Telling stories

Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

When the Stars Grow Dim

Posted by southwrite on October 12, 2014

The Rolling Stones on a recent tour.

The Rolling Stones on a recent tour.

One of the really jarring things about life is not waking up to realize that you’ve gotten old without knowing it. No, it’s that all your idols, inspirations and toys have too.

The passage of time really hit home to me a few weeks ago. I was reading about the death of ‘60s rock star Paul Revere (of Paul Revere and the Raiders.) Now I was never a fan. My sister was the one who adored him. She collected the band’s albums and even went to a concert. In fact, until I read of his death, I can’t say that I  really thought of him in the last four decades.

Yet, I had this image of Paul Revere frozen in my mind. He was always a young and vibrant rock star. The picture was clear of this larger-than-life dynamo, dressed in Revolutionary War uniform with neatly cut black locks, bouncing joyfully around the stage. The shock came in seeing images of a now aged man, long hair now gray and carrying the extra  weight that comes with passing years. There had been no adjusting to the fact that he had become an old man.

Of course, all the stars of my youth – such as the now 70 year old Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney who’s now a peer of the realm  – have settled into a more and less comfortable period of decline. These teen idols are now long past qualifying for Social Security. Some, like Jagger, still make a passable attempt at mimicking their former youthful fast moving presence on stage. Yet, I know, as do they, the days of performing are coming to an end.

Paul Revere  was still the showman in later years.

Paul Revere was still the showman in later years.

Aging brings change to everyone. For most of us, it’s not as public or as dramatic as it is with an  rock star who came to fame 50 years ago amidst the screams and fainting of young girls. There’s a certain irony to still singing songs of teen age love when you’re older than the fathers of those girls.

For the fans who have largely aged along with them, there also comes a need for acceptance. Neither they nor we are what we once were. Rock, the music of youth and rebellion, is now used to sell consumer products. Remember when Microsoft used The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” as the soundtrack for the advertising campaign that launched Windows 95? (Of course, rockers have been promoting products for a long time and have never been anti-capitalism.) Bands like the Rolling Stones play Vegas casinos. (Could Frank Sinatra or the Rat Pack have imagined these rockers would be taking their place as draws to fill time between sessions at the craps table?)We’ve all sold out in one way or another.

Mick Jagger on stage and youthful.

Mick Jagger on stage and youthful.

Listening to the music is a way to recapture our youth and a particular time and place.

We also try to buy back the youth we’ve lost. I did that with comic books for a time. I grew up in a small town in Georgia in 1960s and ‘70s. In those days, one of my greatest delights was the weekly trip into town to visit the comics rack in the corner drug store. In their cheap, but colorful pages I found new worlds and delights of the imagination. Then in my late teens I gave them up and moved on to more adult pursuits.

I never forgot Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Superman, The Flash and a host of other heroes of my imagination. Later in life I began collecting them again. Of course, the cheap paper was unchanged, but now they were considered collector’s items with high prices to match. I paid the price, but I couldn’t recapture those youthful moments. My superheroes were the same (even those their pages were now yellowing), but I wasn’t. I was older now and that young boy was just a memory.

My experience of comics, like rock and roll, was particular to a moment in time. As we get older those moments can’t be recaptured. They’re gone and for us the best thing is to let them go.



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The Positive Art of Saying No

Posted by southwrite on August 25, 2014

Engine start stopWe all really like to say yes. When someone asks you to do something – take on another job or head up another committee – more often than not we’re inclined to say yes. We’re flattered that people think of us – especially those who want to pay us for our yes – and we we believe that “the ask” is itself an indication that we can and should do it.

Far too often we’re wrong. We say yes to requests when we should be saying no. Saying yes becomes an addiction that gives us a short and temporary high that’s often replaced by guilt, stress and sometimes leads to failure.

Many of us have a hard time saying no – especially to people we consider friends or colleagues. I know I do.

There was a time not so long ago when I was feeling overwhelmed. I had a heavy work load of freelance assignments, but I had also taken on volunteer work for a non-profit. As I accepted more and more tasks to further a good cause, I was spending more hours every week on what became a non-paying job. As the commitment grew larger, it became hard to finish the work I was being paid to do.

