Four walls and a roof

I hate moving.

Moving is one of my least favorite activities because when you’re married to Carla, moving means painting. I hate painting.

Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.

Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.

When we first got married we lived in an apartment with vaulted ceilings. Because of her need for color and beauty, she insisted we paint the rooms, forfeiting our security deposit and spending hours painting huge walls. Thus the pattern was established for our marriage.

A year later when we bought our first home, she walked in and pronounced with enthusiasm “This is perfect! We can move in right now!” Little did I know that by “perfect” she meant that I would take a week of vacation to paint every room in the house.

By the time we moved into our current home in Lilburn 11 years ago, I was on to her little scheme. Plus, we were moving for my job, and I was traveling more. Carla did most of the painting herself, so my complaining was really more of just rehashing old inconveniences rather than a current set of circumstances.

This time, though, is not just about the anticipated lower back pain, stirring up dust and pollen to provoke allergies and taking time off work to become physically exhausted for a week straight. This time, there is an emotional pain that underlies the entire process.

As much as I like to put on a façade of stoicism about changing houses, I really have grown attached to our house. We brought our oldest to this house when he was just 2, and we added two more sons here. It’s the only house they have really known.

At some point before we purchased our current house, the previous owners converted the garage into a large room that we use as our playroom. We live in this room more than any other room in the house. I will miss this room and the laughter and tears and conversations it has held. Carla’s colorful paint scheme and cheery window treatments have turned the room into a space for imagination and bonding. Along with the fingerprints, thousands of pushpin holes and furniture marks, there is a coating of love on these walls that can only come from 11 years of being a family together in it.

I wrote a novel in this house – at this very desk I’m writing this blog now. Yes, I know, I need to finish the re-write, but the spot I tuned into the mental channel to get the essential story that became my book happened right here in this house.

Carla and I figured out how to be married in this house. We had been husband and wife only six years when we moved, and we were still sorting out the issues that beset young married couples. Our relationship has only grown stronger and sweeter in our time together in this house.

We have celebrated 10 Christmases in this house, lovingly decorating inside and out each year. All our decorations have a place, and the boys know those traditions. I will miss sitting in my living room with a cup of decaf talking with Carla in the twinkling glow of the lit Christmas tree on cold December nights as we make our lists and travel plans. And of course, I will miss the Christmas mornings in that living room, strategically tucked around the corner from the stairs where for years we’ve forced the boys to pause for photos while Nanny and Poppy get in position to enjoy the scene.

I will miss the dining room or breakfast room, which we used to call it back before we converted the dining room into a guest room, because of all the conversations and laughter we’ve had in that room. I will not miss the tortured cries at having to eat vegetables, but something tells me that will be coming with us to our new eating space.

For the past six years, we have welcomed the young adults of Parkway Baptist Church into our home once a month for Second Sunday. That is truly an incredible time in which we get to extend hospitality to friends who share good food, life’s journey and the presence of Christ. Our cozy living room has been a suitable context for much meaningful dialogue on what really matters.

Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.

Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.

Perhaps more than the inside, I will fondly remember the hours I have spent taming the lawn: mowing, trimming, blowing, pruning, raking, digging and spreading. Yard work is therapeutic, and I’ve left a lot of stress and anxiety out in that yard.

We’re moving less than a mile away. We’re not leaving friendships behind because we will be able to visit and see our friends and neighbors as much as we like. We’re not changing school districts, so the boys will not have to navigate that transition. We’re not painting anything… yet … and this house we’re moving into is a lovingly maintained, beloved home sold by a family who is facing similar sentiments of loss and grief as they leave the place they built and raised a daughter in.

I hate moving, but if I have to move, I’m glad it’s this house and it’s at this time in our lives. We will make new memories there. We will bond even more tightly as a family, especially as Mama gets to spend more time with us in our daily routines. And I’m sure at some point there will be painting.

It’s amazing how attached you can get to a place in 11 years and how much stuff you can accumulate. I’m just glad you don’t have to pack memories. We would need a bigger truck.

Have you ever left behind a house that you loved? Do you like moving and move frequently? Share your favorite home memories in a comment below. It will do us all some good to share our homesickness.

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Thoughts on Lanny

On Nov. 1, 2013, my father-in-law, Lanny Barron, was in an automobile accident on his way to his house in Sandersville from his family’s farm outside of town. He died on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Today’s essay is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at Lanny’s funeral. He and Cynthia would have been married 49 years on March 28. He would have turned 72 on April 2. To help remember him during this significant week, Carla asked that I post this eulogy. I hope you get a glimpse of what made him special.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny Carl Barron lived his life between the farm and town.

He spent his formative years on the family farm on the Sparta-Davisboro Road a few miles outside of town in what is known as the Downs Community. There he learned the ways of planting, harvesting, hunting, preparing food and generally occupying himself with practical pursuits ultimately meant to provide sustenance for his family.

His family moved into town as his father worked in law enforcement. He developed a love of sports and cars and other pursuits hot-blooded males of his generation appreciated. But he was never far from the farm and the woods.

In high school he met and fell in love with Cynthia Goodman. Though she went off to Georgia Southern and he to the U.S. Navy, his intense love only grew in their separation. Not one to put on much of a show or engage in what he referred to as “that kissy, kissy mess,” Lanny was smitten in a way that affected him to his core. And when Cynthia turned down his original proposal of marriage, the iron will and determination – some might call it stubbornness – that those who knew him well recognized as a central part of his character helped him woo her past the point of refusal.

