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With guts and WordPress, Judi Knight reinvents herself and others

Judi Knight saw it coming.

Atlanta property owners were falling into quick defaults over what she saw as “crazy loans.” Her loft conversions stopped “flying off the shelves.” She had to get out of the real estate business before the bubble burst.

On top of that, she’d gotten a divorce and had even let her license to practice psychology in the state of Georgia lapse, something her friends had urged her to maintain for job security. “I knew I wanted a different life,” Knight said. “It was like Cortez burning the ships. I didn’t want something to fall back on but I didn’t know what I wanted.”

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In Africa, former Atlantan helps kids One World Futbol at a time

For a couple of weeks in 1996, Sandra Cress helped bring the world of soccer to Atlanta. Today she lives in Nairobi and is helping children around the world live healthier lives through one tough soccer ball that stays round when they kick it.

The standard soccer balls used across Atlanta suburbs don’t stand a chance in the thorns, glass and barbed wire of the developing world. There, kids create makeshift balls of rags or whatever they can find. Cress said she saw kids kicking a ball made of old fruit taped together.

The virtually indestructible One World Futbol, made of a hard foam similar to that in Crocs sandals, has already transformed Cress’ world and should inspire anyone with deep knowledge, contacts and enthusiasm that do not seem to fit in the present job market. The indestructible ball offered Cress an opportunity to come full circle in her passion for soccer and expertise in humanitarian aid.

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For African-American women, a hairstyle can be a tricky decision

For African-American women, unemployment is 12.3 percent nationally, 13.1 percent in Georgia. That tough reality helped draw more than 100 black women to an event last week at Georgia State University focused on one decision that each of them faces:

What to do with my hair?

For them, preparing for a job interview or the first day of work isn’t as simple as deciding whether to go with the regimental blue-striped or the red power tie. Around the country, disputes over African American female hairstyles have led to accusations of wrongful firings and discrimination lawsuits.

Atlanta is where people notice, too; for example, TV news viewers spent decades obsessing over local anchor Monica Kaufman Pearson’s changing ‘dos.

Amid loss, no tears from these Atlanta clowns

February in Atlanta is circus month, and but not all the clowns are goofing under the Big Apple and Ringling Bros. big tops.

Far from the spotlight, for all but two weeks a year, a local troupe of clowns managed to practice their craft for tiny, tough audiences: some of the sickest kids in Georgia, even some who are dying. As clowns, they’ve kept their show going on this year even after sudden loss in their own ranks.

For the surviving members of the Big Apple Clown Care Unit, creating laughter in the face of heartbreak has transformed them far more than wearing a funny hat, a fake nose and makeup ever could.

Mardi Gras vibe inspires survival for Cajun and zydeco dancers in Atlanta

Carolyn Barbay of Atlanta climbed out of the grief she had over losing her husband by re-discovering the music of her home state of Louisiana and learning the Cajun two-step and waltz.

Instead of driving eight hours, she only had to travel a few miles to the Knights of Columbus Hall at Buford Highway near Lenox Road, home of the Atlanta Cajun Zydeco Association’s monthly fais do do (parties) featuring a live band playing authentic swamp music.

She found a tribe bound not by blood, geography, language, culture, ethnicity or religion, but by a deep love of the forward-driving, accordion-centric sounds of Acadian music from Louisiana.

George Bailey, teenage suicide and a temporary goodbye

Stories of recovery and reinvention inspire us, because they show us possible routes out of our own valleys. These stories prove that we ordinary people are capable of extraordinary resilience.

Each week since August 2011, I’ve told stories like that here. The column will continue, but without me for awhile. Starting next week, another writer will take over this space: Ben Smith, a former AJC reporter who is also my husband. He has written here previously about chicken nachos and his trail adventures.

My attention turns to my personal story of recovery. I believe that we must be brave enough to open up a dialogue about a subject full of stigma and denial: mental illness. If we don’t, too many of our stories, especially our children’s, will keep ending too soon.

For 15 years, the mark of an Atlanta newcomer: a 678 phone number

Fifteen years ago this month, 678 became Atlanta’s third telephone prefix, and every call became a 10-digit dial. Today, when smartphones let us tap to connect, it’s easy to forget past milestones in how Atlantans connect – and what those turning points meant in the perception of the city’s growth and who we are.

