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Archive for March, 2020

I’ve been meaning to write about Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator for the White House and an almost daily presence on the Trump coronavirus team’s daily briefings.

Not only is she a straight shooter — like the other day when she called out that idiot Sen. Rand Paul for going about business as usual after he’d been exposed to the virus — this retired Army colonel who has two grown children and grandchildren is the perfect blend of class, authoritativeness and style.

She has caught the attention of more writers than I. For example, Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, said this about her sense of style…

Birx doesn’t dress like a lady politician in jewel-tone suits and statement jewelry. She doesn’t wear power dresses, those sleek sheaths that are a critical part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s professional wardrobe. She doesn’t turn up in a white coat as if she’s there to take the nation’s collective temperature. Birx’s style can be called classically feminine when she wears her shirtwaist dresses and knots silk scarves around her shoulders. She exudes academic wonkiness with her earth tones and tunics and mufflers double-wrapped around her neck. She never looks bland or nondescript. She doesn’t look like an automaton or someone who has lost herself in the data and computer models. And in doing so, she offers a subtle but important reminder to people that while this crisis is serious and meeting it is hard, we are still human. Do not lose yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Kirsten Fleming of the New York Post said this…

In every briefing…Birx has brought her special brand of sartorial serenity and strength to the country. Unlike many women in top perches of American society, who thrive off the fumes of their structured, angular power suits and unimaginative shift dresses, Birx relies on soft silhouettes, feminine frocks and her seemingly unending supply of scarves that she neatly drapes and wraps around her shoulders. Instead of look-at-me reds and electric hues, she opts for muted dark blues and namaste earth tones.

On Friday morning she entered the briefing room in a silver raw silk dress with a fuller skirt and oversize monochrome sash. Her trademark scarf neatly hung over her right shoulder. The retro form could have been plucked from June Cleaver’s closet, but on Birx, it was thoroughly modern housewife — cleaning up our nation’s mess with her brains instead of a vacuum and marigold gloves. It was a testament to the versatility and power of femininity.

Dr. Deborah Birx

Dr. Birx also knows how to handle Trump. On Monday, for example, she was back at the podium after having gone missing over the weekend.

She explained that she had stayed at home because of a low-grade fever. At the mention of fever, Trump made a mock gesture of shock and playfully retreated a few steps. (It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen Trump do or heard him say.)

Dr. Birx just smiled and waved him off before explaining that she had been tested and the result had come back negative.

…We can’t have Dr. Birx getting sick. No, no, she is one of our most illuminating and inspirational leaders in the war against Covid-19…as well as a testament to the power of femininity.

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Lockdown, day one

I ventured out into the wild today.

The two main things I was armed with were a long list of grocery items and a sandwich bag that Patty had filled with disinfectant wipes.

I hadn’t been to the store, or stores, since the weekend, which is a long time for me. In ordinary times, we tend to shop nearly day to day, and I’m adjusting to thinking longer term.

On my last trip, over the weekend, I learned that finding everything on a lengthy list meant going to several stores. For example, for wild Salmon and Milton’s crackers, it’s Brookside Market; for reasonably priced, sliced ham and swiss cheese, it’s Price Chopper at 85th and Wornall; and for milk, broccoli, cauliflower, oranges, bread, cookies, Greek yogurt and other basics, it’s Aldi at Meyer and Troost. (The first few times I patronized Aldi, I couldn’t believe how far $20 went.)

I started my odyssey at Aldi and got quite a few items on the list. The store was well stocked and not very busy, unlike over the weekend, when it had closed midday for restocking and a group of people milled outside awaiting the 2 p.m. grand reopening.

Although we didn’t need toilet paper, out of curiosity I went down the paper goods aisle and saw, not surprisingly, there was none.

My next stop was Brookside Market, the most expensive store in town, along with Whole Foods. I got two-plus pounds of Salmon, the crackers and a couple of other items. The tab: more than $50.

Out of curiosity, I went down the paper goods aisle and saw…no toilet paper.

Then I headed to Whole Foods. The only brand of potato chips I like is Boulder, and that’s the only store in Greater Brookside that carries them. I picked up two bags.

I also went down the paper goods aisle and saw…no toilet paper.

My last stop in Brookside was CVS. There I got some Kleenex, two plastic bottles of dish soap and a jar of moisturizing cream for Patty.

