Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's "Halloweek"

The perils and pitfalls of a seemingly endless Halloween season.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2012 at 9:46 AM

I need to make this quick, because I have to finish building a four-foot-tall crayon from Amazon boxes and craft paper. I’d say that this creation will be my daughter’s Halloween costume, but the truth is, it’s one of several costumes she has worn or will wear this year. It’s like a Lady Gaga concert around here this Halloween.

Some time back, I actually had the thought “Oh, it’s too bad Halloween is on a Wednesday, it’s going to pass without notice.” But no, thanks to some unknown force that I suspect is housed in the stock room of Walgreens, instead of having one quiet schoolnight holiday, we’ve somehow turned it into Halloweek. Festivities have been going on consistently since last Thursday – fall festivals, friends’ parties, neighborhood parades, classroom celebrations. And at each of these events, a costume is required, so we’ve been rotating through a wardrobe of thrift store and dress-up chest finds.

Plus a costume isn’t really a costume without proper hair and make-up. As the rightful heiress to a former Mary Kay lady who diligently applied Wicked Witch greenface and Popeye tattoos, this is a job I take seriously, but I’m beginning to get a callous from sketching eyeliner scars on tween zombies.

To add to this year’s Halloworkload, my daughter decided that she wanted an actual factual homemade costume this year – something not store-bought or premanufactured. Of course, her only frame of reference for such a thing was apparently Foto Hut prints from the early 1980s, so the only option for a hand-made costume she was aware of was a Crayola crayon. It’s like the costume equivalent of a fruitcake; no one likes it, but it’s just always there. I guess I’m lucky she hasn’t seen To Kill a Mockingbird yet or I’d be fashioning a papier-mâché ham right now.

As I realized I’d drawn my perfect freehand rendition of the Crayola logo in landscape instead of portrait orientation, I plowed ahead, trying not to think of how ashamed Jason Smith would be of such work. Jason is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and my earliest memory of him is from Halloween, 1986. I’d thrown on a bowler hat and a mascara mustache and called it a day. Jason, however, was in a perfectly rendered Ewok costume. Not some pre-fab number, either; a family friend had hand-sewn it from fake fur. Ever since, Jason’s Halloween costumes have set the bar impossibly high – he’s been highly realistic versions of Teen Wolf, the Iron Giant, and my personal favorite, the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

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Well, my next-to-favorite. Jason’s costume this year was at a whole new level. A very proud new papa, he combined his love of Halloween with his love of his baby girl and came up with a costume concept that was heard ‘round the interwebs. If you saw the picture of a baby commanding a bright yellow Caterpillar Power Loader from Aliens, that was Jason and his daughter. Pictures and video of the outfit went viral, showing up everywhere from the Huffington Post to Wil Wheaton’s Twitter feed.

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The reaction was astoundingly positive. In an online world where a troll is waiting under every comment field, feedback has been almost universally supportive. As it should be. The whole thing is unabashedly awesome. And during a week when the news is filled with dire warnings, both from meteorologists and political pundits, it’s incredibly refreshing to bear witness to someone bringing some light and happiness into the world, with no agenda but a hope to delight. Plus he wrote the Internet a lovely thank you note.

It feels like this last week has been an endless parade of spooky make-believe, but really, it’s only going to get worse in the week ahead. There are important issues to get resolved (and Minnesota, I’m expecting your A game), but there will be a lot of foolishness to wade through first. Maybe the best way to prepare is to remember the joy of not taking yourself too seriously.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go try on a pointy crayon hat.

Happy (end of!) Halloween, y’all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pink October

Posted By on Tue, Oct 23, 2012 at 8:09 PM

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The arrival of October brings a wash of red, orange, yellow … and pink. With its designation as Breast Cancer Awareness month, October has become a pastel paean to mammary memory. As much a marketing gimmick as a rallying cry, the annual pinkification nonetheless contributes attention and a (generally undisclosed) portion of proceeds to breast cancer research and prevention. So for that, I’m grateful.

For me, however, October has never been as strongly associated with this disease as August. That was the month, 16 years ago, that my mother received her diagnosis: the pinhead-sized tumor found during a routine mammogram was cancer.

