Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why I Chose Memphis: Dr. J

This post is a (bit delayed) response to fellow-blogger JLotz's Quick Memphian Call to Arms, which she posted over on her (excellent) blog Waves and Wires. JLotz recently turned down a couple of lucrative and promising job offers in D.C. and Baltimore in order to take a position here in Memphis, and she decided to post her reasons for that decision for the benefit of those who might wonder why-oh-why anyone would ever voluntarily opt for such a miserable and ugly city as Memphis. Her account is titled "Why I Chose Memphis" and is a must-read (in my humble opinion) for anyone who might be weighing the pros and cons of our fair city. JLotz asked that others of us who have made the same choice post our reasons for doing so. (Legal Wunderkind Diana has already posted hers.) Last year, I listed on this blog the Top 10 Things I Love About Memphis, so I'll try not to just repeat what I said there. Instead, I'm going to follow JLotz's lead and describe why I "chose"-- and continue to choose-- Memphis.

Like JLotz, I would also like to hear from those of you who have chosen Memphis. I know not everyone keeps a blog, so in the interest of making public as many of these stories as possible, I invite you to write your own "Why I Chose Memphis" account and send it to me. I'll post your account here on my blog. (If you do send me your story, please include a picture and short bio of yourself, too.) Memphis has been tied to the whipping-post a lot this year, mercilessly pilloried in the national media, so just consider this an effort at fair and balanced coverage.

Here's why I chose Memphis:

(1) It's smart. Full disclosure first: I'm actually from Memphis. I moved away for several years to complete graduate school (first at Villanova, then at Penn State), but I returned home to Memphis to take a postion at Rhodes College in 2007. As I was thinking about this list, it was actually hard for me to choose what reason to list first-- because "it's home" or because "it's smart"-- both of which were major factors in my decision to choose Memphis four years ago. It almost never happens in academia (as far as I can tell) that people get jobs in their hometown, and as someone who always loved her hometown, I was very excited to have the opportunity to return. But, the truth is, if this weren't also a city in which I felt like I could prosper and grow professionally, I wouldn't have taken the job. This is a particularly great city to be in as a philosopher. Both the University of Memphis and Christian Brothers University have a host of interesting faculty working in Philosophy, which was an important factor in my decision-making process. (It may or may not surprise you to learn that the discipline of Philosophy can often be lonely and isolating, so positioning oneself in a place that already has an active philosophical community is a rare and important professional boon.) What I didn't fully realize until I returned, however, was just how vibrant, interconnected, involved and distinguished the rest of the academic community is here in Memphis. Sure, Memphis is no Philadelphia or New York or Boston or Los Angeles, each of which have several prestigious institutions bunched up together in one place. But most places in the United States don't have the equivalent of what Memphis has with the UofM, CBU and Rhodes... in fact, most places in the United States, if they have an institution of higher learning at all, only have one. I'm surrounded by really smart people doing fascinating, important research. They're not hard to find, they're not hard to talk to, and they're not (on the whole) disconnected from this city that we share. That's exactly the kind of envrionment I need to be in.

(2) Okay, yeah, it's also home. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that I chose Memphis only because it was home, but that certainly played a large part in my decision. Still, it's important to remember, I think, that not everyone wants to go home again. So it says something about Memphis that it remained for me, for all those years I was away from it, a place that I missed. (In the interim years, I've lived in: Nashville, Boston, Philadelphia, State College, Syracuse, and Hartford. Just fyi.) Everything that I love about Memphis is still here, and will always be here as far as I can tell. The people, the food, the music, the culture, the easiness, the complexity, the attitude, the history, the innovation, the rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet eccentricity, the never-say-die perseverance, the smells, the myths and legends, the memory of promises and broken promises, the hope, the festivals, the dancing, the dive bars, the slow and even-slower changes-- all of it on the banks of that enduring, never-failing flow of the Big Muddy, over which Nature sets her sun every evening in spectacular beauty. In the song Proud Mary, the last verse says: "If you go down to the river, I bet you're gonna find some people who live. You don't have to worry 'cause you got no money. People on the river are happy to give." Memphis gives more than it takes, and that's the main reason I continue to choose it.

