Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy Old Year, Happy New Year

Two-thousand and ten. Fin. 

This is the time of year when, popularly, we look back at the year past and say, "good riddance." Not me. Not this year. I like 2010. There have been years recently when I've been glad to see them go. Hell, I've opened the door for them and shown them the way with a hand to the collar. This year, though, was good to me.

I turned 40 this year and it feels right. I think maybe I've been 40 for quite a while and am finally able to live in its skin. I feel like Benjamin Buttons as his body ages backwards, yet his years advance chronologically. At a certain point he was the same age as his body and that was the time he felt he got to be himself at last. It's the same situation in the novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer, because it's almost the exact same story.


It was a good year professionally as well. Things clicked and my pencil did right by me. I wrote a cover story for Memphis Magazine, a cover story for The Memphis News, I was admitted to the Moss Fiction Workshop with the great Richard Bausch, I finished the first draft of a novel and am halfway through the first draft of a second, I wrote a few short stories and one of them, "Sea Change," won the grand prize for fiction in Memphis Magazine. I am currently working on a cover story for The Memphis Flyer which should appear in February. 


That's not a bad year.


I don't make resolutions for the new year, but I do look forward. I hope, in 2011, to complete the first draft of the second novel and then buckle down and get to some deep revising of both books. I hope to place some more short stories in literary magazines. I hope to keep the writing moving forward ... always forward.

At the end of 2010, life is good. My family is happy and healthy in a house that is raucous and fun - three adults and six kids, how could it be anything but? There is food in the cupboard, a stable of close friends, music on the hi-fi and the ideas come fast and furious. 

The new year has a lot to live up to, but I'm starting it with the advantage. Now here's wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year. 


Here's a view of my desk at the end of 2010:







Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hidden Memphis: Nelson Smith III

Some time ago, my sister, Elizabeth, was working for the UrbanArt Commission and made a studio visit to check on a project she was managing. The project was a monument for Manassas High School being cast from concrete and bronze. The artist was Nelson Smith III. She told me later all about the studio, how packed it was with art, the crappy part of town it's in, the vastness of the space and the friends Mr. Smith had sitting around chatting with him, passing time in the middle of the day.

More recently, one of my editors at The Commercial Appeal told me that Chris Peck, THE editor at the CA, had an idea for a series on people and places around town that many people might not know about. These subjects would almost define Memphis, yet live in near-obscurity. Did I have any ideas? Would I be interested in writing it? What to call it?

Well, of course I was interested, and the first person I thought of was Nelson Smith III (Prodigious output of 'general practitioner' found everywhere from hotel rooms to dashboards to clubs; CA 12/26/10). Mr. Smith approached those who ran the Shoney's restaurants in Memphis back in the 70s and told them he could make a Big Boy statue for the cost they were having them shipped from California. They gave Smith a statue and he fashioned a mold from it, cast a new Big Boy on spec and put the two side-by-side. "Which one is yours?" he asked. They couldn't tell and he had the job. He made over 20 for the restaurants over the years.

Elizabeth told me about some of the work he had done, but also about what a nice and gentle man he is. Part of what I love about my job, about freelance journalism, is the people I get to meet day in and day out. Not just meet, but nearly inhabit for a time. I drove to Smith's studio at the corner of Thomas and Huron, in a part of Memphis that is nearly deserted now, save for the clump of houses at the end of Huron, a dead end street. There was wash hanging on lines outside these homes and people sitting on their porches. Dogs ran through the street and there were cars that looked long-abandoned in yards and at the curb. The man who answered the door of the squat, brick building appeared kind and open to questions. For the next hour, he told me all about his life and his work. He showed me around his studio, pulling sculptures from piles and telling me the stories behind them.

The studio itself is the old Currie's Club Tropicana, and Smith told me that any black artist who was anybody back in the day played there - B.B. King, Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes ... he showed me where the stage had been and you could almost hear the guitar and the Hammond B3 organ oozing from the plaster and lumber he had laying about. Smith would think of something - a mold or a piece of cornice he'd sculpted - and could go straight to it, wherever it was and whatever it might have been buried under.

The series, by the way, is to be called "Hidden Memphis." It will be semi-regular and I look forward to meeting and researching the subjects, be they people or places. If you have any ideas, any at all, please let me know at richard@richardalley.com. The story in the CA got some nice comments and one e-mail from a local children's book author, Alice Faye Duncan, who said that her father had a portrait of her painted as a child, when she must have been two or three, but never knew who the artist was. It was simply signed 'Nelson III.' My story led her to the artist and she has contacted him to buy some of his artwork. Helping with these connections is another reason I love my job.

Nelson Smith III is a fascinating subject, he is locked into the modern history of Memphis through the artwork and signage he's produced for some of our most iconic establishments - Libertyland, Mark Twain restaurant, Holiday Inn, Shoney's, Shakey's Pizza ...  the list goes on. And so does Nelson.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Irish Eyes

I've been reading Irish lately. I finished Dennis Lehane's The Given Day the other day and immediately picked up Snow in August by Pete Hamill. As has become customary for me this time of year, the holidays and end of the year, I read the "Zooey" portion of Salinger's Franny and Zooey over the past couple of days.

This thematic reading is not by any design. I'd heard a lot about Lehane and had never read any, but picked up The Given Day at Davis-Kidd on the outside bargain tables. I figured there's no losing when you find a 700-page, deckle-edged hardback for $5. It was pretty good. It wasn't great, but it was entertaining with several compelling story lines and many colorful characters. I suppose I was expecting greatness from the author of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. It was a bit more simply written than I expected, yet it was an epic story of early-20th century Boston and the clashes between Irish, Italian and African American wrapped up in the fight for equality in the Boston police department and among the city's laborers. There is even some baseball thrown in with Babe Ruth popping up from time to time.

I found the Pete Hamill in the used bookstore at the library a couple months ago. I was enthralled earlier this year with his novel Forever and I've read more of his work in the past. Hamill writes with the swiftness and sentimentality of the newspaperman that he is. Snow in August, the story of a friendship between an Irish Catholic boy in Brooklyn and Jewish rabbi so far doesn't disappoint.

Franny and Zooey is comfort food. I've never thought of it as an Irish tale, but in the first part of "Zooey," when Zooey and his mother, Bessie, are having their wonderful bathroom conversation, he implores her to leave him in peace saying, "If I'd wanted this place to fill up with every fat Irish rose that passes by, I'd've said so. Now, c'mon. Get out." I read it every year around this time and I never fail to find something new in it. This time it's the sense of family and the fact that, while Franny is going through her breakdown, Bessie, in her search for understanding and for help, seeks out the still-living brothers. She asks Zooey for help, she calls Buddy and contemplates calling Waker, the priest. Even as Bessie and Zooey are going round and round in the bathroom, and while Zooey is upsetting Franny in the living room, and Zooey condemns older brothers Buddy and Seymour for turning he and his sister into "freaks," the closeness of this family is underscored.

The theme of family is carried through all of these books, again an unintended way for me to read, but a treat nonetheless, especially at this time of year. I've spent whole days the past week holed up with my family, playing games, reading, eating and entertaining. It's what this season is all about and it's a bonus to find it played out in art.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Because I Said So: Seasonal spectacles put kids on world tour

This week's column is about my kids' various Christmas programs at their schools. I'm very proud of them whenever they take to the stage, but it is with a certain amount of anxiety. No parent wants to see their child mess up and be embarrassed in front of friends and strangers. Luckily, they didn't. They were all little professionals and I was spared the pangs of empathy.

