Thursday, July 18, 2013

Driving Me Crazy

Steve McQueen in Bullitt

I can remember first learning to drive, slipping behind the wheel of my dad's sleek, new, charcoal gray Camaro Z28 with its T-tops and fat tires. It was a fast car and I'm pretty sure my little sisters were both in the backseat for that inaugural drive. I can't remember where I drove or for how long that first time. I only remember one thing: it was fast.

I remember being taught to ride a two-wheel bike. It was on the grounds of the Skinner Center at the corner of Central and Tanglewood in Midtown Memphis. We lived in the house across the street, on the opposite corner of that intersection. I don't remember the make of the bike, but there was plenty of high, chopper-style handlebar. And I'm pretty sure the tires were solid rubber.

My oldest son learning to ride a bike set a precedent - he taught himself. Neither of us had the patience for the lessons, we quickly learned. From that point forward, both JP and S have been self-taught on two wheels. GK is still a question mark on that rite of passage.

So far, C has been an eager learner and patient pupil behind the wheel of a car. And I've been uncharacteristically patient myself. We're older, I guess, and there's a lot more at stake. It's still not finished, still five months from his 16th birthday, and he's yet to take a vehicle out on city streets. But in an empty parking lot, he's as smooth a driver as Steve McQueen or Morgan Freeman.

Here's to many more calm lessons, and to many years of safe driving by all of my kids. And here's to the memories such milestones make.

Today's "Because I Said So" column in The Commercial Appeal:

If son's still driving in 30 years, he passed test 
I recently drove my 15-year-old son to a wide open parking lot, parked the car and handed him the keys. It was his first time behind the wheel of a car and my first time in the passenger seat with a teenager behind the wheel of a car since I was a teenager myself. I dialed 911 and let my thumb hover over the send button. 
He did pretty well, though, narrowly avoiding the few obstacles, and I only barked “Brake!” once or twice. 
I learned how to drive through a combined effort of my father and his midlife Camaro Z28 and Memphis City Schools. Despite your experiences on the streets of Memphis, many of us drivers had lessons. And how many Memphians my age were taught to drive by Mr. Rafael? 
After a three-week course of textbook and on-the-road tutelage, Mr. Rafael administered our final exam, a grueling, hourslong written and multiple choice test as I recall, only to tell us when we were finished to hold on to that test and if we were alive to read it in 30 years, then we passed. 
I’ve passed. And here I am trying to pass that knowledge on to my own son. Imploring him to check his mirrors, mind the blind spots and pump the brake pedal. 
When he was 6, I drove him to a wide open field at Tobey Park to teach him to ride a bicycle. It took only about 15 minutes before we were out of patience with each other and I loaded up the bike in the back of my truck and we drove home in silence. It wasn’t long after that when I was down the block talking to a neighbor, and here came Calvin, riding his bike as though he’d been doing so for years — self-taught. 
How much simpler would it be if they were able to teach themselves to drive a car? How much better would it be for our nerves if we could just send our teenagers away and have them return as safe and responsible drivers? 
I told him that day a couple of weeks ago, as we made circle after circle in the vacant lot, that it amazes me that just anyone can drive. That we allow anybody who is of age and able to pass a fairly simple test the opportunity to wrap himself in metal and hurl himself down the interstate at 65 mph. And then I told him to “Brake!” 
He’s a good kid, and I have faith that he’ll be a good, conscientious driver. I’m not sure how I’ll be as the parent of a driver, though. I don’t think there are any lessons for that, none that Mr. Rafael imparted anyway. 
I can’t imagine that first time I’ll stand on the porch and wave my son away as he backs out on his own and heads into traffic. I’ll wish him well. And I’ll wish I could give him just one last word of advice: “Brake!”

Friday, July 12, 2013

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful by Eric Barnes

Two things struck me while reading Something Pretty, Something Beautiful by Eric Barnes (Outpost19, 2013). The first thing is the movement. Not necessarily the way the book flows, though it will keep you interested and curious from start to finish. What I’m talking about is that when Barnes writes movement – a car full of teenagers speeding down the highway, kids running and tumbling downhill into a gulch, fighting and fleeing – it is as though I was right there in the melee covered with mud and booze. The action is swift, it’s breathy, sweaty and, quite often, bloody.

