As I sat on a makeshift bench in a temporarily sodded yard adjacent to the Sears Crosstown building and watched a well-dressed couple ambling down the sidewalk toward various nearby destinations, I was suddenly struck. “They got me,” I thought, “it worked.” Because in that moment, I was able to envision what a revitalized Cleveland Street would look like, and that was exactly the point of MemFix, the event that had brought me (and my kids, and seemingly half of midtown) to an empty department store parking lot that day.
Call me unimaginative, but before MemFix, I’d had a hard time picturing how the street I’d avoided taking my parents down during their visits to Memphis was going to become a thriving new part of the community. I must not be alone, though, because this whole if-you-fake-build-it-they-will-come thing is starting to become a powerful new tactic around here. It took an event like A New Face for an Old Broad in 2010 to show the potential of that long-neglected area. In the two years since, artists, restaurants, and other adventurous businesses have taken a chance on the old Broad and, based on steady occupancy of the street and unsteady departees of The Cove, it seems to be working out as planned.
Lack of imagination isn’t something Memphians are often accused of, however. Our default is more akin to skepticism. “Believe Memphis” was a great tagline for our NBA team, but did anyone happen to notice that it didn’t get picked up until the Grizzlies were near the playoffs? Did we believe before we saw the proof?
I don’t fault anyone for this tendency toward doubt; I’m a strong purveyor of it myself. There have been a lot of plans and promises that haven’t come through for Memphis, and it’s fair, I think, to want some evidence before we show enthusiasm, that most vulnerable-making of emotions.
But it’s hard to deny that the evidence is mounting. It’s filling up the empty spaces all around us. In the last ten years, a museum and charter school rose from the rubble of the Stax studio. New homes finally replaced the bare swath cleared for a deflected highway. A beautiful and well-managed trail system overtook abandoned rail routes. Vacant storefronts along South Main became condos and galleries and offices (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I happen to be currently employed by a firm that works with many of these emergent entities). I even hear they might do something with that Pyramid.
The next experiment begins this weekend, when MemShop will fill the unoccupied spaces on Overton Square with temporary businesses, just in time for your holiday shopping. I’ve spent the entirety of my Memphis residency wishing for Overton Square’s comeback, and have been let down numerous times, but it really and truly seems to be happening. For sure. Maybe. Probably? If MemShop can lure retailers back to the square the way Broad Avenue’s efforts did, the corner of Madison and Cooper may skip a revival and go straight on to renaissance.
With the recent addition of Memphis to National Geographic’s “Best of the World 2013” list, the doubt has been temporarily set aside for something dangerously close to giddiness. Had those explorers come to visit a decade ago, they would have found many of the things that made them declare Memphis a must-see destination – the food, the music, the all-around uniquity – but they also would have found an overwhelming sense of defeatism, one which probably would have pushed us somewhere behind Cleveland (or, heaven forbid, Nashville) on their list. Luckily, they came to 2012 Memphis, and that’s a whole different story.
So the positivity is pervasive? And everything’s solved? No. Not at all. Our position between St. Augustine and Kyoto on some travel site makes little change in the daily lives of residents who are more concerned about feeding their kids than updating their feeds. Our issues as a city are deep and serious, and pop-up shops and food truck rodeos aren’t going to make them disappear. They are, however, going to help us have a little more fun while we work the rest out. And what could maybe be dismissed as hipster boosterism (hoopsterism?) will fill in some of the space where our doubt used to be.
We have holes all over the city, from downtown storefronts to suburban foreclosures. But what’s making Memphis a must-see is how we’re planning and working and collaborating to fill them. We don’t have to imagine what’s coming next. We can see it. We, finally, can believe.
“What do you want for Christmas?”
It seemed like a simple question, but neither of my children had an answer.
The interrogations started more than a month in advance. I asked, my mother asked, my sister asked, all three of us eager to get our seasonal shopping over and done with. Each time, however, we were met with blank expressions and shrugged shoulders. Somehow, my kids made it past Thanksgiving without giving any consideration to their Christmas lists.
I don’t credit myself for this phenomenon; I’m as baffled by it as anyone. I did everything I could to avoid it. What’s the point of letting them watch cartoons if they don’t come away knowing which crappy toys they have to have?
