Found Wanting for His Moment in History

Yesterday I learned that Senator Lamar Alexander–one of two senators representing my home state of Tennessee in the U.S. Senate–voted not to call witnesses during the our current President’s impeachment trial in the Senate. I was not surprised, in fact, I would have been more surprised to find that he had voted any other way. In fact Republican senators with the courage to put their country before their party’s unquenchable thirst for power number exactly two: Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.

Lamar Alexander (center) with his dear friend Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and his Senate colleague Susan Collins of Maine in the right foreground. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Of course, there are two other considerations for most Republican Senators: the abject terror they feel at crossing the authoritarian bully in the White House and his followers, as well as their fear of being shunned by their tribe. What would the people at the country club say? How could Lamar amicably visit his home folks back in Maryville, Tennessee, (just a short drive from Knoxville where I live) if he was found to have contrary ideas and actually acted on them?

Luckily for the home folks, Lamar has always been willing to camouflage himself with one image and to actually be someone else. When he was running for Tennessee governor in 1978, he made his campaign appearances wearing a red-and-black checked shirt to show that he was just a salt-of-the-Earth, man of the people. This graduate of Vanderbilt University, who was president of his high school class, and got his law degree from the New York University School of Law, was never a simple man of the people. When Alexander ran for President of the U.S. in 1996, he wore the same shirt and even his mentor Tennessee’s real-deal Senator Howard Baker, said he wished Lamar would get rid of the plaid shirt.

During his campaign for governor in 1978, Lamar Alexander “walked across Tennessee” in his ubiquitous red-and-black plaid shirt. His wife Honey is shown at right and in the background at right is actor and attorney Fred Thompson who would become Senator of Tennessee himself from 1994 to 2003.

Since yesterday’s vote, I have been musing about the difference between the two senators from Tennessee, Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander.

As a teenager, I watched the Watergate hearings when I got home from school. These Senate hearings sought to uncover whether President Richard Nixon had abused his office and encouraged his staff to break the law during his re-election campaign–most specifically during a break-in of his opponent’s campaign headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972. Just as most American people and politicians on both sides of the aisle, I was impressed with Baker’s measured and relatively unbiased approach. Howard Baker became famous for his question during the hearings, “What did the president know, and when did he know it.” Baker impressed me as truly a statesman and a leader.

Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee during the Watergate hearings, 1972. Photo: Charles W. Garrity/the Associated Press (AP)

I was director of development communications for the University of Tennessee System in 2002 when the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the university was being planned, and was writer and editor of the publication urging donors to support the effort.

When I did research for the publication, I learned that one of our faculty members, a professor emeritus, had interviewed Baker’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle for an oral history. The professor was kind enough to share the quotes with me for our publication.

The quotes were across-the-board glowing, and Baker generously allowed us to use his own photos for the brochure. I felt privileged to be working on this project and so proud of who Senator Baker was, what he stood for, and how he represented Tennessee to the world. For the oral history project, Democrats such as former President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, were quoted as saying:

From a selfish point of view, I could not have asked for a more cooperative, helpful, enlightened, and competent leader. . . . When he couldn’t support my position, he told me the truth, or when I asked him for advice about the general tone or attitude in the Senate, he shared his frank opinions with me. . . . I respected him as a partisan leader.

President Jimmy Carter

We were friendly and there was complete cooperation with each other. We kept each other informed. While we were of different philosophies, different parties, I don’t think two people could have gotten along better.

Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill

African-American journalist Carl Rowan, who was born in Ravenscroft, Tennessee, and was a nationally recognized author, journalist, and deputy assistant secretary of state for President John F. Kennedy, shared his take on Howard Baker:

I say to Baker: you are a great man who tried to make America as decent as it can be. You succeeded in ways that our grandchildren may never know or appreciate.

Carl Rowan, author, journalist, and deputy assistant secretary of state

I voted for Alexander both times he ran for governor, but never thought he was half the man Baker was. I lived in Fort Worth when Alexander was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. After he left UT to further pursue his political ambitions and I returned to the university, no one I talked to ever had anything good to say about his tenure there.

So again I say I was not too surprised yesterday to hear that when Senator Alexander bumped up against his critical moment when history and our nation’s future called for him to be counted, he was found wanting.

Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign logo. Photo: Associated Press.

During one of his election campaigns, Alexander used Lamar! as his logo for campaign signage and bumperstickers–just as Jeb Bush used Jeb! when he was running for President in 2016. Although I would much rather have Jeb Bush as President right now than the current resident of the White House, it seems abundantly clear that politicians should never use exclamation points after their names for campaign slogans. However, I looked up the definition of the word exclamation and found that perhaps it was relevant for Lamar! Alexander:

exclamation (noun)

a sudden cry or remark, especially expressing surprise, anger, or pain.

The Oxford Dictionary

I will admit it did pain me to read Alexander’s explanation of his critical vote against hearing witnesses in the Senate Impeachment trial. The esteemed senior Senator from Tennessee (soon to retire) allowed that the President of our country did indeed do something wrong. But Alexander decided that he and his Senate colleagues did not need to disturb themselves or the body public by hearing from witnesses. After all a rush to judgment should not be impeded by hearing firsthand accounts of what has transpired, right? I am embarrassed and disappointed that this Senator (as well as Tennessee’s junior Senator Marsha Blackburn who is far worse) represents my state in Congress. Once upon a time Tennessee Senators inspired confidence and pride. Not any more. I am glad Howard Baker is not alive to see what the Senate and Lamar! Alexander have become.

An apt quote under the cap of my bottle of tea.

Because as this African proverb wisely observes: when the powerful of this world fight, it is the less powerful that suffer.

