Thursday, February 25, 2010

Storyteller from Iuka

Rheta Grimsley Johnson on Memphis, Arlo and Janis, Lewis Grizzard, and love.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Serve no wine before its time, and the same goes for memoirs.

Everyone may have a story but not necessarily a story that the rest of us want to hear. The good ones have perspective, emotional highs and lows, sharp writing, strange places, revealing glimpses of famous people, and humor.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is known to many Memphians as the author of a book about Cajun Country and a biography of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz as well as a former columnist and award-winning reporter for The Commercial Appeal.

Now she has written a memoir called Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, which comes out next week. It's a good one.

After writing thousands of columns and driving a million miles to write about other people, she has earned memoirist's rights. We meet her ex-husband Jimmy Johnson, the creator of the comic strip "Arlo and Janis"; the late humorist Lewis Grizzard and his fans at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who hated Johnson; and an author who, by her own description, has always been harder on herself than anyone else could be.

This book probably would never have been written but for a tragedy. Enchanted Evening Barbie (the doll was on many a Christmas wish list in 1964) started out as a funny, upbeat Christmas story but took a different turn after Johnson's husband, Don Grierson, died suddenly last March. The blues came down hard, leaving her heartbroken and struggling to get out of bed.

Never one to embrace social media or modern convenience — she uses a rotary-dial telephone and burns wood in a potbellied stove — she pretty much went off the grid for several months, hunkered down in her little farm house and "Le Jardin" at the end of a dirt road in a hollow near Pickwick Lake. She was a widow with three sad dogs, six acres, a second house in Louisiana with a tangled mortgage, a publishing contract to fulfill, almost no income, and a weekly column to write.

What once seemed like an unbearable burden became instead her salvation. She forced herself to sit down at her computer and write, and after a while the words started flowing. Not maudlin, not self-pitying, but with the stab of reality and the true pulse of life, like the songs by her musical favorites Hank Williams and Lucinda Williams.

She writes about her childhood in Montgomery, Alabama, college boyfriends at Auburn, a bittersweet marriage to Johnson (she reveals that she may look like Janis but is a lot more like Arlo), the time Sonny Bono called to ask her why she hated him, and the well-paid hell of succeeding Grizzard. Be careful what you wish for.

Grizzard was a curmudgeonly, chauvinistic, and wildly popular professional Southerner. One of his books is titled Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself. Resented by Grizzard's friends at the paper and all but forced out of her gig in Atlanta, Johnson titles one of her chapters "Grizzard Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself."

"My second column was about a gay country music singer from Tupelo," she writes. "That was all it took. Letters arrived by the bushel, angry letters, most of them telling me to go back to Mississippi, do not collect $200."

It's one of the only instances of score settling in a book that, like a country song, has episodes of Momma, friendship, and violence but also leaves some things unsaid.

Her last assignment in Atlanta was writing cutlines for a photo spread on a county fair. That's cub reporter stuff. She got the message, did the job, quit, and drove to Iuka and Fishtrap Hollow. I met her there a couple of weeks ago to swap a piece of Alaskan salmon for some CDs. We ate lunch with Frank and Eddie Thomas, the brothers from Iuka who produced the bluesy four-CD set Angels on the Backroads. The Mississippi Delta has nothing on Iuka when it comes to contemporary literary and musical talent.

Don Grierson was handy with tools and built a raised bridge across the creek next to the house. As a 2008 Christmas gift, the Thomas brothers hand-stamped a brass plaque for it with his name. They screwed it onto the bridge at his memorial service, which featured all Hank Williams all the time. The acoustics are very good in a hollow, and the songs of loneliness and tears, Rheta writes, filled the spring air "so we did not have to."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Going Rogue

A "conversation" about reinventing government begs the question.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 18, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Having a "conversation" with Shelby County residents about consolidation is like having a conversation with your spouse or significant other about your relationship.

You can talk yourself into believing you're being grown up and tactful, but sooner or later — probably sooner — you are going to be in deep trouble.

Might as well come right out and say, "Does this new dress make me look fat?" or "You know, that marriage therapist on Oprah said some interesting things" or "I'm thinking of hiking the Appalachian Trail to clear my head."

All of your delicacy is for naught. Within three milliseconds, the response will be, "So what's your point?" In short order you are busted, just like Memphis and consolidation proponents, whoever they are, are going to be busted.

I have no hard position on the merits of consolidating city and county governments. As a reporter, I've read at least 100 stories and columns about it in the last 25 years. Sometimes on certain issues, there is something to be said for Greater Memphis speaking with one voice. If the One Great Leader of consolidated government were someone on the order of FedEx founder Fred Smith, it would be one thing. But if it were someone on the order of Willie Herenton, it would be another thing. As for tax fairness, that depends on where you happen to be standing when the deal is done.

Anyone with an ounce of civic and political awareness knows this. And that is why the niceties of the "conversation" about reinventing government will crash headlong into the realities of "What's in it for me?" if and when it comes to a vote this year.