I looked at the need and didn’t want to let people down. I thought “if I don’t do it, who will?” I saw others putting in hours and began to critically say “you’re not managing your time. You can fit it all in. You don’t want to let them down”

Guilt plays a big role in our desire to say yes. Take the ALS ice water challenge that has been sweeping America. Facebook and YouTube are filled with videos of the famous and the not so famous dumping water on their heads. While it’s certainly a good cause, a big reason for its success is the (small amount of) guilt that comes with being called out in front of all your social media friends.

It’s one thing to have ice water dumped on your head if you want to support a good cause. It’s another to give in even when you know you don’t want to do it and shouldn’t be doing it and it won’t benefit you in any way.

Most of us would be better off if we said no more often, but in a conscious and thoughtful way.

We have to start with the realization that saying no can be the best kind of yes. Blogger Courtney E. Martin in The Spiritual Art of Saying No describes a conversation she had with a wise taxi driver on why you should say no more often. “You got to, girl. If you don’t learn to say no, you’ll either be miserable or die. One or the other.”

Saying yes to too many of the wrong things can lead to early death – even while you’re still living. We all bring to the table a certain number of skills and assets. These vary over time – particularly as we work to make ourselves better. At any one time we have a finite bank of working hours, energy and other resources.

As we show up in the world doing good things – more work, more assignments, more volunteer activities – we spend those reserves. At some point we reach the end of our bank account. Just as you can empty out your checking with donations to one or another good cause, we do the same thing with ourselves.

It’s easy to reach a point at which we’re drowning in new assignments. As we work frantically to make one deadline after another, things being to slip. We stop putting in the extra effort to polish a sentence or we decide not to call that next source – isn’t three or four enough? We run out hours in the day along with the ability to manage our time and work more efficiently. We start saying no to things that we should be doing – like reading, exercising, and just resting – in order to do one more thing and please one more person.

Here’s a strategy to use when people ask you to take on some task that you’re not really sure about – particularly if it’s a nonpaying volunteer activity.

Follow the Chinese proverb: “When in doubt do nowt.” If you’re not sure, do nothing (nowt). Say something like: “That sounds like a great thing to do, but I need to consider it and look at my schedule and other activities. I’ll get back to you in a few days.” Then you can make your decision deliberately – away from peer pressure. There’s a reason why fund raisers take along a friend or colleague of the potential donor they’re soliciting. It’s hard to say no to someone face-to-face.

Plan how you’re going to spend your time and energy. Just as we know we should budget our money to meet our goals, creating a budget for your time is also essential. You decide what means the most to you. Do you want to support your local church or non-profit? By crafting a plan, you avoid the risk of becoming scattered. Investing your time in one or two organizations can make a much greater difference for them than squandering it with a half dozen groups that you have only a marginal acquaintance with.

When you have your budget set, then it becomes easier to say no to things that will only distract from your goals. “You have a great organization, but I’m already spending all my volunteer time with these groups.”

Some people have no problem saying no. They’re confident and aware of their own integrity. They’re already spending their psychic and physical energies wisely and putting them into the things that mean the most to them.

We can join their ranks.

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You Can’t Have What You Already Own

Posted by southwrite on August 17, 2014

The familiar rotating comic rack.

The familiar rotating comic rack.

I decided to pay a visit to a local comic shop. You know the kind of store I’m talking about. If you’re a fan, you’re intimately acquainted with the racks of new books that line the walls surrounding tables filled with cardboard boxes of older books. There are also the glass cases filled with toy replicas of the super heroes now familiar to anyone who has visited a movie house in recent years.

Comics are big business now.

It’s been a long time since I had been inside a store like this one and it brought back a flood of memories – of childhood pleasures and adult years trying to recapture them. I thumbed through some of the new titles. They are quite different now than when they became part of my life in the mid-1960s. For one thing, they’re more costly (several dollars compared to the 12 or 15 cents) and much more adult in their story lines. The cheap paper has given way to quality stock and brighter, more vivid colors.

My visit also confirmed again for me a hard truth– owning is not the same thing as having. You might think that the two are the same. That owning is at least necessary for having something, but it’s not.

