Tag Archives: missouri

a return of sorts

Last year, I wrote a story about a strip club off a highway in rural Missouri. It was dark and grimy, the only building for miles.

As a five-foot-tall woman in her twenties, it probably wasn’t the wisest idea to go alone at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. But I wanted the story. So I went anyway.

There were two men who did business at the place, and two women who danced. They were suspicious of me. The second time I visited, the bartender asked me if I wanted to strip down and dance for the customers sitting just below the stage, all of them men, gawking at the dancer as if they were a single unit, a single man in his dirty jeans with a collective pair of eyes. But of course, they weren’t one man, but three different individuals, each who had driven to this club on his own, each watching the dancer on his own, and I both resented them and felt sorry for their loneliness.

The bartender’s question — when he asked whether I wanted to go onstage and have my turn at the pole — was a joke. I think. But I was already uncomfortable, and my hands began to sweat after he asked. I tried to hide how scared I was, so I smiled and declined and laughed it off.

When I left, the bartender walked me out to my car.

“It’s not safe for a girl like you to be out in the middle of nowhere,” he told me.

I wanted to tell him that I only felt unsafe around him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I did some research on you,” he said just before I opened my car door, and I think every muscle in my body froze when he did.

“Oh yeah? What did you find?” I said.

“You’ve written about some… pretty controversial stuff,” he said.

“I like writing the tough stories,” I said.

“Your family is from all over the world,” he said, and after a pause: “Your grandmother died last year.”

And that’s when I discovered that he’d found my personal blog. It terrified me to know that this potentially dangerous stranger knew so much about my private life. And I knew the bartender’s words were a subtle threat.

Since then, except for little essays on Instagram, I haven’t shared much of my personal writing online.

The stakes are higher now that I’m working as a professional journalist. I don’t want to give too much of myself away. But I want to write, and I want to share what I write. So I’m going to try to blog this summer, but it’s a struggle to mark a line between my public and private persona — a line that I suspect doesn’t actually exist — and try not to cross it.

The goal is to publish at least seven blog posts this summer. Hold me accountable, internet.

(I drove off after that conversation, by the way, and I wrote the story, which you an read here.)

Until next time, xoxo from South Carolina.

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“objects have lives. they are witness to things.”

There’s an episode of This American Life that I’ve listened to three times now. It originally aired in 2001, but the first time I heard it was as I was driving to meet friends for dinner, probably in 2012. I was so engrossed by the story that I sat in my car in the restaurant’s parking lot to finish listening. I was 20 minutes late to dinner.

The episode is called “The House on Loon Lake,” narrated and reported by Adam Beckman. When Adam was a kid, he broke into an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The house was filled with things, objects, treasures. Somebody had left all of this behind. In the story, Adam returns to Freedom as an adult to find out what happened to the family.


Photo from This American Life

The story kept me glued for several reasons. I love a good mystery story, for one. I could also relate to Adam’s mischief. When I was a kid, maybe ten years old, I also broke into an abandoned house with a friend at the end of our street. We called it a mansion — it really wasn’t a mansion, but for the town of Mountain Grove, it sure seemed like one. (The median income for a household is $21,131, and 28.2 percent of Mountain Grovians live under the poverty line, which is twice the national average.)

Given its stature — why would the richest family in the town abandon their house like that? — the house was ripe for mystery and rumor, especially for a fourth-grade girl with a wild imagination. There wasn’t much inside the house, except a grand piano. The pool had been emptied of chlorinated water, but standing water from rain had reached maybe a foot. Leaves floated in the water. It was, for lack of a better word, gross.


Photo from This American Life

But I digress. There’s one passage that causes me to pause the episode so that I can sit in silence and mull over its meaning. I’ll leave you with it, an exchange between Adam and his mother.

Adam Beckman: When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they’d left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn’t bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Adam’s Mother: And here’s a spoon. It’s all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman: Why is it melancholy?

Adam’s Mother: The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.


