Thursday, December 22, 2011

Because I Said So: Christmas spirit should be more than seasonal

Coming up with column ideas is not an easy task. I don't know how others do it several times a week, it's difficult enough for me to do every two weeks.

At this time of year it seems there is even more pressure. It's Christmas, and with that there needs to be a big splash, right? This is the column meant to be a present under the tree, with a big, red bow, for my readers.

This is the fourth Christmas I've written a "Because I Said So" column. Some are funny, some are touching; all, I think, are hit and miss. Hopefully, though, I've hit more than I've missed.

Please enjoy this year's offering, and please have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, from my family to yours.


Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge remind us to seize the moment and to treat every day as though it were Christmas.

George Bailey and Clarence the angel remind us that no man is a failure who has friends.

Buddy the Elf reminds us that the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.

And Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie remind us that it's illegal to empty a chemical toilet into the storm sewer.

My 5-year-old daughter reminded me the other day that there are still no presents wrapped beneath our tree. There are presents, to be sure, just not wrapped as yet. But we're busy, aren't we? We parents with our jobs and bills and responsibilities. It's easy to let the time of year slip away from us, or for its meaning to get lost in a knotted string of numbers and details.

It was quite a number of years ago that a man came in to shop at a little retail store I had Downtown and we chatted at the register. I'm sure at some point I talked about my four kids because, as he was leaving, he stopped, turned around and came back in to thrust something in my hand. "That's for your kids," he said before leaving again. I looked down at a hundred-dollar bill. I was speechless. Times were tough, and the money would come in handy; it was all so unexpected.

I told my kids about the stranger. He was rail thin and had a long white beard and white hair. Months later, during December, my daughter mentioned the man out of nowhere and said he must have been Santa Claus.
I had never even considered that.

Stories abound lately to remind us what the season is about and that it shouldn't be merely a seasonal feeling. They remind me of the good Samaritan who wandered into my shop that day. Across the country, anonymous donors are paying off layaway balances at Kmart stores, ensuring a Christmas morning for kids who might not have otherwise had much of one.

And, in probably the greatest gift of the holiday season, troops from all over the country are returning home from Iraq. Men and women who have been away from loved ones for months and years will be able to see their families and hold them in the light of a Christmas tree at last.

Bing Crosby, among others, sang that he'd be home for Christmas. Make a home in your hearts for the less fortunate during Christmas this year, and in every season of the next year. It's what Scrooge would have wanted, it's the spirit that George Bailey was searching for and it's something even Clark Griswold found.

The spirit of the season is all some people want to see wrapped up beneath the tree this year. My daughter will be taking inventory.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at uurrff.blogspot.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.
 
© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



Friday, December 16, 2011

"Not Just An Anonymous Number"

I'm not going to get too much into the whole online shopping vs. local shopping debate this holiday season. I've done plenty of both; the UPS man is making just as many trips up our driveway as we are out of it. For 10 years, though, I owned a small, specialty retail store in Downtown Memphis, so I have a soft spot for the entrepreneurs out there who have so much riding on every holiday season. My solidarity with them is also why this op-ed piece by the great Richard Russo for The New York Times (Amazon's Jungle Logic) struck home with me. Likewise, it's why I find this rebuttal by Farhood Manjoo for Slate (Don't Support Your Local Bookseller) absurd and argumentative merely for the sake of contradicting.

The argument and editorials have made their way around the internet quicker than a picture of a kitten in a Christmas stocking, so instead of opining either way I'll leave it with the great Paul Auster, not weighing in on the subject at all, but simply being interviewed recently for BAMcinématek (the Brooklyn Academy of Music). In speaking of the owner of a tobacco shop he frequents in his neighborhood to buy his Schimmelpenninck cigars (the place is the basis for Auster's short story "Auggie Wren's Christmas Story," which was the basis for the film "Smoke"), he hits the nail on the head regarding the importance of supporting local shops and shopkeepers. In my opinion anyway.

I started  thinking about him and how in neighborhoods in New York, in big cities, you have these relationships with people. They're not friendships, certainly not friendships, but they're warm acquaintance-ships that enhance daily life, make it better, make you feel that you're not just an anonymous number living in an anonymous Metropole; we had some very nice conversations.


Beneath The Underdog

I read a lot, or try to, and I like to write about what I read. In doing this, though, I've taken a page from Nick Hornby and his excellent column in The Believer, "Stuff I've Been Reading." Hornby doesn't write about books he doesn't like. I respect that, he's a novelist and probably doesn't appreciate critics going around bashing his work, so he doesn't partake of that. Instead, he writes glowingly about those he does like.

But sometimes disappointment just overcomes me and I have to say something about it. Such is the case with Beneath The Underdog: His World As Composed By Mingus, the memoir of jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. This is not a current book by any means, it was first published in 1971, and I've had it for years. I don't recall where I got it, I probably picked it up at a used bookstore at some point and knew I'd want to read it one day. That day came last weekend when I finally grabbed it off the shelf to find out what Mingus was all about.

Turns out Mingus was a pimp, which I did not know. He also played some jazz, he was a very progressive bass player and composer, which I did know, and about which I know very little else, still. But I do know a whole lot more about his being a pimp, and about his sex life.

Mingus was born in 1922 and grew up in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The book, while a memoir, is written in third-person by someone (or something, some spirit perhaps) who is with Mingus at all times. Most of the prose is in conversation with one person or another. It's a lot like listening to one side of a phone conversation. There is a stream of consciousness, beat quality to it, which is just fine for a book on jazz, but it gets tedious after a while.

Also, it's not a book about jazz. If I'd known Mingus was a pimp and wanted to read a memoir about Mingus the Pimp, then this would be the book for me. But I wanted to read about Mingus the bassist, Mingus the composer, Mingus the civil rights champion. I got very little of that. There are brief glimpses, of course. There is Mingus on stage with Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, but then it's right back to Mingus and a date or wife or mistress and their very graphic, very explicit sexual encounters. It got to the point where it read more like the collected writings of a college student recounting sexual conquests to his fraternity brothers, in detail.

And what of Mingus the civil rights activist? I knew before getting into the book that he wasn't fond of white people, but I came away with almost no understanding of why (not that a black person born in 1920s America needs to explain himself on that, but still, I'd like to know his experiences). He bashes white men and culture, and the South in particularly, though there's only one story glossing over a trip to the South. He wrote "Fables of Faubus" on the great album Mingus Ah Um as a derision of Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who tried to block integration in Little Rock's public schools. It's a great song, a great album, and there is no mention of it in Beneath The Underdog. And, as much as he did comment on his hatred of the white man, Mingus's treatment of women, by his own account, was little better than the white man was treating the black man in the first half of the 20th century.

I prefer an autobiography over a scholar's biography of jazz artists because in the writing, or telling, of their story, there is a certain improvisational feel as you get with all good jazz music. They tell their story with segues and language that make the reader feel as though they're listening to a record or a late-night jam session. I recently read Treat It Gentle: An Autobiography by Sidney Bechet, the jazz cornet master. He was born in 1897, and so of a different generation than Mingus, but certainly no less hard a time for a black man to live in. Yet Bechet talks more of the music than anything; he had a great passion and respect for the music - he treated it gentle - and it is this love of his profession that shines through in his autobiography.

As gentle as he might have treated the music, it was not a gentle time by any means, and being a jazz musicianer (as Bechet calls it) was not such a gentle job. Bechet was a bad son of a bitch who spent time in a French prison before being deported from Paris for accidentally shooting a woman (he was aiming for someone else). For all of its sweet sounds, jazz is not the cherubic grin of Louis Armstrong or the limp tones of Kenny G (shudder). It's the music of a painful and dangerous American past, in it is the story of slavery, Jim Crow and civil rights. Sure there were pimps, hustlers, gangsters, drug addicts, killers and thieves among its characters, but there was also, always, the music as a salve. Mingus's memoir, unfortunately, is much too heavy on the former and only a few notes struck on the latter.