I've written recently about the hunt for a column topic and how it can bring me to near panic. This was one of those times. This was one of those weeks when I carried a legal pad and pencil around the house, writing a sentence or word here and there. They weren't cohesive thoughts, but simply ideas. Eventually, when I had a few pages of these ideas, I attempted to stitch them together into a theme. I wasn't completely sold on what I ended up with as an idea, but, reading it in the paper, I guess it came out okay.

Certain columns are more difficult to write or, rather, I feel there is more weight associated with them. These tend to be the Thanksgiving and Christmas columns, which seem to always fall on my weeks. I like my last two years' Christmas columns, making this year even more difficult (so you don't have to run off to your own archives, I've dug them up and linked them here: 2008 and 2009).

And, in case you didn't catch it in the paper yesterday, here is 2010. Enjoy!


Last week began the home stretch into Christmas. The light of a red nose is visible at the end of the tunnel for kids who have been staring into the darkness of the school year with very little patience and much, much hope.

'Tis the season of joy. 'Tis the season of the off-key, of missed cues and flubbed lyrics.

I spent last week on the circuit, touring the many musical performances of my kids' schools, their harmonies through the holidays.

The oldest, Calvin, on saxophone, and some of his bandmates from White Station Middle School serenaded shoppers at the Wolfchase Barnes & Noble. In addition to holiday standards "Jingle Bell Rock" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," they played the Chinese melody "Kangding Love Song."

A portion of the sales that night went to benefit the middle school, while a majority of my kids asked me not to sing along with Johnny Mathis on the drive home.

There was a distinctly global feel to 9-year-old Joshua's program at Richland Elementary School the next day as well. The fourth grade presented "December Around The World" in which Joshua, dressed like an elf-size Apollo Creed, delivered the speaking part of that most classic of Christmas characters, Uncle Sam.

(When I was a student at St. Louis Elementary, I delivered a rousing performance as a member of the chorus for "Feliz Navidad" in our Christmas program. The critics, if I recall correctly, declared my performance bueno.)

My youngest attends Roulhac's Preschool, and their Christmas program is always a treat of the unknown. Corralling so many 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds down the aisle and onto a stage to sing along with words whose meanings they don't yet fully grasp could go either way. Could, in fact, go every which way.

They did great, though. Despite my little girl delighting in singing carols all week only to substitute the odd noun and verb with even odder words for bodily functions -- like some festive, though offensive, Mad Lib -- at showtime she was nothing but professional and hit all of her marks.

Thankfully, all practice for these shows is handled at school. We are spared at home from the repetitious singing and banging like Janie Bailey playing "Hark! The Herald, Angels Sing" again and again while George tears the living room apart in "It's a Wonderful Life."

The holiday season is not just about gifts for the kids, but about time -- the wonder of how slowly it moves as a child and the quickness as an adult -- and I consider myself lucky to have the time free to be a part of these yuletide spectacles.

There is always that fear in parents, just before a kid goes onstage, that feeling of butterflies like the childhood anticipation of Christmas Eve. But when they walk out with the smiles of accomplishment and pride on their faces, it's like waking up and seeing, once again, the magic of Santa in the night.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more about him and his family at uurrff.blogspot.com. Alley and Stacey Greenberg, the mother of two boys, take turns on Thursdays telling stories of family life in Memphis. Read more from her at fertilegroundzine.com and diningwithmonkeys.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's Only Rock-n-Roll ... But If I Could Just, Maybe, Lie Down Here For A Minute ... ?

I've just finished reading Life, the biography of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Amid the anecdotes of his childhood, meeting Mick Jagger, getting the band together and off the ground, and their subsequent success and fame, there is, of course, the sordid history of his drug use.

While reading this book, I came down with something nasty - drainage, coughing, sore throat, chills. I went to the doctor and she prescribed me 875 mg of the antibiotic Amoxicillin twice daily and 10 mL of something called Entre-S Suspension with pseudoephedrine, chlorpheniramine and dextromethorphan, also twice daily. I believe it was the latter of the two medications that, as the medical professionals say, knocked me on my ass.

There I was reading about Richards and his binges of pharmacy-grade Merck cocaine, heroin, pot, Jack Daniels and whatever else the Stones's touring doctor had in his little black bag. And while imbibing, he's barely steering clear of prison in Canada, France and Fordyce, Ark., bedding groupies, staging larger than life tours, jamming with Gram Parsons, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, taking phone calls from Hoagy Carmichael and writing the tunes that would become Exile on Main St., Sticky Fingers and Tattoo You.

I went to my son, JP's, Christmas program at his school all hopped up on this Entre-S Suspension and all I could think of was that I wanted to crawl back home and onto the couch for the rest of the day. In fact, that's just what I did. I have spent days on this sofa doing little more than reading about Keith Richards because that's all the dextromethorphan would allow me to do.

So my hat's off to the guy. It may only be rock-n-roll, but I'm going to need a nap and about five days recovery time.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Because I Said So: No debate here: Make it a real tree every year

In the previous post, I lamented the process of writing a column. Or, rather, coming up with an idea for a column. As I'll do in such situations, when inspiration is slow (as slow as Christmas sometimes) in striking, I walked around our doughnut-shaped house with pad and pencil in hand and stared at the kids, stared out the windows, peeked into the refrigerator and lay down on the couch in my office.

Later that afternoon, we put up the family Christmas tree in our living room. Kristy went to get one and, while she was gone, I climbed into the attic to pull down the boxes of decorations, dug up the tree stand and cleaned it and told the kids, again and again, to stay away from those decorations until the tree arrived.

And when the tree arrived, while I had my face stuck in it removing it from the van, forcing it into the stand and attempting to right it, the one thing that struck me was the smell. The aroma of this particular tree, for some reason, seemed more pungent than in past years and it flooded me with memories and with the season. And since then, I've heard more people comment on the smells of Christmas as they decorate - their own trees, candles and baking.

So here is this week's column as seen in The Commercial Appeal. Smell it and enjoy.