Objects have lives. They are witness to things.


vote baby vote!

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

Gabriel Hackett/Getty Images

In journalism school, we like to talk a lot about reporters’ role in a democracy. Inform the public of affairs! Power to the people! Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Too bad there’s a lot of pre-election reporting that falls into the so-called Horse Race; rather than covering the issues, journalists pick up on the minute details of a politician’s behavior, or unflattering fashion choice, or accidental speech flub. When paired with the negative campaign ads that saturate the t.v., is it any wonder that voters get turned off from politics?

In fact, on Tuesday, only one-third of Missourians are expected to go out and vote.

Perhaps our election coverage should cover voting itself. We’ve come a long way since the new American nation considered land-owning white men as the only people worthy of voting. It’s important to remember that women and minorities had to fight for their right to vote.  It’s also important to remember that laws continuing to disenfranchise minorities still exist.

I know that the upcoming elections are only the mid-terms. Maybe it’s not glamorous or exciting to vote on state amendments or local ballot issues, but they have direct implications for you. You’ve got a day left–that’s plenty of time to get educated about your state, district or town. (If you’re in Missouri, by the way, here’s a good place to get yourself up to speed.)

So in the end, it’s up to you. Power to the people! Go and vote!

vacuums and vetoes

On Wednesday, the Missouri legislature voted to become one of three states to require a 72-hour wait period before a woman can have an abortion. In Missouri and South Dakota, there are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Governor Nixon vetoed the bill in July, but both the House and the Senate voted to override that veto.  I’ve been covering the bill for both the Columbia Missourian and the Jefferson City News Tribune, so I was in each chamber as representatives debated the bill in the House and Democrats filibustered it in the Senate.

Here’s a lesson in breaking news, kids: when you’ve got 45 minutes to turn a story after the House votes, you can’t include every argument posed in a 90-minute debate on the floor. One representative whose words caught my attention but did not make the published article was Rep. John McCaherty, a Republican from High Ridge. Here’s what he said on the 72-hour wait period:

By the way, there are two states that have this law, South Dakota and Utah. Both of those states [laws] are in effect at this time unchallenged in the courts, just in case anybody’s interested in an actual fact instead of rhetoric. Because we hear a lot of rhetoric about what we’re doing and what we should be doing or not be doing… we’re not extending it 72 hours, we’re extending it 48 hours*. It’s a 72 hour total.

I heard that three days of thinking about it is really too much to ask. Really? I bought a vacuum one time from a salesman that came by my house and knocked on the door and came in and gave us a free clean. I had 72 hours to change my mind whether or not I wanted to purchase a vacuum. But it’s too long to decide whether or not somebody lives or dies.

And so we’re going to vote how we’re going to vote, and we’re not going to change anybody’s mind here, but let’s keep the facts the facts.

Here’s the full audio for McCaherty’s talk, if you’d like to hear it for yourself:

*True. Currently, Missouri law requires a 24-hour wait period before abortions.

missouri veto session link round-up

Rise and shine, my magnificent Missourians, because your veto session begins today! Governor Nixon (a Democrat, allegedly, with no relation to Tricky Dick Nixon, allegedly) vetoed 33 bills this year, and now Missouri’s legislature needs a two-thirds majority on each bill to override them. And guess what? Republicans just happen to have a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Guys. This should be fun. I’ll be in Jeff City, live tweeting, so you can follow me here.

For your convenience, Reader, I’ve compiled a master post on the Missourian’s website outlining all 33 bills on the table.

Loads of these bills carry a lot of weight, like the one that would triple the waiting time for abortions to 72 hours, so we decided to profile the heavy stuff before deliberations are under way. I wrote about the abortion bill here, and Phillip’s piece on teachers carrying guns in schools (welcome to Missouri, Internet friends) is here. Madi wrote about the so-called dairy bills, and I also wrote about regulations and taxes for e-cigs.

