Archive for December, 2010

Elvis in 1957, after Graceland purchase.

I can imagine music without sound, but not without time.
— former music teacher

Before my mother died, she wanted to make one last trip to Memphis. We rented a Lincoln Continental and drove ten hours from Austin, where she lived at the time.

In Memphis, we’d lived in a neighborhood about five miles from Graceland. Our neighborhood was on one side of the Memphis International Airport, and Graceland was on the other. When Elvis purchased the house in 1957 it was located on Highway 51 South in a rural part of town. The street later became Elvis Presley Blvd.

Graceland’s original owner, S.C. Toof, named the property for his daughter Grace. My mother and I drove past Graceland on our visit to Memphis. It’s on the same street as Forest Hill cemetery, where my father is buried. Elvis and his mother were also buried at Forest Hill before their bodies were moved to the Graceland.

Graceland is a colonial-style mansion with 23 rooms,
including eight bedrooms. The entrance
has four white colonnades and two large
lions on both side of the portico.

Recently, Forest Hill sent photos of my parent’s graves. Across my mother’s tombstone is a dark stain where vines or weeds must have grown. The neighborhood Graceland is in, Whitehaven, is now a high-crime area. High school friends were shot and killed in the grocery store where I once worked, and Whitehaven became carjack capital of the U.S.

Driving around Whitehaven in a new Lincoln Continental made me uneasy, but my mother wasn’t nervous. She drove into a trailer park near Forest Hill where a distant cousin lived. I waited anxiously while she talked to her cousin on the front porch and handed her a large-print Bible. Her cousin didn’t look like she wanted the Bible, but mom hadn’t seen her cousin for years and, “Bibles always make good steady gifts.”

Elvis at Lansky’s clothing store

Both my parents attended the same high school Elvis went to, Humes, but graduated five years before he did. When I hear stories from this period of Elvis’s life in the early 50s, I don’t hear stories of a rock star but of a Memphian.

He shopped at the same men’s clothing store my grandfather, father and brother all shopped in. Lansky’s is located downtown on Beale St. just east of the Mississippi river. Beale St. was home to blues and jazz legends B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy. When I was in high school, I snuck down to Beale St. in a 1970 green Ford Maverick bought from a neighbor for $400 to listen to blues singer Ruby Wilson.

Standing in front of gates
of Graceland in 1973 with cousins.

A few blocks from Beale St. down a back alley in a basement is a restaurant called the Rendezvous. It sells the best dry ribs I’ve ever eaten. Other parts of the U.S. sell beef barbecue, but in Memphis it’s pork. On a Saturday night, you can smell barbecue cooking all the way downtown to the river, and Elvis ate there as many Memphians did.

Today I was in in a barbecue restaurant in Boulder and heard a husband say to his wife, “Graceland, that’s one place I’ve never been.” On the wall were photos of B.B. King, Elvis, newspaper clippings from Memphis and a plastic-head Elvis shrine. The Presley family still lived at Graceland when I was a child and the house itself wasn’t open to the public, but we could tour the grounds and see the guitar-shaped swimming pool in the backyard.

Elvis’s music was not music we listened to in our house. My mother preferred Luciano Pavarotti or Beverly Sills. On the weekends, we cleaned house listening to Handel’s Messiah at full tilt. My father preferred Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee.

Commercial Appeal published
Aug. 18, 1977, two days after
Elvis’s death, showing fans
waiting to view his body at Graceland.
Crowds were estimated
between 50,000 to 100,000.

When it was announced on TV that Elvis died in 1977, I was sitting on the floor playing jacks. The cause of death was uncertain at the time but later reported as heart failure. It’s now believed he died from complications related to drug use. Thousands of people descended on the city when they heard the news, and traffic made it impossible to drive anywhere for weeks.

