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.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Record Breaking

I just bought my first MP3 album. It wasn’t for me, of course. I bought it as a gift for a newly-13-year-old. Within seconds of me hitting the Buy button, he could yank the full contents of They Might Be Giants’ 1990 geeky masterwork Flood into the heart of his new-to-him iPod Touch. He’s probably doing it right now. (That sound you hear is the space-time continuum collapsing in on itself.)

I have an iTunes account and a spacious iPod myself, but I consider them the Readers Digest version of my own CD collection. I still believe in actual factual physical albums and would have trouble trusting a record that existed only as a link. I believe in cover art and liner notes. I believe in listening to a new record from front to back, over and over, until you can anticipate the next song by hearing the closing notes of the last one.

I can probably blame that bias on my upbringing. I was raised on vinyl, of course. Thanks to an active membership with Columbia House through the ‘80s (whether they wanted it or not), my folks kept up with the popular music of the day and I was brought up with those songs in my everyday life. The turntable was kept up high, and my sister and I were discouraged from messing with it, which meant we very rarely skipped a song. I liked some tracks better than others, but I knew them all. It was our family’s soundtrack.

We did also have tapes in the house. Not cassettes, mind you, but actual reel-to-reel spools. Sort of the iPods of their day, really, since you could put six hours’ worth of recordings on each reel. It would never have occurred to my parents to stand over the turntable to make a giant mix tape, though, so each delicate disc contained half a dozen albums converted from vinyl in their entirety. The fast-forward and rewind lever was clunky and unreliable, even if you could remember which way the tape was playing, so it was usually best to just let it play on through. As a result, I don’t really have any idea where each Beatles album ends and the next begins, and hearing the J. Geils Band always makes me feel like listening to Eddie Rabbit.

I’ve tried to maintain that sense of musical community with my kids, but I’m afraid my efforts are no match for my technological foes. The music they hear most often is broadcast from the iPod dock in the kitchen, a randomized mix of thousands of songs from hundreds of albums. When I was my daughter’s age, I could recognize dozens of artists by face and voice, but I doubt she could list five artists from my collection (including those who’ve stayed at our house). Music is just something that’s there in the background, compressed into crappy little digital packets that make everything sound like it’s coming from another room no matter where it originates.

The best hope I have of giving my children a musical education is in the car, where I still plunk CDs into the stereo during our morning commute. They hear the same songs often enough to recognize them and sing along, although they still make impatient requests to skip ahead to what they like best. Hearing “Play track seven!” squealed from the backseat is bittersweet. I’m glad when they find something they like and connect with, but I wonder if they’ll ever be patient enough to listen to twelve new songs in a row, and then listen to them again. I’d have missed out on some of my favorite music if I hadn’t been willing to give it a first, second, and sometimes third chance. We’ve come to an era when most people hunt out and buy the music they already like, instead of taking a risk on something they’ve never heard before. All we disc-based dinosaurs can do is try to pass along our own musical memories, one uber-geeky album at a time.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Blog!

I don't make New Year's resolutions. I have plenty of resolve and can stubbornly attach myself to all manner of tasks, but I usually feel like resolutions of the calendar-flipping variety tend to have a built-in excuse for failure. But I am a fan of the loophole, and I call on that time-honored clause to introduce a new endeavor for 2011 ... that I've been planning to do for a couple months now. (See?)

For more than four years, I've been writing with various levels of regularity over at Secret Agent Mom. That blog was begun during a time of my life I can hardly recognize anymore. I had one child and ran two small businesses, and that blog was designed as a way to chronicle how those three things worked together (or didn't). Both of those businesses are now closed, and that child has become a big sister, and I've found myself drawn to writing subjects that are bigger and broader than SAM can reasonably accommodate.

I am a native Minnesotan, and it is still home to most of my family. Yet I have been living in Memphis for more than eleven years now, longer than I've lived anywhere else. This blog won't focus on comparing and contrasting the two places, although I'm sure that subject will come up. Rather, these two communities have shaped who I am and how I see the world, and so I chose Memphisotan to represent my identity.

My plan - not a resolution, mind you - is to post weekly. I hope you'll join me as I begin this next chapter.