Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Quiet Days of Auld Lang Syne

I find myself this week at the end of another year, another decade.

It’s the time of year, these days between Christmas and the new year that there is a general melancholy and wistfulness in the air, when sentimentality is the order of the day. This feeling stems from those purgatorial days as a kid that I loathed, when family would pack their things to return home, leaving me in a wake of torn red paper, tattered bows and a discarded tree at the curb. It was a return to real life that was like a wintry cold slap in the face.

I’m not one to greet January making resolutions for the new year as the clock ticks out. There will be no list beginning with the hopeful and specific “lose weight” and ending with the lazy and blasĂ© “be a better person,” though both would be on such a list at any time of the year.

Rather than look ahead, this is the time I tend to look back. Not necessarily at 2009 or at the decade it ends, not at any set frame of days, weeks and months, but simply backward. Thoughts, conversations, actions, dreams, hopes, mistakes, music, friends, stories, fears, loves, hates … it’s all in there, everyone and everything that has come to make me who I am over the course of my four decades.

These are days when I look out the window to see the trees sketched in black against a bright blue winter sky while reflecting on the sun-dappled leaves of spring, and I carry around Somerset Maugham’s “The Summing Up” and my old friend Jim’s, creased and coffee-stained copy of Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” pilfered and treasured after so many moves together so many years ago. I carry them from room to room the way Franny carries her volumes and I recite passages to myself the way she repeats the Jesus Prayer over and over to herself. It’s a way for me to feel close to the past, to old friends and to become reacquainted with the language.

There is no list for the upcoming year, but there is an outline, a vague notion with Roman numerals and bits and pieces of alphabet, of what the year ahead might bring. Something I’ve been working on for the past year should be finished in 2010. I’m not saying it will be published (any increase in optimism would be further down a list, were there to be such a list), but I will finish it if only because I’ve become intimate with its characters and their stories, and I need to know how and where they all end up, how they fare from the troubles I’ve given to them and the obstacles I’ve selfishly placed in their way.

Losing weight is in the outline as well, though as a subset of exercising to better manage stress and patience levels. Spending more time – one on one – with the kids, cooking more, travel and reading more and better are all in the outline to varying degrees. Spending less time online is in this ephemeral plan of the new year, slipping off the grid for days at a time could help with a boost in productivity being the idea. Even becoming a better person is there, buried, possibly not even written and, if so, lightly in soft lead pencil because it’s something that’s been worked on for so many years to some success and some failure.

There are people in my life who make it possible for me to make a living, both through words of encouragement and financially since it isn’t much of a living, really, at something I love. Their willingness to read, to consider and to impart criticism, and then to understand when I skulk off and pout due to that criticism, is invaluable. Part of being a better person, a subset of that subset, is making sure they know that I do appreciate it. A kind of everyday, ongoing and informal dedication page.

Another wish for the new year is that you will all stick around, pass me around and share my thoughts and family with each other. Stop in any time, both literally and figuratively, here, in the newspaper or wherever I may end up. We’ve left the door open, the welcome mat in place and a cold drink waiting on the bar.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Wishing for a bright and happy New Year from my family to yours.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas morning

We all settled on the couch last night for our annual Christmas Eve viewing of It's a Wonderful Life. The kids, older now by a year, seemed to grasp a little more of what was going on than in years previous, though there were still inane, constant questions such as "Who's he?" every time George Bailey appeared on screen.

As the movie wound down, however, and George began his frantic search through Pottersville for Martini, his mother, Mary and, ultimately, Clarence, the kids quieted down. They became rapt with attention at the drama unfolding on the screen and there even appeared to be a collective sigh of relief when George's mouth started bleeding again, ZuZu's petals reappeared, the bank examiner was found to be waiting at home and Uncle Billy finally came through the door with a big basket full of cash.

Whether the kids understood the message or not, I'm not sure, but they were at least focused enough on the outcome to not notice their father sitting in the dark with only the glow of the tree lights to spotlight that he, once again, couldn't keep it together when Harry Bailey toasts his brother.

I say "we all" settled in but, actually, JP didn't stick around long. As he is wont to do, he announced that he was really sleepy and asked if he had to stay for the movie. I told him to go to bed whenever he was ready, so he trotted off with visions of sugarplums and root beer in his head ... only to announce he was still awake several hours later.

Unable to sleep, and fidgety with excitement, it seems he lay in bed for hours imagining the possibilities. Sleeplessness at night is so foreign a concept to JP that it actually scared him when he wasn't able to drift off. He kept C awake with his worry and C, being the alternate parent he is, came in to let us know.

Kristy and I, of course, were busy as elves.

So, for the first time in 11 years as parents, we were disturbed while performing our Santa Claus duties. This was never a problem for all those Christmases we spent in a 1,200 square foot house. No, we had to move to one three times that size to have these kids up and wandering around looking for us at 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

I think the real problem was that JP knew there was a Wii in the house. Of course he hadn't seen it, wrapped and under the tree since his Nonna sent it to him, but he could sense it. He could smell that game console over the Christmas cookie aroma, through the wrapping paper and from two rooms away. He vibrated with the knowledge that something in the aura of the house had changed and it kept him awake, the Miis quickly outnumbering and overpowering the sugarplums for real estate in his electronically-wired mind.

So, that's right, the kids got a Wii this morning. For those of you who know us, you know how big that is. You understand why JP's head exploded when the paper came off, leaving bits of wishfulness and hopefulness that had been harbored there for so long all over the walls, the decorated tree and my bathrobe. Life, as the kids know it, is complete. To show just how surprised they were, they named their Wii console, when the opportunity was given to do so, Miracle.




Welcome to the family, Miracle.

And thank you, Nonna, from your Memphis grandchildren.

My column in yesterday's Commercial Appeal was all about managing expectations and I think we did a pretty good job of that this year. Our kids wanted a lot, we told them there was no way they'd get it all, they expected less and then got more than they ever could have imagined.

Another holiday season in the bag. Merry Christmas, everyone.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

This Christmas, I give you the gift of irony. In the vein of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," I submit a video of 3-year-old GK admonishing everyone else to be good and nice, to not pout or cry. As if she knew anything about any of that, for goodness sake.

Merry Christmas from my family to yours.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Security

Do you remember the feeling as a child of being carried to your bed by a parent? Of a dreamlike hovering between sleep and wakefulness from the car or sofa, down the hall and into the comfort of your own sheets where the familiarity of smell and texture on your cheek from your very own pillow welcomed you? The arms that carried you there held you close, refusing to let you fall or wake completely as the gentle rocking of forward motion made the short, seconds-long trip feel like an ocean voyage on a ship with sails of flannel or silk, depending on its port of origin.

The only feeling I’ve found to duplicate that calm, that sense of security and closeness, is in carrying my own children to their beds. Hearing the soft, childish snoring, the feel of warm breath against my cheek as I hold them tight, though not so tight as to wake them, is the greatest gift I could ask for this time of the year.

With all the stresses of the season, of money and loss of time, work and uncertainty as a new year and decade approach, it is these short walks, with everything that is important to me in my arms, that remind me to slow down and appreciate the voyage.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Devon Hollahan

This blog is funny. Or, it's supposed to be funny. But some things aren't so funny and should still be brought to you anyway.

Devon Hollahan is, through a patchwork of marriage and genetics, a relative of mine. I'm not going to pretend that we're close, the fact is I've never met the man. But I know the Hollahans of Memphis, and my aunt Jeannie Hollahan knows the Hollahans of Arizona, of which Devon is one. It's a tight-knit clan, the Hollahans, and they need help.