They were married, and he spent his shifts, both days and nights, operating heavy equipment in the kaolin mines of Washington County, an honorable occupation many of you know well. As Cynthia went into the classroom to put her training and gifts of teaching and nurturing to use with the children of Tennille, Lanny had all he wanted out of life. Except for a child.

It was nearly a decade before Carla was born, and though he was, perhaps, better suited to teach a boy the importance of the land, honest character, the intricacies of the forward pass and the sacrifice bunt, Lanny was challenged to develop his more tender side as he learned to love and show affection to a daughter.

This wasn’t always easy for him, and for a time he struggled with his role as husband and father. But in her patience, love, and resolve, Cynthia helped him decide what was worth giving his life to and what was not. Lanny made up his mind that the woman who had been worth pursuing in his youth and the daughter they had so desperately wanted were worth spending time with, and once again through his will and determination he made the kind of life change that many are never able to accomplish.

Still, Lanny was not much of a churchman for many years. He could clearly recall his days as a young boy at the church at Downs, but his distaste for pretense and his ability to sniff out hypocrisy kept him from darkening the church door, though Cynthia and Carla were at church every time those doors were open.

In his 50s after suffering a heart attack, Lanny recommitted himself to the faith of his childhood. As he described it to me one day while driving from town out to the farm, he realized it was the church folk who visited him in the hospital and looked after Cynthia and Carla while he recovered. After that, Lanny was in church the first Sunday he was able, and he became a faithful member and servant. He was eventually named a deacon, a title to which he had not aspired in his earlier days. It was yet another example of him making up his mind and making a 180-degree turn, never to look back.

His lifestyle changes included a new commitment to physical fitness. He walked all over Washington County, mostly in the backwoods of his family’s land. By the time I met Lanny in 1996, he had shifted to riding a bike, and he could often be seen out on the Fall Line pedaling along with his little Pekingnese named Bossy, in the front basket.  He was a man who was nearly always in the company of a dog, and among those who grieve his passing now the most is his little buddy and constant companion, Jack.

Among the first occasions I had to spend an extended amount of time with Lanny was at Carla’s graduation from Mercer. His pride in the accomplishments of his daughter helped him overcome his distaste of pomp and circumstance. He put on a tie and made the drive over to Macon and along with about 10,000 other folks, he applauded his daughter achieving her college degree.

And when I went from being the boyfriend to the son-in-law, he put on a tuxedo to escort his beautiful Carla down the aisle.

For the past 16 years, the Lanny I have known has been a fan of the Golden Hawks, Bulldogs and Braves; quick with a joke (not many of which I would dare retell in this solemn gathering) and full of wisdom from his uncomplicated but principled upbringing. His mischievous smile was never brighter than when he picked at those he had fondness for, including Cynthia, his co-workers, church friends and, of course, his sister-in-law, Linda Goodman, who has always been able to give it back as good as she got it.

And at least a hand full of times I have been with him as he rode out to the farm to the Red House to find his nephew, Johnny, sitting on the back porch in the autumn, mid-morning sun. Better than any program on the Outdoor Channel, he loved to hear Johnny tell of the morning’s hunt. Lanny listened as Johnny with characteristic exaggeration and good humor described how the big one got away or humbly submit how his superior hunting skills led him to take a prized buck.

In those years Lanny and Cynthia together were wonderful caregivers to his mother, Ruth, who lived with them. He looked after his mother as dutifully and as conscientiously as I hope our boys will look after theirs. He was a model son, and an inspiration to Carla who has tried to be with him and her mama through every step of this journey.

I have seen firsthand his love for Cynthia in her recent years of illness. He was attentive to her every need and relished proving to her that he could cook, clean up and even do laundry.

In my experience with Lanny, he has been at his very best as a grandfather, or as my boys have known him, Poppy. Never too fond of hospital rooms, three times he made his way to be with us after the birth of our boys and every time, he held a new grandson, he would beam and pronounce them “handsome young men, just like their grandfather.”

He loved grilling for them and preparing their favorite foods. He absolutely loved seeing them devour a bowl of ice cream, even before their infant digestive tracks could handle it. He always asked them how they were doing in school and if they were chasing the little girls. He loved taking them out to the farm, letting them drive his camouflaged golf cart and feed and chase the goats.

He came to their performances at school and at church, and even adopted the new tradition of waiting out Santa’s arrival at our house in Lilburn. No visit with Poppy ever concluded without him reaching into his wallet and giving each of them a $20 bill. He pulled them close, hugged them, said “Love you, Buddy. Make your mama and daddy buy you some ice cream.”

I asked my boys what I should say today to let you know how much he meant to them. Carlton, in all the eloquence his five years could muster, said: “Poppy was really nice, and I loved his hamburgers and hotdogs.”

Harris, who three weeks ago sat down in his Poppy’s hospital room in Augusta and refused to leave until Poppy got better, said: “He taught me to drive a golf cart, and I could never beat him at checkers.”

Barron, his first-born grandson and the benefactor of his generous excesses of grandfatherly affection, said: “Poppy always wanted to hear me play my trumpet and my guitar, and I had fun last summer working with him on his old car.”

