Telling stories

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

People Still Lie In the Age of Transparency

Posted by southwrite on July 15, 2014

Man in HatThere’s very little about our lives that is secret anymore – or is likely to be secret for long.

Facebook keeps track of your typed posts even if you decide to delete them. Google knows everywhere you’ve been on the web.  And everything they know the NSA knows as well – and a lot more. And, of course, big business owns your personal data and probably knows more about you than your spouse.

All of this over exposure was supposed to make us a lot more transparent. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s now creepy statementPeople have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.

So if we now live in an overexposed world in which its pretty easy to find out lots of things about lots of people, why tell lies that can be easily found out? Why tell your new date that you’re a company CEO when a Google search will reveal that you’ve just gotten out of prison.

Decide it would fun to take your top off in a bar and a score of cell phone cameras will send images of your bare breasts across the web. Forget about keeping that Miss America crown.

These days it’s easy for a company to search public records and Facebook accounts to ferret out the truth and lies hidden in resume and job applications. There’s a long list of coaches, CEOs and assorted academics who have lost their jobs because they claimed degrees they never bothered to earn.

In fact, the only reason the dark secrets of your past stay out of sight is when others don’t even try to find them.

With so much information so accessible to so many people why does anyone think they can get away with anything?

Of course we all lie at one time or another. Usually it’s to avoid conflict with someone or fudge the truth so that our behavior looks a little better. Sometimes we simply convince ourselves that events transpired a certain way when they really didn’t. Police and prosecutors are well aware that witness memories can be notoriously unreliable.

We tell small lies designed to keep us out of trouble and avoid conflict. We fudge the truth about our accomplishments to impress someone and even if we know what we’re doing in the beginning soon we accept the lie as whole truth.

But how do you explain some of the more outrageous lies that have been part of the public consciousness in recent times. Why does a public figure tell a personal story – such as decorated military service – that can be easily proven false by the public record?

Consider the story of the story of little 3-year-old Victoria Wilcher, disfigured by a pitbull, getting kicked out of a Jackson, Miss. KFC. The girl’s grandparents said that a manager at the fast food restaurant told them to leave because the girl’s scarred face was “disrupting our customers.” The accusation quickly went viral and the fast food chain quickly apologized and pledged $30,000 to the girl’s family for her care. Almost as quickly a local newspaper debunked the story. It not only didn’t happen, it appears that the family had not been in the KFC on that day.

Why did the family believe they could get away it? Didn’t they think someone would check a little further? Or did they believe the public is gullible when it comes to false stories that seem to fit with their deeply held beliefs – in this case businesses are run by heartless people.

The morale is that we need to be skeptical of stories – particularly when they sound too good to be true or fit too neatly into our own beliefs and biases.





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The Loneliness of the Forgotten Rail Stop

Posted by southwrite on July 8, 2014

Train oldWhenever I hear a distant train whistle, I stop and listen and think for a moment of where it’s going and where it might have been. I’m not the only one. Trains are still popular these days. Trainwatching or railfanning, as it’s sometimes called, is a passion for a growing subculture of enthusiasts. Yet, for most of us, they’ve become a novelty and don’t have the same impact on our lives  they once did. We look at trains apart from the role they play in commerce, and transportation because they are no longer a part of our everyday life.

Not so long ago it wasn’t that way. Trains were a vital and essential part of everyday life — even in tiny rural communities.

The images of train schedules you see here are from the collection of Eastman, Ga.-resident Bob Braswell, who says they are most likely from the 1890s. I was really struck by the long string of stops at tiny communities throughout the Middle Georgia area – some I had heard of and some not.

Uplands Hotel AdScanning through the schedules, I see stops at Garretta, Mayberry, Rentz, Batson, and Leon on the way to Eastman. These are names likely to draw a blank stare from all but the oldest and most historically minded residents of the county. I look at them and try to imagine what the stops might have looked like. I wonder how many people rode the trains and what become of them and their lives?

The rail line to Eastman ran by the house in which I grew up although  the rails and cross ties had been removed long before I was born. One of the stops on the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad Co. is named Sutherland (a common misspelling of our family name).  I’m not sure where the stop had been, but no doubt passengers disembarked somewhere near my family home.

In the 19th and well into the 20th century, these little communities were thriving and busy enough to warrant passenger train service. It was a time when train travel was the primary way of getting from one place to another. Braswell also provided this early ad for the Uplands Hotel in Eastman. It  indicates a busy stop on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio, which many well-to-do travelers rode to Florida in the 1800s.  They stopped in towns along the way giving rise to a thriving hotel business. Some of these hotels are still standing. Most are empty shells or have been converted to other uses. The Uplands burned to the ground long before I was born and a  bank now sits on the site.