~ Anna 2/1/2020

Posted in Courage, Freedom, Knoxville, Op/Ed Thoughts, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Older With Keanu Reeves and the Two-fifths Solution

I was watching the streaming version of HBO the other night and noticed that Keanu Reeves’s latest movie John Wick 3: Parabellum was available for viewing on my TV. In addition to the movie, HBO offered a First Look behind-the-scenes video with interviews and clips explaining what the filmmakers were trying to achieve with this action film and how much effort the actors, director, producers, and crew put into making the movie.

Keanu Reeves as the title character in John Wick 3: Parabellum. Photo by Mark Rogers / Lionsgate

According to one of the filmmakers, Keanu Reeves trained exhaustively for five months before shooting the film and does 98 percent of his own stunts. And this film features him on screen in nearly frame doing mixed martial arts (Japanese jiu-jitsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, tactical three-gun, and standing judo), hand-to-hand combat, and fighting while riding a motorcycle. And Keanu Reeves was 54 years old when he shot this movie. We are around the same age! How wonderful to know that people who have gone around the block a few times are capable of such physical feats of derring-do.

And Keanu Reeves is not just a run-of-the-mill film star. Unlike other male celebrities who date women who are 20, 30, or 40 years younger than them, Reeves has been photographed over the past year at red-carpet events holding hands with a lovely visual artist named Alexandra Grant who is around his age and who does not dye her gray hair. How refreshing and inspiring! On her Instagram page, Ms. Grant reacted to a Newsweek article linking permanent hair dye to breast cancer and she explained why she no longer dyes her hair:

Wow. Today’s news… The numbers are staggering, especially for womxn of color. I went gray prematurely in my early 20’s… and dyed my hair every color along the way until I couldn’t tolerate the toxicity of the dyes any more. In my 30’s I let my hair turn “blonde”… I love and support that every womxn can choose how she wants to look at every age. But/and, if womxn are perishing from beauty standards… then let’s talk about those beauty standards. Love to all womxn!

Alexandra Grant, Instagram

Keanu and Alexandra also produced two books together: Ode to Happiness, a 2011 picture book illustrated by Ms. Grant, and the 2016 book Shadows, with Reeves writing text to accompany her art and photography.

As Keanu Reeves has richly demonstrated: people in middle age can be active, healthy, creative, intellectually curious, and spend their time with other old-souls-from-the-start who intend to be indefinitely young together and live passionately throughout their lives. Yes, count me in for that!

When he first captured my imagination 20 years ago, Reeves starred in one of my favorite movies, the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix. Keanu was cast as the savior of humanity as a renegade hacker named Neo (change the letters around and you get the “One”) who fought the organized, mechanized evil that was controlling humankind and found his soulmate in a fellow freedom fighter named Trinity. The movie’s main themes mirror my beliefs:

Living authentically in the real world is more fulfilling than living in a plastic fantasy world that sucks the life from human beings.

The highest calling of humankind is to love and to work together for the good of all.

A woman is just as tough and courageous as a man.

Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in.

Work together with people who share your dream and do not waste time on the people who do not.

Evil wins when good people do nothing.

These truths are not self-evident in a country where corruption is sanctioned at the highest levels. Today I have read that the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate will collectively close their metaphorical eyes tightly in a “see no evil” fetal position, unwilling to risk losing their power in order to call out a President who yearns to be above the law, who yearns to be an American king.

This country has actually had only one true King—the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—and he was assassinated at the age of 39 by a white supremacist’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, and am deeply chagrined that Dr. King was killed in my home state. As his Wikipedia page states, Dr. Martin Luther King was “a Christian minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968”. James Earl Ray killed the man, but he did not kill his dream that every man and woman, no matter the color of his or her skin, could have a chance to pursue their God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at home in 1956. Photo: George Tames, The New York Times

Although our nation’s original Constitution allowed Southern states to count their black slaves as three-fifths of a person for taxation and representation in Congress, I think Martin Luther King sought what could be called a two-fifths solution that would bring peace and healing to our nation that, since its founding in the late 18th Century, has wrestled with slavery.

Treating other humans as property did not work out well for our young country as we fought a bitter Civil War from 1861 to 1865. We have been fighting an uncivil war ever since. It is not only the slave that is in bondage in the owner-slave relationship. And it is not only our current President and his sycophants that are enslaved to their myopia. We all suffer from their unquenchable thirst for power over their fellow men and women. 

The Matrix envisaged a world where all humans are enslaved to the powerful anti-human, computerized “matrix” with human-like enforcers to kill anyone who does not conform to the norm. Keanu Reeves as Neo said:

I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.

The Matrix, 1999, screenwriters Lana and Lily Wachowski

Wanting control over our lives is something we can all agree on, yet we disagree on how to make a coexistent system work. In his final words in the movie, Keanu Reeves as Neo spoke directly to the matrix power structure and perhaps also to the people in thrall to it:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid . . . You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how its going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without . . . borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. 

The Matrix, 1999, Lana and Lily Wachowski

During all the eras of humankind, beginning perhaps with art on a cave wall, artistic creativity as a human expression has pointed a way forward. And anthropologists have found evidence of a spiritual life beyond what we can see in front of us as early humans left funereal tributes to their dead loved ones. Let us take up the charge of our fellow American Martin Luther King Jr.–as well as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for that matter–and Keanu Reeves to stand for the right against the expedient and the merely powerful. What will history say about us if we do not stand for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if we cannot bring ourselves to stand for what is just?

~ Anna – 1/31/2020

Posted in Courage, Happiness, Ideas, Love, Op/Ed Thoughts, Screen | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sixty Years On

Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age
When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave
And senorita play guitar, play it just for you
My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through . . .

Yes I’ll sit with you and talk let your eyes relive again
I know my vintage prayers would be very much the same
And Magdelena plays the organ, plays it just for you
Your choral lamp that burns so low when you are passing through

And the future you’re giving me holds nothing for a gun
I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on

Songwriters: Bernie Taupin, Elton John

This song was on Elton’s John second album–called simply “Elton John”–and it was released in 1970 when I was too young to know who he was. Three years later I would see him live in the University of Tennessee’s old (torn down in the last few years) basketball and events arena, Stokely Athletic Center.