And if given the chance to stand here and offer words of your memories, you would no doubt mention many more traits that made Lanny Carl Barron the unique individual that he was. In the last three days I have heard stories from you that were familiar and part of the lore that was his life story. I have heard new stories that I had never known but were completely consistent with the man I have come to love and admire.

Let this not be the last days those stories escape your lips. Lanny lives on in each telling. Cynthia is comforted by the sound of his name and the knowledge that you miss him right along with her. Carla needs to be reminded often of the kind of person her daddy was, so she can know where she came from and what’s important in life. And these grandsons need to know their Poppy in fuller and richer ways than the perspective of their youth can afford them now.

If you have loved Lanny in life, I ask you to speak these stories with joy and laughter and with frequency. Lanny always enjoyed a laugh and a good story, grounded in timeless truths, even those tales that pointed out his own foibles. He will enjoy hearing you tell them from his new vantage point.

Perhaps no one has more stories than you, James. You are above all others, a man held in high esteem by Lanny. You have gone farther than the formal relationship of brother-in-law would obligate a man. You have been the sidekick in many of Lanny’s misadventures, always the voice of caution, always offering a word of reason, but all too often dismissed to Lanny’s detriment. Still, you went with him to the farm each morning to tend the goats. And you went with him to auctions and sales and wide-ranging quests for tractor parts or purchases of hay. Too many times you had to be the one to call 911 or worse, your sister, when things went badly. Lanny probably pushed you too far outside of your comfort zone too many times, but in his boldness and disregard for safety, he was comforted by your presence. There is no telling how many disasters you helped avert, how many inconveniences you prevented from becoming full-blown fiascoes. Lanny was fortunate to have you as a brother, and he knew it.

There are others of you here who were important to him whom I have not mentioned: Martha and Ann, Edna and Steve, Jason, Emily, Amy and all the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lanny’s older brother, John, but I know for a fact how much he looked up to him, and how important John’s family was to him. He treasured visits with Lois, Sherri, Johnny and Jonathan because they helped him feel connected to his roots, especially in the days after his daddy and mama had passed.

Lanny, today we lay your body to rest, knowing that you are not in this casket. Our faith leads us to anticipate a glorious reunion someday, and we are comforted by the idea that you sit with your mother and father, your brothers and your friends who have gone before you.

We have made a little bit of a fuss over you. I hope it’s OK and you don’t mind. You’ll have to forgive us, because you are worth it.

Somewhere between the farm and town, we lost you. May we never forget all that you have taught us from traveling that road back and forth. We are all better for knowing you.

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Mercer pride

Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people's Facebook profile across my network.

Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people’s Facebook profile across my network.

I had just wrapped up a conference call and had about 15 minutes until I needed to leave my office for my next meeting on the other side of the Georgia Tech campus.

A quick check of the Mercer-Duke score revealed Duke had pulled ahead. No need to get excited. The Number 3 seed was doing what Number 3 seeds do in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I spent some time working on a PowerPoint presentation and managed a few more productive edits before I clicked back over to see the score. With just a couple of minutes left, Mercer, the overwhelming underdog, had pulled ahead.

“This might get interesting,” I thought.

So like a lot of other Mercer fans – an almost nonexistent term until yesterday – I indulged and gave up a few minutes of my day to see an improbable upset, leaving my office only when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

I wasn’t much good in my meeting. I kept checking Twitter and Facebook to see my myriad social media connections to Mercer light up with jubilation. The unbelievable had happened.

That’s when I felt it, a moment I had never felt as a holder of a master’s degree from Mercer: school pride. Did I mention I used to work there, too? No? Well, I did, and now that Mercer has defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament, you can bet I’ll be mentioning it a lot more in the future.

“Yeah, I used to work there… you know, Mercer? Yeah, that’s right, the school that beat Duke.”

The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.

The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.

In the South, you must have your teams. I know this is more of a football phenomenon in the Deep South, but when you look to the Appalachian or coastal regions, basketball is king.

Having pride in your school’s athletic accomplishments is not just a Southern thing, but in the New South, it definitely gives you markers with which you can identify yourself on social media. You are either a Dawg or a Jacket, an exclaimer of “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” a fan of Florida or Florida State and so on. This is a socially acceptable and even socially expected way to identify yourself.

And up until yesterday, the shorthand “Mercer fan” had not existed. Yes, I have plenty of friends who work at Mercer and some whose children go there, and a lot of people in my personal network, including my wife, went there, but even those with close connections to the school weren’t really rabid with Mercer basketball pride.

Even my wife, who has not one once of athletic interest, managed to come up with a Facebook post that entered the realm of euphoric fanaticism… for her:

“Be the Bear, Mercer Proud, and all that jazz!”

Lame, I know, but that’s the point: Mercer has a bunch of graduates and “fans” like this who are ill-prepared to celebrate a success of this magnitude. Even I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of Mercer pride at first, but now that I know what this is, it’s growing on me.

For all the academic purists out there, this is where you have to admit that athletics plays an important role in higher education. For every alumnus who goes on to invent something great or achieve a lofty position or have a national nightly cable show, not even Nancy Grace can give a school the kind of profile that a bracket-busting victory in the NCAA tournament can.

This is why schools have athletic programs. This is ultimately why Mercer reinstated its football program this year after a 72 year hiatus. Sports get people excited. High-profile victories against national powerhouse programs put you on their level, at least for a day. Alumni feel pride. The general public talks about your school. High school kids suddenly think they may want to go there. Donors are inspired to write big checks.

