Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

I wrote this piece as a creative writing student at Northwestern in response to Tim O'Brien's short story, "The Things They Carried." The framework is fictionalized, an evening like many others we've spent but not, in fact, when I had this conversation with my dad. But the story itself and the words he used to tell them are true.

As we remember the fallen on Memorial Day, may we also give our thoughts to those who can't ever forget.


Carrying On

I can't imagine why anyone would set down his stuff in the middle of the jungle, and then walk away. It seems too obvious a trail. I ask my dad if it could have really happened. He was a First Lieutenant, too. Just like the soldier in the story.

"Travel heavy, patrol light -- that was the rule. When we moved from place to place, we took everything along, but if we were just out looking around, then we left most of our things in one spot. Someone was always there with it, though."

He's in a good mood tonight. The Twins beat the Angels, and his boss called him just to say hello. He's even swearing a little, which he only does when he's sure he won't hurt anyone by it. I want to ask him more. I would even write his story if he could tell me how he felt, but his answers usually fly at me like wild pitches, military details too far over my head.

Keep your eye on the ball, he would say, just like when he was my softball coach. I've been searching the sky for years, without ever seeing the helicopters or hearing the artillery fire.

We're quiet for a minute, both drinking Coke out of cans and staring at the empty dinner dishes in front of us. He still seems happy. I don't come home much anymore, so when I do, we stay up talking until even the dog gives up on us and goes upstairs to sleep. I don't know how to ask the big questions that are on my mind, so tonight I talk to him about the story I read.

"What did you carry, Dad? What special things?"

The physical act of remembering pushes his graying eyebrows into the metal frame of his glasses.

"Cribbage. Your aunt sent me a little cribbage game in a leather case. And Kool-Aid, because the water tasted so bad. And we all had O-rings, with bottle openers and other little things attached to them."

"What about the other guys?"

He taps a fingertip lightly on the kitchen table.

"There was this one grunt we called Cowboy. He carried a hank of rope with him. To practice roping. He used to lasso up whatever he could see -- tree trunks, fallen branches, the radio operator."

I can't help smiling. "That sounds like a bad war movie, Dad."

He laughs like three sharp raps at a door. "Yeah, I guess it does."

The dog has been upstairs for a while now, and I can see my father is ready to be done with the questions, but I am suddenly filled with the longing to hear the story he has never told me. I've seen it on his face when we were at the memorial in D.C., and I've heard dismembered details from my older sister, but I'm not even sure that she actually knows. I don't think he's ever told anyone.

He sets his glasses on the table and rubs the bridge of his round nose. I know he's tired, and memories are wrapped around him like the heavy jungle heat. I don't know where to begin. I know this man better than anyone, some people say we're practically clones, but I can't imagine this part of his life. Mom has told me about the nights when an unexpected phone call or ambulance siren jerks him out of sleep and thrusts him back into a muddy culvert or humid base camp. He doesn't scream anymore, my mom has said, or leap out of the bed, but he sits straight up, and his eyes are open, inward, and his knees drawn tightly to his bare chest as the lights flash red-blue, red-blue through the window and then disappear, or the clamor of the telephone gives up and fades away. But that's now. I still can't imagine then. I ask him now about combat and rainy seasons and anything else I can think of. We start talking about accidents.

He says that by the end of his tour, he saw more people killed by accidents than enemy fire. Falling trees, malfunctioning helicopters -- strange, dumb things, he said, those were the worst. People killed by mistakes that could have been avoided.

"Like what?" I regret the question immediately, but then relax, fairly confident that he will skirt around it like many others I've asked over the years: "How'd you get that medal?" "What's that scar from?" And when I was very young, "Did you ever shoot anyone?" I've never heard him say more than he wanted to. But now as I look at him, still wearing his suit five hours after coming home from work, his shoulders lose a little of their usually solid breadth as he leans his elbows on the blue plaid placemat in front of him. He is going there, to the place I want to know, but I still feel far away.

"My sergeant told me where he was in the field, and where the rest of the guys were. My men, from my platoon. He gave me the numbers and I gave them to the artillery battery. Then the first mark round went off and landed about 400 meters away from them." His tone is so crisp and distinct, I feel like he isn't talking to me, but just radioing in reports from the field like coordinates.