Devon Hollahan is a 22-year-old English teacher living in Prague. On November 21, he and a friend went to Frankfurt, Germany, to see a band play and relax for the weekend. After the show, his friend stopped to ask directions and when he turned around Devon was gone. He hasn't been seen or heard from since.

His family, these Hollahans, have gone to work. His father and aunt have been in Frankfurt and put together an army legions strong, fanning out across the city with flyers, questions, descriptions and hope. Social media has proven to have a productive use, more helpful than for simply putting pictures of your cat or favorite recipe for bean dip on the internet. A Facebook page has sprung up as has a video about Devon that they hope will go viral. I'm not even sure what that means, but I'll link to all of that below. E-mail updates from the family are circulated continuously around the world.

I don't know Devon personally, but we are connected, each more closely at either end of our familial spectrum, and I am a father. I can't imagine anything more horrible than losing a child and having so many questions unanswered. We hope Devon will be found, that there will be closure and that so many of those questions will provide answers.

If you pray, please mention Devon. If you happen to be in Germany, keep your eyes and ears open. And if you have a computer on your desk, or in your pocket, please help get the word out.

Thank you.



Monday, November 30, 2009

Handy GK

We moved out of crime-free Midtown last February to East Memphis only to have stuff stolen from us. Sometime recently, I can't say when for sure, some piece of human excrement came into our backyard and stole my toolbox and a socket set from the storage room attached to the carport. We're in and out of the storage room a lot so, granted, it gets left unlocked from time to time, yet it is still very much on our private property.

Worthless people who steal from people who purchase things make me angry. A stranger in my yard so close to where my family sleeps makes me angry. And then, this evening, GK and I were horsing around and I was watching her do "somer-flips" on the bed when she decided she wanted to watch something on TV. I flipped around On Demand and she chose, emphatically, Handy Manny.

She never watches Handy Manny, so why this sudden interest in tools? And is her interest only in anthropomorphic tools, or is it all tools, even the heavy kind made of cold-forged steel and, decidedly, mine? Perhaps I've been cursing the public at large when, in fact, the crime was internal.

But where would a 3-year-old hide a toolbox? How would she even get to the pawn shop without my knowledge and help? What did she do with the money from selling my tools and could I borrow $20?

Internal or external, friend or foe, we will all keep the storage room door locked from now on and keep a vigilant eye on who may be around. We will stay on our toes and protect what is ours. And, God willing, we will never, ever have to watch Handy Manny again.

==============

On another note, GK and I were playing later on in the evening when I impressed her with a bit of magic. This is important because GK has recently done some retooling of her Favorite People List and my name has dropped dramatically. I'm lucky to even be on the list. I'm somewhere just below whoever stole my tools (so she says).

We were playing with a Zippo lighter (that's normal, right?) and I made it disappear ... magic! ... and then reappear in her ear. She was transfixed, awed and on the cloudy edge of that fantasy world where anything is possible if you only believe.

She spent the next five minutes trying to cram that lighter into my ear. And I let her because I'm her father, I can do anything and because I'm better than whoever stole the toolbox from our storage room (so she says).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Once again we at Urf! have joined the great migration, packing everyone up and heading east to my grandparents’ house. We travel heavily with luggage, toys, computer, stroller and ravioli.

Travel at Thanksgiving is a tradition begun … well, a long time ago with the Pilgrims, a people who came to this country in pursuit of a decent homemade stuffing recipe. As brave and self-reliant as those people were, all they really did was take a sailing trip across an ocean – they even call it a pond – to get here. They never sat still in an unmoving Mazda van with four kids and a Quarter Pounder With Cheese pressing on the lower intestine on I-20 in Atlanta as they waited for cars to merge on and off of the 285 bypass. You want rugged? Try it with an iPod that won’t transmit clearly to your car’s FM receiver.

But we made it, as you’ll read one day in the history books. We arrived as those early settlers did, though bearing a cranky 3-year-old instead of smallpox. We were greeted by the natives here with arms wide open, food, wine and a decent internet connection so I can keep in touch with all you turkeys on the Facebook.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and I was lucky enough again this year to be able to write my column, Because I Said So, in The Commercial Appeal for today. It’s all about Thanksgiving and travel and Pilgrims, but I didn’t come up with the smallpox bit until after deadline, so I wanted to put it in here.

I hope you’ll read and I hope you have a wonderful holiday, from my family to yours.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Overheard

C has been studying Greek mythology at school.

C: Dionysus is the god of wine.
S: Of what?
C: Wine, as in 'mom and dad drink it.'

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meat and pudding

A couple of things ...

Last evening I was yelling at S in the dining room to stop doing ... whatever it was she was doing, or to start doing what she should have been or ... something, as I was heading out to the patio to grill dinner. When I went through the living room, still shouting back at S, with a gallon-size Zip-Loc bag full of pork chops and marinade, JP looked up and screamed, "Aahhhhh! He killed S!"

Later, and on another food note, S was asking for dessert (she was not, in fact, in that Zip-Loc bag) and, as is typical, her mother told her that she could have some if she could get whatever it was she wanted for herself. Some time after that, Kristy was in the kitchen to get the last of the banana pudding that Heather had made and brought over for the ravioli feast last Sunday.

The pudding was gone.

"Who ate the last of the banana pudding!" she shouted, to which S replied, sardonically, "You said I could have dessert if I could get it myself."

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Halloween Treat

Zeus, a zombie cheerleader and a mad scientist walk into a bar ...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

S is for Stinky

I spend a lot of time and vocabulary defending the Memphis City School system, both here and in my column. But last night, S came running into the room and asked us if "stinky" is a word. It went like this:

S: Is stinky a word?
Us: Stinky?
S: Steeenky.
Us: Stinky?
S: Steeeenky.

Finally, C came in to help us out.

C: She thinks it's "stanky."

And she did, too. We set her straight. One of those lessons better learned at home, I suppose.

Spooky

For Halloween, JP dressed up as a mad scientist ... or as The Commercial Appeal's own Michael Donahue.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Socks and snot

Is it wrong to enjoy your child being sick?

Wait, no, that is wrong. Now that I see that written out, I can see where I may be misunderstood. Munchausen by proxy and all that. Call off DHS while I explain.

GK was up most of Tuesday night with fever and coughing, so I kept her at home yesterday. Sure, there were eruptions of wanting mommy, but she spent most of the day curled up next to me watching her cartoons and refusing the juice I implored her to drink every few minutes. And, sure, I spent much of the day being coughed, sneezed and farted on, but mostly she was just sweet and a bit pitiful. It's one of the only times she will just sit with me and let me rub her back and that she'll ask me questions and wait for, and listen to, the answers. She needed her daddy and that's a rare thing around here with such a good mommy in the line up.

Certainly I don't wish her, or any of my kids, to be sick, it's just that she's a different person when she isn't feeling well. She's suddenly not so 3.

Kristy took her to the doctor in the afternoon and it's a respiratory thing with a lot of sinus drainage. A little antibiotic will fix her right up and she was already feeling better and eager to get back to school today, back to her normal old self again. She was certainly well enough to throw a rousing, healthy fit about her socks, which was timely since that is precisely what my column in The Commercial Appeal is about today: socks, seams, toes, timing and GK.

Normal is good since I do have work to do. I did, however, while nursing her to health yesterday, manage to conduct three phone interviews, write one story and finish another, do dishes and the laundry, and cook dinner.

Other than the heartache of seeing my kid ill, and socks, this parenting thing might be getting ... easier?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Corner Kids

My kids are homebodies and I was remarking to my mother the other day that I almost wish they would go out and get into some trouble. Instead of venturing out, they're drawn to the comfort of our house or the coolness of their parents or, probably, the warmth of the television set. Whatever it is, they'd rather be right here - right here with us, all the time - than anyplace else.

