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January 2020
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Staff Editorials

Why do we grieve when a cultural icon dies?

By Christie Pool

Staff writer

Kobe Bryant, a former NBA superstar for the Los Angeles Lakers, and his 13-year-old daughter died Sunday morning in a helicopter crash along with seven other people. When news broke of the tragedy, hundreds of thousands of people grieved across America and the world.

Of the mourners, most had never met Bryant but had followed his 20-year basketball career. Many others didn’t follow him or even watch basketball yet still found themselves glued to the television as the story unfolded. Social media became a hotbed of grief. Twitter, Instagram, websites and news shows began playing clip after clip of Kobe during his last NBA game, scoring an unbelievable 60 points, or Kobe accepting his Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 called Dear Basketball.

Most of the people posting to social media or showing up at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with flowers or candles had never met him. 

Of course, we didn’t know Prince when he died in 2016 or Princess Diana when she died in 1997, yet the reactions to their deaths were similar - spontaneous, emotional, gut-wrenching. But why do we mourn people we’ve never met? What fuels us to grieve when a cultural figure dies? Perhaps it’s simply because we feel connected to them for their artistry - their greatness in the studio or on a playing field or in a movie. And it’s a collective feeling as a society, it’s knowing that others share our same feelings.

It’s not that Kobe died, it’s that an icon died. He, like other celebrities who died young, help us relate to our understanding of ourselves as a culture. 

People cried when JFK, Jr. died, when John Lennon died, when Whitney Houston died. We may not have known them personally, but they were like friends - people we connected with when we watched them on the court or listened to their music or saw their movie. 

The feelings of sadness everyone has expressed as a community heightens our sense of empathy and understanding for those who are suffering - for instance, Kobe’s wife, Vanessa who lost not only a husband but her second child as well. 

Perhaps most importantly, collective mourning connects us to a larger community.

Beyond his life, the fact that Kobe’s young daughter died in the crash certainly caused every parent instant heartache for what her mother was going through. Later news that a family of three died and a mother of three small children also died in the crash was similarly gut-wrenching.

Some people, rightly so, pointed out on Monday when two people died in a U.S. Air Force aircraft in Kabul, Afghanistan or when three U.S. veterans were killed in a tanker crash while battling Australian bushfires, there was no mass outpouring of grief. While utterly tragic and devastating to their families and loved ones, these losses don’t shake  our culture the way a celebrity’s death does. Rightly or mostly wrongly from seeing their images all of our lives, we feel connected to celebrity. It seems personal, even though we have much more in common with the everyday heroes. Let’s face it, modern culture very much revolves around hero worship.

Furthermore, celebrity deaths, especially untimely ones, teach us that everyone will die someday, and neither fame nor wealth nor talent shields us from that. And perhaps that recognition will help us to pursue healthy, mindful lives and appreciate what we have before it’s gone. 

From this tragedy, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres perhaps said things best as she thanked her audience for being in attendance Monday: “Thank you for being here. I appreciate it today more than ever (following the news of the helicopter crash). More than I did yesterday. And tomorrow I will appreciate it more than today. Because life is short. Life is short and it’s fragile. And we don’t know how many birthdays we will have. Just celebrate life. And if you haven’t told someone you love them then do it now.”

Looking at movies

Most weeks we are pretty serious in this space and try to stay local with subject matter. But it seems with the turmoil slackening at the school’s central office involving the change in superintendent and Jasper City Hall getting used to new faces, things are a little slow around town.

So, if our readers would indulge us, we’d like to offer a few thoughts on the Academy Awards coming February 9th.

1917 – This World War I film is considered the top contender for Best Picture. Some members of our staff have seen it and it’s a cool picture to see on the big screen, kind of like Saving Private Ryan but for the earlier war. Echoing other critics, one thing missing is the history behind the story. There are soldiers in trenches who are obviously British judging by the accents. But the movie offers nothing about why they are fighting, who they are fighting and how the battle figured into the larger effort.

The movie-makers went to elaborate and successful lengths to show the horrors of trench warfare – you just wish it delivered a little context.

Similarly, we had historical qualms about Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. This Quentin Tarantino movie, like all Tarantino movies, is too long. Without giving away a plot twist, those of our staff who have seen the movie, left a little concerned about alternate history involving the Manson family murders that the climax of the film centers on. Younger fans of Tarantino, unless they do some research before or after, may be left with a drastically inaccurate account of the Manson family killing spree of 1969. Even in fiction, you need some kind of warning or disclaimer that you are doing a 180-degree rewrite of history.

The Irishman, another Best Picture nominee, also takes a genuine historical figure and makes another ludicrously long movie drawn from real events. Including the disappearance of teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa into the script, Martin Scorsese does a better job of indicating this film is from one person’s account but there are many different theories on Hoffa’s disappearance and officially it’s unsolved. 

