Mid-South Book Festival leads children to path of lifetime reading

Photo by William Deshazer

Photo by William Deshazer

My kids talk. A lot. But a large and healthy vocabulary is a gift all parents should give their children. At least that’s what I keep telling myself whenever I can get a word in edgewise.

The seed to a garden of so many words and sentences and paragraphs is found in a book. My children have outgrown “Goodnight Moon” and “Knuffle Bunny” and “One Fish, Two Fish,” and the truth is, I miss them sometimes. Reading to my kids gave something to both of us; it’s a give and take of knowledge and language, but also of bonding and irreplaceable memories. I could probably recite “Goodnight Moon” from memory if they’d ask, but they aren’t asking anymore; they’re too old for that “great green room.”

There are plenty of ways to keep our kids reading even once they’ve passed the age of tuck-ins at bedtime. There is school, of course, and read-a-thons. There are books that are made into films to capture their interest and, hopefully, make them curious for the source material. There are wizards and castles and magic tree houses. There are lions, witches and wardrobes.

And there is the library. I defy any child to walk through the pastel forest that is the Children’s Department entryway of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, and not be drawn to the stained-glass house, the low-to-the-ground tables and the rows upon rows of mind-opening books.

Kids, this department is your great green room that will set you on a course of lifetime reading.

I learned the other day of a policy I hadn’t previously known. It seems that if your child has late fines in the Memphis Public Library system, he or she can go in and read for a preset amount of time in the presence of a librarian and that fine, or portions of that fine, will be dismissed.

Had I known about it over the course of the last 16 years with four kids, it could have saved me tens of dollars in nickel late fees.

What a wonderful policy, though. It teaches children that knowledge is more valuable than money.

Another way to interest children in the world of literature happens this weekend. It’s Literacy Mid-South’s first Mid-South Book Festival taking place from Thursday to Sunday. Saturday afternoon at Memphis Botanic Garden, there will be an outside children’s area with costumed characters, sidewalk chalk for writing haikus, a play by ShoWagon of Theatre Memphis, and Chef Dough Dough (Dolores Grisanti Katsotis) will give a cooking demonstration from her children’s cookbook.

There is plenty for adult readers, too, of course, and I’ll be moderating a Q&A session Saturday morning with Courtney Miller Santo, local author of “Three Story House” and “The Roots of the Olive Tree.”

Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South, warns that “If a child isn’t proficient in reading by the third grade, there’s a good chance that we’ve lost him forever. And you can’t rely solely on the school system to do that, that has to start at home.”

My passion for reading began early through trips with my mother to the public library when it was at Peabody and McLean in Midtown. That interest and curiosity is probably the greatest gift she ever gave me.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at richardalley.com. Become a fan of “Because I Said So” on Facebook: facebook.com/alleygreenberg.

More information on the Mid-South Book Festival at midsouthbookfest.org.
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Dad is odd man out when it comes to the fair

‘Because I Said So’ column for The Commercial Appeal

Sept. 11, 2014

Photo by William Deshazer

Photo by William Deshazer

Dad is odd man out when it comes to the fair

My family loves going to the fair. I do not like the fair.

Somehow, this makes me the odd man out. A house full of carnies and I’m the weird one.

Fair season is the most wonderful time of the year for my wife and kids who, along with my mother-in-law, all went to the Delta Fair & Music Festival at the Agricenter last weekend.

They ate the food, rode the rides, and walked among the crowds.

I stayed home where it was quiet and air-conditioned and comfortable. Sofa-And-A-Book is my favorite ride.

I don’t like fairs and never have. I am 44 years old and I’m scared of carnival rides. There, I said it. It’s something I never would have admitted as a teen; peer pressure was scarier than the rides to me then. But I’m OK with it now. Why? Because I’m the father of four and that takes a stronger constitution than any roller coaster you can dream up. I can eat a deep-fried Snickers bar and watch Nickelodeon for hours on end without feeling nauseous.

As a boy, though, I begged to go every year. Excitement built as September neared with the promise of a whole day spent wandering the Mid-South Fairgrounds and Libertyland. I would pester my parents to take me until they relented.

Once we passed through the ticket booth, though, and into the land of Pronto-Pups and sideshows, I knew I didn’t want to be there.

I know, too, that this made me a curmudgeon at the age of 8, a kiddie killjoy.

And I still am at 44.

So, my family went without me this year, as they do every year, and came home visibly vibrating with adventure and sugary cotton candy coursing through their bloodstreams. They regaled me with stories of spinning rides and bouncing rides, rides that turned them upside down and pulled them backward. I grew dizzy trying to follow the conversation as it bounced among the kids.

