Social dilemmas

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Because of COVID-19, we are supposed to…

  • Avoid gathering in crowds in indoor spaces.
  • Avoid isolation because of the negative impact on our mental health.
  • Wear a mask to protect others from the droplets in our breath that might spread the coronavirus to others.
  • Wear a smile to help lift the spirits of those you come into contact with during these dispiriting times.
  • Stay at least six feet apart from everyone, maintaining “social distance.”
  • Stay socially connected with friends and family, checking in with them through phone calls, texts and social media.
  • Stay off social media to prevent fear of missing out (FOMO), negative comparison and envy, manipulation by fake news, failing to have real experiences, and anxiety caused by the cacophony of negativity and general nastiness spread on various social media platforms.

Everywhere I turn these days there is contradiction, and it only adds to the mounting frustration I feel as I attempt to cope with a world I don’t recognize anymore. I am, frankly, out of easy answers, exhausting those within the first few weeks of stay-at-home protocols and isolation when I could not imagine we would still be dealing with this when the scent of pumpkin spice returned to our lives.

It feels like a bit of a trap, these cascading sets of contradictory instructions. At the heart of it, is our need for socialization. I struggle with making sense of the greater priority sometimes. Should I be more concerned about the spread of COVID-19 or the impact of isolation on my mental health?

Even our decisions about our children’s education is rife with difficult choices. We sent our oldest off to college where he has one of four classes in a hybrid format, meaning it meets twice a week but he only goes once a week. The other three classes are online. He goes to marching band practice twice a week, but the band will not perform this fall because the football season was postponed until spring.

Was this a worthy risk? We moved him into his apartment almost two months ago, and so far he’s doing fine. The possible negative consequences assault my mind every time I sit still long enough to have a thought.

Our high schooler and middle schooler are doing digital learning from home. That has its own challenges, but so far we’re managing. What seems incongruent is keeping them home from school but taking one to marching band practice twice a week and the other to drama multiple days a week for rehearsals. We tell ourselves they need an outlet, and the program leaders in both band and drama are following all the experts’ recommendations and guidelines. There are still risks, any of which lie in wait in my thoughts ready to derail my concentration and stop my productivity.

Every decision feels freighted with life or death consequences.

image of cracked cell phone screen with ad for social dilemma documentary

Adding to our consternation was our recent viewing of the new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” As if we didn’t feel bad enough about the amount of screen time we were permitting our children during quarantine, we watched 94 minutes of tech gurus explaining how social media companies serve up their customers to be marketed to and manipulated all in the name of user growth and engagement.

I felt like just as much of a parental failure as if I had sent my child mask-less to a super-spreader birthday party. The movie tugged at all the underlying suspicions and overt fears I’ve had of technology since I created my Facebook account in 2008.

What’s the solution?

Before I completely give in to despair, I have to recognize the false dichotomy inherent in the “social distance” guidance. It’s not either you and your family plunge into a coronavirus-riddled crowd singing and shouting mask-less with hugs and handshakes aplenty OR spend hours alone on Instagram looking at ways to improve your wardrobe, home décor or vacation plans.

There has to be a third way.

I’m thinking we need to revert to analog activities. Go outside. Walk, hike, bike, run. Play games. Talk to people. If those people are in your household, you can talk to them up close. If you need to maintain six feet of separation, you can both wear masks, stay outside, make good eye contact and really listen.

I have to remind myself most of us are doing the best we can, balancing our physical and mental health, our needs with the needs of the medically fragile, and our digital platforms with human interaction. I have to resist the oppression of second guessing and hand wringing over all the social dilemmas this pandemic has introduced into my life.

When this is all over, I hope the legacy of COVID-19 for me is a rediscovery of meaningful, interpersonal connections in real life and a rejection of the artificial, moderated interactions in the virtual world.

Maybe we will all have a better grip on what’s real and what’s a distraction.

So what’s your secret for coping with your desire for socialization during the pandemic? What are your thoughts on the saturation of screen time? Have you been tempted to pull the plug on your social media accounts? Add your ideas and make this a more meaningful experience for all of us.

New South TV

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently spent 53.2 hours, give or take a few minutes, in the charming little town of Bluebell, Alabama.

