Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Full Steam Ahead

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

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

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

Here we go!

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Exile on Main Street

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

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

Babies, Elephants, Walks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyranza and I will be happy to see them.


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

Friday, July 6, 2012

Our Pre-Existing Condition

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts out.

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Greetings and Apologies

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Time Out of Mind: The Problem with (Un)Covering Motherhood

In an era of ever-dwindling relevance, Time sure figured out how to get its name out there. (I mean, quick, what’s the last Time cover you remember prior to last week’s?) Turns out, putting a photograph of a woman with a breast exposed to feed a nursing toddler is pretty much ignored on a Whole Foods magazine rack, but when placed on the cover of a mainstream news weekly, sparks one the most fundamental and potently emotional debates in our culture. No, not “what is the right/best way to parent.” The true question stemming from that cover was, “How self-absorbed do they think mothers are?”

That Time cover and accompanying story were publicity bait, seemingly intended solely to get shared thousands of times on Facebook among the technologically-active attachment parenting community, as well as those equally opposed to it. The first time I saw the cover, I mentally braced myself for the comment threads to follow. I was pleasantly surprised when the most frequent reaction I saw instead was, “Oh, come on.” The cover was so over-the-top, its aggressive “Are you mom enough?” headline so obvious, that it didn’t warrant a response. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the recent so-called “mommy wars,” it’s that no one wins. There is someone on the other side of every parenting issue, and neither side can claim victory. The sentiment I saw over and over was, mothering is hard enough without us judging each other. In short: we’re not taking the bait.

In case the pointlessness of Time’s story wasn’t clear enough, there was another magazine story, coming out of Memphis, that spelled it out in no uncertain terms. If you want a hard-hitting story about the true hazards of mothering, skip over Time and pick up a copy of Glamour. Yes, Glamour. The May issue features four women who are dedicated to lowering the infant mortality rate in Memphis, which is currently the worst in the United States. Local mothers Brittany Spence and Kenyatta Collins-Bolden, nurse Tonya Taylor, and social worker Netasha Bowers, among a growing legion of others, have taken an active role in increasing the number of babies born in Memphis who see their first birthdays. They have had measurable, significant success, but the fight is nowhere near over. The fact that this is a battle still needing to be fought in a major city in the U.S. reveals a “mommy war” that can’t be summed up by a staged (yes, women nurse 3-year-olds, but not one of them does it like that), intentionally provocative photograph of a middle-class woman with every parenting choice at her disposal.

And I say that, I admit, as a middle-class woman with every parenting choice at my disposal. Yes, I can attest that I received unsolicited advice about every major child-related decision I’ve made, from giving birth at home to co-sleeping to nursing my babies past their first year. And I also know that a woman who makes diametrical decisions still gets guilt and pressure for her own path. There seems to be some inherent need to question how children eat and sleep, when these are the elements of parenting that least affect anyone but the family involved. And yeah, it sucks either way. But the mere fact that we have these choices means we and our children have advantages that aren’t even imagined by a mother who cannot access pre-natal health services or afford licensed daycare.

Every Mother Counts, a global initiative to reduce maternal mortality (with one of its most vocal supporters in former Memphian Heather Armstrong of, spent this last Mother’s Day publicizing the alarmingly precarious state of many mothers. According to World Health Organization studies cited on EMC’s website, “approximately 358,000 women die each year due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth.” That’s 1000 a day. In case that seems like a far-distant problem, keep in mind that in 2010, the United States ranked 39th globally in maternal mortality. Thirty. Ninth.

In our city and beyond, pregnant women, new mothers, and infants are dying preventable deaths. And Time wants to stir us up about how long some people choose to breastfeed?
My mother taught me better than that.

First appeared in Main Street Journal, May 15, 2012
(c) Andria K. Brown, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rock and Soul

In case you missed the Southpaw action over at Main Street Journal over the last few weeks ...
No Stopping Point Short of Victory takes a look at the conjoined legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the city where he was struck down. My Modesty Proposal goes Swiftian on Tennessee's latest socio-educational policy follies.

This week's column dials down the politics but turns up the volume as I ponder the relationships and similarities between Memphis and the music it's created. I hope you'll tune in this Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Like All Resolutions ...

A funny thing happened after I wrote my last post about not becoming a columnist.

Turns out, I became a columnist.

If you haven't seen my shameless self-promotion on Twitter and Facebook yet, you may not know that I've begun writing a bi-monthly column over at Main Street Journal, a Memphis-based daily news aggregator and, increasingly, source of original local content. Such as moi.

I began my run with a friendly little intro piece that probably sounds a bit familiar to anyone who reads this space. My next column got a bit more issue-oriented as I discussed the way women, and Southern women in particular, can and do influence the political discourse. Although I couldn't resist such a current and heated topic, I plan to keep a focus on Memphis going forward. My next piece, going up April 3, will bring things very close to home.

I'm excited for this opportunity and appreciate y'all keeping me going in this venture.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I began 2011 with an unspoken but nonetheless determined resolution: I would write a post a week, in column-length, for one year. It was like a lazy version of a 365 project. It was a notable mission mostly because I hate the idea of New Year’s resolutions for their implied acceptance of failure. But I thought I’d buck the cliché and finish the year with a portfolio of 50 new pieces.