Sadly Elton and I did not have a good first brush with one another. I did not really know the senior who asked me, a sophomore, to go with him to the Elton John concert in the Spring of 1973. I was hopelessly out of my sheltered element at the concert, was not familiar with the bulk of Elton John’s music, and when pot and cigarette smoke suffused the arena, felt so ill I’m sure I staggered to the car.

Later that year, in the fall of 1973 ( my junior year), a new kid from New Jersey joined us at our small-town city, Tennessee junior/senior high school. He was a fish out of water in many ways and did not realize that I was considered a hopeless “brain” who wouldn’t “put out”, and thus had no boy friend or dates, aside from the abortive Elton John concert effort.

Through the usual high school channels–a mutual friend laying the groundwork with the standard query, “Steve likes you. Would you go out with him?”–Steve and I started dating. In the language of our time, we were going steady because he gave me his New Jersey high school class ring to wear with tape around the back to keep it on my finger (!). And it was Steve who truly introduced me to Elton John’s work and the album that contained the song, “Sixty Years On”.

I am now 60 years (and some change) on, and today is my birthday. I suppose more accurately we should say it is the anniversary of my birth. When I was born it was the last gasp of the 1950s, just before the 1960s changed everything with the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and the resulting peace movement. Not that I noticed because I was just a tiny girl whose parents neither listened to the music of the ’60s nor were politically active. The only sign of politics in our household was that Daddy would just say he was a Nixon man. Though he was a die-hard Republican, Daddy had bought a picture book about the Kennedy assassination and JFK’s funeral. So even though Daddy considered himself a strong supporter of President Nixon, he must have found President Kennedy’s assassination to be enough of a noteworthy event to add the Kennedy assassination picture book to our home. He would show it to me often. Perhaps there is just something about death, or even a brush with death, that focuses the attention.

Today, 60 years from the 1960s, my beloved only sister has been diagnosed with Stage 4 bone cancer. Daddy died three years ago in December 2016; Mama had a small stroke last year that still allows her to work at the age of 83 (a feat unto itself); and now my sister has cancer that has metastisized and spread. Her attitude is excellent, but her chemotherapy treatments are brutal.

And as my sister fights for her life against this unseen enemy, it is the Christmas season, for me the born-a-week-before-Christmas baby, my parents first child. I have always felt a special affinity to the holiday season because it is my birthday season as well. Just 15 months after I came into the world, my sister Lisa was born so neither my sister nor I recall a time that the other was not there. Daddy’s girls. He was so proud.

As a friend of mine from high school told me today, we are essentially the same people we were when were younger. And he is right. We are born with a genetic makeup that informs our temperament, our resilience, and our predisposition to disease. This genetic makeup then interacts in a delicate dance with the nurturing we receive or do not receive, the love we receive or do not receive, and the acceptance we receive or do not receive. This amalgamation defines us–and yet it does not. We are the same people we were when we are young, but we have the additional experiences of life that attach to us like barnacles. We drag these burdens behind us like a fisherman’s weighty net. If we are lucky we forget enough of the most cruel moments of life so we can wrest ourselves free and fly. Into the joys, into the laughter, into the risks of loving, into the risk of falling, into the infinite possibilties of living passionately.

In many respects, I do feel as I did when I was young. But there are many additional joys and stresses to be added to that core person that was me, 60 years on. There are the smiles of my grandchildren who I love unconditionally and who love me without question or reserve. The laughter we share. The unwritten adoration and delight we find in each other. Daddy is gone in my physical world which is a profound loss. Yet he remains close to me as I pray to him for strength and remember what he would say to me in difficult moments or happy situations. How he trusted me to do that right thing, and how very much he loved me–exactly as I am.

Beyond all these blessings, however, my sister’s serious illness has shaken me to my foundation. I cannot say I will ever be the same person I was before her illness–for just the terror of having to consider life without her. But, as luck would have it, my sister has a week off from chemo this week, and it is the week her beautiful son Zach is visiting us from Portland, Oregon. Last Sunday night, Zach, Lisa’s husband Rocky, Lisa and I walked around Lisa’s beautiful South Knoxville neighborhood. My sister and I walked arms around each other, looking at the Christmas lights at dusk and after dark. She knew who lived in every home we past, and she knew the history of each one.

It was a wonderful early Christmas gift last Sunday to have time with my sister. And tonight, for my birthday, we are having take-out pizza at her house. Sixty years on I am simply grateful for my sister’s presence in my life. We were best friends in high school, and being with her tonight is my most precious birthday present ever. Material gifts are lovely, and I have honored gift-giving my entire life, but time with my sister, just looking at her dear face, is all the gift I need this birthday or this Christmas.

My beautiful sister in the 1980s.

May Daddy’s love give me the strength to go forward, to be there for my dear sister who turns 60 in March. May she be pain-free and enjoy that birthday–my dear, dear, dear, dear sister.

~ Anna – 12/18/2019

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Family, Home, Ideas, Love | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Best of Knoxville – Holiday Season 2019

I am a native Knoxvillian who has lived here all my life, except for the three years I lived in Ft. Worth. I have also traveled with my husband to many far-flung places around the country and world, such as Alaska, Antwerp, Bruges (a picturesque city that still has the cobbestoned streets and village square from its 14th-Century heyday), Brussels, and Knokke in Belgium; Cairo (and other historic sites in Egypt); Austin; Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver in Canada; Costa Rica; Houston; London; Mexico City and historic sites in Mexico; New York City; Paris and the South of France; Puerto Rico; Rio de Janeiro; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Seattle, and St. Martin in the Caribbean. Phew! So, I know a thing or two about a good meal and a good deal.

