Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Congrats, Josh. You Made the Right Choice.

Posted by on Tue, Mar 26, 2013 at 7:34 PM

Look, Coach, it’s not the loss that hurts. Not really. Y’all had a good year, and you lived up to the hype and expectations that built slowly back up after the season’s bumpy start. So when you won your first NCAA tournament game, the celebration was deserved. The sinking feeling that came after the subsequent stomping, however, wasn’t simply because the season had ended. It was because everyone in Memphis knows by now that the end of a successful basketball season means the start of Poaching Season. There was no “we’ll get ‘em next year,” because there was very little hope of having the same “we.” And that included you.

As soon as teams began falling out of the tournament and open coaching positions materialized, every fan in Memphis wondered the same thing: Where’s Pastner going to go? Surely our golden boy would be happier in, say, the Golden State. We couldn’t expect a rising star like yourself, coming off of a perfect conference record, to hang around and withstand the inevitably tough transition into the Big East. Not when an established national team comes calling. Likewise for many of your star players — a big year in a small place makes a great stepping stone toward bigger, brighter things. It happens. We’re used to it.

But bless your heart, you proved us wrong. Instead of looking off in the distance for a better offer, you used that legendary optimism to see what’s already right in front of you.

Memphis, man. It’s so freakin’ great, right?

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I mean, you already know about the sports stuff, but I would remind you that not every town takes college basketball as seriously as this one. UCLA is a good school and all, but if you asked 100 Angelenos who coaches their basketball team, you’d be escorted out by security at least 37 times.

Beyond that, though, the fundamental essence of Memphis is something that simply can’t be duplicated. On paper, sure, other cities are richer or exercise more or have the slightest clue how their school system will be running in six months, but still. As much as it pains me to ask, how many songs are written about Minneapolis? No, not counting plinky-dinky folk songs. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

What’s really amazing about Memphis right now — and what must surely set your positivity phasers to stun — is its potential. We have as much history, both fantastic and tragic, as the entire constituency of the Big Ten combined, but for the first time in decades, we also have the heart and drive and energy of a dozen All-American freshmen (not literally; you’re a good recruiter and all, but not quite that good). Remember when Forbes magazine told everyone how miserable we were? They’re now calling us one of the country’s emerging cities. At a time when people could easily give up, pack up, and settle around the newest suburban big box oasis, residents are pushing for reinvestment in the heart of Memphis. From South Main to Crosstown to Overton Square, the holes are being filled in, not with random commercial scrambling but through creative, innovative, and responsible urban planning. We’ve been one of the country’s 20 largest cities for quite some time, but now we’re finally starting to act like it.

Look, Josh — can I call you Josh, since I’m old enough to be your, um, aunt? — I know you had a lot to consider, and the same questions will probably come up again in a year’s time. So as you think about what will bring your family happiness, what will make your career most fulfilling, and what will best shape your legacy, I’d just ask you to keep in mind that this city is everything you could want in a winning team. It’s tough, loyal, diverse, adaptable, humble, and a little goofy. Making it be everything it deserves to be isn’t going to be a fast or easy job, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

You and your top guys could go to plenty of other places right now. And really, so could a lot of us. But instead of trawling L.A. craigslist ads for $1,500 one-bedroom apartments, we choose to stay and make a great place even better. It’s not the one-and-done philosophy that dominated your predecessor’s program. It’s a long-term plan that builds on collective strength and talent, both of which Memphis has in abundance.

Some people are going to question your decision, JP, but as a Memphian by choice, I totally get it. You could go coach anywhere, sure. But where else but Memphis could you be part of such an incredible team?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hillary Clinton vs. Michelle Shocked

Posted by on Tue, Mar 19, 2013 at 8:30 PM

Attagirl, Hillary! Glad to have you on board. Although really, the only thing surprising about Secretary Clinton’s statement of support for gay marriage this week was that she hadn’t already made one. I could have sworn that already happened, but maybe I was just thinking about all the work she did to get international governments to stop condoning the execution of their gay citizens.

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No, the real shocker this week — pun unavoidable — was that a folk singer with a significant LGBT following decided to use a San Francisco appearance to clarify her opposition to gay marriage, homosexuality in general, and, by my unscientific estimate, the home lives of 67 percent of her fan base. I saw Michelle Shocked at the Hi-Tone a few years back, and if everyone who identified on the LGBT spectrum had walked out, there wouldn’t have been enough people left to fill a table.

Now, to be fair, Michelle Shocked never embraced being a gay icon. She sure did embrace gay money, though. For a songwriter who has concentrated on representing the downtrodden and voiceless victims of corporate and government wrongdoing, it was natural that oppressed folks of all varieties would be drawn to her work, and she was more than happy to capitalize on that. She certainly kept her anti-gay opinions to herself while she was crossing the country with the Lilith Fair gals.

So at this point, you may be wondering, “Andria, what the hell does some has-been un-hippie matter? And why did you even mention Hillary Clinton in the first place? And what is your face doing – is that supposed to be a smile?” Stay with me, though. Here’s where it gets sort of mind-blowing. An artist just got publicly scorned for having an unpopular opinion. Earlier on the very same day, the former secretary of state and possible next president publicly declared the opposite position. We haven’t made it to the magical land of Equal Protection Under the Law, but holy shit, y’all, do you see the seismic shift that represents? Marriage equality has gone mainstream. It has totally sold out! Yay!

The job isn’t done, of course, just like it’s still not done for women or minorities. But it’s at least underway. What happens next will determine if the cause has gained overwhelming popularity or simply jumped the shark. This month, the Supreme Court hears arguments in two cases that will have a dramatic impact on the future of gay rights, whichever way they’re decided.

Most people probably don’t know that the case against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) hinges on a married lesbian being taxed for $383,000 after the death of her wife, an estate tax penalty she would not have been expected to pay had she been married to a man. A personal ceremony or a domestic partner checkbox is nice and all, but the law matters.

The court will also hear arguments for the dismissal of California’s ban on gay marriage. When Prop. 8 was passed in 2008, a flurry of local governments were already pushing for similar bans and constitutional definitions of marriage (including, ahem, this one), but just four years later, the legislative tide was already turning. My own home state of Minnesota was one of the first to reject, by voter decision, an amendment defining marriage as strictly heterosexual. (Go Gophers.)