I’ve often wondered if Elvis felt his life was full of grace. His fame made it impossible for him to be seen in public. The first house the Presleys bought in Memphis was on the east side of town on Audubon Drive near a church my family and I attended. When the neighbors became unsettled by the growing number of fans and newspaper reporters, he gave his parents, Gladys and Vernon, $100,000 to purchase a house with land surrounding it. The family had been very poor before they moved to Memphis and Elvis started his career. They lived in a shotgun house built by Vernon in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Elvis became so famous it’s debated now whether he or the Beatles hold the record for most songs charted in Billboard‘s top 40 and top 100, but by the end of his 23-year career he was addicted to drugs and sometimes became violent with fans. His family squandered money on extravagant expenses. Vernon had a swimming pool built in his bedroom. After Elvis’s death, his estate had dwindled to such an extent, his ex-wife Priscilla was forced to open Graceland to the public. 

As my mother and I drove home from Memphis on that trip, she told me a story from her childhood I’d never heard. In 1933 when she was five years old, she was admitted to Cheerfield Farm Children’s Home, a facility opened in 1921 to serve malnourished, anemic and turberculosis-susceptible children. A 2007 Junior League of Memphis newsletter described the home as “fed from a spring in the midst of a beautifully wooded and hilly track of land,” from a pool “deep enough for the kiddies to have all the fun they need, but not deep enough to be dangerous,” with a dining room “with pretty gray and blue furniture.”

Elvis’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Cheerfield Farm was not cheery for my mother. Left there without explanation, she cried herself to sleep every night. Her family was also poor and lived in a shotgun house in downtown Memphis. I asked her once why they called it a shotgun house, and she said, “If you aimed a shotgun through the front door, you could shoot it out the back door.”

There’s something beautiful about a teenage Elvis in 1953, greasing his hair back and wearing his new Lansky Brother’s suit as he stepped into Sun Studios on Union Ave. to make his first recording. At the time he was still singing ballads as well as gospel music he learned at the Assembly of God church he attended in Tupelo. He paid for a few minutes of time to record the ballad That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.

Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Studios, later asked Elvis to record the ballad Without You. The song wasn’t a good fit for Elvis’s voice, so Phillips asked him to sing as many songs as he knew. When they were about to give up, Elvis broke into a 1946 blues song That’s All Right, and that was the sound Phillips was looking for.

This is the part of the Presley story I like best, when he was goofing around, just being himself, not trying to impress anyone and in the process found his voice. It’s the same moment Jackson Pollock had when he first dribbled house paint onto a canvas or Madame Curie had when she first saw radium glow. “That’s the world I want to live in,” abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler said when she first saw a Pollock painting.

That’s the world we all want to live in. We all want that Ah ha! moment when something inside us, something we feel called to, makes it’s way out. That’s the Elvis I imagine jumping around on the floor and singing That’s All Right.

It wasn’t until 1958 Elvis was introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant, when he was serving in the army. The drugs helped him keep up his strength and promoted weight loss, something that became increasingly important to him as a performer when he was touring and appearing in movies.

Was Elvis’s life full of grace? It depends on how you define grace. The word is synonymous with mercy.  It’s also thought of as seemingly effortless beauty of movement. I’ve even heard it defined as the trust other people place in you. Elvis died at 42. A man whose hips and voice synchronized with a new sound, a new rhythm in music, lost pace with his own life. Time itself became accelerated and slowed down by amphetamines and barbiturates until his career and his art form became about others’ needs and not his own.

Presley graves in backyard at Graceland.

I think of this poem by Adrienne Rich:


Nothing he had done before
or would try for later
will explain or atone
this facile suggestion of crossbeams
languid elevations traced on water
his stake in white colonnades cramping his talent
showing up in
facsimile mansions overbearing the neighborhood
his leaving the steel rods out of the plinths
(bronze raptors gazing from the boxwood)

You could say he spread himself too thin, a plasterer’s term
you could say he was then
skating thin ice his stake in white colonnades against the
thinness of
ice itself a slickened ground
Could say he did not then love
his art enough to love anything more

Could say he wanted the commission so
badly betrayed those who hired him an artist
who in dreams followed
the crowds who followed him

Imagine commandeering those oversize those prized
hardwood columns to be hoisted and hung
by hands expert and steady on powerful machines
his knowledge using theirs as the one kind does the
other (as it did in Egypt)
— while devising the little fountain to run all night
outside the master bedroom

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Inside these purple flowers
left by my window

I want to find your eyes,

each petal
like small feet

that touch the space by my front door,

each set broken
from the same stem.