Personally, maintaining my online wish list is a year-round hobby. It’s where I put the books and CDs (those are music files that exist in three dimensions, kids) and shoes that never go far enough below retail price for me to buy myself. Lately, I’ve made an effort to pad the list with locally made products that support Memphis artists and wouldn’t require shipping, but I have no illusions that this effort makes it better to keep an ever-expanding list of stuff I want. I don’t expect to get everything on it, of course, but there’s still something comforting about the process. It’s like window-shopping in windows filled specifically for me. Looking at that lily-of-the-valley pendant necklace is, like, 17 percent as nice as actually wearing it.
I’ve tried putting the big toy catalogs that arrives with the Sunday newspaper in front of my kids and letting them get ideas from there, but that ends up being pretty useless. My daughter flips through the pages aimlessly and my son shouts, “I want that!” at everything from Beyblades to rechargeable batteries. At the end of the process, I’m still nowhere closer to practical gift ideas, but I’m a little more bitter about never having owned a Barbie RV.
After a week of cajoling, my son finally came up with something: a toothbrush that plays music. By my math, that’s two small steps above a lump of coal. I’m not sure if that’s his humility or guilt talking, but even on my meanest mommy days, I don’t think I could give my kid a toothbrush for Christmas.
I’m a planner and a deal-hunter, so I’ve been at the brink of aggravation over this whole gift mystery, even with four weeks to go. Then this morning, as we were listening to the radio during my daughter’s commute to school, I heard the WRVR deejays broadcasting from the Porter Leath toy drive. They were reading the wish list of a four-year-old boy. His top items? Socks and underwear. My heart broke, of course, as it was intended to do. But after that, it was filled with gratitude. Not only because my kids and I have so much, but because, at least right now, they seem to understand that.
There’s still plenty of time for the ghost of Christmas Spending to visit my children this season, haunting their dreams with Furbys and gajillion-piece Lego sets. It’s inevitable, really. But it’s a gift to know that, at this moment, they’re happy with what they have.
The WRVR Toy Truck will be parked at Bud Davis Cadillac at 5433 Poplar Ave. to accept new, unwrapped toys from 6am – 7pm through Nov. 30. Cash donations will be matched by their own Secret Santas and can be given in person or at porterleath.org. (I have no affiliation with any of these people, but since this is the organization that made me tear up most recently, it’s the one I’ll point out. Feel free to find your own.)
Dateline: Minnetonka, Minnesota. Home of the eponymous moccasin, Tonka trucks, and the purifying lake waters touted by Prince in Purple Rain.
I’m frequently asked where I’m from and I hem and haw on the answer, citing the half-dozen places I passed through in my first two decades, but this, really, is it. The ancestral homeland. I was born fewer than thirty miles from where I now sit. And where I now sit is the couch in my parents’ house, the house where I lived from my single-digits through high school graduation. My parents were raised 100 miles away. Their parents and siblings and mind-boggling numbers of cousins are interspersed in the prairies to the near west. If any one place is where I’m from, it is here.
And yet, this is the first Thanksgiving I’ve spent up north since the turn of the century. The unpredictable November weather combined with inexcusable airfares had made it pointless to even consider the trip. I made the best of it over the years, spending the day with my Southern family-by-choice when I could, taking my kids for dim sum when I couldn’t. I was actually planning on another Memphis Thanksgiving this year, most likely catered by Wang’s Mandarin House, but thanks to a last-minute influx of frequent flyer miles and the unbearable burden of a gluten-free holiday, the urge to travel became overwhelming.
So here we are. I just dragged two children and three overstuffed carry-on bags through the gates of Helta to spend four days in unfamiliar (to them) places with people they hardly see. Was it worth the trouble? Oh, Maude, yes.
The minute we pulled into the driveway and I heard the garage door open — the sound that meant, throughout my childhood, that somebody was coming home — I could feel a tension release somewhere deep inside my chest. It happens every time I’m here. It’s like when you suddenly realize you’ve been holding your breath. I don’t notice the generalized loss I feel from living so far from my family until that distance is gone.
Being closer to my nuclear unit means getting reacquainted with parts of myself that I then get to introduce to my offspring. My parents occasionally get it in their heads that they’re going to sell this suburban home and move to a hobby farm with their horses and absolutely none of their daughters’ Rubbermaid bins of college notebooks, but so far, it’s been an empty threat. I’m grateful for that, because if they moved, surely the drawers and closets would get cleaned out and I wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching my kids discover a music box that plays “Born Free” or a lost stash of Snork figures. Every time we visit, my children and their cousins unwittingly fish out pieces of my own childhood, one Weeble at a time.
