DeKalb church helped anchor Antoinette Tuff through the pain

Nine miles due east of the school where she became a worldwide hero for talking down a gunman who had fired at police, Antoinette Tuff  showed up Sunday at the church where she has said her pastor’s voice urged her to be “anchored.” It felt strangely reassuring to be in her presence. I was there because I wanted to find out more about how she pulled off such courage in the face of impending evil.

I live six miles north of Tuff’s school, and was horrified momentarily last week at the possibility that another Newtown shooting might be unfolding. Pretty much all the news out of our schools and government in DeKalb County, Georgia, has been terrible lately.

I could see from Sunday’s service how this community teaches members to expect the unexpected. I could see how Antoinette Tuff might get used to behavior that would unsettle the rest of us. It was also clear that this is a community that values deep preparation to counter life’s surprises.

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Looking in plain sight for Atlanta’s random signs of optimism

A random shoe track on a downtown Atlanta sidewalk turned into a  “spontaneous smiley”—a feat akin to finding the face of Elvis in a piece of toast, but a whole lot easier.

People all over the world (like me) discover, photograph and post spontaneous smileys to social media as a creative challenge to others. It is tailor made for creative thinkers and distracted people in our crowded and gridlocked city. This fun scavenger hunt can be done anywhere, and a handy time-killer when you’re stuck waiting.

Looking for the most basic sign of happiness in ordinary circumstances will shift your mood and mindset. Looking for a smiling face can release positive brain chemicals like dopamine. The scientific term for this pursuit is pareidolia, when a vague and random stimulus is perceived as significant (after all, it was just a footprint…). It is an example of how mindfulness identifies the extraordinary in ordinary life.

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Atlanta’s Makers and the Next Industrial Revolution

In metro Atlanta and across the country, a revolution appears to be underway in libraries, recreation centers and workspaces. Amid the mass marketng from big box stores and online retailers and other forces that tell us what we need and how to order it, some people with skills are assembling for change.

They are techno-geeks, artists and craftspeople. They wield computers, 3D printers, laser cutters, transistors, glue guns, canvasses, acrylic paints, embroidery hoops and a wide range of other tools. They can be hobbyists, inventors or entrepreneurs.

The revolution is called the “Makers Movement,” a growing grass roots do-it-ourselves culture seeking to reinvent their pockets of consumer society, and the third annual Atlanta Mini Maker Faire featuring workshops and exhibits on robotics, electric vehicles, computing, 3D printing, green technology, among other topics, is scheduled Oct. 26 at Georgia Tech.

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Georgia geneticist challenges evolution, links humans to pigs

To Athens geneticist Gene McCarthy, pigs used to conjure filth and greed. But after years of research into this species, McCarthy sees a kindred spirit. Pigs, according to his Hybrid Hypothesis published last month on his website, Macroevolution.net, helped create humans by mating with chimpanzees.

As radical as it sounds—not to mention a coupling that many of us would rather not visualize–McCarthy is also following the steps of scientists like Galileo who risked derision to revolutionize how we understand our world and how we got here.

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War and cornbread make for savory history

Samuel McKittrick’s Civil War correspondence described the food at the front line, and highlights were read last week at  “Cornbread Through the Ages,” one of 50 anniversary programs marking the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta last week.

His great-great-granddaughter Millie Huff Coleman, a dietary anthropologist and lifelong Atlantan, wore a period costume as she read from his letters. She also served up a savory taste for the audience members at the DeKalb History Center from two skillets filled with cornbread made in the style of different historical eras.

Letters and cornbread connected McKittrick's separate worlds of home and combat. From the battlefront near Marietta, he expressed his fears and expectations that he was going to die, instructions on the upkeep of the farm as well as a belief in the afterlife.

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For Jerusalem children at Kids4Peace Atlanta, friendship trumps hostility

This month in Atlanta, a dozen Palestinian and Israeli middle school students challenged the roots of their animosity in the cradle of civil rights. They learned about making friends with those they’ve been taught to despise.

They came via Kids4Peace, an “education-for-peace initiative” that every summer brings a dozen Palestinian and Israeli children to Atlanta (other chapters operate in Massachusetts, Vermont, North Carolina and Texas). The main purpose of the program is to contribute to the cultivation of a new generation of adults who will be more willing to pursue nonviolent resolutions in a region where violence has been the first resort for thousands of years.

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Dripping mad from Atlanta weather’s ‘squeeze play’

This time of year is supposed to be sunny and dry enough for parades, picnics and fireworks. In June we had 9.5 inches of rain, the highest rainfall since 1996. The past 30 years, the average rainfall for June has been 3.95 inches. In a smallish ranch house with two teenaged daughters, a whiny dog and freelance deadlines, a couple of rainy days are doable. But after a month of rain, it’s the whining I can’t stand—especially the dog’s, and sometimes my own.