Love passed to me in this way,

like small tongues
that cannot speak.

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Lee Bontecou (born 1931), American sculptor.

Untitled, 1959. Welded steel, canvas, black fabric and wire.
Untitled, 1964. Graphite on wove graph paper.
Untitled, 1998. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas and wire.
Untitled, 1961. Welded steel, canvas, wire, and velvet.

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Jeanne Marie Beaumont

When I Am in the Kitchen

I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter. Although I have on hooks
nearby the embroidered apron of my friend’s
grandmother and one my mother made for me
for Christmas 30 years ago with gingham I had
coveted through my childhood. In my kitchen
I wield my great aunt’s sturdy black-handled
soup ladle and spatula, and when I pull out
the drawer, like one in a morgue, I visit
the silverware of my husband’s grandparents.
We never met, but I place this in my mouth
every day and keep it polished out of duty.
In the cabinets I find my godmother’s
teapot, my mother’s Cambridge glass goblets,
my mother-in-law’s Franciscan plates, and here
is the cutting board my first husband parqueted
and two potholders I wove in grade school.
Oh the past is too much with me in the kitchen,
where I open the vintage metal recipe box,
robin’s egg blue in its interior, to uncover
the card for Waffles, writ in my father’s hand
reaching out from the grave to guide me
from the beginning, “sift and mix dry ingredients”
with his note that this makes “3 waffles in our
large pan” and around that our an unbearable
round stain—of egg yolk or melted butter?—
that once defined a world.
by Jeanne Marie Beaumont

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Merry Christmas

For those who sign on to this blog, we wish you and your families all the blessings of Christmas.
Christmas, 1974. Some traditions never die.

Midnight mass at the Abbey.

Notice the square-note notation of Gregorian chant, developed in the 13th century. Ascending notes are stacked squares, and descending notes are diamonds. Unlike notes today that have different length values, these notes have approximately equal duration. 

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Helen Frankenthaler, abstract expressionist, born 1928

“A really good pictures looks as if it happened all at once. It’s an immediate image.”

“One really beautiful wrist motion, that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it. It looks as if it were born in a minute.”
Magic Carpet, 1946. 96 x 68, acrylic on canvas
“There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.”
Rapunzel, 1974. 274 x 206 cm,
arcrylic on canvas

Helen Frankenthaler (right) and artist Grace Hartigan (1922-2008)

1957 From Life
The Bay, 1963, acrylic on canvas

“Whatever the medium, there is difficulty, challenge, fascination and often productive clumsiness of learning a new method: the wonderful puzzles and problems of translating with new materials.”
“You have to know how to use the accident, how to recognize it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once.”

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It was a wet, rainy August morning when I walked into Abby’s office. I had applied to the Family Self-Sufficiency through the County, and that was the day I had to sit in front of a panel of case managers, who were deciding whether or not I would be accepted. I prepared myself for the worst but hoped for the best. Deep down, I was ready to make a commitment to better my self for my children. I looked around anxiously, wondering if I had prayed enough the night before. Not even my lucky pair of pants was going to be enough to get through this meeting.

Each panel manager was a women with a pale, blank look on her face. The clothes they wore were two sizes too large for their tiny bodies. One women had a large floral print on her dress, which was a huge distraction for me. The thought of bees hovering over her wanting nectar kept crossing my mind. However, the only thing the bees were going to get was the reeking smell of mothballs. The double doors shut behind me. The meeting was about to commence.

I was surrounded by three large plastic tables all forming a U shape, and in the center was a single chair of me. Every woman in the room introduced herself, but one name remained with me. I read it over and over in the letter sent to me, but to finally put a face to the name was great. Abby proceeded with the questions. Where do you see yourself five years from today? I’d never thought about it, and I certainly didn’t have an answer for it.

I tried replying to the question as best I could making up god knows what along the way, because I don’t recall any of it now. After the questions were over, I fled to the nearest bathroom, my stomach in knots. What seemed like an eternity of questions to me was in reality only 20 minutes. I walked through the double doors into the crowded room. Lying on top of a table now was a box of Krispy Kream glazed doughnuts. Abby told me I would be notified by mail of my acceptance into the program. I thought I would never see her again.

I walked out of that crowded room dumbstruck. Why did I feel this way? It never really mattered to me what I did with my life. I didn’t bother me not to finish high school. My G.E.D. never crossed my mind. I was living in a section eight apartment, receiving T.A.N.F. benefits, food stamps, Medicaid, and living rent free. I had never given my future much thought until today. I wanted to better myself for my kids and to be a positive role model. In order for that to happen, getting into the FSS program was the solution.

Each day that passed seemed like an eternity. I dreaded the thought of receiving a letter denying me a chance to better my future. August flew by, and then came September. I sent my son to check the mail this time. When he came in, I looked through the pile and came across a light brown County envelope. I ripped it open immediately, my hands shaking in excitement. I kept praying over in my head, god please let me be accepted. I pulled out the light gray letter that was folded neatly. It read in bold black letter Congratulations!

I was ecstatic. Was it my lucky pants, my prayers, or my good sense of humor that got me into this program? I don’t know. However, I did know this. I would not let them down. I was going to show Abby she made a good choice, and I would follow through with the program. I kept reading the letter several times to my kids, but they didn’t know what I was saying. To them I probably looked like a crazy person.

My first monthly meeting was set up for September 12. there. I got to know Abby better. She explained that the program was five years long, and every two years, I’d have a panel presentation. I would be meeting with the same women who facilitated the first panel meeting, and we would go over what I had accomplished in the two years as a participant. Abby said that they were opening up an escrow account for me. The amount put into the escrow account reflected what normally would be an increase in rent related to my family’s earned income. The money would be withdrawn when I’d met my goals and had been off federal, state, and public assistance for one year.

The program offers referrals for child care assistance program, resume writing help, parenting skills, financial fitness courses, job searching, family counseling, and post-secondary education. In November, FSS gives out Thanksgiving baskets with nonperishable food and grocery gift cards. For the month of December, Abby said that a family who received our wish list would send gifts for each family member. We had to be active participants and attending monthly meetings to be in these programs.

During that first visit to Abby, she helped me set up my first realistic monthly goal, studying for my G.E.D. I wasn’t sure how long it would take but felt confident it will be no longer than six months. She was really nice and had a soft voice. I could talk to her and not worry that she was judging me, because she didn’t seem to be that type of person. I signed my life away in that small office. I knew I was one of the lucky ones to be selected.

I have been an active FSS participant for the past two years. After six months of being an active participant, I received my G.E.D. That day I proved to myself that I can do anything I set my mind to. I took my tests at the main campus, and I am now a second semester freshmen. The campus held a ceremony for the G.E.D. recipients, and unfortunately I didn’t get to wear my cap and gown. My family sat in the front row, and when my name was called to walk up to get my diploma my kids were cheering for me. I was overwhelmed with joy. I have taken parenting courses at my kids’ school, and am currently volunteering as a homework helper as well. I attended a financial fitness course, and my boyfriend and I have applied for a Habitat For Humanity house and are currently on a wait list.

Today, I see things differently. I regret the poor choices that I made in the past, but I don’t regret having my four beautiful kids. They are my joy and the reason I move forward every day. I realize now that the past is a treasure, and I managed to learn from my mistakes. I hold the key to my future, and Abby as well as Family Self-Sufficiency has given me a second chance to correct my path.

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Conservations I’ve had this holiday season have strayed toward extravagant spending. One man built a house around a large, bronze statue he’d purchased. An event planner discussed a $25,000 party she catered celebrating the newest Harry Potter book.

Even though I live in a place where people can spend lavishly, I work in a low-income job. The area encompassing Boulder County is home to about 325,000 people and more than 182,000 jobs. The main industry sector is scientific and technical. The two largest employers are IBM and Ball Aeropsace, each with about 3,000 employees.

Breakout of top 10 industries in Boulder County ranked by number of employees:

  1. Scientific and Technical: 21,168
  2. Education Services: 19,531
  3. Health Care and Social Assistance: 17,484 (This industry tops the list in the state of Colorado.)
  4. Retail Trade: 14,895
  5. Manufacturing: 14, 888
  6. Accommodation and Food Services: 13,469
  7. Information: 8,688
  8. Public Administration: 7,234
  9. Admin., Support, Waste Management, Remediation: 5, 485
  10. Finance and Insurance: 4,971

Publishing falls under Arts, Entertainment and Recreation with 2,787 employees. The women’s media group I belong to in Boulder is 500 members strong. Approximately 100 publishers of books, magazines, newspapers and circulars in print and Web media are in Boulder County. With such a large pool of media professionals and so few publishing jobs, the jobs that do exist don’t pay much.

I live in affordable housing in Boulder. The condo I bought for $100,000 can only sell for $100,000, so I have no equity in the property. I joined the board of my HOA a year ago to learn more about the tenants who live in the complex, to see what it takes to run a 40-year-old building and how affordable housing works in the city.

I recently looked at houses in a town north of Boulder and found some priced as low as $50,000. The $100,000 houses have large rooms, yards and extra buildings. But in conversations with people who live there, I learned the city is plagued with gang violence and the smell from a nearby meatpacking plant. 

Boulder Creek

Employment and housing statistics are something I can quote at the drop of a hat because of my job at the newspaper: Median household income in the city of Boulder, $57, 231; median home sales price, $525,000; median age, 29. At the community college where I taught this semester, I either knew people at the companies where my students worked or knew their parents.

Even though the numbers tell me I shouldn’t remain in Boulder, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Neither of my jobs pays well, but they segway well into each other. Instead of having my students do research papers on random topics this semester, I was able to send them into the community where they could interview people about topics more relavant to their careers.

On a bridge overlooking Boulder Creek yesterday, I stood thinking about all this. Instead of rushing to the next appointment, I lingered for a minute staring at the water, listening to the birds and feeling the sun on my back.

Searching on the Web for houses in that northern Colorado town recently helped me realize my own condo would be empty one day and someone would look through my rooms in virtualized space. The rooms in my future are no more important than the rooms I live in now, only different shapes in different places. When I forget that and don’t loaf in those moments in between everything else happening in my life, whether it’s staring into a creek or napping with my dog on the couch, I forget that. I stress out and begin to despair about my income and future. The numbers in my head rattle louder than they should, and the deeper voice calling me to this place is shut out.

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Naomi Shihab Nye
Yellow Glove
What can a yellow glove mean in a world of motorcars and governments?
I was small, like everyone. Life was a string of precautions: Don’t kiss the squirrel before you bury him, don’t suck candy, pop balloons, drop watermelons, watch TV. When the new gloves appeared one Christmas, tucked in soft tissue, I heard it trailing me: Don’t lose the yellow gloves.
I was small, there was too much to remember. One day, waving at a stream — the ice had cracked, winter chipping down, soon we would sail boats and roll into ditches — I let a glove go. Into the stream, sucked under the street. Since when did streets have mouths? I walked home on a desperate road. Gloves cost money. We didn’t have much. I would tell no one. I would wear the yellow glove that was left and keep the other hand in a pocket. I knew my mother’s eyes had tears they had not cried yet, I didn’t want to be the one to make them flow. It was the prayer I spoke secretly, folding socks, lining up donkeys in windowsills. To be good, a promise made to the roaches who scouted my closet at night. If you don’t get in my bed, I will be good. And they listened. I had a lot to fulfill.
The months rolled down like towels out of a machine. I sang and drew and fattened the cat. Don’t scream, don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t fight — you could hear it anywhere. A pebble could show you how to be smooth, tell the truth. A field could show how to sleep without walls. A stream could remember how to drift and change — next June I was stirring the stream like a soup, telling my brother dinner would be ready if he’d only hurry up with the bread, when I saw it. The yellow glove draped on a twig. A muddy survivor. A quiet flag.
Where had it been in the three gone months? I could wash it, fold it in my winter drawer with its sister, no one in that world would ever know. There were miracles on Harvey Street. Children walked home in yellow light. Trees were reborn and gloves traveled far, but returned. A thousand miles later, what can a yellow glove mean in a world of bankbooks and stereos?
Part of the difference between floating and going down.
by Naomi Shihab Nye (born 1952)

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