What parts of Knoxville reach to the national and international levels of interest? Here are a few that will not disappoint visitors and natives alike. And, by the way, all of these are locally or regionally owned businesses.

Best Dinner Restaurant: harvest- land, vine, & sea

The new “harvest-land, sea & vine” restaurant in Knoxville is simply the finest: innovative drinks, delicious food, and an intimate atmosphere. Just the best of the best. Our waiter was friendly, knowledgable and fabulous, there are many gluten-free and vegetarian options, and the menu states clearly which dishes are safe for patrons with dietary restrictions to order.

A new restaurant concept, Harvest is located in Bearden at the corner of Kingston Pike and Mohican, across from Nama Sushi Bar.

Harvest sources most of its food from local purveyors, and is open for lunch and dinner daily, with a unique brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays. They feature daily chef specials, aged Midwestern hand-cut steak and fresh seafood selections along with several vegan, salad, and house-made pasta. And for dessert, be sure to check out at the classic French Pots de Crème, a rich chocolate custard delight, which is simple, elegant, and the perfect ending to a special dinner.

Photos from the Harvest, Land, Vine and Sea website..

Best Lunch or Dinner Restaurant for a Quick, Delicious Meal: Yassin’s Falafel House

Not only is the food amazing at this Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery, this family-owned restaurant has become a phenomenon that has been heralded nationally. In October 2018, Yassin’s was named the Nicest Place in America by Reader’s Digest magazine and announced by host Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America television show.

Located in Downtown Knoxville, Yassin’s was started in 2014 by Yassin Terou, a Syrian immigrant who, along with his wife and two daughters, fled his home country.

In announcing the award to Yassin’s on national television, Bruce Kelley, chief content officer for Reader’s Digest said,

Everyone who hears his story and the story of the shop is moved, from the customers that nominated him, separately multiple customers nominated him, to us editors that vetted him, to the judges and to the Knoxvillians we talked to who said he has changed Knoxville. He has made this a better place. This is an important guy.

In response, Yassin said,

Yassin’s is a place where you can come and feel safe and feel welcome because we love everyone around this world.

Yes, it’s an honor; but America is the winner; Knoxville is the winner; Tennessee is the winner. When he sent you [speaking to Robin Roberts about her visit to Knoxville], I say this prayer to everyone around this country. What makes us a winner is the people in this country, not us. So thank you very much.

Yassin has opened a second location for of thriving business. Besides the original location at the corner of Walnut Street and Church Street (at 706 Walnut), Yassin’s also serves its delicious and economical food, at 159 N. Peters Road in West Knoxville. Yassin’s has many gluten-free and vegetarian options to please those with dietary restrictions. And the staff are soooo welcoming and friendly.

Best Garden Center: Stanley’s Greenhouse

Stanley’s was founded with one greenhouse in 1955 by Charles and Mary Kathryn Stanley on the family farm that had been in the Davenport-Stanley family since the early 1800s. At first the family was one of Knox County’s biggest wheat producers, then they began growing produce and cutflowers to sell on downtown Knoxville’s Market Square.

What began with one greenhouse is now over 190,000 square feet, with the addition of the 36,000-square-foot retail center opened in 2001. Stanley’s Greenhouse has won numerous local awards as this region’s favorite source for everything to do with successful gardening: trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, outdoor and indoor decor, containers, gardening tools, soil, soil conditioners, and fertilizers.

The family grows poinsettias, pansies, perennials, annuals, and roses on the family farm; supports local artisans; and partners with local charities such as the The Pat Summitt Foundation, The Ronald McDonald Charities of Knoxville, as well as a host of educational and community organizations.

Gardeners come from West Virginia, Washington, DC, North Carolina, Nashville, and all over East Tennessee to get their plants, trees, and shrubs from Stanley’s.

Best Ice Cream Shop: The Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain

An old-fashioned soda fountain on Gay Street, Knoxville’s main street downtown, the Phoenix Fountain makes it own ice cream in house–and what a delight it is! Our favorite is the peppermint stick ice cream the owner makes for the winter season.

Best Shopping: Mast General Store

Mast General Store has been in Knoxville since August 2006. It truly is a general store selling everything from outdoor wear, old-fashioned candy, clothes for the entire family to regional decor, candles, shoes, and kitchenware.

The prices are good, the employees are friendly, and the down-home style has been a perfect fit for Knoxville’s small town-city vibe. At Christmas the store’s friendly manager was wrapping presents near the front door for Juvenile Diabetes. I know this because she wrapped several beautifully appointed packages for me!

Best Coffee Shop/Bakery/Lunch Spot: Wild Love Bakehouse

Three or four days a week–sometimes daily–we go into Wild Love Bakehouse for lunch or a hot or cold beverage. My husband Kurt and I are tea drinkers, but folks the coffees, lattes, and espressos are a work art too!

Wild Love is nearly always full because the soup and a huge array of bake goods are made fresh every morning by the owner and her staff of amazing pastry magicians. Each day the offerings are slightly different. Besides the amazing soup (with a crusty side bread), Wild Love offers a rotating variety of tarts, cookies, croissants, foccacia tartlets, cookies, gluten-free peanut oatmeal bars–and occasionally, the most creative salads I have seen in Knoxville.

Wild Love Bakehouse: the best coffee house, lunch, and bakery combination in Knoxville.

The tea is made fresh to order, hot or cold, with Rishi loose tea. I have them add some honey to mine, and it is divine!

And the staff are all young, friendly, and just fantastically welcoming. Wild Love has only been open a few years, but they are already a go-to location. For the late lunch and early dinner eaters, they are open on Sundays and till 6:00 p.m.!

The owners of Wild Love also have a sister location downtown, called Pearl on Union. Pearl has the same great baked goods and creative food within easy strolling distance of Knoxville’s Market Square.

