Entries by Ben Smith

In Steve Walton’s lights, holidays on the edge

Steve Walton’s Christmas display around his Virginia Highland bungalow features a manger and baby Jesus without mom and dad, a monstrous snowman’s head and the effigy of an elderly woman who apparently got run over by a reindeer.

There are no flashing holiday lights, dime store decorations or blow up Santas. His displays are funny and edgy, sometimes quite dark and suggestive of a sense of longing for an artist who has experienced considerable loss in his life.

He moved on with his life by turning discarded stuff into elaborate, seasonal lawn displays. After the death of his partner in 1989, “I started to see the yard as a palette, not a chore,” said Walton, 59, last week.  “It was very therapeutic.”

At Beatles v. Stones, the anchoring power of music and memory

Living in uncertain times, we’re all looking for anchors. Nostalgia is a powerful one, as is music and lending a helping hand.

Friday night, more than 800 people showed up in Midtown to hear 13 bands who tried to recreate the time of peace, love and understanding known as the 1960s through the songs of two iconic bands: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

The music of these bands is now timeless, but in its day it was revolutionary, and the gray heads in the audience may have flashbacked like I did to a time when rock first moved us and when some of us sought to move others.

Beatles vs. Stones reminded me of my own altruistic early rocker roots in Staunton, Va. I played with a hastily assembled band called Ravenscroft in my first gig in a church basement.

Atlanta Diaper Bank a fresh resource for a hidden need

Behind Atlanta’s hunger, poverty and homelessness are parents who are trying to stretch every resource—even dirty diapers. To cut the cost of this basic need, their babies wear soiled diapers for longer periods than they should, and sometimes parents try to wash or reuse disposable ones, putting the kids at risk for staph infections.

Founded by Adrienne Hopkins of Kennesaw, the Diaper Bank of Greater Atlanta is winding up its annual “Twelve Days of Diapers” drive that began Dec. 1. The Diaper Bank is a nonprofit that helps cover the bottoms of babies and toddlers as well as adults who require disposable undergarments but cannot afford them. Its current goal is collecting 100,000 diapers and adult incontinence products before Thursday.

As holiday cards grow rare, Randy Osborne sends daily letter with care

In the coming weeks, as Americans rush to shove hastily written holiday cards and form letters in mail boxes to friends and family members, Randy Osborne will still pen a letter a day to a stranger.

Osborne doesn’t care if his letters arrive before a day attached to a religious figure or public cause. More than a resolution, his Letter a Day Project is about connection through a nostalgic form of messaging. It is one man’s reply to a national nosedive in personal correspondence.

“I think people really want some kind of contact even if it’s from a stranger, something that takes time and attention,” said Osborne, 58, who teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at Emory University and co-founded Carapace, a monthly storytelling event at Manuel’s Tavern.

Weekly potluck dinner turns Atlanta friends into family

The bonds of family and friendship can be created through the sacrament of a regular shared mealtime, and it  doesn’t have to be as seldom or elaborate as the big Thanksgiving event many of us will travel thousands of miles to celebrate this Thursday.

For several years, Owen Mathews has hosted what he calls Potluck Dinner every week at his Midtown studio. It has grown into a broad range of young to early-middle aged professionals of assorted ethnic backgrounds and experiences.

“It’s almost like we have family dinner once a week,” said Sara Le Meitour, who is engaged to another potluck regular.

Longtime Atlanta protester targets Walmart and more

Even though Walmart will likely take over Suburban Plaza shopping center in Decatur, Brian Sherman still isn’t giving up. Late last week, he stood among a couple of dozen placard-waving protesters from Good Growth DeKalb insisting Walmart can still be stopped.

Their unflagging commitment intrigued me. I stopped at their protest, feeling cynical in the wake of news that the Atlanta Braves will move to Cobb County. Why continue to fight Big Money, the Power, the Man, or whatever you call It when It always seems to get Its way? That was my question to Sherman, who at 70 has been fighting the fight since the 1960s.

“Because,” said Sherman rather defiantly, “We eventually win.”

Local artist injects dark humor into diabetes

Diagnosed with diabetes in her first year at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Leah Owenby felt anger, fear and other deep emotions. Those feelings now are channeled into whimsical, funky and jarring pieces of art in “My Creepy Diabetes Show” at Yay Studio in Avondale Estates. She assembles syringes, test strips and other found objects familiar to all of us with this disease to create darkly humorous statements about dealing with the hideous monster that never leaves our bodies. By putting eyes and Lego legs on her blood glucose meters, for instance, she converted them into “glucobots.”

There is a sobering enormity to her work that reminded me that she and I and millions of us with diabetes most likely will die of this disease. No matter how much we exercise and try to eat right, it is always stalking us.

Under I-85, DOT linking Atlantans to nature and BeltLine

The unfinished trail is bordered in part by cedar trees native to the Himalayas. It runs by a creek where, on a recent morning, fallen leaves floated like boats and a blue heron glided gracefully over the water. Up a steep bank, cars and trucks roar along Interstate 85.

Welcome to the new Creekside Trail, a transformative project by the Georgia Department of Transportation to turn a half-mile of scrubland north of Lindbergh Drive into a hiking path. This is one example that the BeltLine is becoming a catalyst for other trail projects.

The trail, between I-85 and the North Fork of Peachtree Creek, is the first nature trail built by the state transportation agency. It reveals more than just a small oasis right under the tires of thousands of daily commuters in Atlanta. It’s a spawn of the mothership BeltLine, a secondary trail that is supposed to beckon Atlantans out of their cars to walk or bike to work in Buckhead and northeast Atlanta.

Gutsy voices of teen writers help VOX survive

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that schools could censor student newspapers, teenagers responded by creating their own uncensored and independent newspapers. Atlanta became home to VOX—Latin for “voice.”