But these trips are also about them making their own memories. On this Thanksgiving day, my kids will share a meal with their great-grandparents. It’s been so long since these pairs last saw each other, it will be as much an introduction as a reunion, and although I expect there to be as much awkwardness as I sometimes felt as a child around my rarely-seen relatives, I’m thrilled that they’ll have that opportunity. It’s a chance I never had, and I hope it’s something they’ll treasure. Or at least not act a total fool for the duration.
Really, Thanksgiving has never been my thing. I’m not big on the food (except for a nice gluten-y gravy and some soft rolls … dammit!) and loud televised sports make me a little twitchy. And for the last thirteen years, I’ve always had the awareness that my family was off celebrating without me, which sort of put a damper on the whole deal. Now that we’re together, though, I can finally see the appeal.
I know there are people all over the country dreading the time they’re contractually obligated to spend with their “loved” ones, but I can’t speak for them. My kids ran full-tilt toward my dad when they saw him in baggage claim. My dad hugged me so hard my feet left the ground. In those first thirty seconds, the entire trip was made worthwhile.
I’ve made a home in Memphis, and it’s a home I love. But this year and always, I’m thankful for the home that taught me what love is.
Sometime in late August, I started having pain, abdominal pain of a degree that warranted tests for appendicitis, kidney stones, and ovarian cysts. Within the course of two weeks, I saw three different doctors, forked over more than $125 in co-pays, had blood drawn and barium ingested and x-rays made. And the diagnosis was … nothing.
I could have just gone on my way, but the pain persisted and so did I. The best guess my physician could make was that the cause may be some hard-to-detect lady problem, so the suggested course of action was to follow up with my OB/GYN, who found nothing on ultrasound that warranted concern and suggested I come back in six weeks for diagnostic laparoscopy (read: poking holes in my belly and sticking a tiny camera inside to look around).
For some reason, that just felt like a bad idea. Or an ineffective one, anyway. I had a strong sense that the problem had more to do with my legendarily wonky digestive system. Sure enough, after sending myself to a highly recommended new gastroenterologist and undergoing a Kubrickian series of tests, I finally got a diagnosis: celiac disease.
For those unfamiliar, celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by the gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, and for some people, oats. Different than an allergy, the disease, when triggered, results in damage to the digestive system that eventually leads to the inability to absorb nutrients from food. Which is pretty bad.
There’s no medical treatment for celiac. The only therapy is going on a gluten-free diet. Yes, I did just hear your bourgeoisie-fake-sickness sensors go off, but stay with me. Although glutenlessness has gotten trendy lately, the actual medical reason for doing so is real. (And really, really hard. You have no idea how much wheat we use in contemporary cooking until you try to avoid it.) Unfortunately, the stigma sticks like delicious, delicious pizza dough to a cross-contaminated kitchen counter. Every time I have to spend ten minutes examining the ingredient labels of my lunch or asking a waiter what, really, is in the vinaigrette, I can feel a wave of perceived public annoyance wash over me. I have spent my life as a quiet carbivore. I’m not built for interrogating sous chefs.
I’ve had this diagnosis less than two weeks, though, so I’m not going to present myself as an expert or an activist for my fellow celiacs (or maybe we don’t like being called that, I don’t know yet). But what I will get on the soapbox for is being your own advocate. As patients, we tend to be too, well, patient. We wait, we listen, we obey. We assume that the person in the white coat knows everything. Doctors are wonderful, but they’re not omniscient. I had a team of excellent physicians looking after me (and one awful one), but none of them were talking to each other and none of them had all the information I did.
And I had a lot of information. I got copies of lab results going back two years and passed them out, which let my doctors see connections and patterns that wouldn’t have been obvious at a one-off sick visit. And I had my own experience, which I wasn’t shy about writing down and bringing with me to appointments so I wouldn’t forget anything that might be important. Having that data put my GI on the right track, and that led directly to getting some answers. If I had followed the original prescribed course of action, I’d be home recovering from laparoscopy right now, still having my initial pain plus a couple new puncture wounds. Instead, I’m on the gluten-free-banana-bread-crumbed path to healing.