Never heard of it? Neither had I until a few weeks ago.

Carla and I just finished a pandemic binge of “Hart of Dixie” on Netflix. We’re always late on pop culture trends, so of course we missed this romantic comedy’s original 76-episode run from 2011-2015, before anything with the word “Dixie” in it was widely recognized as problematic. It was on the CW, so a lot of you probably missed it, too. It’s highest ratings came in 2012 when it hit a whopping no. 142 in the Nielsen’s.

Bluebell, Ala., has more triangles than a geometry textbook.

Carla and I usually have a show we watch together, you know, one that’s not “Lord of the Rings,” Star Wars, Marvel or sports. Carla heard about “Hart of Dixie” from her friend and walking partner, Natalie, whose Southern bona fides are indisputable.

Carla took her suggestion as gospel and dived in, watching the first two episodes without me. She was hooked from the beginning. I joined for episode three, and it became our nightly diversion at a time when bad news was followed by worse news.

Not since childhood when I hung out in Mayberry for hours on end have I spent so much time in a fictional, Southern small town. Unlike “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Hart of Dixie” has more love triangles and WAY more festivals. Among the more zany town events are Founder’s Day, Homecoming, Planksgiving, Bluebell Battle, Sweetie Pie Dance, Watermelon Festival, Mother-Daughter Tea, Debutante Ball, Gumbo Cook-Off, Turtle Derby, Miss Cinnamon Cider Pageant, Disaster Preparedness Drill, and the Strawberry Festival. These folks make their own fun, and when they need a taste of big city life they road trip to Mobile or New Orleans.

Make no mistake, this show is not high art. The accents aren’t consistent. The plots are contrived. The characters are cliché. But it is just the kind of escape during COVID-19 that made me overlook all of that and embrace my inner Bluebellian.

Without giving anything away, here’s the basic plot: New York City heart surgeon Dr. Zoe Hart (the show’s namesake and protagonist) moves to Bluebell, Ala., to practice medicine when she’s denied a prestigious surgical fellowship because she lacks bedside manner and genuine concern for her patients. She rents a cottage from the town’s mayor, LaVon Hayes, a former University of Alabama and NFL star who has a pet alligator named Burt Reynolds. Dr. Zoe Hart falls into and out of love with a number of locals – including her bad boy neighbor, Wade Kinsella, and town lawyer and golden boy, George Tucker – and has an ongoing rivalry with Lemon Breland, a debutante and Southern belle who is a force to be reckoned with on every issue and at every town festival.

In my college days, I spent some time in the Mobile area, and I can attest that there is no place like Bluebell in that geography. But I didn’t watch “Hart of Dixie” for realism. By the end, I didn’t even watch for the “will they or won’t they” back-and-forth of the romances. My greatest pleasure was listening for Mayor Hayes’ signature line, expressed at least once per episode when circumstances inevitably turned against him: “Nah! Nah! Nah!”

So if all the bad news is weighing on you and you’re in need of at least a virtual getaway, I highly recommend a visit to Bluebell, Ala. I think Founder’s Day is coming up soon.

All this time in Bluebell has me wondering about depictions of life in the South on TV, and which ones are the best. There are no shortage of rankings available online these days, but I’m curious what your top five would be. Leave a comment below and share your all time favorite Southern shows. You’ll be glad you did.

I was told there would be answers

Milestone birthdays tend to end in zero.

I had one Thursday, and like that first trip to the gym after too long a layoff, I’m feeling a little sore today.

Twice a year like clockwork, I contemplate my life: New Year’s and my birthday. However, the extended period of being homebound during the COVID-19 pandemic has given me a head start on my birthday reflection, so this year has produced a bumper crop of loose ends and unanswered questions.

Birthday plate full of barbecue pork ribs, cole slaw, baked beans, french fries and fried okra
Carla made a fantastic BBQ rib dinner for my birthday. Here’s one piece of wisdom I did acquire from this milestone: eating like this every night will kill you.

Here are a few that have been knocking around in my head in recent weeks:

Am I helping or hindering my kids?

Am I where I’m supposed to be in my career and who decides what “supposed to be” even means?