We’ll see what happens Sunday when Mercer takes on Tennessee, but for now, there’s plenty to celebrate for “Mercer Nation” … another term that has never before been used in the English language until yesterday.

I, for one, will break out my “Be the Bear” T-shirt and wear it with pride.

OK, Mercer fans, it’s your shining moment. Share what you were doing when Mercer beat Duke. Were you at the game in Raleigh? Were you at work sneaking a peak at the ESPN gamecast? What was it like? Leave a comment below and let the celebration continue.

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Preserving the art of Southern storytelling

I had been to Arkansas only once in my life until a month ago.

Now, I’m transported to the Starving Artist Café in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock once a week for an incredible 30-to-40-minute immersion into the wide-ranging true experiences of Southerners.

In the last month I’ve discovered and gotten hooked on the “Tales from the South” podcast. Around on public radio in Arkansas for seven years, “Tales from the South” can be funny, of course, or poignant or wistful or evoke any of a number of emotions. It definitely transforms my commute from a weary battle of taillights and bumpers to visions of pecan orchards, picnic baskets filled with fried chicken, stolen kisses in Sunday School classrooms and raccoons raiding birdfeeders.

I’m a recent convert to podcasts, and I’ve quickly learned the viral nature of the medium. It began with a Facebook post asking friends to recommend good podcasts to make my often hour-plus commute bearable. That led me to “This American Life,” a delight in its own right. Then, “This American Life” borrowed a story from “Snap Judgment,” another weekly podcast of stories around a theme, and it is now part of my weekly menu.

“Snap Judgment” aired a story a few weeks back by J.W. Taylor as read on “Tales from the South.” Taylor’s story of a church lock-in gone wrong and his coerced confession for making out resonated with me on a surprisingly deep level. As soon as I got to the office that morning, I subscribed to “Tales from the South” and now have a new weekly audio addiction.

The show is recorded each week in front of a live audience at the Starving Artist Café in North Little Rock. It features a musician and a visual artist, although obviously you can’t see the art on the podcast. There’s Mark Simpson with a bluesy guitar riffing in the background of the intros and outros. The podcast includes three stories from different storytellers and a song by the featured musician. Partial to Southern singer-songwriters, I think it’s a perfect formula.

All the credit goes to the show’s host and creator, Paula Martin Morell. A writer and creative writing instructor, Paula and her husband, Jason, own and operate the café. The pace of the show is quick and her commentary minimalist. The fine editing and production quality makes for a lively podcast, but with the sounds of the clinking silverware and glasses and audible responses from the audience, I can easily picture the scene with my mind’s eye.

I particularly enjoy the lack of pretension. These are writers, no doubt, and some are published. But all of the storytellers read their work with a down-to-earth “Hey, let me tell you about…” spirit that evokes barber and beauty shop conversations heard across the South.

And unlike my own put-on-for-effect Southern accent, their dialect is natural, unforced and not the least bit uneducated. Perhaps if I spent a little more time in Texas, I could retrieve my native accent that I purposefully suppressed when my family moved to Central Florida when I was 12. I think it would lend authenticity to my storytelling.

The stories themselves are treasures. Some are simple, some profound, and all of the stories are relatable. They aren’t always funny and not every attempt at humor succeeds, but as the storyteller reads his or her work, you can’t help pulling for them, joining in their quest to understand their emotions around a particular anecdote from their lives. Some authors are better than others at delivering their story without it sounding rote or monotone, but even those who aren’t performers still manage to give you something of value.

Besides, I’m sure it’s nerve wracking to get up in front of a live audience and bare your soul by sharing your writing. It’s hard enough some weeks for me to post a blog with embarrassing earnestness and vulnerability.

I’m grateful I found the “Tales from the South” podcast, but it’s a show that is begging to be experienced live. I’m polishing up my stories and planning a road trip to Little Rock. I’ll let y’all know when I get there.

Are there other Southern podcasts out there I’m missing? Please share! Leave a comment below and let me know what else I should be consuming to pass the time in my car. I’d be much obliged.

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Truth in labeling

There comes a time in every parent’s life when they are faced with the sudden and shocking realization that their children are no longer children.

Monday morning I pulled an undershirt out of the drawer, and there at the back of the collar, just above the imprinted size and manufacturing information was the letter “L” written in black Sharpie.

Does "L" mean "Large" or "Lance"? See... very confusing.

Does “L” mean “Large” or “Lance”? See… very confusing.

Uh oh. It has happened. My oldest son’s clothes and my clothes are now so confusingly similar in size that my wife has resorted to coding our wardrobes to prevent mishandling. Like so many other of her schemes, the labeling was brought on by my complaining.

After Christmas, when each of us Wallace men received a new package of Hanes undershirts as gifts, I reached into my drawer, pulled out a fresh white T-shirt and slipped it over my head. Knowing that my workouts have been reduced to running, I felt sure that the snugness of the shirt was not caused by my rippling muscles.

I pulled it back over my head and discovered the truth: “M.” What happened next is somewhat in dispute. I may or may not have ranted like a lunatic about my children’s underwear ending up in my drawer, and I may or may not have made a statement such as “What’s next? Carlton’s Batman briefs tucked in with my boxers?”