Railway schedule 2Another former rail stop called Plainfield is a few miles from  my parent’s old home and it’s still hanging on. Today, little remains of this once thriving community, which was declining even when I was growing up. Most people have moved away and the main shopping area off the main highway is now mostly gone.

Ben Horne’s, a classic tin roofed country store at the intersection of Ga. 117 and Plainfield Road closed some years ago. Now it sits at the main intersection with  its gas pumps long removed and its walls crumbling. In better days my parents sometimes bought groceries there and I was usually able to spend some time with the out of date comic books in a rack near the wooden front counter. Like hundreds of other country  stores, it served the needs of the surrounding community. Also like them it couldn’t survive.

Decades before, Plainfield and the others were all vibrant communities supported to a significant degree by regular train service. When the trains stopped and the rail disappeared much of the reason for their existence was also gone. Like so much of rural life and culture its vanishing leaves us to wonder and dream of what was and might have been..



Railway schedule

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When too Much Really is too Much

Posted by southwrite on July 1, 2014

Alice in WonderlandI was talking to a friend recently about an acquaintance and the topic of openness. The person in question tended  to be a bit too explicitly personal in her Twitter postings. Although neither of us were close to this person – it was after all a social “media” acquaintance – we had gotten a pretty intimate view of certain aspects of her life. My friend was concerned that the young lady’s twittering might prove detrimental to her career – what if her employer saw it?

That got me to thinking when is too much too much?  These days the cliché “too much information!” comes to mind on a nearly hourly basis.

Obviously, reality TV and the extreme people who succeed on such shows have made keeping anything private – no matter how embarrassing – seem so, well, 20th Century. In fact, the more extravagant the misdeed the more likely it is to make you a star or an in demand book author (good news for ghost writers).

In fact, campaigning for a spot on a reality show is something you plan your life around. If it isn’t already, reality show contestant should be a job category – and one with true growth potential.

It wasn’t always like that. Once revealing too much was a much more local affair. There was the ameatur bodybuilder who told me about her use of steroids. There was the guy who couldn’t stop talking about his many, many, many feminine conquests. Relatively few ordinary people thought about leveraging their mistakes into media attention and that was a good thing.

Unless you’re aspiring to join the Real Housewives, looking bad may not be so good. Everyone should know by now that what you do online is never private no matter what your privacy settings may be. Social media of every kind has given us all the means to project our talents, opinions and foibles far and wide. Where once our bad taste might have been limited to a few friends, family and co-workers, we can now build a sizable platform from which to expose ourselves.

This ability can outpace your better judgment. Some people have discovered that employers troll social media sites looking for background data on job applicants. Facebook posts and funny pictures can solidify opinions long before you ever show up in your best business suit.

Just as businesses are careful about the image they project to the public, freelancers need to be conscious of what they’re saying to their customers as well. If provocative statements are part of your image then by all means keep writing those attention grabbing Twitter posts. If they aren’t something you want clients to read then don’t. And, save your misdeeds, tall tales, and bad taste for the home office. The dog won’t care and won’t tell.

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Romancing the Rail

Posted by southwrite on June 28, 2014

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern.

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Southern.

(The first of a two part series on the romance of trains and trainwatching.)

I love trains. The sound of a distant whistle makes me stop and stirs an emotion that has been with me since childhood. Men instinctively know what I’m talking about – women not so much.

We probably played with toy trains when we were boys and when we see one passing by today, it brings back memories of what was probably our favorite possession. The lucky ones among us had an electric powered set of engine and cars that traveled on a circular train around the basement. Almost as good was having a friend with one.

In middle and old age, many a man has filled his home with trains and track and station. Instead of a Corvette or antique Thunderbird, they buy multiple Lionel Train sets and became expert in the different models. Their mistress is a model railroad club and their fortune is spent on meet-ups and train conventions.

Trains are mechanical marvels – the empowerment of the industrial age and the driver of commerce. Trains both opened up the West and closed it with the First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory.

Trains have always been the embodiment of romance and travel to unknown places. These days few really dream of hopping a freight out of town to a new life of adventure on the road. The attraction is more in the trains themselves.