I got the news on a pay phone in Tucson, Arizona, where I was attending a friend’s wedding. I spent the rest of the weekend smiling my way through celebrations, but with my head 2,000 miles away with my mom in Minnesota. Aside from the obvious and natural fear for my mother, there was another emotion creeping in on me as the news settled in. I was scared for myself. At the moment of my mother’s diagnosis, my own risk category changed from non-existent to high. My risk doubled. I suddenly had a family history, along with all the vigilance and early intervention that required.  

Since then, I haven’t needed a ribbon or a license plate to remind me to be aware of breast cancer. I’m aware whenever I — or my mom or my sister — see a doctor. I’m aware when I read about women who’ve tested positive for the BRCA gene — the one associated with breast and reproductive cancers — who go to the extreme measure of double-mastectomy to outrun the disease. I’m aware whenever I think of my daughter, who has breast cancer history on both sides of her genetic family tree.

Part of my awareness is academic. The ways breast cancer is detected and attacked are constantly evolving. My mother underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for her treatment. She chose to have a reconstruction using her own abdominal muscle rather than wearing or implanting a synthetic prosthetic (proving that I come by my hippie instincts honestly). It was a complicated operation and gruesome recovery. She’s since been told that, because of the stage and size of her cancer, current standards of care might not have encouraged surgery at all. At the time of her diagnosis, Tamoxifen was just beginning to be used to treat early-stage breast cancer and has since been approved as preventative treatment for women in high-risk categories. It’s possible that between the drug and chemo, she could have avoided the knife altogether. Knowing that just a few years can make such a huge difference in treatment options drives me to stay current on the latest research trends and newest studies, just in case my time to make a decision sneaks up as quickly as my mom’s did.

As October wanes and the water cups from Race for the Cure are swept up, the official observation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month will come to an end. The tide of pink — from the coffee sleeves at Starbucks to the deposit canisters at my bank’s drive-through — will subside for 11 months. But my awareness will remain, always reminding me of the fears, the strengths, and the hopes of women like my mother, who came out on the winning side, as well as those who didn’t survive the fight. I sometimes feel a little jaded and manipulated by the rose-colored product-placement that swells this time of year, but if the sales of Pink Lemonade 5-Hour Energy keep my daughter out of the oncologist’s office, or the Steelers’ pink wristbands remind someone else’s daughter to get a mammogram, then I guess it all comes out in the wash.

Comes out pink, of course.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Time to Listen?

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 9:16 AM

In the hour before President Obama was to take the stage in Charlotte to accept the candidacy of his party, the thunderstorm crashing through Memphis took out power to my house. So unfortunately, I wasn’t able to watch the president’s speech as it happened.

Which is a much better excuse than what I would have had to use otherwise, namely: I was watching a DVRed episode of “Project Runway” and didn’t stop it when the speech began.

I did catch bits of the convention – a metaphor-crazed Michigan governor here, an NRA-appeasing Montana governor there – but ultimately, I just didn’t have the time. Or, okay, the interest. As much as I enjoy having my opinions echoed back at me by authority figures, I don’t really clear room in my schedule for it. And, based on the ratings for both parties’ parties, neither did most voters.

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Now that debate season is underway and the presidential campaign is in the home-stretch, my attention has waned even more, even though I admit it’s not a great idea to zone out now. No matter whose side you’re on, your guy is on shaky ground.

I wouldn’t claim to be the World’s Busiest Person, but I’ve got some stuff going on. I’m the parent of two kids in two different schools. I work full-time. I volunteer a few hours a week. I’m in one-and-a-half book clubs. And so while I feel a deep stake in this year’s election, I can’t honestly say I’m following it with any type of concerted effort. It’s just not part of my day.  