Carla didn’t acknowledge my critique. She’s acquired the tone deafness that comes with 17 years of marriage. She just casually mentioned that I do most of the folding and putting away of the laundry. There is a fairly good chance that it was me who committed the heinous laundry foul of putting Barron’s mediums in my drawer.

Carla responded by doing what all mothers do: she relied on her resourcefulness and fondness for labeling to come up with a solution. So now, as a 40-something year-old man, I have been reduced to having my name written in my underwear like a third grader heading off to summer camp for the first time.

What I am discovering, though, is that her system is not consistent. While some of my undershirts have an “L” written in it, the boys’ shirts have a series of dots, or dashes, I can’t tell which. In the Wallace Family Underwear Morse Code, one dot means Barron, two dots means Harris and three dots mean Carlton. Except when it doesn’t.

Apparently when she was labeling our new shirts, she lapsed into other classifications. For example, one of Barron’s shirts accidentally has two dots with one of them marked through and the letter “B” written next to it. There is more written on this shirt at the nape of the neck than the fine print on a pharmaceutical ad in Reader’s Digest.

While I can usually eyeball the difference between Barron’s T-shirts and those belonging to his younger brothers, I tend to mix his and mine or Carlton’s and Harris’s. You would think a glance at the label would clear things up with the younger two, but when I have to look at the label, the Hanes people have made things inexplicably complex. All of the boys wear an “M.” I don’t understand how these stair-stepped children each about four years older than their sibling can all be wearing medium undershirts, but this quirk in the space-time continuum is undeniable.

Carla has very patiently explained that Barron is now wearing an adult medium, Harris is wearing a youth medium and Carlton is wearing a toddler’s medium. See why I am confused?

Barron, Lance and a pack of new Tshirts

Little did I know that this Christmas gift would come back to haunt me just two months later.

Perhaps my confusion and irritability over this whole issue is derived from the truth that my children are growing up. Despite the fact that my own father tells me frequently that the time will pass too quickly, it still comes as a surprise when these moments catch me off guard and I realize just how fast their childhoods are evaporating.

All parents go through this, I know, but that realization makes these epiphanies no less unsettling. With every passing day I wonder if I am doing enough to prepare them for what life is going to throw at them. I contemplate what our relationship will be like through their teen years and on into adulthood. I hope and pray that as their innocence transitions into knowing, they will somehow understand that my love is greater than any mistake they could make and my joy is inextricably linked to theirs.

The next time you see me squirming and fidgeting at the neck with one of my T-shirts, just nod knowingly and understand that I’ve once again made an undergarment selection error and I’m coping with parenthood.

At what moments do you realize life is fleeting? What are the circumstances that jolt you with the terrifying realization your children are growing up too fast? If you’ve been down this road, share your wisdom. If you’re going down this road, share your pain. Leave a comment, and we’ll all be better for it.

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New tricks

Jack is an old dog.

To you and me he’s 16, but according to the Pedigree Dog Calculator, he’s the equivalent of an 80-year-old man.

Jack has outlived his brother, Joe, by about 10 years.

He’s outlived his best friend, my father-in-law, by three months now and counting.

He’s an old dog, but he is showing me every day that life goes on.

Jack, or "Jack Jack" as he is  sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.

Jack, or “Jack Jack” as he is sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.

Jack has come to live with us in Lilburn most of the time. From that first weekend after my father-in-law’s accident when Jack suddenly found himself in a semi-familiar place, full of unfamiliar sights and smells – not to mention a pesky, jittery, hyperactive younger Tobey – he has been adjusting.

As I have written in this space before, I am not predisposed to compassion for canine companions. It has been a struggle to tolerate Tobey’s eccentricities, which I’m sure are instinctual habits for dogs of his nature and nurture. Tobey hasn’t evoked sentimental affection, and when I catch him lifting his leg on the corner of the sofa, it is by sheer force of will that I do not drop kick that animal out of my house permanently.

But Jack is different. He is an old dog.

Yes, I have lost my patience a time or two when his veterinarian version of Lasix kicked in and he couldn’t hold it until he got outside. Or when he failed to communicate that it was time to do his business, and the middle of the playroom floor served as his toilet.

When Jack first come to stay with us, he wandered the neighborhood if we let him out unattended. If we took him out on a leash, he refused or didn’t understand that he was supposed to do his business. He was accustomed to roaming many more acres at his house and at the farm. I tried to remedy this by erecting a series of barricades across our driveway and parking pad to keep him in the back yard.

I either finally succeeded at building a better prison, or he lost the will to escape. The backyard was his domain. But when my father-in-law was moved from a hospital in Augusta to one here in Atlanta, Carla came back home and her mother came to stay. We had to be able to get access to the parking pad and back door. The barricades came down and the free-for-all started over.

Carla couldn’t understand why I went to such lengths just so Jack could wander freely around our spacious back yard.

“Just put him on a leash and leave him out there.”

“Jack is used to roaming,” I insisted. “He’s lost everything else that he enjoyed or that is familiar. I feel somehow like this is what I can do to make things easier for him.”

Carla shook her head. She knows I’m not the most affectionate with animals.

Now that Lanny is gone and Jack’s relocation to our house seems to be mostly permanent, my compassion – and respect – for Jack has only increased. He’s messing in the house much less frequently. Even without a fence, he doesn’t leave the backyard. He’s learned not to accost me at the dinner table. At night, he goes to his blanketed crate on his own without protest or barking. All things considered, he’s a really good dog.