You just can’t imagine how powerful – and loud! – a locomotive can be until you watch it thundering past so close you can almost reach out and touch it. It inspires an almost primal feeling as the mammoth piece of metal and its stream of clattering freight and tanker cars passes the refurbished depot in the north Georgia city of Dalton.

Dalton Depot 006Today a small crowd of mostly middle aged and older men have gathered in front of the 1914 era depot downtown. A couple hastily ready cameras mounted on tripods while others listen to scanners to monitor conversations between conductors and dispatchers. Within minutes the long train has passed by leaving these viewers smiling and eager for the next one.

They don’t have long to wait. More trains thunder through the city – 50 to 60 daily – than almost any other place in the country. This is one of the few places in Georgia where the CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway cross each other at grade.

If you love watching trains this is perfect place to be. You can see them coming down the long expanse of track. A short distance north the Gordon Street Bridge provides a panoramic view of the city and the trains as they pass through. The depot, which also houses the Dalton Convention and Visitors Bureau, offers a large brightly lit waiting area inside equipped with a 42 inch monitor. An audio system is connected to the radio frequency used by dispatchers to talk to the engines.

The romantic era of rail travel may be long gone, but for a loyal cadre of hobbyists they still invoke a passion that sometimes borders on the fanatical. Railfans, as they’re called, travel across the country to find a good location for viewing their favorite engines. It’s both a passion and pleasure.

Watching the trails go always evokes some romantic notions of climbing aboard a boxcar and heading to new and unimagined places.

“You wonder when you see them where are they going and where they came from,” said one trainwatcher as a long expanse of cars lumbered past. I knew exactly what he meant. It was an emotion that had already welled up inside me from a place far away.


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Don’t Believe Everything You Read – Even if it’s True

Posted by southwrite on June 25, 2014

1319095_90422633You know you’re not supposed to believe everything you read – whether in newspapers, books and especially on the Web. Yet, most people – including those who give you advice like this – often do.

You probably heard the story of three-year-old Victoria Wilcher, who was thrown out of a KFC restaurant in Jackson, Miss. after an employee decided that her scars—leftover from an attack by her grandfather’s pit bulls—were scaring customers. That angered a lot of people and you could hear the explosion on social media. And, rightly so. It was so bad in fact that KFC immediately apologized for its franchisee’s behavior and ponied up $30,000 for the child’s medical bills as a way of saying we’re sorry for this outrage.

As you also now know, it was all a media savvy hoax cooked up the grandfather and his girlfriend to boost thier  own fund raising campaign for the girl’s medical bills. This nationally reported story was uncovered not by the national media – which like KFC bought it completely – but by a local newspaper – The Laurel Leader-Call. It did the fact checking and basic reporting while everybody else was running with a tale that was too good to pass up.

I mention this incident not because it’s unusual, but because it’s so commonplace. There have always been hoaxes and frauds and misinformation. What’s different today is how fast these stories travel and how they can impact people and even corporations. KFC acted fast to contain what initially looked like a social media-fueled PR disaster. No doubt their publicity experts understood that it didn’t really matter whether it was true or not – everyone was going to believe it.

This particular story was corrected pretty quickly, but there are countless others that never get corrected. Tune into the cable news shows on any particular night and you will be treated to a veritable smörgåsbord of half-truths, misinterpretations and outright lies. Most of these tales are never corrected and even if they are most viewers continue to believe them. [A small, but stubborn percentage of the American population still believes that President Obama is a Muslim born outside the U.S. even after release of the birth certificate and considerable investigation and evidence to the contrary.]  Some of this is politically motivated lying, some is willful ignorance and the rest is…well…ignorance.

With many stories it can be hard to know the real truth – even if you’re not in the low information voter category. Consider the recent New York Times story about how the student debt crisis really isn’t a crisis at all.  It offers a Brookings Institution study that only seven percent of young adults with student debt owe $50,000 or more. In a classic case of making numbers mean whatever you want them to mean, it turns out this story too is not exactly what it seems.

Screen-Shot-2014-06-24-at-9_21_22-AM-e1403616118133The seven percent figure is correct for the skewed selection of households surveyed. You have to read the caveat closely to get that fact however. It is in fact “based on households with people between 20 to 40 years old with at least some education debt.” Gawker’s Choire Sicha explains it this way:

Those aren’t households with people between 20 and 40; those are households headed by people between 20 and 40. Which is to say, this data excludes all people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults. The way Brookings put this is: “households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40.” Just another way to say it excludes all households led by anyone over 40! (Those households might be identical in student debt to “young” households! Or they might not? WHO KNOWS!)