When I was a kid, the Christmas tree lights we had were the large, outdoor-style lights. They were painted bulbs of red, blue, orange and yellow, and the paint invariably chipped, allowing the pure white light to peek through. I don't know where those lights came from; they predated me, but that strand was something we always had balled up in the collapsing cardboard box of decorations hauled from the attic each year.
For our first Christmas together after my mother remarried, my stepdad, Steve, came home with a 14-foot tree that just barely brushed the peak of the cathedral ceiling in our house in southeast Shelby County. In the place of a metal stand was a crude X of 2-by-4s hammered to the trunk just like in the movies. We raised it and used twine to tie it off to various places in the living room to hold it upright in a scene that would have made Clark Griswold proud. I'm not even sure how, or if, we decorated it to the top.
I've had a Christmas tree in every place I've lived as an adult, and all have had one thing in common -- from my childhood tree weighted down with 50 pounds of lights to the towering spruce of adolescence and the very tree in our living room as I write this -- they've all been real.
I refuse to take part in the real vs. artificial debate. I don't want to hear about your aluminum, your multicolored, your fiber optic. There has never been any choice for me; give me the sap, the imperfections, the needles swept up well into springtime and the smell. That smell is the very scent -- along with baking cookies, cinnamon candles and anticipation -- of the holiday season, the aroma of memories.
The tradition in our house has become one where my wife, Kristy, goes to a lot to find the tree. I have no more business choosing a tree than I have in choosing an assortment of doughnuts for this family; something is always a little off -- too short, half of it is missing or dead, there aren't any chocolate sprinkles on any of these. I buy, I don't shop, and I've been known to walk onto a lot and point at the first tree I see. "Tie that to my car."
So she goes, and she has fun with it, and she always finds a good deal and a pretty tree. My job is to cut it from the car, haul it inside and make it stand upright. My job is to keep from saying things in front of the kids that will keep me on the naughty list. But we manage to stand it up, and have it stay there, every year, and once it's decorated and the kids are standing around watching, despite the imperfections, it's perfect.
Not only does it look perfect, but it smells perfect. It smells just like Christmas.
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more about him and his family at uurrff.blogspot.com. Alley and Stacey Greenberg, the mother of two boys, take turns on Thursdays telling stories of family life in Memphis. Read more from her at fertilegroundzine.com and diningwithmonkeys.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.



Sunday, December 05, 2010

Column How-To (or not-to)

My grandfather, Cal Alley, was the editorial cartoonist for The Commercial Appeal from 1945 until he passed away in 1970. He was asked at some point how long it took for him to produce a cartoon and his answer was "ten hours and twenty minutes ... ten hours to work up the idea and twenty minutes to draw it."

As a freelance columnist with a biweekly column, Because I Said So, in that same newspaper, I feel the same way about writing. However, it takes me about a week to work up an idea and thirty minutes to write it (all tinkering and editing after it's written I put on a new clock).

Deadline is Monday before the Thursday it's due to run and I like to go into the previous weekend with at least an idea. Even if it's only a theme or a word, I like to know what it will be about. The writing is just heavy lifting, not even so heavy at only 500 words. If I don't have an idea as we slip into the weekend, I'm a little worried. If I don't have one by Sunday, I start feeling a little panicky. And if it's Monday morning with no column, then full-on anxiety comes with that morning's coffee. And at over two and a half years and more than 60 columns, ideas aren't quite leaping from my pencil.

It's a hell of a thing to have space every two weeks to write and say whatever you want, something from your own head and heart that will go out to thousands of people. It's work I'm proud of and don't take for granted and I want for each one to be the best one. This is self-defeating, of course, but that's my aim every fourteen days. 

It's Sunday morning now and I find myself in the panicky stage as I'm not quite sure what's in store for this week's column. There's still time, though, I'm telling myself. Over and over I'm telling myself that. I'll give myself another ten hours of thinking, though, and then I'll begin sketching something out for you.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Back From Recess

I unintentionally took about a week and a half away from the novel in progress, which has a working title of The Simplest Pattern. The beginning of last week was spent racing deadlines before the Thanksgiving holiday, and then leaving town for that holiday. Upon returning, there was catching up with work to be done as well as reading the December issue of Memphis Magazine (more than once, I admit).

Not only did I take time off from writing, but from even thinking (obsessing) over it. I felt guilty about it, as though I'd forgotten to feed one of my kids for over a week.

What I've found, though, when I finally sat back down with it and read over a couple of chapters, is what a treat that can be. When I read through, it was as though for the first time and there were a few passages that surprised me. Did I write that? ... Well, that doesn't suck! I found myself thinking.
She lies on her back and stares up at the ceiling. She closes her eyes and Seth sees a small tear form in the corner. He doesn't know what to say, doesn't have the capacity for words and compassion that he wishes he might at this moment and so he stays silent. In that silence lives all the sorrow of Lillian's and all the fear of Seth's.
It also renewed my interest in the characters and the story. Not that I'd lost any interest, it was only a short break and unintentional at that, but it made me anxious to sit down with it again, to scoop some cereal into that kid's fat face, and see where it's all going.

I walk around with these people I've dreamed. I think about their thoughts and predicaments, about their manner of speaking. I get lost in them and, I've been told, I lose myself in the story.

I took a break from all of that and now it's time to get back to work.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Is This Good?

As writers, we should spend as much time as possible on this side of the laptop or desktop, typewriter or with pen in hand, working, crafting and revising. We should also spend an inordinate amount of time with our noses in books, reading to get a feel for language and the stomach-plummeting feeling of a plot twist or well-crafted hook.

But we also probably spend more time than most wallowing in our own feelings of uncertainty. I know I do. In the near-constant search for a story idea, metaphor, the right word or just a pencil, is the search for validation; that need to know that what I'm doing is worth a damn. Or even worth another half-hour.

Over at the blog This Writing Business, Stacey tackles the feeling well in her post What I Write ... & Why, and Secret Agent Mom takes it to another extreme with Write On. I'm currently in the Moss Writing workshop at the University of Memphis where Richard Bausch touches on the subject of insecurity almost weekly. Part of his mission with the workshop, he says, is to break down the myth and to assure us that the questioning feelings we're having as writers are not specific to us and that, no matter how successful we might become, they'll never go away. It's part of what we've chosen to do.

So what we do is search for any glimmer, for a word or two from someone else, anyone else, who does or has done this to tell us to keep on keeping on. My wife, Kristy, created the Facebook page for Lee Smith simply because she's a huge fan of the writer and wanted to garner as much exposure for her as possible. At a recent reading at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Kristy told Ms. Smith this and she was so grateful that she asked us to stick around afterward to chat. Upon hearing that I write, she encouraged me to stay with it. And, in a recent e-mail exchange with Kristy, Smith wrote: " ... and now I am thrilled to learn that your husband Richard has won the Memphis Magazine contest - this is a very big deal! - and I cannot wait to read his story." Lee Smith wrote that. In addition to On Agate Hill, Fair and Tender Ladies, Oral History and Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, among so many others, she wrote I cannot wait to read his story. And that, of course, leaves me with only one thought: What if she reads it and hates it? Because that's who we are and that's how we think.

I've spoken with some fellow writers recently about reading each others' working manuscripts. This is part of a dance that's done, this sniffing around each other to see if we're receptive or not. It's a difficult thing, asking someone, friend or family member, to read something for the first time. Remember that, any of you who have been asked to read a short story or novel. It is no different (maybe a little different) than asking you to babysit our infant. Treat it with care, read it as quickly as possible and offer feedback. And, make sure the first part of that feedback is "It's good!" because anything less will probably send the nascent writer into a coma.

Thank you for reading today, I hope this post is good. I should re-read it ... maybe even delete parts ... or, maybe, the whole damn thing if it's no good ...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It's a Small Town, Hollywood

In writing a story on Thanksgiving traditions for The Commercial Appeal (Away from Thanksgiving table, families, friends have fun, serve others in unique ways; Nov. 25), I interviewed Linda Goodwin-Parkinson about her family's tradition.

Thanksgiving of last year, she and her husband, John, hosted their family for a "breakfast dinner." The Parkinsons are vegans and the menu consisted of salad, vegan French toast casserole, potato spinach artichoke heart squares, tempeh sausage pastry puffs and an apple Bavarian torte. The kicker, though, is that all the guests had to dress in their pajamas.