I recently heard about a woman in her 70s who’d suffered from celiac disease all her life and was only diagnosed when she was on the verge of fatal malnutrition. It’s a sneaky shape-shifter of an illness, and I could have easily gone years without knowing I had it, getting worse all the while. As much as I hate having to make this HUUUUGE life change, I’m lucky to know I should. I only have that knowledge because I kept pushing and asking and, most importantly, participating in my own care. I’m not better or smarter than anyone walking around with an undiagnosed illness, but I’m maybe just a little more stubborn and cynical. And I encourage everyone to be the same.
Oh, and keep putting your gross personal medical issues on Facebook. A friend correctly identified my diagnosis based solely on status updates months before my doctor did. Although I still refuse to “Like” it.
So that happened.
That was something, huh?
Okay. I don’t really know what happened. I’m writing this at just-after-kid-bedtime-o’clock on election night 2012. But you all know by now, and by the time you read this, you’ll be full-to-bursting with everyone else’s opinions on the subject. So let’s just take a breather.
Here we are. Still.
I hope we are, anyway. Maybe by morning we’ll all be conscripted to Haha I Was Totally Socialist The Whole Time Brainwashing Camp, or raptured off to our own tax-sheltered planets. The stakes sure seemed that high, didn’t they? Truthfully, the returns I’m watching most closely aren’t on NPR’s Big Board, but on the Minneapolis NBC affiliate’s website (whassup, KARE-11!). That’s where the results of Minnesota’s vote on adding a constitutional definition of marriage is being tracked.
I have certain beliefs about the place I was born and mostly raised. One of these, and probably the deepest, is that Minnesota is a calm, reasonable, and therefore socially liberal place. What? Okay, so maybe being Minnesotan makes me connect those three things together more naturally than others might. Or so I always thought. Something has happened over the last ten years, something which can be best and most frighteningly be defined as The Bach-Omenn. The good ol’ Keillorized Democratic stronghold of my upbringing was infiltrated by tea-partiers, which doesn’t even make any sense. No one’s ever been served tea in a Lutheran church basement. My people are coffee-drinkers. But I could rationalize with the best of them. It was the recession, of course. Being broke makes people freak out a little bit. Circle the wagons. Get conservative in every way. Long for the safety of the past as embodied in the mentality of the ‘50s (1750s, apparently, but still). I hated it, but I got it.
But then it got ridiculous. Instead of just hunkering down and muttering their grievances like good Norwegians, some especially misguided troupe decided that the only way to make things less confusing was to officially define marriage. In the state constitution. I really can’t even begin rationalizing that one.
Maybe they were hoping no one would notice. I mean, state constitutions are somewhat obscure. Until they aren’t. Not many people care about fuel taxes or timber management, but when you take a 150-year-old document and use it to inject personal prejudices into a government that was created to serve every one of its citizens, you’re going to attract some attention. Even all the way down in Memphis, Tennessee.
In the course of writing this, the electoral college decision has been made, and I’m thrilled with the results. But I’ve still got my eye on kare11.com, watching the marriage amendment votes sneak closer and closer to an even break. I really didn’t think it would possibly be this close. I know that voters in rural areas can be more moralistic, but come on, surely mine isn’t the only family with a gay farmer in it.
I have a very clear idea of the place I consider home, and it torments me to think I could wake up tomorrow and find out that that idea is wrong. I haven’t used this space to tell anyone how to vote and it’s far too late to do so now, even if I wanted to. All I can do at this point is hope for the best and send my support to all my loved ones who have already been affected by this battle, both in Minnesota and in the three other states that put their personal lives on the ballot. No matter what the final votes are, the very proposal of these laws and amendments suggested, very publicly, that their families are wrong and their home lives are worth less than their straight neighbors’. I know what I’ll be celebrating tomorrow. Now I just hope everyone can celebrate with me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever wondered how a child of easygoing liberal intellectuals can rebel, let me explain it step by step:
Step 1: Convert to Mormonism.
There. That’s it.
I speak from experience, see. At the age of 16, I shocked my parents, friends, and Lutheran youth group by throwing in with my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At the time, my older sister was away at college, my dad had a job 2,000 miles from home, and my mom and I were both working as much as possible to keep us afloat. Looking back, it’s pretty easy for me to understand how I was drawn to Mormonism’s aggressively familial environment. The members were really nice, the community was protective, and the desserts were fantastic.