Am I carrying my weight around the house with chores and home management duties?

Am I saying what I mean?

What’s really important and have I been investing in that?

What should I be doing to keep my family safe and healthy?

How can I make the most of our extended time together?

When will all this end?

Can I really celebrate a birthday under these circumstances?

Is this pain in my knee just age-related or something I should get checked out?

Why am I always cold?

When did a nap become my greatest desire?

At what point did I stop caring about sports?

How do I live out my faith when I encounter almost no one I’m not related to?

Am I saying the important things to the people I love even though they are the hardest things to say?

Do I lean into or fight against aging?

You can only distract yourself with work, household projects and TV for so long before you feel you need answers to at least a few of life’s questions. I believed that the answers would come the morning of July 30 when I awakened at the ripe old age of 50. I thought for sure an epiphany would accompany this milestone.

That’s supposed to be the payoff of aging, right? You trade your health, mobility, hearing, and vision for wisdom and 10 percent discounts at restaurants and retailers.

The trouble is, wisdom is eluding me. I’d like to blame it on the extraordinary global conditions we are immersed in at the moment. That would be at least one helpful thing COVID-19 could give me – an excuse. Truth be told, though, with each passing year my questions keep mounting and my answers diminish. I’m beginning to understand why one of my dad’s frequent refrains these days is “But what do I know? I don’t know anything.”

In turning an age that I used to associate with morbidity, I have been able to reflect with gratitude on my life’s best gifts. I am closer than ever to family and friends. I have my health. I have a challenging career that allows me to use my gifts. My basic needs are taken care of, allowing me to contemplate the items higher up on Maslow’s Hierarchy. I get to take naps on the weekend.

When I turned 20, it was a blip, barely worth noting. Thirty was fun and full of surprises. Forty represented an arrival at serious adulthood with big time decisions and responsibilities. I expected 50 to bring with it the answers to all the questions. Maybe the answers have been lost in shipping by Amazon. Maybe porch pirates made off with them before I could retrieve them. More likely, I had unrealistic expectations of this milestone.

Because of family schedules, the big celebration has continued into the weekend, and next week we will head to the lake to steal a few last days together before sending our oldest back to college. It will have been a celebration full of family, good food, laughter, and myriad well-wishes on social media. It was a good birthday, and I’ll take it, given all that the world is going through at the moment.

I’m choosing to be grateful. One of my dad’s favorite quips which he attributes to my Maw Maw: “Having birthdays sure beats the alternative.”

As for the answers to all my questions, it’s like I said – milestone birthdays tend to end in zero.

 

Planting Generosity

Today’s New South Essay comes from good friend and former colleague Don Durham. I’ve invited Don to tell us about his life on the farm, feeding the hungry, launching a podcast, and challenging all of us to do our part to end hunger.

In another life I had the privilege of working with Lance for most of a decade when we both worked for the same Baptist organization. I worked with the foundation connected to the organization, and Lance worked in the communication office. That’s when I learned how talented, incisive, focused, creative, driven, and effective he was. I even got to peek behind the scenes with a writing project or two he was working on at the time. Even though I was already a fan of his work at the day job, those sneak peaks still afforded me the opportunity to fall into that favorite vortex of enjoyment that only comes from discovering a new writer whose voice speaks to you. After Lance and I both moved on to other work in other places this blog was my only source of an occasional fix of the writing I’d come to enjoy so much.

All of that to say what a particular honor and pleasure it is to be invited into this space to share a bit of a story. Thank you, Lance.

The new work I moved on to was starting a farm to grow food to give away. The place where that work happens is a farm, Healing Springs Acres, in central North Carolina. It’s owned by another former co-worker of ours whose family donated the property for this purpose. How I found that property and came to have the use of it is a whole ‘nother story involving far more Providence than I actually believe in. We’ll save that for another time.

Tractor plowing a field
Growing food to give away isn’t glamorous, but it is important.

For about 10 years I’ve been planting a few acres of produce to give away. The usual mix is green beans, corn, okra, squash, zucchini, and pink-eyed purple hulled peas – because I like to say, “pink-eyed purple hulled peas.” The other reason I use that mix of vegetables is that they are relatively dense in nutrition, and they have a fairly stable shelf life.

