Sunday, August 30, 2009

Who Are These People In My Neighborhood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 24, 2009

For My Regular Readers

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

Saturday, August 22, 2009

C is for Cannonball

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

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

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

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

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

Here is is last night:

[Thanks, again, Uncle Toby.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hooray for Captain Spaulding!

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Intro to Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's that pit in my stomach again.

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

Anyway, here it is:

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

-- From the song “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

Friday, August 07, 2009

Paul and Me

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

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

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

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Not So Good Mornings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Fear and Loving in Memphis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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