Best Indoor Recreation: Maple Hall

A few years ago Maple Hall debuted as a brand-spanking new bowling alley, bar, eatery, and all-around fun urban experience in Downtown Knoxville’s historic JC Penney Building–and it is nearly next door to the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain. How convenient!

In 2013 Maple Hall’s visionary owners worked with a creative team of engineers, architects, designers, and contractors to reimagine a portion of the JC Penney Building as a hip bowling alley with good food, an extensive bar, an upstairs game room, and a relaxed, exposed-brick interior. Maple Hall is Knoxville most fun indoor playground.

You can’t go wrong in any of these Knoxville landmarks–and all of them are in Downtown Knoxville or within a quick drive. Enjoy, the best that Knoxville has to offer.

~ Anna -11/30/2019

 

Posted in Food, Gluten free, Joy (Joie de General), Knoxville, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Essential Question

A photo of one of the theater cards advertising the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.

Last week I went to my local art-house film theater to see the documentary film Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice for the third time. Yes, I have seen this movie three times, and I thoroughly enjoyed it each time. The last time I saw a movie at a theater three times was the blockbuster Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, in 1983. So you can see that this film really spoke to me.

Why did I love the movie so much? I have been a huge Linda Ronstadt fan since the 1970s, and count myself among the lucky concert goers who have seen her multiple times. The first time I saw Linda in concert was at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletic Center on Saturday, November 5, 1977, during the tour she did for her eighth studio album Simple Dreams. The reason I know the date of the concert? I still have the ticket stub in my memorabilia binder.

The torn ticket stub for the Linda Ronstadt concert I saw on November 5, 1977, at Stokely Athletic Center on the University of Tennessee campus.

Funny how memories can be selective. I had always remembered seeing Linda Ronstadt when I was a student at UT. However, after studying the ticket stub carefully, I learned (1) I had a great seat on the 9th row (!), and (2) I gained admission via a student ticket for which I would have had to present a valid student activities card. The mystery here is that I was not a student at UT in 1977. I was an undergraduate student the year before, but in November 1977, I was 19 years old and working full-time at the university in the admissions office. Hmmmmm. Maybe whoever let me buy their Linda Ronstadt ticket also let me borrow their student activities card. I don’t remember; but I do remember that the concert was thrilling.

A photo of the reverse side of my husband’s copy of Linda Ronstadt’s second studio album Silk Purse.

When I saw the documentary directed by Rob Epstein (who has won two Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature) and Jeffrey Friedman, I was reminded of Ronstadt’s powerhouse voice and phenomenal song choices that have been part of my life since I was a teenager. For the first time, however, I was able to feel as if I was spending time with her since she narrated a good bit of the movie. She told the story of her parents meeting for the first time when her father rode a horse up the steps of her mother’s sorority house. Her father had what Linda described as a “lovely baritone-tenor voice” which he used to serenade her mother beneath her window. Linda’s mother was educated, beautiful, and encouraged Linda, her third child out of four children, to follow her bliss and be an independent woman, even if her ambition did not include marriage. And Linda says she has never regretted that she never married.

Linda Ronstadt’s maternal grandfather Lloyd Copeman, Christmas 1916, at the age of 35.

Her mother’s father was the inventor Lloyd Copeman who invented the electric stove, the automatic toaster, the thermostat for Westinghouse, rubber ice cube trays, the pneumatic grease gun, a tamper-proof envelope, and a slew of other inventions. As Linda says in the movie, her grandfather was third to Thomas Edison in the 1950s in the number of useful inventions he patented. But during an 2013 interview with NPR she points out that her grandfather worked alone and that Edison had teams of men working with him. Although her maternal grandfather patented nearly 700 inventions and innovations, Linda said he was only intermittently wealthy since he spent much of his money trying to find a cure for his beloved wife’s Parkinson’s disease–the disease that Linda herself now suffers from.

The reverse side of my favorite Linda Ronstadt record Heart Like a Wheel, her fifth solo album.

Linda’s particular form of Parkinson’s disease, called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (P.S.P.), has taken away most of her singing voice, caused excruciating back pain, required her to use a wheelchair to walk very far, and made it difficult for her to perform simple daily tasks. Sadly Linda has found her form of Parkinson’s is not improved by the use of traditional Parkinson’s medications such as dopamine.

Yet Ronstadt is not defined by her disease. She continues to define her life on her own terms just as she did throughout her more than forty-year-long musical career.

A section of a larger photo taken by photographer Jim Shea for the center spread of Linda’s Simple Dreams album in 1977.

Music was simply a way of life for Linda as she grew up and the range of music she heard in her home was wide. The family spoke English, but her father sang Mexican folk songs, so Linda grew up thinking that everyone spoke English but sang in Spanish. Her mother listened to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, her sister loved country music, and one of her brothers was a featured vocalist in a nationally recognized boy’s choir. When she was a teenager she and two of her siblings sang together in a folk group in Tucson, Arizona, where she grew up, as Linda says, “on the last 10 acres of my grandfather’s farm.”

The inside cover of Linda’s 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind.

Linda did not get into the music business to be a star or to be the center of attention. She simply wanted to sing and make intricate harmonies with other singers. Some of the most electrifying harmonies she made were with her dear friend Emmylou Harris and their singing icon Dolly Parton. Together the three of them collaborated on the studio albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999).

Throughout her career, Linda wrestled with record company executives who wanted to confine her singing to what was the most commercially viable music to sell as many records as possible. In other words, her record company wanted her to continue making rock records that had made her internationally famous and had sold in the millions. Linda wanted to sing, could sing, and eventually did sing in more song genres (folk, country, rock, pop, opera, musical theater, Big Band standards, and Mexican folk songs or Canciones) than any popular singer has ever done. And despite the fears of her record company, she was successful at singing in all these genres.

A photo of my copy of Linda Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise album, recorded in 1975 when I was a senior in high school.