Saying I want them to go out and find trouble is an exaggeration, of course. I don't want anyone to get hurt or any laws broken, but a little mischief wouldn't be so bad. A little mischief elsewhere, that is.

Having said this, we were at the park on the corner last Saturday and there was a Memphis City Schools security car parked in front of Richland Elementary. And then a police car showed up. And then another ... and another ...

A total of seven police cars rolled up ("rolled up" is an everyday verb in Memphis) on a group of kids milling about at the corner of Oak Grove and Melvin, across the street from Brennan Park. They weren't doing anything, just standing; gathering, as kids will do. However, before they'd gathered, they'd been running the hallways of Richland Elementary. On a Saturday.

So, the kids all got a ride home, or to juvenile court, from the police. It was like an East Memphis, middle-class episode of The Wire, where children loiter on 70-degree days at locations with names like "Oak Grove," "Melvin" and "Brennan Park."

I'm not so anxious any more for The Quartet to run the neighborhoods, meet kids and find mischief. I'm quite happy with them sitting in the living room, watching Disney and not rolling up into our driveway with Five-O.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tell Me About It

I write a lot about being away from my children, those precious nuggets of time when they're out of earshot and I'm left to the peace and solitude that all parents crave.

But then there are times, like this morning, when I wouldn't mind being included just a little more in their lives. I watched them across the street as they headed to school and, once on the opposite sidewalk, they fell into conversation and laughter. I wondered what they were talking about and wished to be included in the talk and the jokes.

There's a good chance that I was the joke, I don't doubt that. I don't want to be included in all of their conversations, I know they need their own dialogue, topics and inside jokes. All siblings have their own way of communicating and it's great to see my kids getting along so well, it's just that they seem to be so much fun sometimes and I'm just a tad jealous of that.

I hear them at night, just before they fall asleep, talking about I-don't-know-what, and I'm curious, though I know I don't belong. I guess there's always that small part of us, even as parents, that wants to sit at the table with the cool kids.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

First Nine Weeks

We watch our kids throughout the school year studying and getting their lessons, as my great-grandfather used to say; we look over their graded papers, read e-mails from their teachers and discuss the progress reports with them.

So we have a pretty good idea where each child stands with their schoolwork and report cards should not be a surprise. When JP stood across my desk from me last night and handed me a manila envelope with his name on it, I had a pretty good handle on what I was to find inside. I was ready to shake my head, wring my hands and berate him for letters that were a little deeper into the alphabet than I'd like, for unacceptable conduct grades and everything from missed opportunities to a failure to study to leaving the fax cover sheets of the TPS reports.

I opened it, slid out the paper and found myself with a parental dilemma I was not expecting. I was confronted with As and Bs. I was stymied by the ribbon that came along with the report card announcing inclusion on the honor roll and was faced with the task of not looking surprised.

Agog is what I was, yet I couldn't show that. I had to act as though it was exactly what I'd expected, that any less would not have been tolerated, but that was never going to be the issue.

It's not that JP is dumb, mind you. Not by a long shot. He just ... masks his intelligence in a youthful exuberance that involves jumping, skipping, falling down and running into walls. He does his homework like a Tasmanian devil, blowing in and whisking his pencil around before leaving the room again in a flurry of folders and notebook paper. He forgets to have papers signed, turns things in not quite on time, yet pulls it all off somehow.

I'm proud of him and I am surprised. I'm surprised that he seems to have gotten the hang of 3rd grade much quicker than I'd expected. So much sooner than I'd given him credit for.

It's up to me to encourage, acknowledge and reward him during each grading period, and for the last nine weeks I'd give myself a D with so much room for improvement.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Right Back At You

S's teacher has been off work the past couple of days. I asked S today if she was back and she said that no, she's sick. I suggested (jovially) that the cause may be that the teacher had seen S's face. To which S replied, "Maybe she read one of your articles."

Ouch.

37

I met her in September of 1987 and a month later she turned 15. Since that fall, we've dated, married, had a child, bought cars and a house, had another child, changed jobs and careers, moved, had another child, laughed, cried, had another child, traveled and loved.

And through it all, things keep changing and that's what it's all about, isn't it? Evolving together, learning and helping each other to grow, change and become better people?

She's made me a better person and she's grown into a beautiful, strong and smart woman, friend, wife and mother. It's been an adventure since the first birthday we spent together and I look forward to spending the next 22, and beyond, with you.

Happy birthday, Kristy, I love you.

Cash Strapped

Money making idea:

If someone were to put an ATM in our dining room, they'd probably do pretty well. The fee charge per transaction would add up every morning the kids, just before walking out of the door for school in the morning, tell me they need money for this field trip or that fundraiser.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Today's Tom Sawyers

Had Mark Twain chosen to write his classic in 2009, the story of Tom Sawyer would contain much more whining and arguing than it does. Twain's fence-painting tale would be filled with children who expect immediate gratification and refuse to wait their turn. Waiting is unheard of.

We finally got around yesterday to painting our cornhole boards that Uncle Johnny made for us (and if he's reading this right now, he's shaking his head because he made that game for us a month and a half ago and we're just now painting it. However, that is about a year sooner than I expected. Actually, what I expected was for the boards to be left out in the rain several times and to become warped and unplayable, and then I would have to build new ones to look exactly like the ones he built should he ever come around to play).

For those of you who aren't familiar with cornhole, it's played with two plywood boards set at an angle with holes drilled in them. The boards are placed a certain distance apart and the two players attempt to toss beanbags (or, cornbags - they're full of unpopped popcorn) into the holes. Score is kept, money is wagered.

Anyway, it was the day to paint them, the sun was shining and Kristy had stopped by Lowe's for exterior, high gloss paint. She also bought one Fisher Price-sized roller and a 4" brush.

There were six kids, each of whom wanted, needed, to paint something white. They pleaded for a turn, they argued, they snatched and they whined ... they whined a lot. The roller was rolled through the grass, which ended up in the paint and on the boards, and the tiny kids wielded the oversized brush as though it were Excalibur. An oversized Excalibur.

It was the loveable, timeless story of Tom Sawyer writ irritating.

Now, I'll take my leave to go fix yesterday's work.





[By the way, I am undefeated on my home course in cornhole. I'll take on all challengers.]

Friday, October 16, 2009

Choosing Battles

There is way too much going on around here for me to correct every bit of behavior or reshape all habits. We have to choose our battles.

One thing the kids do that drives me crazy, but just doesn't seem worth the constant reminding, is that they'll finish their milk and set the glass on the counter like they're supposed to, but they'll put it at the far end of the counter. The very counter where the sink is, mind you, but just out of reach so that I have to take a step or two to get to it when I'm doing the dishes. I've pointed it out to them without getting upset about it because it just isn't that big a deal. I think, at this point, that they're just messing with me.

Another infraction also takes place in the kitchen (I think I'll keep this to "kitchen battles" so as not take up too much of your time). We have one of those garbage cans that pulls out of the cabinet. It has little wheels and a track and it glides out smoothly, but you do have to exert some energy and pull on it. My kids have no energy, so instead of a full garbage can, I pull it out to find garbage piled up on the little lip around the can right in front. The can itself is mostly empty and most of whatever is piled up - Pop Tart wrappers, paper plates, used napkins, half-eaten fruit - falls to the floor.

Like I said, some things aren't worth the constant screaming and nagging, I just have to figure out if these are two of those things or not.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Candy Corn in the Pipeline

GK called out for me this morning when she woke up so I picked her up and carried her to my office. We sat on the couch and she fell back to sleep curled up in my lap while I read. I wish I could have stayed right there the rest of the day, partly because she's very sweet when she's asleep and partly to procrastinate even further on things I need to do.