"The first what?"

"Mark round. They shot those to make sure the guns were set correctly. Then they followed them with what were called 'high explosives.'"

"Okay, I see." A little confused, I still try to keep up. This may be the only chance I get.

"But then the mark round from the second gun buzzed just over their heads. I called in to say it was too close, but by then, the explosives from the first gun had been fired. And they landed right where the mark should have gone before, but didn't. Right on top of the men."

"So it was a problem with the gun?"

"Just a fluke. It had misfired the first time."

"Was anyone hurt?"

I know the question is ridiculous, but I can't say it any other way. I already feel like I've gone too far. His voice is growing thinner with every answer, and his narrow eyes blink more often than the dim kitchen light calls for.

"Ten people killed. About that many injured, as well." Then he tells me about the investigation and official ruling; more intricacies in code words I don't fully understand, like that base-coach sign language he had always tried to teach me. It makes little sense to me, but I keep nodding, just so he won't forget I'm there, won't forget how far he has gone since then.

It wasn't his fault, any of it, but I'm still afraid that I'm hurting him by making him remember. He rarely says a word about the war, but tonight I wonder how he will stop. He wants to keep talking himself out of the jungle, where in one unforgettable moment, the weight of ten deaths was added to his load. Each word is a step away, but the weight is still there, like the lingering smell of rotting things he says he could never get out of his clothes. His tie is loose and his hair is beginning to fall across his forehead. His palms are flat on his knees, and his eyes, small and deep like mine, are focused somewhere beneath the kitchen floor. He looks young, but burdened. He could burn his uniform, throw out his gear, but the weight is still there. Patrol light. Travel heavy. After twenty-five years, he's still carrying the weight of an ownerless mistake he can't order himself to set down. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

All Doubt, No Benefit

We're just going to go ahead and ignore the year-long blog hiatus (for now, anyway) and get right to the point. There was a very strange and unsettling assault reported here in Memphis last weekend, which happens to be one of our busiest tourism times of the year. The attack reportedly took place during the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, an event that you've probably seen featured on the Food Network or Al Roker's Twitter feed. What struck me even more than the story, however, was how quickly people (myself included) spewed forth with reasons the alleged victim couldn't be telling the truth. It was a disturbing reminder of how much we'll fight to believe that the world is rational and predictable, even when it means denying the (possible) truth.

So I wrote about it, and the good folks at The Memphis Flyer were kind enough to post it in my old Wheelhouse spot. So there it is.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Not In My Wheelhouse

Oh, hey there. I've spent the last eight months writing a weekly column over at The Memphis Flyer's website so things have been pretty quiet around here, but recent budget cuts have sent my Wheelhouse feature into the great pixel graveyard (you can catch up on previous columns here). I'd already written this week's piece before I got the news, though, and due to its timely nature, I thought I'd go ahead and share it today. Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading.

New Heart, Old Soul

In direct response to the Ku Klux Klan’s undersized mobile unit appearing in Memphis, our city leaders sponsored an event to celebrate diversity. By all accounts, the Heart of Memphis festivities were a successful undertaking, despite the consistently uncooperative weather. I was not in attendance, however. Instead, I spent the afternoon at an event that celebrates diversity on a regular basis: Saturday shopping at Target.

There, under the fluorescent lights, every shade and shape of Memphis was represented, all ages and multiple creeds. We didn’t need an organized program or all-star line-up to get us there. We just needed dish soap and Pull-Ups and a shower curtain.

I appreciate the sentiment behind Heart of Memphis, and based on what I’ve heard from those who attended, it was a good time. I’m happy it happened. But as my friend Melissa Bridgman (who took her whole family to the event and greatly enjoyed it) Facebooked afterward, “we should not be such a reactive city - react to the state legislature, react to hate groups. Why don't we set the tone ourselves?”

And for my money, the best way to set the tone is often the least intentional. There is no Diversity Day at Target. There’s no multicultural mission to eat lunch at Memphis’ fine assortment of Asian buffets. There isn’t a unity banner over the entrance of the Woodland Discovery playground at Shelby Farms. And yet, all of these places naturally bring together a wide swath of our community, freely and peacefully.