In the course of speaking with Mrs. Goodwin-Parkinson, she mentioned her "daughters in L.A." several times and when it finally hit me, when I put two and two together, I asked what her daughter does. She asked me not to use it in the story, because she didn't want it to be about that, but that her daughter is the actress, Ginnifer Goodwin, known for her work in Walk the Line, Mona Lisa Smile, A Single Man and Big Love, among others.

It was a pleasure to speak with Mrs. Goodwin-Parkinson and to hear about her tradition and her family, just as it was with all of the families I interviewed. You never know just who you're speaking with or what the connection is in this town.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Urf! Redux

I've been toying for some time now with starting a new blog. I thought I'd like a place to talk about, well, me. Not what I'm wearing or might be eating for lunch, but about what I'm working on and thinking.

I talk to a lot of people during the course of a day, and write a fair amount of stories for various publications, and there are bits that won't fit into those stories - details and conversations and back stories. These bits are, invariably, what I tell friends when I'm discussing what I did that day. These bits need a home.

I'm also writing a lot of fiction and I'd like to discuss some of it, if not for you, then for posterity's sake for me. I won't talk specifically about plot or character, because those things shouldn't be discussed, rather, I'd like a place to talk about the process and how it works (or doesn't).

The main impediment to starting a new blog, it seems, has been the naming of that blog. There is a lot in a name, or should be. Urf! has been a great package, the perfect masthead under which to write about raising a family of four kids, and it has served me very well for many years. Urf! has been the place to document the fun and frustrations of fatherhood. But what to call a blog about the frustrations of writing and attempting to be published, all while still raising a family with four children in a house with three adults and six kids; the long-shot dreams of a career made in solitary among so much ... distraction?

And then it came to me: Urf! It's a word my daughter used to say when she was first attempting the childhood hurdles of shoe tying, sweater buttoning or toothpaste tube squeezing. At those times, when the want and need became more than she could bear, it was all she could muster. And it has become part of the lexicon around our home and, especially, at my desk. How often do I find myself searching for the perfect lede to a story or a metaphor or, simply, the right word, only to come up with urf.

So Urf! it has been and Urf! it shall remain. But be warned, Urf! has grown up. The themes here, the topics and the very language will be different. There will still be stories about the kids, I hope, but there will also be those bits from outside these walls, bits I bring in from the real world. If you've read in the past solely for funny stories about C, JP, S and GK, then I thank you. With all my heart I thank you. And if you don't think you want to hang around for what's next, then I understand. If you do, then I thank you even more, and promise to try and be as entertaining as possible.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dr. H. Edward Garrett Jr.

In a recent story for The Commercial Appeal (Baptist's heart, lung transplant program marks 25 years of saving, improving lives; Nov. 21), I wrote about the heart and lung transplant program celebrating its 25th year at Baptist Memorial Hospital, the people involved in making these miracles happen and those who benefit from it all.

For the piece I interviewed Teresa Dawson, cardiovascular line director for the program, and Renee Hatcher, nurse manager, at length. I also had the opportunity to speak with Brad Bradshaw, a patient who had a heart transplant in 2006. Mr. Bradshaw actually died three times and hearing his story will put all of our lives in perspective.


On a Tuesday afternoon, I was shown into an office in the Baptist Hospital doctor’s building to interview Dr. H. Edward Garrett Jr., head of the transplant program. The first thing that struck me was the size of the office. It wasn’t large and it certainly wasn’t opulent, stacked with papers on the credenza, a model of a heart and the requisite diplomas hung on the walls. I thought at the time that if I was responsible for taking a heart out of one human and putting it into another, I’d at least ask for a larger office.


We spoke about his past – born in Texas and moved at an early age to Memphis – his schooling and his father, Dr. Garrett the elder, a cardiovascular surgeon for Baptist who performed the world’s first successful coronary bypass. Dr. Garrett senior also assisted Junior on his first transplant at Baptist.


During the interview, one in which I got to hold a pump that can be inserted next to the heart to help do the work of the heart and prolong life until a suitable donor can be found (this pump looked like something I once installed in a malfunctioned dishwasher), Dr. Garrett told me a story that, unfortunately, didn't have a place in the final draft for the paper, of a transplant he worked on while he was doing his residency at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.


“We had done a transplant in St. Louis and there had been a mistake at the hospital where the donor was and they had gotten the wrong blood type. We didn’t find out we had transplanted the wrong type into this patient until it was already done, so we had a very short time to try to find another heart. We found a heart in Montana, which was way away from where we could normally go to get a heart, so we got the Air Force to agree to fly it back for us. I went up and harvested the heart and handed it to this 18-year-old fighter pilot and he wouldn’t let me fly back with him, but he took off in front of us and we took off in a Lear Jet right behind him. That (Air Force) jet was so fast that he had gotten back to St. Louis, they had done the second transplant and the patient was already in the ICU before our Lear Jet landed. I think they got back in 20 minutes.”


It was a pleasure meeting Dr. Garrett and some of the people he works with daily as well as Mr. Bradshaw and hearing about his new lease on life and his outlook on life, on this second life he’s been given.


I hope I, nor any of my friends or family ever require this team’s services, but if the need does arise, it’s good to know that Memphis has such a program.


Terry Dunn (left), who got a new heart six years ago, was among 48 heart transplant recipients who attended the program's annual picnic at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis. Here, Dunn thanks program director Dr. H. Edward Garrett Jr. (Photo by Ben Fant)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Leaky

The news surrounding the British Petroleum oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is becoming more and more disheartening. It’s putting me in a black, oily frame of mind right here at the beginning of summer. I don’t normally delve into politics on these pages (pages?) but I feel a special affinity for the people of the gulf coast, having family who lived there and living on the panhandle of Florida myself for a short while after getting married. I spent a fair amount of time in New Orleans for long weekends, a longer honeymoon, and one business-related trip only two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. The good people in that area of the country are, mostly, hard workers who don’t deserve the hand they’re being dealt.

Whose job is it to clean up the mess? I don’t care, but somebody needs to do it. They all need to do it, everyone from the oil companies to the rig’s owner to the government. A story in today’s paper says that “the solution to the BP disaster is at its heart an engineering problem, and one the government has acknowledged it is in no position to fix on its own.” And of course it isn’t. The government can’t be expected to engineer a cap for a gushing oil well a mile away just as it wouldn’t be expected to land men on the moon 238,857 miles away, or control a drone airplane in the skies of Iraq from Tampa, FL, 6,961 miles away.

In the same story, Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University professor of environmental sciences states, “It is an engineer’s nightmare …” I disagree. Trying to fit a 21-inch cap over a 20-inch pipe from a mile away is an engineer’s dream. This kind of thing is why men and women study engineering. They’ll figure it out, just ask them how. Ask all of them.

Not a week into summer and my kids have made a mess of epic proportions in their rooms. It’s an environmental disaster and who will clean that up? The government? I send the kids in to clean it up and they come back hours later looking dejected and worn to the bone. “It didn’t take,” they say. “We tried everything we could.”

The living room, too, looks like its own junk shot and they don’t even own that space. They lease it from me. So whose responsibility is that? Mine as the owner of the sofa and the TV and the area rug, or those who have taken it and used it as their own? It’s the kids’ job to clean it for the good of the entire household. And they will clean it or I will cap off the opening, seal it off for good from them.