I have 13 stories in the pipeline, plus That Other Thing, and the pipeline appears to be plugged someplace. I think the blockage is probably me napping in a fetal position because nothing is getting through. The paid writing (and napping) is also why I've been ignoring this blog, I suppose.

So today I have to find a globe and figure out where England is, then go to Cooper-Young to interview some kids from Nottingham, England. I've done five interviews in the past week and haven't written any of them up, so there's that. I was trying to work out lunch with Kristy, but her job is keeping her unconscionably busy lately. I need to nap.

I should vote for mayor today, too. I wrote my column in today's Commercial Appeal about that very thing, so I feel obligated now. I'm not taking GK, though, because she eventually woke up, crawled out of my lap and put on a dress with a shirt over it.

The shirt has a picture of candy corn on it and reads "Sweet." She says it's because candy is sweet, but I think it's because she is.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hawkeye C

My kids know comfort. They like nothing better than lounging on the sofa, piled high with blankets and pillows pulled from their beds. Their clothing choice, if given the option, will run from pajamas to sweat pants.

C has taken his comfort to a new level. He comes home from school, grabs whatever book he's currently reading (Michael Chabon's "Summerland" at the moment) and puts on a robe*. And he'll wear that robe comfortably for the rest of the night.

I've taken to calling him Hawkeye, which I've had to explain. Next, I'll explain that Hawkeye Pierce lived in The Swamp and that it was called that because of the unkempt nature of the tent where he, Trapper and Frank lived.

The boys' room is swamp-like. It's overgrown with discarded clothing and has a boggy stench. It's the sort of landscape where Magwitch might hide out, where Kermit would feel at home or where a still might be built. I plan to search for that still later this afternoon.

My column in today's Commercial Appeal is all about what kids know or, rather, what they don't know. I urge you all to put on your robe, make yourselves comfortable and visit the CA's site to give it a read.

*That robe is one of his mother's old ones, though pretty nondescript and not overly feminine at all. Really.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

International Children's Heart Foundation

I love HBO's "The Wire." I watched the entire series on DVD, each episode back-to-back. I fell for the drama's cinematic grittiness, pop of violence and Dickensian dialogue. One of my favorite scenes, my favorite line, came in the final season, delivered by Gus Haynes, the city editor for The Baltimore Sun played by Clark Johnson, when he simplified a newspaperman's drive in one sentence: I just want to see something different every day, maybe write a story about it.

I'm not a lifelong journalist. I come from a family of newspapermen reaching back to the earliest part of last century, though I was never encouraged to follow their footsteps to the Fourth Estate. Indeed, I was discouraged.

I've always loved newspapers, though, and storytelling and the storytellers. Listening to people and getting the essence of who they are and what they do and why, and then putting that down on paper, whether it's for the world to read or just yourself, is a gift to be worked at and not taken for granted. A truly compelling story, as well, is a gift not to be treated lightly.

I met Dr. Bill Novick several years ago when he would come into my cigar shop as a customer. We had sons in the same class at Downtown Elementary as well. He graciously gave me a copy of his first book, "Healing the Heart of Croatia," written with Father Joe Kerrigan. I read the book a little at a time, overcome with emotion at the thought of going through the struggles his patients' families were dealing with and the selflessness of the doctors and volunteers that comprise the International Children's Heart Foundation.

Dr. Novick's and the Foundation's story is one I've been fortunate enough to hear and to tell in today's Commercial Appeal as part of the celebration of its 15th anniversary.

The ICHF is a hometown organization, overshadowed by others and flying mostly under the radar to countries around the world; impoverished, fractured and transitioning countries where they perform surgeries, train local medical staff and so much more.

It's a good story and one I am honored to tell, my only regret being limited space to cover all that I've been told, such as the entire Abu Bakr story which ends with Novick in a meeting with the then-Undersecretary of Defense for the United States, in which Novick is lauded for all the work of the foundation and asked if there is anything he needs. "I need you to stop bombing my kids," he says, barely containing his ire. It was the last such meeting he was invited to.

There is the whole story of Novick's friend and facilitator in Pakistan, that country's surgeon general, who was assassinated in the shadow of the Children's Hospital by a suicide bomber. When told a matter of weeks later that it was too dangerous for the ICHF's next medical trip, Novick persisted, saying it was the only way he knew to honor his friend's memory.

There are awards presented, heads of state denied, foreign and domestic corporations called upon and globetrotting for a cause. There are funny stories and heartbreaking ones, hopeful stories and, through it and above it all, the stories of children who get more time on this planet to make a difference thanks to Novick and his teams.

The story of the International Children's Heart Foundation is as good as any novel, film or HBO series. It's one I am thrilled to tell.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Meow!

Sometimes you people are guinea pigs. I'm sorry, but it's true. I try things out on you before punching it up, lengthening it in some cases, making grammatical fixes and sending it in to The Commercial Appeal, which pays me for it.

So, a while back I wrote a bit about C taking up and wailing on the saxophone and then I wrote even more on it and it's in the CA today.

Dig it!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Who Are These People In My Neighborhood?

We've lived in our new neighborhood now for seven months. I'm an observer, I watch things, I notice. What I've noticed is that we traded the oddness of Midtown for the weirdness of East Memphis.

It is people that make up a neighborhood and, while Midtown may have no end of characters, I've got a guy who walks in front of my house all day, every day, it seems. Every time I glance outside or sit on my front porch, this guy walks by. I have no idea where he's going or, if walking for exercise, how many laps he makes around the block (neighborhood? region?).

There is a gated community across the street from our house and the side that faces us has the typical swath of grass between the sidewalk and street. Typical, except for the fact that this 12-inch wide strip of lawn is mowed every. single. day. The lawn service contracted to handle the common areas of the community pay particular attention to this grass. It's fascinating. It's beautiful.

A park sits a couple of blocks away, abutting Richland Elementary School. Brennan Park. At any time you can go to that park and find three or four kids' jackets. I'm not sure if the park is swallowing children, save for their outerwear, or if students are taking their jackets off after school to play and then forgetting them. Probably the latter.

Every neighborhood has an ice cream truck. Ours plays Christmas carols. All summer long.

Sometimes I have to leave the craziness of my house and its nine inhabitants. When those times come, I find my escape in the bizarreness that's out there, beyond my front porch.

Monday, August 24, 2009

For My Regular Readers

JP ate a bowl of spaghetti tonight, asked for another, and ate that, too.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

C is for Cannonball

As I've said, the kids all started new schools this year. C is at White Station Middle and is coming to terms nicely with switching classes, lockers and being the new kid on a new block.

Enveloped in all that new is band class. He's taken music the past few years at Downtown Elementary, and he took guitar lessons for a little bit, but this will be his first year of everyday band. His instrument of choice: alto saxophone.

I went to new parent orientation the other night at WSMS and was told that, among sports offerings, cross country was about to come into season. C has always expressed an interest in running with me, especially 5k races, so I thought this would be perfect. When I talked with him about it, he said he didn't want to participate. When I pushed him on it, he said he's afraid he wouldn't be any good at it.

Now, I understand this feeling completely. It's like it was only yesterday that I was his age and having the same anxieties about, well, everything. It's odd to me, though, that he would worry about not being any good at running, which he's been able to do for a long time, and not so much about blowing into a metal horn and making music come out, which seems like a very abnormal thing for a human to do.

Regardless of how abnormal it is, he was given a brand new instrument last night and took right to it. From what I'm told, it's difficult to even make a noise with the saxophone in the beginning, but he was able to make something passable for notes. He's very excited and eager about this new endeavor and I hope he runs away with it.