For many native Atlantans inside I-285, there’s 404 and everything else. That’s what they grew up with. The 770, 678 and 470 will always belong to the Johnny-come-latelys and suburbanites.

The 404 prefix is dialed into their identity, a shared jersey number for the veterans on Atlanta’s home team. It is a holdover from a simpler time, before the rest of us got here and made life a whole lot more complicated.

Amid change in Oak Grove, chicken nachos never dip as a Saturday ritual

South Philly owns the cheesesteak.

The deep-dish pizza rose from the north side of the Chicago River.

The best chicken nachos ever can be found at a butcher shop and delicatessen in north suburban Atlanta.

That’s no brag, just fact, according to the regulars who swarm into Oak Grove Market every Saturday for a plate of the eatery’s number one seller.

More than a taste, the nachos are a tradition that helps keep this small business going in the recession, and gives people a one-of-a-kind experience that they won’t get at a chain restaurant. It’s the same recipe, the same day of the week, at the same place – chicken nachos transformed into a social anchor.

Waffle House, Waffle Palace set stage for family memories and cult status

As a transplanted Northerner, I misunderstood Waffle House for many years. Wasn’t it just a kitschy Southern chain of roadside dives, frequented by truckers, cheapskates and all-night partiers?

So wrong. Way too many stories, families and milestones stack up at the Waffle House against that easy bias. The restaurant’s 24/7/365 reliability across a network of locations has been going so strong for so long (since 1955) that American culture – not just Atlanta’s — is scattered and covered with Waffle House stories.

Locally, the Waffle House mystique is celebrated on stage with last week’s return of the home-cooked play, “The Waffle Palace: Smothered, Covered & Scattered 24/7/365,” at the Horizon Theatre.

The play’s cast and writers met up with restaurant fans and regulars last weekend at the Waffle House Museum in Avondale Estates. The line between real waffle memories and made-up waffle drama melted like butter on a hot griddle.

Counting squirrels adds quirk to Inman Park

By Michelle Hiskey

In the 1880s, a dreamy question created the east Atlanta neighborhood of Inman Park: “What if… the streetcar connected downtown with a posh suburb?”

Today, a funky obsession has connected neighbors there: “What if all the squirrels came down from the trees and attacked us in an apocalyptic nightmare?”

From the imagination of local writer Jamie Allen came the acorn that grew into the Inman Park Squirrel Census. From this nutty (to some) idea unfolded a modern fable, a tale of harnessing curiosity and technology to transform how we see our surroundings.

Grounding their wildlife watch is some hard cash: through the social media incubator Kickstarter, the squirrel census recently raised $9,000 to form an LLC and print and sell vintage-style posters of where the squirrels are.

Southern misperceptions tackled in Decatur author’s “Eat Drink Delta”

So much of the South is misunderstood by outsiders, and a trustworthy guide like Susan Puckett helps the rest of us understand where we live. Her new book, “Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey through the Soul of the South” (University of Georgia Press), takes readers on a trip into the complicated culture and food of a strip of Mississippi often maligned for its poverty, obesity and backwardness.

Her ground-level stories of the people and crops, their traditions and dishes, bring to life the coexistence of different races and classes in one of America’s most fertile areas. The Delta is synonymous with blues, and Puckett, a Decatur author of six previous books who served as food editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years, explored the connection between the hard stories and soulful food.

Behind 100 miles and $10K, an endurance to care for men on foot

Someone ran 100 miles and showed up last week at the Central Night Shelter downtown with a pocketful of checks totaling $10,000, an eye-popping climax to a story of one man trying to help the many homeless men who had shown him how to better appreciate his own life.

His donation shone light on the endurance of the shelter, which has for 32 years housed and fed about 100 men a night at Central Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Between November and March, this shelter has never missed a night.

Urban Atlanta youth use muscle, risk to master complexities of the harp

Of all the instruments, one of the biggest and heaviest, most expensive and most exotic is the harp. A performer must play each foot and hand separately, using everything but pinkies to create the ethereal notes.