National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Gibbs said North Georgia has been sandwiched between high-pressure patterns in Arizona and Bermuda, resulting in an ongoing dousing of moisture from the Caribbean and the Yucatan. June was made wetter by delayed springtime storm systems that moved through the central U.S. and the Southeast. The outlook for the rest of the summer doesn’t look better, as hurricane season approaches.

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After assassination, Brown family seeks peace and truth amid more loss

Brandy Brown Rhodes and her siblings lost their police captain father to a dramatic execution-style hit in the driveway of his home in a southeastern suburb of Atlanta. They lost their mom more privately, when she died of a stroke. There have been other losses, too.

Last week, as a new police precinct next to South DeKalb Mall was dedicated to their dad—sheriff-elect Derwin Brown—Rhodes and her siblings talked about weathering a series of emotional hits, after the violent one that claimed their dad. Unlike most adult children who have lost a parent, the Brown children have spent a dozen years sorting out their dad’s legacy amid lingering questions about how he died, while processing the deaths of other family members.

“I think the hard part about it is coming to peace that both of my parents are gone and I have to look at this world differently now,” Rhodes, 34, said.

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In Decatur, a peek into the mind of Temple Grandin

Autistic author and professor of animal science Temple Grandin, the hero of the eponymous Emmy award-winning HBO movie, wowed a recent crowd of more than 800 who packed into the pews, the balcony, the choir seats behind the pulpit and even snuck in guarded doors at First Baptist Church of Decatur.

They flocked to this famous face of high-functioning autism, drawn to her gift of describing and communicating her inner life and her willingness to advocate for those with learning disabilities. Appearing in customary western wear—a turquoise cowgirl shirt with floral yoke and cuffs and neck scarf tied bandanna style—Grandin spoke for more than 75 minutes, and resourcefulness was a big part of her message.

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A bartender’s faith and the death of Robert Berry

How do you love a friend who won’t stop self-destructing? How do you offer hope? And how does witnessing that change you?

Ask Kimberly “Berly” Logan.

Her friendship with Robert Berry began a decade ago at Houston’s Peachtree, a restaurant bar where she served him bottles of Amstel Light and he always questioned God’s existence and asked, “Why?”

It ended last month in a hospice where she held the 55-year-old Berry’s jaundiced hand as he waited to die from liver failure and complications from diabetes. Berry, an eccentric, flamboyant writer who once wrote features for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, passed away May 24 at age 55.

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Clothes swap helps Atlanta moms reinvent and bond on a budget

With her two-month-old baby strapped on, Brit St. Clair of Decatur was not in prime position for clothes shopping. Her body wasn’t back to where she wanted, and she didn’t want to spend a lot of money on an in-between wardrobe. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in late spring, she and 40 women enjoyed the girlfriend vibe as they reinvented their look for less by trying on each other's discarded clothes.

Given Take Boutique – a pop-up clothes swapping business – is the brainchild of energetic entrepreneur mom Adrienne Lewis Tankersley of East Atlanta. After she left her career to stay at home with her children, budgeting on a single income made her extra mindful of stretching a dollar.

“This is my first swap, and I’ve found pretty good stuff,” St. Clair said. “It’s an awkward transition between maternity and the size I was before. And I like the idea of recycling, that what everybody gives to the swap gets reused.”

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Krog Tunnel’s avant garde shows celebrate history, music and art

In Atlanta last Wednesday, an eclectic homage to the “Rite of Spring” ballet unfolded in the century-old Krog Street tunnel, best known as an elaborately graffiti’d passageway between Inman Park and Cabbagetown. Dance, jazz and movies projected onto the bright painted artwork celebrated Igor Stravinsky and his transformation of modern dance.

Billed as “Le Sacre du Krog,” the cacophonous performance was the latest incarnation of a monthly series of performances on the edge of DeKalb Avenue leading to Cabbagetown. Beginning next week, creators Brian Bannon and Bill Taft are scheduled to debut “Krog!,” a “best of” their Krog Street performances at Theatrical Outfit in the Atlanta Fringe Festival.

“It gives us a chance to present stories, photos and music from a year-and-a-half of Krog shows at a more comfortable theatre setting,” said Bannon. “With bathrooms and everything.”

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Mormons, African-Americans reconcile to seek family roots

Sarah Jackson of Duluth was among hundreds of African-Americans who attended Atlanta’s Family History Conference, which emphasized African-American research, held May 18 at the Atlanta History Center. The event represented an ongoing reconciliation between African-Americans and the Church of Latter Day Saints through a common ground valued by both: family research.

Throughout much of the church’s history, Mormons considered African-Americans inferior to whites. In the mid-19th century Mormon leader Brigham Young said black people were marked by the “Curse of Cain.” It wasn’t until 1978—the year after Jackson’s visit—that the church reversed bans on African-Americans taking part in temple ceremonies and black men entering the Mormon priesthood.

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Cicadas to pervade eastern U.S., but not Atlanta

All that buzz about locusts descending soon is just that.