I went down the paper goods aisle and saw…empty shelves where the toilet paper used to be.

By this time, I was pretty…pretty proud of my purchases — although I wasn’t finished — and I stopped by the house to drop off what I had before heading out again.

Patty urged me to have lunch before leaving, but I didn’t want to break my momentum. And besides, I didn’t have what I needed for lunch, the sliced ham and cheese for a sandwich.

I was hoping Price Chopper at 85th and Wornall would be my last stop. I still needed a few other items, such as baking potatoes and zucchini, and I thought surely those would be available at Price Chopper. I was wrong.

Before leaving I made a point of going down the paper goods aisle. Yes…I mean no. No toilet paper.

So, as I had planned (damn, I planned this well!), on the way back home I stopped at Hy-Vee, 79th and State Line Road, which is my grocery ace in the hole. It’s big, well stocked and, you know, they’ve got those smiles in almost every aisle.

Sure enough, I found the last items I needed, including the potatoes and zucchini.

I almost forgot to go down the paper goods aisle but did so at the last minute.

There, to my utter shock, several employees had just arrived with a skid of Angel Soft toilet paper, and they began loading it on the empty shelves. I stood almost transfixed, watching this magnificent sight, which just a month ago would have been totally mundane.

Even though I was pretty sure our toilet paper supply at home was quite good, I called Patty just to make sure. She confirmed that we didn’t need any. As I was about to leave, I heard one of the guys unloading the product say “It’ll be gone in about an hour.”

I didn’t go back to find out, but I took this photo to prove that what I saw today at Hy-Vee was not a mirage.

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Countdown to Lockdown

As you know, the Greater Kansas City area Lockdown is scheduled to take effect at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday.

That’s great, but my questions are: Why not today? Why not yesterday?

Covid-19 is just as dangerous today as it’s going to be tomorrow and the next day, and if people think they’ve got some kind of pass to gather in groups today, or participate in activities they should be avoiding, it could easily contribute to the spread of this lethal virus.

As a matter of practicality, not much is going to change come tomorrow…You can still leave your house to get medicine or medical care, food or household supplies, and jog, walk or otherwise exercise as long as you keep your distance from others.

So, I don’t understand the magic of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, and I haven’t seen an explanation. Anyone got a clue?

**

My own decision to Lock Down tighter than I already had came yesterday when I saw Judy Thomas’s online story in The Star yesterday about Dennis Wilson, a relatively healthy Johnson County man in his 70s who came down with Covid-19 in early March and died Saturday morning.

Until reading that story, Covid-19 had been, for me, primarily a story of escalating numbers and “hot spots,” which, fortunately, have not included Kansas City.

Dennis Wilson and son Luke

But when I read about Wilson, a Lenexa resident and a former school district superintendent in southeast Kansas (Labette) and Missouri (Lamar), it was like a hammer blow to the head. There was Wilson in a photo, sitting across from son Luke, both of them smiling, happy and relaxed.

That was whenever that photo was taken. But the reality of his final days was starkly different. His wife Joanna described those days in a sobering Facebook post…

“It has been an indescribably horrible week of immeasurable suffering on the part of the love of my life and then certainly on the part of our three children and our 6 grandchildren who could only watch helplessly from a distance.”

“…immeasurable suffering”…”watch helplessly from a distance.”

He probably suffocated slowly and then died alone…alone except for the eyeballs of masked nurses and doctors gazing down at him.

Before reading that story, my golf group had hoped to play one final round today at Minor Park. We had been exchanging emails, and it was unclear if the course was going to be open, but if it was, we planned to play.

After reading the story, I immediately went online and wrote to my friends, “I’m going to chuck golf and stay inside as much as possible.” I included a link to the story.

This morning came word that Minor and the other municipal courses were closing immediately and indefinitely.

Good move!

**

It looks like the two places drawing the biggest crowds these days are Costco and gun stores.

A friend went to the Midtown Costco over the weekend, and even before the store opened, the line (undoubtedly prompted by concerns about maintaining social distancing inside) was around the building. My friend left. That’s what I would have done, too. More than a week ago, after seeing videos of “toilet paper mania” at Costco stores, I decided I would stay away.

The mania strikes me as ridiculous, although I understand people’s urge to feel like they’re in control of something at a time when it’s “back to basics” worldwide.