I’m somewhat surprised at this enthusiasm for the fair. It’s the gene of risk from their mother that, thankfully, cancels out the gene of anxiety they got from me. You must be this neurotic to ride this ride.

One daughter in particular surprises me. She has a natural, healthy, if not somewhat overwhelming, sense of self-preservation. She is terrified of storms, for example. She loves funnel cakes, but fears funnel clouds. The Tunnel of Irony is her favorite ride. Yet she is not a fair-weather fairgoer and would have gone back again and again if we’d had the tickets.

I’m glad they’re brave and find so much pleasure every fall. I get a vicarious thrill from their thrills. Do I wish I could join them? Sometimes. But then those roller coaster cars start whirring, the sideshow barkers start calling, the smell of farm animals permeates the air, and I lie back on the couch, open my book, and become fairly dizzy with the silence.

Link to The Commercial Appeal


Cost of raising kids causes dad to swerve

‘Because I Said So’ column for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 28, 2014


Cost of raising kids causes dad to swerve

On a half-hour drive across town the other day I tuned the radio dial from station to station looking for anything to distract me from the stop-and-go Memphis traffic. In that time, I heard the same song by a popular ‘80s hair band twice, a Morgan & Morgan law firm commercial 19 times and a story on NPR about it now costing $245,000 to raise a child until he or she is 18 years old.

I nearly swerved off the road.

By my calculations, it’s going to cost me a cool million to get my four kids to adulthood. I don’t have a million dollars. I’m not sure what the penalty is for that — some sort of kid foreclosure, I suppose. The bank will show up and repossess them, which is fine, let them learn how expensive Pop-Tarts can be.

The study is conducted every year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for some reason. I suppose they need to know how much milk they’re going to have to make (at least four gallons per week for my kids) or how many hot dog buns to produce.

They say children are a gift, but I’ve never in my life spent so much on a gift.

The greatest expenses are housing and child care, the study declares. These are followed closely by notebook paper, three-ring binders and glue sticks. Having just barely survived the start of the school year, I’m fairly certain the long list of school supplies required to accommodate elementary, middle and high school must take up a great swath of real estate on the USDA’s child-raising ledger.

The report also says that teenagers are the most expensive, though that might have come from the U.S. Department of the Obvious. My teen outgrows his clothes at an inhuman rate and eats more than the rest of the family combined. Then there is the issue of bandwidth and digital usage, costs my parents didn’t have to consider.

I recently wrote a check for our first auto insurance premium with a teenage driver attached to it. It more than doubled what we had been paying. I nearly swerved off the desk.

It isn’t all about money, I know. I love these kids, they are irreplaceable. They are not, it turns out, priceless — the government has put a price on them.

Anyway, I look at it all as an investment. I don’t normally invest a million dollars in a single industry like child raising, but I don’t really have a choice in this matter. And I do intend to collect dividends.

I intend to collect that money in person, showing up at my adult kids’ homes once a quarter with my hand out. I’ll demand a check, some Pop-Tarts and a ride back to my house since I’ll have to sell the car to pay for that last teenager to eat her weight in hot dog buns.

Should they refuse payment, I know of a law firm to handle the case. I’ll pay the legal fees, I’m sure.

Link to The Commercial Appeal


Take cue from kids in making friends

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Aug. 14, 2014

Han Solo and Chewbacca, friends since 1977

Han Solo and Chewbacca, friends since 1977

Take cue from kids in making friends

We lost a king. A peanut farmer took the Oval Office. The Rebel Alliance was victorious over the Galactic Empire. And a scrawny, 7-year-old, would-be columnist was relocated across town.

It was 1977, and everything had changed. My family moved from a small house in Midtown to East Memphis where I started second grade at St. Louis Elementary School. Though the landscape was much the same – a heavy canopy of oaks and magnolias and dogwood trees – that 6 miles from house to house might as well have been a world away.

I had left Central Avenue, where I’d learned to ride a bike and explored the block I’d come to know by heart for the unknown just off Mendenhall Road. Also left behind were nearby cousins and a friend who would run that block with me.

How does a kid whose world has just changed make new friends? There was no social media then, no planned play dates as I recall. Seven-year-old me simply walked out the front door and there were Liz and Lisa who lived next door and across the street respectively. From Day 1, I imagine, we were climbing those trees, racing that block on our bikes and walking to and from school together. It seems so easy in retrospect, so simply innocent in a child’s desire to be around like minds and like energy.