The Brood II cicada infestation is starting to emerge as billions of the creatures make their every-17-year appearance. What USA Today and others call “Swarmageddon” is reminiscent of the Biblical plague of locusts.

They aren’t coming here, the experts say, because Atlanta has cut down too many trees and laid down too many parking lots. Our city’s growth has further separated us from what some entomologists call an “amazing natural phenomenon.”

“We’re having a lot of cicada envy right now. A lot of people want to see them again, but here in Georgia, I’m afraid it’s not to going to happen,” said Nancy Hinkle, a professor of entomology at the University of Georgia. “At least not in the vast majority of the state.”

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A brain injury, a bike and the Ryan Boyle comeback story

After Ryan Boyle, 9, got hit by a speeding pickup truck driver hit while riding a Big Wheel,  his brain was so severely injured that he wasn’t supposed to stand or talk or walk, much less ride a bike — his favorite thing. He had to re-learn how to breathe, swallow and eat.

On a recent evening, Boyle showed up at the Emory University Barnes & Noble bookstore recently to sign copies of his autobiography, “When the Lights Go Out: A Boy Given a Second Chance” (Westbow Press). Today he is a graduate of Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, a freshman at Berry College, a motivational speaker, cyclist and aspiring Paralympian.

His long struggle to climb back on a bicycle led him to the Shepherd Center and ultimately saved him.

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Standing up for DeKalb’s homeless animals, they wear and see red

Fritz the rescue dog got shooed from last week’s DeKalb County Board of Commissioners meeting, marking yet another bad day for homeless animals in DeKalb and the humans who are rabid for an $8 million new county shelter.

Fritz was rescued by a group that helps find homes for animals from the existing shelter near I-285 and Memorial Drive.  A citizens task force in early 2012 called the facility a filthy, smelly, bug- and rat-infested, understaffed “chamber of horrors.” Out of every ten animals that go there, seven die. It has the highest “kill rate” of any animal shelter in metro Atlanta, the task force reported.

“Animals are suffering and dying in a horrible, horrible condition in our shelter,” said activist Heidi Pollyea to the board. “If you have a minute to go down there I think you’d say, ‘Let’s get busy. Let’s get this approved.” We have the opportunity today to make a difference. Please do not delay. This cannot wait.”

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Astronaut’s visit, kids’ space dreams boost Fernbank and NASA

Midway through last week’s brutality and mayhem, 200 people got a radically different global perspective when astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson showed up at the Fernbank Science Center in northeast Atlanta. NASA has a mission to reach far into the universe; Fernbank’s is to spark the imaginations of children and instill a passion for science. Both are trying to preserve their missions for future generations amid an ever-present threat of budget cuts, and an Evening with an Astronaut night was their combined effort.

Dyson described peering out of the cupola of the International Space Station to the blue-marble Earth and her eyes filling with tears. But tears don’t fall in space. Hers stuck to her eyeballs. Through that film, her view of our planet and its people deepened, to greater care and hope.

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In pollen season, Kirkwood’s old-school carwash hums

Monday marked nine straight days in Atlanta of extremely high (over 1500) pollen counts. You can’t avoid the blanket of yellow green dust covering the city.

For Stuart Brady, the plague of pollen on our cars is almost a biblical call to atone through what his business serves: lots of water and your own elbow grease. At his Kirkwood Car Wash, three words preach from the shingled roof: “Honor Thy Auto.”

These days, the ka-ching of tokens in the self-serve machines is the reason Brady calls pollen “gold dust.” It also gives him hope that his slice of Americana might survive the relentless redevelopment that Atlanta is known for.

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Rain or shine, Drive Invaders make weekly pilgrimage to outdoor movies

Every Wednesday night — even relentlessly rainy evenings like last week — a group of metro Atlantans reclaim a fun childhood memory and help preserve a piece of Americana that is rapidly disappearing from the nation’s landscape.

Last week, Suellen Germani and the rest of the Drive Invaders gathered to watch “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” at the Starlight Six Drive-In, the last outdoor movie theater in metro Atlanta. Instead of a playground, Germani and her grown-up movie companions each paid $7 to tailgate in the rain and watch the movie through wet windshields. The outdoor movie ritual reminds her of when she was around kindergarten age, at dusk on a playground at the foot of a giant movie screen. The memory always ended with her asleep in her parents’ car during the second show of the double feature.

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A vision and volunteers turn a toxic dump into Zonolite Park

A raccoon’s muddy tracks are a small shining symbol of the transformation of an asbestos-laden wetland in northeast Atlanta into an Atlanta public park, and the perseverance of volunteers who envisioned that nature could trump industrial pollution.

Zonolite Park is 12 acres near Briarcliff and Clifton Roads, where for two decades beginning in 1950, freight trains stopped at the W.R. Grace Co. plant and dumped as much as 1,225 tons of raw material for attic insulation marketed as Zonolite. The park’s reinvention also shows how a supply chain can bring in business and killer byproducts. Reversing that damage took a chain of volunteers willing to help restore the ecosystem.