Preach to me, Al

posted May 3, 2009, on The Commercial Appeal’s Memphis in May blog (now defunct)

Internet, I hope you will permit me a moment. A moment for a love letter of sorts.

For some Memphians, Al Green may be old news. Or one of those local cultural staples that, like Elvis or Graceland or barbecue or the Peabody ducks, you just sort of eventually become immune to because of its ubiquity.

But to me? Al Green is still a larger-than-life legend, a mythical beast I’d not yet glimpsed until Saturday night. Someone to get entirely too excited about. Someone to structure an entire evening around.

Allow me to explain.

I was but a glimmer in my parents’ eyes when Al Green was crooning in his heydey. I don’t think my family ever really got into soul music. The Turners were a steadfastly country-music household, so Al Green was a non-entity to me for a long, long time.

And yet.

My sophomore year of high school (1997-98, if you must know), I started dating a senior I’d had a crush on forever (in reality? maybe, like, weeks). We’d ride around town in his brown ‘69 Chevy Nova with a giant boombox in the back seat spinning CDs since his stereo only offered AM radio. And one of the most-spun discs in that boombox? Al Green’s Greatest Hits. (Say what you will about Greatest Hits albums, but this was pretty revolutionary stuff for teenagers from my hometown.) It was the first time in my life I had been exposed to soul music in any real way, and having my young puppy love blossom to a soundtrack of Al Green wailing like a lovesick panther with a shard of glass stuck in his paw, well, it felt sweet and sophisticated and perfect in every possible way.

That was my introduction to the Reverend. And my respect and admiration for him and his voice and his music has just grown since then.

So getting to see him (up close for three songs and then back behind the stage — not backstage but behind the stage where you couldn’t see anything) for the first time tonight was a treat for me. (Bonus: I caught Elvis Costello backstage watching Al Green. Jeez. Too much greatness in one area.) I won’t even feign journalistic indifference or whatever. I was totally excited and then blown away when the man, who is well into his 60s, was struttin’ and dancin’ and hamming it up for his completely enthusiastic audience. And how completely amazing to see a backing band so clearly psyched to be a part of a man’s music. (They were seriously tight. Especially the percussionists.) There were some audio foibles (a finicky mic) early on that clearly frustrated him, but he kept that wide grin on his face the whole time and kept the crowd engaged. I’m a little sore that I didn’t get to snag one of the many red roses he tossed into the audience, but that’s nothing. I’m so happy I got the chance to see him while he’s still full of fire.
Video of Al Green singing “Let’s Get Married” (complete with technical foibles) is here.

The handoff

posted May 13, 2010, on Theology&Geometry

I woke up Sunday to a voice mail from my dad, asking if I could maybe shave off some time and get to Saltillo a little earlier than I had planned. “Your mom’s having a bad time,” he said. “She needs her spirits lifted.”

Lately the quality of my mother’s days varies wildly, usually depending on how well she’s been able to police herself and not, as we say, “overdo it” during the previous few days. Overdoing it for my mother is staying up all night, maybe not going to bed at all. Overdoing it for my mother is spending all day and into the night in her beloved flowerbeds, trying to plant and shape and craft and prune and weed and move and split and perfect. Overdoing it for my mother is letting her mind go to the dark place it likes to visit every now and again.

The good days are wonderful but the bad days? I’ll be honest. I’m not around much for the bad days. It’s a blessing and a curse to live these two hours from her. I don’t get to see her, monitor how she’s doing, listen to her when she just needs to rattle, make her laugh, do the heavy lifting. And I don’t get to see her when she is in so much pain that she cannot leave the bed. For two days.

I hear about it sometimes, often in my dad’s tone of voice on the phone or in his eyes when I do get to come home. He’s grown weary of certain patterns of behavior and the domino effect they have. I don’t know how to tell him that I’m sorry it’s not easy, but that he has always told me that life isn’t easy. That seems like a callous thing to say, or even think. But I don’t know how to make it better for him. When I’m there he seems so short with her. She seems to take it in good stride, and even joked about it with him. I know his attitude comes from a place of fear for her well-being. And I have never really been able to read tension between my parents accurately. When I was a kid, I would absolutely fall apart every time they argued. I am decidedly un-kid now, and when there is tension between my parents, I feel physically ill.

Mom showed me her hands Sunday evening. Swollen and dirt-stained, they carried nicks and calluses from her ungloved battles with plants. “I have an obsession,” she told me, referring to her habit of weeding at all hours. If she is standing outside long enough, she will go to pulling. Even if she’s not in her own yard. I told her she had to take it easy. I know she feels rushed by the natural current of spring and how a gardener knows certain things have to be done at certain times and with certain amounts of repetition, but she has got to learn her limits and then stop short of them. Every time.