In the morning when I open up the dogs’ crates and let them out before their breakfast, Tobey is out, done his business and run 14 laps across the back yard before Jack has even gotten to his feet. His arthritic stretching is painful to watch. His slow and slippery waddle across the wood floor to the back door is simultaneously pitiful and comic.

Jack is an old dog.

A Pekingese-poodle mix, he was bred to be a companion. As a younger dog, he accompanied Lanny everywhere. He was a great farm dog, frolicking with the goats and giving varmints the what-for, keeping danger, as he perceived it, at bay.

Now he’s essentially in assisted living. He has caretakers he’s only half known and usually tried to escape from when they came to visit his house. He’s adjusted to the noise and trampling and bothersome attempts at play.

During family movie night a few weeks ago, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I picked Jack up, held him in my lap and stroked his fur, careful not to irritate the skin lesions or sore joints. I could feel his overly-rapid heartbeat on my legs and watched his labored breathing expand and contract his abdomen.

Maybe Jack isn’t the only one adjusting. Maybe my care of Jack isn’t really about Jack at all but some small attempt to show kindness to Daddy in the only tangible way I can now that he’s gone.

For as long as we have Jack with us, I will hold him, pet him, clean up after him, feed him and give him his medicine, because maybe, just maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Jack appears to be succeeding with me.

Thank you for tolerating more of my journey of grief over the loss of my father-in-law, Lanny Barron. It’s my hope that these essays don’t bring you down but give you hope. Take a minute to leave a comment and offer your insight, and if you are so inclined, share this post with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I am grateful for your readership.

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It’s all downhill

These were two journeys I didn’t want to take.

I was less than thrilled to be “voluntold” by my wife back before Christmas that I was chaperoning our son’s first snow skiing adventure in January with the youth from church. This attitude was mirrored in my less-than-enthusiastic embrace of said son reaching the adolescent milestone of turning 13 last week.

Barron and Lance on top of Beech Mountain

Barron and I have a literal mountain-top experience before heading down the slopes at the end of his first ski trip.

Why not? What’s there to be afraid of? Plenty.

I have reached the age when the number one question I ask myself before undertaking physical activity is “What are my chances of getting injured?” I am also at the comfortable parenting place where my children are all still responsive to my direction and shower me with attention and affection. Having the oldest transition to the teen years and threaten my sense of control feels like an activity in which I could get injured.

The last time I had been on Beech Mountain near Boone, N.C., was 18 years ago. I had to be sledded down the slope in that body basket thing, trailing behind a member of ski patrol. I had fallen head first over my skis on a patch of ice up on the mountain and twisted my knee. Even though I didn’t do any major damage to my knee and a few days of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) was all that was required to recover, I had this in the back of my mind as I journeyed in a 15 passenger van the five hours to the High Country of North Carolina.

This step of parenting a teenager is unprecedented for me. I have no prior experience with it. I have certainly heard the horror stories. I myself was a teenager once. Failing at this parental skill doesn’t just twist body parts, it breaks hearts. It’s been hard to really look forward to this milestone.

Barron snow skiing on the bunny slope

Barron and Johnny ready to tackle something more challenging than the bunny slope.

But Carla was right. The first time our son put on a pair of skis to go hurdling down a mountainside, I needed to be there. Probably. The parenting challenge of skiing with my son was this: help him learn how to ski without holding him back or undermining his confidence. Oh, and that thing about not getting injured myself. To make matters more complicated, I stumbled onto this parenting article from Forbes magazine that several of my Facebook friends recently posted: “7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors that Keep Children from Growing into Leaders.” I spent the ski weekend constantly evaluating myself on these criteria while trying not getting maimed.

This is exactly why the teen years are so important. Rationally, I know that you have to give your kids opportunities to fail, even ones that feel dangerous, so that they can learn from their failures and gain confidence from their successes. Emotionally, it’s very difficult to allow your child to experience pain, disappointment and regret. It’s hard to let go.

Like everything he does, Barron tackled the challenge of learning to ski methodically. While his more experienced friends dashed off to the green and blue slopes, he and I spent the first full day on the bunny slope, taking lessons and practicing the basics. By the end of the first day, he had built up enough courage to tackle a little hill that ran from the resort down to the bunny slope.

Barron opens presents on his 13th birthday

Barron is thrilled to get “Captain Phillips” on Blu-ray. What he may not understand is that his becoming a teenager is a big deal for his younger brothers, too.

On the second day of our ski trip, his goal was to tackle the green slope. And he did great. Of course he fell, but he was able to get back on his feet and continue down the hill without my help. It wasn’t long before he was able to join his friends.

That’s what I’m talking about:  that abandonment. It’s that moment when they are confronted with the choice of hanging out with you, the parent, or their friends. That can be very frightening, particularly if you have questions about your teenager’s friends. I know that teenagers need some separation from their parents so they can differentiate themselves, become their own person and continue growing toward independence.

Anyone who has been skiing before knows that one of the trickiest maneuvers for beginners is dismounting the lift. This proved to be the biggest challenge for Barron as well, but I have to admit, I was proud of how he handled it. He and Johnny fell the first time, but then, they started dismounting cleanly. One of his biggest spills coming off the lift occurred, though, when he and I went up the lift together. A couple of tall and gangly guys, all knees, skis and poles, got tangled as we stood up and the chair dispassionately deposited us in a heap.