The three of us recently visited, Lisa in town from her home in New Mexico, and we shared stories from those days in the ‘70s, caught up on life events in the intervening years, and got to know each others’ children.

Things seem more complicated these days with so much of our lives, and our kids’ lives, taking place virtually. They text instead of call, comment instead of converse. More time is spent indoors at a screen than outdoors in a tree.

How do today’s kids make friends? It’s something I think about each year at the beginning of school. Along with pencils, notebook paper, folders and glue sticks, I wonder if my kids have enough friends to go along with all of those school supplies. The social aspect of school, how a future adult moves within his or her world, is as important as their grasp of equations and Shakespeare.

I ask them every evening for the first few weeks of school if they made any new friends. They usually do. “How?” I asked my youngest, a newly minted third-grader, this year.

“She had a lot of crayons and I said, ‘That’s a lot of crayons,’ and we were friends.”


We could all take a cue from our children sometimes. I do almost daily. Once we drop all the pretenses, the expectations, the anxiety and fear that we carry around as adults, it all comes down to just saying hello, doesn’t it?

I’m not sure who first approached whom on that block in 1977 or what it was we found we had in common. Maybe it was a fondness for the silenced voice of Elvis Presley or the excitement when Darth Vader first appeared on screen. Or maybe it was something as simple as a shared love of crayons.

Link to The Commercial Appeal


Son’s road test sends dad down memory lane

‘Because I Said So’ column for The Commercial Appeal

July 31, 2014


Son’s road test sends dad down memory lane

The moment my first child was born, I stood for a moment in disbelief. “I’m a father,” I said over and over in my head. There were other thoughts going through my mind as well; it was a virtual white-noise machine of worry and elation and wonder in there.

Walking the hallways of Baptist Hospital-East, I nodded at other new fathers in recognition and wide-eyed amazement at what we’d just witnessed and at what we’d suddenly become.

There have been other milestones over the years, of course, now having four children in the stable. There were first days of school, where the parents looked more frightened than the kids. There was the first time riding a two-wheel bike when pride swelled us up to near bursting. There was the first trip to the emergency room and the fear that we’d somehow damaged our child.

Last week was another milestone as I took my son to get his driver’s license. It was, like that first day of kindergarten, a moment when I wanted to take his hand and usher him through each step. But I was only there to sign any necessary paperwork. He filled out forms, answered the examiner’s questions and, finally, took the keys from me and went out to the car, alone.

I waited in the lobby. I could see him there, behind the wheel, awaiting the examiner to join him. I looked away, unable, or unwilling, to watch him back out of that tight spot and begin the road test. When I looked again, the car was gone. Somewhere, out on Summer Avenue, he was driving — nervous, anxious, excited — as the stranger beside him checked off boxes and made notations on her clipboard. Such anxiety and expectation is a rite of passage in itself.

Meanwhile, I stood in disbelief as I had that day in the maternity ward where it had all begun. The other parents and I raised our eyebrows in acknowledgment that we, too, were experiencing a sort of rite.

“I’m a father,” I thought again. In the time he was out on the road, my mind flew back to the beginning and his birth, that first trip down the block on his bicycle, that visit to the emergency room and his first days of school. I saw him again as a baby, a toddler, a little boy running with his siblings and frightened at night of the dark. That government building on Summer — that cramped, nondescript bunker — is not much of a place for an emotional slideshow, yet I’m sure it’s had its share.

It wasn’t too long before Calvin and his examiner returned. His poker face is such that I couldn’t read him at all, had no idea how it had gone and, once again, I wanted to take his hand and ask if he was OK. But this was his moment and embarrassment need not be a box checked off the road test.

It wasn’t until the examiner told him to step in front of the blue cloth to have his picture taken that he exhaled and the color returned to his face.

I’m wondering when I’ll be able to exhale. It’s been 16 years of worry and elation and wonder, and every day I’m amazed at what these kids are capable of and where, on the road of parenthood, they’ll drive me next.

Link to The Commercial Appeal


City of Memphis, I feel your budget pain

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

July 17, 2014

Genevieve's invoice

Genevieve’s invoice

City of Memphis, I feel your budget pain

Kids really do say the darndest things, don’t they?

In the 1950s and ‘60s, entertainer Art Linkletter built an empire off the silly things issued forth from the mouths of babes.

I’ve been saying it in my own way right here in this column for six years. My oldest son, as a toddler, once referred to the plumber my wife had called to the house for a middle-of-the-day emergency as “different daddy.”