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is the gripping story of four friends in Tacoma, Washington, and jumps around among moments of childhood until they approach the fringes of adulthood. Brian Porter is the narrator, though Will Wilson is the ringleader, a young man who carries violence and mayhem with him like a flask of whiskey. Teddy and Coe round out the foursome which blows in whichever direction Will Wilson commands. Those winds tend towards fights and break-ins and some arson while always, always moving.

The near-constant movement is what the young men engage in to fill the emptiness, to fight off boredom and, maybe, to keep from thinking of the future and what each might want outside of Tacoma. The book takes place in the 1970s, and if it were today they might all be diagnosed with ADHD. In Eric Barnes’s Tacoma of the 70s, however, teens swallowed a pill of recklessness, violence and peer pressure.

The second thing to strike me didn’t come to me until late in the book, until page 230 to be precise. It is that I hate these people. I don’t hate them for the things they do, although their actions on the whole are awful, but for what they don’t do. No one ever steps in to stop another from doing the awful thing. It is this lack of will, the absence of strength to be decent, that makes them so unlikable as people. This isn't to say I don't like the characters because of a flaw in the writing. Quite the opposite. Barnes paints their personalities and actions so well that I think of them as real, as walking and talking people. And I hope to never come across such in the real world.

The book is dark. Understand that. This is no light beach read. Barnes takes all of the anxiety, frustration, angst, anger, sex and violence that might collectively fill a high school full of adolescents and condenses it down into these four characters. He keeps it simmering on a flame until it's a bubbling roux and then he holds our wrist and forces our hand into the molten mass. The book is raw and touches at something we've all felt, whether it's the hope for something better or the frustration that it might never be.

There is nothing pretty or beautiful in this book unless it is that hope that there might be something better beyond the city limits and the lives these boys are destined to lead. The stories and the writing will keep you involved to find out if it's possible, to know if one or all of them pack up a car at last and find what it is that might save them. As readers, all we can hope to do is grip the roof of that car as it approaches dangerous speeds and hold on for dear life.

Eric Barnes grew up in Tacoma and now lives in Memphis where he is the publisher of The Daily News, The Memphis News, The Nashville Ledger and the host of Behind the Headlines on WKNO.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells: a review

In THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS (HarperCollins, 2013), Andrew Sean Greer has once again imagined a world for us to inhabit so well that, by the end of reading, we might be able to say, "I've been there." This time, it is the island of Manhattan spread out among three eras. Greer gives us the character of Greta Wells, a woman who becomes unstuck in time just as Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE or Henry DeTamble in Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE.

For Greta Wells, however, the times are predetermined. She will travel to either 1918 or 1941 rather than land in an unknown time, uncertain of who she will meet or how to react. In her present life, in 1985, Greta Wells is suffering from depression brought on by a great loss in her family. She's offered a series of treatments by her doctor, a new form of the antiquated procedure of electrotherapy. Something happens, though, and with each jolt of electricity in the series, Greta Wells is sent to another time for a matter of days until the next procedure is administered. For these days spent in the past, she lives the life of that time's Greta Wells. She is the same woman whose life is altered in various ways, as though she's looking into several different mirrors, each with its own altering fissure.

There are issues that speak to the times that face each Greta Wells: epidemics of influenza and the AIDS virus, world wars, the limitations of women in society, Prohibition and politics. THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS posits the theory held by physicists and novelists for centuries that we may not live our life on one plane of existence and time. That while we are awakening in our house each morning, making a pot of coffee, checking e-mail, rousing the kids for school, that there is another us in another time living a similar life in his own version of morning. Time is not linear, Greer assumes, but deep. It repeats and folds in upon itself, and while our actions here today have specific consequences, the same actions in another lifetime might have set our lives on an entirely different track. It's a freeing feeling, I think, to know we may have more than one chance at all of this.
Above all, though, the novel is the story of relationships and how the issues remain the same regardless of era or circumstance. Though actions may alter the course of a day or a lifetime, the ways in which we regard and interact with family, friends and lovers are ever present. While Greta Wells bounces from decade to decade and comes to know husbands, aunts, children and lovers from the past, there is no relationship more prevalent than that between her and her twin brother Felix. It is their bond that acts as balast and holds her fast to each time period in which she finds herself. Her determination to hold on to him, to make life better for him and protect him, causes her to question her very place in history.