But the guns…the guns…I don’t understand at all. Today, The Star’s Eric Adler has a story about “9-millimeter ammunition, rifles and handguns” flying off the shelves at Frontier Justice, a gun store in Lee’s Summit.

Kansas City Star photo

Adler quoted Bren Brown, president and owner of the store as saying…

“I think the biggest concern in times like this, that are uncertain, is what happens when people lose their jobs and they run out of food. Desperate times bring desperate measures and people want to be able to protect themselves and their loved ones which, of course, is their Second Amendment right.”

That quote conjures up the images that Second-Amendment fanatics see in their heads…And that is — and let’s say it exactly like it is — poor, desperate, East Side Kansas City residents (black!) arriving in hordes, bearing sticks and stones and AK-47s; storming suburban houses; killing and maiming residents; raiding their refrigerators and making off with whatever valuables they can lay their hands on.

It’s a terrible specter for the paranoid. Keeps ’em awake at night.

Where most of us are locking down, they are locking and loading.

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The Beacon, which jumped out of the starter’s box Sunday before its planned debut, is continuing to establish itself as a source of interesting and useful local information on the Coronavirus outbreak.

As I reported earlier, The Beacon’s first story was a nuts-and-bolts piece by highly regarded health care reporter Andy Marso, one of several freelance writers that Beacon founder and editor Kelsey Ryan has engaged.

Barbara Shelly

On Tuesday came a story by freelancer and former KC Star reporter Barbara Shelly about how individuals and businesses were stepping up to help people in need. That story was accompanied by photos from a freelancer named Chase Castor.

My in-box today included a Beacon story from Cynthia Gregorian, also a former Star reporter, about the problems facing college students who have been displaced from student housing and whose classes have been converted to strictly online. That story also included photos by Castor and a sidebar — “I was tested for Covid-19” — by a female University of Missouri student.

Ryan also introduced a comprehensive “community resources” roundup.

Even in its early stages, The Beacon is helping fill the journalistic hole that has been created by the ever-atrophying Kansas City Star, and it is a welcome addition to the news/information/entertainment lineup in the Kansas City area.

Ryan is financing her non-profit enterprise through grants, individual contributions and memberships. Memberships can be purchased with a tax-deductible contribution of $50. You can read more about that here.

The biggest gap-filler so far, of course, has been KCUR, one of the nation’s most successful public radio stations.

Donna Vestal

Over the last decade, KCUR has been building a robust staff that now numbers about 60. Its ranks include, by my count, six former Star staff members: Steve Kraske, Donna Vestal, Dan Margolies, Scott Canon, Caitlin Hendel and Kathy Lu.

(Another interesting Star connection is that Traci Bauer, who was hired as KCUR’s director of journalism in 2019, is the sister of Star investigative reporter Laura Bauer.)

Even with a local newspaper that appears to be headed into ownership by a hedge fund, those of us who crave to be accurately and thoroughly informed can be grateful for a terrific information-and-entertainment source like KCUR and a promising, public-service-oriented startup like The Beacon.

The journalism scene in Kansas City is continuing to brighten and diversify. I urge all of you readers to give The Beacon a try. And, by all means, continue (or start) listening to KCUR.

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The New York Times headline triggered memories of the Great Recession:

“Here Come the Bailouts, Starting With the Airlines”

Yes, collectively they are asking for more than $50 billion in direct relief, and some carriers are asking for billions more in loans.

This is coming from the industry that has progressively narrowed airplane seats and tightened rows to such an extent that most flights of more than a couple of hours are uncomfortable.

…and from the industry that has steadily raised prices well above the rate of inflation; that is charging customers hundreds of dollars to rearrange flight plans; that has attached high baggage fees; and that has generally made flying an experience to be endured instead of enjoyed.

A few weeks ago, I flew on cut-rate airline Allegiant to and from St. Petersbug, FL, and the gate space at KCI was so tight that people had to step over and elbow by each other to get carry-on bag tags from an agent near the front desk…What that signaled was that Allegiant cuts corners on everything, including gate-space rental.

The only thing good about flying now is that you still get where you’re going fast…most of the time, anyway.

The government and the public learned a lot about inequity in bailouts a decade ago, however, and the government is now in position to at least attach significant strings to bailouts.