This is also why I’m no longer a comic collector – or collector of anything for that matter.

Oh, I do own a lot of things which might be considered collectible in one sense of another. Like most writers I have hundreds of books. Some I have with me, but most are in storage. I own, yes, but I don’t really have them. The difference between owning and having is in part about access, but it’s also an intellectual and even spiritual experience.

The realization that owning prevents me from actually having a thing really came home when I went from being a comic reader to a comic collector.

The colorful pages of comics were one of the delights of my childhood.

The colorful pages of comics were one of the delights of my childhood.

My love of this popular art form  began when I was a young boy spending  Saturdays in the small town of Eastman where I grew up. While my parents shopped for groceries and other items, I found my way to the corner drug store with its rotating rack of comics in the window.

I always faced an agenizing choice. With just 12 cents in my pocket, I could only have one. But which one? Superman? Spiderman? The Fantastic Four? The Challengers of the Unknown? Or maybe a western? With limited funds and wide choices, I leafed through each one carefully before making a choice.

I learned early on the loss that comes with each choice. By saying yes to Iron Man, I was saying no to Batman and all the other super heroes left in the racks. I would take a selection to the counter and carefully count out my coins. Then it was back home clutching the issue and eagerly devouring the latest exploits of my heroes.

Once read, it would go into the small cardboard box on the floor of my bedroom. I treasured each one. As time passed each comic book became well-worn as they opened up that world of excitement and wonder that every small town boy needs.

For one reason or another I lost most of those early treasures. They went to trades with other kids or were left behind as I moved on to other things – like college and non-comic reading friends. They were forgotten and thrown away – after all comics were designed to be quick and cheap entertainment.

Eventually, I ceased both buying and reading comics. Years passed and then I came back to them.

With a job and income, I could afford to buy back what I had once loved. And, I did. Comics that I had spent 12 or 20 or 25 cents for were now big money as they acquired collectible status of examples of the so-called Silver Age of comic publishing. I paid for them and began to amass a new collection. Instead of throwing them into an old box, I had to store them in special plastic bags. The cheap paper on which they were printed aged and faded quickly. In fact, finding a well preserved copy of older titles from the 60s and 70s was difficult. For those produced in earlier decades it was nearly impossible.

Today's comics have become more popular and more adult.

Today’s comics have become more popular and more adult.

As my desire to flesh out my collection grew, I began to acquire professionally graded issues encased in hard plastic. The cases certified their condition and value and also prevented further deterioration – the real enemy of any pop culture collectable.

The one thing I couldn’t do was read them. No creasing the spines as I lay in bed engrossed in epic battles between heroes and villains. I was a collector now – not the small boy clutching his beloved comics.

I assembled hundreds of comics. Many such as  a pretty decent copy of Fantastic Four #1 were quite valuable. At last I owned them, but I couldn’t have them.

One day, I don’t remember exactly when, it came to me – collecting is a profoundly disappointing experience. I only really enjoyed it when I didn’t have what I wanted. Hunting for a title was exciting. So was getting it, of course, but the thrill quickly faded.

Once I had a particular book, it was in a real sense lost to me. I had it, but I didn’t have it. The only thing left to me was to gaze at the collection and try to draw some excitement from the idea that a part of my childhood had been recaptured. It was a delusion. The thrill of comics for a young boy was in the holding, the reading, the talking with friends and the trading. After buying all those now valuable items, I was right back where I had started – I knew they existed, but I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t recapture those days. They truly were lost.

With that realization came another. Owning something that I couldn’t use and enjoy meant not really having it. I stopped being a collector.

I haven’t given up on comics as I did before. I still read them, but in digital form on tablet. Most of the old issues that I had loved as a child can now be downloaded in electronic format. Once again I can read them as I did as child — without worrying about the horror of leaving finger prints on the cover. I can also see them through the eyes of an adult knowing that I can’t recapture that childlike wonder. That too has been lost, but in the process I’ve gained something else.

Posted in Life, The Media | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How Many Jobs Does it Take to be a Freelancer?