I found the construction of this book to be a surprise. I'd expected it to be more like Niffenegger's tale with the protagonist flying through time, never knowing just where she might land. Greer's book allows more structure for Greta Wells, and us, by knowing where she's heading. I wasn't disappointed. Quite the opposite, in fact, as reading the novel helped me to better see a way to build a manuscript I'm currently working on (thank you for that!). 

I do wonder why Greer chose the specific times he did, though. The onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s plays heavily into the story and is juxtaposed with an influenza outbreak in 1918, as well as the ending of World War I. The jump to 1941, of course, coincides with the ramping up to America's involvement in World War II. But there are events throughout the 20th century that would have worked as well. This isn't a criticism, but a curiosity. While reading, I imagined Greer sitting at a desk with three calendars opened before him, each to a different year, and he would move back and forth to write what was happening in a particular month of any particular year.

By the end, the Greta Wells we are first introduced to, a woman made small and helpless in grief, is in control of her destiny and has choices to make that will resonate through her life, the lives of those close to her, and history itself. To make such a decision, she calls upon wisdom gained from every plane of her life, from every life lived. Her life may seem impossible to her at times, but time is only an obstacle to be overcome. Once she's made her choice, the pieces seem to fall into place.

Other novels by Andrew Sean Greer:

The Path of Minor Planets (my review)
The Confessions of Max Tivoli
The Story of a Marriage (my review)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Following Richard Brautigan and Corey Mesler

This is a work of fiction.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead or in-between is coincidence. Even those folks you think are real are as phony as music mingling within a dream.
-- Copyright page of the novel FOLLOWING RICHARD BRAUTIGAN

My confession is that I had no idea who Richard Brautigan was. Indeed, even as I read the novel FOLLOWING RICHARD BRAUTIGAN by Corey Mesler (2010; Livingston Press, The University of
West Alabama), I had no idea if his character was an actual person or a fabrication of Mesler's rich mind. Neither did I search to find out the truth (or untruth) as I read, but relished, instead, the image presented on the page. It wasn't until just now, when I looked him up on Goodreads and Wikipedia, do I see that Richard Brautigan was an actual living, breathing and writing man. Who knew?

Corey Mesler knew and has incorporated fact with fiction into a novel that carries the reader from Oklahoma City to San Francisco and back again. It's a road book and I love a road book. Mesler breaks up his story into tiny little chapters as though we're driving down the highway and stopping every once in a while to look over the edge of a cliff into the bluest ocean or to snap a picture of a reddish butte at sunset or to eat some mushrooms. Mesler tale is constructed in a way some of us may not be able to get away with and each tiny little chapter has its own heading. It seems appropriate, though, as the protagonist, Jack Morton, is a romantic and adventurer, and everything a romantic and adventurer does will (and should) inevitably have its own heading.

Would-be writer Jack Morton travels to San Francisco in an attempt to find his hero, Richard Brautigan, not knowing for sure if the man is dead or alive (he's dead, both Mesler and Wikipedia say). He doesn't locate his traveler, of course, yet does find a young woman, another treasure of a sort. His heart is broken, as is also endemic of romantics and adventurers, though it is mended by a visit from the ghost of Richard Brautigan who leads his protegé on another cross-country trip. This trek is full of strange places and even stranger people and Jack Morton becomes close to the beat icon while remaining physically distant, separated by mortality and one car length.

In the end, Jack Morton seems to find what he needs. He takes something from the counsel of Richard Brautigan and from the journey itself that helps him to repair his heart and find what it is within himself to go on writing.

Mesler's relationship with the pop culture of the 1960s and '70s is an intimiate one, yet the bits and pieces of music, fashion, film, literature and politics don't come across as mere props. He has a talent for putting it all in a context that makes it seem as natural as a well-researched prop in a movie or television show. It adds to the story rather than overshadowing it. It's a magic trick and Mesler is an adept magician.

(I don't know what Mesler's process is for writing, but I imagine him in a darkened room with three separate desks. On each desk sits a psychedelic-colored typewriter and in each typewriter is a sheet of yellow paper and on those sheets of yellow paper is a poem, short story or novel in progress. In my imagining, he types at one until an egg timer in his mind dings and he moves to the next. For twelve hours a day he does this and, once finished, he watches a movie with his daughter. It's a Fellini movie. As each poem, short story or novel is finished, of course, it is published. At the end of Corey Mesler's typewritten journey is our own treasure, dear reader. Now go and find it.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kids in cars getting coffee

Alec Baldwin & Jerry Seinfeld get coffee

Years ago, on our way to daycare, I spontaneously decided to give my daughter, G, the day off. We went, instead, to Café Eclectic where we spent the morning sipping coffee and chugging chocolate milk while picking at various flavors of doughnuts. I sat on a sofa and G walked around, talked and sat on the floor. It's a morning she talks about to this day and it's a memory we both cherish.