The idea that this is an issue best left to the states to decide ignores one thing, however: Some states aren’t going to get there for a long, long time, if ever. Are we comfortable telling certain citizens that, sorry, we can’t get a majority vote on your legal status. American approval of interracial marriage didn’t surpass 50 percent until … here, I’ll let you guess. What do you think? 1970? 1980? Here, I’ll give you a hint. Nineteen hundred and ninety … seven.

Let’s face it. Some states are dumb. Not everyone in them, of course, but apparently more than not. And those people don’t get to penalize their tax-paying, law-abiding, yard-maintaining neighbors just because said neighbors don’t share their romantic preferences. Look, I don’t understand why people marry pageant moms or competitive eaters or Hugh Hefner, but they do, so bless ‘em. There’s room for everybody. We all bring our own plate to the potluck.

Or, as a wise woman once wrote, it takes a village.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dorothy Didn't Surrender

Posted by on Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 9:09 PM

My 9-year-old daughter has been having a rough week, although she probably doesn’t know it. I was reading a newish New Yorker profile on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that brought up how recently, and often unsatisfactorily, civil cases have been brought before the court to assert women’s equality. Then I was listening to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talking on NPR about the lack of progress women have been making in reaching leadership positions. And then, to top it all off, we went to see Oz: The Great and Powerful.

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Call me dually biased. I was raised on MGM’s 1939 vision of Oz and its inhabitants, and I became a mother during a time when the Disney princess mythology was heavily criticized, if not rejected outright. But even without that background, it would be hard to deny that the Disney-fied version of Baum’s stories takes liberties that are both creepily modern and uncomfortably retro.

One of the great things about The Wizard of Oz is that it represents a child’s perspective. It doesn’t rely on unnecessary plot points to draw in adult viewers, because adults can be just as taken by the reminder of how confusing and joyous and sometimes terrifying life can be for a child. The film didn’t try to wedge in a romantic storyline. And ultimately, the hero is a young woman. She kills two witches!

On both sides of the twister, the female characters of Oz: The Great and Powerful are presented as gullible, naïve, clingy, manipulative, and/or downright wicked. And, despite much talk about their power, Oz’s witches are basically helpless, waiting around for who knows how long for some guy to fall out of the sky and save them from themselves. I was the most disappointed by the story of Theodora, the eventual Wicked Witch of the West, whose wickedness is explained away as a stalkerish over-reaction (prompted by her own sister, of course, because women are, like, SO MEAN to each other). The only “good” witch, Glinda, is the least assertive of the three, banished from her home and unable to do a thing about it until some half-assed con artist shows up. Even when she “wins” against her wicked siblings, it’s on a technicality.

Power balance sidenote: I couldn’t help noticing that the wicked witches, played by Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis, were the dark-haired, exotic, foreign ones (they even inexplicably let Weisz use her British accent). When I asked my kids after the movie which of the women was the most powerful, my 5-year-old son immediately replied, “The white one!” He meant her dress, but still, she was the whitest in every way. (Side-sidenote: Oz author L. Frank Baum was a known feminist, but his very not-okay positions on Native American relations are a topic for another time.)

Really, the most relevant detail is probably the fact that there is not actually a book called Oz: The Great and Powerful. The plot line was mostly fabricated for the movie. Producer Joe Roth told the Huffington Post “ […] during the years that I spent running Walt Disney Studios -- I learned about how hard it was to find a fairy tale with a good strong male protagonist. You've got your Sleeping Beauties, your Cinderellas and your Alices. But a fairy tale with a male protagonist is very hard to come by. ... Which is why I knew that this was an idea for a movie that was genuinely worth pursuing.” Ah, yes. Because all those other fairy tale protagonists were such independent women and we barely got to appreciate the men who continually rescued them (well, except Alice; she just got high and told everyone what she thought. Funny that I rarely see her in the toy aisle).

It’s not that having a male lead is bad, but what you do to the rest of the characters still matters. When Disney got hold of the Wizard, they imagineered themselves up a pseudo-prequel that combines the worst of modern focus group mentality and old-fashioned gender roles. Congratulations, guys. At least one part of the film accurately pre-dates the original story by 20 years.

Look, I know it’s just a movie. I don’t think the course of feminism is being redirected here. But that’s the problem, really. There was such a great opportunity to update this franchise and infuse it with Baum’s ideas about female gumption that were maybe a little too progressive for 1930s MGM, or at least not lose ground from the girl-power ambitions of the original film. At a time when women are holding steady at a mere 14-percent of corporate leadership positions, continue to underearn men despite higher levels of education, and are still waging legal battles for equality, it’s clear that, more than 100 years after their publication, the original Oz stories are still ahead of our time.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Living a Gluten-Free Life-style

Posted by on Tue, Mar 5, 2013 at 8:20 PM

I’ve lived a life of physical privilege. I realize that now. Other than a few minor illnesses and an accident in Home Economics that required stitches, I had a healthy childhood. The closest I’ve come to breaking a bone was a particularly violent toe stub. I had two normal, drug-free childbirths. Whenever an intake nurse asks me what medications I’m on and I say none, she pauses to make sure she heard me right. I get a little seasonal hay fever, but nothing I would specifically state as an allergy. I can eat anything.

Or could, anyway. As I mentioned a few months back, I was recently diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes my body to attack itself when I consume gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. There is no medication for it. The only way to stop its damage is to avoid gluten altogether. Not doing so compromises the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, leading to malnutrition and increasing the risk of gastrointestinal cancers. It also makes you feel awful in a variety of ways and is often associated with other autoimmune disorders.

“Well, at least you can fix it with just a diet change.” I’ve heard this pep talk dozens of times since my diagnosis, and while I appreciate the sentiment, it’s not really true. Going gluten-free isn’t a diet change. It’s an entire lifestyle change.

People eat together. It’s a thing we do for survival, but also for connection, for pleasure, for love. I’ve never been confused for a foodie, but I have always enjoyed the experience of sharing a meal with friends and family. Since my diagnosis, however, that pleasure has faded, especially when it comes to dining out.