That is the muscle behind the dreamy soundtrack of the Atlanta Urban Youth Harp Ensemble. Most of these young musicians have overcome major disadvantages to master the instrument’s complexity, earn gigs at local weddings and events, qualify for college scholarships and position themselves for professional music careers.

At Atlanta synagogue, teens film memories of adolescence during Holocaust

High school sophomore Mollie Simon is used to boiling down history to dates, places, names and civilizations. On paper, the people affected by all those events, even those who survived wars and atrocities, were virtually faceless.

This year, her own history changed when she joined 15 other teenagers from her synagogue set out to interview their congregation’s seven Holocaust survivors. Most of them were teenagers themselves when, without warning, their world turned upside down – all because of their identity as Jews.

The connection between teens and elders turned into “Edim L’Shoah: Witnesses to the Holocaust,” which will be screened free to the public at 4 pm Sunday at Congregation Shearith Israel (CSI).

At Alex Haley memorial, Atlanta’s modern slave trade comes to light

Annapolis, MD – Anchoring the heart of this seaside, colonial capital is a can’t-miss commemoration to a beloved storyteller who died 20 years ago.

Alex Haley transformed the appreciation of family history by starting with his own wrenching past, and his bronze likeness sits in a storyteller pose on the city dock, overlooking the waters where the slave ship Lord Ligonier brought his forefather Kunte Kinte from Gambia 245 years ago.

Alex Haley authored the memoir “Roots,” and the Kunte Kinte–Alex Haley Memorial pays tribute to ancestor and descendant, the power of storytelling and the resurgence of interest in genealogy.

The sculpture showing an animated Haley speaking to three children also points indirectly to Atlanta, where slavery thrives today in the form of human trafficking.

Behind the high price of peanut butter is a tale worth spreading

Quit fretting over Twinkies that you can’t buy and the Thanksgiving groceries that you have to purchase.

Take a look at the crazy-high shelf price of a Georgia-grown staple – peanut butter.

Paying well over $3 per 18-ounce jar – more than a buck more than a year ago — made this choosy mother ask what was going on in peanut country a hundred miles south.

Big swings in peanut production are causing price increases — and future price cuts — for this pantry staple. And a closer look at the peanut’s powerful simplicity is quite inspiring.

In a nutshell, behind the high price of peanut butter is a story worth spreading.

For veteran journalist, neighborhood trail leads to a new beat

Note from Michelle: This week’s column is by guest writer Ben Smith, who happens to be my husband. Many of you know him from his days as an AJC political reporter.  

By Ben Smith

In my old life, hitting the trail meant following the money, traveling with a campaign or tracking down a criminal.

Today it simply means taking my dog for walks in the woods and keeping my eyes open.

Yet in the three years since I left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and sought to reinvent myself in the digital age, I have discovered that my skills as a reporter easily translate to a “beat” that is much smaller, more isolated and surprisingly weird.

Atlanta’s NYC Marathoners: It’s the journey, not the storm cancellation

For Atlanta’s sizable community of runners, the first Sunday in November belongs to the New York City Marathon. First there’s the luck of getting in via a lottery of hundreds of thousands of applicants. Then there’s hours of training that can feel like a part-time job. Finish the 26.2 miles through the five boroughs, and chalk a big one off the bucket list.

After a week of mixed messages from New York race organizers, Hurricane Sandy ultimately led to canceling the race and detouring the disappointed runners. While disaster response is of course more important than a big athletic event, the following Atlanta marathoners illustrate the trait that will fuel New York’s recovery: endurance, resilience, optimism and more.

Atlanta memoirists risk writing truth about living relatives

Between family members, the truth is a delicate thing. That’s why memoirs are popular. We like reading about people who take the risk to bear witness to their intimate lives, because most of us will never go there, especially not in public.

This weekend, two Atlanta authors of new memoirs will speak locally about risking family relationships. Lynn Garson and Christal Presley overcame major emotional hurdles to confront and understand their family dysfunction.They crossed that emotional tightrope and stayed connected to the family members despite writing critically about them. Doing so changed them into healthier adults.