Here is is last night:




[Thanks, again, Uncle Toby.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hooray for Captain Spaulding!

He was born Julius Henry, son of Minnie and Sam “Frenchie” Marx in 1890. He left school at the age of 12 to go to work on stage and, with the help of his brothers, he would become one of the most successful entertainers of all time. Through the ranks of vaudeville, Groucho Marx shot up like grease-painted lightning to a time when a new phenomenon, the “movies” were the hottest thing going.

Eventually he would move on from his brothers to a solo career, mostly playing himself, living true to his nom de plume while still being loved by millions, hosting television and radio shows, making pop culture history on talk shows and writing books. Groucho has always held a special place with me. He was funny, largely self-educated, quick, curious and successful.

I’ve tried to instill in my own kids, along with manners, empathy, responsibility and an education, a sense of humor. I come from a stock of people who enjoy laughing and whose sense of humor run towards smart alecky, so the genetics are there. I have, over the years, attempted to infuse my kids’ SpongeBob with Bugs Bunny, their Zack and Cody with The Marx Brothers and their Hannah Montana with Myrna Loy.

And they’ve taken to it, for the most part. I’ve heard their genuine laughing at the antics of the Marx Brothers and it reminds me of discovering them, prodded by my father, on Channel 3 Saturday afternoon movies when I was a kid.

Groucho died on this day in 1977, an anniversary now largely overshadowed by the death of Elvis Presley only three days prior. There is no home to make a pilgrimage to, no Greasepaintland, so we’ll have to put a DVD in, one of those classic Irving Thalberg films, and remember the man as best we can, with a song, a cigar and a deeply felt belly laugh.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Intro to Friendship

The kids started new schools this week - two at Richland Elementary and one at White Station Middle - and even though it's not me starting school, I still get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about them walking into a new classroom for the first time (and then the second time, the third ... fourth ... ).

I tend to project a lot of my anxieties on my children. Inwardly, of course, I try not to let them see that I worry for them, that I dread these first days and weeks as much as they might. I see each of my kids' strengths and weaknesses and install them into my own little scenarios of what their days must be like. It's a hobby, it helps pass the time.

In my list of concerns, my fears and worries for these kids, though, the one that was at the bottom, so far down that I didn't even realize it was there, has rocketed to the top.

On Monday, I walked up the street to school to meet the kids after school, and when JP and S came running out I asked if they had a good day, which they had, and then asked if they made any friends. They both rattled off a list of names of the classmates they'd met and, in the baptism of the first day of school, declared "friends." Great!

C came trudging across the field and through the woods (literally, you'd have to see the campus) and I asked how his day was. "Good," he said, and I asked if he met any friends. "No," he said. I asked if he talked with anyone at lunch. "Not really," he said.

Now, it was the first day of school and overwhelming with the new experiences of middle school and switching from class to class throughout the day, so it wasn't such a big deal. I've asked him the same questions every day since then, though, and received the same answers. I know it's all still new and that a lot is going to change over the next few weeks, but I'm just surprised. C has never had any problem talking to people or making friends, he's like his mother that way, but now I find myself thinking what if he doesn't make any friends?, and I didn't expect to ever be thinking that about C.

He will make friends, of course he will. He's intelligent and funny and has an easy way about him. The problem, I think, is that he has to do it. I can't help him. I'm there for him if he needs help with an English assignment or math or history or whatever, but the social aspect of school, making strangers into friends, is completely up to him.

There's that pit in my stomach again.

In other news, I have a story in The Commercial Appeal today about Memphians who were at Woodstock. The story is in anticipation of the concert's 40th anniversary this weekend. I spent a lot of time on it and I think it turned out pretty well, but I would like to copy and paste here, for posterity's sake, the two-paragraph lede that I was asked to rewrite. The reason for rewriting makes sense - my editor wanted to get to the local aspect of the story before the jump so readers didn't think it was just another Woodstock story, like the one they ran on Monday of this week. I get that.

Anyway, here it is:

I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock-n-roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try and get my soul free

-- From the song “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell


It was in the summer of 1969, the same summer that gave us the Son of Sam, the Stonewall riots of Greenwich Village in New York, and the Manson family’s murderous rampage, that four visionary promoters planned for 50,000 music enthusiasts to attend a three-day outdoor music and arts festival in upstate New York on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm.

What The Woodstock Music and Art Fair became, famously, was a counterculture nation of half a million strong, a four-day experiment in love, peace and openness that was the antithesis of the violence consuming us here at home and abroad in Vietnam. With a population of people from far and wide who imbibed, swam, danced, loved and left with enough memories to last a lifetime, Bethel, NY, and its festival have become icons of utopian dreams realized.

In other other news, tomorrow is my birthday. I will be 39, which is not 40. Yet.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Paul and Me

We were poolside the other afternoon when I laid down the July 20 issue of The New Yorker I'd grabbed as we left the house. The magazine fell open to page 25 and the illustration there of actor Paul Giamatti.

S crawled from the pool, sauntered over and blinked her goggled eyes at it:

S: That looks just like you.
Me: No it doesn't.
S: Dude, that looks just like you. JP, come here, who does this look like?
JP: (JP walks over, giggles, honks, flaps his arms twice and then skips off on the toes of one foot)
S: Just like you.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Not So Good Mornings

GK is home with me today. She had a fever overnight and we saw no reason to force her to go to school if she wasn't feeling well.

And forcing her is just what it would be considering the week we've had so far. My little 3-year-old, who is such a terror around the house to her siblings, to me and her mom, and poor Mr. Baby, has been beside herself about her daycare and the new morning routine.

On Monday - day one - she talked excitedly about her new school and grabbed up her lunchbox with eagerness. This lasted until we got into her classroom where she lost it and had to be pried from my arms with promises of dolls and blocks and new playmates.

Day two was even worse with me dropping her off at the playground where her class was already so that I could hear her screaming for me all the way to the parking lot, down the driveway and out onto the street.

Day three was awful; she started crying before we even left the house and didn't stop until ... well, I'm not sure when. When she got home that afternoon, she wouldn't even look at or speak to me, such was her disdain for my actions of the past few mornings.

So her fever gains her a reprieve from her new school. It's a day to regroup and reconsider, when I'll spend the day reminding her of the great things about her school, her teachers and all of her new little friends. I'm sure it will register with her and make a difference, she's as rational as any 3-year-old.

I know what you're all thinking, that it will get better, that drop-off will be easier when she's acclimated and she will actually begin looking forward to going. That's a nice thought, but I'm afraid that's just not the case. I've been doing this a long time, I've taken all four of my kids everywhere they've needed to go in the mornings for as long as they've been going there, and I can sense how it's going to go for the rest of the year on the first day. Sure, she'll get used to it and come to accept it, but she'll never be one of those kids who grabs her lunchbox and takes off from the car toward the doors. I'll carry her in every day and every day there will be that last little grab for me, the faintest of tugs at my shirt and my heart, as I hand her off to her teacher.

The daycare she's going to seems really good and we've been happy with the way they've handled these morning traumas and how they have made sure to let us know at the end of each day how she cheered up and had a good day.

I know she gets happy, I know that the morning is not indicative of the entire day, but it's been my lot in parenthood. Having my day ruined from the guilt of leaving a screaming child behind is what I've done for years, yet it never, ever gets any easier.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Fear and Loving in Memphis

We had a Memphis weekend. This last weekend before Kristy goes back to work from her summer break and GK begins a brand new daycare with all its Pandora’s toy box of fun, fear and insecurity, we hit some local hot spots.

