This is the week the board games come out.
Kids are home from college or distant places, and schools and offices are closed. It's family time to be together and make holiday memories. For a few hours, we go retro. Please turn off your cell phones and electronic devices. We will see if we can get through a Scrabble game without anyone quitting, cussing, or having a temper tantrum. The odds of this happening are not good.
At our house the contestants are me, my wife Jenny, our daughter Katy visiting from Montana, and our friend Meredith, an art teacher with Memphis City Schools. It was "Game On" weeks ago, when we figured out when everyone would be in Memphis.
Katy has been a game wizard since the days of Uno, Monopoly, Upwords, and Rack-O. She does four-star sudokus in half an hour or so. She makes seven-letter "bingos" in Scrabble almost every game. You can feel it coming. Never leave her a triple-word square, and pray she does not draw a 10-point Z or Q or an 8-point X or an I-N-G or R-E combination or one of the blanks or S's. A five-letter word, for her, is a bad play. The last time I beat her in a board game was probably 2001.
Meredith is from Louisiana and brings us tasty homemade desserts and hand-made jewelry and is about half mean. She knows how to get under my skin. Everyone else's skin too, for that matter, but especially mine by playing a bogus word and daring me to challenge. She is a Scrabble sociopath. She likes to talk trash. Last year, she gave us the Scrabble book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. I want to crush her. She is too much like me.
My wife is the good and kind mom and hostess that everyone likes, but I hate losing to her anyway. I will play a three-letter word for six points on a triple-word square just to keep her from getting it. Done it many times.
The board is the deluxe edition on a rotating base. The house rules are simple. No texting or tweeting, but talking is fine. No timers, but it is all right to harass a slow player. If you dish it out, you better be able to take it. All words must be in the hefty Webster's second edition dictionary with "special new word section," aka the "Stuckey dictionary," named for Ginny Stuckey, who gave it to us. Some legal Scrabble words are not in it, including a lot of two-letter and three-letter words, which often makes for spirited conversation. If you draw three of the same letter, you can throw one back. There is a missing C that has been replaced, tonight, by a square of a cracker. If you get three of a kind, you can have the cracker C. A rule is a rule most of the time.
A challenge costs you a turn if the word is in the Stuckey dictionary. In a four-player game, this can be fatal, because you must wait and watch for six agonizing turns while everyone else piles up points and draws the good tiles and plays on the good squares.
The game begins with everyone pulling seven tiles from the maroon velvet bag. Katy immediately dumps all of hers back and sacrifices a turn because she has six vowels. In it to win it. Meredith plays QI on a double-letter square, which is a totally bogus non-word, but nobody challenges because the stakes are too high, and it is only worth 21 points. The mood is still sort of Christmasy, but storm clouds are forming.
Jenny plays ER (used to express or represent a pause), and Meredith makes an unsuccessful challenge, knocking herself out of contention. Katy bingos with DEVIATES but hooks it to EF, which she claims is the spelling of the letter F. It's a potential 87-point game ender, but Jenny, prodded by me, challenges. EF is on the expert list of Scrabble words, but it is not in the Stuckey dictionary, or not exactly anyway. EF- is there as a prefix, which is illegal, and so is EFFING (slang, euphemism for a vulgarity). All-stars may get the call in the NBA but not in my house. No sale.
After I score 54 points with KNOWS on a triple-word square linked to WAIFS, the game comes down to me and Jenny separated by four points. Whoever goes out first will get to add the other players' remaining tiles to their score and win the game. With two tiles left, Jenny considers but passes on ORA (money of Anglo-Saxon England) and plugs an A between a P and a Y instead for nine points. I counter with GI (garment worn by martial-arts participants) linked to IS for five points and a tie, but since I go out first, I get all the bonus points and the victory.
This causes general merriment, hearty hugs all around, and warm congratulations. Not. More like slight smiles mixed with muttered complaints. My victory is tainted in some eyes by that effing EF and my unmanly decision to let Jenny take the risk of challenging it. This bothers me for about one minute. I have my GI, which rhymes with ME and VICTORY.
Who says Christmas comes but once a year?
What tax cut? You say there was an election? Another football season? All right, but this was also the year of the growler and Ghost River beer.
Ghost River Brewing on South Main Street downtown is one of two breweries in Memphis. The other one is Boscos. At either one you can grab a "growler," a half-gallon brown returnable bottle of home-brewed beer that's relatively expensive at $10 plus $3 deposit but really good.
