Saturday, December 17, 2011

Civic Duty

Okay, I'll admit it. When I first got the notice to report for jury duty (or, as it's handled in Shelby County, the notice to report to pick the time to report for jury duty), I groaned. After I got through the hassle of navigating flooded downtown streets at 8:15 on a weekday morning and picked a somewhat acceptable week, though, I decided I was going to shift my thinking. For better or worse, our legal system is based on conducting a trial by a jury of one's peers, and I had to ask myself: if something awful happened and I ended up in a courtroom, who would I want making major decisions about my life?

So in the spirit of judicial karma, I sat through the juror orientation session with my eyes front and my phone off, appreciating the enthusiasm and dedication of our jury commissioner. I was calmly resigned to a day of waiting around and doing nothing, so it was a pleasant surprise when I was called into jury selection about 45 minutes into the morning. (I know you're looking for the sarcasm in those last sentences, but it's really not there.)

I entered the courtroom as the 19th person in our carefully organized line. The first voir dire session lasted longer than I expected, especially since it was nearing 2:00 and we hadn't broken for lunch yet. Because we were sitting for a civil trial, the questions asked of potential jurors were focused on legal and medical knowledge, as well as general attitudes about liability and compensation. After several conferences with the judge, the attorneys dismissed four people from the pool. Some of the cuts made sense - like the lady who insisted she couldn't process anything verbally and wouldn't be able to pay attention to testimony - but others were a little more mysterious. I was surprised to see that the law office intern was sent away, but the law clerk with 30 years of experience in the city's best-known firm got to stay.

It looked like I was about to be sent back to the holding area, but after a little more questioning, another juror was excused. I was called up to fill the fourteenth spot in the box (twelve jurors plus two alternates sit through the trial), and after I answered a few questions about my education, job, and experience with car accidents, the jury was set. I was on a trial.

There was a nervous energy permeating our new group as the judge read through our instructions. Also, we were really hungry. The judge finally let us break for lunch around 2:30. When we returned to the courthouse, we were now officially allowed to enter the jury room through our own special door and our friendly courtroom deputy gave us our official juror badges. She also gave us notebooks and pens to take notes with, but we were given instructions not to read from our notes to other jurors or present them as facts of the case. Our notes were for our own memory-jogging purposes only.

I found this direction even more baffling than the admonishment not to look up anything on our own that had to do with the case – no Googling medical terms, no drive-bys of the accident site, no talking to our lawyer friends about burden of proof. It was clear that the intent of the system was for our “peer” status to be defined very narrowly and literally. We were to approach the case with our own personal knowledge and nothing more, and could present nothing to other jurors other than our own interpretations and opinions of what occurred within the framework of the trial. 

By the time we all got resettled in the courtroom, there was only enough time for the attorneys to give their opening statements and the judge to give us instructions for the next day. When we reconvened in the jury room the following morning, there were already the beginnings of that camp-week familiarity that forms between people in short-term, close-knit situations. The deputy learned all of our names, which meant we all learned each others’. We lined up in the same order each time we entered or exited the courtroom, so we knew our line buddies and who was missing.

The trial itself was fairly uneventful: a civil suit between participants in a minor car accident in which the plaintiff said she incurred a major injury. The testimony consisted of each driver giving a side of the story, pre-transcribed depositions from doctors that the plaintiff’s attorney read out loud for two hours, and an account from the traffic officer who was at the scene of the accident. We were shown photographs of each car and copies of the plaintiff’s medical records. In all, it took no more than five hours. By 3:30 or so, we heard the closing statements and went back to our secret hideout to deliberate. Well, twelve of us did. Right before we were excused, two numbers were randomly pulled from our group to remove the alternate jurors. I panicked for a minute, thinking how disappointed I’d be to sit through the whole trial and then not be able to decide on it, but I stayed in the group.

The case wasn’t clear-cut, and although I had a strong leaning toward one side, I expected the other jurors to be mixed in their opinions. I was somewhat shocked, then, when our first pre-discussion vote came up 11-1 in the defendant’s favor. I guess everyone else had gotten the same impression that the plaintiff’s injuries were real, but she just hadn’t made the case that a tiny fender-not-even-bender had caused them. And as I pointed out in my Perry Mason moment, the only photograph she had of her car’s “damage” was taken at least six months after the accident. Or about 90 days after her surgery. Or about the same time those final notice bills start coming in. Call me cynical, or just call me a peer who has had my fair share of co-insurance responsibility, but it didn’t do much for her credibility.

As we discussed and re-voted and discussed some more, there was still one person who remained unsure, or at least not the 51% sure we were assigned to be (“beyond a reasonable doubt” doesn’t apply in civil cases). It was nearing 5:00 and impatience was settling into the room. Arguments were getting a little louder and more exasperated. At that point, we were at a stalemate, and I humbly credit my experience in living in a household of nine people with getting us out of it. The holdout was a woman in the medical profession who thought the timing of the accident and the injury were too close together to be coincidental. Arguing that such a thing was unlikely but possible didn’t change her mind. So I said yes, you’re right, let’s say they’re connected. But what if it’s not in the way it seems? What if there’s another explanation? When we talked through other options and she could see alternate possibilities, she was able to agree, without reservation, that the plaintiff hadn’t proven her claim.

We were all excited and glad to have come to agreement, but then a somber feeling came over us, too.  I don’t think I was the only juror who thought that a civil trial would be sort of boring and inconsequential, and from what I heard in the jury room, I know I wasn’t the only one surprised by how high-stakes the case ended up feeling. Although the issue at hand seemed pretty minor, the amount of money involved was significant. Whatever decision we made was going to have a huge impact on both of those people.   

When the forewoman read our decision, the trial participants all seemed unmoved, except for the defendant who was beaming with relief. I got the sense that the judge approved, but maybe she just makes a habit of looking passively accepting. The attorneys thanked us and offered to speak with us afterward if we had anything we wanted to share with them, and although it was tempting to point out to them the car photo detail they’d both missed, I turned in my juror badge and went on my way, my week of jury duty wrapped up in two days, my civic responsibility fulfilled for ten more years.

As we were getting back to our cars, several of the other jurors said that they were surprised how stressful the experience had been, and how glad they were it hadn’t been a more difficult case. I completely agreed, but I still would have wanted to serve, and I'll be willing to serve again. It’s unlikely I would have a lengthy encounter with either of the parties in that trial, but our judicial system is more open in its definition of peers. As residents of Shelby County, we are all considered peers because we are members of the same community, and as such, what happens to one of us is relevant to us all. I’m still not certain it’s the most fair or wise or accurate course of action, but you have to admit it’s a beautiful idea.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Way

As I sat at a stoplight behind a car with a Retired Military license plate, I tried unsuccessfully to imagine my father making such an obvious declaration of his service. I was raised with the awareness that my dad was a Vietnam veteran, but other than a tucked-away photo album and the occasional appearance of his dress blue hat in our dress-up box, there were no visible reminders of his time as an Army officer.

Not that there weren’t any reminders at all. No matter how much he tried to forget the experience, nightmares and post-trauma responses were unavoidable. He’d joke about the way he jumped out of bed or sprang up to shield my mother when an ambulance siren wailed in the middle of the night, but it didn’t completely cover the fact that some part of his mind could never forget the terror of war.

After drawing an ill-fated lottery number, my father had decided to enlist and go through officer candidate school rather than wait for the inevitable call of the draft. At all of 23, he was the old man of his unit and had more training than most of the soldiers around him, but he was still a recent college graduate from a town of 2500 people who hadn’t been outside the state of Minnesota until his senior year of high school. When he was deployed overseas, he left a 21-year-old wife behind. Now that those ages are closer to my children’s than my own, I can’t help thinking of them all as kids, both my parents and their peers, which makes the difficulties they endured that much more excruciating to imagine.

For as long as I can remember, the sight of soldiers in uniform has made me tear up. I’m especially susceptible to this weakness at airports, when it’s clear that the serviceperson in question is heading away from home rather than toward it. I always thought this was just overactive empathy, but I’ve realized lately, with our military now in multiple conflicts round the globe, that I see my father in every set of eyes that has seen war up close. I know that the lives they led before deployment are over, and that the rest of their days will be touched by the time they serve. Like my dad, some of them may have chosen the military as the best of several less-than-ideal options, and their path afterward may not look much brighter. With the number of reservists in action, we have an older, wiser military than in my father’s era, but I still feel there’s a sense of childlike innocence and safety that’s irreversibly extracted by foreign combat. We send lots of kids to war, but we never get any back.