Today we went to the 32nd birthday party for Pinocchio’s: The Children's Bookplace. This is the tiny cottage on Brookhaven Circle in East Memphis that is built of books. I remember my mother taking us there as children and wanted to share the magic with my own kids. It’s a book store just for children with all the imagination, mystery and Seuss you’d want.

After Pinocchio’s, we made an impromptu visit to the Pink Palace where the kids loved running wild with the dinosaur robots, the tiny circus and various skeletons. The Pink Palace exhibits are like an ancient museum exhibit in their own right as I recognized many bones and interactive contraptions that I’d seen the first time as a child on field trips with my school.

Yesterday we schlepped to the Memphis Botanic Garden for the opening of My Big Backyard, an area of the gardens just for children. All I can say about this is that it is amazing. We don’t currently have a membership to the Botanic Gardens, but this exhibit by itself made me want to get one for the family. There are different areas with various themes, fountains, small houses, a big tree house and stations for learning about what grows here and how. This is an asset to Memphis and especially to the children (and parents) of our city.

And speaking of our city, I have to talk about Friday night. SAM had friends in town from out California way and we all went downtown for dinner and drinks with them. There was no real plan, no itinerary, so we ended up taking them to Beale Street.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Beale on a weekend night, I’m local here so there’s no reason to go. I guess I knew they check identification now, but I wasn’t prepared to have to walk through a security gauntlet as well with someone passing a metal-detecting wand over me and making me empty my pockets. How sad for this city. How completely humiliating and embarrassing for a Memphian taking guests from out of town.

Beale Street is one of the largest tourist attractions in the state, if not the largest, yet to get onto this street one has to be checked for weapons. I stood, arms spread wide while some mutant spoke inaudibly to me, practically whispering when he asked what was in my pockets. I had to keep asking what he was saying as he mumbled, not bothering to even make eye contact with me.

Once on the street, which is so far below someplace like the French Quarter in both excitement and history, there was a police presence as though we were in a militarized zone. Forget a red light district where you’re allowed to carry an overpriced beer outdoors for two blocks, this is the blue light district where there is one cop for every two patrons. Why? Because it’s Memphis and it’s a damn jungle.

It was the last time I'll take visitors from out of town to Beale Street. It’s certainly the last time I go to Rum Boogie CafĂ© where we were charged a $5 cover to go in and eat (thanks, Matt!) and then sat next to half a dozen empty tables.

I sat through dinner watching the security checkpoint through the windows at Beale and Third Streets where families, obviously just having left the Redbirds game with their jerseys and ball gloves, were sent single file through the gauntlet of ID and weapon checks. I don’t know why anyone would take their kids to Beale Street on a Friday night and it was sad to watch the little kids who were confused as they watched their dads (only the men were getting checked here) get stopped and checked for weapons.

I believe the next time guests come in, I’ll take them to a quaint bookstore, the Botanic Gardens or even the Pink Palace where they can see a tiny circus, original Piggly Wiggly or animated dinosaur.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ashes

I spent nearly every day from January 1999 until September 2008 in a little building downtown on Madison Ave. Day in and day out I sold cigars, pipes and pipe tobacco to people for a nickel, trying to make a living. That little building became like a home to me and the people who wandered in and sat, smoked, relaxed and commiserated like a family.

I sold the business, Memphis Tobacco Bowl, then in its 59th year, last fall because it was time to move on. Other dreams and aspirations were calling and my family needed me around the house more.

I haven't looked back, I love what I'm doing now. I do miss those people, that family, who came in weekly, some daily, to talk about their day or their own families. They knew my kids, they asked about my life outside of work and we bonded there around a little round table over cigars and coffee.

I was a terrible businessman, I'll admit that. I was simply a man who owned a business. I'm proud, though, of what I made there in that little building on Madison. I felt that I created an oasis for people from their offices, their bosses, their employees and the stresses of a weekday. I saw friendships made and grown, deals brokered and businesses bought and sold.

I was in the thick of it when downtown Memphis was thick with possibilities - AutoZone Park, the Grizzlies and their Forum and Peabody Place. It was occasionally exciting, sometimes lucrative and often heartbreaking, yet it defined me, I thought, for nearly a decade.

But, again, it was time to move on and I did.

The new owner of that little business is closing up shop this week. When it's time to move on, it's time to move on. I can't say I blame him, part of the game is knowing when to fold 'em. I probably should have long before. I'm glad, in a way, I didn't have to.

I had my last cigar at 152 Madison in its incarnation as a cigar shop this afternoon among the tile, plasterwork and age. It tasted just as good as any I'd had before, if not somewhat bittersweet.



Monday, July 27, 2009

Diving Bored

Despite my fear of the germs (not my germs, mind you, but yours) and whatever else might be living in the tepid water of a man-made hole in the ground, our family joined the Jewish Community Center last week so that the kids might swim.

And swim they did.

We went on Friday and they ran (no running!) and jumped and slid and swam. They had a big time and, I might add, I had a good time watching them. The facilities at the JCC are amazing, with something for every age group outdoors and indoors. In addition to the pool area, there is a great work out facility and game room for kids.

My first thought when I walked out into the sunlight and saw the pool was disbelief. We never had anything like this when I was a kid with the slides and the fountains and different swimming areas for all different ages and skill levels. As a parent, I really appreciate all the shade so that it's easy to escape the sun if anyone is getting a little too pink. I also feel comfortable letting the kids run (no running!) wild with so many lifeguards on duty.

I'm sure my kids' first reaction when they saw all there is to do was one of amazement as well. I'm sure that last week they were amazed, too, that their procrastinating parents finally did what they said they'd do ages ago and joined the JCC. But that had all worn off by day two when JP announced he was bored.

Bored.

There are slides and fountains and a lazy river and kids everywhere and more slides and he says he's bored. I told him I didn't ever want to hear that come out of his mouth while standing in the middle of a place like this.

Bored? What more could he want? It's all here! He wants the same thing most kids want and that is whatever is next. It doesn't matter what that next thing is, they've experienced this thing and now they want that thing.

I've decided that next thing, should they ask, is always going to be cleaning something. Their room, the kitchen, bathrooms, it doesn't matter, that's the new next thing. Be careful what you wish for, kids.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summertime

As we rest firmly in the clenched jaw of the dog these days of summer were modeled for, I sit on the patio waiting for Kristy and SAM to return home with sushi. It would be better served in breezy, beachy, tropical climes instead of coming from the dank, loud kitchen of a Summer Ave. restaurant where some young person, half-stoned and watching the Friday night clock wasn’t in charge of touching my food, but I take what I can get.

Everything is better on the beach, where we were not so long ago, but I’ve been slightly more pro-Memphis lately, having visited some local bookstores, the zoo and Flashback just this afternoon where I bought a new summer hat.

S, my 6-year-old has always been my harshest fashion critic and today was no better as she saw me and declared, “I never thought it would come to a flowered hat.”

To be fair, the whole hat isn’t a flower motif, just the band.

I had a nice chat with co-owner of Flashback, Gene Rossetti. We talked about reading and writing, retail and travel, kids and Italians. Gene is a treasure in this town. He’s friendly and helpful and genuinely curious about his customers, their needs and their interests.

Later, I took a few of the kids to the White Station branch library where GK and I read a book that featured a mama elephant and her baby. She knew of the tragedy at the Memphis Zoo this week and told her own version of the story in the book, one where the baby elephant falls and is hurt and dies, but then the mommy helps it and it’s okay. It was a good story with a much better ending than the real one.