Ask me any questions via Twitter or at kekovacs@mail.missouri.edu.

Keep yourselves informed, friends.

kids who read, and little house in the ozarks


On November 5, 1920, a fifty-three-year-old Wilder wrote in the Missouri Ruralist, “It doesn’t occupy our brains to peel potatoes … Our bodies learn to do the everyday tasks without much head-work, leaving our minds free to pass thru these windows and follow the fascinating ways that lead from them.” Wilder’s window was not in the kitchen of Rocky Ridge Farm, her home in Missouri, but in her mind. On this day, she floated out of it into “Shakespeare’s country,” lovingly describing the poet’s sixteenth-century England for the newspaper’s Midwest readership. It is no surprise that Wilder read Shakespeare; Western writing flows out of him like water from a deep well.

In How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, playwright Ken Ludwig celebrates the power parents have to introduce their children to literature. Ludwig’s investment in the cause is personal; when his daughter was in the first grade, he decided that “if there was any skill—any single area of learning and culture—that I could impart to her while we were both healthy and happy and able to share things together in a calm, focused, pre-teen way, then Shakespeare was it.”

Nowadays, it is accepted wisdom that Greene (and my mother) were onto something. One 2008 study confirms what Laura Bush and the rest of us already know—that children who are read aloud to have earlier language and literacy skills, becoming more likely to pick up a book down the road. In his autobiography, Salman Rushdie recalled his father reading him The Thousand and One Nights. Toni Morrison’s fiction also draws from the folktales her father told her. Did Shakespeare himself read to his children? We might have known, but his daughter died before the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon ever followed through on plans to interview her. We do know that he lived in London most of his life, seeing his family in the countryside only once a year.

It was Wilder, not Shakespeare, who informed my worldview. As a child, she urged me not to settle for the known world but to chase my own frontiers. The deeper lessons exemplified by the Ingalls about the importance of kinfolk only sunk in later, after I had left home for college in the Ozarks—Wilder’s own strange country—and found myself on my own. I think they are what my mother, who immigrated from Brazil to the United States in the early ‘80s, first saw in the books, and why she wanted to share them with my sister and me. It’s why she named me Laura.

from “Little House on Avon” by Laura C. Mellonnee from The Paris Review

a few notes

I don’t often come across pieces written about the Ozarks on The Paris Review‘s site. I lived in southern Missouri for twelve years–eight in the small town of Mountain Grove, four in Springfield, the Ozarks’ most metropolitan point–but if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll say Kansas City instead of those Ozark mountains, the geographical space I reluctantly called home in my formative childhood years.

When I think about the socioeconomic trap of the small town Ozarks (that is, the cyclical family system–kid born into poverty, educated in a school system that reinforces ideas that keep them poor instead of teaching substance and critical thought, high schoolers have no goals beyond marrying the hottest football player/cheerleader, twenty-somethings are divorced with kids, adults cooking meth to try and pay for their own addiction, whatever it might be, etc), and, to top it off, my own alienation from the natives thanks to my position as a child of European immigrants, I wonder why anyone would choose to move there. (RE Mellonee’s piece: Those kids are almost never taught to read by their parents. Maybe that’s part of the problem.)

Watching my middle school friends play out this cycle on Facebook is disheartening, but when the crumbling social relations are juxtaposed against the  natural space of the Ozark mountains, the dynamic suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Every season entertains the senses; I remember, for instance, playing soccer in the backyard amongst the fireflies’ pulsing light and cicadas’ blaring hum in the heavy heat of the summer night, and inhaling the fresh smell of post-rain upon leaves of red and gold and orange that arch over you on a fall hike. What a strange backdrop for the poverty of the people who live within it. Humans and physical space. It just doesn’t fit.