For that one lovely time, there have been another dozen that I've taken these four misanthropes to a coffee shop and it's ended in arguments, pouting, spilled beverages, uneaten food and complaints. And those times are the basis for today's Because I Said So column.

Of course there have been good times, but what's so funny about that? It's tragedy-plus-time that makes comedy. Granted, there hasn't been all that much time since our last coffee shop visit, but I needed a column and this was it.

I'm a big fan of the "Seinfeld" series, still watching episodes to this day when I come across a rerun. Likewise, I could watch "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" again and again. "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" is Jerry Seinfeld's latest venture and the title explains it all. It's just begun its second season and is mostly found only on the internet (it's also on a channel called Crackle which I found on my Roku.)

While watching the first episode of the new season with guest Sarah Silverman the other night, it struck me how very different the show would be if, instead of a famous comedian, Jerry Seinfeld had four kids in car seats with him. It would either be hilarious or very, very uncomfortable.

I've experienced both and today's column is a little slice of that.

Children stir jolt of reality into midlife café dreams 
I’m a fan of the show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” It boasts an elegant look and simple premise: Jerry Seinfeld and another comedian drive around in a nice car and then go for coffee. They talk, they share, they laugh; simple and funny. 
What’s not so simple and funny? Kids in cars getting coffee. Though it sounds entertaining, children all hopped up on espressos and cappuccinos is more irritating than amusing. They run in circles, talk incessantly and eventually drop to the floor and quiver. People turn from their laptops to stare disapprovingly at such behavior. 
The problem is that I love coffee shops. I love the café culture of sitting idly, reading and sipping a drink I didn’t make. I’ve spent loads of time at Otherlands, Bluff City Coffee, Poplar Perk’n, Republic Coffee and Café Eclectic. I have penned this very column over their brews. 
And, to their credit, they’re all extremely kid- and family-friendly. So maybe it’s I who am not. I’ve found over the years that when you add a 2-, 3- or 6-year-old to the mix, what you get is a powerful concoction of caffeine, frothy milk and sugar spilled all over your book and the floor. 
It’s not just sitting at a café table, either. The short ride there has become a time of disagreements and petty arguments. Being strapped in with seatbelts is not enough to keep them from picking at each other. 
I’ve never seen Jerry Seinfeld with coffee on his pants. I’ve never seen him with any kids at all, come to think of it. He has three children of his own, but as the second season of his Web-only show begins, we’ve yet to see them. Neither does he drive a minivan with a busted side door and 100,000 miles on it, opting, instead, to chauffeur friends like Larry David and Alec Baldwin around in a 1970 Mercedes-Benz SL or a 1969 Jaguar E Type Series 2. You can’t even fit a car seat in those, which may be the point now that I think about it. 
My life is not sitcom fodder; it’s real. In this reality I find myself attempting, more and more, to sneak out of the house alone. What does it say about me that my midlife crisis manifests itself in wanting a peaceful hour in a local coffee shop? There are no
dreams of a motorcycle or skydiving. My heart didn’t even leap at the sight of that sleek silver Jaguar rolling through Manhattan. What did Jerry Seinfeld long for during his crisis? He wanted to go get coffee with a friend. Maybe we’re not so different. 
Don’t get me wrong: My kids have spent their fair share of time at Café Eclectic and Otherlands, but such outings aren’t as funny to me as they once were. We’ve turned a corner in my kids’ entertainment value, and there was an inviting coffee shop on that corner. They have reached the age of awareness, and they are aware now of white chocolate syrup, packets of raw sugar and doughnuts available all day. 
You blend in that amount of sugar and caffeine with the normal, everyday insubordination and chatter I contend with, and not even Jerry Seinfeld could find the punch line.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Path of Minor Planets

THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS (Picador, 2001) by Andrew Sean Greer is a book about time. It's the story of how people might go away and then come back, how they change or how very little they change over that time.

