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 Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:
© 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 Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 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


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.