The very definition of a veteran is someone who has prevailed through trials and gained experience, and my compassion for our troops certainly doesn’t imply the perception of weakness or damage. As much as I wish he hadn’t had to learn them in such a brutal way, the lessons my father took from his time in Vietnam are still valuable, and despite the losses and sacrifices he withstood, he moved forward into a happy, successful, and loving future with his wife and children. Just as his own father had done after earning a Purple Heart in World War II. There may not have been obvious symbols of his service around our house as I was growing up, but my father remains my greatest reminder of the courage of every veteran, not just to sacrifice one’s life, but to face the life that comes next.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Write Now

If you happened to wonder why I haven’t been writing this summer, it’s because, well, I’ve been writing. I took a couple months off from blogging to focus my attention on fiction. There were two big deadlines I wanted to hit this month – the Memphis Magazine fiction contest and the University of Memphis’s Moss Workshop application – and as of June 1, I didn’t have anything ready to submit. In fact, I hadn’t actually completed a fiction piece since 2007, when I wrote a short story/possible first chapter that was rejected by both of the aforementioned entities. I won’t say that the disappointment from that Summer of No-Love quashed my inspiration for the next four years, but it didn’t do a whole lot for my motivation. Perhaps because I’ve always considered writing a career path rather than an artistic endeavor, it’s hard for me to take the time to write if I don’t see any productive results from it. If it’s not earning me money or at least generating useful feedback, then what’s the point?

But then, this past July, while we were vacationing on the Gulf coast, I had an idea. Not just the start or premise of a story, but the whole idea. The beginning, the end, and, most importantly, what it was actually about. I started writing it up as soon as we got back. I changed some of the major details I had begun with, but the original plot concept held steady. In two weeks, I did what I hadn’t managed in four years. I finished something.

Buoyed by that experience, I took a look back at another piece I’d been fidgeting with. I realized as I opened it up that I had begun the story one year before. To the day. (Yes, I put the start date in the file name of everything I write, because I like to wallow in my inactivity.) I’d wrestled with it last summer, hoping to get it into shape for the fiction contest, but just never knew where to take it. Looking at it all those months later, the path suddenly became a lot clearer. I took the two extra weeks granted by the extended Memphis Magazine deadline and reshaped the bits and pieces into theme and plot. Two more weeks, another story done.

Now, I’m optimistic, but I won’t say my hopes are sky-high. I know there are a lot of strong writers in our muddy little local pool, and I’m already telling myself that the public result isn’t as important as the process. The most significant outcome of completing these two stories has already happened: now I know that I can do it. That’s really the best prize I could get.

Although if I happened to win that national magazine-sponsored short story contest that I entered yesterday … well, that would be pretty good, too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

You Suck

Recently, a fellow Memphis mom was harassed in a government office for daring to nurse her eight-month-old baby in a waiting room. She was virtually commanded to move to a conference room, and when she refused, was threatened with legal action. Fortunately, she was completely within her rights as guaranteed by the state of Tennessee, rights that will soon be expanded to protect all nursing mothers regardless of the child’s age. As a show of support and public education, last week she and several other moms staged a nurse-in at the Social Security Administration office where the ugly incident occurred.

Unfortunately, the ugliness wasn’t over yet. Commenters on local news sites sputtered and fumed about the general offensiveness of public nursing. They decried the disgustingness of bodily fluids being bandied about. Even the subtlest opponents tried to couch it nicely by saying “it’s okay as long as you cover up; no one wants to see that!”

I’m not really one for debate, seeing as how I avoid confrontation in all forms, but there is one thing I know about making a persuasive argument: you can never win by pointing out that your opponent is just plain screwed up. And yet, when it comes to those who oppose breastfeeding anywhere but at home or under a baby burkha, there’s really no way around that conclusion. People who are scared of nursing breasts: you are screwed up.

Not that it’s entirely your fault, necessarily. We live in a society that is deeply confused when it comes to female anatomy. But the simple reality is that we’re mammals, and that’s what breasts are for. I can see more boob from Christina Aguilera during an episode of The Voice than I ever exposed during my own four-plus years of breastfeeding, but I don’t see any comments on the NBC message boards telling her to take those things somewhere private (unless they mean … well, nevermind). If cleavage occurs in the course of entertainment, then it’s perfectly acceptable. If it’s just keeping a human alive, however … well, that’s gross.

People. Come on.

Sure, there might be those who’d rather not see any part of a breast or its environs. Everyone has their own comfort levels. I hope those poor folks are never forced to look at a Target Sunday circular or Olympic beach volleyball. But to presume that a woman feeding her child should worry about a couple inches of skin because you’re not okay with the rounder parts of human flesh is ridiculous. I come across plenty of sights that disturb me during the day – topless runners, backwards baseball caps, Kardashians – but this is America, sister. If I don’t want to see it, I use a tool far more effective than an online rant: my neck. In the immortal words of Peter Cetera: look away, baby, look away.

Every single nursing mom I know - which is a whole heck of a lot - does her best to nurse modestly, despite the assertion by some that breastfeeders are all a bunch of hippie exhibitionists. Trust me, most of us don't want them flapping out there any more than you do. But there's only so much that can be done, and if it comes down to your comfort or a hungry baby's, guess who wins?

I can hardly even bring myself to address the idiocy of the bodily fluids argument, but I will do so as succinctly as possible. Implying that breastmilk should be relegated to the same places as human excreta is like saying cow milk should be treated the same as cow dung. To which I say, well, bullshit. Breastmilk is food. It is not snot or blood or urine. Nursing is not sex or farting or sneezing. When we say "breastfeeding is natural," we don't mean it is a natural bodily function. We mean it is the natural method by which all humans are intended to be fed. I will accept "milk is gross" from dairy-refraining vegans and that is it. Dumbasses.

As someone who worked closely with breastfeeding mothers in Memphis for several years, it pains me to see any more challenges put in their way. The act itself is difficult enough, so compounding it with social pressure and misinformation is not only unfair, but dangerous to the health of our community. Shelby County is already woefully below the Healthy People 2010 goal of a 75% breastfeeding initiation rate (at 54%), and in no minor coincidence, has the highest infant mortality rate in the country. There is simply no place in Memphis for anti-nursing attitudes.

But if you insist on judging mothers who are providing their children with the healthiest food possible, I just ask that the next time you get hungry, you stay home, cover your head, and please, just go eat in the bathroom.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

L'Etoile Du Nord

“I am a liberal and liberalism is the politics of kindness. Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for.”
- Garrison Keillor

Oh, Minnesota. What has happened to you?

I’ll admit that I don’t closely follow all of the political activity of my home state, but there are certain things I take for granted. Like the fact that we were the only state Dukakis won, other than Massachusetts. But my, does that seem so long ago.

I was raised with the safe knowledge that I came from a liberal state, a place where tolerance and personal freedom and community responsibility were not only valued but exalted. I was proud that our Scandinavian ideas about social welfare made us attractive to those fleeing horrendous persecution. And I took to heart the general philosophy that you don’t know anyone’s struggles but your own, and you should probably keep quiet about those, anyway.

So what the hell, people? When did we become a state of uptight, moralistic, right-deniers? What insidious viral fear has taken over where kindness, or at least indifference, used to be?

I was actively involved in Minneapolis’s HIV/AIDS education and social action sphere during the early 1990s. While things weren’t perfect as far as gay/straight understanding went, I felt, overall, that I lived in an open, accepting community. I would have been astonished at that time if a constitutional amendment denying rights to same-sex couples had been supported by our state legislature. The fact that it is happening now, nearly twenty years later, is beyond heartbreaking.

When I dig past the heartbreak, there’s anger and shame. And the face of that anger and shame is grinning blankly from Fox News panel discussions. Seeing the words, “R – Minnesota” under Michele Bachmann’s crazy, crazy head is nearly enough to make me consider calling myself an Iowan. And now with the news of Tim Pawlenty’s bid for the presidential candidacy (T-Paw? Really? Douuuuuuche!), I feel like some sort of secret smear campaign has been invoked against the people of Minnesota. How did these two conservatives come to be our representatives on the national stage?

The answer is simple, I suppose. They were voted in. Somewhere along the line, the people who elected a poli sci professor in a green school bus to Senate and agreed to be governed by a libertarian wrestler (no link required) decided, hey, let’s try fascism. When the pendulum swings back, it swings hard. But I can’t help thinking that there’s also been some trickery involved.

My people are from small, rural towns, far from the Cities, and yet I know they don’t support the ideas that the state legislature claims they do. If the U.S. in general has polled in support of allowing gay marriage, there is simply no way for me to believe that Minnesotans are overwhelmingly against it. Some very misguided politicking is going on up there, with a lot of people suddenly jumping on the tea party boat so they won’t get called out by the narrowest-minded and loudest-voiced.

I cried when I heard of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death, and I tear up now thinking that any part of his essence might be aware of what’s happened to Minnesota since his passing. I simply don’t understand it. I know fear can make people act against their better judgment (see: any slasher film, acceptance of George W. Bush after 9/11), but what, really, are Minnesotans afraid of? I’m sincerely trying to answer that question in a way that makes any sense, and the best I can come up with is that things are very uncertain and unstable right now, and clinging to what is known and understood can make that seem a little less scary.

But here’s the thing. Preventing gay marriage doesn’t make anything more secure, except the elected positions of fear-mongering politicians. It doesn’t stabilize the economy or improve the housing market or create new jobs. Quite the opposite, really – think of all the gay couples not hiring wedding planners and florists and harpists who cover Depeche Mode. And it doesn’t delete all the porn off the internet or stop your kids from sexting, either. Don’t equate the growing and occasionally disconcerting ease of access to sexual information with advances in human rights. I can promise you that it isn’t gay married couples sending Facebook friend requests to your 14-year-old.