She led me through the yard, asking me if I had any of this, any of that, and uprooting what she thought I might like to take with me. We went to the basement, where she had attempted to winter over lots of her finest greenery, and she admitted to me, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this next year.” I saw why. Once we stepped outside, the garage was flanked by enormous pots of elephant ears and plants taller than any living human carrying Turner blood. The woman needs a greenhouse of her own (my grandmother’s is full and quite old). My dad, ever the loving husband who wants to give his bride whatever she needs, has been plotting and scheming to get one built despite the overall gloomy financial outlook for a one-income household.

As I watched my mom look over the orchestra of plants she had been nursing for years and years, choosing which ones to pass on to me, I realized that she is passing a torch to me. Not using her lit candle to light my candle, but handing me the whole candle and saying, “Here. You keep this lit. My hands won’t even make a fist anymore.” And I can’t tell you what an emotional gutcheck that is to me. Holding court over her flowers has brought her such joy in her life. She has filled every nook and cranny of the homestead with shape and color. Trees she planted when I was a kid are now taller than the house. She has named some of these plants, and addresses them by name, as they are somewhat fickle like humans. And here she is, confronting the reality that the upkeep is just too much for her. My heart hurts for her.

But now I understand why she just falls all over herself to help me get my yard in order, why she wants to populate it with the same plants she and my dad and my grandmother have been looking after for as long as they can remember. These little pieces of all that hard work need to live on. And I’m proud to give them life for as long as I’m able.

The picker paradox

posted January 14, 2011, on Theology&Geometry

nature always wins

Lately we’ve been watching episodes of American Pickers on Netflix streaming, and even though I enjoy the show (okay, I mostly enjoy pretending that the hosts are secretly in love with each other and that every pick each dude makes is secretly an attempt to find the perfect gift for the other dude), there’s something I find unsettling about it.

I know the whole purpose of the show is finding treasure among junk and giving things new life. It’s the same thing with the house-flipping shows. I get that. And I appreciate that. Like any red-blooded consumer of stuff, I love browsing overcrowded thrift stores and antique malls and tourist traps that are teeming with crap. And I enjoy the personalities of many of the (usually) old people the guys encounter and try to haggle with.

But the whole thing just makes me sort of sad. Every time their weird little van pulls off on yet another country road and into yet another country driveway, I see sadness and decay. I see my home and my family history. As the pickers rifle through dusty junk in dilapidated barns with corrugated metal roofs, looking for knick-knacks with old advertising logos on them, I see an entire way of life that has all but evaporated. I don’t know. It feels like watching vultures feed on the carcass of agricultural America.

I know that sounds hyperbolic (it is!). I know I am feh-ing all over good, clean, enterprising American fun, but I get so profoundly sad sometimes watching these old people be nickel and dimed out of ancient relics that they have for whatever reason hung onto throughout their entire lives. These pickers go from rusty graveyard to rusty graveyard, prying gems out of headstones and leaving a few dollar bills under a rock. Granted, a lot of these sellers are making decent money from the pickers on the show, and in turn getting good exposure to other collectors who might be watching and researching. That’s nice.

It’s a business, I get it. But it’s a macabre one.

My family lives on one of these rural American graveyards. It might be a picker’s paradise for all I know. I just know this: It wasn’t always a graveyard. Once upon a time, those rusting heaps that are scattered throughout our sheds and barns and pastures were shiny and new (but not for long), and hauled hay, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, corn, and soybeans all over the Mid-South.

the suburban   spartan

chains   bread and butter  

The farm has gone from functional to almost completely symbolic in my lifetime. When I was born, my dad was a farmer. That was his job. As it has been his dad’s job. I remember when Dad wore big trucker hats to keep the sun out of his eyes as he maneuvered his tractor around the hundreds of acres he was responsible for tending. He sported the finest farmer’s tan known to man. (Seriously, you need to click that link. I’ll wait.) (Glad you clicked, aren’t you?) Even my sister was expected to help out with farm duties; some of my earliest memories are of going with her to slop hogs before school. I remember seeing pigs being born and playing in the grain bins.

When I was itty bitty, Dad got a job at the local paper mill, and his time spent doing farm stuff started to fall off. Eventually almost all of the livestock was sold off and Triple T Farms wasn’t farming nearly as many acres as it had been in the past. Equipment broke down and became too costly to fix and too expensive to replace and one day suddenly everyone in the family was punching the clock away from the farm, and we were surrounded by scrap metal being overtaken by vines and dust.