I was recognized as the writer of a column in The Commercial Appeal at the library, something that happens rarely if never. I do appreciate everyone who takes the time to read on Thursdays. This week I wrote about golfing with the kids, or having kids instead of golfing. I told the tale of some injuries in the front yard while trying to get them interested in the game. It was worse than I said, the benefit of time making everything funnier. In reality, JP brought his club into a backswing and caught a running GK on the forehead, her feet came completely off the ground and she landed flat on her back. That was the end of the lessons. JP felt horrible and GK was upset, but there wasn’t too much swelling and all was forgiven.

Sometimes these kids are so active and funny … or maddening … that it’s difficult to keep up with all the antics to make note here or in a column. And other times it’s just deathly still. A lot of the time, recently, I’m just tired and all thought-out when it comes to writing. This is something I’ve tried to get over as I start to see more of a pattern and a schedule to my work. I hope this keeps up as I had a meeting this week with a little known, though worldwide, foundation based out of Memphis, the International Children’s Heart Foundation. The heart and head of this charity, Dr. Bill Novick, had me over to his lovely South Bluffs home for cigars on the patio and to discuss a writing project that, if it’s greenlighted, could provide me with at least a year of steady work. It would be difficult, all-consuming, gratifying work. I’ll know more in a month or so.

Memphis keeps throwing nuggets like that project at me. It continues, within the bad, the awful stories we hear, to offer a token of peace every now and then.

We are all looking forward to tomorrow’s Rock-n-Romp, which promises to be the largest to date, at the Levit Shell at Overton Park. The venue is big and beautiful and the atmosphere will, as always, be family friendly. I had the pleasure this week of speaking with Levitt Shell renovator Lee Askew III of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects; Anne Pitts, executive director of the Shell; and board president Barry Lichterman for a story in today’s Commercial Appeal. The three agreed unanimously that the Shell is an asset for our community. For Memphis, which has no end of problems with crime, racism, hate and an all-around apathetic nature, the Levitt Shell has become a meeting place, a living room for people from all walks, all corners of the city to come together and enjoy free music in a beautiful and historical setting.

I hope to see you all at tomorrow’s Rock-n-Romp show.

It’s been busy around here and, yet, not so much. This summer has been a time to get a lot of work done, but also to spend time with family at a less hectic pace. Now, to figure out how to keep that pace slow and steady through the school year …

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

It seemed simple in theory. Sitting behind this desk, Googling up directions costs nothing, requires no real effort and, if done at the right time of night, is pretty quiet.

It takes almost no time to say, "We're going to Naples, Florida." No packing required, no seat belts needed.

Driving 2,100 miles, however, is a whole different world. It's a world at 75 mph with frequent stops for the unhealthiest foods and foulest bathrooms. A world populated by tractor trailers, state troopers and creepy rest area attendants.

And it's a loud world.

But it's a world we explored for 10 days and it was (mostly) good.

We stopped first in Greensboro, GA, to visit with my grandparents, eat a delicious steak dinner and sleep in comfort for free. I always enjoy my grandparents' house and their company. We visited a nice park so the kids could run off some pent up energy and then laid around all night sipping wine, playing games and reading.

And listening to stories. I could listen to my grandparents tell stories about growing up all day long.

The very next day we packed up the kids and headed toward the tip of the dangle. It was a long, long drive. This is the first time we've driven to Naples and it was every bit of 10 hours. It felt like we would never make it to Tampa and, once we did, that we'd never make it the final two hours to my mom's house.

We did make it, though, and there was a houseful waiting on us when we arrived. My mom, stepdad, brother, sister and her family were all there to greet the weary travelers.

For the next six days we visited the beaches of Naples, swam in the pool, played endless games of Wii bowling and spent hours talking. It was the perfect way to spend a week. Our first excursion to the Gulf was to visit Vanderbilt Beach, which was much nicer than I remembered. The next time, though, we ventured downtown and found the city pier which extends out from a white sand beach butting up against homes in a quaint tropical neighborhood. We were smitten and visited it again the next day despite the half-hour drive from my mom's house.

We ate seafood and ice cream at Tin City and explored the paradise of Naples a bit.

It was great for my kids to get to visit their grandmother in her own home for the first time. They certainly made themselves at home, taking over her living room, video games and television, and declaring them for their own.

The following Saturday we learned that you can drive all. day. long. in Florida and at the end of that day you'll still be in Florida. It took us another 10 hours to make it to Panama City Beach where SAM had taken an impromptu vacation and met us for the weekend. We stayed in the townhouse of the fabulous Robin's parents (thanks again!), had dinner at Billy's Oyster Bar, swam in the pool, had the perfect Father's Day on the beach with lunch at Schooners.

After a couple of days of that, we loaded up once again for the drive back to Memphis. There was a time in my youth, before kids - long before - when I could make that drive in eight hours. This day it would take 10. A miserable 10 hours.

We made it home. We had a great time, all of us. The kids, hopefully, have memories of beautiful beaches, long days at the pool, visits with grandparents and great-grandparents and quality time with their mom and dad, and not just of the interminable drives.

I look forward to our next trip, whenever and wherever that might be.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Storybook Couple

I have a story in today's Commercial Appeal on Corey and Cheryl Mesler, the owners of Burke's Book Store. This is one of those stories you look forward to telling - how two people met, where they fell in love, the small business they run and raise their family around.

The Meslers were a joy to talk with, an interview that took over two hours because we kept getting sidetracked by books, movies, jazz and other such interests. It was a pleasure to meet them and to tell their story.

You should go in yourself and say hello. And buy a book, making a living at retail is an uphill struggle, trust me. Show the Meslers how much you enjoy their shop by spending a little cash. It doesn't take much.

I was embarrassed to see that I misspelled Harriette Beeson's name. She was the previous owner of Burke's. I have a very vivid memory of doublechecking the spelling of her name as I was writing. I know I did. I ... think I did.

Other than that, I'm very happy with the way the story turned out. And the way the Meslers' story is turning out should make us all happy at this time when marriages and small businesses fall apart on a daily basis.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

June 4, 1994

I put on the best suit I've ever owned, brushed my teeth and put some sweet-smelling pomade in my hair 15 years ago today to marry this girl.

And even though I had on a new pair of wingtips and a flower in my buttonhole, she still stole the show that day, as she's done every day for 15 years.


Happy anniversary, Kristy. I love you.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

He Knows the Tooth

C lost a tooth tonight. Another tooth. I think that's number 37 or 38 thus far and I'm not sure how that kid even chews any more.

He just came into the office and said, "Make sure the tooth fairy remembers I lost a tooth."

I asked him how I was supposed to get in touch with the tooth fairy and he said, "I know the tooth fairy doesn't exist."

I told him that once the magic of believing goes, then so does the money, and he said, in regards to his naive siblings, "But they still believe and if they ask to see my dollar in the morning then I have to show it to them."

So while the magic of the tooth fairy and of childhood beliefs have gone the way of his eye teeth, it appears that extortion is still vibrant and healthy.

Can I borrow a dollar?

Memphis Parent

I have a story in the June issue of Memphis Parent magazine, on newsstands now.

The June issue focuses on fathers, Father's Day and men's issues. I wrote an informative piece on vasectomies, calling on some friends for personal stories as well as Dr. Eber of the Conrad-Pearson Clinic for an expert's opinion. It's different than the column I wrote about the subject back in February.

I hope it's helpful for anyone considering this method of birth control.

Pick up your copy today!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Two Columns

I stepped out of my comfort zone last week and wrote a column that is not typical for me.

On Monday last week I sent in a piece that had been carefully crafted, impatiently re-crafted, and then tweaked ad nauseum until I, at last, couldn't wait any longer and let go of it.