The book opens in 1965 on the small island of Bukit in the South China Sea where a group of astronomers has gathered to witness the return of Comet Swift and the meteor shower it promises to bring with it. There are Eli and Kathy Spivak, Denise Lanham, Dr. Manday, Professor Jorgeson, Dr. Martin Swift, the discoverer of the comet twelve years earlier, and his 5-year-old daughter, Lydia. The occasion for this gathering is near perihelion, that moment when an object comes closest to the Sun. The mood is light, the tropical air is hot and bodies, the Earthly sort, move closer to each other in their own, needy perihelion. When the meteors become visible, the scientists take up their posts with excited shouts of "Time!" echoing from the observation deck of the sultan's castle high above the beach as they attempt a precise record of the shower. But when things change, when a small boy falls from the deck to his death far below, there is no record and everyone's lives, like the comet as it comes in contact with a larger celestial object, causing it to waver and wobble, will find their own orbits altered.

The second part of the book takes place in 1971, and a party at Swift's farmhouse to celebrate Comet Swift's near aphelion, the point at which an object is furthest from the Sun. It's a time of uncertainty, the comet possibly lost in space forever, a fact which won't be known for some time. The characters, six years older now, have changed and there is an air of uncertainty in many of their lives as well. They've grown, they've parted ways or had affairs or fallen in love. There is some talk of the boy who died on Bukit, but even exactly what happened that night is uncertain.

The story goes on this way, leapfrogging through the years, six years at a time, as the comet approaches and then recedes from Earth. It's a wonderful way to frame a story and Greer is adept at weaving his language from the scientific to the poetic. The relationships of the characters with each other come and go like the comet, and they are at just as much risk of exploding or fading away. There is loss and death and near misses. In the span of time, from 1965 to 1990, there are children born, friendships ended and rekindled, secrets found out and others kept for eternity.

I read THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS while on vacation at the beach with an expanse of blue sky as a backdrop during the day and an untold number of stars against the black night. I absolutely love this book. Greer's storytelling is powerful enough to make us look to the sky and wonder at what might be there and to look within ourselves to see what it is we're made of.

(Andrew Sean Greer's new novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS, comes out June 25, 2013. I'm a big fan and have enjoyed previous novels THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE. If you haven't read him, treat yourself today.)

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 cafés 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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

5 Years of Saying So

In the spring of 2008, at a time when I was pulling my hair out over the willfulness of a 2-year-old and with running my own business, I was asked by Stacey Greenberg if I'd like to alternate Thursdays with her writing a column for The Commercial Appeal about what it's like to raise kids in Memphis. I had been writing about my kids on this very blog for two years already so I said, "Sure, why not."

The truth is I might have used an exclamation point or two in my answer. The truth is I never expected "Because I Said So" to last six months, such is the volatile nature of the newspaper industry and the tenuous grasp of any freelancer on any project. Yet here we are, five years later and I'm still given the opportunity to write it, still pulling my hair out over the willfulness of a now-6-year-old. Stacey has moved on so the opposite Thursdays are filled with . . . something, I don't really look at the paper on those days.

It's been a dream job, more than you can imagine. To be able to document the awesome responsibility of raising four children, the fun, the heartache, the fear. Those noises and smells. It's fun when we're stopped out at the grocery store or the bookstore by readers who ask, "Are these the children you write about?" And I answer, "Children? These aren't mine, I don't really have any kids." Oh, my children laugh at this every single time. It's the most minor celebrity anyone could ask for and the kids are always there to bring me back down to my proper level, and then some.

A lot has changed over these five years and hopefully some of it has produced interesting fodder for such a column. A lot more will happen over the next five and I hope I'm here tell you so in this column. We'll see. Thank you to everyone who helped make it possible, to my family for putting up with their foibles, faults and flatulence being spotlighted in the newspaper twice a month, and especially thanks to all of you who read regularly. Thank you for the comments, the letters and e-mails, the remarks in public. It means more to me than you will ever know.

On this fifth anniversary, here is the very first "Because I Said So" column that ran in The Commercial Appeal on April 17, 2008.