“There are still lots of things you can eat!” Well, yes, in theory. But the reality is more complicated. Celiac disease is triggered by the smallest trace of gluten, so the risk of cross-contamination is always a factor. And thanks to the miracles of modern science, seemingly safe foods can be rendered unsafe through the use of grain-rendered flavorings or preservatives. There’s a long list of foods I should be able to eat but simply can’t because of the way they’re handled or packaged. Even natural, unprocessed foods can be easily and unnecessarily “ruined” in gluten terms by something as simple as using a contaminated pan or not changing gloves after making a sandwich.

It’s estimated that 0.8 percent of the U.S. population has celiac disease, but as many as 6 percent may have other forms of gluten sensitivity more comparable to an allergy. Add to that the people who are making a conscious choice to reduce or eliminate wheat from their diets and there’s a sizeable group of people (and potential customers) who benefit from having gluten-free choices. Still, I feel weird expecting or even wanting my particular food needs to be accommodated. I recently gathered the courage to ask a chef about a menu item’s wheat content and he rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, you’re one of those.” He was being playful, but it still stung. The phrase “gluten-free” has entered the public vocabulary, but it’s often seen as a diet fad or trendy pseudo-science following a long line of other things we’ve been told to cut from our food.

Besides, I can barely manage to accommodate all my food rules in my own home. Regular cooking annoys me enough (see above re: Home Economics). I don’t have separate gluten-free utensils, I use the same sponge to wash wheaty dishes as I do for my own, I don’t scrub my hands between packing my kids’ lunches and making my own breakfast. And that’s probably why I don’t feel significantly better. Trying to fight a non-stop battle against a dust-mote-sized foe feels, quite simply, impossible.

And that’s how I’m finally seeing my privilege. I’ve never had to think about my health before. I’ve never had to advocate for what I need to be well. I’ve never had to weigh my needs against someone else’s convenience (or my own). I now realize that this is what millions of people have experienced and live with every day, and without their willingness to speak out, we wouldn’t have food labels or allergy warnings or public bathrooms that can fit a wheelchair. A disease doesn’t define who I am, but it is part of me, and if I’m going to live my life to its fullest, I need to make that part fit.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lee Smith and the Southern Story-Telling Tradition

Posted by on Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 7:47 PM

Under last Thursday’s very soggy skies, an intrepid group of about a hundred students and book nerds (guess which I am) gathered at the University of Memphis to hear author Lee Smith discuss her life as seen through literature. For those unfamiliar, Lee is responsible for 12 novels and four collections of short stories with a distinct focus on Southern life past and present, but more than that, she is a good ol’ girl of the highest order: sharp, witty, sly, gracious, and, above all, a world-class storyteller. Beyond her published fiction, Lee is one of those people just naturally skilled at recounting events, real or imagined.

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It’s not a unique trait, I suppose, and it’s something I’ve almost begun to take for granted since immigrating to the South, and Memphis in particular, where anyone from a woman refilling my sweet tea to a man strolling my grocery store can stun me with a perfect anecdote. (Granted, for many years the man strolling in my grocery store was Shelby Foote, but still.) We live in a town that’s constantly remembering, revising, and embellishing for dramatic effect.

Not that my countrypersons to the north don’t have a tradition of storytelling, of course. They’re more prone to confining it within the boundaries of the arts, however, where there’s a built-in defense against charges of exaggeration or downright fibbing. Taking liberties makes us uncomfortable. We’re a nice people, but I’d guess that Garrison Keillor probably wouldn’t be your first pick as a road trip buddy, and Bob Dylan isn’t really known for being fun at parties.

No, I’d wager that the urge to entertain, facts be damned, is strongest in the South. I imagine it’s been a powerful coping mechanism in an area that not so long ago saw its history literally trampled and burned. When your own personal narrative is shattered, all that’s left to do is pick up the pieces you can find and fill in the rest.

What’s great about this tendency is that everyone has a different story. Well, it’s sometimes great. Watching two elegant Southern ladies discuss the finer points of the Montesi’s deli selection in 1984 is a joy to behold, but witnessing Crips and Klanners debating the acceptable degrees of white supremacy is pretty unsettling.

The diverging stories of Memphis’s past have gotten a lot of ink in the last few weeks, but what I find most fascinating is the plot that’s developing while that happens. It feels like we’re finally able to acknowledge that our city will never have one collective memory of any point in time. The best we can do is listen to each other and try, in our various ways, to move the story forward.

As I was having drinks with Lee Smith and her family after her lecture (because I’m a very, very important writer … or possibly because I came with the administrator of her Facebook page) and pinching a nerve in my neck trying to lean in and not miss a word she said, I was awestruck as usual by the ease and pleasure and humor that Southerners bring to even their darkest tales. The most tragic details are prone to being reshaped into comic asides, or, if they don’t serve, simply thrown aside. Whether that’s selective memory, artistic license, or flat-out denial is hard to say.

In her essay “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy,” Lee Smith acknowledges and welcomes in literature’s New South, the South of small-town sushi restaurants and multilingual classrooms. It doesn’t lend itself to the same characters and devices that have had a long life in Southern lit, but really, isn’t that all for the best? Instead of overhauling history, over and over and over again, there’s a wealth of new storylines to thread together. The next chapter is just waiting to be written.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Keep Programs for Gifted Children

Posted by on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 8:29 AM

I’ve forgotten at least 90 percent of the details from any given year of my education, but I still remember the moment that my first-grade teacher tapped me on the shoulder during reading time and said I was going to the library to take a special test. Apparently it went well, because shortly afterward I was sent to the library a couple times a week to participate in a group for other kids like me, 6-year-old kids who’d gotten special permission to check books out from the 3rd-6th grade shelves or who finished their math tests in half the allotted time.

Turns out, I’m a genius. Not like that 15-year-old who created a 3-cent test for pancreatic cancer or anything, but still, my intelligence is a few standard deviations above average. It’s a hard thing to say out loud without sounding like an ass, but it’s not like I take personal credit for it. That’s just how it worked out.