Mingus was insane. He had his demons and portions of the book are told through a conversation between Mingus and his psychiatrist, Dr. Wallach. Near the end of the book, when Mingus has committed himself to Bellevue's psychiatric ward, is when he writes the most about music and wanting to be out of the hospital so he could pursue his music. The rest of the book is the perverse rantings of a misogynistic hustler and that's a shame because Mingus, for all of his myriad faults, was one of jazz - and all music's - great composers. Or at least, that's what I've heard.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Because I Said So: Sci-fi has become fact for wired-in generation

Column 12/8/11
I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on a lecture given by hometown son Joel Seligstein, Memphis City Schools graduate and current Facebook software engineer. He was in town from California to visit family and to speak to the eighth-grade CLUE class at White Station Middle School about his work.

It was like going back in time for me, sitting in a school auditorium again, a time machine lacking in leg room with the same small seats, the same smell of adolescence and apathy I remember from so long ago. Except this was the future. We were all there to hear about how the machines make Facebook run.

As a testament to Facebook's popularity, it wasn't until close to 20 minutes into the talk that Joel even asked the assembled 100-plus students how many use the social network. Naturally, nearly every hand went up, including mine.

But I wonder. Certainly many of those students, if not all, have accounts, and have for years. But how active are they? Two of my four children are online, yet their interaction seems limited to a status update here, a snarky comment there. My theory is that their lack of activity is due to the fact that I and their mother, and our friends, are on it. Many people still tend to think of Facebook as a kid's toy, some sort of video game, yet I know close to 700 adults who participate.

When we were kids, our parents' social network consisted of neighbors and work colleagues whom we never saw. We didn't want any part of their social networking. We preferred them to be as anti-social as possible, to focus all of their attention on us and our need for action figures and the new fad of cable television.

People my age find the Internet and its social networks so fascinating, I think, because it's science fiction to us. It's all 1970s drive-in movies, it's George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick, it's "Logan's Run" and "Alien." And, with such a large population in cyberspace and on social networking sites posting so much detailed information about their users, not unlike a menu, I'm afraid it's a little bit of "Soylent Green" as well.

Social networks satisfy our nostalgia for the future.

While our children have grown up in the computer age, we never even dreamed we'd be living in a world that requires secret passwords. Secret passwords! And computers in our pockets. Pocket-size! To do anything as simple and mundane as banking these days, we have to have a username. A code name! I regularly receive text messages on my pocket computer from my 13-year-old son that require a decoder. Aggravating!

Short of jetpacks and flying cars, it's everything we were promised as kids, running around outside (the Internet has deleted any reason to even go outside anymore) and pretending to be The Six-Million Dollar Man, Luke Skywalker or Charlton Heston.

But our children take it as a matter of course. iPod? Same-old, same-old. They take their 4G Network for granted just as we must have taken, I don't know, sticks, for granted.

As our kids grow, they'll expect more and better. They'll expect faster and no spam (there was no spam in our childhood scenarios on Tatooine or in the Fortress of Solitude). Kids today will walk in the clouds, in a cloud technology that allows a middle school student in Memphis to show and tell with his new Facebook friend in California.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at uurrff.blogspot.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Behind the Wheel: The Legend

As a chauffeur based out of Panama City Beach in the mid-1990s, I met some celebrities. Some were big, some were just rising, some were little-known or on their way out. None had the talent, though, of Dave Brubeck. And I didn't even drive him! He was playing a concert at the Marina Civic Center and staying at the Marriott at Bay Point where I came across him in the lobby and stopped to say hello. He was very gracious to take a moment (to take five) and talk with me.

He was old then and today is his 91st birthday. Happy birthday, Dave Brubeck!


Thursday, December 01, 2011

Hav-A-Tampa



When I owned Memphis's oldest smokeshop (FYI, this shop is now home to The Brass Door, an Irish pub), I met a lot of characters. A lot of people passed through the door looking for this cigar or that tobacco, or just to see the building and get a sense of the city's history. There was some history there, too. History that included local and regional politicians, actors, films, writers and businessmen.

And did I mention characters?

A guy stopped in one day, having walked across the bridge from Arkansas. He was traveling by canoe from Kentucky down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. We talked for a while, he wore thick glasses held together with tape and clothes that looked like they'd been traveling downriver, and he was in to buy some pipe tobacco because the smoke helped keep the gnats and mosquitoes off of him while in his tent. He said canoeing the river was just something he'd always wanted to do.

I wrote a story shortly after that about a man escaping from a tragedy, a man who wasn't on the run from any law, but from a memory and an accident; that's all it was, just an accident. He's canoeing the Mississippi River from his home in Illinois to New Orleans (though he has no real destination, other than "away") and the entire story takes place as he's close to drowning on an island just outside Memphis.

The story is called "Headwaters" and it's never made even a ripple when it comes to being published, but I've always liked the piece. I pull it out and tinker with it from time to time, see how Ben (that's my man in the canoe) is coming along with the water swirling around him and threatening to pull him under.

Since writing that story, I've penned (penciled?) a couple of novels and am working on a third now. Within all these swirling words and papers, I'm also trying to find an agent to sell a book, trying to keep the rejections from filling my lungs and pulling me under. In this search I've come across some blogs (too many to count, really) kept by literary agents and editors across the country, and I follow some of them for their wisdom and insider information. One such blog is called Glass Cases and is kept up by Sarah LaPolla, an agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York. On her blog, she invites writers to submit short-short stories to be featured there. The pieces are to be kept at 1,500 words or less; there is no pay, there is no promise of representation. It's just a place where one avid reader can present a story to other avid readers.

I sent her an excerpt of "Headwaters" - I call it "Hav-A-Tampa" - a while back and she said she'd be delighted to feature it. And so here it is. The excerpt is a memory Ben has, as he's swirling and sinking in the Big Muddy, of a trip to Memphis as a child with his daddy.

I hope you'll enjoy it, I still do. And it's nice to see a home for it, even if it is just part of it. It's nice to know Ben has maybe found a foothold and can breathe again, even if it's only for a short while.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Because I Said So: Big, beautiful Memphis has vibrant past, bright future



When was it we all stopped taking Memphis for granted and started appreciating what and who we are? (I'm saying "we all" and ignoring those who don't share this view because I don't have the time or inclination to try and change their minds.) Was it while driving along Riverside Drive with the Mississippi River to the left and the iconic M in the distance? Was the change of mind backed by Booker T. & the M.G.'s? Did it come with the rapid idea sharing via social networks? Maybe it was served with a side of barbecue.

Whatever the impetus for this change of heart and broader view, it had to have happened on a Fall day, perhaps while in Overton Park or staring into the rushing water and rushing color of the Wolf River like in the photo above.

Memphis is known for a lot of things - blues, soul and rock-n-roll; medicine, shipping, markets and motels. Are we known for the Fall reds, oranges and yellows? Or the greens of Spring? We should be. Is that greedy? Do we have to have all the good music, all the innovators of business, and more than our share of authors and philanthropists?

It does seem greedy, but so be it. They're ours and we should be proud of them.

Most of these folks are in a book, too, for easy reference and with fascinating bits of information about each. The book is called Memphians (Nautilus Publishing) and it is being launched into the world today. I wrote a few of the bios for the book and filled an entire "Because I Said So" column in today's The Commercial Appeal with glowing praise for the book and Memphis itself.

Please pardon the gratuitous marketing, but I am a Memphian and showing off is what we should be doing.

Big, beautiful Memphis has vibrant past, bright future

I am a Memphian. I was born here and raised with the identity crisis and low self-esteem that have mired our city for so long. Adults I looked up to put down the city and seemed to ache to live someplace else, anyplace else. It's been a difficult mental cycle to break, but I have for my kids and because, despite what Forbes Magazine and some other national publications print, we are a city moving forward with a past vastly more interesting than most cities.
This is the pride I want my children to grow up knowing.