I thought of this last week when I was interviewing Bill Rhodes, the chief executive of AutoZone, for a story in one of our sister publications. He's a good story if you're trying to sell the positives of Memphis. In addition to running a Fortune 500 company, Rhodes, a 44-year-old Craigmont High School graduate, is chairman of the board of Memphis Tomorrow, the top-tier leadership "do tank" that has a vested interest in the conversation about consolidation. On the morning of our interview, however, political farce in Memphis and Shelby County was in full flower on the front page of The Commercial Appeal. Politicians were going rogue faster than Sarah Palin can say "hopey-changey thing."

Interim county mayor Joe Ford was "pissed off" about something and might or might not decide to run. County commissioner Mike Ritz took it upon himself to write a civil rights complaint to the Justice Department and give state government an out on the Med. County commissioner and constitutional law professor Steve Mulroy was elevating the demolished Zippin Pippin roller coaster to the importance of Marbury v. Madison.

Two observations are relevant to the consolidation conversation. One, if you were visiting Memphis last week and saw these stories you might wonder if this place had anything better to do. Two, for some people, "One Memphis" isn't going to trump political self-interest and a job.

If consolidation has any prospects in a referendum, then sooner or later backers are going to have to drop their on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand facade, get off the high road, and engage in retail politics. The resistance of entrenched county politicians could play in their favor with voters tired of the same-old, same-old. Getting people to vote for higher taxes — the likely impact of consolidation on county residents — could be just short of miraculous, but having a conversation isn't going to move the ball.

Maybe proponents don't want to be identified, or don't want to disturb a sleeping giant, or are planting a thousand seeds that will bloom in the summer. Or maybe there is no plan.

Americans enjoy a good show. Coy is out; in-your-face is in. Nothing is off limits in public conversation any more. Every time I turned on the TV last week, Jenny Sanford was outing her husband, the governor of South Carolina, as a cheap creep. Liberals were ripping into Palin and the Tea Party and conservatives were ripping into Obama. Our national town hall meeting runs on charismatic figures, plain talk, and bold positions — the simpler the better.

Make them laugh, make them cry, make them mad, and just stir them up was sound political advice when Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King's Men 70 years ago, and it's good advice today.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Primer on Budgeting

With other game changers taboo, property tax hike is likely.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The city of Memphis, Shelby County, and Tennessee state government are all facing a budget crisis. Solving it is going to be difficult because so many options are off the table.

It's tempting to turn away from such matters. It's complicated. It's overblown. It will resolve itself. It's out of my hands. But a government budget has a lot in common with a personal budget or a household budget. Here are the pros and cons of some options:

Blame someone, such as your roommate, spouse, or former mayor Willie Herenton. Momentarily satisfying but ineffective and ignores certain facts. In his first mayoral term, way back in 1992, Herenton proposed merging city and county government by having Memphis government disappear. In his second term he took a different tack called the Formula For Fairness. In his fourth term he advocated shifting school funding to Shelby County. In his fifth term he took himself out of the picture.

Nickel and dime your way to prosperity. Sweeping the change off your dresser, like the $50 annual wheel tax in Shelby County, doesn't raise big bucks.

Don't pay your bills. Thousands of Shelby County residents have walked away from a home mortgage. The owner's problem becomes the bank's problem which becomes government's problem.

Tap your savings. Known as "reserves" in government lingo, the city of Memphis and the school board and the state have already done this. The downside is higher credit costs and risk.

Tax sinners. Tennessee already has a state lottery and has recently raised taxes on tobacco and alcohol.

Sell the family jewels and other assets. Again, the former Memphis mayor proposed selling parks and even suggested wringing more money out of Memphis Light, Gas & Water, for which he was roundly criticized.

Go after deadbeats. The city and county collect delinquent taxes in-house and via a contract with an outside firm.

Ask your relatives. "Uncle" Governor Phil Bredesen says no.

Be less generous. Memphis and Shelby County grant more tax freezes than everyone else in the state combined. The upside is jobs and downtown development. The downside is that a freeze of 10 or 15 years becomes an entitlement and the properties never go back on the tax rolls. In a city that relies on property taxes for revenue, this is huge. Most of the downtown anchors are hospitals, public buildings, or businesses with a tax freeze.

Raise the sales tax. Big money because it's broad-based. But, at 7 percent, Tennessee already has the second highest rate in the country, and local governments can add another 2.75 percent. Tennessee is one of only 14 states that taxes food.

Impose a state tax on earned income. Big money, broad base. Tennessee is one of nine states without such a tax. The last governor who proposed it, Don Sundquist, was all but ridden out of Nashville on a rail.

Impose a Memphis payroll tax. Birmingham, Louisville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati do it. A 2004 study in Memphis said a 1 percent tax, coupled with a property tax rate reduction, would raise $180 million because it hits a bigger target. The proposal was trounced at the urging of the chamber of commerce.