Posted by southwrite on July 24, 2014

Hire MeIt’s pretty clear now that the old way of working that our parents knew so well doesn’t work anymore. This won’t come as a surprise to freelancers like me who have forsaken the 9 to 5 for independent employment and our own particular brand of entrepreneurship.

This is the Free Agent Nation of Me, Inc. As many see it, the movement toward independent self-employment is reinventing “work” and the meaning of success.

Freelancers Union founder and executive director Sara Horowitz writes “Many freelancers rightly see the standard workweek as a prison of the past. Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding — it’s practical and efficient. Time is a new currency, and successful freelancers manage, save, and spend it wisely.”

Having greater control over your own time and doing the work you love is what brought many of us to freelancing.

While most people still work for (mostly small) businesses, the number of freelancers has risen dramatically to about 42 million. While many have willingly chosen this life, quite a few are self-employed because their corporate job was downsized or outsourced. (They had to create their own business to be hired.) Of course, many of the people filling the cubes in offices are considered “contractors.” This legal fiction enables a company to employ someone without the expense of benefits or even a W-2.

A great many younger workers – the Millennials and their cousins – have embraced self-employment. Having watched their parents get downsized, they know there’s no more lifetime employment. That evaporated along with pension plans and retirement parties with gold watches.

While the idea of a Freelance Nation sounds very appealing, you have to ask how much of this is being driven by passion and how much is simply desperation?

Yes, freelancers have definitely redefined the traditional job, but that definition is not always as romantic and in control as our advocates would have you believe. Consider this: 87% of freelancers have more than one gig a month, and 35% have more than four gigs. Instead of concentrating on just one job, they’re cobbling together multiple jobs and employment – which could mean a part-time job at Starbucks when they’re not at a table working on an assignment. The number of gigs they work on a regular basis is a reflection of declining rates and the inability to make a living by sticking strictly to their own particular niche.

Is this the future of freelancing? You can download the entire report here and decide for yourself.

I became a full time freelance writer in 2002. At the time, I was working for a small college at the time that was in the process of imploding. A large number of faculty and staff had already been laid off in the chaos of the school losing its accreditation. I hung on as the atmosphere grew more toxic and my envy for those recently departed colleagues grew.

When I finally left it was more with relief than sadness. The next day I got up at the same time, got dressed and ready, but instead of driving to the office I walked a few steps to the spare bedroom that had become my home office and went to work on a stack of assignments. I’ve never had the desire to work for a full time employer since then.

I’m also realistic about the nature of freelancing in the modern global economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say you’re competing not just with the freelancer next door, but those around the country and around the world. If what you’re producing can be done by others more cheaply, then clients will seek them, find them and forget about you.

As freelancers we face the same challenges and the same prospects of having your market “disrupted” by wily competitors as any corporation – but without the advantages and resources. That knowledge doesn’t make me want to return to the office, but it casts a sobering perspective over this career I’ve chosen.

What to do? Maybe those multiple jobs and streams of income really is the future.

Posted in Life, Uncategorized, Working | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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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Is it Time to Flee Facebook?

Posted by southwrite on July 10, 2014

computer screenHave you ever asked yourself – what am I doing on Facebook? Many people have and maybe you should as well.

Perusing your friend’s Facebook page you may have come across things that caused you to stop and think, “I don’t know if I would have posted that!” Like those camera phone photos of your buddy drunk, unconscious and a funny picture painted on his face or that near topless shot of your friend’s daughter. Then there are the arguments in which perfectly normal people are suddenly transformed into irrational screaming maniacs.

Then there are the constant changes in Facebook policies and page layouts that seem to drive people crazy. Not to mention revelations that Facebook is manipulating not just your news feed, but your emotions as well. People got pretty upset about that last one  and the company reacted as it usually does – with a yawn.  Add to that news they also keep track of the words that you type and then don’t post. [Think about that.]

A great deal of ink (both real and virtual) has been spilled bemoaning how social media is souring real friendships, wasting time, and even getting people fired.

Some are telling us there’s even an exodus of folks fleeing the site out of boredom or horror. More than 11 million younger users have dumped the site for other social media. Of course, hipsters left the site (mostly for Twitter) long ago when they discovered it had become the providence of older adults and famous quotes. Journalist Ruth Graham tweets “Facebook is the inspiration superhighway.” That doesn’t exactly signal the end of the company considering it has 1.3 billion monthly active users, but clearly more people are thinking about it.

