In The Hills On My Own

Reflections of a Twenty-Something Georgia Boy

Politicize This Tragedy

In the wake of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, structure fires, and natural disasters, there will always be this person:

“Now is not the time for politics.”

or

“Don’t politicize this tragedy.”

or

“There are no Republicans or Democrats today.”

These thoughts are comforting. They allow us to consider the “what” and the “who” without considering the more difficult “why?” “Why” is the scourge of all eighth-grade essayists, and also, it seems, members of Congress. “Why?” forces us to leave the warm fuzzy comfort of self-righteous pity and look inward, asking what it is we could have done differently individually and collectively to stop whatever tragedy has occurred from happening. “Why?” is inconvenient.

On June 14th, two seemingly unrelated tragedies took place, one in London, one outside of Washington, D.C. In London, the 24-story Grenfell Tower public housing building caught fire. The magnitude of this event has not been realized, but we know that dozens of people, largely low-income, non-white immigrants, were killed. In D.C., a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for a baseball game, wounding several people. In both instances, the people of the United States and United Kingdom have been admonished to hold up the victims in their thoughts without considering the political decisions that lead to tragedies like these.

The fact is, rampant deregulation in the United Kingdom, coupled with the political marginalization of low-income and non-white people, created an atmosphere for the Grenfell tragedy to occur. I was in a room earlier this week discussing development here in Atlanta, and was told that a specific local developer is very open about the way he does business – if he is not legally required to do something better, he won’t. This is the case in all Western capitalist economies. You are rewarded for doing the bare minimum. Setting the bar low creates an environment for catastrophe. By all accounts, the Grenfell Tower was a death trap, designed and built with minimum compliance in order to maximize profit. I will be bold and speculate that there was probably nothing illegal about the building – it was simply built with profit margin in mind, rather than the safety of it’s residents. Wealthy people are the ones with the means to demand more accountability, and so the environmental and economic disasters are generally passed on to marginalized communities.

The shooter in Virginia was a domestic abuser. A decade ago he stormed into a neighbor’s home, physically removed his teenage daughter, and threatened another neighbor with a gun. We know statistically that men (and the vast majority of gun violence is committed by men) who have a history of domestic abuse are more likely to be the perpetrators of gun violence. And yet, we have found it politically inconvenient to do something as logical and obvious as preventing domestic abusers from owning firearms. Our elected officials’ inability to stand up for any semblance of common-sense gun legislation is directly responsible for gun deaths in this country, and now it has nearly killed one of their colleagues.

Not politicizing tragedy does not protect the victims. It does not make prayers more powerful or thoughts more pure. Failing to address the causes of death and destruction does nothing but preserve the distant pity of the opinionated observer, and insults those affected by ignoring their plight. We owe it to victims to look at ourselves and do better, striving to ensure that the tragedies visited upon them are not repeated over and over. We owe it to them to politicize tragedy.

Who I Voted For

I voted today.

I’m a straight white Protestant male in the South. I could have stayed at home and watched ESPN all day today and things would be just fine for me tomorrow. But I went and voted. I voted for the people who couldn’t. I voted for the people who need an extra voice.

I voted for my great-grandmother, who had the audacity to go to college.

I voted for my grandmother on my father’s side, who fought alongside men in World War II when doing so wasn’t proper.

I voted for my grandparents on my mother’s side, who had fascinating conversations about metaphysics and psychology and religion with diverse groups of people, at a time when doing so in Mississippi could get you in a lot of trouble.

I voted for my mother, who taught me that when one person is treated unjustly, we are all treated unjustly. Who despite a myriad of challenges in her life has always spent time and energy on folks who need it. Who stood up in front of Senators on my behalf when I was a child with health problems and no health insurance. Who was forcibly removed from the Georgia State Capitol for speaking up for poor people.

I voted for my father, who taught me critical thinking and analysis, and the importance of being well-informed. Who worked hard every day for 25 years to make our city a better place, in his own way. Who taught me how music and art can be more than entertainment, but can convey a message of hope and change to people.

I voted for my brother, who until recently was my sister, who has shown more bravery in the face of personal challenges than I ever will, and whose community continues to struggle for the rights that they deserve. I voted as an ally.

I voted for my future family, so that they can live in a place of which they can be proud.

I voted for the formerly incarcerated, the legal aliens, the undocumented immigrants, and the folks without a photo ID, and all others who fight disenfranchisement. I voted with the hope that soon the promise of our democracy will be open to all who live here.