…and a few more thoughts before I sign off, on the subjects of early reading

I’m currently in the process of organizing my books in my apartment (did I mention that I moved in three weeks ago?) I’m useless at this chore–I keep reading the novels and poetry and theory before it gets a chance to go from the floor of my living room to my bedroom. I sort of live in books, and I always have. This goes for Animorphs and The Babysitters’ Club books during my first-grade I-want-to-be-a-cool-teenager stage too as much as it does Junot Diaz or Tom Stoppard, by the way.

I teach kids who have dyslexia, and many of them hate reading. It’s understandable. They are embarrassed when teachers call on them to read out loud before their normal school classes, and they are frustrated when a word like “black” registers as “back,” and they can’t tell why by no fault of their own. I’m teaching them how to read, but equally as important, I so, so desperately want to teach them to love to read. I’m not sure how, so for now, I just give them my enthusiasm.

place is all: Liberty

This blog post is brought to you in three parts.

I. A missing jogger, a body in a portable toilet.

Last Friday, a construction worker found an unidentified body in a portable toilet next to a junior high school in the Kansas City suburb of Liberty, Missouri. Today the body was confirmed to belong to Chad Rogers, a 30-year-old marathon runner, youth group leader, and stay-at-home dad of an infant son. He left for a run at 8:30 p.m. last Monday without any means of communication, and after being reported missing, hundreds of volunteers helped the police on their search. Police determined that there were no signs of foul play, but the cause of death won’t be announced until the autopsy results have been fully analysed. The Facebook page with over 37,000 likes called “Bring Chad Rogers Home” was renamed “Chad Rogers Is Home.”

II. Goodbye Liberty

I don’t know Mr. Rogers or his family, although I’ve lived at William Jewell College in Liberty for three of my university years. I’m moving from Liberty into Kansas City on Thursday, and I haven’t exactly been bouncing-off-the-walls thrilled. You see, I have a condition in which I fall in love with places instead of people. Generally those places are cities such as Boston or London or Heidelberg or even Cambridge, where I spent my junior year abroad.  In fact, I was clueless that I had grown attached to Liberty until last month. My early memories of living in Liberty in 2009 upon my move to college are ridden with insecurity and disappointment, a reality check that university was not nearly as glamorous as depicted in the literature (particularly when you’ve got no money and the whole making-new-friends thing doesn’t magically become easy when you’re eighteen). But after I found a job in Kansas City in May, and then found an apartment last week, I’ve suddenly realized that I don’t want to leave Liberty.

Why should I be so unwilling to leave Liberty? It is, after all, only a forty minute drive from my apartment. Missing my classes, professors, and friends are certainly a part of the longing. But then there’s the Senior House where I would spend all of my evenings with books out in the lobby, allowing for the fluidity of studying and chatting with whatever friend happened to walk past. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to recapture that communal living environment.

And then there’s the city of Liberty itself. When I began jogging through the streets near William Jewell, by the houses that slowly became increasingly large and scarce as the town broke into countryside, I felt let down. I had just returned from my year in England, and Clay County was no match for Cambridgeshire (not even a match for the Ozarks, where I had grown up). And yet, along came July 2013 and preparations for my big move, and I couldn’t help but acknowledge that much of my sadness was thanks to the fact that I would no longer be able to jog in Liberty, to the Nature Sanctuary or Stocksdale Park, those places where I could find solitariness with my thoughts.

III. Goodbye jogging

Perhaps by definition, my inclination toward nostalgia is problematic, though even more so in recent events. Despite my desire to soak up every last moment to run in Liberty before Thursday, I’ve been deliberately avoiding my old running trail. The area of my jogs is the area where Mr. Rogers used to run, and the place where the police and search groups focused their attention. Although unexpectedly found Mr. Rogers two miles away, they also happened across another body, another dead jogger. I’m not an especially scared person, but the news has stunned me.

It’s become increasingly difficult to sort out and analyze these thoughts upon entering that in-limbo early-twenties adult world, but laying them out with words is one way to organize and (an attempt to) concretize them. I haven’t come to a conclusion yet, but what a violent way to say goodbye to Liberty.