I’m not trying to over-romanticize farm work. It’s hard and it’s thankless and it’s constant. It’s tied to the fickle whims of nature. But it is honest work, valuable work. Necessary work. Work that is so organic that it puts you in touch with the very nature of life itself. These days, it is rare work.

I don’t know. It’s hard to think about how a place can become a picker’s paradise without having to confront the loss and pain that got it there.

But then again, that’s anything, I suppose.

In which your intrepid blogger is nearly trampled to death

posted May 1, 2009, on The Commercial Appeal’s Memphis in May blog (now defunct)


I remember when I was in ninth grade and we were deep into the reign of alternative music and the concept of moshing seemed really cool. That was also back when the thought of actually touching a boy was so titillating that I was willing to risk life and limb just to brush up against a real, live one, even if he was a disgusting, sweaty, hormone-fueled mess in a Tool shirt. That was also back before I had any real concept of not being invincible.

Except, as I soon learned once I started going to concerts, moshing is nothing to get mixed up in. I am not a delicate flower by any means, but life is too freaking short to find yourself getting elbowed in the nose while you’re innocently trying to bob your head to your favorite song — no matter how fast-paced it is. So at shows, if there is even any hint of a shoving match, you’ll find me creeping away from the teeming mass and finding a space along the wall, laughing the the ‘roidheads and maternally wishing they’d chill out because, really, what is there to get all riled up about?

So I guess my absence from the moshing scene is how I completely missed out on learning what a Wall of Death is.

Rise Against, who were doing an already bang-up job of getting their crowd worked up when I walked up mid-set, suggested that everyone get ready to form a Wall of Death.

I was walking away when I heard this Wall of Death proposal go out over the PA, and turned right around. “Wall of Death?” I thought in my special in-my-mind-only accent. “That sounds quaint! Why don’t I stick around?”

Tim McIlrath, Rise Against’s front man, was asking people to form a big empty space down the middle of the crowd, all the way up to the stage. “Awesome,” my useless, completely irrational brain said. “This is a great photo opportunity.”

You can see where this is going.

Laugh, chumps. Laugh. Go ahead.

I spotted Commercial Appeal photog Mark Weber and we were both shrugging our shoulders about this so-called Wall of Death. It looked harmless enough to us. I kind of halfway hoped it meant people would be taking turns dancing down the big clearing toward the stage, like they do in those teen movies that are never anything like real life.

So I made my way down the clearing and snapped exactly two pictures before I realized that I had, essentially, signed my own death warrant. McIlrath gave his crowd the go sign and the two sides of the clearing ran at each other with the kind of fury usually reserved for brief scenes in trailers of movies about medieval battles.

Day 121: The Wall of Death

It didn’t take long for me to hit the ground, and all sorts of strange and depressing and frantic things started running through my mind (in my normal accent). My first instinct was to cover the very expensive lens I’m renting from LensRentals. My second thought was OH MY GOD, THIS IS HOW PEOPLE DIE AND GET ON THE NEWS.

From then on out, it was just me stunned, on the ground, people stomping all over me. I’m pretty sure I flashed some onlookers (stupid miniskirt). And I’m also pretty sure Mark got some sweet pics of my ongoing crisis and near death, that, had I died, might have been used to comfort my parents because it would have lessened the loss knowing you lost a child so stupid as to get herself caught up in that mess. I look forward to seeing those.

Some helpful fellow helped me to my feet (I was total dead weight; sorry about that, dude) and I realized I’d lost both my flip-flops (SEE?! GALOSHES ARE IMPERATIVE). I begged and pleaded and ducked my way out of the madness and into the calmer fringes. My camera and my lens were safe, a plug had been taken out of my knee, I was bleeding down my leg, and people were looking at me like I was the dumbest person on the planet. And for that five minutes, I’m pretty sure I was the dumbest person on the planet.

I was able to recover one flip-flop, and then sat by the fence to wait for the crowd to thin out so I could go hunt for the other. Sadly, it is lost to the whims of time and very angry punk-rock fans.

I limped back, busted and bruised and feeling generally sheepish, back to the media trailer to show off my battle wounds. Diane, the BSMF director, very kindly dispatched someone to get flip-flops from a vendor on site so that I may continue my journey to observe and report. That was very, very cool of her and has saved my feet from certain rot.
But I’m steering clear of the crowds.

Leave a Reply