“But waaaaait,” I hear you thinking (yes, opinion columnists are psychic, it’s what makes us so deeply insightful. And humble), “This political crap is everywhere!” But is it really? One of the most memorable quotes I’ve seen from Samuel Halpern, infamously shit-saying father of author/Twitterer Justin Halpern, was, “You don’t read news, you read stuff you agree with.” And that, I’m afraid, accurately sums up most discourse this year. Thanks to Facebook and the joy of linking, it’s possible to go through your day seeing things only from the perspective you already hold. On the off chance something in your “news” feed bothers you, you can literally hide the offender. And even this limited mode of discussion is starting to wear on people. As the election looms closer, more and more posts appear with the sentiment, “Let’s just not talk about it, okay?”    

I understand that urge, and combined with my generally lackadaisical attitude, it’s easy for me to respect it. But deep in the back of my guilty-Lifetime-watching mind, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We should talk about it. Not just in enclaves of same-thinking peers, but with everybody. Sure, there’s a lot of ranting on both sides, but I’ve also seen clearly expressed opinions that dissent from my own, not from cable news talking heads but from people I grew up with and respect. Like the career Naval officer in Bahrain who feels like Democrats infantilize the military (sort of saw his point there) or the mother of young children turned off by Biden’s (probably all-too familiar) petulance. It may not change my vote, but it hopefully makes me a little bit less of a one-way monkey (“Project Runway” joke? Anybody?) when it comes to my overall perspective.

The televised debates have been a cufflinked form of bloodsport, with fans poised on either side to cheer on their man and see all exchanges as points for their own team. But maybe in the days that follow this week’s round, we should try to put down our giant foam (middle) fingers and talk about the things that really matter – how our lives work, what we need to keep ourselves and our family safe and healthy.

Or better yet, maybe we should just listen. Because after all this is over, half of us are going to be disappointed, and somehow, we’re all going to have to find a way to make it work.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Dog's Story

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 8:49 AM

I had to get some help. The shelter dog I was taking for a field trip downtown wasn’t interested in getting in my car and no amount of pleading and plying made a difference. I had to get a shelter staff member, someone the dog knew and trusted, to convince her that it was okay.

It had been almost five years since I’d driven with a dog in my car, and it took a while to get used to the paws inching toward my lap and the panting breath fogging up the windshield. Once we got to Beale Street, though, we were both a lot more comfortable. Lady, an infamous former resident of the cobblestones, seemed instantly to recognize her old stomping grounds, and I was just relieved to have made the trip with my car upholstery intact.

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Our mission for the day was to mill around at the Mid-South Pride festival and pre-parade doings, making folks aware of the dogs available for adoption and socializing the animals in the meantime. My low-key rescue was no attention-match for the four-month-old border collie pup another volunteer had brought, but she still drew smiles and pats from the fluctuating crowd that gathered around our group.

That crowd was variable but steady, people drawn in ones, twos, and threes toward the dogs no matter where we were in Robert R. Church Park. Some came shyly and others stretched their hands out from yards away, but all left us with a smile. The dogs, all taken in from situations of abuse or illness or neglect, were sweet and playful, nosing for treats and flopping over for belly rubs on cue.

All of our pups got lots of love that day. One dog, however, seemed to have her own entourage. Every time I looked over, there were at least a few people hovering around a two-year-old Shepherd mix named Amber. She wasn’t the prettiest dog at the park; most of her left side was shaved to the skin, and large scars were visible in the bare patches. Without exception, everyone asked what had happened to her, and each time the volunteer at her side calmly replied, “She was set on fire.” Hearing those words, people gasped, cursed, or silently shook their heads, and then immediately reached to pet her, many kneeling in the wet grass to look in her eyes and talk to her, reassuring the damaged creature of her beauty and strength.

Maybe this happens wherever Amber goes. This was our first outing together, so I can’t say for sure. But it felt especially powerful at that time, in that place. I could feel not just the outrage among the people who heard her story, but also the empathy. Here was an innocent living being, made to suffer for no reason but the ignorance and cruelty of another. She went through unimaginable pain, and yet she survived. Not only survived, but retained her capacity to play and love and thrive. Her head was up, her eyes were bright. No matter what she went through, Amber had kept her pride.

We left that day as the parade was about to begin, wanting to keep the dogs calm and out of the noise and crowds. The festivities were threatened by heavy clouds rolling over the bridge from Arkansas, but we were the only group on the street moving away from the route rather than toward it. People had come from three states to be in, or be witness to, Memphis’ ever-growing recognition of and tribute to our LGBT community. A little rain clearly wasn’t going to dampen that.