I suspect most readers of the story walked away thinking the student debt was no big deal. Yes, even the well-respected New York Times gets its wrong. [If you doubt it just repeat to yourself Judith Miller.]

Both of these examples – and there are many, many more – point to a need for a healthy dose of skepticism of many of the stories you come across every day. It’s good to check multiple sources, but sometimes it can seem that everyone is wrong as with the KFC story. Then you have to ask yourself just how plausible the story really is and extend that skepticism even to those stories that reinforce your own preconceived beliefs. Make that especially then.

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Bad News is Good News

Posted by southwrite on June 23, 2014

Eva Green and the revealing Sin City movie poster

Eva Green and the revealing Sin City movie poster

We say we like good news, but the reality is we prefer our news bad. Bad is good. Bad is interesting. Bad is worth our time.

I’m not talking about bad news from your relatives or boss. We don’t want to hear anything bad from them. But when it comes to the news we consume – in newspaper, magazines, and mostly on the internet – we like it bad (for someone else).

Sure, we say the media is too negative and we wish it would report more on the positive side of life. We say we want to hear about the triumphs, the important issues and the people doing good. Yes, we say that, but we don’t mean it.

Consider the polls that repeatedly reveal that people prefer hard, in-depth news reporting to fluff and celebrity gossip. Media moguls hear that plea and then see that people overwhelmingly turn to the trivial. Put a long form piece on global warming up against a story on the Kardashians and see who wins.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You knew you were lying to the pollster when she asked you about your news habits. It’s what we do – we lie to survey takers.

For the entertainment industry, unpleasant news can be good in many situations. Having the poster you created for your new movie banned might seem like a bad thing. Consider this provocative image for the new film Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. It features the voluptuous Eva Green wearing a translucent nightgown and holding a revolver in her hand. The poster was banned by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) “for nudity — curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown.”

Bad news? If you’re The Weinstein Company (and their genre label Dimension Films), you pretend it’s a bad thing. You do that even as the media hits and page views pile up. The original poster may never appear on the wall of a local Cineplex, but more people will have seen it (and learned about the new film) than would have if the MPAA had not looked so closely at Green’s breasts. (Leave that to teenage boys.) If you weren’t thinking of going to see Sin City before, you might be now. (A more modest version of the poster has since been released.)

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Green said it was “a bit odd.” “It seems like it’s all just publicity — a lot of noise of nothing,” she said. “You have so many more violent things in the movie business and this is kind of soft. I’m not naked. It’s suggested.” She added there is nothing wrong with the poster. In fact it’s “really sexy, actually.”

I can’t say if the movie’s promoters planned to do a poster that would be censored and whip up a heavy dose of publicity. I wouldn’t be surprised. Despite the ban, the poster was leaked to the press and soon spread across the internet.

Similar bad news also raised support and sales for brands such as the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty and fast food chain Chick-fil-A.

In an earlier era advertising agencies would put on publicity stunts designed to attract attention. Today, they’re sometimes referred to as “planned mistakes” that are anything but mistakes.

Yes, bad news can be good – especially when it’s bad news you’ve created.

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Everything Old is New Again

Posted by southwrite on June 21, 2014

Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell House

Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell House

Living in the South you soon realize that history isn’t found in buildings. In fact, in many communities there aren’t many, if any old historic structures from earlier times –not like New England and certainly not like Europe where history is measured in centuries and sometimes millenniums.

One reason is the Civil War which devastated the Southern states and particularly Georgia thanks to Sherman and his well-kept promise during the infamous march to the sea to “make Georgia howl.”

Much was laid waste in the war, but much would be destroyed afterwards – and not by the Yankees. Following Reconstruction and the dawning of The New South, Georgia, and Atlanta in particular, acquired a particular distaste for the old and historic. Perhaps it was a way of forgetting the past and proving that the city wasn’t just some backwater. Beginning in the 1960s and moving forward, Atlanta began thinking of itself in much grander and less regional terms. By the 1980s were proclaiming it an “international city.”

It was modern and forward facing and no longer had time for either the old building that were spared Union torches or even those built soon afterwards.

While working for a small private college in North Georgia, I found myself traveling down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street. At the wheel was a trustee I was interviewing for a laudatory profile in the alumni magazine. He was rich, a successful developer and very much committed to raising new buildings up out of the dust of old Atlanta.

“When I see one of these old buildings I don’t see a waste and an opportunity,” he said.