I make light of the situation in the gulf, but it’s not funny. Neither is my children’s environmental hygiene funny. I have no answer for how to get kids to clean up after themselves, nor do I have any answers for how, or who, should stop the oil leak and clean up the mess. But somebody needs to because there is a lot more at stake than daddy’s sanity.

Friday, May 28, 2010

GK is Four

Happy birthday to the one and only GK.

Four years ago today you showed up to become the 4th child. Things have never been quite the same.

I love you, baby girl.













Tuesday, May 18, 2010

You Just Made The List

Dinner time can get out of control over here. I know the experts say it's good to have family time at the dinner table, but the experts don't have to listen to the complaining, the whining and the chewing. The experts don't have to eat their own food while the rest of the table wiggles and bounces up and down on knees and butts. The whole table pitches and heaves, inducing seasickness in any stationary adult. The experts don't have to buy the food, and cook the meal, only hear the children complain about their dinner.

And then there's the time. I like nothing better than a long, leisurely dinner over appetizers, salads, main courses, dessert, wine, coffee, Sambuca ... but this is different. This is dinner spent with kids complaining about what they have to eat, how much they have to eat, instead of actually eating. And that takes time. All that chatter takes up an enormous amount of the evening.

Part of the chatter, ironically, is about what they can eat. Can I have dessert? What's for dessert? How much of this do I have to eat to get that?

So last night I implemented The List. To find your way onto The List of Those Who Will Have Dessert is simple. All you have to do is eat your dinner. All of your dinner. The only possible catch is, you have to eat your dinner within a reasonable amount of time. That's all.

Last night, the first night of The List, the only one's left off of it were C, which surprised me, and Mr. Baby, which didn't - he never eats. JP and Miss M made it on The List over my protestations. Neither finished their meal, but were exempted by The Commissioners, Kristy and SAM. The integrity of The List was weakened on night one. I did put asterisks by their names so they will have a difficult time getting in the Dessert Hall of Fame.

We'll see how things go tonight. Whether or not The List has struck fear in the hearts and stomachs of all of these children. I can only imagine that they are spending all of today wondering what's for dinner and might they be able to choke it down within 60 minutes.

Or whether or not they can break down The Commissioners' resolve again with sweet talk ... and talk ... and talk ... and talk ...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reading

I love books.

More than just reading, I like to hold them, leaf through them, smell them. Before I begin a new book, I read the dust jacket, front and back flaps, all the information on copyrights and the title page. I need to know who an author dedicated that book to. And, if possible, why.

I want to go over to your house right now and look over your book shelves. No matter that you're not there, though I will ask later why your Scott Fitzgerald is next to your Lee Smith, why there are a series of biographies with a slim volume of poetry spliced into the center. How, in the ordering of things, did you go from Vonnegut to Cheever, Maugham to Chernow, Conan Doyle to Roddy Doyle?

It's not judgment, just curiosity.

I don't borrow books. I don't sell books. I like to keep the books that I read. Occasionally, I will give away a book because one of the greatest gifts, I believe, is to give something someone that has brought you such joy.

I read slowly and that's a handicap. There are so many books I want to read, and I'm sure I'll get to most of them, but how many more could I devour if I could read more quickly? Instead, I read slow and steady. I pace myself.

I didn't become a reader in the proper sense until my early 20s, but have done pretty well for the past 20 years. I can remember some, though not all, of what I've consumed. Not so much of characters or details, or even plots, I'm afraid.

But some do stick with me like friends.

Because Elizabeth did it. And because SAM did it. And because a list is the simplest form of blog post, both in the writing and the reading, here is my list of my all-time 23 books. In no order.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  3. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
  4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  6. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  7. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  8. Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  9. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  10. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  11. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
  12. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  13. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  14. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
  15. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  16. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  17. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  18. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  19. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by Maxwell Perkins
  20. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  21. The Risk Pool by Richard Russo
  22. Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
  23. The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
Am I forgetting some? Probably. Am I assigning a loftier status to books that may not deserve the distinction? Probably so. But these are the ones I think of right now, at this moment, when I think of the books that have shaped me as a person, as a reader and as a writer.

I think I'll go read now.

Slowly.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Across The River And Into ...

I've been writing a lot lately.

Not here, obviously, but for work - for them - and then that other thing. That as-of-yet-unnamed-project I've been working on for some time now that, well, I finished.

It comes in at a fighting weight of 73,215 words. It's a big, beautiful thing.

Just last weekend I typed -30- and put it down. And then I picked it back up, and then I put it down again. And I've been doing so all week. I leaf through it, read a passage, decide that passage needs to be reworked. Much of it needs to be gone through, scraped, picked over and sanded down with a 60-grit thesaurus.

So, it's not finished. But there is a beginning and there is an end. Actually, I've already changed up the beginning. So now there's a new beginning that is better. There are bookends for all the stuff in the middle to lean against.

I'm not sure how you know when a project like this is finished. When it's sporting its best dust jacket and on someone else's shelf, I suppose. Someone you don't know. Or when you're so tired of looking at it and reading through it - again - that you finally shove it into the bottom drawer of your desk, on top of all those rejection letters from agents and publishers, like the softest down pillow.

But I have no right to complain yet about that process because I haven't been through it yet. I haven't dipped my toe into those waters to see just how icy cold they can be.

I've been trying to get through this other process, the one that takes place about 80% in your head and 20% on paper. To help me get through it I've been reading about writers and how they do what they do, about Paul Auster and about Ernest Hemingway. I'm reading a biography of the last years of Papa's life by his good friend A.E. Hotchner now, that great writer who wrote his own biography once, King of the Hill.

In Papa Hemingway, he writes: He owned one decent jacket, made for him in Hong Kong, two pairs of pants, one pair of shoes and no underwear. And I think to myself, maybe that's good enough to aspire to. Not to be able to write like Hemingway because that's a losing proposition, but to that simplicity. Parse it all down and see what I'm left with, see where so little will take me.

For now, though, I have a lot. 73,215. I'm not sure that'll be all, I'm not so sure how you know when you're at the end, the final end. But I do know that I'm exhausted, and it's one of the best feelings I've ever had.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Speaking Of ...

I have just finished my time on the lecture circuit. As both of you may remember, last February I spoke to S's 2nd-grade class for career day. It was a resounding success and I'm sure I unleashed dozens of little freelance writers on the world, clad comfortably in robes, slippers and porkpies.

Today, I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual luncheon of the parent teacher organization for St. George's Independent School (people paid $25 a piece just to listen to me! ... and for lunch). I still don't know why I agreed to it. The vice president of the association sent me an e-mail back in February asking if I'd be interested in being the guest speaker. Public speaking is a phobia of mine, but I didn't immediately turn down the offer. Instead, I slept on it, and when I woke up the following morning I wrote 1,000 words to start off a possible speech. That part seemed easy, so I replied and accepted the offer.

I didn't look at what I'd written, or really give the luncheon much thought, until last week when I picked up that draft from more than two months before and read it out loud. Vice President Walker asked that I speak for 25 minutes, yet my hand-written speech came in at a cool 4:55. I would need to write four times what I'd already written.