To that end, I'll be at Burke's Book Store with my kids this evening for the launch of "Memphians" (Nautilus Publishing), a coffee-table book that highlights the well-known, and lesser-known, great personalities of our city. Along with several other local writers and editors, I am a contributor to the book, and was asked to research and write bios of authors, surgeons, attorneys, peddlers, musicians and entrepreneurs.
Characters all of them.

The new book contradicts the negative asides and outright diatribes I heard as a child. At 250-pages, it's a big, beautiful book in full color because Memphis is a big, beautiful city with some of the most colorful personalities the world has ever known. Our little hamlet on the Mississippi has been called home by forward thinkers past -- Kemmons Wilson, Ida B. Wells, Estelle Axton, Lucius Burch; and present -- Charles McVean, Jackie Nichols, Gayle Rose and Micah Greenstein.

These are all people my kids need to know about, whether they choose to stay here in Memphis for college and career, or move away to become ambassadors for the city. They'll need to know about Stax and the Memphis sound, the role of Memphis in shipping and transportation, great strides made in medicine, the arts, business and sports. They'll need to know the good and the bad, the ugly and the truth.

A handful of our local innovators and visionaries, icons, musicians or actors would be bragging rights for any single city.

We have them all and in droves.

The history of our city and people that will be told by our kids is rooted in tales of commerce and conflict, philanthropy and film, and with the best soundtrack in the world. The characters will have names as iconic as Shelby Foote, E.H. Crump, William Eggleston and Jim Dickinson.

Perhaps one day our generation's children will be side by side with the likes of Sam Phillips or Danny Thomas in a similar book. Childhood cancer could be eradicated here, the next great technical advance might happen down the street, the legions of philanthropic organizations could become the benchmark for other cities or the latest sound may pour forth from Beale. And it may be our kids at the microscope, the piano, the helm.

These are heady, progressive days for Memphis, unlike any I was aware of as a child. This is not a bad place to raise children, it's not even a tolerable place; it's a good place for kids and becoming better all the time. There are leaders, activists and everyday people seeing to this. They're the kind of people who make a city great, the kind of people who could one day fill a book.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at uurrff.blogspot.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Join us for the launch of Memphians!

Thursday, Nov. 10
5:30 p.m.
Burke's Book Store
936 So. Cooper Street
(in the heart of Cooper-Young)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Memphians



Earlier this year I had the privilege of being asked to contribute to a new book about some of the well-known, and lesser-known, personalities in our city. The book is called Memphians (Nautilus Publishing) and it is being launched this Thursday at Burke's Book Store.

It's a big, beautiful book at almost 250-pages with large photos and bios written on folks such as Shelby Foote, Isaac Hayes, Charlie Vergos, Clarence Saunders, Charles McVean, Jim Dickinson, Justin Timberlake, Furry Lewis and many, many more. There are those you'd expect to be in here, and some you might not have.

It was a lot of fun researching and writing these pieces, and fun working with the other writers and editors - Dan Conaway, David Tankersley, Dennis Phillippi, Richard Murff and Neil White. I hope you'll come out and join us all this Thursday at Burke's. We'll be there, as will a whole lot of other Memphians.

Thursday, November 10
5:30 p.m.
Burke's Book Store
936 South Cooper St. 
(in the heart of Cooper-Young)



Monday, November 07, 2011

Like the Weather

I began the story in yesterday's The Commercial Appeal on Dave Brown (For decades, TV meteorologist Dave Brown has served as reassuring presence to community; Nov. 6, 2011) by talking about how all Memphis kids know he hates snow. This is a detail straight from my childhood. I can remember being a kid in the 70s and 80s, and watching Dave's weather forecast when it was cold enough, and cloudy enough, to snow. I'd watch in anticipation of his saying just how much we could expect overnight and then segue into which schools would be closed. It seems like it never happened the way I wanted, and it was all Dave's fault.

My friends and I joked then that he was probably in charge of the salt trucks as well as whether or not it snowed. We all joked that he hated snow. And then I found out it's true. Dave Brown hates snow, though he was quick to point out to me during an interview that he wouldn't ever let that color his forecast.

It was with this memory of childhood that I took the assignment to profile Dave last April during the non-stop tornadoes, storms and floods we were having. It seemed timely then, yet it was put on hold for some reason that didn't include me. My editor brought it back up more than a month ago, a deadline was set, an interview completed and then that deadline kept getting pushed back week by week.

My plan was to keep to what has gone into making Dave Brown DAVE BROWN. For many of us, he was the first connection between the fantasy world inside the box in our living rooms and the real world. We'd see him driving down the street or at the grocery store. I remember him coming to speak to my fourth grade class and it was surreal, as a kid, to see someone from television in my classroom.

I figured I would cursorily mention the tragedy of his daughter, granddaughter and unborn grandson. It's an important story, of course, but I didn't want it to be the focus, partially because I'm not that kind of reporter and I respected, before I even went in, that he may not want to talk about it. But then he did. He was very open about that time, how it affected him, his immediate family and his family at work. There is still a lot of emotion in his voice when he talks about those days and weeks following the crash. I'm sure it's a difficult thing to talk about and it was a difficult thing to listen to. I told him my wife was pregnant with our first child when it happened and those first strains of fatherhood I was having made the news that much sadder to hear. I remember watching a Channel 3 newscast around then and that Jerry Tate broke from reading the news to offer his condolences to his good friend Dave Brown and his family. Dave told me that after that newscast, Tate went to LeBonheur Children's Hospital where the baby was clinging to life at the time, and how much it meant to him.

Finding people to talk with about Dave was difficult. Not in who to talk to, but who to leave out. I could've asked anybody what they thought of Dave and gotten pages of quotes. Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk with me. People like Dave, or the idea of him. Even the comments in the online edition of the story are nice, save for the few from people who are going to be asses regardless of the topic.

It was a fun story to research and a fun one to write. Enjoy!


A fact that thousands of schoolchildren in Memphis already know is that Dave Brown, chief meteorologist and weather director for WMC-TV Channel 5, does not like snow. He loves, as he says, "quiet weather, I love sunny days with highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s."

But there's a backstory to his disdain for the flurries; it began when he was 16 years old. "I went to work one Sunday afternoon in my mom's brand new '63 Plymouth, and five hours later when I'd left work, it had gone from a cloudy day to 14 inches of snow on the ground. The trip, which normally took about 10 to 12 minutes for me to get home, took 41/2 hours. I have not cared for snow since that time. I was a nervous wreck by the time I got home."

Tim Van Horn was one of those kids of the 1970s watching the news in hopes of school closings, and would later find himself working as an intern under Brown. Van Horn has been an on-air meteorologist with WMC-TV since 1999.

"When you see someone on TV, you think you know them, and watching Dave on television, and then working for him, he's pretty close to what you see on TV. He's about as genuine as they come," Van Horn said. "It was pretty incredible to be able to spend that time with him during the internship."

Brown grew up in Trenton, Tenn., almost 100 miles northeast of Memphis, with a dream, not of being a weatherman, but of playing rock and roll records on the radio. "I was always fascinated by weather but had no designs to get into meteorology."

That dream was realized early when, as a 15-year-old high school sophomore, he became a disc jockey in Milan -- the closest radio station to Trenton -- and then on WIRJ in nearby Humboldt. He attended then-Memphis State University and worked at WHBQ radio with friend Jack Parnell, the top morning jock at the time.

In 1967, Lance Russell, program manager at WHBQ-TV Channel 13, asked Brown to help with the wrestling program. "He said, 'I don't know if you like wrestling or not, but if you ever had any thought that you might want to get into TV someday, then you should take this job because you'll find out if you like TV and if TV likes you,'" Brown recalls.

Though not a wrestling fan at the time, Brown took the job and stayed with it for 35 years.