And, he certainly helped contribute to the loss of what little remained of Atlanta history. For a while it seemed that the city was determined to erase everything that remained of the old to usher in the new and profitable.

The developers  largely succeeded, but not entirely.

One remarkable survivor of that era is the now preserved Margaret Mitchell House. This three-story, Tudor Revival built in 1899 was where the author  lived and wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning Gone With the Wind. Truth be told, the famous author never much cared for the building she referred to as “The Dump.”

It had been a grand home on this fashionable residential section of Peachtree. By 1919 it was subdivided into ten tiny apartments. Mitchell and her new husband, fellow writer John Marsh, moved into Apartment No.1. In those days it was known as the Crescent Apartments and later renamed the Windsor House. Mitchell moved on to better accommodations – particularly after the success of her bestselling novel and the classic motion picture. It remained apartments until 1978 when it was abandoned.

During those years, this section of Midtown became something of a desolate stretch populated by the poor, the runaways, the addicts and the occasional hippie. The house was sometimes a temporary home for the homeless and slipped further into disrepair.

Beginning in the 1980s, local preservationists tried to pull together enough funds to save and restore it. That was rough going in a city that didn’t much care for history or all that much for the arts. Atlanta designated it a landmark in 1989.

It’s something of a miracle that the house survived It was torched more than once. Perhaps the fires were started by the homeless trying to keep warm. I imagined it was a developer outraged that such a valuable piece of property was being kept off the market. With help from German automaker Daimler-Benz, the property was finally purchased and restored. It opened as a museum in 1997.

The house looks very much like it did when Mitchell was living there.

The first time I walked through Mitchell’s restored apartment my imagination was swept back to Atlanta between the world wars and teetering on Depression. It’s filled with period furniture and an old typewriter. I saw her sitting there typing; creating a grand portrait of a South that no longer existed. She was still there looking out the leaded glass window. I also thought about all those who had wanted to destroy this treasure and was happy, profoundly happy they had not succeeded.

That feeling of being in the past leaves when you step out and look up Peachtree to the towering white façade of the Federal Reserve building and the many other modern skyscrapers that line Peachtree Street now. It’s a different world.

It’s a shock.

These days Atlanta and small towns and cities through the state are friendlier to the past. There’s been a growing realization that historical sties mean tourist dollars and economic development. It’s not universal by any means. Big players in Atlanta such as Georgia Tech have moved to tear down historic buildings when it suited their expansion plans. Elected officials in small towns around the state can still be found pushing for demolition rather than preservation.

Yet, we still have the Mitchell house and other historic structures. We still have pieces of the past that we can treasure. I’m glad for all that have been saved.


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Don’t Panic, But There’s a Ghost in Your Town

Posted by southwrite on June 20, 2014

Gaither Main House 01I’ve visited just about every city, town and tiny  community in Georgia. One thing they all have in common is a ghost, or two or three. Every place a haunted house, or building or theatre. Anywhere there have been people, you will find ghosts, or at least stories and people who deeply believe those stories.

I can’t say that I’ve seen a ghost, but I know many rational and sober people who have. They believe ghosts exist and are attached to a particular place. At times they make themselves know and even seen.

One of the most convincing examples of the otherworldy lies in rural northeast Georgia, near the town of Covington.  Gaither Plantation is a pastoral beauty of rolling open fields and verdant woods where generations have picked wild black muscadines. The main house, built in 1850 of sturdy heart of pine, is a rambling white two-story home with large green shutters.

While today, the house and surrounding buildings have been transformed into a location for weddings, events and movie sets, many contend its long history still walks the grounds and hallways of this historic plantation.

The residents of Gaither have made many appearances over the years. One visitor glimpsed a woman sitting in an upstairs bedroom gently rocking a baby. Another opened the door to the basement to see a figure dressed in a Confederate uniform standing at the bottom of the stairs. Both apparitions vanished.

To get an idea of just how much the past is part of the present, I talked to Judy Gaither Dial. A local school teacher and direct descendent of the plantation’s owners and member of the historical society that is working to preserve the plantation, she has experienced a continuing series of encounters with the spectral inhabitants of the house.

Gaither Sign 04Her father lived there in the early 1930s up until he was about three years old.  By then the family had lost ownership of the house for back taxes totaling $28.  Over the years he often told her stories of the grand old house such as the family hiding Confederate soldiers from Sherman’s advancing legions. The Union troops searched the house and took the livestock, but never discovered the Rebs who had scurried up a secret ladder to the attic. Her father died in 1985, but she believes that he is still there.