I only mention it at all because there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether gifted students in Memphis will continue to receive specialized instruction between pre-k and 8th grade. The only thing more surprising to me than this service being on the chopping block was the fact that Shelby County schools didn’t already offer it.

From first grade on, through public schools in three different states, I was given opportunities to work and learn beyond the boundaries of the standard curricula. The programs had different names — GATE, TAG, Vision — and were run in different ways. Some years I left the classroom during a specific class, others I rotated, and one year I was in an entirely separate full-time classroom.

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No matter how it was applied, however, the benefits of having that time to approach, explore, and challenge at a level specific to my own ability were real and lasting. I entered high school better prepared for the advanced classes on my schedule, which then led to success at the college level, where I enrolled, hung out on the Dean’s list, and graduated with honors from a top-ten university.

It’s not a direct line from 2nd-grade gifted enrichment programs to the upper reaches of academic success, nor is academic success the be-all, end-all of personal fulfillment, but at a time when public schools in cities throughout the U.S. are already struggling to graduate more than half of their seniors, are we in any position to take away tools that are actually working?

In the district formerly known as Memphis City Schools, the needs of gifted students are handled by its Exceptional Children and Health Services office, which oversees the needs of children who are outside of the mainstream for academic, social, health, emotional, psychological, and behavioral reasons. CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) is MCS’s accommodation for gifted and high-achieving students as young as age 4, and as the consolidated school district’s budget is hammered out, both this and Shelby County’s APEX (a pared-down program for kids in grades 3-8) are at risk.

Look, education is a huge issue in this area and our needs are complex and overwhelming. Some could easily argue that our focus should be on the largest groups, not the smallest. But here’s the thing. We need smart kids. We need them to get smarter and more creative and be the generation who thinks up better solutions than what we have now. And we need them here.

Dr. John Feldhusen, founding director of Purdue’s Gifted Education Resource Institute, said, “Intelligent behavior does not arise naturally; it grows through exercise and guidance. Nature may establish high potential for high levels of intellectual functioning; parents, teachers, peers, and the community provide the conditions through which the intelligence of gifted and talented youth is brought to fruition." I’m where I am today because of those conditions, and I hate to think of where Memphis would be without them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Fond Farewell to the Hi-Tone

Posted by on Tue, Feb 12, 2013 at 10:30 PM

I didn’t have a college bar, as the home of Frances Willard (founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), Evanston, Illinois, was infamously low on watering holes. And since I was Mormon during my college years anyway (long story), I didn’t have much need of one.

When I moved to Memphis a year out of school, my social options felt even more limited. I was working from home and didn’t know more than a few people in town. I knew Memphis was renowned for its music, but the idea of going to clubs was a little daunting, especially since my frame of reference was Chicago’s rather d-baggy Division Street (I may not have had a college bar, but that’s where my older sister’s was).

Eventually, however, being home alone all day was more than even the most introverted Midwesterner (remember me?) could stand. On a whim, I decided to go see some guy I’d read some pretty glowing things about in the Flyer. He was playing at the Hi-Tone Cafe which, from what I could tell, was an impressively booked venue that brought in a lot of great national musicians. I was prepared to be intimidated by the space and the crowd.

It was probably raining that night, based on the fact that it rained every single time Cory Branan played the Hi-Tone. He was in a misleadingly philanthropic mood, but it wasn’t the Gummi tongues and feet he handed out to the audience that made me feel welcome. The room was a little rough and grimy, but the atmosphere was homey. Well, if your home had a beat-down pool table and a bathroom unfit for company. Still, it was friendly, warm, and completely unlike what I’d been expecting. The team-like definition of club felt far more applicable.

Since that night, I’ve spent more evenings than I can remember at the Hi-Tone. When I was laid off from the corporate world, I started booking shows for some local musicians and actually made hanging out there a part-time job. I bought my first beer there (never mind that I was 29). I saw everyone from Viva L’American Death Ray to Michelle Shocked play. For the better part of a decade, it was the college bar I never had.

Of course, even delayed adolescents have to grow up sometime, and by the time my second child was born, I found it pretty tricky to get out for an evening, let alone stay awake until an 11 p.m. show. The bar’s late band starts were so notorious that just hearing “they’re playing at the Hi-Tone” made me sleepy. And so I set the place aside in the pre-PTA corner of my mind, along with my Mini Cooper and babydoll T-shirts.

When I heard the Hi-Tone was fixing to close (the Southernism particularly appropriate for the bar’s four-month wind-down), the sliding door of that memory storage unit was yanked open again. Although closing bars people love seems to be popular around here, I really never expected a place as venerable as the Hi-Tone to fall victim to the usual small club disasters. Sure, the air conditioning was always busted and there were only four people at the Tuesday shows, but Elvis Costello played there, for Pete’s sake! As a recovering small business owner, I know I can’t fault the guys for throwing in the towel. Still, I’ve spent the last few months hoping someone would be reckless and passionate enough to pick the towel back up and mop the bar down with it.

Since it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, I guess I should say my good-byes. I went to the Hi-Tone this past Friday to see Shovels & Rope, a South Carolina twosome (both musically and matrimonially) making their third trip to Memphis. Last time here, they played to an echoing tip jar, but on this trip, the room was packed with joyful sing-alongers. The energy was incredible as the band played their hearts and lungs out, with singer/drummer/guitarist Cary Ann Hearst once exclaiming, “I can’t feel my legs!” Although they weren’t locals, it felt like every song they played was somehow about Memphis. And for that night, they were.

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There are a couple more shows I hope to make before the Hi-Tone closes for good at the end of the month, and even while I look forward to them, I know there will be sadness in the mix. It was easier leaving my Hi-Tone nights behind when I knew I could still go visit them sometimes. And it was exciting to see new, strange names pop up on the marquee every week. So much of Memphis’ music is already part of history, it seems a damn shame to lose a venue that proudly celebrated what was coming next.

I’ve never attended any of my college reunions, but if in 10 years someone puts on a Hi-Tone reunion (a la last year’s Antenna Club gathering), that’s a ticket I would buy. The Hi-Tone isn’t a Rhodes bar or a U of M bar, or even an MCA bar (despite the parking overlap). It’s a bar for everyone who studies the musicology of Memphis. Although we may lose our college bar, may none of us ever graduate.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hang Up and Talk

Posted by on Tue, Feb 5, 2013 at 7:09 PM

For just one moment, I’d like you to imagine something for me.