"It didn't take long of being associated with him to know that he was my kind of guy and, regardless of what he didn't know, it wouldn't be long before he did know it because he didn't mind working hard and he was determined on whatever he set his mind to," Russell said recently by phone from Atlanta.

Television liked Brown, and he liked television, and in 1968 he was hosting a morning movie and "dialing for dollars" promotional campaign. Bob Lewis, production manager at the time, suggested he put together a weathercast in his downtime, and "that way when they have a weather opening, they'll think of you."

"It was great advice," Brown said, "and I did, and, sure enough, they started asking me to do a little weather fill-in on rare occasions."

When Channel 13 started a noon newscast for the first time in 1972, Brown was asked to do the weather.
Channel 5 acquired the wrestling program in 1977, and Brown was hired away from Channel 13 to be a host as well as the main weathercaster. For a young man who grew up watching Dick Hawley do the news and weather on Channel 5, the move to WMC was a sort of homecoming.

"It's a very good place to work, and we've been blessed my entire time here with a good team," Brown said. "People talk about the WMC 'family,' and there are a lot of elements of family that are here; that's more than just words." He now heads a weather department that features Van Horn, Ron Childers and John Bryant.

Weather forecasting and broadcasting have changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, when weather became its own segment with its own headlines and headliners, there was a simple map on the wall as might be seen in any school's classroom.

"In those days, doing the weather was a magnetic board. It was basically a glorified refrigerator magnet; you'd stick a sun up there," Brown said. "And all that was done in those days was whatever the National Weather Service put out on a little simplified weather forecast; that's what you'd stick up there and go with. There was no five-day or seven-day, just tonight and tomorrow."

Weather forecasting became more exact as satellite images became better and more prevalent. Forecasting now is powered by computer models, and it is these models that give Brown and his team the greatest platform for what Brown calls their "heightened responsibility" during severe weather. "I'm a techie; I love gadgets," Brown said.
As last spring in Memphis proved, potentially dangerous thunderstorms and tornadoes can come at any time and anywhere across the region.

"One of the former general managers here said we're a 'first responder,'" Brown said, and it's a role he takes seriously. "We're often going for hours, often uninterrupted, with no breaks. ... I think perhaps our most important days are severe weather days."

It is during those days and nights of tornadoes and flooding that Van Horn has learned much from his mentor, "not necessarily just the X's and O's and the numbers of forecasting, but the artistic side of it as well, and how to treat people that are watching, and how to have more of a calming, reassuring presence on television."

Though the method and ability to predict weather in the future have changed, one thing that has not changed has been the sense of community that Brown has found in Memphis. He never considered moving to a larger market, though he was offered jobs in Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y. Brown decided at the beginning of his career that he "could bounce around the country going from job to job, or I could try to build a career here."

It was a conscious decision, Brown said, to mirror the Memphis-centric career of Hawley. In fact, one of the stipulations the family man made in his move from Channel 13 to Channel 5 was that he would be able to go home -- barring severe weather -- between the early and later broadcasts, allowing him to see and eat dinner with his kids.
Anyone growing up with a television set knows the face. For many, seeing Brown in a local restaurant or grocery store is their first celebrity sighting. He also lectures in schools on weather and a matter closer to heart -- a topic that has confirmed his faith in the closeness of his community.

In 1997, his daughter, Stefanie Brown Kuehl, 6-month-old granddaughter Zadie and an unborn grandson were killed by a drunken driver. It's an unimaginable pain, difficult enough to cope with in private and without being a prominent TV personality. Though one may never totally recover from such a tragedy, the pain was eased for Brown and his family by the outpouring of support from the community and the help of WMC.

"I was blessed to have a general manager at the time, Mason Granger. Mason came to the wake and I told him, 'Mason, I will be back, but it's going to take weeks, not days.' I said I'm just pretty well destroyed by this. He said, 'Take whatever time you need.' So I was off for four weeks, and they didn't charge it against my vacation or my sick leave. It was just, 'Do what you need to do and then come back.'"

During his time away, a videographer would stop by the Brown house several times a week with a box full of letters and cards from viewers. "We literally got thousands of them," said Brown, still finding it difficult to speak through the emotion.

Granger, now director of grants for the Hearst Foundations in New York, said, "When that happened, I don't think there was a person in the television station who knew Dave in any fashion who didn't feel very much a part of the sadness and the horror and the tragedy of it all and didn't have a sense of supporting him in a very personal and very meaningful way because that's the way we felt about him, and I know that's the way he would've acted if the same thing had happened to one of us."

The support from the community helped him in his time away and with the decision to come back. He has seen it as imperative, in the wake of such grief and outreach, to reach out himself and speak out at civic clubs, churches and high schools during prom season about the dangers of drunken driving.

Brown's days are consumed by work, giving back, cheering on his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and spending time with Margaret, his wife of more than 40 years, and their two daughters and four grandchildren, who are "all different and all wonderful," he said.

He has been in television more than four decades and still enjoys his work, a fact that is "no surprise me at all," said his old boss and co-host, Russell. "He just is that kind of guy."

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



Monday, October 17, 2011

To Great Lengths

Before I went to interview Emil Henry for yesterday's story in The Commercial Appeal (Writing mountaineer bio a career pinnacle, Oct. 17, 2011), I was given detailed instructions for how to get to his house inside the gated community within Chickasaw Gardens. E-mailed instructions that included the suggestion I bring my cell phone along just in case something comes up.

And something did come up! The power was out in the whole subdivision, so the electric gate didn't work. Someone standing on the other side of that gate sent me around to the south side of the community where there is an emergency gate used by the fire department, service vehicles, etc. At that gate there was a line of cars waiting to get out, we were all waiting on the security guard to come let us out and in. When he showed up, he had trouble manually opening the large, iron gate by himself, so I jumped out and gave him a hand.

It's arduous, sometimes, what we go through to get a story. Take Emil Henry, for instance. He scaled the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps in 1984 at the age of 55. When I asked him about it, his answer reminded me of George Costanza telling that woman that he built the addition on the Guggenheim: "Didn't take very long, either."

Was it difficult? I asked Mr. Henry. "No, not really," he replied. Seems they have ropes attached to the summit to help a climber pull him or herself up the rest of the way. That's helpful. It took him nine hours total, from bottom to top and back down - a regular work day without a proper lunch is all. He was quick to say, however, that 431 people have perished trying to scale that summit.

The story was in the writing of the book about the first man ever to scale the Matterhorn, Edward Whymper. Henry traveled to Switzerland, France, Italy and England for the facts; all on his own time, all on his own dime. I don't write nonfiction, other than these pieces for the newspapers and magazines, but there is something appealing about traveling halfway around the world for an in-depth story. It's work, certainly, but what an adventure.

Speaking of work, Henry was the chairman of the FCC for a bit, appointed at the age of 34 by John Kennedy in 1962. There are stories about that that had no place in the newspaper story about his book. For instance, when he first traveled to Geneva as an FCC representative, it was for a conference on radio frequencies to be used in space. Moscow and Washington were in a race to the moon and it needed to be determined who would use which frequencies up there. Isn't that civil?

And, as chairman of the FCC, Henry was the last official visitor to the White House before Kennedy was assassinated. He was in the Oval Office escorting a dignitary from England or some place, immediately after which JFK and Jackie left for New Orleans and then Dallas the following day. Henry was having lunch with his English counterpart when the Brit was called to the phone, returning to inform Henry that his president had just been killed.

Incidentally, the last unofficial visitor to the White House was Nat King Cole, who Henry saw there taking photos with JFK as he left.

There are stories everywhere! Stories on mountaintops, stories locked behind dead gates in Chickasaw Gardens and stories that might be realized in the following days with a phone call or a communiqué over an as-yet determined radio frequency.


Writing mountaineer bio a career pinnacle

To hear Emil Henry tell it, climbing the Matterhorn at 55 years old wasn't so difficult. There was little training, only to be tested on skills, endurance and altitude sickness; it wasn't even a life's dream.