Such a delightful scamp.

Linkletter had other grand ideas beyond asking earnest questions of unassuming children. In 1960, he, along with business partner Clyde Vandenburg, proposed a redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds to include such amenities as a new arena and a 700-foot-long lagoon to stretch along East Parkway. Of that plan, the Mid-South Coliseum was the only feature to see the light of day.

Recently, the city floated a plan for a Tourism Development Zone in and around the Fairgrounds in an effort to pay for redevelopment of the property. The city is also grappling with ways to pay for the pensions and benefits of firefighters and policemen.

I don’t claim to have all — or any — of the answers to such issues. Nor do I have any plans as outlandish as a Memphis blues lagoon. I have my own issues at home with budgeting the cost of four children who continually redevelop the landscape of my days and bank account.

Among these kids is an 8-year-old daughter who doesn’t yet have a job or a pension. Occasionally, though, she’ll complete a chore around the house and, once finished, will then tell me how much I owe her. And with Genevieve, there are no negotiations.

She recently presented me with an invoice — an actual paper bill — for having rolled the garbage can to the curb for pickup. According to her cryptic handwriting, she’s owed fees in the amount of $10 for the weight of the can and $5 for the “stink.” Despite already being charged for the odor, she tacked on $20 because she had to hold her breath. There is a $100 balance that has been carried forward; from what, I have no idea.

In all, I owe this child who lives in my house and eats my food $135, essentially for walking 20 yards down the driveway.

I think she may be on to something.

Fiscal matters matter, even to children. They won’t stay kids forever, and the things they say and do won’t be all that cute, or profitable, for too long. They need to be taught early about budgets and bank accounts and the dangers of overextending oneself. One day, Genevieve will need to manage her own pension and may even, heaven help us, administer that of an entire city’s worth of employees.

When that day comes, she’ll need to know how to spend wisely and when to save. These darned kids will have to understand when it’s imprudent to purchase a new television or car, and that it’s good business to honor all promises of payment. And they’ll want to know when to prioritize the cost of a plumber over a new lagoon.

Link to The Commercial Appeal


Bleak House: What’s going on with the Mid-South Coliseum

High Ground News

July 9, 2014

Elvis sang there. The Beatles played there. Professional wrestler Jerry Lawler pile-drove comedian Andy Kaufman there in 1983 in an infamous match that landed the two on national television with “Late Night with David Letterman.”

For several generations of Memphians, the Mid-South Coliseum was the center of the entertainment universe. Despite this status as a pop culture altar, its future is bleak. The Coliseum most certainly faces destruction, either quickly, by wrecking ball, or slowly, by neglect.

The Coliseum sits among the Mid-South Fairgrounds, a 168-acre former horseracing track, Montgomery Park, that was purchased by the city in 1897. The area was considered for wholesale revision in 1960 as the Linkletter-Vandenburg Plan, created by entertainer Art Linkletter and business partner Clyde Vandenburg, recommended vast changes to the property. Among such visions as a 700-foot-long lagoon was the plan for a multi-use arena–the Coliseum–the only portion of the plan to see the light of day.

Built in 1964, it was closed for good in 2006 after being determined too cost prohibitive to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, it has sat empty, neglected, a tomb to the memories and milestones of thousands–first concerts, Monday Night Wrestling, graduations, monster truck shows.

Another plan, one with a bit more traction than Linkletter-Vandenburg, is currently being touted. A Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) is proposed by the City of Memphis and destined for a vote in Nashville later this month. The 3-mile-wide zone would encompass the nearby Cooper-Young business district, burgeoning Overton Square and the Fairgrounds, and use excess sales tax from those areas to repay bonds used to fund the $233 million project. A far-reaching plan for the Fairgrounds calls for a complex of athletic fields, retail space, a hotel and residential units.

If the TDZ is accepted, the Coliseum most surely will be demolished. Regardless, though, the city disconnected utilities to the building three years ago, leaving it at the mercy of Memphis’ wide seasonal swings in temperature and humidity.

The entire area of the Fairgrounds falls under the jurisdiction of the City’s Division of Parks and Neighborhoods, operated by a management company, Global Spectrum . . . (read more)


Beach vacation is time for family, renewal

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

July 3, 2014

Blue Mountain Beach

Blue Mountain Beach

Beach vacation is time for family, renewal

As mandated by my membership in Club Memphis, I loaded up the van and drove to the panhandle of Florida for a week this summer. It’s an annual drive that can take anywhere from eight to 11 hours. This year, it was unbearably the latter.