“When I’m there I feel like I’m at home and my family is around me,” says Dial. “The first experience I had at Gaither Plantation was on the front porch of the house sitting in the swing and there was nobody there.”

As she sat there relaxing, she felt someone sit down beside her and the swing begin to move back and forth. She didn’t open her eyes, but she knew she was swinging. At just under five feet tall her feet didn’t touch the floor.

Another time she was changing clothes in what was once the house’s bridal dress room. The door, which typically sticks when closed, suddenly opened by itself after the doorknob jiggled. Startled, she immediately looked out at the wall size mirror which provided a clear view of the hallway. Nobody was there.

She and a caretaker were waiting in the house for a busload of school children to arrive for a tour. Suddenly they both heard the sounds of laughing children and adults carrying on a conversation outside. Opening the door expecting to see a group of middle school kids, they were greeted by an empty yard with open pasture beyond. The voices still seemed to coming from nearby, but no one was to be seen. Startled, they began looking around the house trying to locate the owners of the voices and the laughing children. They saw no one and the voices eventually faded away.

Ghostly experiences haven’t been limited to locals. The plantation has been a set for several movies and TV shows. Filming of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion was constantly interrupted by noises from upstairs – when there was no one there. The cast and crew of The Vampire Diaries experienced sudden blasts of music and lights that went on and off by themselves.

As stories of ghostly residents spread, teams of paranormal investigators were engaged in hopes their instruments and scientific approach might squelch the rumors.

The old church where three people met their deaths.

The old church where three people met their deaths.

Over a two year period nine different “ghost hunter” teams set up shop in the old house and plantation grounds. Each deployed sensitive listening devices, video cameras and other instruments. Each invited a “sensitive” or a psychically inclined and trained parapsychologist who could sense ghostly entities. The results were dramatic. A wide variety of ghosts were identified ranging from former slaves to confederate soldiers to Cecilia Gaither herself.

It was during one of these investigations that Judy Dial came face-to-face with the spirit of her dead father. East Georgia Paranormal was on its second investigation of Gaither when they invited her to accompany them. Convinced by her previous experiences that the house was haunted, she quickly agreed.

Late that night inside the old house, the term’s sensitive or psychic member said “someone’s, a man’s voice is telling me to ask you if you remember Little One.” Startled she replied yes, that was her nickname. The psychic conveyed other facts only her father could have known such as her love for playing “horsey” and how he stayed up with her all night when she was sick.

After settling down the entire investigation team heard what seemed to be an argument between a man and a woman coming from upstairs. Members rushed to investigate and found no one there, but now the argument was coming from the attic. Two team members climbed a ladder to the upper level but found nothing. Suddenly everyone heard the voices again, but this time they were downstairs. Once the first person descended the stairs, there was silence.

Not far from the main house, an old wood frame Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1916, is home to a host of memories and ghosts. The paranormal team found it alive with apparitions and strange phenomena. Chief among them is a photo and video that clearly reveals the misty figure of a woman in a white dress. Disembodied sounds could be heard echoing through the sanctuary. While taking readings with a non-contact infrared thermometer, an investigator witnessed the laser beam on the thermometer being broken three times, twice on demand.

Decades before, the pastor, a prominent member of the choir and her husband had been found slain just inside the back door of the church decades before. Police concluded that a jealous husband had discovered the two together and shot them before turning the gun on himself.

This ghostly activity has converted a number of skeptics. A few years ago, a reporter from the local newspaper who had planned to spend the night admits that she ran from the house in the wake of strange noises, continually unplugged coffee pots, and a well handle that suddenly began spinning on its own.

Whether the ghosts are real or a just a part of some over active imaginations, I don’t know for sure. When I walked through the old main house in the middle of a sunny day, I could feel a presence around me – watching. It was the kind of feeling that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck and caused me to look around thinking I had heard a footstep.

I felt relieved stepping back out into the broad front lawn. It was even better when my car was finally rolling down the long dirt road to the gate and home.

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Small Town Renaissance

Posted by southwrite on June 17, 2014

Acworth Coke SignThere’s just something about a small town that tugs at your heart and imagination. Perhaps it’s all those episodes of the Andy Griffith Show that made Mayberry a part of the American psyche whether you’ve watched them or not. It’s true that most people live in cities and suburbs, but across American there is an unmistakable trend of people seeking out smaller communities.

I’ve seen it repeatedly as I’ve traveled to one small town after another on assignment for one publication or another. Writing about these communities and in particular the resurgence that is so obvious in many communities is a joy.