Consolidate governments. The government equivalent of a couple cutting up some of their credit cards. The "conversation" is under way, but separate votes will be taken in Memphis and in Shelby County outside of Memphis. Possible long-term benefits, but even backers admit there are no short-term savings.

Cut major expenses. Only big cuts mean big savings. That would be schools and police and fire. Courts have upheld the city of Memphis obligation to fund schools. Closing schools is politically unpopular; there are more schools and employees today than there were five years ago when the system had 10,000 more students. Cutting cops and closing fire stations is even more unpopular.

Raise property taxes. Big money, and broadly based, with the notable exception of all the nonprofits, delinquents, foreclosures, and tax freezes. Last year's reappraisal raised taxes by raising home values for thousands of homeowners despite the recession.

With other potential game changers off the table, a property tax increase to cover, if nothing else, the shortfall for Memphis City Schools is likely. Like the sales tax, the mechanism is already in place. The problem is that Memphis already has the highest property taxes in the state, and homeowners who have stayed inside the city and paid their bills will take the hit.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Democrat Panties"

Amen and amen: Sister Myotis is taking her act to New York.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 4, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Sister Myotis, whose views on thongs and "good Christian panties" are a Memphis theatrical hit and a YouTube sensation, is headed for New York.

The portly founder and president of "the Honeybee's Ladies Auxiliary at the 80,000-member Good Tidings Apostolic Holiness Christian Fellowship of Saints" aims to plant a sleeper cell of like-minded Southern ladies in the Big Apple. As usual, she'll be joined onstage with Voices of the South partners Velma Needlemeyer (Todd Berry) and Ima Lone (Jenny Odle Madden) under the direction of Jerre Dye in a 22-performance run of Sister Myotis's Bible Camp, which opens June 11th and closes on the Fourth of July.

Sister Myotis' four-minute bit on thongs, in which she passes out "Democrat panties with a godly cotton panel" to thong-wearers in the audience, has been viewed 2,531,000 times on YouTube since it was posted in 2008. Watch it. It's hilarious. Amen.

There's just one problem. "She" is Memphian Steve Swift, a 40-year-old actor working to make ends meet at the Memphis museums system. Needless to say, he does not have the backing of a mega-church. Voices of the South is a shoestring operation, much like the 59-seat off-Broadway Abingdon Theater where the play will run.

Sister Myotis and her friends need a little help. That's where you come in. Memphis is on a nice little creative roll these days, with Memphis: The Musical playing on Broadway, local restaurants featured on the Food Channel, and indie bars written up in the Travel section of The New York Times last week. Swift & Co. need cash or in-kind donations for travel expenses, living expenses, and lodging in New York. Or, Swift says, "We will take your love and support."

He made a low-key appeal last weekend at First Congregational Church before the performance of J&K's Self-Rising Cabaret featuring Madden and the equally talented Kim Justis. He never went into his Sister Myotis character, even when the crowd said "Amen." Pros don't step on each other's lines or steal the spotlight.

If Swift had a penny for every time the thong video has been watched he'd have more than $25,000, which would make this appeal unnecessary. Of course, that's not how "the Interweb," as Sister Myotis calls it, works. All he's gotten from YouTube, which is owned by Google, which is worth a zillion dollars, is a message full of legal boilerplate about "monetized video" in which he would basically give away all his rights.

Swift grew up in a Pentecostal family in Jackson, Tennessee. He went to college at the University of Memphis but almost dropped out because he was afraid of a required course in public speaking. Instead he took Oral Interpretation of Literature, where you could read aloud a poem or short story. He found out he could do that well, and he took an acting class and majored in theater. After college, he took a class on gender in performance in London. Sister Myotis — the name is a genus of bats and was chosen for its sound and uniqueness — debuted as a bit part in a Christmas play in 2002.

"I am a difficult look to cast," says Swift, who is trying to lose weight before going to New York. "For years I bemoaned the fact that I did not drop out of school and move to New York or California. But now I realize that this work I have done here I never would have been able to do in New York."

Sister Myotis was an instant hit, but Swift has modified her character and dialect for seven years. She is about "everything that is not important about church" and is often invited to perform at churches. About one-fourth of her audiences think she really is a woman. Swift will sometimes greet elderly female patrons in character after a show and talk about breasts or weight problems.

The thong video ("about the tamest thing we do") is especially big in Georgia and Texas but has been viewed in Guantanamo.

"I had that video for a year or two before posting it," Swift says. "The moment I let go of it it just kind of took off."

If you've ever watched it, thought of mixing ambrosia with a vibrator, or worn Democrat panties, it's time to buck up. Send $1 to Voices of the South, P.O. Box 11222, Memphis, 38111. Hell, send them $5 or $10. A sleeper cell of Honeybees in New York City could be just what this country needs.

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