This was a breakout year for Ghost River. Its output, microscopic compared to Miller, Coors, and Budweiser, was 4,500 kegs. Craft beer, which has been around for more than 20 years, finally achieved critical mass thanks to changing tastes among younger beer drinkers turned off by generic brews. Ghost River is available at several locations in Memphis and in Southaven. There is a good chance it will be available in 12-ounce bottles next year.
Beer is 95 percent water and 5 percent yeast, malt, and hops. Selling it is 100 percent marketing, from burly ex-jocks touting low-calorie Miller Lite to bearded brewmasters pitching Samuel Adams. Doing its part to brand Memphis, Ghost River is named for the ghostly section of the Wolf River in Fayette and eastern Shelby counties.
"What we're doing is the way beer was brewed and sold for centuries," said Chuck Skypeck, head brewer and founding partner of Boscos Brewing and Ghost River Brewery. "It became an industrial commodity in the 1950s and '60s, and we're just returning it to its historical roots."
In Memphis, a brewer cannot hold an on-premise permit and an off-premise permit, but there is a state law that allows beer sales at the location of a brewery. Ghost River has four fermenting tanks and two more tanks for finished beer that goes into kegs and growlers. In 2011, Skypeck hopes to have another row of tanks, plus a bottling line.
"Right now, we are shipping all the beer that we can brew to metropolitan Memphis," Skypeck said. "It's literally going out the door as soon as it's made."
Skypeck and his partner, Jerry Feinstone, own both Boscos and Ghost River. Boscos brews its own beer with different recipes and more variety. But selling beer to other restaurants under the Boscos name was obviously a problem, hence the Ghost River line.
"Our Boscos in Germantown was the first brew pub in Tennessee," Skypeck said. "We had to get the law changed to open there, with the help of Steve Cohen. For 20 years, we have been scratching and clawing until this year a critical mass seems to have been reached. Two things helped. One is the age 21 to 30 demographic has really bought into it. We have those drinkers for life. The other thing is that the local food movement has finally resonated with people."
The secret ingredient in Memphis-brewed beer is no secret. It's the water.
"It's pure and soft and excellent for brewing," Skypeck said. "The reason different styles of beer evolved in different parts of the world goes back to the water. Ireland has Guinness, because they have hard, high-alkaline water, and the beer has to have acidic dark malts added to balance that out."
Schlitz and Coors have bottled beer in Memphis in the past, and Yuengling is trying to acquire the 130-acre, former Coors plant from Hardy Bottling. But Skypeck's expansion ambitions are limited to Memphis. Brewing is highly regulated and taxed at the state and federal level, and other cities have their own craft beers.
"I'm not that interested, at this point, in the Nashville market," he said. "We operate on small margins. Everyone gets a cut. My desire is for us to grow and sell more beer in Memphis. If we go to Nashville, we have the extra cost of transportation, warehousing, and sales people in another market, so our margins decrease."
Skypeck often asks people who they think is the largest American brewer. The answer is Samuel Adams. Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch are foreign-owned.
"The new domestic," he said, "is craft beer."
If Black Friday can start on Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations can go up before the leaves fall, why hold off on the year-ender column? Technically, there are two more Flyer issues in 2010, but not much happens the weeks before and after Christmas, so here goes.
This year's list separates the real big stories from the pretenders. Some "big stories" are not really that big. See Bass Pro Pyramid delays, stock market moves, Willie Herenton comebacks, the presidential aspirations of Mike Huckabee, and bashing Nancy Pelosi. "Real big stories," like the following, are often sleepers, but they have legs:
Bad times for book stores. Bookstar on Poplar will close in January, and the Joseph Beth Group, the parent company of Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Laurelwood, filed for bankruptcy and is closing its store in Nashville. It's easy to blame Kindle, but a new hardcover at $25.95 has a hard time competing with a like-new hardcover for $5 or less on Amazon or at the main library's second-hand book store. The retail presence wasn't that large, but the helpful staff, shared experience, and author events will be missed.
The criminal indictment and suspension of Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware. A diligent worker who rarely missed a meeting until she became ill and a pivotal vote on the 13-member council, Ware is the first casualty of the council's revised ethics policy. In previous years, an indicted member could continue to serve, raising all kinds of protests and generating more stories. No longer. The message: No means no, even if the alleged illegality involves small change and small favors.
The University of Memphis football team goes 1-11 and attendance continues to slide. A spiffier stadium, Tiger Lane, and a new head coach couldn't save this Tiger. A crowd of 30,000 for UT? A berth in a BCS conference such as the Big East looks like a pipe dream now that TCU got one of the expansion slots that the U of M wanted. Memphis must weigh the financial realities of relatively little money from bowls, the gate, and television against the cost of 80 scholarships and trying to keep pace, albeit distantly, with the Southeastern Conference schools.