Picture, if you can, an old land-line telephone. It doesn’t have to be rotary-dial (I’ll explain what that is later, kids), but just any ol’ pre-1990 curly-corded phone will do.

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Now imagine that you carry that phone with you wherever you go. It sits on the table at restaurants. It rests in the console of your car. It’s bulging in your purse when you’re at the movies.

And then it rings. Loudly. Of course you answer, because if you need to carry that thing around all the time, surely you’re expecting some important call.

Sounds kind of obtrusive, doesn’t it? And maybe just a little bit impolite.

Okay, you caught me. I’m an old crank. Or at least, this is the thing that makes me feel like one: Now that we have phones that are small enough to be ignored, they are never, ever ignored.

When I was growing up (oh, those halcyon days of the ‘80s), we had a rule against answering the phone during a meal. The implication was that the time as a family was important and whoever might be interrupting from the outside could wait. And that was even before answering machines.

But now, despite having voicemail and email and text all accessible from our fingertips, a ringing (or buzzing; oh lord, the buzzing) phone demands immediate attention. Because it’s there. Right there. All the time. There.

And even if it’s not buzzing, it has all the information. Facebook, Twitter, Google – the knowledge of the collective all in one pixelated package. Look, I understand why it’s tempting to check it out while you’re waiting for the bathroom, but can it maybe wait until after the band stops playing?

Or, let’s say, after the secretary of state stops testifying. There was something so depressing about looking out at the gallery behind Secretary Clinton’s chair during her farewell party/interrogation and seeing a roomful of people who appeared to be asleep. It was all eyelids out there. I know it was a long day, but come on. It was also history. Look up or step out.

I won’t pretend not to have a cell phone. It’s a fairly decent smart phone, even. But I don’t subscribe to the theory that having a mobile phone means I’m connected by phone whenever I’m mobile. I was phone-free in the car before Oprah even commanded it. It’s for my convenience, not everyone else’s. Except for when I’m at work, my phone is either in my purse or on the kitchen counter. One of my favorite features of my phone is that it’s too big to keep on my person, even if I wanted to.

Speaking of, y’all know those things are radioactive, right? At the risk of sounding like a hippie old crank, I can’t help pointing out that keeping a radioactive device in one’s pocket all day is perhaps not a great idea. But hey, it’s your ass.

What chaps my own ass, however, is feeling constantly on the brink of losing out to whatever call or text or feed update might be more interesting than my company. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I was raised to believe that faces come first. Even if I’m not actually more fascinating than what George Takei has to say, I’d at least like my companions to pretend. I do the same for them.

Many of my friends will read this and feel personally attacked, but let me assure them: I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about all of you. It’s a phenomenon that seems to have no lower age limit and may only peter out somewhere among the over-70s (where, clearly, I would fit right in). My grandparents, the most emergency-prone members of my family, seem to get by just fine with their old, giant, landlocked phone.

And they only occasionally take it to the movies.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Genius of Stacey Campfield

Cutting public assistance to people whose kids do poorly in school is just common sense.

Posted by on Tue, Jan 29, 2013 at 8:24 PM

State senator Stacey Campfield is on to something with his recent proposal to cut Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits to Tennesseeans whose children receive low grades, but I don’t think his solution really goes far enough. We all know kids are impractical and tend to be focused on luxury and entertainment items, so is taking away short-term funding for items like food, utilities, and shoes going to provide enough incentive to get that GPA up? I mean, do kids really care if their homes are heated? If we truly want young, poor Tennesseans to succeed, we need to cut access to the material items they value. I propose, therefore, that all students who fail to maintain a minimum GPA, as defined by such educational experts as Senator Campfield, be denied access to publicly funded desks. And chairs. Also, pencils and paper.

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Sitting on their classroom floors, committing all instruction to memory because they’re unable to write anything down, will force these underperforming students to really focus on their lessons. The physical discomfort and mental strain will surely crystallize their powers of concentration. The cognitive impairment, inability to focus, lack of energy, and increased illness rate sometimes found with children receiving TANF (and, for some reason, those experiencing even minor malnutrition) can be overcome by this productive denial of services.

If students cannot improve their performance under these beneficial circumstances, their families should of course continue to be denied full TANF assistance. Nothing sharpens the mind and academic prowess like the weight of your family’s well-being on your underage shoulders. Emotional distress really gets the I.Q. peaking. Science says. (By which I mean Kirk Science of Moscow, Tennessee).

Critics may suggest that such suffering will lead these students to leave school and pursue some form of employment, perhaps in an effort to pay for their own frivolous furniture and writing utensils. If such is the case, then we have only gained as a community from the addition of motivated employees to the workplace. TANF is, after all, a welfare-to-work program, so what better way to get its youngest beneficiaries to work? Surely beginning their careers at such an early stage will lead to a lifetime of advancement and success.

This program should be especially effective in Memphis, where all public school attendees can receive free breakfast at school and more than 90 percent of those children are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch based on household income. We’re clearly dealing with an epidemic of overly comfortable students here. The 1,200 calories a day (hmm, I seem to recognize that as the same amount recommended for inactive adults attempting to lose a pound a week) required by the federal school meal guidelines is creating a population of complacent youth, likely unable to see their textbooks beyond their overstuffed bellies. That time they spend in food-insecure homes during the evenings, weekends, and school breaks can hardly counteract this in-school excess.

It makes sense that Campfield, the genius political mind behind the proposed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, would expand on the idea that taking away what children need most is a direct path to health, happiness, and lifelong achievement. It’s a logical step between denying reality and denying the basic tools for survival. I only regret that he didn’t go far enough with this plan. His proposal leaves the possibility that children with severe learning challenges or unstable housing or any other outside factor that could contribute to poor academic performance are only punished for it at home. If we really want our children to excel in school — indeed, in life — we need to keep the empowering force of deprivation on them 24 hours a day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wisdom From the Mind of a Child

Martin Luther King's dream may be realized by the coming generation.