Some of the greatest evidence of renewal can be found in the small and often historic downtowns that smart city leaders have focused on developing. In the (now distant) past, these areas were the focus of civic life and commerce. The Saturday trip into town for groceries and other shopping was a regular Saturday ritual when I was growing up outside the small Middle Georgia community of Eastman.

On its wide main street divided by rail tracks was virtually everything we needed. There was the pharmacy where I could  spend a happy hour thumbing through the latest comic books in their rotating carousel. The broad front windows that looked in upon an old fashioned soda counter. It was pleasure and also some pain as I knew that eventually I would have to select just one of the 12 cent treasures to take home with me.

downtown streetNext door was a bakery which produced the most delicious brownies and doughnuts – rare treats for those growing up in rural Georgia.  Within a short walk was clothing shops, a hardware store, barber, one screen movie house, library, post office and of course the main reason for our trip – the Piggy Wiggly, the town’s one real grocery store.

Like many communities across America, its downtown was eviscerated  by the arrival of the strip shopping center and Wal-Mart. Most of these stores closed up. A few like the venerable Coleman Hardware have hung on by adapting. It’s wners realized that selling hammers and nails was not going to cut it. So they added a gift shop and soon expanded to become a JC Penny catalog ordering center, as well as, package shipping via UPS and FedEx. Eastman’s growing Hispanic population led to the establishment of a Western Union office with money wiring services.

Across the tracks the old movie theater [which burned along most of the block when I was a college freshman], reopened and closed again has turned to live shows and theatrical productions.

Small towns no longer feel inferior to their big city rivals. In fact there’s a certain air of contentment in not being the big city. Driving west of Atlanta on Interstate 20 is Douglas County. Not far from Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, this area has become something of a mangent for industry and busness – here you’ll find Google, the American Red Cross and a host of other companies large and small.

You’ll also find the flourishing small city of Douglasville (pop. 31,000). It’s main thoroughfare brings to mind a pre-World War town of single story brick buildings. While their original inhabidents have since fled to mall or the Interstate, many of these structures are now being occupied by new enterprises . Restaurants, service businesses, boutiques and a healthy dose of government offices (and public investments) are the kinds of businesses that do best in a newly revitalized city center. Being outside Atlanta is not a bad thing, according to Douglasville Mayor Harvey Persons, who has lived here almost four decades.

Stephens Co Courthouse_Toccoa“I had a reporter call me to ask me how did we overcome being so far from Atlanta,” he says with some pride. “I told her I would be more than happy to show her the disadvantages that Atlanta was having from being so far from Douglasville.”

In the North Georgia community of Blue Ridge, a number of the shops in the downtown – and businesses – are run by refugees from the big city and corporate life. Here local merchants are also enjoying an upsurge in traffic and sales. This is a very different town than a few years ago when as one local put it “you could throw a ball down Main Street and never hit anybody.”

Where there had just been a few antique stores, nowadays, the city caters to just about any desire and taste. There are a wide variety of new restaurants, boutiques, and coffee shops.

You could make a case that most of this renaissance is being driven by those who have grown tired of the big city grind. Clearly, many of these newcomers are better educated and more affluent than the natives. While that sometimes creates an almost cliché friction, this infusion of new blood and ideas has greatly benefited rural America.

Retirees and corporate refugees have the money to live in small towns, which these days offer little in the way of employment. The younger generation is still moving to the city by all accounts.

Downtown street sceneIt’s not clear how far this resurgence of small town life will actually go. Big cities make more sense from the perspective of jobs and efficiency. It could be that rural living will remain a novelty rather than an important and vibrant condition. Yet, some see small towns as the future of America.

There’s also evidence that the migration to rural areas is widening the division between urban and rural.  Increasingly, researchers are finding  that politics guide people’s decisions when they move — to a significant extent. The data shows that 67 percent of people who are “consistently liberal” want  urban or at least suburban communities, while 76 percent of “consistent conservatives” gravitate  to  more wide open spaces. And there’s a pretty smooth progression as you move along the political continuum between the two.

Author and New Urbanism proponent James Howard Kunstler sees traditional small cities and towns as the savior of life in a Post Peak Oil world. “…when our energy supply problems get worse, there will be wholesale demographic shifts to smaller cities and small towns, especially places that have some relationship with local food production, water power, and water transport. Our smaller cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities.”

Small towns have many attractions beyond the simple charm of a historic street and people who say hello when you pass them. Maybe you live in a small town or you’re a regular visitor. If so, what attractions have you found?