The failed consolidation referendum. The totally ineffective campaign in the county and the close vote in Memphis were the story but not the ending. The sequel is the December 20th vote at the Memphis City Schools Board of Education on giving up the charter. Depending on what happens then, the sequel to the sequel will be a city referendum and politicking in the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly, which could take up special school districts.
GTX Inc. fails to take off. Not exactly a household name, the Memphis biopharmaceutical company founded by Pitt Hyde and others to develop a breakthrough treatment for prostate cancer was going to put Memphis on the biotech map. The stock was trading at $13 in 2009 before bad test results sent it skidding to $4 overnight, and in 2010, GTX has not recovered. This week it was trading at $2.58.
Glankler Brown law firm moves to the suburbs. Such hardcore downtowners will be missed. Sentiment was on downtown's side, but the firm moved anyway. Pinnacle Airlines' move to One Commerce Square could offset it. The Wall Street Journal, in a story this week, says there's a downtown office revival in several U.S. cities, but that will be hard in Memphis. Baptist Hospital and several government offices are in the 'burbs, and the "Big Three" Memphis-based banks of 15 years ago — Union Planters, First Tennessee, and National Bank of Commerce — have been taken over or downsized.
The Shelby Farms Greenline. A modest six-mile bike trail on an abandoned railroad track is part substance and part symbol in a city not known for such things. Future connections to Shelby Farms, Overton Park, and the river will mean bigger and better things.
Charter schools are here to stay. They are the biggest innovation in Memphis City Schools since the optional program started more than 30 years ago. Optional schools attract students who chose their parents well; charter school students, by law, come from disadvantaged homes and schools. Memphis opened seven charters in 2010, has 23 of the 38 charter schools in Tennessee, and is approved for 12 more. They are attracting motivated parents and a corps of young teachers willing to work longer school days in exchange for smaller classrooms and more autonomy. The Republican-controlled general assembly is likely to loosen the rules and further expand them.
Mayor A C Wharton has hired a new brand manager, but Memphis is hardly suffering from a lack of marketing.
A catalog of the groups promoting specific attributes and Memphis in general suggests there is already quite a bit of overlap.
There are at least 10 tax-exempt nonprofit organizations with full-time executive directors — some of them making more than $200,000 a year — that manage an office, do fund-raising, and work for the betterment of Memphis as defined in their mission statements. That's in addition to neighborhood and civic groups and churches staffed by volunteers.
A historic turning point in Memphis image management came after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Two weeks later, Time magazine called Memphis a "decaying river town" and "a Southern backwater." The terms stuck. In the 1970s, image management was in the hands of a chamber of commerce that was broke and homeless and a group called Future Memphis with heavy representation from the Memphis Country Club.
The 1979 Jobs Conference, inspired by then-Governor Lamar Alexander, Memphis banker Ron Terry, and the Memphis NAACP, was determined to redefine civic betterment and bring in younger and more diverse supporters.
One of the groups it spawned was Leadership Memphis, which is still around and selects a new leadership class each year. Its mission is "develop new and innovative ways to connect and create more community leaders." A similar group, which also traces its roots to the Jobs Conference, is the Leadership Academy, formerly called Goals for Memphis. It bills itself as "a one-stop shop for leadership development."
A more recent leadership group is MPACT Memphis, most of whose 800 members are under the age of 40.
The most elite leadership organization is Memphis Tomorrow, an invitation-only group of CEOs of large local companies. Clout in the boardroom, however, does not always translate to clout in the public arena. Its most recent effort was the failed consolidation referendum.
If you consider yourself leadership material and have never been invited to join one of these groups, then you might want to move or reconsider your career path.
There is more, however. Much more.
Two nonprofits, the Blues Foundation and Beale Street Caravan, promote our musical heritage as well as contemporary musicians. In the for-profit sector, there's Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises. Memphis in May specializes in music, the river, barbecue, and international culture and travel.
The Coalition for a Better Memphis specializes in voter education.
Clean Memphis, as the name suggests, is a nonprofit group that does clean-up projects in blighted areas. It should not be confused with Livable Memphis, which promotes "sustainable communities," or the Memphis City Beautiful Commission, which was founded in 1930 and is "the oldest beautification commission in the United States," with an unpaid 35-member board and a nonprofit fund-raising arm called Friends of City Beautiful.
EmergeMemphis, a relative newcomer, bills itself as "the focal point for entrepreneurial activity in the Mid-South" and "a general business and technology-based incubator."