Posted by on Wed, Jan 23, 2013 at 7:29 AM

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The story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by my 5-year-old son:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. It was that black people and white people would get together. They were apart because there were signs saying that only white people could go in some places. Also, a little boy wanted to play with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was a little boy and his mother said he couldn’t because Martin Luther King, Jr. was black. That made Martin Luther King, Jr. very very very sad. Also, there was a lady on the bus who had to move seats because she was black.”

I was down by the National Civil Rights museum this past weekend and thought about taking my children — ages 9 and 5 — through, but I thought it pretty unlikely that my youngest would understand the story it told. Turns out, I should have asked him. As a Memphis public school attendee and child of the new millennium, he’s got a grip on the essence of the struggle for civil rights.

The story probably resonates quite strongly with most children, really. After all, they live in a world where they’re constantly having limits put on who they can be, where they can go, and what they can do. It feels unfair to them, as they’ll be quick (and loud) to point out. The only way they have out of this controlled world is to grow up and make their own rules. It must therefore seem terrifying to them to think that those restrictions could last your whole life.

In Monday’s inaugural address, President Obama hailed — and represented — the progress we’ve made toward Dr. King’s dream, but he also pointed out that every dream is not yet reality. We haven’t even reached full equality for the female half of the population, let alone any minority group.

As frustrated and impatient as that makes me, I have to admit that when the president’s speech referenced the Stonewall riots, a watershed moment in the contemporary gay rights movement, I got actual goosebumps. I felt much like I did when Obama expressed his support for gay marriage: cynical enough to know that there was politics behind the message, but excited by the fact that the politics were finally on the side of reason.

Shortly after the historic October 2012 voting season legalized gay marriage in a slew of new states, my son came across me quietly tearing up as I flipped through online slide shows of same-sex couples standing in line for their marriage licenses and civil ceremonies. When I explained what I was doing, he said, “Can boys marry boys?” Yes, I told him, in some places. “And girls can marry girls?” Yes, same deal.

He looked unsure and a little unsettled. I gave him my best liberal mom voice and asked if he had any questions about that. “But … can they both wear dresses?” I pulled him on my lap and we looked through the pictures together, noting the full and diverse collection of wardrobe options. He didn’t bat an eye at the physical affection shown by the couples. I don’t take credit for that, but it lifts my heart nonetheless. He is what’s coming next.

I don’t presume that an inaugural address sets legislation in motion or even makes headway with anyone already in opposition to everything the president believes. Our elected leaders don’t tend to jump out ahead of the trends, however. The wind is at his back.

I don’t think that a speech will magically make things change. But even a child can see that things already have.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Winter is Here. Be Very Afraid, Memphis!

Posted by on Tue, Jan 15, 2013 at 3:40 PM

The National Warning Service has issued a Severe Overreaction Watch for the following counties: Haywood, Madison, Chester … oh all of them, okay? Everybody is going to freak out. Because it’s going to be below 32 degrees. And also? Precipitation. AAAAIIIEEEEEEE! Go take your children to school for half a day so you can get to the store for some bread and milk without hearing them ask if there’ll be a snow day for the zajillionth time. Go now! Go! You have so much bread pudding to make!

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Be careful on your way, though, because visibility is low. Not because of the slushy rain, but because you used a CD case or credit card or the back end of a Desitin tube to scratch an eight-inch-diameter peephole through the ice on your windshield.

Speaking of ice, there may be some on the roads. That happens in the winter sometimes, even in the South. That’s why there are all those signs saying “Bridge May Ice In Cold Weather.” What they really mean to say, however, is “Slam On Your Brakes If Bridge Is Icy!” We just couldn’t get that to fit in the space allotted. So by all means, throw it into a fishtail as soon as you and your fellow drivers are suspended above 240.

It’s disastrous out there, and you need to act accordingly. No one has ever, in the history of meteorology, experienced a winter storm of this magnitude. Well, except for everyone north of St. Louis, who would call this frozen typhoon by its more common name: January. In fact, some residents of Northern climes might even be tempted to mock this warning, just like they mock you for complaining about the cold when you’re not wearing socks.

Additional Ridicule Warning: Those (former) residents might even tell you boring stories about how they went years on end without a snow day during their public education, since the requirement for closing a Minnesota school is that the snow be higher than a kindergartner. They may also brag about how they literally walked a mile uphill both ways in the snow (and sub-zero temperatures) to school, being foolish enough to have attended a university on the frozen banks of Lake Michigan. The only reason you will tolerate these stories is because that defected Yankee is the only person in the parking lot with an actual ice scraper in her car.

Don’t run off too fast, however, since that may be your only source of outside interaction for the next 24-72 hours. (Plus you’re about to get to an overpass. Slow down! Immediately!)

Sure, it will seem nice to be at home at first, all cozy in your soft pants with your loved ones. But then the cookies will be eaten, the hot cocoa will run out, and your Snuggie will start to feel like a giant fleecy straightjacket. Because the reality is, even before a flake hits the ground, you’re trapped. You have nowhere. Else. To go. Your office will be closed. Your yoga class will be canceled. Even your church will be shut down, which sort of seems like a conflict of interest in the Act of God department.

It’s just you, your co-habitants, and the Action News 5 Weather Team, all growing increasingly shrill until the spring thaw. By which we mean Saturday. That doesn’t seem far away now, sure, but just wait until your fifteenth round of Apples to Apples. Suddenly “Reasonable” and “Jack Nicholson in The Shining” will seem like a winning hand.

So seriously. We’re warning you. Not about the weather – which in fact already seems to be improving – but about the surrounding panic. All it takes is a stock photo of a tree branch encased in ice to incite fear, confusion, and spontaneous reminiscences of the ’94 Ice Storm. The NWS has been researching this phenomenon for decades and so far has been unable to prevent it. The good news, however, is that we’ve found a successful treatment based on the genetically coded disaster response of Midsoutherners.

The bad news is, it’s Wonder Bread.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Threat-of-Gunpoint"

Lessons from an in-store robbery.