I sat down and doubled what I had and it was still coming in short, at about 10 minutes, but I was happy with it. I kept reading it and tweaking it, let a couple of others read it, and we all decided it was a good speech.

So today I delivered it. I stood up in front of a room full of strangers out at TPC Southwind and delivered a speech that had them laughing aloud from the get go. It went much better than I'd hoped and everyone seemed very appreciative.

One of the reasons I agreed to do this was because the thought of doing it terrified me. I don't think I'll be scaling the side of a building any time soon, or letting spiders crawl over me, but I'm happy with myself that I could get past this and that it could turn out so well. I was confident in the material, I just wasn't confident in myself.

So thank you to St. George's and the parents who make up their PTA for a great afternoon and a little boost of confidence.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Friday, April 02, 2010

Because I Said So

My column in The Commercial Appeal yesterday was about the kids always wanting - needing! - to go someplace other than wherever it is they are at the moment, usually our house. I go on from there to how expensive all of the local attractions are - the zoo, Children's Museum, Botanic Gardens, etc. It's really quite clever.

A couple of interesting items came from that column. Drake & Zeke, on their morning drive-time radio program, said some very nice things about the column, me and my writing. I appreciate that very much.

Today, former mayor of Memphis and current CEO of the Children's Museum called to discuss the column and let me know why any sort of all-city pass to these attractions won't work. Mainly because places like the zoo and Botanic Gardens are a public/private venture while places like the Children's Museum and Dixon Gallery & Gardens are completely private. Makes sense, but I still think there could be some tweaking. I wasn't really looking for an answer, I was just trying to be funny in 500 words, but it was nice of Mayor Hackett to take the time to discuss it with me, it was a very philosophical conversation.

I didn't think about recording the phone call until later, but below is the bit from the Drake & Zeke show. Enjoy!

www.richardalley.com/RJAlley_040110.mp3

C is for Cool

C and I went to a book reading and signing last night at Burke's Book Store in Cooper-Young. At the shop, C shuffled back to the chapter books while I was cornered by the proprietors' 14-year-old daughter who is also a C, a Ch, actually, because if any kid ever deserved an extra letter, it's Ch. She is friendly and outgoing and the word 'shy' is not in her extensive vocabulary. Ch should be a character in a book, and since her father is a prolific writer, I'm sure she will be. We talked for a while about Monty Python while C sat nearby reading, not to be bothered. My own Silent Bob.

After the reading, he and I went to Young Ave. Deli for dinner. C seemed right at home with his longish hair and classic Stax tee, sliding into a booth and slouching against the back wall as though he'd done it a thousand times before. The tattooed waitress with the metal-studded face appeared to find the silent 12 year old more intriguing than his old man with the graying, receding hair and goofy grin on his face that seemed to say, "I will not be helping a 3 year old go potty during this dinner."

Having successfully ignored the book store owners' daughter who never even acknowledged his existence, C coolly waved away the children's menu/placemat and crayons offered to him, and even remained silent when asked what he would like to drink (C, that's when I need you to speak up). I accepted that menu to let him know what his dinner choices were.

We sat there, mostly in silence, drinking our lemonade and Guinness while I looked around and he texted. There were a lot of young children at Young Ave. Deli. I fought back the urge to go to each table and announce, "I used to be you! I used to be the hip young parent introducing my toddler(s) to pub grub. I wasn't always the near-40 father who spends his days fussing after the bird feeders and puttering around his garden. And, lady, I see that homemade sandwich in the plastic baggie peeking out of the top of your purse. You're not fooling anybody, now give that kid an onion ring."

C and I did talk. We discussed books and school and plans for the summer. Having dinner out with your kid is cool, no matter their age. Or yours. And as we sat there waiting for our food, he stealthily pulled a nubby little pencil from his pocket to work his way through the children's menu maze, connect the dots and dive into the word search.

He may have finished his entire Guinness, but he's still my little boy.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Urf! Is This Many

Four years ago today I sat down and started pecking out what I thought were funny little stories about what my kids were doing and saying, and what I thought about it all as a new-ish father, right here under the masthead Urf!.

And they are funny, most of them. Just take a look for yourself down there on the right hand side of this page, click on any month from 2006-2008. Last year wasn't so hot and this year isn't shaping up to be, either, as far as consistency goes. This drought is mostly because of what this little blog has spawned, which is something approximating a career. Urf! became, for me, the bi-weekly writing of the column "Because I Said So" in The Commercial Appeal, and that has become more and more freelance writing work (much of this good fortune is also due to Stacey Greenberg and Fertile Ground) which keeps me busy and up to my neck in deadlines.

I always wanted to be a writer. I didn't tell many people that at the time, but since I was about 15 I wanted to write for a living. I went about it all the wrong way. In fact, I didn't really even go about it at all, and I still tell people that I'm lucky and really just fell into what I'm doing by accident.

This blog has archived the growing of my family. Apropos of that, we spent today preparing to grow. We dug and we dragged found materials from the woods behind our house, we shoveled and we planned. The family garden is 193 square feet (so far) of good earth. We have become an agrarian society who will, this year, attempt to reap and sow a cheese pizza.

The past four years have seen many changes. We've become larger as a family over these years, found new interests and focus, worked as any family needs to to maintain order and sanity, and grown richer. Not monetarily, by any means, but in ways that I can't even describe.

I look forward to the next four years. I hope they'll be documented here (if the internet is more than a fad), but if not, I'm sure they'll be written somewhere and I'll try to let you know where.

Thank you to everyone who has stuck around for four years and laughed with me at my children, watched them grow and become interesting little people. Thanks to all of you who came late but have stayed for the party. You've become a part of our lives and we consider you all a part of the Urf! family.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Minutes

My friend Amy Ballinger-Cole sent me an e-mail a while back to suggest I enter NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest. It's a writing contest in which you look at a provided photograph and write a story of no more than 600 words inspired by that photo. The winner was to have their story read on the air.

Here is the photo:



At first I just laughed at the notion of writing for free. HAHAHA! And then I thought, "Well, I do dabble in fiction" and then, "It's short, so it will be easy and quick, and then I can get back to watching The Oprah."

So the next morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, when it seems some of my best ideas come to me, I wrote most of this story in my head. When I first saw the photo, I immediately thought of a racing form. I also figured that 98% of the other entrants would see it as the interior of a coffee shop, so I eschewed that location. In the reflection of the glass, you can just make out a BA, which led to the title, which came out of I don't know where. Probably more sleep than awake.

I like this quick little story. I managed to touch on four generations, at least two states and a couple of countries. I referenced war, death, fear and gambling, and yet got in just a hint of humor. All of this came together to win me naught. Not even in the top 10 or so, although there is the slim, outside chance that my story is referenced in the story about the contest and winner:
"Stories poured in from all over the country — stories about cafes and trains from London to Maine. There were lost loves and lost newspapers, detectives on stakeout, and racetrack bums looking to make one last big score."
Win or lose, I still like the story and it was a fun exercise. And it became like a writer's workshop around here for a day or two with the other writers living in our house entering the contest as well (read the entries from the rest of our round table here: Sassy and SAM).

So here's my story, Basil's Baby, inspired by that photo. It's the sort of thing I do when no one is paying me to write. Enjoy.