Business development, of course, is also the objective of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. Executive director John Moore earned $314,000 last year, five times as much as the city's new brand manager. Among other things, the chamber publishes a best-foot-forward magazine called Memphis Crossroads that can draw on the services of four marketing specialists on staff.
Iconic Memphis institutions and events have their own full-time marketing staffs. They include St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the Liberty Bowl Football Classic, the Southern Heritage Classic, University of Memphis athletic teams, the Memphis Zoo, and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Divisions of city government with specialists spreading the good news include the library and the Division of Park Services.
To make sure that outsiders are aware of the fun things to see and do in Memphis, there's the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Riverfront Development Corporation, and the Center City Commission — all of them staffed with marketing specialists making six-figure salaries.
Want to make a movie in or about Memphis? Then avail yourself of the services of the Memphis and Shelby County Film and Television Commission, a nonprofit with an executive salary paid by Shelby County and supplemented by the board.
Did I leave anything out? Probably. But the biggest challenge for our Memphis brand manager may be finding a fresh niche.
The current brouhaha over city and county schools can be better understood by going back about 40 years.
By 1970, school integration had been the law of the land for 16 years, thanks to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. But in the South, integration "with all deliberate speed" meant "slow." Memphis began integrating schools one grade at a time in 1961, but housing patterns and a liberal school transfer policy confined most students to de facto segregated schools.
Memphis City Schools reached an all-time high of 148,015 students in 1970. The black-white ratio was 52 percent/48 percent. The next year, two things happened: The U.S. Supreme Court approved busing as a desegregation tool, and voters rejected consolidation of city and county governments.
Two years later, all hell broke loose. U.S. district judge Robert McRae ordered Plan A, which was designed to bus 13,789 students to new schools. About 8,000 white students left the city system. Residents of Frayser buried a school bus. Private religious schools popped up. Determined that there not be a succession of Plans B, C, D, and so on, McRae ordered up Plan Z, which called for busing 39,904 students. Another 20,525 white students left the system, and an untold number fell through the cracks or avoided busing by temporarily moving in with friends or relatives.
The Memphis NAACP argued that Plan Z didn't go far enough, but the Supreme Court upheld it and refused to hear an appeal seeking further desegregation.
In a dissent from one of the federal court rulings, Federal Appeals Court judge Paul Weick wrote, "The average American couple who are raising their children scrape and save money to buy a home in a nice residential neighborhood near a public school. One can imagine their frustration when they find their plans have been destroyed by the judgment of federal courts."
Weick was right. After busing, the Shelby County Schools system, which had only 17,000 students in 1975, began growing to its current enrollment of about 47,000. Memphis City Schools began declining to its current enrollment of about 104,000. DeSoto County school enrollment rose to 31,000.
White enrollment in the city schools went from 48 percent to 7 percent, most of it concentrated in a half-dozen optional schools. Black enrollment in the county schools went from next to nothing to 37 percent. But if Southwind High School and its feeder schools in southeast Shelby County are absorbed by the city, as they are scheduled to be, black enrollment will fall below 10 percent because those schools are nearly all black.
The anomaly of nearly all-black schools in a 37 percent black system was not lost on U.S. district judge Bernice Donald. In 2007, she ordered the county schools to rebalance, but in 2009, she was overruled by an appellate court. The court said the school district has no duty to remedy imbalance caused by demographic factors, annexation, and "voluntary housing choices made by the public."
So school desegregation is against the law, but school self-segregation is not against the law. And self-segregation can be aided and abetted by the careful selection of school sites and the drawing of district boundaries, such as the eastern boundary of Southwind High School at Hacks Cross Road.
Southwind High is an outlier. There are black students in every county school, indeed in every private school. It is a very different world from the 1960s. The proposed Shelby County special school district would set firm boundaries but not exclude anyone from attending the school of their choice by moving around. Without a voting majority, however, there are few if any blacks on the county school board, suburban elected positions, or suburban districts on the Shelby County Commission.
The city system has a remnant of about 7,000 white students. An uncounted number of well-to-do Memphis residents with school-age children, including most of the movers and shakers, send them to private schools in Midtown, East Memphis, or Shelby County. They support the system and the growing number of charter schools with their tax dollars and, sometimes, their philanthropy but not with their children. As school board member the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. has noted, the system is awash with money, more than $1 billion a year from all sources.
Forty years after busing was approved, we have resolved the issue of school desegregation as a legal and practical matter. We have a black system getting blacker and a white system that will get whiter when it sheds its black schools. With special districts and surrendered charters, all we're talking about is who gets the bills.