All of the food I grow is distributed through existing food pantries or distribution programs. I’ve got all I can say grace over to keep the Johnson grass from spreading its pernicious evil through the fields, and I’m not qualified to set up and run a legit intake and needs assessment process to determine who should get the food. I’d never be able to get past the assumption that everyone should have all the food they need. So, I just grow the food and take it to folks who have already figured out how to distribute it in the most helpful ways.

Planting acres and acres of food is easy. Having enough hands to hoe the weeds and harvest the produce is a different matter. Volunteers are an essential ingredient in making everything work at harvest time. Given that constraint, I usually only plant a couple of acres in total. That usually yields six to eight thousand pounds of food.

Fortunately, the solution to hunger is not for my farm to grow bigger and bigger. From the beginning our mantra has been: Planting Generosity. Providing Food. Proclaiming Others Can Do the Same!

Healing Springs Acres logoThe solution to hunger is for more and more small local projects to emerge here and there in your community and other communities. I’m not even saying everyone should go start a farm to grow food to give away. That probably wouldn’t make much sense in a lot of situations. I had a unique set of circumstances that made that a feasible option for me. The question is, what is the best thing for you and your neighbors to do to help end hunger in your community’s unique set of circumstances? Once you answer that question, I’d love to hear the answer.

A little over a year ago I was approached by a podcast producer in Atlanta who had heard about the farm and thought it would make an interesting podcast to tell that story – unbelievable Providence and all.  I thought it over for about five minutes and decided it would bore me to death to have to listen to myself monologue for 30 minutes or so at a time about my own project. It would also be a fairly short-lived podcast.  It’s just not that complicated of a story. I have a farm. I grow food to give away. Done.

The good thing about a mantra is that if you say it often enough, you can hear yourself repeating it back in those moments when you most need to hear it.  “… Proclaiming That Others Can Do the Same!”

After a few days, I called him back. “Yes. I want to make a podcast. No. It’s not going to be about me or my farm.”

In the 10 years I’ve been working on this project, a lot of other folks have started a lot of other really cool and effective food and hunger focused projects of their own. Those are stories I want to hear. What are people doing to end hunger?

One of my favorite adages is, “Those who say something can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt the folks who are doing it.” No doubt about it, hunger is an overwhelming, pervasive, systemic problem that is bigger than any one of us. But, there are people solving that problem. I wanted to create an uninterrupted platform for telling their stories.

So, “Welcome to the Table!: what people are doing to end hunger.”

Welcome to the Table podcast logoNot only did the mantra lead me to the right focus for the podcast, but finding the right focus for the podcast finally made the last part of the mantra a true reality. We’ve done a decent enough job of living into the first two parts, “Planting Generosity & Providing Food.” Until now though, the third part has just been rhetoric.

Each episode is an interview with an entrepreneurial instigator who has started their own food or hunger focused project from scratch. I love that these efforts grow up and become institutionalized in some way. However, I’m not interested in interviewing the staff that carries on the work. I’m focused on sharing the stories of the folks who went from doing nothing, to doing something. Of course, sometimes it’s important to break your own rules. When the story is worth it, I’ll expand the focus. No matter who I’m talking to, the questions I always ask are:

  • Why did this matter to you and how did you get started?
  • How do you define success and what have your experiences been?
  • What are your most significant challenges and what are you doing about them?
  • Why are people hungry in your area?
  • What do you wish more people would do more of, more often to help end hunger?

It’s the last two questions that I hope will linger in listeners’ ears.  Why are people hungry in your area, and what can you do more of, more often to help end hunger in your community?

If you’d like to find your way to good answers to those questions, I’d invite you to listen to the conversations I’m having with the people who are “doing it.”  We can all learn from their experiences and benefit from their inspiring wisdom. There are also coaches available if you’d like to talk with someone about helpful things to consider as you’re just getting started with your own food or hunger focused project, or if you’d like to consider ways to make an existing project more effective.

The first cluster of episodes tell the story of how my hometown of High Point, N.C., responded to being named the number one city in the entire country for concentrated food hardship in 2015. They’ve moved up to number #14. Listen to find out how.