In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times yesterday, Tim Wu, an author and contributing opinion writer, laid out a strong case for holding the airlines’ feet to the fire in return for bailouts.

The commentary had an agreeable title — “Don’t Feel Sorry for the Airlines.”

Wu pointed out that airlines have been incredibly successfully financially the last decade or so, partly because of consolidation and mergers. (The same thing is happening now in the newspaper business, where the two or three big companies left standing will have customers by the throat.)

Tim Wu

Wu posed this John-F-Kennedy-type question: ” As the government considers what we, the public, should do for the airlines, we should ask, Just what have they done for us?”

Wu proceeded to outline some “terms” the government could affix to any bailout agreements:

We cannot permit…airlines to use federal assistance, whether labeled a bailout or not, to weather the Coronavirus crisis and then return to business as usual. Before providing any loan relief, tax breaks or cash transfers, we must demand that the airlines change how they treat their customers and employees and make basic changes in industry ownership structure.

Beginning with passengers, change fees should be capped at $50 and baggage fees tied to some ratio of costs…We should also put an end to the airlines’ pursuit of smaller and smaller seats, which are not only uncomfortable and even physically harmful, but also foster in-flight rage and make the job of flight attendants nigh unbearable.

…Those are excellent suggestions and exactly what the federal government should demand in exchange for relief.

But will this administration show any backbone when faced with pressure from an indispensable industry?

The handwriting is on the wall. In a White House briefing Monday, President Trump said:

“We’re going to back the airlines 100 percent. We’re going to be in a position to help the airlines very much.”

If you take a flight between the upcoming airline bailout and the November election, think about those words when you’re crammed into your seat with your hat on your lap and trying to sleep with your chin on your chest.

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In August 2018, just a year and a half after she had been hired at The Kansas City Star, investigative reporter Kelsey Ryan got a 7 a.m. call at home telling her she was being laid off.

I remember her posting on the Kansas City Star Bylines Facebook page (totally independent of the newspaper) that she had a good cry and immediately set about determining what she would do next.

Months later she wrote…

“By 3 p.m., my work email was downloaded and my resume updated. And by 5 p.m., I realized I really didn’t want to ever work for another McClatchy paper. Or Gannett. Or GateHouse. Or (insert name of struggling newspaper company here). That in some ways, going to another newspaper was the easy route, to grab a lifeboat and hope it won’t sink itself in the next year or two. To bury my head in the sand, pretending more layoffs wouldn’t happen. Instead, I decided I would build a new ship.”

Kelsey Ryan

The “ship” she started to build is an online news publication called The Beacon. She’s made tremendous progress and has been meticulously laying the groundwork for a publication focusing on “local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.”

Her plan had been to start publishing stories later this year, but being a good newswoman, she saw a golden opportunity to step up to the plate and start swinging.

So, she accelerated her “soft launch,” and today The Beacon posted its first story — an informative piece full of the basic information I’ve been looking for locally, including how many Covid-19 tests had been run in Missouri (94, with four positive) and Kansas (143, with eight positive) and the fact that two big private labs, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, will soon start testing.

Andy Marso

The story’s reporter and writer is none other than Andy Marso, who stamped himself as an outstanding healthcare reporter during his three years at The Star. Marso left The Star last August to become an editor at FPM (Family Practice Management) Journal, which is affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians, based in Leawood.

Just three days ago — Thursday — Ryan announced that Marso and another former Star staff member, Cindy Gregorian, would be producing freelance stories for The Beacon. In addition, Ryan said she was hiring a part-time editor to help manage the accelerated roll-out. The Beacon’s first full-time reporter, who will be covering health and the environment, is expected to be on board this summer.

**

Ryan, 31, was able to start publishing today because she had built such a solid foundation.

The Beacon has received funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Google News Initiative, the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation, the Francis Family Foundation, the Gattermeir Family Foundation and the William T. Kemper Foundation.

It has also raised funds from individual contributors through the nonprofit Kansas Newspaper Foundation, which is serving as The Beacon’s fiscal sponsor until its own 501(c)(3) designation is approved.

The Beacon even has office space — donated — in the Plexpod-Westport Commons at 39th and McGee.

In January, Ryan announced the hiring of Jennifer Hack Wolf as audience development manager. Wolf spent 14 years at The Star, first as a photographer and later as editor of Ink Magazine.