None of this is surprising. Facebook has morphed from a user community into a for profit corporation. It’s primary goal is no longer to serve its users, but to make enough money to please Wall Street and justify its $140 billion valuation. So there will be a lot more “studies” in which you are made the unwitting lab rat of the latest experiment in making the site more “sticky.”

Most of us don’t see Facebook as a business, but rather as the community in which we interact with friends [both real and virtual]. While it’s not the same as everyday live we might be better off if we acted as if it were. Then we probably wouldn’t be saying and posting some of the things that get us into trouble.

FB_FindUsOnFacebook-1024Behind the shield of an internet connection many say things to people that they’d think twice about before uttering in person. Words can be hurtful, both to the feeling of your friends and to your economic wellbeing if intemperate comments are directed at an employer. While you may be able to plausibly deny an off hand comment made over the water cooler, Facebook posts live on forever.

It might be wise to give some consideration to what you type and what you actually post . Think of yourself like a company and consider the “brand” you want to put forth for your public to see.

That means don’t create situations that you’re likely to regret. I’m not saying everyone should be frightened into silence. No, far from it. Just think about whether you’re saying something that you want to stand up for down the road. A well reasoned defense of some political issue can say you’re a thinker. A video of you drunk and unconscious will make you look like you don’t think at all.

In short, we need to accept Facebook for what it is rather than what we’d like it to be. Just as actions have consequences in real life, they can also have them in the not so real world of social media.



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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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Freeing Freedom

Posted by southwrite on July 4, 2014

Folding FlagIt’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day. For most, it’s the beginning of a long weekend and the first real getaway of the summer. (Unless you’re in retail and then commerce never stops for celebrating independence.)

Today, there’ll be many speeches – some heartfelt, many profoundly insincere. Quite a few will include the phrase “freedom isn’t free” and include a call to appreciate our men and women in uniform for their service.

In too many cases the implication is that freedom and its preservation is always about war and battle. Sometimes that’s the case, but usually not. Building a strong democracy is everyone’s responsibility, not just soldiers, sailors, airmen and the like.

And here we come to a hard truth that you won’t really hear much about in speeches today. I think to be a real citizen, as opposed to just a consumer, demands that we understand our country, its history and its ideals at a deeper level than just blind patriotism and cheering on the team.

Over time the United States has been recognized more for its inspiring words and ideals of freedom  than its actual implementation. At the beginning and throughout much of its history, freedom has been something reserved for the privileged few –white property owning men – and not the great mass of people. For some Americans who think about such things, it’s hard to reconcile the soaring language with the record of slavery, discrimination, crony capitalism and sometimes genocide.

1963_march_on_washingtonIt’s easy to get wrapped up in these faults and forget what truly makes America great. Born out of revolution, the U.S. has always had a great capacity and even desire to transform itself. These transformations have never been easy or peaceful, but the genius of the Founders was in creating a framework for change. From freeing the country from the evil of slavery to granting women the right to vote to expanding personal liberty in so many areas, American democracy has worked – even if not always quickly or well.

We should be proud of these accomplishments without giving in to blinding myths like American exceptionalism. The belief that the U.S. is somehow fundamentally different from other countries and chosen by God to spread our own particular brand of democracy and capitalism is one dear to the hearts of many people – and not just conservatives. For people in other countries it’s a head scratching idea given our country’s obvious faults.

It’s true that Americans have always been a people that liked to see themselves through the lens of high ideals rather than gritty reality.

Signing of DeclarationThe affection for myths started early. John Trumbull’s famous painting Declaration of Independence you see here is an idealized  vision that  never happened. In fact, all the signers – and the painting depicts some who didn’t sign — were never together in one room at the same time. The actual signing of the document took place over a period of weeks as the delegates came and went. The painting conveys the idea that the document came full blown from the mind of Jefferson and the delegates rose as one to sign it. That’s not the way it happened. The Declaration of Independence is a political compromise, just like much else in our nation’s history.

