Center of attention

The only two homes I have owned – or, more accurately, been on my way to owning – have had a fireplace. And with the fireplace comes the obligatory mantel.

Fireplace and mantel
Our lovely yet forlorn fireplace and mantel.

I will explore the wisdom and necessity of setting wood ablaze inside your home in a different essay, but today I am concerned more about the sociology of home spaces. There seems to be a waning tradition of gathering around the fireplace in the home and sharing family moments together.

This seems particularly out of fashion on 90-degree days in the South, but seasonal timing notwithstanding, the mantel doesn’t seem to have the same place of honor that it once had in the Southern home.

It has been replaced.

Sorry, mantel, you responsible older sibling who was trusted to hold our most precious heirlooms and photographs. There’s an exciting little baby in the house now that’s stealing all of the attention that once belonged exclusively to you.  You have been superseded by a younger, hipper piece of furniture that appeals to our societal ADD deceptively offering the antidote to our every need: the entertainment center.

There was a time in our home that my wife’s taste was to keep that unsavory device known as the television hidden completely from view, unless you were watching HGTV. Then, you
could retrieve the television from its secret location and watch it.

We have several pieces of elaborate furniture once designed to hold clothing now providing cover for the design-challenged box of nonstop noise and images.

But the television has come out of the closet.

Christmas of 2009, we received a new flat screen, high-definition television as a gift from Carla’s generous parents. It wasn’t grandiose, and it wasn’t the top of the line. It was a nice television that helped us move closer to the digital age. We are not early adopters
technologically by any stretch of the imagination.

This new flat screen, like all of the TVs before it, was tucked neatly away in a cabinet, an old wardrobe Carla picked up at a junk furniture store in Macon for $10. It still had the bar in it from which you hung clothes, presumably.

Our dream for our playroom and its multiplying toys was shelving. One cannot possibly think of shelving in the New South without visiting Ikea, so over the course of several years and a number of on-again, off-again flirtations with storage units at the Swedish home store, we settled on a Hemnes TV unit with Hemnes bookshelves and a bridging shelf.

Entertainment center
Our 'media solution' from Ikea and its load of magical items to hold our attention.

Now, our flat screen television, DVD player (no Blu-ray yet!), VCR (still), digital cable box and Wii game console all sit front and center to capture our undivided attention. And we have plenty of shelf space for books and games and bins of art materials and DVDs and puzzles and on and on and on.

I’m not counting, but I’d guess that we spend about two and a half minutes a year in front of our stately mantel with its plates depicting Georgia history and about two and a half hours a day in front of the “media solution.”

Todd Alcott’s poem “Television is a Drug,” which my videographer friend Beth Fulton set to video last year, says it all: “Look at me!” the television cries.

And in the New South, we happily comply.

Teach your children well

It’s an understatement to say my dad taught me a lot while I was growing up.

He taught me right from wrong, self-discipline, the value of a dollar, how to maintain cleanliness and order, the importance of doing a job well and how to nurture a strong faith. Dad also taught me a number of practical skills such as hammering a nail, turning a screw, mowing the grass, handling a weed trimmer and shaving.

My dad with Harris, left, and Barron

He taught me how to have fun, tell stories and jokes, play Monopoly and checkers and other essential board games, fish, throw and catch a baseball and how to do a pineapple
(aka banana dive) that splashes everyone standing on the side of a pool.

But what stands out in my mind for some reason is the day he taught me to change the oil and brake shoes in the car. Now I could very well have forgotten exactly how this occurred: he probably taught me to do these two things at different times, but in my memory, they occurred together.

I was about 13 or 14. The car was on the parking pad at our house on Holly Street in Lake
Wales, Fla.
He showed me how to check the dip stick, jack the car, place the drip pan, remove the plug, remove the filter, replace the plug (very important), replace the filter and pour in the new oil with the assistance of a handy funnel. Brake shoes were a little more complicated and involved a clamp, I think.

I have changed my oil a number of times, although not recently. To do this day, I have never changed my own brake shoes. Sorry, Dad.

As Father’s Day approaches, all of this has me wondering what dads teach their sons in the New South?

I’m sure there are plenty of dads still teaching the finer points of team sports and the basics of throwing, catching, shooting a basketball and so on. I believe fathers are still teaching their boys to appreciate the outdoors and how to fish and hunt.

Carlton recoils at the sight of bass in the live well after our spring break fishing trip. Dad was teaching his grandsons that day.

There are plenty of new skills to be handed down in this digital era. In the New South, dads must teach their sons how to program a universal TV remote, master the misdirection play on the Madden football video game, download songs from iTunes, use a GPS, shop on Amazon, read a Kindle, pick movies on Netflix and upload videos to YouTube.

No matter the era and the practical skills required, I hope to pass on to my three sons the timeless essentials every boy of character must know and practice. My dad taught me well.

Stop, listen, what’s that sound?

By now, many of you have already discovered the unique pleasures of the emergence of Brood XIX.

