Friday, May 24, 2013

Believe Memphis

This week's "Because I Said So" column is all heart. Believe it.

Good seats still available on 'Believe Memphis' bandwagon 
I was born and raised in Memphis, weaned during the 1970s on a steady stream of negativity flowing through a city whose dreams had slipped into the river and whose borders had become porous. Everyone, it seemed, wanted out. The grass must have looked greener in the next county over, a neighboring city, any other state. 
But things have turned, haven’t they? Negativity is passed from generation to generation like a bad gene, and the only way to arrest it is to flip the off-switch in our DNA. My children are being raised in a new Memphis, one with possibilities imagined from the uppermost reaches of government down to the teacher in the classroom, from the 7-foot-1 defensive player of the year to the CEO to the waitress serving sweet tea. 
And it’s borne upon one word: Believe. 
It’s a directive being spread around these days on billboards, the airwaves and a little yellow towel, but the attitude has been growing in us all along. We have flipped that switch and begun believing in ourselves and our city, and to proudly share the stories that make us who we are. 
Believe Memphis. So powerful is this simple command that it isn’t just for those born and raised here. It’s for everyone everywhere. We are all of Memphis. If you have a favorite pop star and dance to your radio, if you’ve stayed in a hotel, shopped in a grocery store, shipped a package or tasted the perfect pulled pork sandwich, then you are of Memphis. And we’re glad to have you. We welcome you. 
The term “bandwagon” gets used in a negative way, but I say come on board. Ours is a wagon that has been hitched in the past to teams of Tigers, a couple of kings, two pandas and a Redbird. It has been loaded into the belly of a purple and orange cargo plane. More recently, it has been pulled behind a 400-passenger paddle wheel steamboat, a fleet of food trucks, and bicycles along a 7-mile Greenline, through a revitalized park, and eventually, it will cross the river over the Harahan Bridge. When there was no one to pull it, we stoked its steam engine with issues of Forbes magazine and the words of bitter columnists from afar. Currently, it’s being pulled by a grizzly bear. So climb on: It’s a bandwagon with an actual band led by Booker T. Jones fresh from a concert of American soul music at the White House. 
My children already have their own memories of Memphis to share, their own stories of visiting the Memphis Zoo and the Levitt Shell, of standing riverside to gaze at the water, exploring Midtown’s caf├ęs and riding the trails at Shelby Farms. They’ve visited the farmers markets and Botanic Garden, caught movies at the Summer Twin Drive-In and danced at the Stax Museum. They’re old enough to understand the news they see and hear, and open enough to understand that it’s not all perfect. But they have the sense that it can be changed for the better, and that is a brand new sensation. 
I’ve loaded my family aboard this wagon, and I’m stopping the cycle of negativity for my own children. I am of Memphis, and my children believe because they’ve never known any other way.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A syllabus for summer vacations to remember

This "Because I Said So" column first ran in The Commercial Appeal on May 26, 2011.
A syllabus for summer vacations to remember 
Another school year has come to an end. If yours was anything like ours, the year was one of ups and downs, overall good grades, some conduct issues, large and involved projects and plenty of homework.  
School days are, by necessity, rigid in their schedules and run smoothly because of their rules.

Summer days are not.

So, to my kids, and to yours if you wish, I give you your summer syllabus.

First, take your school pants, the ones with the knees that are frayed and worn thin, and rip the legs off there at those knees. This is your summer uniform.