"As tall, high mountains go, it's probably the easiest of all the high mountains in the Alps now," Henry said of the summit that has seen 431 deaths, 58 in the 21st century alone.

Researching and writing a biography of Edward Whymper, the first person ever to scale the 14,690-foot mountain, however, became a monumental task of endurance, travel and expense. And a challenge he wouldn't give up for anything.

"It turned out to be the most enjoyable occupation of my life," Henry said of the book, "Triumph and Tragedy: The Life of Edward Whymper" ($18.31).

Henry, now 82 with three children and five grandchildren, began life in Memphis, growing up in Chickasaw Gardens before going away to a boarding high school in Pennsylvania and college at Yale. He joined the Navy during the Korean War, spending three years on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, and then went to Vanderbilt for law school.

After practicing law in Memphis for five years, he was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 1962. When the chairman resigned only eight months later, Henry was appointed, "at the ripe old age of 34," chairman of the FCC by President John F. Kennedy.

It was in 1963, while in Geneva for a conference as the FCC representative, that Henry was first approached with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn. "I don't do that," he said. "It's not my thing." He reconsidered 21 years later when a business colleague suggested he contact mountain guide Rickie Andenmatten.

"My guide (Andenmatten) said, 'Emilio, you're going to get waked up at 4 o'clock, get dressed, eat a light breakfast, we're going to walk out the door at 4:30 and it's action, action, action'," Henry said. "We got to the top of the Matterhorn at 9:30."

It took five hours to scale the mountain and four hours to descend, Henry said. "My legs were jelly."
The Matterhorn is part of the Swiss Alps and sits on the border of Italy and Switzerland. With its iconic summit and difficulty to conquer, it was known during the Golden Age of Mountaineering (1854-1865) as the "impossible mountain."

Edward Whymper was a young Englishman -- only 25 at the time he became the first to scale the Matterhorn in 1865 -- who would also become an accomplished author, artist, photographer, lecturer and natural scientist who researched the causes of altitude sickness. "He was many things, and this book is about all of those things."

It was the discovery in a Zermatt bookstore of Whymper's own book, "Scrambles Amongst the Alps," first published in 1871 and still in print in an abridged version in 1984, that led to Henry's fascination with the adventurer. Whymper wrote several other books, but the only full biography on the man was one published in 1940. "It was highly dated and highly opinionated, and it did not give a full picture of the man, in my opinion," Henry said.

So Henry set about to write a comprehensive book about not only Whymper, but also the circumstances surrounding the Golden Age of Mountaineering, the physical challenges, triumphs and tragedies, and the majestic mountains themselves. "Part of the allure of this book was due to the romantic appeal of the Alps themselves and the Alpine regions," he said. "Chapter 3 is only about the Alps, how they were formed in geological time, what they look like, how they differ from the Himalayas, the spirited amateurs who climbed them, the chalets and haylofts where the climbers found shelter. I compare the early mountaineers to the aviation pioneers."

The writing was an expedition in itself, taking Henry to England, Wales, Switzerland, France and Italy. "I wanted to do justice to the man, I wanted it to be a serious biography ... so I spent a lot of time at the Alpine Club Library in London."

It was all research paid for out of his own pocket, he said, adding, "I'm not in it for the money." There were several publishing houses and agents interested in the manuscript, including several in the United States and Random House in London. "I finally decided that companies and agents were not going to publish an octogenarian, unpublished lawyer." He ultimately self-published the 428-page book through Troubador Publishing in the UK, where Whymper is vastly better known.

The book is for sale through all online retailers, as an e-book and at the Booksellers of Laurelwood, where Henry recently held a reading and book signing.

The Golden Age of Mountaineering ended with Whymper's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, not because he proved the "impossible mountain" could be conquered, but quite the opposite. On the descent, four members of his team plummeted thousands of feet to their deaths, the worst tragedy in mountain climbing history. The sport has changed over the years with improved technology and a better understanding of the conditions the human body can withstand.

But what haven't changed are the public's fascination with the environment and man's need to push himself and challenge the unknown within. In his book, Henry explores the life of a true adventurer and a theme which helped Henry push himself to the summit.

"What I tried to do and what I've done, I think, is to create the story of this man's life and, in so doing, illuminate as best I can his character and the things that set him aside from other people," Henry said. "So it's not just about mountaineering, but mountaineering ... goes a long way in explaining the kind of man he was."

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Because I Said So: Teen travels builds bonds, makes lasting memories

There is almost always more story than will fit in the space allotted for publication. Always a back story, extra detail, bookends, an aside or footnote. For instance, for today's "Because I Said So" column in The Commercial Appeal, I put in and then took out the fact that the cassette I kept turning over and over for the entire ride from Memphis to Naperville, IL, was the soundtrack to the film "The Big Chill." It was 1983, after all.

As I wrote in the column, I rode home to Naperville with Carol on a whim, an impulse as thought out by any of us as her buying a blue Great Dane puppy was when she lived at the time in an upstairs apartment of an old house. So I had no plan to get home, but ended up taking an Amtrak train back to Memphis. I was 13 years old and I know Carol felt guilty for years for putting me on that train alone at Chicago's Union Station. Hell, she may still have guilty pangs over that.

I sat down in the train car and could see her through the window as we pulled out of the station. An woman in her 50s sat next to me and, seeing I was alone, doted over me. She asked me if I needed anything, if I was okay and would do so periodically for the duration of the trip. I was fine. I was more than fine, I was alone and free to walk the train and find what was on the other side of this door or that. I found the club car and had a sandwich and a Coke, watched the fields of corn go by in the night and listened to the conversations around me. I spent time in my seat reading and dozing. My dad picked me up in the morning at Memphis's Central Station, little more than a shell of a building back then.

When I think of that time, that age, I don't think of it as teen or a pre-teen. It was a rite of passage and I think of my young self in terms of before and after that trip. I was given the chance to be independent and to look after my own interests. It wasn't dangerous, at least I didn't think of it as so, but it was my time to be on my own. I thank all the parties involved - my parents, my aunt, my grandparents who lived in Naperville at the time - for that experience and for planting the seed for lifelong interests in time alone with my thoughts, blue puppies, train travel and Marvin Gaye.

The column:
When I was 13 years old, I took a road trip to Naperville, Ill., with my aunt Carol. She was returning home from a visit and didn't want to make the drive alone with the Great Dane puppy she'd impulsively adopted while in Memphis. I wasn't much help on that drive, I'm afraid. I had no license and was put in charge of the puppy and the music. There was one cassette I liked and we listened to one side, and then the other, for more than 500 miles. I fed the dog Doritos.

Carol never complained.

At some point she was pulled over for speeding and had me lie down on the back seat. "Sorry, officer," she said, "I guess I was paying more attention to my nephew, who's feeling sick, than the speed limit." There was no sympathy and she got the ticket anyway, along with a bit of karmic justice when the puppy threw up all over the back of the car 10 minutes later.

As trips go, it wasn't the farthest I've traveled. It wasn't the most expensive or tropical trip. There is little glamour in Naperville, Ill. But it was an adventure nonetheless, and the bonding experience was immeasurable.

I was 13. Is there a worse age? Hormones, anxieties and peer pressure wreak havoc on teens who often don't know which way to turn at any given moment. I was able to spend quality time with a captive audience who listened and laughed, and talked with me as an equal.

This isn't a knock against parents, but as parents we have our own anxieties and pressures to deal with. Sometimes it's all we can do to keep our kids fed and clothed, never mind the Herculean effort it takes to extract information from a teen on his own thoughts and concerns.

My own 13-year-old son is leaving tomorrow for a trip with his aunt and uncle to New York City. He's excited and I'm envious. Not only because, while I'm still here feeding and clothing the other three kids, he'll be seeing new sights and sampling exotic cuisine, but also because, all sarcasm aside, that age really can be magical.