For about the last month, the 13-year cicada has been coming up out of the soil to sing its song, do its thing, die off and come back in another 13 years. By around July 4, it’ll be over.

This photo is a public service for those who are curious but too scared to get close.

If you want to learn more about this phenomenon, there are amazing videos, photos, news stories and even fan websites dedicated to the topic. This red-eyed, 13-year variety is getting so much attention that I’m sure the run-of-the-mill annual cicadas are becoming a little jealous. Maybe they need a better publicity stunt.

I’m no naturalist, but cicadas are one of the more intriguing bugs in the Southern landscape. I remember as a kid growing up in north central Texas that the sound of the male’s mating call and the appearance of their brown exoskeletons were part of the summer backdrop.

Frankly, they creep me out.

I know, I know, I’ve read all the stuff about how harmless they are. But if you’ve ever stepped on one during a pre-dawn run, you know the adrenaline rush of what I call “suburban IEDs.”

There are even recipes on how to eat the critters. Not since a trip to Thailand in 2005 have I seen anything so simultaneously fascinating and revolting. I might be able to eat small crunchy bugs, but some of these guys are up to an inch-and-a-half long. And what if it started buzzing when you took a bite? Ewwwwww. One ice cream shop in Columbia, Mo., even sold cicada ice cream, until the health department shut it down.

Part of what makes the 13-year cycle so amazing is the shear numbers.

I think it says something about contemporary Southerners that we can still be fascinated by natural phenomena. Our agricultural heritage has connected us to nature in ways that have formed a harmony with natural cycles and the seasons.   Somewhere between the Olympics and the appearance of Haley’s Comet, the arrival of this special cicada is rare enough that we forget how loud and ubiquitous it can be in between outbreaks. It’s a ripe moment for the great Southern storytellers to step in and help fill the gap in collective memory.

Maybe that’s why the Southerner and the 13-year cicada are an easy fit. From Texas to South Carolina, Florida to Maryland, there are bound to be plenty of folks this year who 13 years from now will be able to say: “Aw, this is nothin’. You should have seen the cicadas we had back in 2011. Now that was a brood.”

If you have any sense at all, you’ll go out right now, find one, take pictures of it, make a video, pet it, listen to it, maybe even eat it. Then just sit back and wait 13 years. You’ll have plenty of time to hone and perfect your story, complete with embellishments.

“One morning during my run, I stepped on a cicada so big it blew a hole in my shoe.”

Baiting your own hook

For a moment I thought he was actually going to do it.

Harris fishing
Harris watches his bobber as he drowns another worm.

With the early summer sun beating down on us, my two older sons, ages 10 and 6, and I prepped our fishing poles on the banks of Lake Hamburg. We had completed the sweaty job of putting up our tents and setting up camp and were about to commence with the prime activity of the evening. Though I knew better, the boys were convinced we were going to catch our supper.

My oldest son had opted for the artificial lure, a plastic worm he could cast and retrieve like his Paw Paw taught him. But Harris thought he needed a real worm and a bobber on his scaled down Zebco rod and reel.

He reached into the Wal-Mart sack, pulled out the white, plastic container of panfish worms, tentatively stuck in a finger and even made contact with worm flesh.

But that’s where it ended. His courage spent, he resorted to Plan B.

“Daddy, can you come put the worm on my hook. I can’t do it.”

That’s when I saw it for it what it was: the modern day parenting dilemma of forcing your child to do something they perceive as unpleasant so that they can overcome it, gain self-confidence and understand that nature is sometimes a little wiggly.

It was hot. I was tired already and the camping trip was only a few hours old. I gave in.

During the hour or so their attention span lasted, I put three more worms on Harris’s hook. Several were slung to freedom on the bank because of over-zealous and unnecessary casting. One began the adventure of a lifetime in the low-hanging boughs of an oak tree.

Not a bad view from our camp site.

Soon we were joined by another camper, an 8-year-old boy named Michael. He brought over his fishing pole, helped himself to a worm and was chatting up his two new friends as he baited his hook.  Harris’s face bore an expression of disgusted amazement. Michael didn’t even hesitate to grab the worm. In fact, the next night as we fished from the floating pier, Michael’s cousin, appropriately named “Fisher,” playfully cuddled a worm without a hint of apprehension or disdain.

At some point, Michael’s and Fisher’s daddies hadn’t baited their hooks for them. There was a formational moment in their young lives when they learned to bait their own hook.

What was the difference? Well, Michael hailed from nearby Gibson, a small hamlet in the piney woods between Sparta and metropolitan Wrens. This worm wasn’t the first he had encountered. Other than previous fishing trips, my boys only see them when we do our semi-annual landscaping projects around the yard.

Maybe it’s a rural-urban thing. Maybe it’s a natural instinct that’s part of a child’s personality.

Or maybe, in the New South, parents don’t give their children enough opportunities to bait their own hook. I think another fishing trip is in order soon to test this hypothesis. I’ll let you know how it turns out.