Posted by on Wed, Jan 9, 2013 at 9:38 AM

I was five months pregnant and alone in the natural parenting store I owned when a young man walked in. It was a cold evening in February and he wasn’t wearing a coat. I didn’t consciously realize that detail until later, though, when I went over all the red flags I should have seen.

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He lingered around the racks of nursing tops, saying he was looking for a gift for his girlfriend. I knew he wasn’t. I knew something wasn’t right. But I was polite and agreeable while he hung around waiting to see if anyone else was likely to come in. No one was.

By the time he told me to empty the cash register, I was on edge, but some part of me still thought this didn’t have to happen. I actually tried to reason with him, explaining that I worked for myself, didn’t take any salary home, and was barely paying the rent. In some movies, that may have worked, but that night, all it did was make the man reach for his pocket.

“Don’t make me take it out,” he said.

That was enough. I still feel foolish saying I was held up at threat-of-gunpoint, but that was all it took. Even though I never saw a weapon, the entire dynamic changed. He was already larger and stronger than me, and once he made a direct reference to my safety, there was no avoiding the reality of the situation.

He took the money – ignoring the laptop computer sitting on the counter between us – and told me to turn around. I don’t know why it took so long, but at that moment, I realized how deeply, badly in trouble I could be. Luckily, he ran out the door (and, I found out later, put on a coat that covered the shirt I’d described to police). Despite near-immediate response to my 911 call, he wasn’t found, and in the week afterward I was visited by a TBI task force member who said a similar robbery had occurred at another woman-owned business the next day.

Many people would say I could have prevented both my own and the subsequent robbery if I’d had a gun, but I can say with certainty that I would not have been able to access a weapon in time. I owned a business patronized by women with babies and toddlers. It wasn’t a shotgun-under-the-counter kind of store. And regardless, the crime happened because of his choices, not mine.

With the recent gang-rape horror story coming out of India, the Internet has been awash with information about how women can protect themselves from violence. So far, however, I’ve yet to see a meme on how men can be prevented from becoming rapists or armed robbers or murderers. Gun control is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture. Less than a year after I was held up, my business partner was robbed in our store by a man who threatened her and her baby with a screwdriver. That shitbag was caught, and it turned out he’d recently been released from prison … after killing someone with a screwdriver.

I had nightmares for months after my robbery, and in the course of remembering and writing this piece, I’ve had them again. It’s an experience that reprogrammed my personal wiring. The feelings of powerlessness and fear inflicted during an act of violence aren’t unique to women, of course, but women experience them much more frequently.

All in all, I was lucky. All I lost was cash. (You know, not counting my general sense of security.) I’ve sometimes wondered what I could have done differently, but mostly I’ve just been grateful that it wasn’t any worse. And I hate that. I hate that I feel fortunate to have only been threatened and frightened and robbed, because that feeling of fortune comes from knowing what other women are subjected to every day, from Delhi to Dyersburg.

I’ve spent five years feeling embarrassed about the red flags I missed. It’s only just started to occur to me that I – and all women – deserve to live our lives without having to look for them in the first place.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Gator Bowl Redux

Cheering Once Again for Dear Ol' Northwestern U.

Posted by on Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 9:18 AM

In case you weren’t spending your New Year’s Day morning watching the Gator Bowl on ESPN2, let me sum up: The mighty Wildcats of my alma mater, Northwestern University, swatted down the Mississippi State Bulldogs for their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Also in 1949? My mom was born. NATO was established. The World Series saw the New York Yankees beat Brooklyn. So, you know, it’s been awhile.

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When I began my college career, however, Northwestern hadn’t even been to a bowl since 1949. It was a tough slot, being a selective private school wedged among the huge state universities of the Big Ten. The football stands were sparsely populated of a Saturday, the students taken to entertaining themselves by having marshmallow fights and using our higher test scores as justification to chant derisively at the opposing teams (“That’s alright, that’s okay, you’ll all work for us someday.”) Victories were so rare that a goalpost was uprooted and marched into Lake Michigan pretty much every time we got a win.

But my freshman year, something strange happened: we started to not suck. It wasn’t a winning season or anything, but after three victories, we had to stop tearing up the field every time. The very next year, we went to the Rose Bowl.

I wasn’t good at college. I did fine academically, but I didn’t take advantage of the freedom and foolishness like a normal American teenager. Northwestern’s motto is “Quaecumque sunt vera,” meaning, “Whatsoever things are true,” and I was probably a little too hung up on truth at the time. Even at 17 years old, I knew what was reckless, what was careless, what was probably not a good idea. The mistake I made, however, was thinking that all those things were also pointless. Now more than twice that age again, I can see that some recklessness might have done me some good.

The closest I came was on those Saturday afternoons at Dyche Stadium, bundled up against November lake gusts, cheer-screaming with my classmates for Schnur and D’Wayne and Darnell, dancing along with the marching band to stay warm. As I watched the game in Jacksonville this week and saw today’s students doing all the same things (well, except for freezing their asses off), all those numb-toed, sore-throated hours came spinning back to me. When Coach Fitzgerald choked up in the post-game interview, I was right there with him, because I knew he remembered those Saturdays, too - he was our star linebacker during those shockingly triumphant seasons.

People say “we” in reference to their athletic teams, but for the first and last time in my life, college represented a point where I really felt camaraderie between myself, my team, and other fans. The players weren’t distant celebrity figures. They were the guys I met during visits to my big sister’s dorm, then the guys in my sociology class, then the guys asking my roommate out. They were kids and we were kids and watching them play was exhilarating and a little terrifying because it made us realize how fast it was all going by.

Time has taken that fear, but also some of that excitement. Is there ever another phase in our lives like that? I’ll never be the person who says college days were the best time of my life, but I can see now that it was a time like no other. I know all those students who were at the Gator Bowl – the ones on the field and the ones in the stands – have finals and frat parties and (if they’re not like me) a few hangovers to get through between now and graduation. A lot of it will blur together and someday, 15 years from now, they may have trouble remembering the names of their dorm-mates, let alone their senior thesis topic. But maybe, on one wintry afternoon, the sound of the fight song will bring it all back, and they’ll smile to remember who they once got to be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keeping the Monster at Bay

The Newtown shooting reminded all parents of their deepest fears.