For a young adult as preternaturally risk-averse as I was, the restrictions of the religion didn’t bring me down. The only thing I found distressing, really, was how much the church distressed everyone else. I was told, repeatedly and earnestly, that Mormons weren’t “real” Christians. I was presented with anti-LDS literature and films. I was taken aside by a friend for a heart-to-heart chat discouraging my conversion. At prom.
The most dogmatic of my acquaintances informed me, sadly but sincerely, that I was following a false prophet and, unfortunately, would go to hell for it. All I could think to do was thank them for their concern and let them know that, personally, I thought their path was just fine and we’d all be okay. It never left my awareness, though, that a large group of people – possibly a majority – was actively and adamantly against me because of my faith. And that sucked.
My time in the LDS church pre-dated September 11, 2001, so I can’t speak for whether the increasing cultural awareness of Muslims, a group even further outside the sphere of Typical American Christian, has lessened animosity toward Mormons. Based on the fact that two GOP presidential hopefuls, including the official Republican nominee, are LDS, however, it seems that enough people have set aside old biases and united behind new ones. The fear of the foreign, the unfamiliar, the misunderstood – these are still present and driving factors, but are now directed toward an “other” more easily identified. Over the last two weeks, fearful rhetoric has dominated discussion of Islam, and the most prominent Mormon in America (sorry, Osmonds) has fanned those flames. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone steeped in generations of LDS history, which is not free from its own violent and shameful chapters, could be dismissive of the idiosyncrasies and sensitivities of other faiths, or ignore the way small groups of fundamentalist outliers can ruin things for everyone.
After recently spending a week in Qatar, my friend Carma received an email from a medical resident she had worked with there. In it, he apologized on behalf of all Muslims for what had occurred at the American consulate in Libya, explained how the attack violated the basic principles of Islam, and stated that he and many other Muslims had sent apologies directly to the family of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “I know you are not one of his family members,” he wrote, “but I made a commitment between me and myself to apologize [to] every single American whenever I get a chance to do that for that ignorant action.” This physician had no more a role in the consulate attack than my grandmother had in producing the film that sparked that day’s protests, but his faith moved him to action, to reconciliation, to peace.
I was officially baptized into the LDS church when I was 19. After becoming more aware and less comfortable with its doctrine, I left the fold three years later. I won’t claim that six years made me an expert on the practice or experience of being Mormon, but it did give me a peek at being a beleaguered religious minority. Reading the doctor’s email, I was reminded of all those times I felt I needed to explain or apologize for my beliefs, as well as the times I resisted the urge to say, “But you know, your stuff sounds kind of silly, too.”
Because taken at face value, it does seem silly, all of it, whatever beliefs we hold onto so tightly they make us dismiss common sense or the laws of nature, whether they’re simple superstitions or complex catechism. That silliness can go terribly, horribly wrong, or it can inspire amazing acts of kindness and compassion. Our country’s founders seemed to feel that, left to our own devices, we’d lean more toward the latter. Condemning insults and attacks against any faith isn’t apologizing for our values; it’s living up to them.
Oh, hey, would you look at that. I turned into my parents after all.
Our tent was up, the bedrolls were unrolled (okay, inflated), and the canvas chairs were arranged in a welcoming semi-circle. All across the mowed field serving as our campground, dozens of other women and girls were making the same preparations at their own sites. This overnight under the stars was a special reward for Girls Scouts who’d pre-registered for their annual membership, and the bustling female throng was filled with the energy of those who get things done early (as well as those who, like me, were lucky to have troop leaders who kept on top of such things).
And then I saw them, just a few yards away.
A man and a boy, really; probably a father and son. Okay, I thought, maybe they’re just dropping some girls off. But then they started unpacking their car and … wait, no. Really? They’re setting up a tent? By themselves? Not a girl in sight! The pastoral soundtrack playing in my head came to a needle-scratching halt.
Despite my initial unease, I tried not to judge. After all, the camp-out began at 5:00 on a Friday evening, with groups coming from as far away as Hernando, MS. Maybe that troop hadn’t been able to get enough female chaperones together, or some of the moms were held up at work. Surely they’d be coming along soon to help and … wait, no. Is that that boy’s mother? Standing over there with ear buds in? Oh hell no. Judging on.
I wasn’t sure who else noticed. I didn’t mention it to anyone, out of respect for our sense of community. I just silently hoped that the girls wouldn’t look over and wonder why males were not only in their midst, but taking on the bulk of one group’s work.