I’m currently releasing a series of episodes from Immokalee, Fla., focused on efforts to help end hunger among the farm workers who pick most of America’s wintertime produce, particularly tomatoes.  These are the workers who pay the brutal cost of providing inexpensive groceries to American grocery stores year round. You’re probably already involved in these stories.  Listen to find out how.

Either way, I appreciate Lance inviting me to invite you to take a listen to the new podcast. I hope you hear something that inspires you to do more of something effective to help end hunger in your community.  I’d also love to hear from you if you know of a story worth telling about an entrepreneurial instigator who is doing something to help end hunger.

COVID Beach

We all need a vacation from COVID-19.

But in case you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not likely any time soon. Sorry to be a downer, but after a week at the beach, our annual family vacation was impacted by the global pandemic in many ways, some subtle and some obvious.

If you have been able to get away on a vacation this year, you have experienced this firsthand. If you are still planning or hoping to get away, you are sweating the unknowns.

waves come to shore at Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
The foaming waves catch the light of daybreak during my morning walk at Santa Rosa Beach.

Our family has been to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., 17 of the past 18 years. We anticipate this annual trip for a season, like Advent before Christmas, planning and reminiscing for weeks before actually heading south to the panhandle of Florida.

Now that it’s over, here are the ways COVID-19 impacted our vacation this year and what you should consider if planning a trip this summer:

Scheduling. We knew this year would be different from the beginning. We initially booked our week at the beach beginning Memorial Day weekend so that our oldest son could join us. He was supposed to spend the summer working as a staffer at Passport Choices camp in Greensboro, N.C., but when that opportunity succumbed to the global pandemic, we moved our reservation to a week later in the summer. We also didn’t know if the beaches of South Walton would even be open Memorial Day week. As it turned out, they opened that weekend, but we were glad we moved our booking back. That gave us time to see how COVID conditions might change. As our departure date neared, the resurgence of coronavirus made us afraid we might have to cancel. Fortunately, nothing interfered, and we were able to make the trip as re-scheduled.

Masking. A few years ago, we discovered we could “steal” an extra day of vacation by leaving early on check-in day, beating the inevitable Atlanta exodus to the 30-A area. We could have our lunch poolside while we waited for check-in at our beach house or condo unit after cleaning. This year, the early departure had the added benefit of limiting the number of people we encountered by making fewer stops. We weren’t so careful as to avoid public restrooms altogether, but we couldn’t help but notice that we were the only ones at the rest area south of Eufaula, Ala., wearing masks. While the debate about whether to mask or not raged nationally, we saw it play out firsthand everywhere we went all week. For the record, the unmasked far outnumbered the masked.

Social distancing. While we don’t avoid people on our vacation, we also don’t mix and mingle. We have regular activities we enjoy as a family that don’t bring us into contact with anyone: cooking and eating in, playing board and card games, riding bikes and taking walks, reading and watching movies. But there are components of a beach vacation that unavoidably include other people: going to the beach, splashing in the pool, going out to eat, shopping, or taking in a movie. This year we limited our shopping and the movie was out of the question. We tried our best to keep our physical distance while at the beach and pool. The first day at the beach, we were a little unnerved by how close the umbrellas and chairs were set by the outfitter. The rest of the week we never had anyone on both sides of us at the same time, so spreading out was easier. I spent most of my time in the water, which also made avoiding people easier. There were times when the social distance alarm bells were going off in our heads. Ditto for restaurants. We ate out a few times, each time after Carla called and interrogated the restaurant staff on their safety precautions. We felt OK about half the time. The worst was arriving extremely early at Captain Anderson’s in Panama City only to discover that social distancing was observed inside the restaurant, but the queue forming out front before opening was a cattle call of people more concerned about getting fresh hushpuppies than maintaining a COVID-free aerosol zone.

Doubting. Any time we found ourselves near people, we questioned the safety of what we were doing. There were plenty of times this vacation felt as if we were living dangerously compared to the three months of lockdown we had just experienced. When we were the only ones wearing masks, we felt self-conscious. When we didn’t wear a mask, we felt irresponsible. We questioned everything. It was annoying and not an emotion we had thought much about beforehand. It was a constant battle.