Despite the debilitating version of the disease she has, Linda continues to enlarge our lives, not only through the startling range of her musical catalogue, but through her life story. She inspires by the example of her life: choosing to use her singing voice on the largest possible stage, choosing not to be defined by traditional female roles, speaking her mind, choosing not to be defined by the constraints of her disease, and inspiring others who have debilitating diseases.

At the end of the documentary, Linda distills the central question facing humanity to the simple words of a fellow Parkinson’s survivor who told her: “The question is not about life after death; the question is about life before death.”

Yes. We can beat each other up mentally and physically that only our beliefs are the correct ones. We can destroy each other’s sacred places and symbols. We can inprison people in concentration camps because they have a particular religious ancestry. We can consign human beings to slavery or second-class citizenship because they come from a different “tribe”, have a different color of skin, or speak a different language. We can argue until the cows come home about eternal life and which religion has the definitive answer to the pivotal question: Why are we here?

Linda Ronstadt’s life, her voice, her music, and the documentary about her extraordinary accomplishments inspire us to consider that what happens after we die is not our most important question. It is not whether we live after we die that is critical for us to know. The quintessential question is what we are doing with our lives now–before we are dead–that truly counts.

We can live our lives in a selfish vacuum, which is the example of our current national leader, or we can make a difference in the lives of others. For true happiness does not happen by staring constantly at our own navels and following our selfish whims down a rabbit hole. I have found I am the happiest when I share laughter, live my life with open arms, and take the risk to live passionately with at least two wheels on the ground. Sometimes four.

~ Anna – 10/6/2019

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Creativity, Dolly Parton, Happiness, Music, Screen | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Attic of Our Lives

The cover of my grandmother Jerushia’s photo album featuring photos from the 1920s through the 1950s.

I thought I had gotten away from that long-ago house. You would think marrying when you are 18 years old would be enough to snap the thread, but I guess it is not so.

A few months ago I visited my adolescent self as I helped my mother clean out the home she had lived in for 49 years–the home I lived in for only six. The house with Mama’s beloved full-sized basement and large yard increasingly became a burden in her 83rd year, especially after she had a stroke a few years ago. She navigated ruthless steps in the front and treacherous steps from the washer and dryer in the basement to the living area. The journeys up and down had become perilous, and she was finally ready to call it quits on the house she loved.

My family moved into this house in 1970 when I was in the 7th grade. It was a newly constructed home in a small subdivision built quickly by a man whose name Daddy would use in vain many times as one thing after another needed fixing. Luckily in the early years, my grandfather was there to make everything work.

My room was painted blue, and my sister’s room was pink and both of our bedrooms had an extension phone with a loooonnnnnggggg cord. Yes, to those of you unfamiliar with the world of landline phones, the cat’s meow of the 1970s was having your own phone in your room, even if it was just an extension of the family phone line. The long cord allowed us the freedom to move around our rooms while we talked with our friends late into the night.

I am sure my sister Lisa was on the phone more than me because she had a boy friend every year she was in junior and senior high school. My time on the phone increased during my junior year of high school when I had three boy friends in succession–three months for each guy. My senior year Lisa could talk freely without negotiation with the blue room since my long-distance boy friend lived in Kentucky. It was Blue Moon of Kentucky for me because under no circumstances could I call him long distance and incur all those expensive long distance charges–another distinct difference from the call-virtually-anywhere-anytime-on-your-cell-phone capabilities of today.

After I married and left the bedroom that had been mine, Mama decided to store a huge, century-old baby bed in the middle of the room, making it difficult to clean out and pack. Inside the baby bed Mama had stacked gifts we had given her and Daddy as well as random flotsam and jetsam that was not needed anywhere in the house on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis.

Mamaw in the center with her girl friends Ida and Hettie, around 1925.

Basically my former bedroom had become the memorabilia room. Inside the chest of drawers that was once mine–now with broken drawers–was my grandmother’s photo album covering the years of her childhood, her courtship with Papaw, and of her children growing up. There were also photos of Mamaw with her childhood girl friends, her mother, and her siblings.

Mamaw (center) with her brother Clarence (left) and my grandfather Thomas (right), early 1930s, at the South Knoxville marble quarry.

There were a slew of photos with Mamaw with her brother Clarence who went away to World War II and never came back home–not because he died in the war, but because he decided he wanted to live in Washington DC with friends. I never met Clarence and family lore on his existence is slim. Recently Mama hinted there was another woman involved, from what she said I surmised that Clarence decided it was less embarrassing to live far away from home than to admit he was unfaithful and divorced the wife who waited for him while he was away serving his country. But in the 1940 census, I noticed that Clarence was already divorced before the U.S. got into the war, so his absence from his family after the war is a source of mystery and one of heartbreak for his family, especially his mother Madge. Perhaps the war simply changed him in ways he could not deal with around his family.

Also in the broken chest of drawers I found my diaries in a handwriting I did not recognize, written in a voice I do not recall. Could any version of me possibly have been so sheltered, so naive, and so worried about what her life would become without a boy to love her? Apparently so.

Mamaw: Jerushia Flementine Cunningham, very much her own person, around 1930.

The best part of the homeplace clean up was discovering Mamaw’s active and adorable early life. The photos show Mamaw surrounded by friends and family. And Papaw! What a striking young man he was with his soulful eyes and matinee-idol looks. One close-up photo of Papaw’s face looks like the silent film star Rudolph Valentino who, as Wikipedia states, caused “mass hysteria” among his many film fans and was a cultural phenomenon. The photo shows Mamaw with a small hat on her head and a big fever blister on her lower lip, but she is smiling enigmatically and seems not to have a care in the world. Though his given name was James Thomas and his friends called him Tom, Mamaw called him Thomas and he called her Boots. I never heard how she got that nickname.