I don’t mind most of the drive too much. For me, the vacation begins in that van. Where the kids used to complain and whine, they now sit still, (mostly) silent and mesmerized by the glow of the screen on their hand-held devices.

With the kids strapped in and unable to move about the cabin, and with my only responsibility, great as it is, to deliver them all safely to the beaches of South Walton County, it frees my mind to wander.

For 11 hours I was able to dwell within my own thoughts. Well, 10 hours. That last hour was spent thinking, “Why is this taking so long?”

As with the start of any road trip, my first thoughts turn to this: these kids are whiling away the hours watching movies on handheld devices. Do they even realize their good fortune to watch “Frozen” again and again as Alabama whisks past? Do they know that I spent hours on the road as a kid — these very same roads — wishing for just such a device?

My sisters and I dreamed of a day in the future — far in the future, the 21st century — when we might be able to watch our favorite television programs as the distance dwindled. Instead, we read books and doodled, stared out the windows and napped. And we argued, which is the one holdover of childhood from the last century to this.

But the focus of our week this summer wasn’t all electronic devices and self-absorption. Once we hit the emerald green waters and sugar white sand of Blue Mountain Beach, we gave ourselves over to relaxation and socialization. Attention turned to family as my sister, her husband and their kids arrived to join us.

A friend once said, “Man should put his feet in the sea at least once a day.” There is something healing about the water, isn’t there? It’s therapeutic, renewing.

We bobbed in those waters as a family out beyond the second sandbar, the current carrying us lazily to the east and the sun dazzling our eyes. The kids asked questions and we answered honestly and openly as our feet grazed the sandy floor below. We spoke of hopes and dreams in a way that we just aren’t able during our day-to-day lives with their schedules and demands.

This is what vacation is all about. This suspension of reality, the suspension of gravity and the time to just float in each other’s company. Those moments are worth the hectic days throughout the rest of the year. Those saltwater conversations are worth every minute of the very long drive.

I’m already looking forward to putting my feet in the sea again. I’m ready for next year and the renewal that can only be had from a long drive, quality family time, Disney films on the go, and the water.

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal


Collaboration changes the future of Frayser

High Ground News

June 18, 2014

The community of Frayser, just north of Memphis proper and across a wide alluvial plain from the Mississippi River, began as a suburban town built around a railroad depot. It was annexed by Memphis in 1958, and industry, in the form of International Harvester and Firestone, moved in to churn out giant red cotton pickers and automobile tires.

Those companies would eventually move out, taking jobs–more than 2,000 in the case of Harvester–and people with them, and leaving gaping holes in the landscape. Over the years, those who stayed or have moved in since have weathered loss of jobs along with a recession and real estate woes. It is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Memphis, with some of the highest crime rates. The butt of jokes for years, it’s a community made up of still-proud people, many looking to rewrite its narrative from the ground up, from among its boarded-up homes, crumbling infrastructure and struggling educational institutions.

According to the 2010 census report, the 20 square miles that make up Frayser are home to just over 40,000, with a makeup of 84 percent African American. Nearly 20 percent of residents–the largest group–made $15,000 to $25,000 per year, and almost half of the population rent their homes. Forty percent live below the poverty level.

In answer to such problems, the Frayser Community Development Corporation (CDC) was founded in 2000 to act as a nonprofit revitalization engine for the area. In 2013, through a community-wide election, the Frayser Neighborhood Council was created.

The Frayser CDC has been buying up houses for renovation and resale or lease, and currently owns close to 75.

“We sell everything we can, but we rent and lease what we can’t sell,” says Steve Lockwood, Executive Director. “We work with families to try to get them in a place where they can get a mortgage to where we can sell them the house they’re already living in.”

The CDC recently received $495,000 from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which will help buy and renovate 11 houses designated to be rented or sold to very low income families.

“We’ve tried to learn to be as strategic as we can about how to invest in housing,” Lockwood says. “My board, after years of discussion, we’ve been investing in the middle-ground neighborhoods, the tipping point neighborhoods in Frayser.”

In such areas, the CDC will typically buy the worst house on the block, putting resources and about $45,000 into renovations.

“It becomes the best house on the street, and then we put a strong working family in there, and we think it changes the whole street,” Lockwood says. “We can prove that it changes the tax base for the whole area because an abandoned, blighted house hurts the value.”

Even in this deflated market, Lockwood says they’re able to sell houses for $60,000 in a neighborhood where the average sale price is around $27,000 . . . (read more)