It's a time when our brains were spongy and we soaked up everything around us, whether the sights and sounds of New York or the stories and lessons of someone other than our parents and teachers; an outsider who was also very much an insider.

On that drive to Illinois 28 years ago, my aunt told me family stories, some I'd heard a hundred times before and others I probably wasn't yet supposed to learn. I kept it all inside myself and appreciated the candor and trust, and being spoken to on an equal footing. It's what I hope Calvin gets from his adventure this weekend while walking through the Village with his own village, enjoying the world-class view from the top of the Empire State Building, exploring Central Park and eating enough New York-style slices to make a puppy sick. 
Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at uurrff.blogspot.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Brief History of the Park System of Memphis

For the current installment of the semi-regular Hidden Memphis series for The Commercial Appeal (Park place: Establishing recreation system was linchpin of improving Memphis; Oct. 9, 2011), I jumped feet first into the history of the Memphis park system. The subject was a last-minute replacement when a person I wanted to write about proved to be impossible to contact. My editor asked what else I had and I impulsively suggested parks.

Promotional poster for the
Memphis parks system

It seemed simple, as I always think these stories will be, and then I went to the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the main library, asked Sarah F. for whatever they had on the park system and was inundated with files upon files of clippings, books and a listing of further collections. This is good, this is better by far than not having enough information.

The stories in this series take a lot of time and energy. There are usually copious newspaper clippings to go through, people to find and interview, and, often times, site visits. The story on the parks proved no different. Despite the effort it takes, and the disproportionate pay for work done, I really do get into the subjects and I feel that they're important for Memphians to know. Understanding why the city is structured the way it is, or who made it so, is part of what being a local is all about; it's this understanding that instills pride and gives us all a sense of place.

One interesting piece that had to be cut from the story was about the underground sewer system implemented here in the 1880s:
Memphis’s determination was made all the more evident as she was beautified from the underground up. Colonel George W. Waring Jr. of Rhode Island suggested, at a special meeting in Nashville in 1879, an underground system of separating sewer water and storm water. The idea was implemented immediately by Mayor D.T. Porter.
“This sewer design, known as the Waring plan in Memphis, became known as the Memphis plan in the rest of the world as city officials from afar came to see it,” writes Paul R. Coppock in his book “Memphis Sketches.” 
As usual, I had plenty of help on this story, from Sarah to Wayne Dowdy who helped find great old photos of parks and the parkways, the vast knowledge of the city in Jimmy Ogle's encyclopedic mind, and the wonderfully detailed writings of Perre Magness. Thanks to all of them.

If you have an idea for a story in the Hidden Memphis series, please send me an e-mail at richard@richardalley.com.

The story:

The founders had a plan, and it began with the parks.

When Memphis was established in 1819, parks and open spaces were as much a part of the vision as the Mississippi River, commerce and cotton. With a total of 36 acres decreed by the founders (the earliest being Court Square, Market Square, Exchange Square, Auction Square and the promenade along the bluff), Memphis established itself as a city on the cutting edge of culture, recreation and meeting the needs of the community.

Today, with activists and leaders suddenly intent on expanding and utilizing existing green space as an amenity to attract a creative class of people and industry, it's a resource the city has actually been cultivating and sitting upon since its earliest days.


As early as 1889, Judge L.B. McFarland began looking into the creation of a park system for the city. Nine years later, John C. Olmsted, son of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the designer of New York's Central Park, visited Memphis to investigate the possibility of such a system.

The mood of the nation following the Civil War, Reconstruction and the yellow fever epidemics led to an avid progressive movement of city beautification.

The leaders of the day "rallied around the idea that the city could be rebuilt to the highest standard of quality and innovation, and, as an example, the city beautiful movement advanced those ideas in parks, open space and with the parkway element, not just as a scenic drive but as a way to create and improve the form of cities where they could be organized around beautiful, linear parkways that would also enhance development and real estate values," said Ritchie Smith, a landscape architect who drew up the 1988 Overton Park Master Plan.

Today, in the Memphis Park Services building on Avery (on land acquired by the Park Commission through a delinquent-tax seizure in 1936), the minutes of meetings for an infant commission are recorded in large, crumbling leather-bound books. With the flourish of a neatly written hand that allows us into the paneled offices of men who dreamed of the outdoors, the Memphis Park Commission was established in 1900. Ever since, it, and its subsequent entity known as Memphis Park Services, has maintained a patchwork quilt of turf, trees, pools, recreation centers and ponds.

Also recorded in the books is the commission's interest in land found "in the northeastern portion of the city," the 347-acre Lea Woods. It was soon purchased for $110,807 from Overton Lea, grandson of city founder John Overton. The park was called East Park before eventually being renamed to honor Overton.

City planner and landscape architect George Kessler of Kansas City, Mo., was hired in November 1901, and he drew up plans for a system of scenic parkways to connect the new Overton Park with Riverside Park in Downtown.

During his career, Kessler planned hundreds of projects internationally and across the country, including Dallas, Cleveland, Indianapolis, El Paso and the grounds for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

Riverside's 379 acres had been used for emergency burials during the yellow fever epidemic and, later, to grow hay and vegetables that would be used to feed animals at the new zoo in Overton Park.

In 1913, a golf course was added to Riverside. A dam was constructed in 1952 to divert the river to the other side of Presidents Island, forming McKellar Lake with a marina built by the Park Commission. The park was renamed to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination.

Kessler, realizing that the open spaces were public and paid for by citizens, designed with an eye toward easy and ample access, even though there were only a handful of cars in Memphis at the time.

"In 1904, there were eight; in 1910, there were 1,000, and the speed limit was 8 mph," said historian Jimmy Ogle, who worked for the Memphis Park Commission in several capacities, including deputy director, and now offers a walking tour of Overton Park.

When thinking of parks, images of children playing, ducks and geese on ponds, picnics and sports fields spring to mind. The system of North, East and South parkways, however, is a shady, flowering trail designed and still maintained by Park Services. The system was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

"They still are the best roadways that we have developed, and it has been 100 years," Ogle said. "Three lanes, park-like median, dedicated turn lanes, very few traffic lights." Last month, the city began restriping North Parkway for dedicated bike lanes to connect Overton Park with Downtown.

During the first half of the 20th Century alone, we had the additions of Bellevue Park, Morris Park, Lincoln Park, Williamson Park, Treadwell Park and the Pink Palace. In an effort to battle the Southern heat, public pools were opened in Orange Mound, at the Fairgrounds and in North Memphis.

Land encompassing the Indian mounds known as the Jackson Mounds, south of what is now Interstate 55, was purchased in 1912 and renamed DeSoto Park (again renamed Chickasaw Heritage Park in 1995). In 1913, 53 acres north of Chelsea were established as Douglass Park. Both were outside the city limits at the time, and both were designated for black residents only, part of the segregation of city parks that lasted until a Supreme Court decision in 1963 ended such laws.

The second half of the century saw the creation of parks Glenview, Gaisman, Belz, Gooch, E.H. Crump, Martyrs and the Spanish American War Memorial at East Parkway and Central.

During the 1960s and '70s alone, federal money made possible the acquisition of more than 2,500 acres and the creation of 50 parks.

Two parcels of land totaling 355 acres were purchased just outside the city limits at the time for more than $400,000. Former mayor Crump, a bird enthusiast, lobbied for the name Bluebird, but the Commission fancied Audubon. There was already a small park on Central near the Fairgrounds named Audubon, however, but the Commission took the name for the new park and renamed the old one Tobey, now home to baseball fields, a rugby field, volleyball pit, dog park and, soon, a new skate park.

The Ketchum Memorial Iris Garden was planted with 2,500 rhizomes from the garden of Morgan Ketchum, the municipal rose garden was relocated from Overton Park, the Memphis Area Wildflower Society created a sanctuary for displaced native plants, and, in 1964, the family of retailer Jacob Goldsmith dedicated the public gardens. It was renamed Memphis Botanic Garden two years later.