As a quick peek at the archives would tell you, that plan didn’t quite work out. I started strong and kept the pace going until May or so, and then petered out. In my defense, I did spend the summer focused on fiction writing, which also didn’t go quite the way I hoped. By the fall, I was struggling for motivation and when I did come up with a printable idea, I was lucky enough to have The Commercial Appeal willing to publish it. (For free, but still.) I had pieces appear in November, December and January, and I’ve gotten a larger response each month, so thanks to those of you who are reading and stopping by here for the first time.

Since nearly the beginning of my experience as a writer, I felt drawn toward non-fiction, and even more strongly pulled toward the punchy, concise format of a regular column. While my college classmates were sulking in their Salinger, I was hip-deep in collections from Mike Royko, Carl Hiassen, and Dave Barry. Just when I began thinking the column arena was a man’s, man’s, man’s world, I discovered Anna Quindlen, Maureen Dowd and Molly Ivins, who proved that being funny and feisty and questioning of power wasn’t off-limits to the ladies anymore. I pored over their work and imagined being in their places, romanticizing the constant crunch of deadlines and the grudging respect earned from those who had to admit they’d been pegged.

Since then, I’ve thought of myself as a columnist-in-waiting. And waiting. And waiting. What I haven’t been, however, is a consistently productive writer, nor an especially ambitious one. There are a lot of things I could blame for that – raising small children, writing complex technical stuff as my day job, constitutional avoidance of rejection – but when it comes down to it, I just haven’t made it a priority. And I’m finally starting to wonder why. When I think about the things that have gotten me energized and enthusiastic lately, they’ve had little to nothing to do with writing: I’ve been plotting a volunteer radio show, I’ve been designing wedding jewelry, I’ve been mastering every level of Angry Birds. I’ve been beating myself up over a lack of creative output, but in reality, I’ve just been putting my creativity out in other ways (and crushing digital pigs).

I’m not ready to admit that I’ve let go of those long-time literary goals, but for the short-term, I’ve decided to stop forcing myself toward them. If it can’t be my job right now, it has to be my hobby, and this isn’t how a hobby should go. It’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be uplifting, it’s supposed to be the thing that gets me going in the morning. If that’s not what it can give me right now, it’s not worth my time. I hope it’s able to bring me joy someday soon, but until then, I’ll spend my time on the things that already do.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Setting the Standard

The standard of beauty. It’s something intelligent women are raised to acknowledge and publicly revile, although most of us chase after it just the same. Despite heaps of contrary evidence from living, breathing people, we take the word of two-dimensional images and one-dimensional portrayals of The Beautiful. I always considered the standards set in magazines or movies to be flawed, but I never stopped to think much about why. All I knew was that there were plenty of people who didn’t look like models or starlets – most of us, actually – and yet were considered attractive in one way or another.

I recently came across an article in the UK’s Daily Mail, however, that made me reframe everything I think about beauty ideals. The article was about a plus-size model who posed naked with a “standard” model to demonstrate the differences between real and idealized bodies. The photos were accompanied by facts, and the most telling one, to me, was this: More than 50% of women wear a size 14 or larger, but most retailers do not carry sizes over 14. Aside from the financial stupidity of this fact, what struck me was the plain definition of the majority. Most women are over a certain threshold, and the sizes considered appealing and attractive and marketable are under that threshold. Simply put, what we as a culture define as beautiful is the way we are not.

We all know, anecdotally, that the standard of beauty is fluid and changes over time and geography. We’re aware of Ruben’s era, when zaftig lovelies frolicked in the Vogue covers of the time and gout was considered a mark of high social status. Plumpness was a goal that represented comfort and leisure, things that most of the population rarely experienced. In the U.S, you only have to go as far back as the 1950s to see how the Depression influenced an appreciation for corn-fed glamazons like Marilyn Monroe. Likewise, some contemporary cultures in the Pacific islands still hold pageants that crown the biggest beauty. When access to food is of great value, the best food gatherers are valued. In these societies, weight meant, or means, success.

In most of the modern world, however, access to food is not an issue. Access to good, healthy, nutritious food may be, but cheap calories are rarely more than 100 yards away. So instead of worshipping the weighty, we idolize those who have the time and resources to eat well (or the self-control not to eat at all) and stay in shape. We work indoors and then watch our waists expand in the Chili’s-to-Go parking pad while the Beautiful People hire trainers and personal chefs to keep careful track of every caloric income and expense. You can never be too rich or too thin, the saying goes, and we gaze admiringly at those who’ve achieved both. They are beautiful because they represent the things we feel too weak or downtrodden to reach ourselves. They seem, quite simply, better than us.

So while I admire the efforts of Katya Zharkova to inspire women of all sizes to appreciate their beauty, I think the effort to shift the cultural standard may be wasted. I don’t think you can defeat the inherent human desire to put ourselves down. All we can do is recognize that flawed impulse and give it a little less power in our lives. Perhaps we’d be best served by just changing the name: instead of the beauty standard, perhaps we could call it the beauty myth, or the beauty delusion. We can see the beautiful as harmless anomalies, like Olympic athletes or extreme couponers, without feeling bad about ourselves for not sharing the same genetic quirks. If we can acknowledge that the pinnacle of beauty is determined by what we as a society feel is least attainable, maybe we can stop wasting so much time trying to attain it and be happy with our own standard selves.