Many of these papers folded in an era of massive cutbacks in professional journalism. But against those odds, VOX Teen Communications celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday. Through VOX, many students launched successful college and professional careers in fields beyond journalism, earning the Gates Millenium scholarship among other awards.

In those short hours and on the weekends, VOX attracted students from all over the metro Atlanta area, who were mentored by professional journalists and other advisers. They reported, edited, photographed and designed a newspaper that publishes five times a year and a website www.voxteencommunications.org, that updates continuously, filled with work not likely to be deemed suitable by most high school administrators. Some of it is truly groundbreaking.

Transformed by refugees, Clarkston takes stage in ‘Third Country’

“I just want to know one thing: How do we stop the refugees from coming here?” That faceless voice rings from a cast member planted in the audience at the Horizon Theatre.

The play is“Third Country,” a drama based on the seismic change in Clarkston, which in the past 20 years has transformed from a predominantly white Atlanta suburb into what Time magazine called the most diverse square mile in America.

In this play by first-generation Egyptian-American Suehyla El-Attar, Clarkston is called Sidington, and the plot captures the intense emotions and misperceptions across our country about newcomers and the meaning of home, between ourselves and our shared space.

Atlanta Brave looks back on choosing family over baseball fame

When the Braves made yet another early post-season exit last week, this time against the Los Angeles Dodgers, former closer Billy Wagner said he was in bed. He said he was too busy working with his son’s private high school baseball team, which he coaches, in Crozet, Va. to watch the National League Division Series.

In 2010, Wagner gave up $6.5 million from the Atlanta Braves, the near-certainty of being major league baseball’s No. 1 closer and any hope of playing in a World Series. He chose home over the game.

How could he give all that up so easily? He answers in a new memoir, “A Way Out: Faith, Hope & Love of the Game.”

Still Nonessential after 18 years playing Atlanta’s blues

When the federal government closed down in 1995, three furloughed workers at the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta and their politically-appointed boss figured out how to stay busy. Instead of helping green the Southeast, the four started playing the blues.

The Nonessentials have stuck with one constant through nearly two decades: the three simple chords that make up the blues. On a part-time basis, they’ve played festivals, restaurants and other events. They’ve played as their founder retired from public service, one left government work and the two remaining EPA employees became nonessential once again in last week’s federal shutdown.

The stoppage brought back the story of how the band formed, the power of music to connect and sustain, and the possibility of bad news leading to new opportunities.

Faith moves mom to reject then defend lesbian daughter’s way of life

At 77, Yvonne Howell of Snellville transformed her belief that her youngest child, Dana Worsham, faced possible damnation for being a lesbian. On Friday she lifted a sign proclaiming, “God loves my gay daughter!” Her journey is one that her daughter and others hope that the Methodist church will follow. They reject the anti-homosexual stance of the denomination and those who lobby to keep it.

That’s why mother and daughter were among 30 protesters last week at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Through their major disagreements, what mother and daughter always have had in common is passion for what they believe is right. “My mom’s not a pistol,” Worsham says. “She’s a nuclear bomb.”

A circular journey into one’s soul through an Atlanta labyrinth

Labyrinths look like circular mazes, but represent an ancient pathway into the soul. Seekers like me have boosted the number of labyrinths within 100 miles of Atlanta. In 2000 there were a half dozen; now there are about 100. Describing the simple power of the labyrinth is almost impossible.

In my pile up of job losses, family crises, health scares and a recession without end, walking the labyrinth has become more frequent and vital. People across the world and over the centuries have discovered that walking the circle path can help make sense of all the craziness life deals out.

For warped lives, re:loom and Spanx weave new hope

When Fred Brown’s ex-girlfriend went to prison in 2011 and left their son in his care, he knew he had to change the pattern of his life. Brown was homeless and didn’t want Damari, then only 9 months old, to grow up like he did—seeing his first dead body on the street at six years old and getting so used to the sight that it “was no big deal” by the time he was an adult.

Last week, Brown told his story from the headquarters of re:loom, where he turns recycled clothing and textiles into rugs and other items. Re:loom is nonprofit that helped him find his way back by teaching him the ancient art of weaving, and it got a big boost when another grassroots Atlanta business—Spanx—began globally promoting re:loom.

Searching for the poet James Dickey, finding beauty in the grotesque

Searching for a column topic while on vacation in the small beach community of Pawleys Island, S.C., I learned that the poet and novelist James Dickey (1923-1997) was buried here.

Dickey, a one-time United States Poet Laureate and author of “Deliverance” was a native Atlantan, a graduate of North Fulton High School. Even better, a complete anthology of his poetry had been released a few months earlier. The new book made him topical.

After multiple efforts turned up nothing and the idea fell to the wayside, one of the names on Dickey's tombstone appeared a month later at the Decatur Book Festival. Bronwen Dickey's memories contrasted sharply with the popularized image of him as an outrageous alcohol-swamped fabulist depicted in unflattering biographies and exaggerated tales.

No quit in football team of Atlanta immigrants

Down 41-0 at halftime Friday night, the Cross Keys Indians could have easily folded. They had every reason to be discouraged: They haven’t had a winning season since 1994. They haven’t won a game since Sept. 16, 2011.

But these sons of immigrants, first generation Americans and football players, never fold. Just as their parents haven’t given up on building a good life in a sometimes inhospitable land of opportunity, so too, it seems, these teenagers keep believing they can master a game that was alien to them as children.  

“Giving up is for punks,” said senior quarterback and free safety Oluwatomi “Tomi” Adedayo, whose team of 37 players includes 16 born in Asia, Africa, and Central America. “You start to give up and they’ll see it in your eyes. So you just keep your head up and you keep fighting.”

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.

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.

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.