Audubon Park today contains the gardens, an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and a 6-acre fishing lake. Once outside the city, it has become an oasis within, nestled among railroad tracks, a shopping mall, the University of Memphis and heavily trafficked streets on all sides.

It is this sort of oasis that McFarland and Kessler envisioned more than a century ago. It's a system that has been cared for and attended to by its keepers and citizens alike, though it has come under assault at times by eager developers.

Overton Park was nearly bisected in the 1970s by I-40 until a landmark Supreme Court decision averted that near disaster. It is a case looked upon by courts today and still the only point in the country where I-40 is broken.

The Memphis Park Commission was dissolved in 2000 under the Herenton administration and became a division of city government. Today, the Memphis City Council is considering allowing a conservancy -- like the zoo, Botanic Garden and Shelby Farms have done -- to overlook the management, fundraising and any restructuring of Overton Park.

"The Park Commission are assured of the fact that they can accomplish but little unless supported by a strong, favorable public sentiment," Chairman McFarland wrote. "The people must encourage and help the Commission and the administration in this work if they want a beautiful city."

© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


West entrance to Overton Park; McLean & Overton Park; 1914


Thursday, October 06, 2011

Classic Urf!: Family Motto

This blog was started way back in 2006. After a couple of years of writing it, my friend Stacey Greenberg contacted me one day and said The Commercial Appeal was interested in the two of us writing a new column for them about parenting. Perfect, I figured, I'm already doing that.

Stacey has recently departed the column for various reasons, including, apparently, to write a hell of a lot more features. I think she has one somewhere nearly every other day. Here's one from today's CA. And, of course, she still keeps up with her blog, which was her gateway drug into "Because I Said So."

Speaking of "Because I Said So," it's only every other Thursday now, so on the off Thursdays, I'll replay some classics. Today, though, I'm pulling out an old Urf!. I have a counter on this site and it shows me how many hits I get, how people got to the site and where they are. It's fascinating to see the many different locations around the globe where people are slacking off work or school by searching the internet; to see at just what corporations, colleges and hospitals around Memphis employees are snatching a little "me" time. And, to see what they search for to get to Urf!. Far and away, one of the most searched terms that gets y'all to the site is "family motto." Lot of genealogy enthusiasts out there.

It so happens that I had a post on May 22, 2006 (only six days before the birth of GK!), titled with that exact search term: Family Motto. It would have made an excellent column, and is still a good post, a classic even. So here it is for your enjoyment.

I was recently reading a touching piece by Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker on his late wife, Alice. In the article, he mentions a family motto that he, his daughters and Alice had: "Pull Up Your Socks." Trillin recalls Alice lamenting that this motto may have been too "flippant."

It got me to thinking that maybe we need a family motto. I found it odd, in fact, that we didn't have one in place already. My family, my little fiefdom, should have a motto to look to for inspiration. A few came to mind right away: "We're Out Of Milk," "Where Is The Remote?," "Your Shoes Are On The Wrong Feet."

It will need to be a motto The Trio can take pride in, something they can shout from the top step and one day tattoo across themselves, or at least write it in their own dust. I believe any of the aforementioned mottos are a nice enough fit. Other possibilities include: "I Want," "Where's Mommy?" and "Don't Touch Daddy's Drink."

Once we come up with a decent motto, though, we may need a coat of arms - something that really strikes fear, or confusion, in the hearts of the other families at the park. Coats of arms have really fallen out of style in the 21st Century. In fact, I don't think I know one family with a coat of arms; nothing they're willing to display with pride, anyway. So what would our coat of arms look like? Perhaps a shield with a Pop Tart emblazoned on it, or a sippy cup full of curdled milk or maybe just a likeness of me looking addled. Or maybe it won't be a shield at all, we rarely use them around here. Maybe it will be a TV screen or a trash can or a refrigerator door left standing open. Other coat of arms design possibilities include: a silhouette of bedhead, a toothpaste-caked toothbrush and a pile of laundry, possibly clean, possibly not.

Once we start thinking of a motto and coat of arms, then we naturally have to consider a family song, a battle anthem. Currently, on the way to school, The Trio is enjoying "Shake Your Rump" by The Beastie Boys off the album Paul's Boutique, and "People Watching" by Jack Johnson off the Curious George soundtrack. Neither of these seem appropriate. I would have to nominate "Goon Squad" by Elvis Costello off Armed Forces, "Fly Me To The Moon" by Frank Sinatra, the version on Sinatra at the Sands, and "Run Run Run" by The Velvet Underground from The Velvet Underground & Nico.

Well, we have a lot to work on around here, so I better go. But rest assured and beware, The Trio will soon be coming to a park near you to take over your swings and your slide and your plastic tube they like to crawl through. You'll know them right away, they'll be the ones marching up with a banner reading "No Shoes On The Couch!" and wearing shirts printed with stylized pictures of a half-eaten waffle while singing "Shake Your Rump" at the top of their lungs.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Stolen Moments

I'm having an affair.

No, not like that, but instead of doing what I should be doing some mornings, instead of working on what is expected of me as part of a household that requires food and shelter and money for frozen yogurt, DVDs and telephone service; instead of being a productive member of society, I'm spending time with a retiring jazz musician in New York who reflects on his life for me and talks about his hestitation to move back to the South. He regales me with stories of traveling through that dusty swath of Delta during a time when he and his band mates weren't allowed to eat in certain restaurants or stay in many hotels. And then some mornings I spend what should be productive work time with a young man who is coming to terms with being a father before he'd planned to, and his girlfriend who is likewise staring wide-eyed at her future as a mother. And I'm almost too ashamed to tell you about the lake where I spend mornings bandying about with the locals.

(I don't know if any of my editors read this blog or not, but if so, let me assure you that your project will be finished on time. I don't make a habit of missing deadlines.)

These are all characters and locations in novels and short stories I'm working on and, though the nameplate on my desk might read WRITER, spending time on anything but what has been specifically asked for, with a fee attached, just feels wrong. Sure, these manuscripts may sell. Eventually. They may bring in advances and royalties to keep my family fat with school uniforms, Pop-Tarts, books, car insurance and Christmas gifts, but that's a gamble, isn't it?

I write these stories because I have to. They eat at me until I can get them on paper, and some of them even turn out pretty good. These are the ones I think are salable and that I dream of seeing on a bookstore shelf one day. It's a dream the way the lottery is a dream for some, or playing time in the NFL is for others. Do I think it will happen one day? Sure. Someday. But I don't have a timeline the way I do for a newspaper profile or magazine feature. There is no guaranteed paycheck with the conclusion of a short story.

I'm lucky to have the time to work on stories I make up. I'm fortunate that my days aren't filled with meetings and conference calls and site visits. I'm free to lean way back in my chair, put my feet up on my desk, and imagine where it is Agnes goes after she leaves that bookstore, or whether or not I should just do away with Lucas Spoke for good.

Now, I'll certainly have to put my feet back on the floor again to get down to business and make those phone calls, meet up with a source and craft those thousand words that follow a byline. Time cards wait for no man, whether real or made up.

Business is business.

The trick is balancing the business of writing with the love of writing. It's a plot I'm still working my way through - one that includes stolen mornings, intrigue, devotion and duplicity - and I can't wait to see how it might end.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Because I Said So: Low-tech telecom new frontier for digital kids


S reads
The kids get a kick out of seeing their name in print. G's teacher still has a column featuring G hanging in the classroom and G reminds me of that almost daily. When I told S that today's column mentions her, she demanded to read it beforehand. I didn't let her, I have enough editors as it is. Instead, she waited until this morning and read it in the newspaper while she ate her waffle. She seemed pleased. It doesn't seem to matter whether I'm making fun of them or not, they just like knowing they got a mention. And that their names are spelled right.