I mention these places not as random examples but because I’ve taken specific notice of this phenomenon there. And I notice because it’s still not the norm. There have been plenty of other venues where I’ve looked around and thought, “Wow, this sure is a lot of white people.” And that’s on me, I’ll admit it. I control where I spend my time. But I also think Memphis, like most cities with anything like a diverse population, struggles to blend cultures and comfort levels.

Unlike other cities, however … well, we’re Memphis. After the violence and struggle and tragedy on either side of April 4, 1968, huge portions of downtown practically disintegrated. It took forty years to bring back the area surrounding the Lorraine Motel, and those were just buildings. Memories hold up much longer, and ideas about who is expected to be where are pretty hard to knock down.

And here we are, forty-five years from that terrible day. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Klan chose this week in particular to stop by, but I hope they were a little surprised by their reception. Living in the past as they do, I’m sure they felt comfortable in the knowledge that ours is a city clearly divided between black and white. I’m guessing they didn’t factor in that 2013 Memphis has not only progressed, but that it’s also not just black and white. The number of Memphians identifying as Hispanic doubled between 2000 and 2010, and we have the highest population of Asian descent in the region. In the average classroom, a couple kids speak a language other than English at home. In other words, we’re not a place where people are stuck. We’re a place where people choose to be.

And that, ultimately, is what we create whenever we join our neighbors, without motive or agenda, to simply participate in each other’s lives. I wasn’t raised here, but my peers have made it clear that the color lines have softened since their childhoods, and that our own children are growing up in a different city altogether. Of the six children living in my house, every one of them has a best friend of a different racial background than themselves. As adults of our generation, we still observe these things, but they don’t even notice.

And that’s something to celebrate.








Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Full Steam Ahead


Welcome, Memphis Flyer readers! And welcome back, past reader(s) wondering if I was ever planning to post again (hi, JB)! This summer’s been eventful in all sorts of ways, few of which have involved sitting and writing things down, but that’s all about to change. From this Wednesday on, I’ll be forging a weekly column (that means EVERY WEEK HOLY CRAP) called The Wheelhouse, available exclusively (doesn’t that sound nicer than “only?”) on www.MemphisFlyer.com. For those outside the midsouth, the Flyer is our local alternative press, the home of our best civic reporting, arts coverage, food porn, and adult chat line ads. The website has even more of this great stuff, and also my work. The first piece, which features 901 Day, a birth rally, and an extended sinusitis metaphor, is available here.

In this brave new world of online publishing, clicks count. I won’t be putting the full columns in this space, but I’ll post links wherever I can squeeze them. I hope that if you enjoy what you read, you’ll share them as well. And if you have the urge to comment, don’t fight it.      

Oh and hey, if you just can’t wait a week in between snarkbursts, you can find me over on Twitter @andriakbrown.

Here we go!

P.S. Thanks to Richard and Kristy for the push and the pull. I don’t make encouraging me easy. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Exile on Main Street

This is the day my Main Street Journal column would normally appear, but unfortunately, the site is now in extended hiatus and my column is on permanent vacation. I'd written one last piece that didn't run, however, so I'm posting it below.

Writing Southpaw was a great opportunity for me and I appreciate all the support I received for that work. Thanks for reading, y'all. And hey, if you need a columnist, drop me a line.


Babies, Elephants, Walks

On a recent summer afternoon, I stood with my two children outside the elephant enclosure at the Memphis Zoo. Because I’m a complete zoo nerd who knows such things, I encouraged my five-year-old son to call their names. As he said each one – Tyranza, Asali, and Gina – their gargantuan ears shuddered and their eyes glanced in his direction, but they couldn’t be distracted from their recently delivered lunch. The kids quickly lost interest and were ready to move on to the pandas and bonobos, but I had a harder time walking away. It had been a while since I saw those girls. I missed them.

Nearly nine years ago, as a brand-new mother with few friends in Memphis, I spent countless afternoons at the zoo. I lived within walking distance and packing my infant daughter into her stroller and making the wide loop to Prentiss Place and back was a regular part of our routine. As a zoo member, I didn’t feel a need to see every animal on every visit. But I almost always went to see the elephants.

There were only two then – Gina hadn’t get joined the herd. As often as possible, I’d coordinate my trips to the keeper chats and docent talks, and I felt even more connected to these animals as I learned about their histories and habits.

One afternoon, though, I was the only visitor at the exhibit. I held my baby on my hip and looked out on their miniaturized veldt. “Tyranza,” I said, my voice no louder than if I were talking to a friend beside me. The stately matriarch turned to look at me. “Tyranza,” I said again. The elephant walked toward us, her eyes bright and curious in her paleolithic head. She came as close as she could to the border of her enclosure, looked right at us, and lifted her trunk. The power of her presence, and her awareness, stunned me. I held her gaze for minutes, not able to look away until the baby began to fuss at my stillness.

Tyranza is the grandmother of the herd, twenty years older than her companions. She has been exempt from the recent reproductive efforts among the younger females, efforts that have ended in a late miscarriage for Gina and the tragic accidental death of Asali’s newborn calf. The latter captured the compassion and grief of Memphians in a way few local stories have. The loss of that animal seemed to galvanize our worst self-perception that nothing good can last here.

At the time I held my daughter and spoke to an elephant, I was fighting a hopelessness of my own. I felt isolated and overwhelmed, unaware that post-partum depression was coming over me like a shadow. Luckily, I soon found my own matriarchal troupe, a gathering of other new moms at a retail store and community center called Mothersville. This space was so essential to my early motherhood that I eventually became the owner, doing the best I could to create a place for women to find support and companionship during those powerfully, and often surreptitiously, difficult days. When I closed the store in 2008, my greatest sadness was for the mothers who might never find each other.

In the years since Mothersville’s  end and Asali’s terrible loss, however, something surprising has happened in Memphis. Even amid awareness of our tragicomic missteps, there is a growing civic pride that exists almost to spite our own long-standing modesty. (Just say the words “Mayor Wharton” to feel a sense of this new mentality.) And from the safe distance of a mother of school-age children, I see an ever-growing community among new moms, connecting through social media and planning time to get together in person.

I hope those women find the friendship and understanding that marked my time at Mothersville. I hope they grow into their motherhood together and still have each other’s numbers when they need help carting science projects and picking drivers’ ed instructors. And if they start to feel under that stealthy shadow, during those earliest, most dangerous days, I hope they’ll find a place where they can get some inner sun – a coffee shop, a friend’s porch, or of course, the zoo.

Tyranza and I will be happy to see them.

___

If you or a loved one is struggling with post-partum depression, visit www.JennysLight.org for information on when, how, and where to find help.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Our Pre-Existing Condition

[Ed. note: My Main Street Journal column this week had some formatting issues, so although I don't usually republish these pieces in their entirety, I had enough people tell me they couldn't open the original that I wanted to provide another viewing option. So on this Independence Week, I patriotically present the original rough draft of the Supreme Court's time-saving combined decision on immigration and healthcare ...]


SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT
BUSINESS ET AL. v. SEBELIUS, SECRETARY OF
HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT No. 11-393. Argued March 26, 27, 28, 2012

AND

ARIZONA ET AL. v. UNITED STATES
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT No. 11-182. Argued April 25, 2012

CHIEF JUSTICE’S ROUGH DRAFT – DO NOT DISTRIBUTE

Look, it’s summer. Not just regular summer, but some kind of sci-fi, stupid-hot, super-summer, with every American city including Washington D.C. hovering somewhere near 115 degrees. (Not that there’s global warming or anything, right, Scalia?) And we don’t know if you noticed, but the Court spends the day in ankle-length black wool. So let’s just save some time before Clarence goes commando and get right to what you’re all waiting for.

In 2010, Congress enacted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in order to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance and decrease the cost of health care. An Arizona statute known as S. B. 1070 was also enacted in 2010 to address pressing issues related to the large number of unlawful aliens in the State. What do these two things have in common? Well, the Court submits that both laws seek to define the nature and character of what we generally refer to as an American, and in a little-known article tacked onto the Constitution by Daniel Webster, the responsibility of maintaining this definition is handed to the Court at any point in time in which the opinions of a majority of Americans are overpowered by an especially pushy and well-funded minority.

At the time of its passage, Americans found the Affordable Care Act to be a positive thing, by a margin of 49 percent to 401. And yet, by the time the Court ruled on the law, 72% of those polled felt the (misnamed) “individual mandate” provision of the ACA was “unconstitutional.2” Which the Court finds kind of funny, being that less than a third of Americans have actually read the thing3. Because you know who has eighteen thumbs and has totally read the Constitution? These guys. Well, more than a third of us, anyway. And we tend to believe that a non-stop flurry of talking points, scare tactics, and misinformation had much more influence on public opinion than anything found in Ol’ Connie (yeah, we nicknamed the Constitution. Jealous?).

Even those who favor repealing the ACA don’t generally believe the entire thing should be scrapped. Less than 1 percent of those polled felt that the coverage of those with pre-existing conditions and young adults under 26 should be revoked4. Which means that 99 percent of people agree with these two landmark reforms. And if memory serves, there hasn’t been 99 percent agreement on any provision of any law since the historic passage of the Cake at Birthday Parties Act of 1827.

Likewise, two thirds of Americans believe that immigration is a good thing for the country5. Now, asked specifically about border patrols and paper-checks and other methods of enforcing immigration laws, people tend to get a little less generous, but at heart, we are a nation that remembers, way back in our collective conscience, that we’re all immigrants. Well, except for Maricopa County, Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose ancestors sprung fully formed from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. (What, the Court can’t be sarcastic?)

So here’s the deal. You can’t arrest undocumented immigrants for trying to get a job. You can’t set immigration policy on a state-by-state basis, because guess what? It’s a state. You can’t immigrate to a state. No one ever got on a boat and travelled for five months in filthy, overcrowded conditions to immigrate to Alabama.

And for those lucky enough to be born here, who never for a day have to worry about a traffic stop turning into a thousand-mile one-way trip, our responsibilities are even greater. If we are going to hold ourselves up as an example among nations, we better act like one. And step one is providing access to medical care for every citizen. We’re sure sorry that means that some healthy libertarians and off-the-grid homeopaths may have to pony up a few hundred bucks to remain insurance-free, but if the “mandate” eats at your conscience and sense of autonomy, consider it a tax that pays for you to be protected from the roaming gangs that would be fighting you for your land in any other country that doesn’t have national health care. (Okay, sometimes the Court exaggerates a little. But still.)

From the earliest peoples traveling across the Bering Strait from the mother continent to the immigrant workers upholding today’s industry, our very existence as a country depends on the transfer of individuals from other places to this one. And our continued esteem as a country depends on joining ourselves together for the collective good and assuring that something as basic as physical health is considered a right for all and not a privilege for some.

For centuries, citizens of other lands have risked their lives to find better ones here. In this country. In our America. Some of them were our ancestors, some of them are our neighbors. We owe it to all of them to make it worth the trouble.

Roberts out.


--
1 USA TODAY/Gallup, Mar. 24, 2010
2 USA TODAY/Gallup, Feb. 20-21, 2012
3 National Survey of Americans' Awareness and Understanding of the Constitution and Constitutional Concepts, Sponsored by the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation, Sept. 2010
4 New York Times/CBS News, Jan. 15-19, 2011
5 USA TODAY/Gallup, June 7-10, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Greetings and Apologies


If you happen to have found this site through any of my recent online forays, welcome! If on the other hand you’ve been hanging around here waiting for something new to happen ... well, sorry. Please feel free to check out any of those aforementioned forays. In May, I had Main Street Journal columns on the blessed and cursed Memphis music scene and a local perspective on the Time Magazine attachment parenting kerfuffle. I also had the honor of publishing a somewhat mortifying memoir on Punchnel’s.
I took a brief summer break from columnizing, but will be back on the home page of Main Street Journal on Tuesday, June 19. I hope you’ll stop by.