Interestingly, like the fellow Oscar contender, Marriage Story, you didn’t have to go to a theater to see The Irishman, as it moved straight to Netflix streaming and you didn’t even have to wait on a DVD to arrive. This is really convenient and saves a bundle not shelling out big bucks for soft drinks and popcorn. But, it’s still fun to see things on the big screen.

One of the more interesting movies to ponder and to watch this year was Joker. It certainly doesn’t have to worry about accuracy to history, though hardcore Batman fans may find points to quibble over.

Where this movie created controversy is with the relatively sympathetic portrayal of an anti-hero who goes on a shooting/violence spree. There were concerns that this movie might be seen as condoning or even inspiring violence and those concerns aren’t off base.

Joker explores the backstory, showing how childhood abuse and mental illness turned the want-to-be standup comedian into a psychotic killer. The film didn’t glorify his actions, but it did present excuses. In a typical Marvel blockbuster, the bad guys are simply bad (and so are many of the movies). Here, with DC’s lead villain, he is bad, but the film dwells on why he got that way and it makes for a much more complex movie – who are we supposed to cheer for?

These movies and the other selections (and especially some not selected) make news, and, the discussion is not generally on film-theory or acting styles. Movies are where social/political commentary blends into mass culture, at least more so than other art forms – when was the last time someone got riled up over a painting?

Let us hear your thoughts on these movies with a letter to the editor. And most likely something will come up locally deserving comment soon.

Why instant gratification takes too long?

By Christie Pool

Staff writer

A few weeks ago, a local character walked into our office to say hello and "sit and talk a spell." It was a busy Tuesday (deadline day) and our afternoon crunch time. Things had to get done, and by a very specific time in order to get the paper to the printer. It couldn't have been a worse time - or so I thought. 

During a 20-minute visit several members of our staff were treated to some rather interesting stories. One was from many decades ago about a couple of  local boys about the age of 12 or 13 spending their last quarters on a train ride from Jasper. They found their way down to Florida with no prospects of how to get back. They started walking and it just so happened Eugene Talmadge - or was it Herman - passed by and gave them a lift as far as Atlanta. From there they could make their way on back up to Jasper. Imagine these boys all alone, without telling their mamas where they were going or when they would be back. And then consider that mothers got by just fine before the invention of Life360, which lets parents know instantly the location of their child or, at least, their child’s cell phone.

After this and some other stories, I realized my day, even my life, had been enriched by having heard about this big adventure from days gone by. Why? Just because. 

I thought stopping for a few minutes in the middle of a very hectic day would throw everything off balance. But it didn’t. 

“Slow Movement” is now a recognized antidote to the modern frantic life.  It promotes exactly what you would think - slowing down to enjoy more of life. We are a world obsessed with speed, wanting everything faster, and all the time. We perpetually want to cram more and more into less and less time. Even the great Princess Leia (aka Carrie Fischer) said, "These days, even instant gratification takes too long."

In all our daily running around - from work, to errands, to cooking dinner (who are we kidding - to picking up fast food), to soccer practice, to meet up with friends - we lose sight of the damage that this type of living does, both physically and mentally. It takes a major toll on our health, our diet, our work, our relationships. For many of us, it takes a catastrophic event like a health scare to give us a wake-up call. As Slow Movement proponent and speaker Carl Honore says, "We are living the fast life, not the good life."

The Slow Movement advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life's pace, according to Wikipedia. It actually began with Carlo Petrini's protest against the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in Rome in 1986. This sparked the slow food movement, but over time has developed into a subculture that applies to a variety of activities and aspects of culture. If we slow down, we may just find that everything goes better. We eat better if we take time to sit and enjoy a meal; we exercise better and it brings our bodies and minds more benefit if we aren't trying to rush through it to get that shower and meet all our daily errands and deadlines. We even work better and more efficiently when we take our time and make sure things are done correctly the first time around, as in that old adage about a stitch in time saving nine.

In all things, we just live better when we slow down. Slowing down can be the difference between success and failure, between thriving and burning out. What's the point of hustling if you're going in the wrong direction in your life? 

Slow is about being present, in the moment and it's about doing everything not as fast as possible, but as well as possible.

Inspired by philosophy of the Thrift Store founder

By Dan Pool

Editor

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A little over 20 years ago, I met with a group that would form the Community Thrift Store and I gave my honest assessment – it’ll never work, at least not for long.

I wasn’t merely speculating. The town had just gone through cleaning up and cleaning out a combination of thrift store and homeless shelter in the old Roper Hospital. It was a mess, junk all over the street around it.

A plan where people handle others’ unwanted household goods and clothing for no pay in an efficient, long-term arrangement seemed unlikely.

Two decades later and $6 million in donations to other groups, proves me wrong in a dramatic fashion. What I underestimated was Don Russell’s gumption. That man, The Don of Non Profits, wasn’t about to let his Thrift Store not succeed. And he was ably joined by the tireless Stan Barnett, who  sadly passed away this week.

Russell, a former military serviceman and then a civilian who handled military programs until his retirement, is a firm believer and teacher in self-betterment classes.