Being in the same room with S as she tries to learn the nuances of an actual, land line telephone is maddening. I couldn't even describe it all in the limited space - the way she'll answer the phone with silence, waiting for the person on the other end to speak first; or the way she is stopped cold with her deer-in-the-headlights eyes when someone other than the kid she's calling answers the phone. Don't even get me started on her use of the speaker phone.

I couldn't catch it all, but I think I got the gist of it down for today's Commercial Appeal. It's something we all go through, it's something we all went through. So, if you will, please take the phone off the hook and give today's column a read.

For more than a decade, we haven't had a home telephone. Like so many others, we grew tired of telemarketers, wrong numbers and the double billing on top of our cell phones.

But our kids continue to age and become more social. It had become time for either a home phone or pockets full of cell phones when a giant corporation made us a deal promising free HBO, a land line and terrible service.

How could we say no?

The kids have never known a home phone. It was like a prop from one of those classic films they like, one from the 1980s. They approached the thin, silvery wand the way a pet might advance on a new animal in its territory. They walked around it, sniffed it and pushed at it with their filthy paws.

Once we convinced them that it was OK, that it was like any other piece of technology they know, they relaxed. It was lifted gingerly from its cradle to be further scrutinized and then pointed at the television. It was aimed at the Wii and searched over for an Internet portal. In an effort to dial up YouTube, my son may have dialed Japan.

Alexander Graham Bell shouted into the first telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!" My 9-year-old daughter first shouted into her new telephone, "It's Somerset! Hello? Is this thing even on?"

The receiver was not a room away as he had been in 1876, but blocks away, and I'm certain Somerset's friend heard her as much through the windows and over air as she did through the telephone.

A recent cartoon in The New Yorker shows two children walking, each carrying a backpack as if to school, and one says to the other, "So, hw ws yr smmr?" The caption reads: First Day Back To Verbal Communication.

We've taught our children to say "please" and "thank you," to clear their dirty dishes and to hold the door for those behind them, but phone etiquette is a new frontier. They've grown up in a world of cell phones, texts, instant messaging and the shorthand required to navigate these networks. It has seeped into their speech. The phrase, "May I speak to ..." is as foreign to them as how and why to make an emoticon is to me.

Technology is not lost on kids today. They are able to grasp the intricacies of buttons, touch screens, mice and cursors. It's the concept of technological regression they can't quite fathom. The rotary phones of my childhood would have been out of the question for these children of the 21st century. They would lose interest in whatever it was they or their friends had to say by the fourth digit in the telephone number.

"My voice travels through wires?" they said that day, looking at the cordless phone.

"Eventually, yes," I said, exasperated. "It's like a telegraph machine. Go look it up on Wikipedia. No, you can't get to Wikipedia on that phone."

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at uurrff.blogspot.com. Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.
 
© 2011 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Voice

I just finished reading Tabloid City by Pete Hamill and I like it. It's a pretty good book. I see that it's received some bad reviews, but I don't pay so much attention to reviews of other people's work.

I read Hamill when I need a little Hamill. Whether fiction or nonfiction, it's always gritty, fast-paced and nostalgic. Overly sentimental? Sure, but that's Hamill. He lives in a world that doesn't exist anymore and it happens to be a world that interests me. So I read him and will continue to despite the reviews.

I don't compare Hamill to other writers the way I don't compare Woody Allen to other filmmakers. His movies are so uniquely "Woody Allen" that they should only be measured against others in his oeuvre, if I may use that word. I watch his films because of the look, the dialogue and the characters. The same is true with Wes Anderson.

It's all voice. It's style. And these writers and directors have their very own. Some - many - may think of them as one-trick ponies, but it's what they're good at, it's what is comfortable and it's that comfort and mastery of their own voice that shines through and keeps me coming back.

Rodrigo Fresan (Historia Argentina, The Velocity of Things, Kensington Gardens), in the book of essays, The Secret Miracle, The Novelist's Handbook, says of style:

I'll go further: maybe that is what style is in the end. Maybe, now that I think about it, a writer's style is nothing more than the ghost of his shortcomings rather than the reality of his virtues. I'll try to explain myself. You end up resigning yourself to what you can do, and throwing aside what you'll never be good at, and so others perceive as achievements what in reality are the dregs within reach, with luck, each time ennobled and purified. What a writer does and what he wanted to do are two different things, and, as time passes, what he does solidifies into the only thing he can do well, what he does like no one else.

Voice is difficult to come by in writing - it takes many hours and many, many sentences written and rewritten - but once found, it feels like the ground below has opened, allowing you to free fall into the story you wish to tell. As exhilarating as it is to hear that voice, that style, in your mind as you work through a character or a plot, it is just as frightening to have someone edit that work for fear of the voice disappearing or being diminished. I think we become as protective of pacing and rhythm as of a favorite character, and think that no one else will take the care to hear it the way we will.

Even in revision of myself I worry that I'm plucking out words or moving punctuation in such a way that waters down the way I meant a certain passage to be read in the very first instance of putting it on paper. With one manuscript in the ether, and while awaiting word on its (hopefully) safe landing, I have turned my attention to the revision of another, the first I finished in 2010. I spent the weekend with several parts where the main character types his thoughts and those thoughts are what we read. I break from my voice and jump abruptly from third into first person, which isn't so comfortable for me. As in dialogue, the trick is to make what he types come across in a way that only he would say it, and that's not so easy. Not for me. In re-reading it, I realized it was simply my voice in italics. So I shortened some sentences and moved some punctuation around. Threw in a few words I might not normally use. I'll go back later and read it all over again. I'll try to take myself out of it and search the dregs for what remains, try to ennoble and purify it.

Hopefully the new copy will be as exciting to me as the original was two years ago when I first wrote it. And hopefully a voice will be heard and carry through, and that pony will be one readers want to ride again and again.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Shirt Happens

My mother sent me a text a few days after the start of the school year and it was one of those texts where I could hear the laughter in the few words on the little screen. She sent it because she'd just seen the first day of school picture I'd posted on Facebook, the one with my kids standing in front of the porch steps, still sleepy, dressed for school and with backpack, lunchbox and hoodie.

It was the hoodie that did it for her. It was the start of the school year, August, and the temperature that morning must have already been in the 80s. Yet here was my teenage son wearing a hoodie for his walk to school.

When I was his age, we called them jackets, and I guarantee I would have had one on, too. I complained about C wearing his without even realizing I was looking at my own 13-year-old self. And this is what set my mother off. And then it set me off, laughing along with her text because it had come full circle.

Shirt
I don't know what it is, this need to cover up. For me back in 1983, it might have been an uneasiness with my changing, gangling body; a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. None of this was new to me, nor is it new with C, it's all part of being an awkward adolescent.

I don't wear the hoodie/jacket all the time now. But now I have a shirt. It's different shades of brown, a couple of pockets, and worn thin at one elbow. I call it my writing shirt because it helps me write. Not really, of course, but that's what I tell myself. There are no characters in the pockets, no plot line up a sleeve. Trust me, I've looked. It's just something comfortable I like to put on that gives me the sense that I'm about to do something, it's like Superman's cape or the prologue to any great story.

I'm not even sure where I got the shirt. I think it was a gift long ago in the age of grunge from my sister-in-law. It rarely leaves the house, worn and unsightly as it is, and is almost never worn in the summer months. But this time of year, when the temperature dips into the 50s, it comes back out and I ease into it the way I might ease into that great story. Hopefully.

I've been told by the women in this house that this shirt is what not to wear. Its very existence has been threatened. These are people who would seek to expose Superman's secret identity, to erase that prologue. I don't need the shirt to write any more than I need pencils or a thesaurus. It's simply another tool in my arsenal, a cloak to drape over my awkwardness at putting my thoughts and feelings on paper for the world to see.

These are moments like adolescence all over again, and I say use everything you've got to help you feel comfortable with it.