Real kids shrink notions of big family 
My grandparents, Bob and Shirley Fachini, raised seven children, a respectable number by anyone's standards. 
It was the 1950s and '60s, a much simpler era, I'm told. Families were larger then because this country needed as many citizens as possible to fight communism, go to Saturday movie matinees for a nickel and colonize the moon. 
They would later come to call these babies "boomers," because of how much noise that many children, at one time, in one place, will make. 
Their house was warm and loving and, sure, it was cramped, but they made do. Bob built a table large enough for everyone to eat around, and Shirley sewed dresses for the girls. 
It sounds like an idyllic time, and the stories of the antics of my aunts and uncles as kids have engaged me since I was a child. 
It was those stories that had me wanting a large family of my own. 
My wife, Kristy, and I have four children between the ages of 21 months and 10 years. And, as it turns out, we're done. 
That's right. I don't know what got into my grandparents' brains to make them think seven kids was a good idea, but I'm afraid something had to be a little off for two intelligent people to willingly welcome that many little people to live with them. 
By stopping now, we're not squashing my dream of raising a big family, because four is the new seven. 
When Kristy and I tell people, especially new parents with only one child, that we have four, the look we get is generally awe and amazement. 
Never envy. 
Maybe just a hint of pity. Yes, mostly pity, now that I think of it. 
The truth is, we weren't exactly sure at the beginning what we were doing. 
Kristy researched parenting styles, while I was content, and over my head, just keeping the kid alive and somewhat happy. Ten years, and three babies later, it's still all I can do. 
But our home now is full of love. Just as much with love, in fact, as it is with discarded Pop-Tart wrappers, broken and mismatched toys, half-emptied cups of milk and diapers, both clean and dirty. 
Parenthood is an easy enough club to enter, though staying in the good graces of the club's membership board -- your kids -- is tricky. 
Nothing was easy for my grandparents either, yet they signed on for seven kids and dealt with them as they showed up. And if they could handle seven, then four should be cake, right? Or at least a chocolate icing-smeared face smiling up at us. 
We're doing our best with our quartet, in the spirit and with the tenacity of my grandparents. 
We'll send them to the best schools we can, we will communicate openly with them and we'll raise them to be caring and informed citizens, who will one day, hopefully, grow up to colonize the moon.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Because I Said So: Keep 'Welcome Back' sign ready for empty nest

My nest may never empty, not even for a night. S spent the night with a friend last night, but GK had one sleep over here. At the last minute, C went to a friend's for the night, so there are only three kids in my house as I write this. Only two of them are mine. I should probably feed all of them anyway.

In this week's Because I Said So column, I write about my youngest daughter's trial run with a
sleepover at a friend's house. It lasted about four hours. Not bad. My first one, at her same age, didn't last much longer than that. That boy whose house I went to is grown now and an ophthalmologist in Midtown with an office not two miles from where he lived then. The house was one on Peabody just off Belvedere and it towered over me just as his siblings did. Brothers and sisters were everywhere, it seemed, and delighted in chasing him down and lifting him up to swing him around by his ankles. It scared the hell out of me. Was I next?

I went home early that evening instead of staying and I'm not sure when a sleepover actually stuck, when I was able to get through my anxieties and fear of the new and unknown to stay all night. I wish I could remember so I could tell GK. Maybe it was the next weekend, maybe it was the next year.

A trial run is good, for them and for us. Having the four kids sleep out overnight would give us a look into the future at what our nest might be like when it's full of peace and quiet. Until then, we'll keep ruffling some feathers and breaking some eggs, and we'll welcome any little birdies who don't mind a crowd.