I voted for my city, so that it can continue to blossom into a place that is, as someone recently said, not only too busy to hate, but brave enough to love.

I voted for my state, flawed as it may be, so that it can continue to grow and progress into a place that combines the charm and creativity and class and culture of the American South with the forward-thinking open-mindedness of the best that our country has to offer.

I voted for my country, because when you love something, you work hard to make it better.

I voted for all of this, and more. I voted because I can, and others cannot.

I voted because it’s my responsibility.

I voted today.

 

 

Redneck Beers

“We don’t serve redneck beers here,” she said in a Carolina accent. I took a look around the outside bar and saw ads for Miller, Coors Light, Bud. I looked back at the server, she was waiting for me to ask for something more refined than PBR. She must have mistaken the incredulous look on my face for one of confusion, because she repeated herself, slightly louder. Everything on the patio seemed to slow down, and then stop, except for the ceiling fans struggling to move the thick Columbia air.

It was 2012. The night before, a group of friends and I had driven to South Carolina from Atlanta, listening on the radio as the Braves lost to the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card game in what would later be known as the “Sam Holbrook game.” We were in Columbia to watch the Georgia Bulldogs take on the South Carolina Gamecocks, a matchup of two top-ten teams trying to take the next step to the top of the SEC. Georgia lost that day in depressing fashion, and we all cursed the oppressive heat and general meh-ness of Columbia, South Carolina and swore never to return. A promise I have kept over the last four years.

I used to get self-righteous and judge people for liking things I don’t like. I was the record store clerks in “High Fidelity,” and the beer snob, the sports-talk radio call-in guy, and the guy who didn’t listen to commercial radio – if you didn’t like the things I like you were either stupid or somehow financial invested or probably both, and I spent a lot of energy letting you know. Thank god I didn’t have Twitter then…

Look, if you like an album, or a book, or a football team, or a restaurant, or a beer, or a political candidate, or a church, or NOT going to church, that’s awesome – talk about why you like it with other people who like it, or people who don’t, or people who are just curious. Just recognize that your opinion is just that – it’s what YOU like. All of those things are a matter of personal taste, and taste can’t be right or wrong.

We should do more to evaluate intentions rather than opinions, and understand that most people on this planet are just trying to do what’s best for themselves and the people they love. What we think is the best album of the 1980s (it’s Graceland by Paul Simon, COME AT ME), or the greatest American novel, or whether PBR is a redneck beer, or the best way to secure our country against those who wish us harm… all of those are conversations we should have. They are healthy and they are what lead to growth. But when we let our tastes and opinions become dogma, we stunt and cripple that growth and pit us against ourselves. We can do better.

Guarded

It was jarring to walk into the Cathedral of St. Phillip and see officers from the Georgia Department of Corrections patrolling the aisles.

I hadn’t been in a church in a while, but I remembered what to expect – usually the most intimidating presence is the usher, whose subtle and quiet guidance to an empty pew is more of an invitation than a command. Seeing the sky blue shirts and navy pants that symbolize the Georgia law enforcement community here was at once disturbing and distressing, so out of place against the clean stone and marble of the center of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

The officers were there to escort Voices of Hope, the choir made up of inmates at Arrendale State Prison, a women’s prison located in Habersham County, GA. The choir had come to lend their voices to the Homeless Requiem, an annual service memorializing those members of Atlanta’s homeless population who lost their lives in the past year. It is a powerful and moving event, one that brings people together from across our diverse community to celebrate, mourn, and advocate for this often-ignored group of Atlantans.

I was there for the homeless community, but I can’t shake the images of the corrections officers. After reading so much recently about our criminal justice system, it was discomfiting to be in such close proximity to actual prison guards. All of them were white, as were the warden and assistant warden of the prison who were also in attendance, though the choir was in the neighborhood of 80% black. There were two women officers, one of whom seemed particularly interested in the women she was guarding. She stayed closest to them, and while they performed she sat in a pew, leaning forward and watching intently. She seemed to genuinely care about the women in her charge, and it was refreshing to watch.

One of the male officers reminded me of an Atlanta Police officer that spent a lot of time at my high school that we called “Officer Hardass.” He appeared to be in his thirties, and had either extremely short or no hair. His face wore a constant smirk, and he alternated between sitting at the front of the church staring at his phone and wandering around the sanctuary with the air of someone looking for a fight, a walk I know all too well from my time in bars in Athens. He made me wildly uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine what he did to the psyche of not only the inmates he was escorting, but also the guests at the service from the homeless community. Statistics vary, but researchers estimate that anywhere from a quarter to half of the homeless population in America has been incarcerated at some time. How difficult it must have been, then, to be reminded of that at a funeral service for a member of one’s community.