Keeping up. I’m in the communications business, so part of my unplugging on vacation is avoiding the news. This was impossible this year. Every shred of COVID news was shared and discussed, particularly as it related to the reopening of Gwinnett County Public Schools and the University System of Georgia institutions. After a couple of days, our children asked us to stop discussing it in front of them. They wanted to be on vacation and not think about school in any form, digital or otherwise. And just when we could let go of any alarming new “surging numbers” reports, we encountered a laminated sign on the gate to the pool reminding us of safety precautions. COVID-19 was never far from our thoughts.

Joking. There has been quite a bit of gallows humor to help us cope with the pandemic. With three boys all trying to out-do each other with wisecracks, the potentially offensive humor of COVID-19 was ever present in our joking. My favorite and most oft-repeated line of the week: “I’ll bet they got some of that COVID in there.” Our giggles revealed our anxiety. We were all worried about it to some degree, and no amount of joking could completely alleviate the concern.

Now that vacation is over, and we’re heading back home, we’re interested to see how well we did at staying safe. If we can make it the next two weeks without signs of infection, we’ll call our vacation a success. But every clearing of the throat, cough, sneeze or headache is going to give us pause. We’re on high alert for symptoms now, and the hangover from our vacation is a bout of anxiety that is unavoidable if you are planning to get away.

Vacation 2020 is just like everything else in this season of COVID-19, fraught with worry, doubt and decisions. With the federal and local governments ending mandatory shelter-in-place orders and allowing businesses to re-open, everyone has to make up their own mind about what is an acceptable level of risk.

I can say for us that mental health was an important consideration. All of us needed to get away. We couldn’t imagine not taking this trip after we spent so much time planning and anticipating. It’s so hardwired into our family’s calendar and traditions that if there was any way we thought we could pull this off, even if it was just a delusion, we had to make the attempt.

The Wallace Family Beach Vacation 2020 certainly will be memorable. I’m hoping that in two weeks, we’ll be able to say it was memorable in a good way.

If you are among the lucky ones who have taken your vacation, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 impacted you, and if you are planning to travel soon, I’d be curious to hear what’s worrying you. Share your thoughts in a comment below. It’ll feel better just to get that out there.

Stay safe and be well.

 

Containers and Surprises

Growing up, I opened enough tubs of butter only to find three-week-old green beans that I developed serious trust issues.

I recently confronted these past traumas when Carla and I spent the day in her hometown of Sandersville cleaning out her mother’s refrigerators and freezers in preparation for selling her house. Most of my experience has been with Country Crock containers, but in this case, it was Cool Whip.

Two Cool Whip containers, one closed and one open to reveal turnip greenss

Frosty Cool Whip or frozen turnip greens? You don’t know until you open it.

What I think throws people about this practice is the deception. Here you have a nice, hot biscuit waiting to be buttered, and you crack open the Country Crock only to find creamed corn. I think it’s a little worse with Cool Whip. In that case you might have a slice of pecan pie waiting for its mandatory dollop of whipped topping, but instead you get turnip greens.

Lord knows I heard my father rail against this practice plenty of times in my youth. I don’t think he minded the frugality of saving the butter tubs. He used plenty of them around his workshop to hold assorted nuts, bolts and screws. He actually preferred baby food jars, though, because you could readily identify the contents. I think what offended him more about my mom’s practice was the age of the contents of the butter dishes. From years of scientific observation, I can authoritatively state that putting leftovers in butter or whipped topping containers does not give it unnaturally long life. Given enough time it will molder and rot just the same as if it were sealed in Tupperware.

That’s the chief problem of re-purposing containers. You don’t know what’s inside. Of course, a Sharpie can rectify that problem. I would recommend keeping one in your kitchen junk drawer.

No Southerner with any sense would criticize the resourcefulness of reusing containers. It is the height of wastefulness to throw out all that plastic when it can be put to good use holding leftover butter beans, turnip greens or creamed corn. In our house, we don’t re-use such containers. In the New South, we put them in the bin and let the waste management company recycle them.

After my weekend of examining the contents of plastic food containers, I have to wonder if we’re missing out. Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates, but he could have just as easily said, “Life is like a container of Cool Whip in Mama’s freezer — you never know what you’re gonna get.”