Keep your 'Welcome Back' sign at the nest 
My youngest daughter found a bird’s nest on the ground the other day and collected it. I can see it from my office window where she left it on the front porch. It puts me in mind of the term “empty nest” as it pertains to a house whose children have left, flown off into the world to make their own lives in their own way. 
I wonder if that nest on the front porch would hold me and this computer. 
There must be a thrill that comes with standing at the door and waving your child goodbye, his car laden down with furniture and books and clean laundry on his way to college, or a second marriage, or for whatever reason it is that children leave home. Don’t get me wrong, I want them to visit, and often, but I wonder about that sensation of seeing them go and then turning back to your empty nest and breathing air that is all yours, tasting the food in the fridge that is all yours and knowing that if you turn off the television, it will stay off. Does Nickelodeon even exist if there are no children to watch it? 
We get a taste of such solitude early on. It’s called the sleepover, and it’s a rite of passage as meaningful as anything else — driver’s license, graduation, that first marriage. My youngest daughter, Genevieve, the nest collector, had her very first sleepover a couple of weekends ago. It did not go well. She was excited, of course; sleeping at a friend’s house is an adventure. It might as well be a trip to the moon with new foods and sounds, a different place to watch television and way of doing things. 
Somewhere around 10 p.m., though, there was a text followed shortly by a knock on the door and there was Genevieve, standing where that empty nest rests. Her friend’s parent was kind enough to bring her home, and kind enough to comfort her before that. Sometimes, these rites just don’t take the first time. 
I told her not to worry, that it happens to all of us. At least you made it past dark, I said. I was in the first grade as well for my first sleepover. The boy lived in a large home in Central Gardens and I couldn’t have been more excited about the chance to stay in such a grand palace overnight. I remember little of it, other than he had a dozen or so siblings if memory serves, and they were a rambunctious bunch who, I see now, loved their little brother. They chased him around and grabbed him up by his ankles, lifting him as high as they could. I might have been next and it terrified my 7-year-old self. My mother pulled back onto that tree-lined street before darkness fell. 
We give our children the things they’ll need in life — manners, confidence, a sense of right and wrong, a toothbrush wrapped in a baggie they’ll probably never use and then leave behind. After that, all we can do is stand on the porch beside whatever trash they decided at one time to collect and wave goodbye, knowing that, if things get rough, they will be back and they will be welcomed.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Because I Said So: Teach kids to enjoy city with family

The kids' spring break was a couple of weeks ago and I had big plans. I was going to get on a plane by myself and fly to Antigua where I would charter a sailboat and wend my way down through the Caribbean. Those plans didn't pan out - didn't even make it out of my head - so I opted for a "staycation" instead. I loathe that word, but there it is. I hate it almost as much as the word "blog," yet stay we did. And we cationed, I suppose. And now, I blog.

G & S dig Isaac Hayes' ride
My plan was to see the city, to introduce the kids to where they live, from what they are molded and what it is they should cherish. I wanted to see Sun Studio and the National Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Botanic Gardens and the Mississippi River itself. I wanted to stroll around the grounds of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens and maybe watch the ducks march at the Peabody Hotel. I wanted soul food from the Four-Way Restaurant.

Fate, however, conspired against us. There was some sickness and days of rain and cold. And, all of these things are quite expensive to do, so we had to be choosey. We visited the Stax Museum of American Soul and had lunch at Dino's Grill, now celebrating their 40th year in business (congratulations!). There was a chalk festival at the Brooks Museum of Art, and some time at the Memphis Zoo.

It was a nice week without much structure as is our wont. And there was plenty to learn, and to relearn, about the city and all it has to offer, from music to food to friends and family. Everyone everywhere, given the chance, should get on a plane sometime and head to the islands and, if you can't do that, then get out in your city and explore. You never know what you might learn.

Last week's Because I Said So column:

Teach kids to enjoy city with family

The week before last, for about half a week, it was springtime in Memphis. Remember that? Temperatures in the 70s, sunshine, the
saucer magnolia in my front yard even dared to show its colors. Luckily for my kids, that was during their spring break, and we took full advantage of it.

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art held a chalk art festival with folks creating their own works of art on the plaza in front of the museum. Kids got into the act as well and turned the concrete into a rainbow of butterflies, puppies, squiggly lines and shapes. It looked as if spring had fallen upon Midtown alone and blossomed in chalk dust.

From there, it’s only a hop and a skip to the Memphis Zoo. A short trip unless it’s 70, sunny and spring break. The line of cars waiting to get in snaked through the park and down Poplar. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see the snakes. Or, more accurately, they wanted to touch a stingray. We never did make it into that exhibit; the lines there were too overwhelming for impatient children (and adults). We’ll make a special trip for the rays.

The highlight of the week for me was a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum is a treasure trove of soul, blues, styles and grooves. My kids laughed at Isaac Hayes’ hats and boots; they dug his car with its fuzzy floor and gold detail. They swayed and strutted on the dancefloor in front of a floor-to-ceiling episode of “Soul Train,” and they marveled at the display of black Frisbees. “Those are records,” I explained.

