When I've said those words to my son, it usually had to do with an invitation he got to a birthday party he was particularly unenthused about attending. The lead-in to the "Should I go or not go?" birthday scenario is pretty standard:
An invitation is mailed; handed out at recess, after school, or on the bus; or maybe even stuffed unknowingly into a backpack by a kid -- but in reality, the kid's parents -- struggling to be accepted by the other kids in his class and school. Usually the parent of such a kid knows the score, is worried about his or her child's acceptance by others in life (and of life), and goes along with the concept of blanketing the class, and maybe an entire grade, with invitations, hoping to guarantee a decent turnout and a good time for the not-quite-popular child.
Such invitational overload means some kids get birthday invites from kids they don't even know. When that happens to my kid, and if I'm convinced my kid is unaware that he exists on the same planet with the kid having the birthday party, my kid gets the "You don't have to go ..." option (if his mother agrees, of course).
But if my kid knows the birthday kid, and particularly if he is ambiguous in his feelings about that kid, my kid doesn't get the "no-go" option. It simply becomes a matter of being polite, and short of sickness or grown-up priorities, he goes to the birthday party.
Had I been in Kansas City on its 150th birthday, politeness would have had me caught in celebration somewhere in town, probably hoisting cool ones in memory of the Indians and the French trappers who relished this area's pre-modern beauty. As it was I was in Phoenix, a town that doesn't seem given to feel-good ritualism or the grandiloquence of taking "10 Giant Steps," the name the KC150 organizing committee gave to some sort of plan (I think) for this city's future.
Reading that the 150th-birthday bash idea originated with Hallmark Chairman Donald Hall, I immediately recognized the greeting-card sentimentality behind the Giant Steps phrase and concluded that the concept could easily be mistaken for the name of a game kids played at a birthday party. It has the right "Hallmark moment" behind it -- a feel-good, everyone-can-join emotion that glides on a paper-thin, colorful surface. Let's go down the list (punctuated with my gut-level asides):
• Upgrade cultural facilities and activities across the metropolitan area to enrich our performance arts environment.
Can the taxpayer spell "Downtown Performance Arts Center," or how about "Downtown Sports Arena"? The birthday hosts may be preparing the groundwork for public funding of either or both, but for sure, expect the word "cultural" to be bandied about when the push gets heavy to renew the bistate tax for sports facilities. Meanwhile, the city's most famous cultural district, 18th and Vine, continues to beg for attention and funding from the civic elite.
•Create the "world's largest river fountain" as part of an overall plan to re-establish Kansas City as a bistate river town.
There must be a reason why Louisville, Ky., abandoned its river fountain on the Ohio River. Could it be that the engineering costs and maintenance obstacles were too great? Or how about potential ecological damage? Or maybe the public just recognized it as a stupid idea, considering that most large American rivers are nothing more than a polluted ditch kept that way by the U.S. Corps of Engineers at the urging of the barge industry. (And people think Clay Chastain's gondola proposal of moving people from Union Station to the Liberty Memorial is goofy. At least it's an idea with functionality beyond spraying water in the air.)
• Paint the bridges over our rivers in a rainbow of colors and light them at night to celebrate our unity.
Artist Peter Max was recently in town -- did this paint-the-bridges idea come from him? It has the earmarks of an aging baby boomer trying to recapture parts of an acid trip from 30 years ago that he has totally romanticized in the "good vibes" it produced. As for lighting the bridges: Parts of Kansas City still need street lights, a project KCP & L started about 150 years ago.
• Develop a network of biking and walking trails around the area to symbolize our "interconnectedness and interdependence."
Area residents have been screaming for this for decades. The rise in gas prices must finally be having a beneficial effect. Trouble is, city hall isn't used to condemning land for nature and public use, only for developers. But it could work as long as the TIF Commission isn't involved.
• Put up colorful welcome signs at main entry points to the area, with some graphic element that indicates each point is part of a larger metropolitan whole.
Didn't the Allies, when dividing Berlin after World War II, put up signs at "main entry points"? Signs will not heal the obvious racial and economic divisions this town suffers under, nor will they prevent visitors from seeing those separations. It's empty-headed PR disguised as a way to build a metro community.
• Launch a local history curriculum for schools, with careful attention to the region's "rich diversity."
Not a bad idea, but are we talking private schools, charter schools, or only the "healthy" suburban school districts? This city's greatest lapse in education has been how city fathers and corporate influence peddlers have stood by for years while this town's school district has become a national disgrace. The real diversity issue in Kansas City lies in how some kids get a good education here and some kids don't.
• Make Kansas City a national model for early childhood care and education, for newborns through 5 years old.
A good start would be to give people who work in state social service agencies, particularly with children and families, a decent wage and adequate training. But every time reform efforts surface at the state legislature level, particularly in Missouri, they fall short. Corporations could ask their for-hire lobbyists to do occasional pro bono work. With their skills, they could make needy children's cries sound like the jingle of soft money contributions.
• Institute workforce development programs and school curricula to prepare area residents for employment in the life-sciences research industry.
Can you smell corporate tax breaks in the name of creating new jobs? Why deviate from a proven sales pitch? A better "life-sciences research" effort would be to figure out how to stop Kansas City's air from getting dirtier.
• Establish metrowide neighborhood benchmarks for such standards as crime reduction, cleanliness, and infrastructure repair.
Doesn't the local real estate industry already do this as agents steer newcomers to certain neighborhoods? What better way to destroy fragile integrated neighborhoods, stimulate white flight, and reinforce segregated communities?
• Start a campaign to show off our achievements and promote Kansas City's image as a family vacation place.
That's right, all we need in Kansas City is lots of visitors. It helps convince us that everything is up to date in America's most livable city. Doesn't Santa Claus reside here?