The unexpected guests left my mind as our girls gathered with troops from all over the area to spend the evening picnicking, singing songs, roasting marshmallows, and hunting spiders. It was a decidedly girlish night, for better (intricate rituals, unfettered energy) and worse (so. much. shrieking). The next day, we rallied after a brief night’s sleep with plans to try canoeing and archery. I saw the father and son in line for life jackets and tried to appreciate the fact that they were involved so positively in their daughter’s/sister’s life, and even let myself consider that these two weren’t crashers so much as game-changers, leading the charge toward a more balanced society.
This open-minded attitude lasted about thirty minutes. By then, my daughter and her friends were waiting their turn at the archery targets when I noticed the young man milling about. A girl of about 12 was talking to her troop about their plans to leave. “Packing up will be easy because we have a man to help us,” she said, leaning coyly against the boy. I felt like one of the arrows had flown astray and hit me in the gut. In that one moment was every reason that this should have been a girls-only trip. Not only did that camper instantly switch into flirt mode, which was a creepy thing to see in such an adamantly platonic setting, but worse, she threw her own abilities aside as secondary because she was “just a girl.”
Look, we had a good trip. The girls had a blast and the adults got to enjoy seeing them thrive in an unfamiliar environment. The presence of a couple Y chromosomes didn’t change that. It did, however, highlight the importance of why we were there in the first place. The entire point of Girl Scouts is to teach that there is no “just” before a girl. The organization’s mission is to “build girls of courage, confidence, and character.” Promoting self-sufficiency is a critical part of that mission. It would be nice if it weren’t this way, but until we’ve reached a time when gender equality is a reality, we have to make a specific effort to counter-act the biases toward male ability. Taking girls into suburban hayfields so they can set up their own tents (or at least see that their moms can set up tents) is a small but worthwhile endeavor toward that goal. Dads, brothers, uncles, cousins, papaws, stepfathers and friends all play vital roles in girls’ lives, but if they truly want to raise women who will be leaders of their own generation, sometimes the best step they can take is to just get out of the way.
The fall TV season, with all its color and splendor and ill-conceived new premises, is descending upon us. Unfortunately, I’ll be missing out on most of it, with only a few furtively DVR-ed programs caught before bedtime.
And for this, I blame Dan Schneider, White Station High School class of ‘82.
Dan did this. Maybe not all by himself, but he is a big part of the reason I can’t watch TV with my kids. And as an American, I resent having this precious TV-watching time taken away from me.
Don’t look at me like that. He knows what he did. By producing shows like Drake and Josh and iCarly, Schneider nourished the cable-for-kids phenomenon until it became an amorphous blob of blindingly-colored sets, parentless pre-teens, and merchandisable wardrobes that are all but unwatchable to anyone with a driver’s license. If you think I’m overstating his influence, please note that he was called “the Norman Lear of children's television” in the dang New York Times. Schneider has made a nice profit on the theory that kids' programming should be relentlessly positive and unchallenging, and while that’s not so bad in a 30-minute segment or two, he and his ilk have now taken over multiple outlets, providing non-stop shows for the 6-to-12 set that are virtually indistinguishable from the Kidz Bop CD commercials littered in between.
If it were only a few cable channels that were affected, I might be able to live with this shift. But now, thanks to the idea Schneider has promulgated that kids’ TV is an entirely separate entity, the rest of television has gone in a decidedly child-unfriendly direction. There’s really no safe zone in the evening line-up anymore. Even if I turn on something as relatively benign as Modern Family, one of the few "domestic" comedies in prime-time, there’s still a good shot I’ll be awkwardly hoping my kids don’t catch the sub-plot about a father’s panic that his daughter’s lost her virginity.
“The following program contains subject matter that may be inappropriate for some viewers. Parental discretion advised.”
If you see these words on your television today, you instantly scan the room to make sure no one under the age of 13 is about to see what’s coming, because there’s a good chance it’s a home video of a crossbow accident or a T-and-A-enhanced love scene or Louis C.K. talking about … well, anything. The standard of appropriateness has been dropped so low that if something is under it, you certainly don’t want kids crawling around down there.
