Volume 1: The Home State

"We're the people of the South Wind; the people of the southern wind."
Kerry Livgren

I grew up in Kansas. It is a state somewhat lacking in identity. I mean, when you think about it, if you come from most places people know something about you. If you come from Kansas, people really don't know what to think. The most famous things associated with Kansas are tornadoes, the Wizard of Oz, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Lately, Oklahoma has thoroughly stolen our tornado thunder (pun intended), the Wizard of Oz is utterly fictitious and little of the story actually takes place in Kansas anyway, and as for the Westboro morons, they only represent the 70 members of their church and have little to do with the rest of the state's population.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Kansas. Some say it is flat. While it isn't exactly mountainous, much of Florida and New Jersey are flatter than Kansas. I've been to both places and I have ridden my bike across Kansas twice. It is definitely not the flattest state around. They also say it is politically conservative which is essentially true. However, it is not quite as reactionary and radically hidebound as some seem to think. The conservatism of Kansas is more along the attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Kansans are not fans of change for the sake of change. But they will change if there's a need. I've seen it happen.

I think you can tell a lot about a state's identity by its college mascots. For instance, here in Texas - a state with a definite identity - the University of Texas mascot is the longhorn. I admit that deep down it's basically just a cow. But this is no ordinary cow - it is a gaudy, ostentatious bovine with a rack of horns worthy of decorating the hood of a Cadillac! Those horns may not actually be functional but they're big. Damn big! That's Texas!

In Kansas, we have three major colleges. Kansas State calls themselves the Wildcats - also my high school mascot - and let's be honest here: in the world of academic mascots, Wildcats are a dime a dozen. Kansas University is the Jayhawks. Now, there is a mascot unique to the state but is it really an identity we can live with? Jayhawkers were Civil War soldiers known for pillaging from slaveowners in Missouri. The Jayhawk is a mythical bird renowned for thievery.

No, for a true Kansas mascot, I think you have to head to Wichita where Wichita State University is known as the Wheat Shockers. Here's an identity we can get behind. First of all, it sparks conversation. Half the country doesn't even know what a wheat shocker is. They know what wheat is, of course: it is a gluten-infused grain which it is currently vogue to remove from one's diet. But what is a shocker? Or even a wheat shock? Well, ask a Kansan - odds are, they might actually know.

Now, if you have ever seen the WuShock mascot for WSU, you know one other unique aspect of it: it is arguably the ugliest college mascot in the history of mankind! It is essentially a very, very angry shock of wheat. It is the kind of thing that gives infants nightmares. It could be the star of a truly horrible Disney cartoon! Now THAT is an identity!

But all that aside, Kansas will no doubt continue to be an essentially boring place. Tourism in Kansas is kind of a joke. You can't really advertize 'bland' which is probably Kansas' single most prominent quality. They once tried to create a visual summary of Kansas back in the thirties. They commissioned artist John Steuart Curry to create a mural depicting the state. This mural eventually ended up on the second floor wall of the rotunda in the state capital. The mural was somewhat controversial, too. The centerpiece of the mural is a crazy-looking John Brown with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other with all sorts of rioting Civil War era people around him along with symbols of progress through the years. There is also a tornado in the background. That was the controversial part.

No, not insane John Brown who tried to start a slave rebellion and was hanged for treason by the state of Virginia - that was okay. No, a lot of people thought that tornado in the background of the mural might give folks the wrong idea: it might make them think Kansas wasn't a nice place to live. So some people weren't all that happy about the twister. Personally, I think it belongs. You have to take the good with the bad, after all. And with everything considered, even the bad, Kansas was actually a pretty nice place to grow up, raise a family, and live your life. As far as I know, it still is though I haven't lived there since the early 90s.

Kansans can be sensitive about their image, especially since they really don't have anything all that spectacular to point out. Yes, we have (or used to have) the world's largest ball of twine and we are generally considered to be the home state of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (though he was actually born in Texas). I mean, ultimately the single greatest and most noteworthy thing about Kansas is that it really isn't horrible. You're not going to see many billboards touting that.

I think when it comes down to it, the best advertisement for Kansas is Kansans. Most of the ones I've met are decent people. I still keep in touch with quite a few of them and a great many of the most pleasant memories of my life take place there. Like all things in this universe, Kansas probably isn't what it used to be. That's entropy, folks. But everyone has to have a place of origin and that place is going to be a source of memory and strength and shape a great deal of what we are. And as places in this world go I think Kansas is a good one to call home. I've seen a lot of good things come from there, at any rate. As I look back (and I find myself doing that more and more) to analyze how I got here, it seems Kansas is the source of much of the good.

Even if our mascots are kind of lame.