Basil's Baby

I knew which horse to bet on as soon as I opened the racing form. Even before I looked at records or jockeys or lineage, I knew I would bet on Basil’s Baby in the fifth. Betting on a name is probably the worst way to gamble next to horse color, but how could I not? I’d woken my daughter every morning of her two years by calling her Basil. I’m not even sure why or how it started. As a prep cook, I was usually getting home when it was time for her to wake up. Leaning over her, smelling of spice and root, I’d whisper in her tiny ear, “Basil, come on, baby, daddy’s home.”

The truth is, I could have sat at that little red pushpin of a table all day long eating chicken nuggets and staring out the window at people walking past. If that 12-piece box of nuggets I’d gotten had never run out, I never would have complained. But I needed to get to the OTB to get this bet off so I could get back to the hospital. I had to be there when she woke up, the IV clinging to her arm like a parasite, and her so scared.

And I needed Basil’s Baby to come in at those odds so I could pay for it all.

My great-grandmother taught me how to bet on horses. I must have been 7 years old. Her husband had passed away and she decided she needed an escort when going out, so she taught me to look at track conditions and blood lineage. She explained the art of handicapping and how to pick a sure thing. And that there is no such thing as a sure thing. She taught me to never, ever bet on a horse’s name.

Grandma also shared lessons of family and need, and the risk of letting someone close. Love and loss traveled hand in hand for the old woman, losing a son in Korea and a husband so near retirement to an unnamed cancer. The Ballingers moved from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Memphis to work for the International Harvester plant and it was an envelope with a red IH imprinted on it that grandma would show me when we went back to Arkansas to visit family and the track.

Grandpa’s pension check was sizeable. “Don’t risk it, can’t win it,” she’d say, sitting in a club seat and sipping Crème de Menthe.

Basil’s Baby was slow out of the gate but came on strong on the outside for the last quarter mile. She was beautiful, all silver muscle and mane, even on the little monitor in the dirty corner of the OTB.

I stood in line at the window to collect my winnings and thought how I’d still rather be sitting at that small table pouring over the racing forms, losing myself in statistics and breeders names, and eating chicken nuggets slowly through the afternoon.

My daughter was waiting in that big, white bed, though. Just a little sprig of a girl, my sweet Basil.

I went back to the hospital with enough cash in my pocket for the medicine she’d need. I silently thanked my great-grandmother and the horse I’d just chosen by name only.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Forward

This is a public service announcement from me to you reminding you to move your clocks forward ahead tonight. I reminded the kids this afternoon and JP asked how far ahead, so I told him 3 days. "When you wake up tomorrow, it will be Wednesday," I said.

I love the age when they believe everything I tell them. It doesn't happen to be JP's current age. The older kids haven't believed a word I've said since they were 4 years old. That's the age when they learn to roll their eyes and ask to go ask their mother for the real answer. I still have a couple more months with GK.

C asked how far we move the clocks back in Fall and I told him 3 days. Duh. "So that would also be Wednesday?" he asked.

A reminder again, today is Wednesdaylight Savings Time, so turn your clock forward to the middle of next week.

Or don't and just go ask your mother when you want to know what time it is.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Herb Garden

We spent last Sunday working in the courtyard. These are before and after pictures of the herb garden there. You can see the rosemary right there in front and some sage over to the far right. I imagine there will be some after-after pictures later, when it's full of greens, purples and reds. The rocky area to the left will be cacti and succulents.

This is where I'll spend a lot of time this spring and summer, just sitting and staring with my thoughts until the kids figure out where I am.




Saturday, March 06, 2010

Thing 3

S's class celebrated Dr. Seuss's birthday yesterday and the kids got to dress up as their favorite character. In our house, S is Thing 3, but for the day yesterday she was Thing 2.



Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Mr. Dad

For the past couple of months, The Commercial Appeal has dropped the ball when it comes to paying me. Dropping the ball, it seems, is easier than dropping a check in the mail. It has been straightened out, and will be straightened out, but in the meantime I received a bonus the other day that will hold me over.

A couple of weeks ago I went to S's classroom to impress her classmates with my job. It was career day and I feel certain that a whole room full of 7-year-olds now want to do what it is I do for a living. Whatever that is.

S brought home a big card the class made for me that reads: Thank You Mr. Dad. And they all signed it and drew pictures all over it.

I think it's one of the nicest things I've received in a long time. As far as the CA goes, it's one of the only things I've received in a long time. Maybe I'll send this card in to MLGW and see if they are as impressed with it as I am and will apply it to my next utility bill.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Three Little Birds

Our house is square like a doughnut.

That doesn't sound right, but there is a hole in the center of our house. It's a courtyard. In this courtyard there is a crepe myrtle tree and I've noticed some finches sitting in the tree lately and looking around as though they were expecting something.

I like to watch the birds. Sitting on the sofa and watching them alight and look around is soothing to a father of four's nerves. I would even like to attract more and, with this goal, I went to Lowe's the other day and bought a couple of bird feeders and some finch food. I installed these feeders and waited.

And waited.

Eventually the birds showed up despite the new, odd ornaments hanging in the tree, and then they would just as quickly fly away. There is nothing less soothing to the nerves than a bird flying in and flying away, and flying in and flying away, and flying in . . .

Is it the food? I wondered. Were these wild birds so picky that the 2 lb. bag of seed wasn't to their liking and they couldn't be bothered to eat it? Because if that's it then they can starve for all I care. I've got a house full of kids who routinely turn their nose up at well-cooked meals placed on a table, not hanging from a tree.

It's cold out. I thought these birds might appreciate a meal that was easy to get at, free of any predators or dangers.

The predators. Of course. They play Wii, they watch television, they run from room to room to ask questions and tag each other. They aren't predators in the sense that they would ever kill and eat these birds, nothing so productive, so fraught with initiative. Making their own peanut butter and jelly sandwich is so much exertion for them that they'll often choose hunger as an alternative.

But there are large sliding glass doors on three sides of the doughnut hole and as these kids flit past one, then the other, then another, then back again, they must scare the hell out of those poor birds. The cheap food I bought certainly isn't worth all that stress and worry. It's much better to risk life and limb out scavenging for food among the neighborhood cats.

Maybe I'll make the kids start eating out in the courtyard. Hang their pizza and meatloaf from that crepe myrtle and every time they reach for a bite we'll jump out of the doors and scare them. Perhaps seeing these kids nervously trying to have dinner outside will both help them appreciate the food they're given indoors and soothe an old dad's nerves.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On A Roll

I don't know what she's doing with them, and I don't know what urgent need there is for such a thing or where they end up, but 3-year-old GK has got to have a wet paper towel.

And she needs it right. now.

We know a few things for sure: she's not cleaning anything, she's not stanching any bleeding, there is no evidence of her flushing them (yet) and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight of her need for wet paper towels.

Only occasionally will she ask for a dry one after asking for a wet one. I've almost decided to just buy her a package of Brawny for her very own and keep a bucket of water on hand just so I'm not constantly called into service.

"I need a wet paper towel!" The urgency is such that we actually go running for one, thinking something might need to be cleaned or bleeding might need to be stopped.

So far, nothing. Nothing cool, anyway, just a bunch of water droplets all over the floor.

Not even a surprise sculpture of me has turned up - arms outstretched with an empty cardboard tube in each hand - fashioned out of wet paper towels.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Career Day

S has asked me to be a part of Career Day at her school next week. Actually, she asked her mother, but Kristy is a teacher and is at work during school hours. Besides, those kids spend their whole day listening to teachers.