But back in the innocent 1980s, a parental warning meant that this was A Very Special Episode of a normally family-friendly show, one that would spark conversation with an uncharacteristically heavy theme. In this way, everything from drug use to child abuse was broached in what were, I admit, somewhat simplistic and candy-coated ways (oh, alcoholic-uncle Tom Hanks, put down the vanilla extract!), but to a kid at the time, still came through as powerful. Just say “Dudley in the basement” to a Gen X-er and you’ll witness an involuntary shudder.
Maybe there’d even be an episode about losing one’s virginity (such as, say, the ninth season Facts of Life episode called “Natalie,” which my mental-YouTube called up without a glitch), but by handling the topic with a little gravity, young viewers were made to understand that this was an Issue, not a punchline. And it wasn’t just sit-coms crossing these lines. I swear to you that I learned about sex because I came to my mom with questions after watching an episode of Fat Albert about STDs.
I know, I know. Kids are more worldly than ever before, but I still think they deserve to be eased into some topics. The complete dichotomy between the squeaky-clean worlds of tween fantasy and the overtly adult content of mainstream networks is jarring. The irony is that Dan Schneider’s career started on a show like Head of the Class, one of the last youth-ensemble sit-coms that wasn’t intended for a youth-only audience, one where the lead adult was a fully-formed character and not just a blundering comic foil. A show about gifted kids who saw both sides of the “being different” coin, not just the one with EVERYBODY LOOK AT ME AND MY FABULOUS HAIR engraved on it.
Being a kid isn’t easy. It’s weird and confusing. Television should be an escape, of course, but it has the potential to be a guide, too. Not just for kids, but for adults trying to figure out how to have some of those hard conversations. Or, in some cases, any conversations at all. Kid-friendly TV shouldn’t replace parents, so it sure would be nice if it didn’t repel them from the room, either.
My people aren’t much for overarching advice or general proclamations, but my father has a saying that has always stuck with me: “People live down to your expectations.”
Perhaps that sounds a bit negative, and for my optimistic dad it borders on gloomy, but the point is valid: Set the bar really high, because even the most well-intentioned will usually do the least that’s required of them. It’s just how we work.
I thought of this advice when I heard about Manassas High School’s new graduation policy, which seems at first glance to be beyond lofty and approaching ludicrous. As reported by the Commercial Appeal, Principal James Griffin has decreed that all seniors must have 10 college acceptance letters as a condition to graduate. Not send in 10 applications, not visit 10 campuses — acceptance at 10 institutions of higher learning is required for a high school diploma. Whether this is an enforceable policy or just a well-publicized benchmark is somewhat unclear, but either way, these students have been given a set of expectations above even their highest achieving and most privileged peers. Especially considering Manassas’ tandem goal of a 100 percent graduation rate.
Manassas High School is best known for its football team, honored in the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. Their story is inspirational, and I’m sure the morale it infused into this small, struggling school was immeasurable, but as a former Mathlete, I’m much more moved by a principal and faculty committed to every student than a coach and community focused on just a few.
But I have to admit, my initial response to the new requirement was, “Heck, I didn’t get into 10 colleges.” But then again, no one expected me to. I didn’t even mail 10 applications. Part of the reason for that was the cost of applying — somewhere between $25 and $60 a pop, if I recall correctly, and it looks like about 25 percent higher now. It also took a lot of time, considering that no two applications seemed to have the same essay prompts and it was hard to fit in the extra homework. I was already taking a rigorous schedule of classes that were specifically designed to get me into college and working a part-time job that I hoped would help pay for it. Even as a suburban kid in a middle-weight recession, I would have found 10 acceptance letters to be an overwhelming demand.
And that’s where Manassas is doing it right. They have allotted school time for students to work on applications, and they’ve made deals with a growing number of colleges and universities to waive application fees for students demonstrating need. They’re not only setting high expectations over there, they’re eliminating excuses. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of teenagers, that’s a critical first step.
You may wonder what’s being pushed off the plate to allow for this academic sideline, but the odds are, probably nothing. With high schools making the graduation rate-inducing shift toward seven different class periods each semester but fewer staff available to teach electives, many Memphis seniors find themselves out of classes by their final year and end up shuffled into study halls or working as teachers’ assistants to fill the time. The Manassas model of using a class period for college preparation is therefore double-genius. It not only fills a slot in their schedules, it also gives students significant time and support to work toward this goal.