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This is How Much Art Matters in Macon, Ga.

Posted by southwrite on June 14, 2014

Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers.

Patterson Hood and Drive-By Truckers.

You’ve probably noticed – or maybe you haven’t – that big media doesn’t cover the arts as it once did. Gone are book sections. Music reviews tend to be crammed into a slim weekend section. In-depth reporting and incisive criticism is elusive.

Of course journalism in general and newspapers in particular are suffering and have fewer resources for covering much of anything – much less the arts. There’s still a lot of criticism and reporting going on out there, but it’s harder to find and tends to be more specialized than ever before.

Musicians are also finding it as hard to make a living as many editors and reporters. The internet has pushed newspapers and magazines to the brink, but in some ways it’s even worse for performers. With songs going for a dollar, it’s hard to make a living.

That’s one reason why the recent Art Matters Symposium series in Macon, Ga. is so interesting. This series of panels with artists and journalists bills itself as a means for “engaging the community through high-quality arts journalism.”

A creation of The Macon Arts Alliance and Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism (CCJ), the program is embedding journalism interns in various arts organizations served by the Alliance. These journalists will create news articles, blogs, video reports and provide general coverage for local news outlets, the CCJ’s newsroom, and Alliance’s website — – and other publications.

The program also provides for a critic-in-residence at the CCJ and a public symposium series pairing artists and critics in discussion on the state of the arts and criticism.

The last of these symposiums kicked off at the historic Cox Capital Theater in downtown Macon. The topic for this last program was music.

In case you didn’t know, Macon, Ga. has a storied musical history. It was the home of legends such as Little Richard, Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers to name just a few. Capricorn Records was headquartered here while its co-founder Phil Walden played a decisive role in popularizing Southern Rock for a wider audience.

The city has also become something of a model for innovative journalism education. The Collaborative Center, with financial support from the Knight Foundation, has pushed a new model of educating journalists. Based on the teaching hospital approach to physician training, students at Mercer work closely with editors and reporters from The Macon Telegraph and GPB Media in producing real stories about local events. [A Mercer student interning with GPB became the first reporter to break the story of the Atlanta Braves move into a new stadium in suburban Cobb County.]

Both those news organizations have moved to new digs on the Mercer campus to put them in close proximity to students.

These two forces came together in a panel with Patterson Hood, Athens based singer songwriter and co-founder of Drive-By Truckers, and Josh Jackson, co-founder and editor in chief of the award winning Paste Magazine.

Later that evening Hood would be performing solo during a house concert held at the renovated “Crisco House” – one of the mansions that fill the city’s hip and progressive College Hill Corridor. This afternoon he was talking about the challenges of being a professional musician and what it takes to make a living along with music.

What became clear in their discussion is musicians and journalists are facing many of the same challenges in adapting to a rapidly changing media landscape. As both newspaper and musicians struggle to survive, both fields are changing their tactics to make a living. Musicians in particular have to realize that that it’s not just about playing music, but in taking control of their careers and creating a recognizable and salable brand.

Having a top 40 record is no longer a path to financial success. Bands must be able to perform night after night. “We’ve been able to carve out a decent living,” said Hood. “We’re known as a good live band.”

Even this constant touring has to be supplemented by other revenue streams such as t-shirt sales.

Branding is also vital to standing out. Hood and the band have devoted considerable effort into developing the art and graphics that adorns their albums, posters and t-shirts. “You need a recognizable visual element,” he said.

Even with good business practices, bands often end up in debt and seeking funding from friends, family and other supporters. Hood works his own day job to support his primary occupation of music.

While advancing in recording technology has made it easier than ever to get a record out, it can be challenge to gain attention and earn money for it with so many people downloading music.

The free streaming services for music only exist because (investors) keep pouring money into them,” said Jackson. He added “the streaming services pay so little because they make so little.”

He explained the role of music criticism has also changed dramatically. While critics no longer have the influence and impact they once did, they are even more important in helping listening find good music amidst all the clutter. They can champion good bands and help them be found and understood.

Music criticism is not as broad as it once was, but it does go deeper,” he explained. “It’s the rare review that really gets people talking. Music journalism is much less centralized and that’s a good development for fans. It’s no longer up to a small number of people to decide what you’re going to hear.”

By helping to bring forth good music they can also help musicians to achieve something that can seem elusive these days – “a middle class lifestyle.”

One thing that became clear is that music and journalism are tightly linked to each other and the success of one is vital to the other.

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