When we got back to the parking garage, Lady still didn’t want to get in my car, but she relented more easily. She spent the ride back to her home curled up in my front passenger seat, listening nonjudgmentally to my radio duets and traffic muttering.

I know where Lady was found, but I don’t know her whole history. I don’t know how she was treated or what makes her so wary. All I know is that she has come through it and, like Amber and the other rescues we took out that day, is still a worthy companion. Like most rescued animals, her personality seems to convey a simple message, one I felt echoed all around me that rainy Saturday afternoon: Love is the best thing. Honor it wherever it’s found.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Rites of Autumn

Posted By on Wed, Oct 3, 2012 at 8:44 AM

Whew! Happy end-of-festival-season, y’all!

We just wrapped up that time of the year in Memphis when you can’t turn around without bumping into a pop-up tent hawking anything from artisan birdhouses to exfoliating manicure salts. Someone landing in September would think we are a nomadic people, roaming from place to place with our hand-dyed clothing, wooden instruments, and deep-fryers, cursing our rough, dry skin.

As we welcome the arrival of fall, we also celebrate the migration of hummingbirds, the speed of dachshunds, and the … goatiness of goats. We hail champions of burger-making, dragon-boating, and garage-banding. We have a fair, then we have another fair. We pack our bellies and our free tote bags to their very limits.  

It’s almost too much, really. Memphis weather is lovely well into October, so why must we squeeze everything into September? Picking one event means missing at least two others.  

I guess it’s impatience. After surviving a Memphis summer, the idea of being outside without melting into a mosquito-gouged flesh puddle is compelling. Or, as I sang to myself while getting the paper on a recent 57-degree morning, “HOLY CRAP IT’S SO NICE OUT I WANT TO RUN AROUND AND KNIT SOMETHING EXCEPT I CAN’T KNIT AND WEAR BOOTS AND IT’S FALL AND YAAYYYY!” (And that was before my daily lukewarm half-cup of tea.) When the air in Memphis finally drops from tropically dank to merely musty, you want to fill up your lungs with it. And the funny thing about breathing is that it gives you energy to do other stuff. Like hit two midways and a goat chariot race.    

My people in the north are a little more focused. Their fair is nicknamed The Great Minnesota Get-Together, and that’s truly what it is. For 10 days this year, every North-Star-state-dwelling friend of mine checked into the fair on Facebook, some of them multiple times. They posted photos of walleyes-on-a-stick and record-breaking hogs and young pageant hopefuls getting their likenesses carved in butter. I know Southerners think they’ve cornered the market on atrociously unhealthy foodstuffs, but they better get out of the way when Minnesotans are preparing for hibernation.

Because in Minnesota, that’s what the fair is. It’s the official end of summer, always coming to a close on Labor Day. And unlike in my current hometown, there won’t be another month or two of autumnal weather to enjoy. (Well, not normally, anyway. Who knows what’s going to happen in this bizarro year. I have a feeling Dave Brown is one freak storm away from trading in his VIPIR radar for Revelations.) Whereas I now plan my kids' Halloween costumes with humid 76-degree nights in mind, I grew up choosing costumes that would fit a parka underneath.

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So now each fall, I find myself feeling a deep inner conflict. The Yankee in me is hunkering down, preparing for the possibility that there might be 32" of snow on the ground tomorrow. The Southerner feels the relief of surviving the worst of the year and having weeks of honeyed skies ahead. The longer I’m here, the more I drift toward autumnal optimism. Spending an entire month celebrating what’s great about this city (topped off with, ahem, the Flyer’s annual issue highlighting it) certainly helps, but living here for 13 years is the real foundation. I now know what’s on the way: driving down North Parkway with the windows down and the sun setting behind me, chasing my kids through the Agricenter’s corn maze, spending evenings on patios all over town.             

The shorter days still stir that ancient Nordic wariness, but it gets pushed further and further down each year. The old part of me feels the best is over, but the new part knows the best is yet to come.

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