The average base salary for a corrections officer in Georgia is just over $28,000 a year. The job, I would imagine, attracts a variety of people. Prisons are often located in communities where a salaried position with benefits working for the state of Georgia is something to aspire to. In many places, the prison is the largest employer. It is an industry, one that turns the incarcerated into a product, and the officers charged with guarding them into the equivalent of an assembly line worker, offered little compensation for what can be dangerous work, because it is the only decent job in town. Like any other job, there are employees that work hard, take it seriously, get paid, and provide for their families. But there are also the ones who use their position to take out their frustrations and insecurities on those they are guarding. It is another product of a flawed and unjust system of punishment that is deeply in need of fixing.

I ended up leaving the service after passing the peace with my neighbors in the pews – I was troubled and needed to get out of there. Maybe next year I’ll be ready.

On Environmental Injustice

For a long time, our response to harmful or potentially harmful industrial activity has not been to question whether it should take place, but rather to move it to places where, we believe, the community is powerless to object. We see that now in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but consider also today’s Colonial Pipeline explosion in Monroe County, Alabama, 49th of 67 Alabama counties in per capita income. Consider the 2014 Duke Energy coal ash spill in Eden, NC, where the average per capita income is barely over $15K a year. Time after time, whether it is coal mine collapses in West Virginia, or contaminated water near fracking locations in Pennsylvania and New York, it is our low-income, marginalized communities that bear the full weight of our environmental carelessness.

Often these communities are told that these industrial projects will bring jobs and economic development, but the jobs are often temporary – once the pipeline or dump site or well is built, they take little to maintain, especially in the deregulatory environment advocated by laissez-faire capitalists. The tragedy then becomes that the father who built the fracking well loses his job and watches from home as it poisons his daughter with cancer. Or the mother who worked on the pipeline is killed when it explodes. Or the uncle in West Virginia who is injured in the mine spirals into addiction to the opioid painkiller prescribed to him because it was the only job he can get.

We are not only killing our earth with our environmental recklessness, we are killing our most vulnerable citizens, communities left increasingly voiceless by gerrymandering, barriers to voting, and false promises made by demagogues who leave them at the altar the day after election day. It is no accident that dangerous chemicals are routed through low-income, marginalized communities often with large populations of people of color – it is an intentional action, the result of the worst kind of NIMBYism.

As we continue (hopefully) to search for ways to be better environmental stewards, we absolutely MUST stop pushing the effects of our industry onto those least equipped to object.

Unconditional

When I was a kid and an X-Games poser Dave Mirra was my favorite athlete. Today he passed away, by an apparently self-inflicted gunshot.

Often when someone takes their own life or tries to, it seems that the most sympathetic reaction is to encourage those who struggle with depression to seek help.

It seems to me though, that this asks the victim to take on another burden, another responsibility. And for those to whom life has given much, the fear of seeming ungrateful can drive a person away from finding help on their own.

Depression does not discriminate. It does not know race, or gender, or sense of humor. It doesn’t care how much money you have, or how many medals you won. All I know to do is to fill the lives of people for whom I care with all the love I can, and hope that helps.

Not In My Name

I am writing this as my state prepares to execute yet another person in my name, a person that I never asked to be executed.

Kelly Gissendaner’s story has received attention in the last few days for a myriad of reasons. It will, barring a miracle, be the first time the State of Georgia has executed a woman since 1945. It will be the first time since capital punishment was reopened as a form of punishment in 1976 that Georgia has put a person who did not commit the accused act of violence to death. At time when forward-thinking states across the country are using more and more scrutiny when it comes to the death penalty, Ms. Gissendaner’s execution is another in a troubling string by the State of Georgia that seem like an acceleration, rather than a careful reexamination.

These historical benchmarks do not address the more personal nature of Kelly Gissendaner’s time spent on death row. Having expressed her responsibility for her crime, and her abject sorrow and remorse for what she did, Ms. Gissendaner made her imprisonment into what should be a celebrated example of redemption and rehabilitation. Through her own efforts, and those of the remarkable leaders of the prison theology program from which Ms. Gissendaner graduated a few years ago, she has become a light of hope, strength, and inspiration to other inmates, to the correctional officers charged with her supervision, and to people across Georgia and the United States who look for brief instances of success in a prison system that is rife with corruption, violence, greed, abuse, and general ineptitude.