When parents get too involved in their teen’s lives, it trips up both the teen and the parents. The result is more than bumps and bruises and embarrassment. The child’s maturity is stunted, his self-reliance undermined and the specter of self-doubt looms in every of decision. The parent is emotionally crippled, his or her life becomes vicarious and borrowed from their child and he or she loses all sense of perspective.

I’ve been told that parenting a teenager is not for the faint of heart. Flipping on the Olympics and watching Bode Miller on a downhill run will show you that skiing is not for the faint of heart. But as this trip down the slope we call life picks up speed and our equilibrium is threatened, we can experience exhilaration and euphoria.

I had a great time on the ski trip. Barron loved skiing and can’t wait to go back. I really enjoyed our family’s celebration of Barron reaching this momentous milestone. Barron seems to be taking it all in stride.

On or off the slopes, Barron is the kind of offspring that makes you look like a good parent. He’s level headed, sets goals, works hard, has a keen wit, displays creativity and helps out around the house without being asked. He is everything anyone would want in a son. I don’t want that to change.

Maybe by putting this in a blog, I’ll remember it when doubts arise and fears dismay. There are some journeys in life that are unavoidable and incredibly rewarding.

People say unsolicited advice is worth what you pay for it. I’m now soliciting your parenting advice. What words of wisdom do you have or have you found that you could share on how to parent a teen in the New South? Leaving a comment is definitely not scary at all.

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Tackling issues of faith

We interrupt our regular schedule with this New South Essays news bulletin: once a month I’ll be posting to the new blog, Coracle, hosted on the Smyth & Helwys website, Next Sunday Resources.

My first post is all about where to sit in church, hopefully with that same New South Essays voice you’ve come to enjoy.

If you are a person of faith and are interested in following my posts there, check it out and explore the new site. It’s loaded with helpful resources for those looking to enrich their spiritual journey.

Thanks for reading New South Essays and sharing the content. A new post will be up soon!

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Snowpocalypse 2014: A product of the New South

As I worked this week from home in my pajamas, I couldn’t help but join the millions of Atlantans and Birminghamians, among others, in contemplating just how Snowpocalypse 2014 happened.

This will not surprise you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fault of the New South.

Traffic stands still in snowy Atlanta

Perhaps the most iconic image from Tuesday’s disastrous commute in snowy Atlanta.

Although much has been written already on this topic, permit me to weigh in and offer five supporting arguments for my assessment. Feel free to disagree and tell me so. And for the record, I did not write this during my 2 hour and 20 minute commute (one of the shorter ones in metro Atlanta on Tuesday):

1. Southern Pride. Down South, we never surrender, and we’re tired of being mocked. Government officials, school superintendents and business owners did not want to close Tuesday on the threat of snow because they did not want to keep everybody home and this storm turn out to be a light dusting. I don’t care what they say now about taking this threat seriously. Clearly, this arrogance in the face of eminent danger was at least an indirect psychological factor in the minds of Southern deciders.

The sad thing is, the Yankees still won. It’s like heckling a batter while he’s in the on-deck circle. If he ever acknowledges you, even with a nod, a smile or giving you the one finger salute, you know you got in his head. You won.

This was the same scenario. Folks more accustomed to snow mock Southerners each time there’s a threat of winter weather. They ridicule our excitement, need to rush to the grocery store to buy bread and milk and complete lack of ability to drive in those conditions. I believe this got in the heads of us Southerners, so much so that we went against our better judgment. We wanted to stick it out. Sherman (General Tecumseh, not Richard) would not have the last laugh.

2. Selective hearing. Our attention spans in the New South are waning, and this was on full display Tuesday morning. When the forecast was changed from a slight dusting in Atlanta with most of the precipitation falling south of the metro area to the possibility of 2 to 3 inches hitting squarely on the metro area, we didn’t really notice. We heard the first thing forecasters said, not the last thing.

We had it in our heads that this would be another of the dozens of near-misses rather than the rare direct hit, and when the National Weather Service issued updated warnings, it fell on deaf ears. We had already made up our minds and were on to other things. Anyone who paid attention and acted accordingly was discounted as a “Nervous Nelly,” unable to handle two inches of snow.

3. Sprawl. I can’t speak for Birmingham, but in Atlanta, we’ve gotten too big for our lifestyle. The Atlanta metropolitan area spans 8,376 square miles. That’s a lot of snow-covered roadway to traverse going to and from work. The average Atlanta commuter spends 240 hours commuting each year. For the mathematically challenged, that’s the equivalent of 30 work days.

Atlanta’s commute ranks no. 7 nationally, according to Bloomberg and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, on the list of worst commutes. It’s clearly not an ideal situation on a good day. Tuesday was not a good day. All of us in our cars trying to get back to the suburbs left downtown at roughly the same time. By the time we all figured out that this was a bad idea, it was too late.

4. Saving cash. Preventive maintenance is sound, reasonable thinking, but it flies in the face of human nature. We don’t want to do anything we don’t absolutely have to. So before we criticize the Alabama and Georgia departments of transportation for not pre-salting and graveling the roads, let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves: when was the last time we changed our vehicle’s oil on time? OK, then.