We have many containers in our lives, and their contents rarely match the label. “Successful career” is actually filled with stress and disappointment. In reality, “Happy marriage” contains resentment and conflict. “Well-behaved child” is instead loaded with depression and anxiety. We don’t write with Sharpie what our containers hold, and we don’t tend to let people know what’s really going on in the containers of our lives.

These days I am rarely surprised by the contents of my plastic containers, and my trust issues have faded along with the memories of moldy English peas. But by recycling my containers rather than reusing them, I am letting go of the element of surprise. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Maybe my life needs a few surprises.

Perhaps I’ll hide the next batch of leftover Brussels sprouts in a gelato jar. That should introduce some unpredictability. And when a member of my family finds it, they’ll learn a valuable lesson about judging the contents by the container.

OK, it’s your turn. I know you have similar stories. What’s the weirdest thing you found in a deceptive dish in your parents’ or grandparents’ refrigerator or freezer? Leave a comment and share your story. Consider it therapy for your trust issues. I promise it will help.

New South Essays returns

It took a global pandemic to resuscitate New South Essays.

I am fortunate to have a healthy family, and the sheltering in place ordered by Georgia’s governor gave me time to contemplate and execute the re-launch of this weblog which I wrote weekly from March 2011 to October 2014. For the past five-and-a-half years, I have been planning its return. Anticipating this day, I even renewed the annual fee for the domain name every year, unwilling to give up on it.

So, now I’m back… newer and “Southier” than ever.

New South Essays writer at laptop in his dining room
The essayist working from home during the COVID-19 sheltering-in-place period in Georgia.

Let me catch you up on a few milestones since you last heard from me on these pages:

  • After seven years and one month, I left Georgia Tech in September 2019 and now work for the state’s governing body for higher education. These are challenging times to be communicating with and for colleges and universities. I am grateful for the experience and hope some of the lumps I’ve taken along the way will allow me to help others who may face similar trials.
  • I have been writing. Some of you found my monthly installments over at Smyth & Helwys’ website, NextSunday.com, where my blog View from the Pew is hosted. Thanks for reading. If you are church-inclined, you can find 80 posts with perspectives on being a part of a church family.
  • My wife, Carla, and I celebrate 23 years of marriage May 3, 2020. We’re still going strong and enjoying life’s adventure with more fervor as each year passes.
  • When last I wrote in this space, my boys were 14, 10 and 6. They’re now 19, 15 and 11. The two older ones are finishing freshman years – college and high school – and the youngest is wrapping up his elementary school career. He’ll start the grand adventure that is middle school in the fall. They are amazing boys, different in their talents and personalities. I could not be prouder.

I appreciate y’all waiting this out and sticking with me. I think you’ll find this time around I won’t be pestering you quite as often, maybe once a month or so. I’m going to post when I have something to stay and not get too hung up on a schedule. Weekly posting can be a grind.

I’m also committing to keep these digestible. I’ll aim for 500-600 words, and try to hold your attention for 10, maybe 15 minutes. And my themes will meander a bit. Some may be blatantly Southern, others will be family oriented. All will attempt to be well-thought out, entertaining and worth the effort.

If you don’t have any interest in this journey going forward, I don’t blame you. I won’t think less of you if you unsubscribe and stop following this page. It’s been so long you may have even forgotten why you followed it in the first place.

But maybe physical distancing has given you more time, too, and spending 10-15 minutes on this blog every few weeks isn’t too much to ask. If you enjoy a particular post, please share it on your social feeds. I’d be forever grateful.

Speaking of gratitude, let me say “Thank you” to my wife and family for their support. My oldest’s recent speech on my writing career for his public speaking class, appropriately titled “The Forrest Gump of Journalism,” gave me a reason to revisit some of my old posts and helped motivate me to get back in the blogging game.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say “thanks” to my friends, Bob and Brian, who encouraged me with their trademark mix of mockery and affirmation.

Welcome back to New South Essays. We’ll see you again real soon.

Seasons

The weather is often our cue for seasonal change. The calendar helps, but not until the temperature dips below 60 does it officially register as fall here in Atlanta.