What do we then accomplish by executing Kelly Gissendaner? We take away hope from people who are trying to change their lives. We show that the clemency process is nothing but a charade, a way for the State to say that the process ran its course. We make Ms. Gissendaner’s children, who have suffered and then watched their mother grow and become a new person, victims anew. We once again ignore the thousands of voices in this state who cry out during every execution “Not in my name!” And we prolong a system that claims to be built on rehabilitation, but increasingly in Georgia seems to instead be built on publicity, revenge, and a cheap claim at the falsehood of deterrence.

I am heartbroken and angry today, because of my state’s actions. But I am also heartened by the potential displayed by the citizens of Georgia who call out for Kelly Gissendaner to be shown mercy. I am heartened by the letters and calls made by the incredible array of religious leaders from all backgrounds who are holding up Ms. Gissendaner as an example of what can be good about what we do to help people. And I am heartened by Kelly Gissendaner herself, who has shown us all that despite our pasts, and in the face of death, we can all be redeemed and shine as a beacon of hope and strength.

Blueberry Chess Pie Recipe

I was really craving chess pie today, for some reason. Maybe it was because I was thinking about the amazing buttermilk pie that I had last year at The Yesterday Cafe in Greensboro, GA, but I didn’t have any buttermilk. (By the way, Greensboro is totally worth a visit. One of my favorite small Southern towns I’ve ever visited.) Whatever. Here’s what I made, it turned out great!

Ingredients:

1 1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter
1/8 tsp. salt
3 eggs
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tbsp. vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 c. blueberries (fresh or frozen)
1 unbaked pie shell (if you make your own pie crust, totally use it. I cheated.)

Cream sugar, butter and salt in a mixer until fluffy.

Blend in eggs, one at a time.

Add flour, cornstarch, vinegar and vanilla. Beat until smooth.

Stir in blueberries.

Pour in pie shell, bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, then 300 degrees for 35-45 minutes until pie sets up in the middle.

A Braves Fan’s Guide to Seeing Your Favorite Player at Turner Field in 2015

Hi Braves fan. Your favorite player just got traded.

While not absolute, the above statement is probably true. Many of you are sad, or angry, or have given up hope. But fear not! I have made it easy to see your favorite player play this season in Turner Field. Below are the names of former Braves and when they will appear in Atlanta. Don’t get your tickets now; wait until they invariably drop to $3 on StubHub.

David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve (Yankees): 8/28-8/30

Justin Upton (Padres): 6/8-6/11

Anthony Varvaro (Red Sox): 6/17-6/18

Tommy LaStella (Cubs): 7/17-7/19

Jason Heyward (Cardinals): 10/2-10/4

Evan Gattis: Not appearing in Atlanta in 2015. Unless the Braves play the Astros in the World SeriHAHAHAHAHAHA

An Ode to Winter

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This is a story about how a fat, lazy black lab who wouldn’t hunt taught me to be an adult.

In Georgia, there are few things more highly regarded than a bird dog. Waynesboro, Georgia, is the “Bird Dog Capital of the World”. The love and care given to a good hunting dog can exceed that given to less-favored members of one’s own family. But in this case, the dog in question hides from loud noises, sees retrieving as little more than a game of keep away, and will stay for about four seconds if I try to walk away from him. He also may have saved my life.

As a 21 year old living in Athens GA, it was generally my goal to leave parties responsible for little more than getting home safely, a relatively simple task that I managed to fail at with a frequency that will probably alarm my mother when she reads this. The idea that I would go to a party and threaten my efforts to avoid all responsibility by doing something as reckless as adopting a dog seemed, well, crazy. But when I walked into a house on a cold night just before Christmas in 2007, into a room full of people in awful sweaters listening to bad hip hop, there was a perfectly calm lab curled up on the couch, looking frankly, terrified. I fell in love immediately.

Winter (I didn’t name him; my girlfriend at the time did. I was trying, as all good Georgia boys in their early 20s do, to decide whether to name him after a UGA football player or a brand of beer) came into my life through the efforts of great friends and some leftover macaroni and cheese.

For much of my life, I have spent my summers at Camp Mikell, the Episcopal Church camp for the Diocese of Atlanta. As a camper, counselor, summer staffer, and later as a dean, I have made most of my closest friends in woods of northeast Georgia. While many people say goodbye to their camp friends at the end of the summer, that was never the case for us. For most of the year, we looked forward to annual get-togethers; crawfish boils, a party known as “Big Canoe”, and an annual Christmas party. Traditionally, the Christmas party was held the night after the new staff members were interviewed; it was a time when many of the current summer staff were back home from college.