So S turned to me where I stood grinning, expectantly awaiting my invitation, giddy with anticipation.

"Okay," she sighed, "you're up."

How to convey the exciting and glamorous life of a freelance writer to a room full of second graders?

The Presentation: I'm signing up for the 7:45 - 10:20 a.m. time slot, so I figure I'll show up about noon in my bathrobe, mug of coffee in hand. I will then spend half an hour or so on Facebook, read some blogs and tweet. Then, as they all look on, I'll pull out a legal pad and #2 pencil and write 500 words making fun of them all before stretching out on the floor to rest my eyes.

And then I'll eat one of their lunches.

I look forward for the opportunity to mold these young minds into something only slightly more moldy next week. If any of S's classmates' parents read this blog, you may want to consider a "snow day" next Thursday.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Cheaters

I took C to get a physical yesterday so he can try out for the soccer team at school. I took him to the Take Care Clinic at Walgreen's because I figured that would be the quickest way to get him in and out of what would be a routine check-up.

It was not quick at all, nor was it so routine. He failed the physical.

It seems he can't see. It was the first test of this routine procedure and the doctor climbed her way up the chart until she got to 20/60 before stopping and calling an optometrist she knows to see if he could fit C in last night.

The whole ordeal was unnerving. It's not bad that C is going to have to wear glasses. I wear them, plenty of his friends and our friends' kids wear them. It was just unexpected to stand there and hear him say wrong letter after wrong letter when he's never once said that things are blurry or that he's having trouble with his vision.

On the short drive home, I was faced with having to discern whether the sulking lump in the seat next to me was upset because he may not get the chance to play soccer (in true House of Urf! fashion, we're waiting until the last minute to get all of this done - tryouts are on Monday) or because he just had to stand there while a stranger at the Walgreen's told him something is wrong with him.

Now, again, it's not any big deal and Dr. Stranger didn't put it in those words, but we're dealing with a 12-year-old, a boy on the awkward and uncomfortable precipice of adolescence where everything seems just a little larger than life. And then, suddenly, he was dealing with having to wear larger-than-life rims on his growing face.

We had been sitting in the tiny waiting area for nearly two hours (again, not a quick visit) with me telling him that once he gotin to see the doctor, it would be really quick because this was all just very routine and "pretty silly when you think about it." So, maybe he was slouched down in the passenger seat thinking about what an idiot I am for saying all of that. He is 12, so that's always a possibility.

Not knowing C couldn't see so well and the likelihood of him not trying out for soccer because I waited too long to take care of this all feeds into the guilt I feel as a parent on a daily basis. Which is what my column is about today! Be sure to put on your reading glasses and read 'Because I Said So' in The Commercial Appeal.

There is also a brand new 'Because I Said So' fan page on the Facebook, so stop by there if you're a Facebooker. And, really, why wouldn't you be?

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Right Note

C wrote a note this morning and left it in S's lunchbox for her to find during the day.

It read: Hey, honey, I love you. He signed it from "Mommy."

S thought it was funniest, most clever thing she'd seen all day so, of course, she took it to its next, illogical step and has already penned a note to him and put it in his lunchbox for tomorrow.

It reads: Don't come home stupid. She signed her own name.

However, she misspelled her name at first, crossing out an errant "w." Further, she had to ask me how to spell "stupid."

Everybody has the right to be fascinated by the simple, and kids certainly have the right to make mistakes, but don't commit them to paper and pass them along to your older sibling. That's just stupid.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mathketball

The temperature this weekend was high enough to drive us all outside to enjoy the fresh air and the basketball goal that Santa brought last month. Because there is no need to introduce any more competition into our kids' lives due to the sometimes violent and aggressive nature of the loser, and because the kids - and by kids, I mean S - have little concept of taking turns, I had to invent rules for them to shoot hoops.

These rules involved some math.

Each child gets to shoot until he or she makes a basket. If a basket is made within the first three shots, then two shots will be added to those first three. Therefore, if you make a basket on the first try, then you get four more shots. If it's made on the third try, you get two more. If a basket is not made within the first three, we found, then upwards of 248 shots may be made until that rock drops.

I also incorporated a spelling lesson and C quickly learned how to spell HORSE. He was a gracious loser.

I taught the kids how to throw a football this weekend, too. As is typical for the House of Urf!, everyone begins reading early, yet learned to to throw a football well into their grade school years.

And as is typical for JP, I showed him how to hold and throw the football, he threw a perfect, tight spiral, and then ran off to do something else.

C and I spent a while tossing the football back and forth. It took him a few passes, but he was doing really well in no time. It was a good way to spend an afternoon that ended a week in which those first signs of adolescence, of a verbal distance that is the harbinger of coming times, showed itself.

C hasn't been himself lately. Or, rather, he's been who he will be when he fully morphs into a sullen teen. These will be years when I know I'll have to make a special effort to connect with him, to get him to open up to me and tell me if there are problems, fears, hopes or questions.

The backyard on a perfectly balmy January afternoon, I found, was the perfect way to set that play in motion.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spaced Out

JP has found a wormhole, a break in the space-time continuum, whatever that is.

When the kids come home from school and walk in the door, they file past my office without a word of hello and into the living room. Not a minute later I'm in there with them to say hello, ask how their day was and pester them. JP will inevitably be changed out of his uniform and on the couch with blankets pulled up and the TV on. C will be sitting in a chair, still in his uniform with his backpack at his feet, slackjawed at the antics of Sponge Bob. S stands next to him, still in uniform, backpack still on and staring at the TV.

JP somehow manages to turn on the television from the front porch, change clothes somewhere in the hallway, drop his backpack in a separate room and make himself comfortable on the couch in the blink of an eye.

Unless he's been there all day.

Maybe the JP that files in after school is a future JP. Or a past JP. Or a JP from another dimension . . . it's really just a string theory right now.

(I'm not a science fiction guy.)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

No Snow Day

Is there anything more disheartening than watching three children trudge off down the driveway on their way to school, snow underfoot? Only the sight of their mother, a school teacher, shuffling off to work.

They promised us snow. They promised it since last weekend and they delivered, sort of. In a sick, twisted way we had snow fall last night. Some schools are closed, most are not. Ours are not.

I know people from the north who read this and are laughing that anything at all would be made about, what a friend wrote this morning, having " ... snow like a New Orleans beignet has powdered sugar, if that," but I like that a little snow slows everything down, if not stopping it altogether. The anticipation, planning for snowmen and snowball fights, fires and hot chocolate, can take any adult back to childhood and is the stuff my kids' memories will be made of.

How miserable it must be to live up north, get eight inches of snow, and still be expected to show up everywhere. That's no fun.

Three-year-old GK is home today anyway due to a slight fever yesterday. She has wild plans to eat snow. To hear her tell it, she may eat all of the snow that fell in the city last night. I plan to stay inside and drink coffee.

She also hopes to talk all day long by the sound of it. I don't think she's stopped since waking and she shows no signs of slowing, or quieting, down. It will make work difficult for me today. It will make drinking coffee and watching Dora very easy, however.

Hope you all are staying warm and arrived at your destinations safely this morning. I'm sorry there had to be any destination at all.