Seasons in our lives don’t always have such markers. Rarely do we know what season of life we’re in until we’re through it.

Carla took great joy in decorating a new front door this fall.
Carla took great joy in decorating a new front door this fall.

When I last posted to New South Essays back in April, I was entering a season of physical transition. Moving to a new home started a chain reaction of change that was hard to recognize at the time and only now is beginning to show signs of stabilizing.

Carla and I frequently quote to each other the trite but true proverb “There is a season for everything.” So as the calendar flips to October and the transition to fall becomes more noticeable, I can’t help but reflect on the seasons we’re experiencing right now as a family:

Running. I don’t mean physically running, although I have been consistently on a program for about six months. I’m talking about the phenomenon we are all too susceptible to in today’s fast-paced world. We run from activity to activity pausing only to collapse in a heap at the end of the day.

Even the pleasurable events we choose to do as a family are lost without a few minutes to pause and reflect on what’s happening. It’s like trying to savor a delicious meal while consuming it in three minutes. This running isn’t always stressful, but a lot of times it is. It can be exhausting and fulfilling at the same time.

Unlike a marathon, which does have a destination, this season feels like a treadmill that will only stop when the motor overheats and the circuit breaker shuts it down.

Parenting. The biggest challenge of experiencing all of the life events being thrown at us right now is making sense of the activities for our children. Soccer, Scouts, band, and church are all good and potentially enriching ways for our children to spend their time. The challenge is for us to provide context, explain choices and identify values.

If we don’t clarify these experiences for our children, we’re simply wearing them out. Parenting happens whether you know it or not. Parenting intentionally is our goal, and we have to be reminded that it’s crucial to focus on this activity right now when so much of who our children will become is being molded and shaped.

Caregiving. I don’t know about “sandwich generations” or other labels. All I know is that in this season, I am recognizing that I won’t have my parents and in-laws physically in my life forever. Whatever we can do for them now isn’t just about meeting their physical and emotional needs. I have needs that they fulfill during this time of phone calls and doctor’s visits.

I need their wisdom. I need to know what they have learned in their seven-plus decades of life. I need their affirmation and love. I need the emotional strength that comes from a healthy relationship with your parents. I need to give something back to them for all they have given me in my life.

When we lost Carla’s father almost a year ago now, it was a wake-up call. This is a season of banking memories and experiences and conversations so that when we do have to part, we can do so with peace, knowing that we left nothing unsaid. It is a beautiful and heart-rending season.

Questioning. If you know me well, you know I’m a planner and a scheduler. I had scheduled my mid-life crisis four years ago when I turned 40. I trained for and ran my fourth marathon, attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. My plan was to make this my crisis and put all of that other mumbo jumbo out of my mind. Stuff like “What am I doing with my life?” or “What does it all mean?” or “What do I really want out of life?”

Boy, was I naïve. You cannot outrun the inevitable questions of middle age. While I am so far avoiding the tragic missteps of many midlife crises, there are too many puzzles to solve and quests to conquer that I can’t seem to focus on one long enough to find an answer. Aren’t you supposed to get smarter as you age?

A recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Wiretap, by writer Jonathan Goldstein, happened to mention that studies have shown the unhappiest period in a person’s life is age 40-49. I can see why. Having more questions than answers can make you indecisive, paralyzed by uncertainty.

Balancing. If I’m learning one thing right now it is the importance of balance. Life’s balance beam can be easy when you’re walking freely, unburdened with responsibility and obligation. But try walking that same beam laden with the stuff of life that weighs you down. One false step or an unbalanced falter brings disaster.

I’m no physicist, although I work with a fair number of them nowadays, but keeping opposite and equal forces requires some output of energy. Energy that isn’t always available when you are running, parenting, caregiving and questioning.

Maybe when I get through this season, the questioning will ebb. Maybe all of these seasons are really tied together into the season of middle age. Maybe, I’m not the only one in this.

I read somewhere that there’s a season for everything. Consider today’s post my season’s greetings.

What season are you in at the moment? How can you tell when you’ve moved from one season of life to another? What are the best seasons? What are the worst seasons? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. It’s the season of commenting. Thanks for staying with me through the extended hiatus!

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.

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.