Will every senior make this target? Maybe not. I can’t imagine that in any group of 120 12th graders, there aren’t at least a few who lack either the ability or the give-a-damn to do so. But among the class as a whole, what amazing things will happen to those who are stretching themselves so far past what anyone had previously asked of them? What scholarships will be presented, what mentors will be discovered, what doors will open wider?
Maybe I’m not convinced all of those Manassas seniors will get into 10 colleges each. But I’m sure going to expect them to.
When I first moved to Memphis, the new pollen and unfamiliar ground cover assaulted my sinuses. Norwegians, it turns out, were never intended to encounter Bermuda grass. Mosquitoes, which I thought I was perfectly acclimated to from my childhood in Minnesota, raised dollar-sized welts on my skin. Not silver dollars — dollar bills. For most of my first few weeks in town, my eyes burned and my throat stung. Well, great, I thought. I’m allergic to Memphis.
It was a logical conclusion, really. I’d lived in four different states by my 18th birthday, but had always clung to the shores of at least one Great Lake. The flora of the Midwest was part of my DNA, just like introversion and voting Democrat. It made sense that I’d be thrown for an immunological loop by the riot of cottonwood and crepe myrtle and seersucker.
Strangely, though, my Memphis-born neighbors seemed to be just as afflicted. They spent four months out of every year with the same complaints, enjoying no benefit from a lifetime of exposure. Seasonal bouts of misery were just accepted as a fact of life. There was just something subtly hostile floating around and everyone had learned to live with it.
In the 13 years since I made the move south, however, it seems my fellow Memphians have grown a little less likely to just sit back and take the worst of what our city has to offer. And it’s not just the pollen count they’re resisting. Maybe it started about the time the Center for Southern Folklore got kicked off Beale Street and replaced by a franchise daiquiri bar, but like the Mississippi creeping up Riverfront Drive, the pride in Memphis began stubbornly to rise.
Over the next few days, two inaugural events will highlight both the joy and impatience that Memphis has historically struggled to channel. The first-ever DIY local holiday, 901 Day, will be held on, you guessed it, 9/01. A celebration of anything Memphians want to celebrate about our city, the day is actually a collection of various events taking place all over town, from breakfast at the Memphis Botanic Garden to a dance party at Mollie Fontaine’s with everything from barn raisings to Bloody Mary tailgates in between, and anyone wanting to add their own doings to the mix is welcome to have at it. Personally, I swell a little at the mere idea of the day, let alone all of the great stuff that's planned. I hope it’s a raging success and brings as much civic delight as Justin Timberlake serving barbecue from a food truck. (Wait, surely it’s not too late to hook that up?)
On the other end of the celebratory spectrum, a group of Memphians and other Mid-Southerners is getting together on Monday, September 3rd — that would be Labor Day — to take part in the Improving Birth National Rally for Change at Baptist Memorial Hospital. As a constant low-ranker on lists of infant mortality, an indicator that implicates the whole of pregnancy, labor, and post-partum care, Memphis has a long way to go to get its maternal maintenance up to the high bar we tout for other health services. This rally hopes to raise awareness of the disparities between our traditional standards and current evidence-based practices and call for equal access to quality care. That in itself is a microcosm of many Memphis issues, and I see it as a valiant step in questioning a heavy regional reliance on The Way It’s Always Been Done.
These two events epitomize the ways I’ve seen Memphis change over the past decade. On one dry-rub-dusted hand, we’re finally appreciating the things that make us unique and valuable, and on the other hand, we’re recognizing the things we need to improve and — here’s the really exciting part — actually taking steps to improve them.
And yes, I said we. I’m constantly reminded of my outsider status in this town, but I’ve also grafted myself into its culture in ways I never expected. Nearly my entire adult life has been spent in Memphis and I have no imminent plans to leave. My two children were born here. I say “y’all” like it’s my job and get teased for my accent when I go back north. I’m one of thousands of Memphians who came here from other places and made the choice to stay. We’re the counterpoint to the natives who can’t help feeling it’s got to be better somewhere else. But between both groups, the city keeps growing into the modern version of itself, the small-townish big city with heart that still outpaces its self-esteem.
It’s that time of year again, and I woke up this morning with a sore throat and stuffy nose, but now I just blame the trees. Memphis has always made me feel welcome — sometimes out-of-place, but welcome anyway. I no longer feel like my body’s rejecting the city. I feel like I’m at home here. I feel like, more and more, we all are.
It must be something in the air.