Next, go outside and stay there until called in. And then complain that the day is over. Catch fireflies. Explore the woods. Build a fort. Tear it down and build another. Spend an entire day reading comic books. Have your fill of snow cones. Learn the names of the birds in your backyard. Drink from a hose. Track down kids in your neighborhood and get to know them. Read "Tarzan, the Ape Man" beneath your largest tree. Spread wildflower seeds around your neighborhood. Build a sand castle. Laugh at the tide the next day when that castle is gone. Build a kite. Fly a kite. Use chalk to make a sidewalk mural an entire block long. Go barefoot. Everywhere. Learn new songs and sing them. Draw a picture of your house every day and color it a different color each time. Camp in your backyard. Write a story. Write a poem. Plant a garden. Wash your neighbor's car. Go whole days without putting a shirt on. Play in the rain. Shoot 20 baskets in a row. Eat new foods on a blanket on the lawn. Drink lots of lemonade. Make your own popsicles. Eat a popsicle for breakfast. Read your parents' old encyclopedias; they were the first Google. Conduct a census of the squirrels. Climb trees. Oil a baseball mitt. Dig a hole. Read the funny papers. Watch a Marx Brothers film. Forget where you put your video game. Roast marshmallows. Count the stars. Lie in the grass and listen to the cicadas; you'll be adults the next time they sound like that. Make mud pies. Operate a lemonade stand. Nap in a hammock. Run through a sprinkler. Visit the zoo. Stay up all night and watch the sunrise. Tell ghost stories. Build a birdhouse. Ride your bike farther than you ever have before. Swing on a rope. Find some shade.

I understand the concern for lazy children and the fear that the Chinese or Canadians or whatever group is currently overtaking us in math and science scores will be studying these next two months. But maybe we as parents can go this summer without thinking of us vs. them. Maybe we can look at these long summer days through the eyes of our children and remember just how quickly it all slips away.

Kids, soak up these days, and be sure that at the end of the season, when you're back in your desks and your teacher asks, "What did you do for summer vacation?" you can answer honestly, "Everything."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Reunion by Alan Lightman

A reunion is a coming together, a reuniting of like minds that have shared like experiences. At the core of REUNION (2003, Pantheon Books) by Memphis's own Alan Lightman, however, is detachment. In the opening scene, Charles, a small-college professor, is lying post-coitus with a woman and wishing he was someplace else. "I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened," Lightman writes. Charles is there, but he isn't, in this house that once belonged to an ex-wife who left it to him. It is his, but it isn't. On televsion, Charles and Sheila watch news footage of a devastating Honduran earthquake and, even as Sheila says she will donate money and urges him to, as well, he has trouble mustering sympathy for something so far away. "The truth is, I feel no connection to the faces on the screen. The Hondurans
are just so many electronic pixels."

Charles attends his twentieth college reunion alone and wanders the campus as though it is all new to him. He talks with classmates who he has no real affection for, and then he begins to recall an episode from his college days with intense clarity. It was during that time that he met the great love of his life, Juliana, studying to be a ballet dancer. The bulk of the book is spent in flashback, which switches from the opening first-person narrative to third-person. The protagonist is Charles, but it isn't.

Juliana lives and works in New York City, a two-hour bus ride for Charles; another instance of detachment. He becomes obsessed with her, wanting to be with her at all times and thinking only of her as he sits through biology and poetry classes. The time is the 1960s and, even as the names of classmates are added to a list of the dead in Vietnam, Charles feels no connection to this war or its protesters that he is of age to join. Juliana, too, is aloof. She tells him she loves him, but not as much as he says so. Much of their time together is spent with him watching her practice and then watching her work at a small diner where she waits tables. He is with her, but not.

When Charles suspects Juliana has found another lover, he becomes paranoid and obsessed with the idea. He has the heart of a poet and we see it flayed open, his agony at their distance and his not being able to have her in the way he wants as raw as an exposed nerve. There is risk in such obsession and Charles learns what the penalty is, still feeling it as though touching a hot stove even after more than twenty years.

Throughout the story, we are brought back to the first-person and the present where Charles picks among the shadows of the campus where all of this first happened, but it is obvious that his mind is not in the moment. He is here, but he isn't. His time and experience with Juliana shaped him in the way that we're all shaped by first loves, and first heartbreaks. Lightman is a trained physicist, a scientist, yet he, too, has the heart of a poet.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Because I Said So: I want a second chance to be a band geek

I like that geeks have taken that word - geek - and empowered it. It has come to be synonymous with "aficionado" or "expert" or "enthusiast." It's become a term spoken with pride. Middle and high school students who put all they have into practicing their instruments and honing their skills have everything to be proud of, from the time spent alone in their rooms with a folder of sheet music to the rousing concerts they put on for friends and family.