In one sense these myths are a blessing in that they call us to those higher ideals of liberty and remind of what we want to be. Even if we don’t always live up to them we are still empowered by the knowledge of what is right and from that knowledge comes the capacity for change – and for greatness.

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The Ghosts of my Old Home Place

Posted by southwrite on July 3, 2014

Abondoned House WoodsOn the hot sticky summer afternoons of my youth, I’d find myself walking the dirt road that ran in front of my parent’s home. Barefoot I’d make my way past the fields and thorny blackberry bushes to where the road curved and I lost sight of the red brick house where I grew up. Emboldened by freedom and desire for adventure I’d keep walking as the hot Middle Georgia sun beat down on me and sweat trickled down face and back.

Following the ruts, I’d reach the heavy woods and then set off down a less traveled path back into the thick pines. After a time I’d finally see the lone chimney standing against the trees. It was all that was left of the house that once stood there – long abandoned and collapsed. At some point most of the ruins had been taken away so that only the crumbling brick fireplace remained.

It was somebody’s old home place. I never knew who had lived there, as they were long gone even in those years – dead no doubt and buried in some other place. Yet, I felt drawn to the spot. I’d sit there for a time, look at the outline of the foundation  and wonder.

When you’re deep in the woods alone there is no silence. The whisper of the wind through the pines, a small movement in the underbrush, the song of a bird is loud and ever present. Occasionally you’d hear the distant and lonely sound of a train whistle passing through Eastman  some five miles away.

If you meditate there long enough you start to hear other things as well. It becomes hard to tell where imagination ends and reality begins. You begin to hear the voices – both adults and children – talking and shouting. This was someone’s old home place where people were born and died. It was the center of their world. Now it was gone.

Author Tom Poland describes them this way: You’ve seen old home places. You’re driving a back road and you go by what I call ruins. I have in mind those places where you can tell a hand once tended a yard and you can tell by how the trees grow that, yes, once upon a time a home nestled among these trees. You can spot old home places in the spring by the golden profusions of jonquils that grow in a disorderly way. You can spot them by the little chimneys that stand like monuments to the lives they once warmed. You can spot them by the stately piles of rocks where a foundation once rested. These little heaps of rocks, standing amid weeds and pines amount to cairns, a mound of stones heaped up as a memorial, and memorials they became.

Growing up in rural Dodge County, Georgia, I saw a number of these simple  wood frame houses (the look is really classic). There was another on the edge of a field just across the dirt road. It was still standing the last time I was there, but already half swallowed by vines, and bush. The rural south is filled with these old home places. Abandoned, they hold out against the encroachment of age and undergrowth as long as they can. Then one day they vanish, consumed by indifference.

Path in WoodsI’d walk by keeping my distance from the thick growth. I knew there were snakes in there, but deep down I also suspected spirits of the death also hid within the dark walls. I wondered where the people had gone and why they stopped caring.

Then I saw it take my grandmother’s rambling old Four Square house. A short walk from my parent’s place, I had spent many afternoons playing in her wide sandy front yard. Here we escaped to the warmth of her fireplace when ice storms cut the power to our modern all-electric brick ranch. Built sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century, the house had no indoor plumbing [there was a two-hole outhouse across the back yard] and water was drawn from a deep well at the corner of one of the wrap around porches.

After she passed and the property sold, the new owner torn off the porches and stuffed the house’s four equal sized rooms with hay bales. He planted pines in the big front yard hiding the house from the road. Driving by after many years and seeing what it had become, I was filled with a deep sadness. This place and the surrounding acreage that had once been  owned by my family was alien to me. The house was still standing because it made for convenient storage. It was a reminder of how things change and how quickly what we know is gone.

We’re good at giving up these old places.

In fact, we abandon just about everything. Small town and big city America is filled with empty structures. They range from industrial buildings and warehouses to old storefronts. Some are almost ancient, but others are more modern. Consider these pictures of abandoned shopping malls or the left behind cars, trucks, boats, industrial machinery and, of course, houses found on the stark and beautiful landscape of Iceland.