It’s no secret that we don’t have resources to deal with winter weather – namely salt trucks and snow plows – in the South, and no one would blame us. It only snows like this once every four or five years. We wouldn’t get a good return on that investment. And it costs money to operate the equipment and purchase the salt and gravel that we’re just going to throw around. Why salt and spread if you don’t have to?

Officials gambled and lost. I think we can all admit we would have at least been reluctant to make the call to spend the cash to pre-treat the roads when the threat did not seem that bad.

5. Scapegoating is our favorite pastime. None of us want to take personal responsibility for contributing to the circumstances that caused the commuting disaster on Tuesday, but if just a fraction of us had taken personal ownership of our lives and made different decisions, the crisis would have been mitigated if not averted. But where’s the fun in that? In the New South, we cannot move on from any disaster without affixing blame. It’s what we do.

We are going to blame our mayors, our emergency management leaders, and our governors regardless because this is the most basic reason why we vote: to have someone to blame when things go wrong. They’re not so much elected to lead us as to be our scapegoats. Tuesday’s commute disaster needs a scapegoat.

Officials tried to pin this on the forecasters. But when you run a 24-hour cable network, you have plenty of time to rebut. With state elections in Georgia just around the corner, I’m afraid challengers to incumbents will help make this blame game stick on those currently holding office as they lay out their attack ads leading into the fall.

One of my takeaways from Tuesday will be gratitude for not having a worse or more dangerous experience. I’ll also try to let the memories of the boys joyously sledding on Wednesday replace thoughts of Tuesday’s awful commute.

Regionally shared experiences are rare. Throughout the South, we now have harrowing experiences and stories to share for generations to come. In our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural New South, we all have Snowpocalypse 2014 in common.

Was the area in which you live touched by Winter Storm Leon? What was your experience like? If you live in Atlanta, what was your commute like on Tuesday? Did you pick your kids up early from school? Did you heed the warnings? Let’s begin sharing our stories by leaving comments below.

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Living in the Nose South

What does your house smell like?

Ours is a mixture of coffee, a hint of mildew wafting up from the basement (the dehumidifier is on the fritz), fabric softener, and bergamot. You heard me. Bergamot. You know bergamot, right? I didn’t think so.

You see, here in the New South we have new smells filling our homes. Gone are the days when your house smelled like last night’s supper, at least until the next morning’s bacon began to fry in the skillet. Now, we have a growing multitude of products to help our home smell more inviting.

When it comes to homemaking, I often tease my wife for going to Martha Stewartian extremes. However, I have to take the blame on this one. I have a sensitive sniffer. Smells affect me in powerful and mysterious ways.

After a hard day at the office and a difficult commute, what I smell when I open the door affects my mood. Even if the playroom looks like Tokyo at the end of a Godzilla movie, if there’s a pleasing aroma, I can cope. Aromatherapy was invented for people like me.

I’m like those people in the Febreeze commercial where they hide all the smelly garbage in a condo unit at a resort and invite people to spend the weekend. The Febreeze plug-in air fresheners cover the smell. Don’t get me wrong: I like things to look neat, too. It’s just that I’m very sensitive to the way things smell.

So over the 16-plus years of our marriage, Carla has figured this out and tried a number of ways to keep the house smelling fresh. At first it was candles. Anything named “Yankee Candle” does not deserve space in a blog about the South, so I’ll just move on.

Then we tried sprays. Lysol sure smells clean but in that “someone just vomited” kind of way. And anyone who’s ever heard Jeff Foxworthy’s routine about the air fresheners in the bathroom “not fooling anybody” (“Walt, what have you been doing in there, arranging flowers?”) understands the depths of their inefficiency.

Carla even went so far one year as to buy these very concentrated sprays from Bath and Body Works. Maybe she just got the wrong ones, but a hit from these things could peel the paint off the walls. I have the smell of Bartlett Pear forever seared into my memory. I’m gagging a little right now as I type this.

One Christmas a few years back, my brother and sister-in-law gave us some plug-in scent warmers called Scentsy. They’re like little fondue pots you plug into the outlet and feed with scented wax bars. They are amazing and come in a variety of fragrances that help keep the house smelling good… at least until the bar has to be replaced.

Wallflowers are as lovely as they smell, in a way that begs preschoolers to play with your electrical outlets.

Wallflowers are as lovely as they smell, in a way that begs preschoolers to play with your electrical outlets.

We’re currently using a product called Wallflowers, also from Bath and Body Works, hence my recent education on bergamot. Like all of these products, you can buy seasonal fragrances. We’ve been through the fall scents of pumpkin, cinnamon and autumn woodland and are still shaking off the residues of Christmas: “Vanilla Snowflake,” “Frosted Cranberry” and “Twisted Peppermint.” As the throes of winter gloom pin us down in our homes, we can eagerly anticipate “Honeysuckle,” “Beach Cabana” and “Watermelon Lemonade.”

Whatever their names, these aromas are now part of our daily lives in the New South. So whether your boudoir smells of bergamot or your foyer welcomes guests with lilac, the modern Southern home is a nasal sanctuary. And as ridiculous as some of the names of our new smells are, it sure beats dog vomit, dirty feet or post-burrito bathroom.

I know I am not alone in this wacky world of Wallflowers. This topic begs for an interactive component: What five words would you use to describe the way your house smells? Leave your response in a comment below, and let us all imagine the aroma you describe.

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