I didn't realize this when I was a student at Kirby High School. I had friends who were in the band - Chris, Carl, Rich, Jo Lynne, among others - but I thought of it as just another class they took; a foreign language I could never hope to test well in. It wasn't until my oldest son picked up the alto saxophone, later making the switch to baritone sax, and his brother took up the clarinet, that I understood what goes into being in the band. There is class during the day, then practice after school, then practice here at home. There are shows to prepare for, All-West to obsess over, and smaller ensembles playing around town. I was impressed.

At a concert at White Station High School last year, the jazz ensemble played and it was amazing. I'm a jazz fan and it's rare that you get to hear it played live. Even at such a novice level, the music sounded full and the players were having fun. It gave me the idea for a story I pitched to Memphis Magazine on jazz in Memphis which should be in the June 2013 issue.

While researching that story, I came across the story of Manassas High School and its rich tradition. It's where so many artists - Jimmie Lunceford, George Coleman, Charles Lloyd - got their start in music, and middle and high school is where many musicians first pick up an instrument. It's just that important. The school band room, marching field and auditorium are where students find their confidence and their voice, their passions and, for some, a career. They learn teamwork and responsibility, the importance of practice and the rewards of effort.

This week's Because I Said So column champions the geek. I only wish I'd understood more of their language when I was in school.

Wanted: a second chance to be a band geek 
The story was all over my social media feeds last week. The principal of a low-performing school in Roxbury, Mass., let his security staff go to help pay for more arts teachers. It was another of those stories I ignored at the time, knowing that if I found I was interested in reading it later, then it would be there; stories have a way of circling around and coming back to us. And this one did just that as I sat in the audience twice in the past week for my sons’ band concerts at White Station Middle and High Schools. It’s the type of setting where a story on the importance of funding arts programs in schools might be set to the music of Gershwin. 
If you’ve never been to a concert at that level, it is nothing less than extraordinary. I wasn’t in the band in high school. Band geeks, that’s who was in the band. It turns out there is no shame in that. Just the opposite: It’s a moniker worn with pride. There may be no other instance of students working so closely together with their teachers than in a school auditorium as they give a performance everything they’ve got. They all have a stake in it. They’re all trying to make this thing — this arrangement — sound as whole and as perfect as possible. To do such a thing takes more than mere talent: It takes teamwork. 
Many of the professional musicians I know all came to their instruments through their secondary schools’ band programs. How many adults today do you know who can show a direct line from middle school to their careers? The conductors on stage this past week — Mr. Wright, Mr. Guinn and Mr. Scott — are the Pied Pipers of our children, leading them into something that, even if they don’t make a job of it, they will use in some way or other their entire lives. 
In a recent conversation, Dru Davison, performing arts coordinator with Memphis City Schools, hit on the ability of music to facilitate all learning when he spoke of the many jazz ensembles in the schools and the art of improvisation. 
“You can recite someone else’s piece of music, or you can take everything you know about music and create your own, and that kind of creativity and innovation is really what employers are looking for,” Davison told me. “It’s about being college- and career-ready, and if you have kids in a jazz band, you know that they’re showing up on time for every rehearsal or else they can’t perform.” 
That school in Roxbury, Orchard Gardens Elementary, has shown a vast improvement in its test scores, in its morale and in its security issues even without the aid of a police force. They’re working as a team now — students, teachers, administration — to make their arrangement the best that it can be. 
If I had it all to do over again, would I be a band geek? You bet I would. I would be awful, mind you, but I would try my hand at the saxophone or the clarinet or maybe even the tuba. In lieu of talent, I sit in the audience as a music lover. 
I’m a proud parent of public schoolchildren, and I’m with the band.