As several of the staff members were getting ready to leave camp in the winter twilight near Toccoa, GA, the still of the woods near the parking lot was broken by a commotion coming from the bushes. Knowing that camp had had a boar problem around that time, it was not a harmless sound. But from the underbrush came bounding not a boar but a black dog, underfed but still massive, excited and happy to see people. To this day Winter still approaches visitors in this overly joyous and slightly intimidating way, a manner that few would expect if they knew the attachment he has developed with a certain couch in my living room.

He was smelly but in good spirits when he was found, and wearing the orange collar known world over to hunters. But he lacked tags, was malnourished, and was somewhat skittish despite his joy at being found. I later came to find out that Winter hates loud noises; thunderstorms, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are traumatic times for my otherwise unshakable companion. All signs point to a gun dog who wouldn’t hunt, was abused and then abandoned. No one answered the postings around Toccoa about a missing black lab.

My friends cleaned him up in the camp showers (sorry if you’re reading this Mikell staff!) They broke into (er, visited) the dining hall and made him a plate of leftovers; green beans, macaroni and cheese, and chicken tenders. To this day, Winter will sit on your feet and stare at you intently if you’re eating mac and cheese. And then they started the trek from Toccoa to Athens for the party that night.

When I saw him I knew he was the one. I had been thinking about getting a dog for several months, but hadn’t pulled the trigger. His eyes followed me as I walked around the room, hugging friends and grabbing a drink. He watched as we danced and sang. And when I sat on the couch where he was curled up, he put his head in my lap, and in all the chaos we just sat. I never had a chance.

My early years in Athens were a time when I drifted from house to house, managing to hold down a horrible job in a parking deck while I enjoyed all the perks of being a UGA student (the nightlife, the music, the girls) without the inconvenience of actually having to go to class. I read a lot, hiked, watched the same movies 1,000 times since we couldn’t afford cable, and generally acted like someone without a care in the world.

I didn’t grow up with a dog in the house; we had pets without fur, so instead I had fish, my sister had a leopard gecko, and for a brief period of time I was the proud owner of an iguana named Jack who is now buried in my parents’ back yard in Atlanta. I had no idea what it took to own a dog, no clue what they needed or what was involved. I never had to leave the bar early, or go home on my lunch break, or decide I couldn’t go camping for a weekend because there was nobody to watch him before.

Winter changed everything. During those years in my mid 20s other things changed, but there was always Winter, waiting patiently. Soon I was paying for things like dog food before beer, making sure I got home safely so he could go outside, and making sure he saw the vet on a regular basis.

One night, early on in my time with Winter, I was at home with and let him out to go pee. I knew I should have put him on a leash, but I had had a few bourbons and forgot. He was young, and hadn’t gotten fixed. He caught a scent and took off. I wandered around my neighborhood hollering his name, probably waking up the students that lived on my street. Finally I broke down and called my friend up the street, one of the folks who had found my wandering friend in the first place, and told her that Winter had taken off, and that I couldn’t drive to go look for him. I stayed at the house, morosely shaking a box of milk bones hoping he could hear them. After what seemed like an eternity Whitney called and said she had found him, alive thank god, wandering down MLK a quarter mile away. Through the haze of terror and relief and liquor I came to the conclusion that things would have to change if I were going to take care of this dog.

It takes different people different things to learn how to be an adult. For some folks it’s tragedy, or family, or a job. Often times, we don’t recognize the things that help us grow in the moment; we have to wait to see the progress we’ve made and what the catalyst was, after the fact. There have been several times in my life that I can point to as highs and lows, in much the same way that you can stand on the beach and point to where high and low tides rest. But it is harder to see what the impetus behind positive movement is. As silly and small as it may seem, for me it was a black lab that ran out of the cold December woods in north Georgia.

Through all of our adventures, my growth as a person and Winter’s growth (outward, mainly, he’s a bit of a chubster in his old age), he has been a patient companion, dealing with my efforts to get to be a better dog owner and a better person. He is there when I get home, and understanding when I don’t get up quite as early as he had liked. They say they a dog takes after their owner, adopts their mannerisms and attitudes, but in this case I feel like Winter has taught me more than I could ever teach him. He has taught me to grow up, to be responsible, and that a good friend will always be there. As long as you remember to feed him.