Wednesday morning I woke up and read the story in the newspaper about county commissioners and local ministers coming together to denounce a certain segment of society's way of life and I sat down and wrote a new column in about 10 minutes.

The writing was quick and passionate and it just felt right. I sent it in to my editor, Peggy B, and asked if I could get that one in the paper instead of the previous column. She liked it but said it would have to be approved by someone higher up because it was controversial. I'm not sure if she had to go to bat for it or not, but it got in and I thank her for jumping through the hoops for me.

I still like the column, still believe in what I said. I got quite a few e-mails and the vast majority of them were agreeing with my sentiments and thanking me for writing it. And I got the e-mails from people questioning me, lecturing me, praying for me and letting me know that they will no longer read my column. And that's all fine, too, I thank them for taking the time to read and write to me.

The next column, I hope, will be funny, there's still plenty to laugh at out there.

I'm not going to run the column from last week that was replaced because it was timely as well and that time has passed. Here it is below as I wrote it:

Downtown Memphis is a living, breathing museum where local pages of history have been turned for the world at large to learn. It’s a place where Memphians and tourists travel to see a ball game, a concert, to eat and drink and celebrate. And for six years my kids traveled there to go to school. Since the day it opened, we’ve had our children at Downtown Elementary, beginning with Calvin in kindergarten.

They learned some of that local history with field trips to the Rock-n-Soul Museum, Mud Island, Beale Street, the Orpheum and the Fire Museum. Walking to these destinations from school gave them the opportunity to become a part of the pulse of downtown, and the city, and absorb the good and bad, the neglected and reborn. The landscape became a nursery for the first seeds of civic pride to be planted.

On Madison Ave., in the shadow of the Sterick Building and a mere pop fly from AutoZone Park, our kids have learned multiplication, history, science, piano and, probably, a little bit of panhandling. But this past school year was their last year at Downtown Elementary.

Due to our move to a new neighborhood, one with well-respected schools of its own, we have elected to move the kids and say goodbye to the teachers and staff that we’ve come to think of as family.

Who other than family would you entrust your children to every day for so many years? The staff there have been as approachable and available as any sibling or cousin. So it was with a bittersweet start to the summer that my wife, Kristy, and I went to Downtown Elementary on the final day of school last Friday to say goodbye.

We didn’t get much past the front office and the principal, Mrs. Wunderlich, before the emotions poured out. This emotion continued as we made our way to Mrs. Porter, the kindergarten teacher who has taught each child we’ve sent to that school. She started them on the journey of education in such a way that they have all become good students, eager to learn.

We’ve been asked by other parents over the years what we think of Downtown Elementary and whether we’d recommend it. Even with three kids there, they’d ask if we like it. And we did, we loved it and the kids loved it and that makes it very difficult to leave. Our kids will be at Richland Elementary and White Station Middle next year where we expect them to excel due to the seeds planted Downtown in previous years.

Memphis City Schools gets a bad rap. Some of it is deserved, much of it is not, especially at the most basic, most important, level: the teacher/student relationship. The schools in this city are full of caring, competent and imaginative teachers who unfairly get lumped in with the pencil pushers and cell phone abusers at the administrative level.

With the economy tightening, more and more parents of children in private schools are looking for other options to paying tuition when the best option may be right there in their neighborhood. We made a decision to put our children in the city school system, we chose Downtown Elementary, and we couldn’t have been happier.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Memphis Most?

Perhaps today isn't the day to bring this up. Then again, maybe it's the perfect day to bring this up.

Currently, over at The Commercial Appeal's website, voting is open for the Memphis Most, that paper's take on the best of the best of our fair city. There happens to be a category for your favorite columnist.

Now, I'm not suggesting you vote for me. I'm just hoping you get out and vote because it's your duty. And because if you don't vote you forfeit your right to later complain about who was chosen the "most" columnist in town.

My kids have voted often this year, which means Geoff Calkins is a shoe-in. I'm simply hoping for second ... okay, maybe a distant third.

You can peruse past columns by visiting here or here. You can read today's "Because I Said So" column here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Raindrops

What do you do when you're stuck at home with six kids on a rainy day? You stick them out in the rain; miscreants shrink in the water.

See? I went from six miscreants down to only three.


Here are some other photos:



Sunday, May 17, 2009

Memphis Zoo Visit

We packed this zoo up this afternoon and headed to The Memphis Zoo.

We saw lions and gorillas, a skink at the gorilla habitat, pandas, budgies and polar bears. We saw pythons, hippos, ducks and gibbons.

I saw a guy with a picture of his kids on his t-shirt. I may have to get me one of those.

We saw giraffes, ostrich eggs, alligators and a duck.

But what was the most exciting item at the zoo for my kids? What commanded all of their attention? Was it the meerkat? The Bengal tiger? The orangutan? No, it was the Radio Flyer wagon we'd brought along to haul GK and Mr. Baby around in. That molded plastic conveyance that sits in our driveway every. single. day.

From time to time at home they'll want to ride in it, be pulled down the drive to the sidewalk and back before becoming bored with its lack of speed, comfort and television. We'll use it to take the kids up the street to the park, and for that it's pretty useful.

But today at the zoo you would have thought it was Evel Knievel's rocket car or the Batmobile. They all fought over it, pleaded to ride in it and sat in it when we stopped to watch a zebra or the sea lions.

We have a family membership to the zoo, but if we hadn't, it would have cost us about $95 to visit today. That's $95 to be pulled around in in a wagon that we own and that sits gathering rainwater most of the time.

Next time I'll know better. Next time I'll pile them all in that wagon and pull them around the yard to see the squirrels, Cardinals, toads and mosquitos for free.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Downtown

I've played the part of parent well the past couple of days. In public, anyway.

Tuesday night we went to hear JP play in his piano recital at school. He sounded great, just like Thelonius Monk, only less crazy. Slightly less crazy. He sort of slowed down in the middle of his piece, stopped actually. I think he may have gotten lost while reading the notes. To me, it added to the drama of the tune, just a little lull so the gathered crowd in the lunchroom could soak in what he was playing.

He's been taking lessons for two years now and I think he's pretty good. We should probably get our piano repaired and tuned so that when he practices he'll know just what he's supposed to sound like.



On Wednesday, I joined the kids, and all of Downtown Elementary, at the Memphis Redbirds game. It was a beautiful day for a game, no rain at all and full sunshine.

I don't know how their teachers and staff do it. There were kids running everywhere, yet they kept them all in order and, somehow, got them all back to school in tact. Not one missing. At least, not one of mine.

At one point I took two of my kids to a concession stand and almost lost one of them.

The game, and talking with the teachers and the principal, Mrs. Wunderlich, made me sorry that this is our last year at Downtown. We've had a long run of six years at the school and they've been great, from the people to the curriculum to these wonderful field trips the kids go on that they get to walk to - AutoZone Park, the Orpheum, the Rock-n-Soul Museum, Mud Island and many others.

C began school there in kindergarten the first year it was open and his teacher, Mrs. Porter, set in motion his love of education for, hopeuflly, the next couple of decades. I expected nothing but screaming and crying that first morning I dropped him off, but it was just the opposite and for that I'm grateful. She had JP and S in turn as well and they've all become bright and dedicated kids.

We'll have two at Richland Elementary next year and one at White Station Middle, and we're very excited about both schools, we've heard nothing but good about them. But we will miss Downtown. We've had a great time and knew our children were in the best of hands each and every day.

Because I Said So

This is the face of evil in my house as described in today's Because I Said So column in The Commercial Appeal.


Just to disprove me and make me look like an ass, though, GK sat behind me on the carpool run this morning and softly sang "Hush Little Baby" complete with the line " ... if that diamond ring don't talk to you ... "