Speaking of fear and fourteen-year-olds, let’s talk about what you really should be scared of. Be scared of your child separating herself from your family because she doesn’t think you can love who she is. Be scared of the ways your child will seek information if you refuse to acknowledge reality. Be scared of your child feeling so isolated and rejected for his sexuality that he feels ending his life is the only acceptable option.

Garrison Keillor wrote, “This is Democratic bedrock: we don't let people lie in the ditch and drive past and pretend not to see them dying.” Every gay citizen in Minnesota has been thrown in the ditch by this legislation. The constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual monogamy goes to a vote of the people in November. My Minnesotans, don’t drive by.

Please click above to view Iraq war veteran Rep. John Kriesel's (R - Cottage Grove, MN) powerful speech to the Minnesota House on why he opposes the marriage amendment.

Postscript: I am no less angered by the neanderthals in Nashville, but the pain isn't compounded by ever daring to expect any different.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Funny Girl

I do not want to be Tina Fey’s best friend.

I say this, of course, to distinguish myself from the millions of my peers who do, because I feel sort of sorry for Ms. Fey, having to live with the constant awareness that legions of college-educated women of Generation X see her not only as an admirable figure, but also an approachable gal who they’d get along so well with if only given the chance. I’m sure she has plenty of perfectly lovely friends and isn’t casting about for sidekicks.

And of course, by so separating myself with my considerable reasonableness, I’m hoping that she’ll PICK ME! PICK ME!

Sigh. Crap.

I just finished reading Fey’s first book, Bossypants, and I can’t help that it left me feeling even more uncomfortably close to the writer/actor/producer/mom than I already did. The solid family life, the tales of geekdom, the social salvation through high school theater, the awkward college years … it all struck an off-pitch chord.

But then her story became like a fan-fiction version of my life, where instead of taking the desk job to pay off student loans after college, she slogged away at the Evanston YMCA (three blocks from where I was racking up that student loan debt) to pay for classes at Second City. I spent high school and college going to improv and sketch comedy shows, and despite a natural draw and fascination, I never took the next step. I thought it wasn’t my world. But then I come to find out through Tina Fey that female comedy writers are, by and large, good girls from good families who went to good schools. Three for three, people. Why didn’t my academic advisor ever tell me that?!

With just a little clearer knowledge, I may have made that leap. I just needed a little security. Between safety and adventure, I tend to choose safety.

Which is the exact opposite tack of Craig Ferguson, whose memoir, American On Purpose, I polished off shortly after finishing Bossypants. Unlike Fey’s autobiography, it’s a story filled with dramatic dives into self-destruction. The clean-and-sober actor/writer/talk show host/novelist that I’ve known and loved since he replaced Smarmy McFratterson on The Late Late Show has a long, messy trail behind him, littered with booze and drunks and overly forgiving women.

I knew from his surprisingly poignant Britney Spears monologue and other frequent references that he was in recovery, but it’s still a little startling to take a close look at what any addict is recovering from. As Tina Fey says, most male comedians are filled with an urge to break rules, and Ferguson follows that bumpy path – dropping out of school, touring with punk bands, hanging out with Emma Thompson (that skank).

A little part of me has long held on to the idea that my (as-yet-unhired) press agent would have an in with Ferguson’s people, and they’d have me on the show to discuss my (as-yet-unwritten) hit novel. And of course the interview would go so well that we’d decide to talk more after the show, when we’d get drinks at the Brown Derby and discuss Fitzgerald’s prescience about the dehumanization of modern America and the genius of Bill Hicks, and one thing would lead to another and yada yada yada, we’d be collaborating on an HBO pilot.

But now that I’ve read the book, I’m not so sure we’re suited to work together. Drinking or not, there’s a dark, driven, slightly dangerous side to Ferguson that I’m not sure would complement my Nervous Nelly tendencies. Perhaps it would be best if we just stuck to the interview. And maybe three or four casual dinner parties throughout the year.

And if Tina Fey wants to stop by, hey, that’s cool.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Rising

It’s a great time to be a Memphian.

And it’s a scary, uncertain time to be a Memphian.

The inevitability of these two situations happening at once is, of course, very Memphis indeed.
photo by Chip Chockley

On the plus side, our lone big-time professional sports team has not only made it to the playoffs, but ground their way through to a first-round win over the number one seed. The city that essentially forgot the Grizzlies existed a few months ago, except to note their comically long losing streak, is now behind this group of underdogs. Maybe it’s our Hoosier-like innocence about the difference between college athletes, who we’ve always supported, and the NBA, but Memphis seems to be not only excited about the team, but also protective. Professional basketball doesn’t usually lend itself to the feeling that these are “our hometown boys,” but there’s something like family loyalty in the air these days. It’s reaffirming and, I’ll admit, a little disconcerting. We’re not a group-think, high-hopes kind of town. When anything goes too well, for too long, we get a little nervous that we’ll have to pay for it later.

Speaking of … how about that Mississippi River? You know, that three-mile-wide expanse of rushing water that has decided to come on up and mosey down Beale St. himself. (Rivers are male, right? Ol’ Man River and all that?) It’s hard to even get past the sheer spectacle of the situation, but when you do, the realities are dispiriting. Damage is occurring that our already-strapped city will be hard-pressed to repair. People’s homes, schools, and lives are being disrupted. And all this on top of a month of storms that many residents are still recovering from. Navigating surface streets still requires weaving around the piles of lost limbs and chainsawed trunks that can’t be contained on the sidewalks until pick-up day. We’re just a damn mess.

But sometimes being a mess has its perks. Like when the President of the United States chooses to give the commencement speech at your high school to honor all the ways in which students have risen above it all. The same year Michael Heisley declared that the Grizzlies were in rebuilding mode, the administration of Booker T. Washington High School reformed their core systems to not only serve the students in Memphis’ poorest zip code, but to guide them toward success. Over the last three years, the school’s graduation rate has shot from 55% to over 80%. And on May 20th, President Obama is going to stop by to tell them how fantastic they are. Now that’s a true Cinderella story.

Which brings us right back to the Grizzlies. Now tied up with Oklahoma in the second round of the playoffs (I write, as if I have any idea how many rounds there actually are or have paid attention to the NBA since Michael Jordan retired. The first time), it’s getting scary again. The equal proximity of success and failure does not sit well, because Memphians know which way our luck tends to lean. The mere fact that this many Memphians are attentive and optimistic is in itself a bad sign, because all of our best stuff happens when no one is really watching (see: the success at Booker T. Washington, the Million Dollar Quartet, or Jake Gyllenhaal buying cinnamon rolls at the Farmers Market).

The trademark Memphis fatalism has seeped into me over the years, and it’s now natural for me to assume that anything that brings the city together will lead to crushing disappointment, generally within a two-week span.

With that in mind, I suggest that we all turn our backs on the Grizzlies and cheer the Mississippi on to keep on getting higher. And then meet back on Beale in a couple weeks (or months? Three fortnights?) to celebrate a victorious team and a thoroughly dry downtown.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Mama Told Me ...

In honor of Mothers Day, I feel I should dedicate this space to the fundamental guiding principle that my mother instilled in me. Sure, she taught me and my sister to be fair and kind to others. She taught us to express ourselves and honor our intelligence. But above all else, throughout our whole lives, she has drilled one core commandment into our very beings: Whatever you do, wherever you go, no matter how successful you are, never, ever, EVER pay full retail.

I began my professional life in the mean streets … er, indoor sidewalks of a suburban mall. I worked in several different clothing stores, including a mid-level menswear outlet where I learned one of the basic rules of retail: everything is made in the same place with the same stuff, they just put different labels on it. Now, this isn’t true in all cases – there are definitely variations in fabric quality among different retail tiers, for example – but it’s a good basis for determining what something is really worth. And what I’ve come up with, ultimately, is that 99% of clothes should fall into one of the following categories: “Under $5,” “Under $10,” “Under $15,” or “I might pay around $25.”

This isn’t what the tags say, of course, but I am no respecter of tags. I scoff at tags. Sometimes outright, like if I walk into Old Navy and a knit shirt says it’s $24.50. Ha! That is a solid Under $10 item, and on a good day, Under $5. Which is why you won’t ever see me looking on the main display tables or front-of-store shelves at any store. When I walk into a clothing store, I head directly to the clearance rack in the back.

Actually walking into a store is rare for me, though. Most of my shopping is done online. This can be overwhelming, considering the number of possibilities out there in the inter-ether, but I prefer to keep my focus on a small handful of my favorites. I sign up for their email newsletters, which notify me of specials and events. And then I wait. Every retailer works in a sales cycle, and it can take a couple months to get the hang of when the best prices are available. So when I see a “30% off new items” deal from Ann Taylor Loft, I don’t get excited, because I know in a month that stuff will be on sale for 30% off, and then I’ll get the “40% off all sale prices” notice two weeks later.