Wolf has been leading an impressive community engagement effort, which included several public programs and lately (with the Covid-19 situation) moved online.

Recently, The Beacon started a private Facebook group called Kansas City Coronavirus Updates. Ryan said it has already attracted more than 1,200 members and added, “We are truly taking the questions and feedback from the community and integrating it into the coverage and fiber of The Beacon.”

Another major milestone came last month when Ryan introduced a 12-member board of directors. (Ryan emphasized it is a governing board and that all editorial decisions will be made by The Beacon’s journalists.)

Mark Horvit

One board member is Pam Fine, a former University of Kansas journalism professor and former managing editor of the Indianapolis Star and former managing editor and vice president of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Other members include Mark Horvit, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and local attorneys Brittany Barrientos and David Oliver.

In an email today, Ryan said she was not planning to institute a paywall. “We want to serve the public and sustain on paid memberships over time,” she said.

**

Ryan grew up in Newton, KS, and graduated from Emporia State University, where she was editor of her college paper. She began her newspaper career at The Joplin Globe and later spent four years at The Wichita Eagle before moving to Kansas City for her brief stint at The Star.

…This is a big day not only for Kelsey Ryan and The Beacon but also for Kansas City area residents who have been looking for more in-depth, local news.

Every indication is that Ryan is building a substantive and lively publication that will help many Kansas City area residents stay better informed about community developments and situations.

Congratulations, Kelsey, you’re off and running!

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(Note: I posted this Friday morning…Later Friday, the Nelson Gallery announced it will be closed from Saturday, March 14, to April 3.)

If you’re looking for something fun and interesting to do that doesn’t involve large crowds, I suggest you visit the Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali photographic exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

The exhibition features several dozen photos from hundreds that famed photographer and writer Parks took in 1966 and 1970 while producing two photo/stories about Ali for Life magazine.

(Being a Louisville native — like Ali — I have a special fondness for him…To this day, one of the greatest thrills of my life was watching on closed circuit TV as Ali beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title the night of Feb. 25, 1964, when I was a senior in high school.)

Parks

Ali and Parks, a Fort Scott, KS, native who died in 2006, became close friends, but before they did, Ali gave Parks unprecedented access to his training and personal life as Ali prepared in Miami and London for his 1966 match with British boxer Henry Cooper. (Ali won after Cooper began bleeding excessively and the referee stopped the fight in the sixth round.)

Ali, of course, was a magnetic and yet extremely controversial figure from the time he won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics until the day he died in 2016.

Last night, the Nelson presented an outstanding program on the exhibition. The program featured William Rhoden, an author and former New York Times sports columnist, and Damion Thomas, curator of sports at the National Museum of African American History in Washington D.C.

April M. Watson, who curated the exhibition, led the discussion.

Damion Thomas (center) and William Rhoden participated in a discussion last night about Muhammad Ali and Gordon Parks. April Watson, of the gallery, led the discussion.

Rhoden and Thomas reflected on Ali’s roller-coaster swings, from hero to villain and back to hero, in the public’s perception.

He zoomed to fame with the stunning, 1964 defeat of Liston, but his appeal soon plummeted after he announced he had embraced the Nation of Islam and then refused to be inducted into the armed forces.

As Rhoden, the former NYT columnist, said: “When you renounce Jesus, you are problematic. The entire nation was caught off guard.”

Even before the Supreme Court overturned his draft-evasion conviction in 1971, Ali was on the way to restoring his image and regaining the public’s affection.

Rhoden and Thomas said Parks’s photos and stories in Life had gone a long way toward humanizing Ali and deepening his public appeal, even though only three photos ran with Parks’s story in the Sept. 9, 1966, issue.

Another thing Parks’s first story did was bring certain aspects of African American culture to the attention of white people. The story also had a profound impact among black people because, as Rhoden said, it further elevated him as an inspirational figure and role model for young black people.

But Parks was more than just a chronicler of Ali, Thomas and Rhoden said. His friendship and guidance, they said, helped Ali mature and learn more about dealing with the public. Rhoden said Parks challenged Ali, in effect telling him, “You got to prove yourself” in the court of public opinion.

**

Here are three photos that are included in the exhibition…

**

The Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali exhibition continues through July 5. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Admission is free every day.

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