So when asked why he thought his Thrift Store would succeed, he doesn’t miss a beat, “If you believe in yourself, get excited about your work and pray, God will do it.”

He makes it sound simple, starting a business with 100 volunteers and one cash register that goes on to generate $9 million in revenue over two decades. Not only does the Thrift Store cover its costs, the local Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Club, Good Samaritan, Cares, Joy House and transitional housing facility can all trace some of their seed money or expansion money back to the Thrift Store and their sales of used couches, clothes and books.

Russell was asked to start the Thrift Store by the former head of Family Connections  whose program needed more money. Goodwill and the Salvation Army both declined to get involved here.

Instead of giving up, Russell travelled  to similar stores, asking “what mistakes did you make that I can avoid?”

Using entrepreneurial/problem solving skills, Russell, with a small committee, put a plan together then moved on to the next stage - getting excited about whatever you are doing. This excitement brought a pool of volunteers with key skills and plenty of start-up money. Russell makes it plain  enthusiasm is both contagious and necessary to get anything off the ground. 

Once opened, the Thrift Store operates “by process” and “with a business strategy that God is in charge,” Russell said. “We don’t have managers. We run by volunteers.” Key to this is the social interaction/ feeling of purpose inculcated among those who come every week to handle old clothing and sort through the bags looking for sellable items versus trash. 

A key place the Thrift Store differs from a regular store in philosophy is their ultimate judging criteria isn’t how much money this will make but how much good it will do. For example, Russell doesn’t see the $7,000 they spend on waste disposal some months as loss but rather as a gain for the community.

This philosophy has largely worked but not without a few glitches, including a recent mammoth pile of mattresses that had to be removed by the county.

Ever optimistic, Russell points out that even that outcome is better than those mattresses ending up on roadsides.

Giving away free clothes or furnishings to those who can’t afford to pay isn’t a loss for the Thrift Store, but another  gain to the community.

For two decades Don Russell and his can-do attitude (part military program administrator and part self-betterment instructor) has made the Thrift Store a bedrock of this community.

For all this we salute the work.

 

What will success look like with new economic developer?

Unless something unexpected occurs, Pickens County and the city of Jasper will welcome Green B. Suttles III in mid-January to head joint economic development efforts between the city and county.

Suttles, whose name sounds like something straight out of a Disney movie, will officially become the president and CEO of The Development Authority of Pickens County.

The development authority under both city and county have worked to develop a new approach, in terms of how the office is structured, and who-answers-to-who approach. The glaring weaknesses in our old approach was clearly seen in the debacle of the outgoing economic developer when it became unclear who could relieve him of duty.

Now they are back with a “proven model” of economic development used across the nation, which, in itself, is a big step in the right direction.

We are encouraged that the county/city have created a clear path to succeed and a chain of command and better oversight tools, and have brought in someone with experience. The next steps will not be easy. Mr. Suttles will begin work in an office that has been empty for almost two years, and hasn’t brought home any bacon in many years.

To use a sports metaphor this would be like bringing in a new coach and then telling him to go find players and develop his own facilities. Mr. Suttles comes with plenty of experience from work in and around Mobile, AL but one has to wonder what peach state connections he can draw from?

Before we get too excited to see what revived economic development will do, there is one simple question the community members need to answer or be given an opportunity to chime in on: What do we want?

What kind of economic development prospects should our new rainmaker target? What are realistic projects/goals to go after? And what would success look like?

It’s hard to gauge what the community is seeking. In covering numerous forums over the past few years, there is never a clear consensus on how the community  views growth. 

There are always calls for more businesses here - people who point out that a broader commercial tax base would open the door for more government services and lower taxes.

And there are a good number of people who say that the best thing we can do is maintain the small town feel and rural lifestyle.

It’s hard to see how you could have both, feasibly. Ideally, it would be nice to see better jobs in more diverse industries that would appeal to younger people and allow more of our recent graduates to find work here.

But this smacks up against the fact that there is already such a low employment rate that local business leaders routinely cite finding a qualified work force as a chief hurdle.

And this goes back one step further to lack of affordable housing, preventing people from moving here.

With the status quo, we’ve seen a VA clinic, large assisted living/commercial area and new businesses in downtown all arrive with the economic developer post vacant.

When you look at what’s coming already (“inbound” as sales people call it) and the lack of unemployment, we are clearly not desperate. We’re not an area where just any new jobs would be welcome. No one will applaud minimum wage positions with  disruptive, noisy or polluting industries.

But there is the reality that we are in a cycle limited residential growth with people itching for more commercial opportunities and young people migrating out of Pickens County. A middle ground might look like this - not necessarily more but better. What can we do to strengthen what is already here – bring in some low-impact new businesses that will hire people at higher wages, but do not demand throngs of new workers.

Trying to walk the tightrope of better but not much bigger won’t be easy. And it starts with open conversations with the community as a whole.