(3) It's got character. I find it hard to believe that anyone could make a "Why I Chose Memphis" list and not include this reason. Although Memphis has undergone a lot of the "revitalization" work that often erases a city's character-- I'm looking at you, NashVegas-- the revitalizers have managed to keep their corporate paws off all the weird and wonderful places that make Memphis weird and wonderful. Even with our shiny new ballpark and arena and Riverwalk and Greenline, everyone still knows that the best places to go in Memphis are a little run-down, a little sketchy, a little kitschy, a little loud and raucous, a little eccentric, and more than little bad for your health. Some of our city leaders have character, but most of them are characters. (Remember the "Hello, Dalai" Mayoral fist-bump?) I think if you live in a city like New York or Chicago or L.A., it's easy to be proud of your city, beause the things to be proud of are so obvious. When you live in a city like Memphis, you've got to work a little harder, and I love the fact that the people of Memphis are proud of their city for all the quirky, odd, non-obvious reasons that aren't immediately apparent to visitors. To say that a city has "character" is always a bit of a back-handed compliment, like when you tell your friend that the blind-date you've set her up with has a great "personality." What you mean, of course, is something like "Hey, he's not drop-dead gorgeous or wealthy or sexy. In fact, he's a little weird. But if you take the time to get to know him, you'll love him." Give me character over glitz and glam anyday.

(4) It's historic. Rock n' Roll was born here. The Civil Rights Movement was developed, then stalled, then emboldened again here. Countless planes and trains and trucks and riverboats have moved the the material that built our country through here. Barbeque was perfected here. Authors and artists have had their hearts broken, then healed, then rebroken here. Musicians have passed through here. Other musicians have gotten stuck here. Still other musicians have tried and tried, but never been able to get here. (There are more songs that include or are about "Memphis" than any other American city.) For all these reasons and more, there is a palpable sense in Memphis that this is place where important things have happened. We're like the Philadelphia or Boston of the South, full of landmarks of American political and cultural History. Heck, even when the city made a mistake and let one of its historic sites get torn down, it still had the presence of mind to rebuild it. The history preserved here isn't all pretty either, as evidenced by the names of some of our parks, but History-- taken in total-- isn't all pretty. I choose Memphis for just that historical complexity. I want to be a part of that history.

(5) It's got soul. They got it right when they named the Memphis-based Stax Recording Studios "Soulsville USA." This city and its people have soul in spades. You can hear it in the music here, and if I could choose any "music" city on the planet to live in, I would choose Memphis. (NOLA, you're a close second!) My absolute favorite sound in the world is not a baby's coo or a kitten's purr or even a whispered "I love you." My favorite sound in the world is that thumping, bass-heavy, grooving, muffled sound that you hear when you step out of your car in one of the parking garages behind Beale Street or the parking lot of Wild Bill's on a Saturday night. It's the sound of close-by live music, calling you in like a siren, promising equal parts pleasure and sin. You can't hear all the great details of Memphis music from outside-- the blazing horns, the warbling B3's, the crying guitars, the begging, pleading, denying-and-testifying blues singers-- but you can hear the soul of it, even from outside. The "natural" sound of some cities is found in police sirens and traffic. In others, it's the cicadas and breeze. In others, it's the waves of the ocean. But here, it's soul. There's soul in the music, soul in the cadence of the locals' speech, even soul in the thunderstorms. I can't define it, I'm not even sure I understand it, but I know it when I hear it. And I choose it.

For those and a million more reasons, I chose Memphis. I wouldn't choose differently if I had it to do all over again. If you've made the same choice, send me your story and I'll post it here.

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