It’s definitely a shopping method that takes patience and does not satisfy the urge for instant gratification. Instead, my payoff comes from saving myself a big pay-out. I love adding up the original marked prices of what I buy and then subtracting my actual cost. I hold myself to at least a 50%-off standard, but can sometimes get more than 80% off retail.

What separates me from the slightly-disturbing ranks of Extreme Couponers is that I only buy what I really like and I never buy-to-save. I resist the temptation of “$25 off when you spend $100,” because that’s still a pretty weak discount. I’ve also had to get used to missing out on things because they’re out of stock before the best deals come around. It’s a sort of Zen exercise. Except for, you know, the total materialism part of it. But all in all, I have a constantly rotating closet full of clothes on a budget of less than $300 a year. And although that doesn’t overshadow my kids or job or hard-earned education, it sure does make my mama proud.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

They say that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In that case, I hold myself personally responsible for the ever-dwindling number of Memphis bookstores.

It looks like we’ve narrowly avoided losing the bookstore formerly known as Davis Kidd, and I’m happy about that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Davis Kidd, watching my son lord over the train table or my daughter dismantle the puppet display. We’ve spent lots of Saturday mornings at story time. I’ve spent hours reading now-favorite magazines like Oxford American and Garden & Gun.

What I haven’t spent much of, however, is money. Davis Kidd is a beloved family hang-out, but it is not where I buy books. I’ve tried, on several occasions, to pick up my next book club selection or something on my mental to-read list there, but struck out in the stacks. So I tend toward Amazon, which has lower cover prices, free shipping, and a seemingly endless supply of titles.

As a recovering small business owner, I feel some guilt about that, but I also feel compelled by the system. Low prices and greater convenience win. It’s a Walmart mentality, but there’s a reason Walmart thrives. People appreciate charm and character and a big comfy easy chair, but they appreciate their time and money even more.

That doesn’t mean I think charming, cozy places should go away, but I think we need to be realistic about their place in the retail world. Sometime in the 1990s, Borders and Barnes & Noble convinced us that “bookstore” also meant cafĂ©/reading room/newsstand/record store/gift shop. And since we had so much room on our credit cards, we figured, hey, why not? I’ll get a CD and a $4 cup of coffee with my hardcover.

But in these difficult blah blah blah … people are thriftier. We’re not as easily grabbed by the new releases on the front table and we’re less likely to pick up that $40 recycled-plastic beach toy set. And as we’ve seen over the last year, mega-bookstores are dropping like lords of the flies. Yeah, online retailers and e-books are partly responsible for that, but I can’t help thinking that the concept itself was doomed. I’m no MBA, but if I learned anything running my own store it’s that giant square footage + hugely diverse products + low price points + customer anonymity = crappy profit.

I haven’t completely abandoned brick-and-mortar booksellers, mind you. But all of the non-Amazon book purchases I’ve made over the last year were at one place: the Goodwill bookstore. Charity-based or not, it’s a good business model. They’re in a small, out-of-the-way storefront next to a Chinese restaurant. I get in, browse my way through the three aisles, pick up two-to-five books, and get out, loaded up with reading material as I head for the buffet next door. I can rarely find any specific title that I hoped for ahead of time, but I almost never leave empty-handed.

Burke’s Books in Cooper-Young follows a similar model, which is to say, they sell books. That’s it. And there’s always someone nearby to help or make suggestions, which makes you feel welcome as well as a little more beholden (not a bad thing in a small business). Burke’s has had its own struggles for survival over the years, but they’ve hung on for over a century with nary a latte sold.

I love books. I truly do. My house is practically collapsing under the weight of them. And I deeply love a good bookstore, having been raised in the fertile crescent of independent booksellers. But I think it just might be time for Memphis to reconsider our needs in a bookstore. If we want a place to take our kids to play and hear stories while we browse through books and magazines we have no intention of buying, there’s a big fancy building on Poplar that offers all of those things. But if we actually want to purchase books in Memphis, a city with one of the ten worst literacy rates in the country, we should support the truly local retailers who are striving to improve the literary culture of our community, 800 square feet at a time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

City Girl

My parents grew up in Olivia, Minnesota. It’s the seat of Renville County, but it is still, fundamentally, a small town. The 2,500 or so residents form the support system for those in the outlying agricultural areas; they run a grocery, hospital, golf course, canning factory, car dealership, library, one public school, one parochial school, two hotels, three gas stations, four sit-down restaurants, and five churches.

My sister was born in Olivia and I’ve been visiting the town since my infancy. Combined, my grandparents put in over a century there, and many of my father’s 64 first cousins still live in or around the area. I’m likely to stumble across relatives no matter where I go. Although I grew up in suburbs all over the Midwest, I consider myself an honorary Olivian.

That said, I figure I usually know what to expect when I’m in a small town. I’m familiar with the features and personalities that grow from and thrive in semi-isolation. I have a reasonable expectation of what will and won’t be accessible, and I can usually manage to, if not blend in entirely, at least not stick out like a citified thumb.

Or so I thought. Turns out, despite common sizes and mutual affection for lawn ornamentation, Southern small towns and Northern small towns are just as different as their respective big cities. I was reminded of this fact on a recent jaunt through five exurban counties in west Tennessee.

In the Midwest, a church:resident ratio of about 1:500 is considered typical. Along the south end of the Mississippi, however, the theory seems to be that everyone should have a church home. Literally. I passed twenty churches while driving through Halls, TN, a town roughly the same size as Olivia. And yet I couldn’t help feeling like these communities were off-limits. Not just to me, a Lutheran-raised ex-Mormon with Unitarian tendencies, but to anyone unknown. The abundance of houses (and storefronts and trailers) of worship gave each tiny congregation the feel of a small social club. Even on Sunday morning, it was hard to find a parking lot with more than ten cars in it. There’s no sliding into the back pew in a church like that. Which is incomprehensible to Minnesotans, who would prefer that all churches contain nothing but back pews.

Despite their congregational quirks, most small-towners are friendly folk, but the nature of “friendly” changes as you cross the Mason-Dixon. Up north, it means a smile and a wave. In a Southern town, it means actually making friends. Asking (or answering) one question of a store or restaurant proprietor can lead to half an hour of conversation, introductions to family members, and possibly an invitation home. I now know more about the owner of Alvino’s Pizza in Dyersburg, TN than I do about my colleagues in the next aisle over. It’s a social model that’s difficult for me to adapt to personally, but I appreciate it on its merits.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of Southern small towns is the fact that they are not homogenous. The history of Southern agriculture intertwines diverse races and classes, and the towns that supported agrarian lifestyles still reflect this diversity. The Midwest, simply put, does not. Not once you get outside of the city centers, at least. I can’t speak for how each community is affected by its cultural make-up, but I tend to assume that any forward-looking group benefits from multiple viewpoints.

Of course, believing that is why, despite all their ties to a tiny homeland, my parents raised their children in a metropolitan area of 1,000,000 people, and why I now do the same. I’m drawn to the history and tradition of small towns, but I can’t help feeling that it takes a whole lot of people to build a future.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Grits Ain't Groceries

Memphis is an infamously divided town. Geographically and philosophically distant from the other large cities of Tennessee and yet also distinct from our adjacent neighbors in Arkansas and Mississippi, Memphis is a study in separatism. Even within our own city borders, most of us live in our own little subcultural zones. Downtown, Uptown, Crosstown, Midtown, and “out east” doesn’t begin to cover all the neighborhoods and pockets of identity we’ve constructed.

One of the things I’ve always found notably odd is how closely Memphians restrict themselves to their own defined categories. Race is the most obvious identifier, but it’s far too broad to accurately describe how we cordon ourselves off. There are also elements of class, education, politics, theology, and income potential at play. And I’ll admit, I’m not immune to it. Does being a working mother in my mid-30s make me identify with other working mothers in their mid-30s? Depends on how they feel about Obama or breastfeeding.

I appreciate that I’m raising my children in a city where they are surrounded by diversity, but I lament the fact that it’s something they observe rather than participate in. I’ve often wished that our regular, everyday activities gave us a more accurate picture of our city. It’s not simply a matter of going new places and doing new things. Leaving one pocket to enter another wouldn’t solve the issue. What I always hoped to discover in Memphis is a place where all of our citizens feel welcome and comfortable, a place that isn’t claimed by or associated with any one group, a place where our city of outsiders can feel like insiders.

It took me over a decade, but I think I’ve finally found it, the true melting pot of Memphis. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to know who we are, join us for lunch at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet.

It doesn’t matter which one. I’ve been to half a dozen around town and the scene is the same. Just take a seat and look around. Young mothers with babies taking their meals next to a table of retirees. Nurses and construction workers, IT geeks and realtors. Patrons in headwear required by distinct and often conflicting religions. Native Memphians who were born down the road, and Memphians native to at least three continents and a dozen countries. It may not be an exact representation of our demographics, but it at least touches every slice of the pie chart.

Mmmm, pie.

Wait, maybe that’s it. Food is the soul of the south. Regardless of other particularities, Southerners cook and Southerners eat. There may be distinctions in recipes, but everyone in Memphis was raised on some form of pork and greens and fried whathaveyou. And even if you’re not born to it, you take to it like … well, like a Yankee to barbecue.

What does this have to do with Chinese food? Frankly, I’m not sure, but I offer you exhibit A: the egg roll. Ingredients: pork, greens, and fried whathaveyou.

And also? Everyone likes Chinese food.

Because we live in a city with so many divisions, we unconsciously adjust our bearings to being Us or Them. But this self-awareness seems to melt away somewhere between the cashew chicken and the banana pudding. It’s strangely calming to be in a place where there is simply no Them, and only an All Of Us.

And man, are we all full.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


About six years ago, as part of my Memphis hazing, the red Schwinn 10-speed road bike I received on my fourteenth Christmas was stolen out of my own backyard. I hope whoever pulled that stunt, somehow avoiding detection from both motion-sensor lights and a 200-lb. dog, ruptured a disk lugging that steel behemoth over the fence.

Thanks to that act of nefariousness, I spent the last half-decade or so bikeless, and unhappily so. Which is sort of ironic, considering that the stolen bike still had the little nubs on the tires.

My desire for a new bike began immediately after the theft, but my ability to attain one was not so quick. I put bikes on my wishlist around every major holiday, but no giant boxes ever showed up in the mail. I’d save up a little scratch and plan to put it toward new wheels, but some other higher priority would come up, like daycare registration or a 50%-off-sale-prices sale at Ann Taylor Loft. I eventually had the perfect jauntily casual wardrobe for cruising around town, but nothing to actually cruise on.

Part of the hold-up, of course, was my predilection toward exhaustively thorough pre-purchase research (read: obsessive dithering). I wasn’t going to buy anything without checking reviews, comparing features, and graphing price fluctuations. I also made a longer-than-necessary mental stop at the Electra website because, golly, those bikes are pretty. But once I realized that I was never going to avoid long enough to get my bike fund to that level, I moved on to more realistic goals.

As I prepared my taxes this year, bracing myself for the payment I hoped would be slightly less than the giant sum owed the year before, I was shocked and thrilled to discover I was actually getting a modest refund. The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw those happy green numbers on Turbo Tax was, “I can get a bike!”

Having the money, however, didn’t make it that much easier for me to spend it on something so frivolous. Half my refund went right to bills, and the rest slipped away toward new clothes for the family, field trips, school pictures, and other wants and needs that were higher priorities than becoming a little LeMond.

But then, the sun came out. March arrived. A few bursts of lovely weather highlighted the unrelenting proximity of the Greater Memphis Greenline. The new Woodland Discovery Playground beckoned from a few flat miles away. Not having a bike not only seemed inconvenient, but downright ridiculous. I narrowed my top two choices down to one, did a Target test-ride, and eagerly awaited a freelance payment. And then, just to confirm that I was making the right choice, something amazing happened.

The bike I wanted went on sale!

(Cue angels singing, clouds parting, and cute little handlebar bells ringing)

I’ll spare you the Homerian epic of acquiring the last semi-functioning model in town (other than to thank Kristy for helping out when I was on the verge of meltdown) and skip right to this past Saturday, when I took the first ride on my new green-and-white Schwinn hybrid. I was a little afraid that I’d built my enjoyment of bike-riding up over the years and would be disappointed once I actually got in the saddle, but just the opposite was true. The first time I got to a downhill stretch and felt the wind rush by, I was hooked.

That little inaugural test ride turned into nine miles of Greenline and park trails and eating RJA's dust. Not every bit was easy, but it sure was a lot of fun. I felt connected to the city in a whole new way. I felt greater freedom in my own little part of it.

I felt fourteen again.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chocolate In My Peanut Butter

Something about the mashup fad has always bugged me a little. For those unfamiliar (hi, Mom!), a mashup is defined as a created work that is constructed of elements from other works, often of diametric genres, typically to comic effect, e.g. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I suspect my unease with the concept is based on the general feeling that mashups are created by smug hipsters thinking, “Wouldn’t it be so ironic if …?” Most of them seem to be thought up by the same guys who brought back porn mustaches.

But the other day, I saw something that changed my entire mashup mood: “Mama Said Knock You Out” set to the backing instrumentation of “Come On Eileen,” complete with sepia video clips of LL Cool J looking ominous interspersed with Dexy’s Midnight Runners looking … well, slightly threatening. To good fashion sense, at least.

It was then that I realized that one’s connection to a mashup is really only as strong as one’s inclination toward the sources. I have no interest in Jane Austen nor in the undead, so Pride and Prejudice and Zombies never appealed to me. But ‘80s electronic pop and ‘90s hip-pop combined? Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis called, and they want me to give their love of that genre back.

Most of the other mashups I’ve fallen for lately haven’t been quite so intentional, but they may as well have been custom-made for me. When Aaron Sorkin not only appeared on 30 Rock but had a pediconference with Tina Fey in a nerded-out West Wing homage, while also subtly acknowledging his own failed 30 Rock-esque effort? Well, I’m glad no one took a picture of the stupid grin on my face. And the other night, I was innocently watching the newest episode of American Pickers when Mike started talking about House Hunters International. I think I actually shorted out a synapse.

I guess these aren’t technically mashups so much as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-style combinations of awesomeness. Like when Neil Patrick Harris appeared on Sesame Street as The Shoe Fairy (bless you, PBS, you and your quiet, government-funded subversion). Or when The Office’s Angela Kinsey was on Andrew Dan-Jumbo’s short-lived TLC vehicle, Take Home Handyman. Wait, no, that was the other kind of mashup. The kind usually involving one-to-two trains.

The awareness of these perfect, unexpected combinations has put me on the lookout for more. It’s not as simple as a guest appearance or an out-of-character professional gambit. Something like George Clooney showing up as Cam’s bitter ex-lover on Modern Family wouldn’t count; that would just be great television. No, it really takes a deeper combination of elements. And ideally, elements exactly suited to me. I’m not really one for exuberance, but pairing up two things I love can make me downright giddy. So consider yourselves warned. If you happen to hear a squeal coming from my general direction, it’s safe to assume that Prince has released an album of Dylan covers, or they’re filming the Felicity reunion in Stars Hollow, or Jon Hamm is getting his Rookwood pottery appraised on Antiques Roadshow. By Oprah.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


If you’ve been anywhere near my Facebook page recently, you’ll have noticed a distinctly advertisanal air. I’ve spent the last week hyping up my new “business,” an online jewelry shop featuring my own hand-made pieces. The business part is in air bunnies because, frankly, I don’t really have any expectations about sales. I’d had a few people ask where my work was sold, so I decided to go ahead and make a place for it, but really, my main goal was just to have somewhere to share what I make. Even introverts have an inner show-off, you know.

As I mentioned in my initial kick-off post, I started making jewelry about six months ago. It would be more charming and mystical if I said I just fell into it, or was mysteriously drawn to it, but the truth is, I went on a very methodical quest to find a hobby. Both my time and financial resources were limited, so I sought a diversion that would be relaxing and sustainable. Dozens of ideas were floated and rejected as being too expensive, too time-consuming, too artsy, too crafty, too unwieldy, or just too messy.

When the idea of jewelry-making crossed my mind, it seemed perfect in multiple ways. The supplies were small, portable, and most importantly, dry. The tools required to get started were minimal. I could try it out without making a big financial commitment. Plus, it fulfilled an actual need. I love accessories but rarely buy them for myself, and a large number of the pieces I acquired through my lifetime had recently been stolen during a break-in. There was no way to replace my late grandmother’s necklaces or my high school class ring, but being able to design and create my own jewelry seemed the next best thing as far as adding personal value to what I wear.

With all that in mind, my expectations were still fairly low. I’ve tried a lot of different art forms, from painting to pottery, and always end up feeling like my vision and my production are never going to meet. An enthusiastic foray into crochet devolved into an acrimonious break-up with the entire realm of textile arts.

But without knowing it in advance, I managed to pick a creative outlet that’s exactly suited to my paralyzingly-perfectionistic tendencies. I can choose to follow an existing design, but there are no intricately coded patterns in cryptic abbreviations. It’s very hard to go “wrong” on a piece, but if I do, undoing/redoing is a fairly quick, easy process. Not having to worry about messing up or wasting time does a lot to free my creative impulses. Deciding I don’t like something and taking it apart is usually painless. Knowing it’s easy to go back always makes it much easier for me to go forward.

This whole thing is still pretty new to me – not just the craft, but having a hobby in general. The mere idea of setting aside time to do something for pure enjoyment has been out of my mental repertoire for about seven and a half years now. I’m certainly no expert jewelry-maker, either. I’m getting the hang of it, though, and for maybe the first time in my life, I’m not daunted by what I don’t know. While I still feel very much like a beginner, the wealth of unabsorbed knowledge out there is motivating instead of discouraging. At the risk of sounding like the hippie-crafter-nerd I'm quickly becoming, it took a lot of effort to find this path, and now I can’t wait to see where it leads.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Drawl I Ever Wanted

The ol’ Memphisotan is on spring break this week (actually, I’m working on another project; more on that later), so in lieu of a regular column, I’d like to provide an addendum to an earlier post. I’ve gotten so much feedback about the phrase “be careful” from Southerners who never realized it was a regionalism that I thought I’d post a few more expressions that are unique to the South. So here we go, y’all …

South: Have a picture made
North: Have a picture taken

South: Put your stuff up
North: Put your stuff away

South: Made a good grade
North: Got a good grade

South: Took up (homework, a test, papers, etc.)
North: Picked up

In every case, I tend to find the Southern way more charming and appealing, even if not necessarily better (Up? How many things actually need to go “up?”), and have adopted them as I comfortably can. Any other idiom-syncrasies I’m missing?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Born to Be Brave

I am late to the Lady Gaga party. Or the Lady Gaga surreal, 24-hour, glitter-bombed extravaganza, as it were. When I began my 5k training last fall, I needed something upbeat and motivating to run to, meaning something entirely unlike anything on my mandolin-heavy iPod playlist. I created a Pandora station on my fancy phone, combining ‘80s pop with contemporary dance music: Go-Gos meets Gaga. Whenever I turned it on, the first song was almost inevitably Lady Gaga, and it was perfect to get me going. It was slick, fast, and surprisingly funny.

One of the things I appreciate about Lady Gaga, as a performer, is that she hasn’t waited around to ironically morph into a gay icon. She just went right out there and grabbed that baton out of Madonna’s gnarled hands. So although our running time together didn’t turn me into a huge fan, it was easy enough for me to recognize the singer when a recent radio flip brought me to “Born This Way.” Who else would be chanting, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen?” Fondly remembering our glory days last October, I kept the radio tuned into the song, and I found myself grinning. The lyrics are a celebration of differences, a call to pride for anyone who feels judged or dismissed because of who they are. Honestly, it gave me goosebumps. Not so much because it was a great song – although it is pretty catchy – but because I could imagine millions of teenagers hearing those words and feeling like maybe it wasn’t always going to be so hard to be themselves. And that maybe, someday, it would even be awesome.

Because my all-Americana radio station recently betrayed me by going to conservative talk, I went ahead and programmed a Top 40 station into its place. About one out of every four times I go past it, Pink’s new single, “Raise Your Glass,” is playing (the other three times it’s poor edited Cee-Lo). Although it’s to a slightly different audience, the song is like “Born This Way” in its mission to bring the outsiders in. If “Born This Way” is directed to the glee club, “Raise Your Glass” speaks to the art room rogues. The point, however, is the same. Embrace what makes you different. Don’t let judgment break you. Take “freak” as a compliment.

What strikes me most about these songs is that they’re so popular. There have always been anthems for the lost or disenfranchised, but they tended to be so empathetic as to just make things worse (see: Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” entire oeuvre of R.E.M.). No one was dancing to them at prom. In my day, the kids on the edges found music on the edges – Violent Femmes on one side, Metallica on the other. What I find so fascinating and encouraging about this trend (because yes, there are even more, but I have to draw the line at getting philosophical about Katy Perry) is that it’s so mainstream. A kid in Willmar, Minnesota who has never in his life heard the word “transgendered” spoken out loud can hear it sung on American Top 40. And if that’s too broad to attract the true outcasts, my hope is that the message of the music is drilling itself into the kids in the middle. They’re silly songs, party songs, practically disco songs, but when so many teenagers (and younger) are still struggling to survive the pain and isolation they feel every day, what’s the harm in throwing them a party?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

History Repeats the Old Conceits

In the course of writing last week’s post, I did a quick bit of research to determine exactly how long my ancestors had been in Minnesota. With only the name of my great-grandfather*, I stumbled into a cache of family history I had no idea existed. I was able trace my father’s family in a straight line to 19th century Norway and 16th century England. I discovered that my earliest American ancestor arrived as a 16-year-old indentured servant in some new-fangled town called Boston. There’s a very strong chance that he planted a tree on his first colonial property that became one of the dominant symbols of the American Revolution.

As someone who has always felt completely Midwestern, I was amazed to discover that my family had spent two hundred years in the Boston area, and stunned to realize that the ancestor who took my branch of the family tree out of New England was, it strongly appears, an early Mormon pioneer. His son and grandson (my grreat and grrreat-grandfathers) made their way to Witoka, Minnesota in the 1850s, about the same time my grreat-grandmother’s family traveled from Telemarken, Norway, built a home in a four-family town in Pope County, MN, and then skedaddled for a few years until the “Indian trouble” (aka the Sioux Uprising) settled down. Bert, a descendent of the first colonists, and Anna, a Norwegian immigrant, got married on July 4, 1876, our country’s 100th birthday. Isn’t that the most American thing you’ve ever heard?

Let me be clear, I didn’t actually compile all this research. It was just sitting out there on the Internet, waiting for my Googling eyes. Trying to find other branches of my family brought up absolutely nada, so I suspect the only reason I was able to get these details is because grrrrrrrrreat-grandpa Jared was of some interest to historians. The trail ends at my great-grandfather, and doesn’t include any information about his wife, who died shortly before my birth and nearly became my namesake. But still, I feel lucky to have this one thread tied between me and six-hundred years of genetics. Much luckier than, say, anyone who’s spent the last week listening to me recount tales of my family’s historic adventures.

In all this information, however, are lots of little mysteries. One of the most intriguing to me is whether or not my grreat-grandfather, the aforementioned Bert, was with his Union regiment as they battled in Oxford and Tupelo, MS. He was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee (not to be confused with the confederate Army of Tennessee) during the correct time, but records show that he also spent an unspecified three months recovering from typhoid at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Memphis was a Union-occupied city at the time, and a major port, so I’d imagine that a regiment coming through the area would have stopped here before moving deeper into Mississippi. Right? Maybe?

It’s an idea built on many tenuous suppositions, but I can’t help but be drawn to the possibility that one of my own was walking these same downtown streets or the halls of the Hunt-Phelan home. It was obviously an atypical time in the city’s history, but I wonder how it would have touched him, a young blacksmith who, like me, spent his entire upbringing around the Great Lakes. I’ve always felt like something of an explorer here, the first one to send back reports to my people in the north. In knowing that at least one ancestor may have preceded me, I feel a new connection to my past, as well as to the place I now call home.

* Hereafter, number of greats will be indicated by Rs, e.g. great-great-grandfather = grreat-grandfather

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Y'All Come Back Now

As he was making a typically dramatic exit from the dining room, my three-year-old son informed me, “When people are leaving, they say ‘Be careful.’” And I laughed and said, “Well, yes, here they do.”

The first time someone in Memphis bid me good-bye and told me to be careful, I checked the ground for something I might trip over. It took me years to get over the reflex of associating that phrase with imminent danger. My people say “take care.” Even though it pretty much means the same thing, it doesn’t feel as ominous to me.

But my kids clearly don’t follow my thinking. Here I am, with a little boy who can properly distinguish the subtle difference between “y’all” and “all y’all,” and a seven-year-old daughter who answers requests with “yes, ma’am.” Yet when I say “uff-da,” they look at me like I’m crazy. I have, somehow, raised Southern children.

It’s jarring to realize that many of the things I took for granted about my upbringing are not only lost generationally, but also geographically. The cultural touchstones between our childhoods are hundreds of miles apart. My kids don’t know a Dairy Queen from a dairy barn, whereas the 7-year-old version of me could have identified either from a mile away (one by sign, the other by smell; Name That Manure was one of our favorite road games).

There are much greater cultural gaps to leap, though. I feel torn about the fact that my children are ignorant of religion in a town where asking someone which church they attend is considered a casual pleasantry. I was raised with religion being treated as an academic course, a spiritual history and philosophy lesson that would serve me as well as any other knowledge. We were such typical liberal Lutherans that my teenage rebellion was converting to Mormonism. But approaching Sunday school as just another educational opportunity doesn’t really seem to be an option here.

My kids do have a huge advantage, however, in their awareness of other races and cultures. Even when living outside of large diverse cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, it was rare for me to have more than one or two non-white, non-Christian classmates. I remember coming home in second grade and remarking to my mother that, for the first time, there was an African-American student in my class. My parents raised me to believe that everyone is equal, but that wasn’t a belief that came into much practice. I know that nothing I try to teach my children about equality could possibly be as effective as them living it every day. And, in hard relief, seeing injustice up close. I know they’re going to witness racism more often than I ever did, but I trust that they will be able to balance it with their own reality.

My people are Minnesotans, and their people before them, going back over 150 years. We share a culture, a history, and a language that are all foreign to my own offspring. When I take my children north to visit, I wonder how they interpret references to “the cities” or “the cabin” and everyone’s constant desire to “go up to” them. I take them north at least every year because I want them to know what a big country we live in, and see that there are fascinating things in every part of it. I expect to raise them as Southerners, but I want to spark the curiosity that will lead them to explore beyond their hometown. I hope they will travel all over. I hope they will make friends with people they never expected to. I hope they will learn new things wherever they go.

And I do hope they’ll be careful.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ten Feet Off of Beale

One of the traits that bars me from attaining the status of True Memphian is that I like the song “Walking in Memphis.” I can’t help it. I know it’s over-earnest and geographically flawed (it’s going to be a long walk to Graceland from Union Avenue, Ghost Elvis; are you sure you weren’t heading to Sun Studios?), but it’s so openly admiring of this town’s unique spirit. I wouldn’t say it’s the best song ever written about Memphis, but it’s one that, as a teenage Minnesotan, made me intrigued about that faraway river town.

I wouldn’t even try to determine the best song about Memphis, because there are more than a thousand contenders for that title. Yeah, yeah, there are only 899 officially recognized (recorded and distributed) songs containing Memphis in the lyrics, but I’m sure that doesn’t count the barge of local music inspired by the city. It’s astounding, really. For a town that barely cracks the country’s top twenty size-wise, it looms largest in the collective imagination of our songwriters. The word Memphis is itself shorthand for the roots of American music, symbolizing the birth of blues and rock’n’roll, but that’s obviously not the only reason it appears so often in song. Memphis is a character, a living thing with a clear identity. Stax may have the building, but the entire city is a museum of soul. It is dirty, broken, deep, and heavy. It is joyful, wild, careless, and probably pretty drunk. It is, all in all, something worth singing about.

Alas, poor Minneapolis. The only list I could find of songs about Minneapolis contained a meager 23 entries, and a fair lot of them were novelty songs produced by local radio stations. Minnesota in general fares a bit better, especially if you’re flexible about interpreting the oeuvre of Bob Dylan, but it’s still not a very long list. Minneapolis is a lovely city, but it doesn’t quite capture the imagination. Like its inhabitants, it steps back and lets others take the glory, plugging along responsibly and with understated appeal. Admirable qualities, but not those that lend themselves well to artistic inspiration. Hence the general dearth of songs about technical writers.

Ironic, then, that two of the top ten best living American songwriters (according to Paste) are from Minnesota: Prince and the aforementioned Bobby D (and two are from Canada, which is basically the same). Why does the great white north create the artists but doesn’t inspire the art? I suppose, ultimately, there isn’t much to write about a landscape that looks like a blank page.

The Folk Alliance conference takes over Memphis this week, with folkies from around the world (including my hometown homie John Elliott*) descending on our city. In the few (okay, 23) years it’s been running, the conference has grown to be a major force, with 1,800 attendees forking over a year’s gas money in hopes of being heard by and making connections with music industry types. Although it’s surely true that “if you sign them, they will come,” I can’t help but think that the conference’s location is also a big part of the draw. There’s something much more appealing about being discovered in Memphis than, say, Cleveland. And surely, these musicians are also aware of this town’s inspirational legacy. It’s practically cheating, coming here with an acoustic guitar and a harmonizing buddy. The songs must write themselves. (Songwriters love when you say that.) Memphis is part of our country’s musical consciousness, and I don’t doubt that these artists will tune into it while they’re here.

Especially while they’re walking.

You know.

In Memphis.

*Programming note: the formidable trio of Elliott, Rose & DaCosta will be playing a (free? I think?) FAI Public Night showcase at 9:30 pm on Feb. 16. You really, really should go. Here's the info.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winter's Moan

“Snow in the South is wonderful. It has a kind of magic and mystery that it has nowhere else. And the reason for this is that it comes to people in the South not as the grim, unyielding tenant of Winter's keep, but as a strange and wild visitor from the secret North.” - Thomas Wolfe

They’re calling for snow again today. And by calling for it, I mean putting the odds at 100%. Those are pretty high odds. I admire the meteorologist who says, “95% is for weathergirls. This thing is gonna happen!”

So of course, my fellow Southerners and I are in a sort of giddy state of dread and excitement. We’ve bought up all the bread and milk in the county, left our faucets to trickle, and opened the cabinet doors. (I’ve never understood what the cabinet-opening was about. Having lived in freezing climates for over twenty years, I didn’t experience this weather precaution until moving south. I guess it’s so you can see all the bread.)

Yes, we’re excited about snow. It shuts things down, makes the landscape pretty, and gives us an excuse to wear cute hats. But unfortunately, along with snow comes the cold, and that is something we are never, ever happy about. Blood may be thicker than water down here, but not by very much. As soon as the thermometer dips below 50 degrees, we are unable to get through a full day without remarking on how cold it is.

You’ll notice I included myself in this group of delicate Southern flowers. As much as I hate to admit it, I have become a cold-weather weakling. I now sit huddled inside on days that my ancestors would consider shorts weather. Sitting inside in bare feet and a ¾-sleeve tee shirt, of course.

I know better than to pull that wimpy bit up north, though. When I do trek back to the tundra, I’m fully prepared. I bring along the shearling-lined parka, wool hat, and waterproof Timberland boots that only see daylight twice a year in Memphis, and I keep my mouth shut about it. I don’t remark on the weather because it just isn’t remarkable. I don’t know if Northerners are better able to handle the cold, but they certainly know better than to draw attention to it. Even if they were the type to complain or outwardly express any other type of emotion, they wouldn’t bother with something that is unpleasant, unchangeable, and seemingly unending. It’s one thing to be ill or out of sorts for a day or two, but admitting that you’re bothered by the cold is akin to saying, “I am unhappy and am going to be this way for the next seven months.” That’s something your mailman or your grocery bagger just doesn’t need to know.

Maybe that’s why Southerners are more effusive in their freezing. The two months or so of winter that we experience is always somewhat of a novelty, broken up by random spells of 60-degree days that reassure us of impending spring.

Ah, spring. We have that here. In Memphis, there are actually flowers blooming on March 20th. In Minnesota, the only things coming from the ground in mid-March are crusty, waist-high stalagmites of soot, ice, snow, and sand.

So although I once mocked them, I am now one of the legion Southerners who goes sockless in January and then complains of a chill. And I love it. It’s so much more enjoyable to have winter be a pesky little nuisance than an overpowering oppressor. While my friends in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York are so under it they’re completely over it, the idea of snow now warms my heart.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We Thought You Was A Toad

I’m not an expert on the Coen brothers, but I think we’d get along pretty well. There’s something of the Memphisotan in them, I suspect. Although they grew up in a Minneapolis suburb bordering my own, their work has shown a fascination with parts of the country that may as well be foreign allies with Minnesota. There are the New York movies (Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy), the southwest/Texas movies (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men), and the L.A. movies (The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There). But the three Coen Brothers movies I feel most connected with are those that speak of home, both the one I came from and the one I’ve chosen as an adult.

It won a couple Oscars, so I know I can’t be the only person who liked Fargo, but sometimes it feels that way. It doesn’t fit in much with the flashier, shinier, more colorful mix of Coen films, standing off in a northern corner by itself (politely avoiding eye contact with A Serious Man). But Marge Gunderson is my idea of the perfect leading lady, and I consider Frances McDormand’s slyly understated portrayal to be an homage to The Minnesotan Woman. Sure, she’s kind of dorky and brusque, but she’s smart and strong and loyal, and strangely attractive in a Radisson Hotel lounge kind of way. Some Minnesotans were insulted by the movie, but some are insulted by Prairie Home Companion, too. I guess temperatures under 30-below can be rough on one’s sense of humor (the Swedes’, mostly).

I’d only lived in Memphis a year when O Brother, Where Are Thou? was released, so I didn’t automatically recognize the references to TVA’s damming of Lake Arkabutla or know the exact location of Robert Johnson’s crossroads negotiation, even though these occurred less than an hour’s drive from my home. But the movie still stuck with me like the sirens’ song. As in Fargo, exaggerating the comical traits of an area highlighted both the humanity and inexplicable cruelty of its residents, but the film didn’t take shortcuts with stereotypes. By using the framework of an epic tale, the Coen brothers show respect for a hero that could be dismissed as bumbling, and a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent in this or any rural Southern setting.

When I think of True Grit, I think of Westerns, so it surprised me to realize that the “west” was my neighbor, Arkansas. The story itself is enough of a draw, with Coen-friendly dialogue already seeping from the novel, but I wonder if the location held appeal to the film-makers as well. Like the Delta of O Brother, Fort Smith, Arkansas is an in-between place, a seemingly civilized town that’s only a night’s ride from the unknown of Indian territory. From what I know of Arkansas, things haven't changed all that much. A grieving child, a drunken bounty-hunting Marshall, and a cocky Texas Ranger could have easily slid into the realm of the cartoonish, especially when using language that amuses by sheer anachronism, but again the Coens avoid this peril by focusing on character rather than caricatures. That's a skill I had to learn myself when I moved to the South. People are so big down here, their surfaces so broad and apparent, that it can be hard not to assume you know all you need to.

The Coen brothers have certainly covered a lot of ground, cinematically speaking, and I wouldn’t try to contend that the areas featured in these movies reflect their deepest geographic affections and loyalties. But they do reflect mine, and in doing so, I feel some validation. I feel like someone of my own tribe has blessed my wandering from home. It’s a little like meeting up with old friends after twenty years and having them say, “Yeah, you did alright.”

Or even better, “Ya did real good. You’re bona fide. I admire your sand.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One Man's Trash

My college roommate recently validated my love for Antiques Roadshow, which would have been more reassuring if it hadn’t come with the sad realization that I spent college watching Antiques Roadshow. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the stories behind pottery, jewelry, artwork and toys, and the big-game bargain-hunter in me is drawn to the idea of someday finding a true treasure among seeming trash. I’m enthralled by watching an unsuspecting owner hear the details of a piece’s history. People who’ve already had their items appraised and know all about them aren’t of any interest to me. The drama is in watching the story take hold in someone, seeing them comprehend the significance of an object that’s been gathering dust in an attic for a lifetime or more.

And then, the kicker: the actual financial value. I have teared up right along with farmers from Iowa and librarians from Idaho as they realize that the dusty old junk they hauled out to a convention center is actually a ticket to college tuition or comfortable retirement. It’s like winning a lottery they never entered, and having the check presented by a Keno brother (drink!).

My schedule and pitiful lack of a DVR has meant missing Antiques Roadshow for the last few years, but just when I was beginning to suffer a critical lack of televised junk, I happened upon American Pickers. The show airs, fittingly, on the History Channel, and follows two self-described junkers as they pick through the barns and basements of any “collector” they can find. Collector is their own generous term; most people would consider these sellers to be borderline hoarders, but Mike and Frank are respectful of the urge that drives people to haunt auctions and estate sales. It’s that respect that keeps the crassness out of their endeavors, and lets the viewer be proud when they strike a great deal instead of being icked out that they got the best of an oblivious seller.

No, all the crassness and ick is over on A&E, home of Storage Wars. On first glance, this show had the buried treasure appeal: professional buyers (consignment shop owners, mostly) bid on storage lockers after only five minutes to view the contents from the outside, and then try to get the most money for what’s inside. In reality, though, it lacks the scrappiness of Pickers and the historical distance of Roadshow. These guys are just showing up at a storage unit that someone stopped paying for and paying the lowest price they can for that person’s stuff. You can’t help but wonder what circumstances caused the owners to abandon these lockers, and it sort of makes you resent the bidders for swooping in. In case you didn’t already resent them just for being unlikable jackholes (except Barry, he’s alright). There’s no joy in seeing them dig through boxes to find a baseball card collection worth five grand. Those aren’t their baseball cards! It’s like watching people shoot bankrupt fish in a square barrel. It’s just not sporting.

My mom brought me to antique shops when I was so young the owners must have begun twitching the minute my bowl-cut appeared in the doorway. They needn’t have worried, though. Even as a pre-schooler, I was suited to antiquing. I was careful and quiet and kept my sticky little hands to myself. (Just kidding, Mom. We were never sticky, especially in public.) So maybe the urge to look at people’s old stuff is part of my own family history, a genetic heirloom passed down from one hopeful chest to the next.

I wonder how much I can get for it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Freaks and Gleeks

I’ve never seen Glee. There, I said it. I have been completely oblivious of this television phenomenon, much like I was for Lost and 24 and pretty much any other hugely popular episodic series to debut since my first child was born. But in my own way, I still feel connected to the show. Any depiction of mostly-smart, artsy kids on the fringes of popularity strikes a chord (oh, hush) with me. I don’t need to watch Glee. I lived it.

Okay, no, I wasn’t in my high school’s elite singing ensemble. But most of my friends were. And those who weren’t were in the nationally-competitive choir, or orchestra, or band, or a combination of the above. I can count the number of athletes I hung out with on one hand, and most of those were runners or swimmers (the nerds of jocks). My friends were National Merit finalists and National Honor Society officers. I lettered in Thespian Club, y’all.

Graduation All-Night Party, June 1994
Me, 4 Chamber Singers, and our
Co-Valedictorian/Theatre Award Winner
(Edited to crop out jean shorts)

We were good kids. Really ridiculously good kids. We didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. One of the very few couples I knew who were having sex had met with their pastor beforehand to discuss it. The cops were called on a party at my house and found about a dozen teenagers drinking Coke and playing Trivial Pursuit. “Sorry we were playing the Abba so loud, officers. It won’t happen again. My parents are asleep upstairs.”

I went to a high school where over 90% of graduates went to college, and my friends were expected to attend the very best of them. We weren’t better or smarter or wiser than any other teenagers, but we saw the benefits of following the plans made for us. Our parents and teachers had spent a decade grooming us for greatness, or at least happiness, comfort, and security, and we weren’t going to blow it. Part of the reason we were involved in so many activities was for the benefit of our transcripts, and we were very conscious of how everything we participated in stacked up. A ticket for a DUI, or even a curfew violation, had no place on our permanent records.

We also weren’t too badly hemmed in by a fear of stasis. We were all going places, literally. I can’t think of anyone within my immediate peer group who went to college closer than thirty miles from home, and the vast majority left the state entirely.

So we did our time as rule-followers and curve-blowers and extracurricular extremists. We knuckled down, studied hard, and steered a straight line toward our goal.

The arts, however, were something we did purely for the fun of it. Most of us took an extra class – ominously held during “zero hour” at 6:45 in the morning - so we’d have room in our schedules for these non-required courses. Even as a third-string member of our lousiest choir, some of my best high school memories involve rehearsing and performing. It was freeing and expressive in a way that so few things are, especially in adolescence.

Part of Glee’s buzz is about how it celebrates differences in a way teenagers so desperately need, but the model for that celebration has been around much longer. I have a lot of gay friends who credit their school arts programs for keeping them alive to see adulthood, but they weren’t the only ones to benefit from that culture. The Arts wing at my school was a haven for the misfits and the misunderstood. I can think of some examples of those kids who were awkward or egotistical, but I can’t think of any who were mean or bullying. I’d wager that singing Gershwin for an hour a day will take all the bully right out of you. (This might be something the prison system should look into.)

Based on how much fun I had during that time, I can see the appeal of living vicariously through kids doing the same. I’m not convinced that Glee is great art, but if it increases support of arts in high school, that’s great enough for me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where All The Women Are Strong

It doesn’t seem fair, really. There is something so mellifluous and yet so downright sneaky about the Southern voice, it is custom-made for storytelling. And yes, I’m a sucker for a true Memphis accent, but what I mean here is the literary voice. I’m reading Rick Bragg’s memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’, right now, and his sly Alabama drawl yanked me in from the start. This excerpt is from the very first page:

“Life here was rich, original and real, but harsh, hard, mean as a damn snake. My parents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the poor, upland South, a million miles from the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt and the jasmine-scented verandas of what most people came to know as the Old South. My ancestors never saw a mint julep, but they sipped five-day-old likker out of ceramic jugs and Bell jars until they could not remember their Christian names.”

Who wouldn’t want to talk to this guy and hear what he has to say? Even if the stories themselves weren’t intriguing – which they can’t help but be anyway – it would be a pleasure just to listen.

Now compare that, if you would, to one of my Northern compatriots. From the first lines of Lake Wobegon Days:

“The town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota lies on the shore against Adams Hill, looking east across the blue-green water to the dark woods. From the south, the highway aims for the lake, bends hard left by the magnificent concrete Grecian grain silos, and eases over a leg of the hill past the SLOW CHILDREN sign, bringing the traveler in on Main Street toward the town’s one traffic light, which is almost always green.”

There is nothing provocative about this opening, nothing to ensnare the reader with tales of vice and redemption. There is no me, my, or I; the only self present is self-deprecation. There is nothing wrong with this narrative style – it’s the one I tend to favor myself – but I have to admit that it doesn’t quite have the same flair.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my earliest literary exposure was decidedly Yankee-centric. So Yankee, even, that much of it was focused on New England proper; the two authors I spent the most time with during junior high were Stephen King and John Irving. In high school, I branched out to my fellow Midwesterners, like Fitzgerald and Hemingway (and no, despite it being the southernmost point in the U.S., living in Key West does not Southernize Hemingway in the least; quite the opposite, really).

I never realized how Unionist my reading had been until I took a college course in Southern literature and was exposed to Faulkner, Welty, and McCullers for the first time. And, okay, I still don’t get Faulkner, but I certainly can appreciate how he depicted the wholly unique atmosphere of his time and place. Although, frankly, I think he sort of cheated. As have most Southern writers, in my opinion. After living here for eleven years, it has become clear to me that anyone who can’t write at least one novel based on their immediate environs is not paying any attention at all.

Being a natural peacemaker, I found literary balance in my life by focusing my studies on Mark Twain. The Missouri of Twain’s youth was a literal battleground between Southern and Northern ideas, and he brought a Southerner’s sense of story to the work he produced from his Yankee (again, the colonial version) home. I think a large part of why I’m drawn so strongly to Twain is the equal mix of Southern flash and Northern reserve woven through his work.

Despite spending a third of my life in Memphis, I still don’t feel I can lay claim to the title of Southern writer. My literary voice is low, subtle, and quiet, much like the one I dial up on the radio every week. I listen to Garrison Keillor to reconnect with my roots, and reading Keillor does just the same.

But when I’m absorbed in the words of my new home, the stories and voices of Southern writers both long dead and newly emerging, I remember exactly why I’m here.