Posted by on Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 3:28 PM

This past Friday morning, I sent my children off to school with an extra hug and kiss, telling them good-bye, as they were about to embark on a two-week Christmas road trip with their father. They’ve made the trek to Michigan and back multiple times, but each journey tests my nerves. Twenty-five hours is a long time to have them at the mercy of wintry roads and holiday drivers. In a typical year, a part of my heart is sealed in a panic room until they return. By Friday afternoon, however, I had to just put the entire thing in lock-down.

One of the most terrifying realizations parents make is how much of our children’s safety is completely out of our control. It’s a truth we try to swaddle in waffled cotton and tighten down in five-point harnesses, but the reality is that we are all one fallen oak limb, one slippery intersection, one frayed wire away from potential disaster. But unless we’re willing to live in a solar-powered underground allergen-free bomb shelter, there isn’t much that can be done to eliminate every risk. We have to do our best and then send them out into the world. And hope for the best. Every day we hope.

Last Friday's school shooting in Newtown struck so many parents so deeply in part, I think, because it represented the very worst, the bottom of the dread barrel that we don’t dare to scrape. It was a violation of the contract we make with humanity every day, a main point of which is: I’ll place this small, helpless, innocent being in the care of my community because doing so will someday serve us all. All it takes is one person’s aberrance from that contract to destroy our faith in it, at least for a time.

I’m no expert on human behavior, but one of the basics I learned in Intro to Psychology is that it’s a natural desire to dehumanize those among us whose behavior is too abhorrent to comprehend. Ever since then, I’ve avoided using the term “monster” to describe criminals, no matter how unnatural their behavior may seem. I’ve tried to remember that, somewhere in their deepest reaches, they are still people, albeit people gone terribly wrong, and by seeing them as such, we’re better able to minimize future risk.

But over the last few days, with talk of every possible factor that could go into creating a person capable of the unimaginable horror experienced in Newtown, CT, I gave up. There’s no reason, I thought. He’s a monster. That’s all.

I’ve spent nearly 10 years telling my children that monsters aren’t real, that their imaginations shouldn’t get the best of them, that the real world is a pretty decent place. And even though I know, logically, that all those things are still true, the reminder of the random cruelty and unfairness humans are able to unleash on each other is deeply disturbing.

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It’s worth having the conversations and asking the questions about what causes tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, and hopefully they’ll result in a safer, healthier society, but I think it’s misguided to believe that we can legislate or medicate or even culturally revolutionize our way out of danger. The monster is chaos, and it can’t be destroyed.

And yet, we face it. We make breakfast and pack lunches. We help with homework and oversee piano practice. We live our lives. Because no matter what unknown forces may be out there trying to take what’s most precious from us, we have to give our children the lives they deserve. And that means accepting some risk, having some hope, and keeping the monster under our own beds.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fiscal Cliff Notes

On shopping local, credit card debt, and cash mobs.

Posted by on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 8:37 PM

This past weekend, I was mobbed in Cooper-Young. Luckily, I was with about a dozen other women, and the mob consisted of eager holiday shoppers looking to buy some stuff we’d made. As part of the Memphis Women’s Creative Collective, I was a beneficiary of the second-ever Memphis Cash Mob, the local outlet of a national effort to ambush small businesses (with their blessing) with a scheduled burst of paying customers. It’s a deeply simple concept, and so far, very successful. I was a mobber the first time and a mobbee the second, and on both occasions, I was surrounded by friendly Memphians with open wallets.

The whole “shop local” movement has gained traction over the last few years, as the community-related effects of Wal-Martization have set in and even large chains like Borders haven’t been able to fight their online counterparts. I have to make a confession, though: I’m terrible at shopping locally. I want to, I try to, but when it comes right down to it, I usually can’t afford to. I shop at my desk or on my couch, during random off-hour pockets of time, and I hold “50-percent-off-retail” as a standard for what I’m willing to pay.

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By all appearances, I should be willing and able to make the small and rewarding sacrifices required to shop in my own community, but the reality is, I’m on my own fiscal cliff, and have been teetering on its edge for four years now. That’s when, as a recovering small business owner (oh, the irony), I began a debt consolidation program that has redirected a significant portion of my paycheck toward the mountain of credit card debt I built while trying to keep my store above water. For 50 months now, the equivalent of a mortgage payment, or a week in a 2-bedroom Gulf Shores condo, or semester’s tuition for one course at the University of Memphis, has been automatically withdrawn from my checking account. Poof! Gone! Worst magic ever!

It’s been happening for so long now that I barely think about it, but now that the end is in sight (April, if I’m doing the math right … which clearly may not be the case), I’ve started pondering what life will be like when that sturdy sum stays put each month. No more end-of-the-pay-cycle panic, no more due-date juggling, and, Maude help me, no more credit card balances. Ever.

I’m no economist (I mentioned that I kept a business afloat on personal credit cards, right?), but I start feeling a little like one when all the current budgetary rhetoric flies around because the financial mess we’re in as a country feels a little too familiar. Simply put, we overspent, from the top on down. No matter how noble or frivolous the intent, the money’s gone either way. And it wasn’t just The Administration. We helped. We sent in those no-interest-rate credit card applications and applied for mortgages that seemed a little too good to be true because, well, they were. Welcome to my cliff, everybody. Pull up a chair. And don’t look down.

The problem with the national parallel is that going through a serious buckle-down period as a country may not resolve anything, because we can’t guarantee that everyone will hold to their part of the deal and stop making the mistakes that caused these issues in the first place. I have no problem making major, long-term sacrifices if I know I’m coming out better on the other side.

My neighbors, however, are giving me hope. Seeing hundreds of people forgo the mall – at least for an afternoon – and spend money in their own communities, even though it’s a little less convenient (sorry about the downpour, people who parked two blocks away!) is reassuring. I think it’s safe to say that Memphis doesn’t tend to be at the forefront of many trends, so there’s good reason to believe that this mentality is already catching on in other metro areas. And if a growing number of people are buying into the idea that paying a little more, working a little harder, and supporting our own is worth the trouble, we just may be able to step back from the cliff.

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