So much that was once useful and probably loved falls from a state of grace into one of loss.  With people gone even the best constructed houses eventually fall away. Sadly, it’s the way we do things.

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As Gods of the Air

Posted by southwrite on June 30, 2014

Plane Stormy SkyYou can’t imagine how loud and cramped the cockpit of a Cessna 150 is until you’re sitting in it, engine revving. As the red and white machine taxis down the runway of the small airport in the East Georgia town of Covington, I glance at my pilot. Jack is thin and bearded with sandy hair just beginning to gray.

I’m impressed with how diligent he is in his pre-flight checks. He goes over the plane making sure everything is in order and carefully follows a printed list of checks. These prop-driven marvels haven’t changed much in design since they were first introduced back before World War II, and neither has the flight inspection that ensures all systems are working.

A few days before, Jack had called asking if I’d like to go for a ride in his new plane. “We can fly up to Tocca for lunch,’ he says. It’s a joke among pilots. To provide an excuse for the expense of going up, you plan a flight somewhere to eat. It becomes “the world’s most expensive hamburger.”

We taxi down the runway, the engine’s roar getting louder, our progress faster. Slowly, much too slowly, we start to lift off and by the time the runway expires we are aloft. The plane climbs gaining altitude.

While most people start thinking about flying as kids and many have their pilot’s license before leaving their teens, Jack didn’t do his check ride until he was 66. That was the fulfillment of a long-delayed dream that began decades before when he first took a few lessons while working in Montana during the 70s. The heavy snows of a tough Western winter cut short his training, and job demands kept him from pursuing it further – until retirement.

“I always had this fantasy about flying at the top of the trees,” he tells me over the headphone we have to wear in order to communicate in the roaring cockpit. Jack is not the kind of guy who is content with a safe, mundane life.

Being the passenger in a tiny plane is a true “living in the moment” exercise. I’ve traveled in big passenger jets and prop driven puddle jumpers often, but this is a different experience. Wedged into this cramped metal can, you become acutely aware that you are thousands of feet above the earth with only a single engine to keep you up. There is an overwhelming feeling of being aloft as the ground passes below and you look upon the horizon in a way you’re never quite seen it before.

If you’re afraid of heights – as I am – the terror will start to well up and, despite your best efforts to focus on all the things going on around you, it will be there – just below the surface. At the same time you see how different – and how beautiful – the world looks from up in the sky.

Jack wants a Diet Coke. Spotting a small airport in the distance he pilots the plane in for landing. Like just about every other small town general aviation airport, the single building is closed for the weekend. There is a drink machine outside which allows him to satisfy his need for caffeine.

As he walk back to the plane the older man stops and looks at me intently. “Let me tell you something,” he beings. “If I should have a heart attack, try to pop one of these into my mouth and maybe I’ll come back to life.” He holds up a small pill bottle. I nod as he turns away and strides back to the plane.

Jack tells me to watch for birds. Hitting one could be a “really bad thing” for the plane he says. I scan the horizon knowing that I probably won’t see the flock of geese in time to avoid a fatal collision. At least it takes my mind off the thought of what might happen if the engine suddenly stopped and we have to make an emergency landing. “I’m always looking around for open fields and highways that I can put her down on,” he explains.

Pilots are always thinking ahead to the time when their equipment doesn’t work.

If we do develop engine trouble, the plane won’t drop like a rock, but will continue to sail along losing altitude until it finally hits the earth. Using the flaps, Jack can guide its slow descent onto a good makeshift runway – I hope.

I think of my own mortality. In this plane, I’ll know I’m going to die long before I actually do. What possessed me to think that going up with this guy was a good idea?

As we near our destination, Jack offers more droll wisdom on the dangers of flight. “There are only two kinds of landings,” says Jack calmly. “Good and crash.”

The trip is the first of several we take together. Flying from the Covington airport we visit other small towns in East and South Georgia. It’s always a thrill mingled with terror. I’m drawn to it and drink it in and begin to understand the appeal of risky occupations. You’re never more fully alive until you’re deeply immersed in an experience that scares and constantly demands your full attention.

Flying is like that. It’s that odd mixture of boundless freedom mingled with the realization that it could all end in a moment. It’s life.



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