During their courtship, a photo booth photo of Mamaw (Boots) with a big fever blister on her lip and Papaw (Thomas) with his soulful, matinee-idol eyes, 1932.

Mamaw’s family was very poor, living in what Mama describes as the chicken house at one point. The 1920 census notes that Mamaw was 7 years old and her father John Cunningham was a machine hand at a manufacturing company. A decade later, the 1930 census states that Mamaw’s father was a janitor with the city schools and that Mamaw, at the age of 17, worked as a thread clipper in an overall factory. Perhaps the overall factory could have been Levi-Strauss since the company had a textiles factory on Cherry Street in Knoxville until the 1980s.

My mother Arzelia, her sister Rheta, and their brother Bud with their Aunt Helen (Mamaw’s younger sister), around 1940.

Ten years later, the 1940 census–when Mamaw and Papaw had three small children at home–shows no income or assets for the family of five at all. The only indication of how they made a living is that they lived on a farm.

Mamaw (center) with her daughter (my mother) Arzelia, and her mother Madge, around 1940 in South Knoxville.

The 1940 census–with an innovation not found in the 1930 census–included a question for how many years of education each person completed. The education completed figures shown for my maternal grandparents and their families are bleak: Mamaw – 9th grade, Papaw – 8th grade, Mamaw’s father – 3rd grade, Mamaw’s mother – 6th grade, Mamaw’s brothers: 9th grade, Mamaw’s 17-year-old younger sister: 11th grade (perhaps still in school in 1940?), Papaw’s mother – 6th grade, and Papaw’s younger siblings – 7th or 8th grade.

Papaw, young and virile, when he worked as a janitor at Perkins School, early 1930s. The handwritten comments on the photos were made by Mamaw.

My mother tells me that Papaw worked as a laborer in South Knoxville’s marble mill and many of the photos in my grandmother’s photo album were indeed taken at the marble quarry. Papaw worked as a janitor in an elementary school when my grandparents were courting, and he was the head janitor at my school when I was in junior high.

My grandfather could fix anything. When the school’s boiler was not working in the winter, and we all (students, teachers, and administrators alike) went around in our coats without heat, it was my grandfather who fixed the problem. At basketball games and football games Papaw sold the tickets. At halftime of basketball games, Papaw cleaned the gym flour of debris in preparation for the second half. I was only in school for a few years before Papaw retired from working for the city schools, and in the years after I mourned not seeing him in the halls. I was always so proud of him.

Daddy’s New York Yankees baseball cap.

The hardest moments of cleaning out my parents’ home were finding my deceased father’s favorite things: his beloved New York Yankees jacket, his Yankees baseball cap, his basketball signed by the University of Tennessee’s legendary Lady Vol Coach Pat Summitt, and a framed copy of Daddy on the front page of the Knoxville paper looking at Lady Vol T-shirts just before the team was due to win their 880th game in 2005.

Daddy was one of the Lady Vols most devoted fans. For years Daddy and Mama went to every home game with my son Justin in tow. They traveled with the Lady Vols to Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii, as well as to many of the regional and national tournament games.

The front page of the Knoxville News-Sentinel featuring Daddy checking out Lady Vol T-shirts just before the Lady Vols were expected to get their 880th win, March 28, 2005.

Season tickets, you bet, ba-bay. Daddy had four tickets behind the basketball goal–yes, you heard me right–behind the basketball goal. My husband Kurt and I sat with my parents beside the University of Tennessee pep band and had a riotous time jumping around, slapping each other’s hands, hugging, and watching the Lady Vols’ mascot Smokey ride his plastic sled down every step of the arena in a fan-hysteria-causing slalom.

Daddy’s dream was to have tickets on the side of the basketball arena where the donors were seated, so my husband Kurt and I made significant (for us) gifts to the university in order for Daddy to have four season tickets near mid court. Oh, the days of wine and roses–and glory when nearly every year we won a national championship. We gloriously celebrated each win (and amazing play) and lamented each loss right there with Daddy.

Mama, me, Daddy, and my son Justin around 2005.

Something about seeing Daddy’s things without Daddy in them broke something inside me that I have not quite been able to fix ever since. That, and reading my diaries written in a handwriting I do not recognize, feeling ever so sorry for the young naive girl I was who had hopes of marrying just one time, having children, rearing them together with her husband, and living happily ever after.

My life has not been that simple. I left two unhappy marriages before I found the third time was charm, as people say where I come from. Although I have struggled to find my way in the wake of Daddy’s absence–let’s face it, it was my Daddy who gave me full license to be me and encouraged me to run with it–I live by the values he taught me. When I am troubled, I pray to him and my Mamaw Jerushia and my grandmother Darcus to help me find my way.

I draw strength from Mamaw and her joyous, jolly, nurturing spirit. My grandmother Darcus died when Daddy was only 4 months old so none of our family ever met her. Only recently, through our genealogical research, my husband and I were able to find some of her cousins in Utah. These beautiful women were kind enough to share with me a few photos of my grandmother and an abundance of stories about her that were handed down from their parents and grandparents.

I learned that through my grandmother Darcus Montgomery’s line of strong women, I have my independent spirit, my love of reading, and my sense of style. Last year one of my dear Montgomery cousins gave me the greatest treasure: an original photo of my father’s parents, probably on their wedding day, shown below. Now finally I have one item that was once my paternal grandmother’s.

My beloved grandmother Darcus Nickaline Montgomery, probably on her wedding day to Daddy’s father Hodge, 1934.

And of course, Daddy, Darcus’s only child, is my touchstone. He loved the hit Little Things Mean A Lot, by Kitty Kallen, that reached number one on the Billboard chart in 1954. Throughout our childhood, my sister and I (loudly) sang to Daddy’s 45 rpm recording of it–and of course, we knew, and still know, every word by heart.