My favorite part is the short film shown at the beginning of every visit. I’ve seen it before, and it never fails to bring a lump to the throat. Stax, in its heyday, rode a wave of hits, fame, funk and, most inspirational, family. Steve Cropper, legendary guitarist for Booker T. & the MG’s, says in the film that when you walked into Stax, you were family. Color did not matter. Until it did. When things turned after that tragic April 4 in 1968, a day we’ll commemorate next week, neither Stax nor the city of Memphis would ever be the same.

In the 10 years since the museum opened, though, that tide has turned again. I saw it two weeks ago in a museum where black and white, young and old, all studied the rise and fall of a great American sound. We laughed at the size of the collars, wiped a tear at the story of a plane crash and danced to the same beat. In a park across town on another day, my kids sidled up to others from throughout the city to revel in color. At our world-class zoo, where there was once a day of the week set aside for black-only visitors, multitudes of all ethnicities wandered.

Last week saw the official first day of spring, though the predicted snow the following day said otherwise. Either way, the long winter hibernation is over. It’s time to get out and visit your city, wherever you live; learn what it holds, its history good and bad, and enjoy time with family that you know, and that you have yet to meet.
© 2013 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

James Conaway's "Nose"

Way back in 1993, James Conaway published his memoir MEMPHIS AFTERNOONS. Not long after that, he came to Memphis for what was then the River City Writers series of lectures at the University of Memphis. I went to a reading and signing of the book, and we later met for drinks at Old Zinnie's in Midtown. I was writing then, though I never would have said of myself, "I'm a writer." It was all too new for me, I was an unfocused and gangly 23-year-old, still green on the vine. But I wrote every day and I told Jim this and he told me that, if that were the case, then I was already far ahead of many of the graduate students he'd taught. He implored me to continue. I didn't ask him to read anything I'd written and, blessedly, he didn't ask to see any. I can't imagine what I might have been working on then, but know for a fact it would have gone down bitterly, with an aftertaste of youth and angst throughout.

Nose by James Conaway
Jim advised me to go on writing daily and yet I did not. Things happened in the intervening years, movement, a business was bought and sold, kids were born and, for a time, I stopped writing altogether. I lost whatever advantage I may have had by simply putting my pencil down. And then I started back, wrote some short stories, some journalism, a few novel manuscripts, and seventeen years later I would find myself sitting across the table from the novelist Richard Bausch. Over copious glasses of wine, coincidentally, he would bolster the idea in me that a writer must write every day. "Do the work," he would say, and he would also tell me and my fellow Moss workshoppers that the goal was to make it all seem effortless. He said, paraphrasing, to write it and rewrite it and work at it until the reader doesn't even realize he's reading.

I've just finished reading Conaway's latest novel, NOSE (Thomas Dunne Books), and it is effortless. The sense I had while reading it was that I was sitting down with the author in a comfortable bar, sipping wine, and listening to a story being told. The story in this case is of a valley in Northern California where wine, and the subsequent effluvia, is the main cash crop with players going back generations or, in some cases, only days. Les Breeden tumbles into town on a Pacific breeze to work at the area's small newspaper, only to be laid off before that breeze has ceased to blow. He meets some regulars in a bar called the Glass Act and becomes entangled with the wife of Clyde Craven-Jones, the preeminent wine critic. Craven-Jones – CJ, as he's known – has had a mystery bottle of Cabernet left on his doorstep that garners his highest rating. But who left it there? No one comes forward and the hunt for the mystery vintner leads us through a valley peopled by farmers, high society, drunks, scientists, capitalists and immigrants; oenophiles all, their veins flowing with the thick, fruity stuff.

Conaway is knowledgeable in wines and how they come to be, there's no disputing that. His nonfiction bestsellers NAPA and THE FAR SIDE OF EDEN can be consulted if any question to pedigree arises. The trick here is that he doesn't hold that knowledge over us. The danger in a novel such as this is that talk of climate and soil, microbes and fermentation, will bog us down and make the vintage undrinkable. Not the case. It's all there, yet is handled in such a way, with humor and a certain amount of industry self-deprecation, that we don't even realize we're learning something new.

I've read many of Conaway's books and enjoyed them all, but there is a special place on my shelf for MEMPHIS AFTERNOONS, the vine of that memoir being grafted, as it is, with Conaways and Alleys. There is much to love in this new pour as well. There is mystery and some tragedy. There is great dialogue and wit and hope. These are the ingredients necessary to blend a book that is enjoyable, fast-paced, fun and effortless.

Read more at NOSE and at Thomas Dunne.