguson, only four were from that town, with many showing IDs from Illinois and Texas.

Dr. Gloria has been a teacher in the area for 50 years, many as a vocal instructor in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. She and a fellow teacher helping at the library, Laura, were out front ushering in neighborhood kids to a learning environment graciously offered up by the public library and organized by Carrie Pace and many volunteers.

Gloria says there is too much outside influence.

“President Obama, now Eric Holder is coming…it’s too much,” she said. “Has it really come to that?”

Added, Laura, “All of the sudden we don’t know how to handle ourselves?”

Sandy Jablonski, a Ferg-Flor aide in attendance with her granddaughter, Grace, has lived in Ferguson since 1981, with all four kids going through the schools.

“We’ve been through tornadoes and picked up, cleaned up after that,” she said.

Evans is ready to take back her city.

“It’s not a thing about black and white,” she says. “This is a community thing.”

The library of solace

The kids have names. Identities. All of them.

They miss school. They know what’s going on outside, perhaps not the gravity of it all. But they know one thing: school isn’t in session and something is awry in the community.

Bearing name tags that read Allisha, Jorge, Bobby, A’Nais, Holly and Jarvon, each sits at an 8-foot table, piecing together jewelry from beads and glitter, or doing science projects with balloons, or quietly putting together a 250-piece puzzle.

Inside the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, things make much more sense than they do a few blocks away.

Here, at 35 North Florissant, learning is the norm, respect is wagered at each table and West Florissant seems a world away.

Just as it should.

If I’ve learned anything about educators during my many years of education, it’s this: they will not stand for complacency.

School’s called off for another week in the Ferguson-Florissant School District? Fine. Let’s move them to the library, says Mrs. Carrie Pace.

Pace is a fourth year, K-6 Art teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary.

When chaos took over several streets in a town she teachers, she countered with calmness.

And, admittedly, a few tears.

“I went to the library and, maybe, got one sentence out and I was in tears,” Pace said through a wide smile. “And he said, ‘Absolutely.'”

“He” was Scott Bonner, the library administrator, who gracefully handed over a large conference room for use for all children, no matter where they are from, to use and learn in until life – at least for the residents 6-18 years old, their parents and all educators – gets back to some sense of normalcy.

Pace, all 5-foot of her, is a force in the room. She bounces from table to table, helping with projects, answer questions and taking in a steady stream of media that have finally found the story outside of the riotous streets.

Through the district’s Facebook page, Parents For Peace pages and social media tags and right down to teachers holding signs on the streets, Pace was determined to get kids in Ferg-Flor out of their houses and into an educational environment.

The community is richer for people like Pace, Bonner and the kids that are taking the time to do something with their spare time.

And when the school bell rings again, they will be ready to get back to that setting as well.

Oh, God … I’m acting?


I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the Biblical musical Godspell.

The music is ingrained in my head as much as so many childhood memories of playing baseball, hide-and-seek, playing tag or the incredibly long summer days.

Believe it or not, I remember the 8-track days. My parents had a console as big as a bookshelf laid horizontally. We would cram the 8-track into place and out would roar “Light of the World,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “Prepare Ye” and every other track from this brilliant 1971 musical.

I really don’t know when it started, why we listened to it so often or when we may have outgrown listening to it. I just know that when I hear a tune from Godspell, I am launched back into the late 70s and early 80s as a child, one of four siblings, living in a small four-plex and surrounding myself (for the little time I was actually inside the house) with music ranging from the Godspell soundtrack to The Police to Styx.

I let Godspell go from my memory for quite a while until I saw a production in the 1990s, the memories and music flooding back to those days, not long ago, tapping my feet to every song and audibly singing “LET’S HAVE SOME WINE!” I am sure those around me appreciated that.

Bearing witness to the finale, for the first time live, was quite an emotional experience. As someone that had only imagined the majesty of the musical though the sounds of an 8-track, seeing the lively and lovely performance live was uplifting, living up to and, indeed, exceeding all I had imagined.

Of course, I had no idea how we closed this play. Coming off of “Beautiful City” things get pretty raw with the crucifying of Jesus, sorrowful wails of “Oh God, I’m dying,” and “Long live God.”  It’s draining, in only a way art through theater can be.

I was honored to be a small part of the Godspell cast during the Summit Theatre Group’s summer musical at Lee’s Summit Christian Church last week.

I doubt I could live up to the role of Lazarus, or even act my way out of a box, for that matter, but it was grand to be back on the stage. And even grander to see the passion for the music from this talented cast.

This is my second STG production, having starred alongside Trisha Drape in last fall’s production of Love Letters. Apparently, former journalists make great stage actors.

My first time on stage, under the direction of Kim Hayes, was at William Chrisman High School in 1991 or so in The Mystery of the Black Abbott. I didn’t even have to utter a word, and, boom, “on-stage” points. A few years later, I would appear as an English Bobby in Angel Street.

Yep, another part with no lines.

I do have a soft spot for theater, the time, effort and talents that put in by our high school students, college performers and those around the community, to maintain and mingle in the many benefits we find when we promote and encourage the arts.

Bravo to Ben Martin, his board, the directors (including Miss Phyllis Balagna, who led the charge on Godspell) and all those that have revived community theater in Lee’s Summit and for the supporters that help keep it funded.

“Dadda, do you work there?”

I started preparing my daughter Addy about a week before my final day at the Lee’s Summit Journal.

In the beginning, it was subtle, delicate. “Sweetie, dadda isn’t going to be working here very much longer?”

“Why not?” she would ask.

“Well, I’m just not.”

Kids are amazingly resilient. The first time or two I told her this while we were in my office, I would get emotional and she would come and wrap her little arms around me in comfort. After that I pulled myself together and subsequently would discuss my departure from the newspaper, she asked me what any 3-year-old would naturally want to know:

“Where you gonna work now?”

“Well sweetie, I don’t know just yet. But I will soon.”

Addy seemed to accept that concept, mostly. Of course, her chief concern was will my new office, in whatever form that was going to take, be accommodating to her.

“Can I come with you?”

“Of course you can, sweetie.”

As my transition away from the newspapers in Lee’s Summit and Cass County became more and more real, Addy began discussing the topic in quite open forums, informing people on the street that would stop to talk to us on our walks that “my dadda isn’t going to work at the newspaper.”

I just had to chuckle. I mean, honestly, she was right.

During one stretch of a week or so, Addy would point to just about every building we would pass on foot or in the car and ask if I was going to work there.

The wedding event space, the ice cream store, numerous strip malls and insurance offices…even empty buildings. In the mind of a young daughter, I suppose, her dadda can do anything. I am not sure if she is right, but I would sure like to try.

What has hurt me most in the last few weeks is the sense that I have lost something with Addy as it relates to my work. I know that’s ridiculous. But I couldn’t shake it for the longest time. I am not sure I still haven’t completely let it go. My work was my identity for a long time. Decades, in fact.

We have this finite amount of time where our kiddos think we are heroes. That what we do is “cool” and that, if we are at all proud of our professions and feel like we are doing worthwhile work, that the pride shows in our every day lives and funnels down as an example of work ethic.

I know that Addy will be proud of me regardless of the office I sit in. And these days, that office is the kitchen table with my new laptop that has a pink cover (she picked it out) surrounded by paperwork, empty water bottles and salt-and-pepper shaker from Beale Street.

She isn’t soured. And I’m not either.

As our walks still take us by the newspaper office, she delicately points out that, “dadda, you…you used to work there.”

“I did sweetie.”

“And now you’re gonna work somewhere else…” she informs me, grabbing a book to read and her Cheerios close at hand.

Wherever my next office happens to be, I know she will feel at home there.