Little Things Mean A Lot

Blow me a kiss from across the room
Say I look nice when I’m not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot

Give me your arm as we cross the street
Call me at six on the dot
A line a day when you’re far away
Little things mean a lot

Don’t have to buy me diamonds and pearls
Champagne, sables or such
I never cared much for diamonds and pearls
‘Cause honestly honey, they just cost money

Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray 
Give me your heart to rely on

Send me the warmth of a secret smile 
To show me you haven’t forgot
For always and ever, now and forever
Little things mean a lot

Writers: CARL STUTZ (music), EDITH LINDEMAN CALISCH (lyrics)
Copyright: Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC 

Here’s to you my dear ones: Daddy, Darcus, and Mamaw. May I continue to live honestly and proudly in the company of your strength and spirit.

~ Anna – 9/30/2019

Posted in Autobiographical, Childhood, Courage, Family, Home, Knoxville, Love, Music, Screen, Women, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Man of Value

This morning a watched a clip from a recent interview CNN’s Anderson Cooper had with Stephen Colbert of CBS’s The Late Show talk show. In the interview, Colbert and Cooper talked about their grief over the loss of their fathers when they were only 10 years old. Colbert‘s father and two older brothers died in a plane crash on September 11, 1974. And Cooper lost his father when he was 10 years old, and a few months ago, lost his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, as well. Seeing this beautifully realized interview, of course, reminded me of the loss of my own father nearly three years ago.

My Daddy, looking soooo good looking, in 1956 on his honeymoon with Mama.

When Daddy died on December 3, 2016, I was not a child, thank heaven, but I think I understand some of the feelings they shared of their childhood grief because I feel similarly about the loss of my father: that nothing will ever be the same, that things do not matter in the same way they did before, and that the universe is aligned differently now for me after Daddy’s death. Curiously I also feel he’s close to me from time to time, and I pray to him when I need strength. 

At dinner last night Kurt and I were talking about Daddy‘s last Thanksgiving. Daddy had broken his hip and was in a rehabilitation center trying to regain his strength. We got permission to bring Thanksgiving lunch to him in the rehabilitation center’s cafeteria which was quiet and abandoned from its usual clatter of activity because the staff were away sharing Thanksgiving with their families. Daddy had bedsores and was in a good deal of pain, but the rehab folks had given him a shot so when he came downstairs in his wheelchair he seemed strong and very happy. In addition to a turkery and all the trimmings, we brought a birthday cake for Tracy, Justin’s wife, since we were celebrating her birthday as well as Thanksgiving. We all laughed as daddy ate the icing off the bottom of the birthday candles. It was such an ever-so-daddy moment! 

Daddy eating the icing off the candles on our daughter-in-law Tracy’s birthday cake, with Mama in the background.

Kurt had set up a tripod to get a group shot of all of us on that Thanksgiving day. And I am so grateful that he did. The photo shows daddy holding hands with Kurt (who he adored) and showing his great joy and happiness for just being with his family. On December 3, a few days later he died with a sudden heart attack, and I sat beside his bed at the rehab center touching him repeatedly and trying to say goodbye.

When I see these photos from Daddy‘s last Thanksgiving, I am ever so grateful to be reminded of his beautiful spirit. I pray to him now in my hours of need and feel him close to me. I call out to the part of me that came from him so I can find the strength to live passionately as Daddy did.

Our family sharing Thanksgiving together in November 2016 at Daddy’s rehabilitation center.

Colbert says that grief is a gift because we can understand the pain in other people and reach out to them because of our own grief. I hear the truth in that. There is a fragile beauty in grief that reminds me of the sweet and terrible connections of life that I must never take for granted. Singing, laughing, comforting, encouraging, loving.

And yes, crying. I do hate to cry, and I have been doing too much of that the last few months as we moved Mama from the family home where she lived for 49 years to a condo which is a better home for her to management now. Cleaning out the house reminded me of Daddy in all his glorious complexity and eccentricity. I know I am very much like him and not only in my family’s gastrointestinal issues!

Two Claire Austin white roses in my kitchen window.

Daddy did not make a great deal of money in his life, in fact he lost jobs throughout my childhood–probably from being his own obstinate, couldn’t-stand-to-be-disagreed-with self. When I was a senior in high school, he told me clearly that he did not have the money to help me with college. But when I was able to go to school part-time while working full-time at the University of Tennessee, he was my greatest cheerleader.

Daddy and Mama a few years before they married. This photo was probably taken in 1953.

He encouraged me to be myself and he lived long enough to see me do just that, for which I am grateful. How do I live without him? I take refuge in the small, beauty things of life; I open my arms fully to sing passionately and share my joy for music when I get the chance; I tell Daddy’s story; and I doubly love my grandchildren: for myself and also for Daddy. My father never got to meet his great-grandchildren who were born in 2017 and 2019, but I know he would be ovecome with their bright eyes, their gorgeous, innocent faces that are full of joy and wisdom that we adults have too often forgotten or left behind.

Kurt and I were at a car dealership this weekend for a test drive to replace my 11- year-old Honda Accord. To my surprise, this dealership, Toyota of Knoxville, has quotes from politicians, scientist, and writers framed on their wall. Many of them speak directly to our times–and to all times–but this one reminded me of Daddy.

A photo of a framed quote on the wall of one of our local car dealerships, Toyota of Knoxville. Note the reflection of the car’s wheel in the upper right-hand corner.

Yes, Einstein knew a thing or two what was important in life. Daddy was a man of value, and I am ever-so proud to be his daughter carrying on the tradition of placing values above riches, caring more about people than things. Here’s to Daddy, Roy Rotha Allen, formerly of Knoxville, Tennessee, who now lives large and free in my memory.

~ Anna — 8/26/2019

Posted in Autobiographical, Beauty, Blooming, Childhood, Creativity, Dementia, Family, Freedom, Happiness, Ideas, Knoxville, Love, Music, Tribute, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments