Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy Old Year, Happy New Year

Two-thousand and ten. Fin. 

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

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

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

That's not a bad year.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hidden Memphis: Nelson Smith III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Irish Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 09, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Column How-To (or not-to)

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Back From Recess

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Is This Good?

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

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

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

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

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

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