Making your mark

Before I met my wife, I don’t think I could spell “monogram.” Now, it is an oft-repeated word and an even more oft-repeated embellishment in my home.

Pillow cases, hand towels, diaper bags, back packs, purses, framed prints – you name it and most likely there are interlocking initials on it somewhere.

I may be “tardy to the monogramming party,” but this Southern trend seems to be reaching new heights. No longer reserved for wedding invitations and baby bibs, the monogram, and its close cousin the cypher, are everywhere.

Amy's Pilot
Amy's monogrammed Honda Pilot. Photo courtesy of Amy Penny.

After recently noticing my friend, Amy, had even adorned her Honda Pilot with a bright pink cypher, I had to ask the obvious question: Why? “For me, a monogram transforms anything that is ordinary into something special,” she said. “I like classic styles, so monogramming is a way to add uniqueness.”

The authority on this subject in my family is my sister-in-law, Karrie. She and my brother opened a monogramming and gift shop in Lake Wales, Fla., several years ago called Polka Dots & Co. (Check out the virtual tour.)

Karrie said adding an embroidered monogram gives otherwise traditional items extra flair.

“People have their monogram put on stuff because they like seeing their name,” Karrie said. “It’s personal, and it adds a personal touch to ‘their’ things. Plus, it makes everything prettier!”

Polka Dots & Co.
If you can wear it, Karrie can put a monogram on it at Polka Dots & Co.

Karrie attributes the trend at least in part to Pottery Barn. Their clean designs are perfect for monogramming, allowing their customers to customize their purchases. Karrie said she decided to open her business after her daughter, Kalee, was born.

My wife along with Karrie’s other Southern friends started giving her monogrammed items for Kalee. Then, on a trip back home to Dothan, Ala., Karrie and her mother discovered a boutique that she fell in love with. She was inspired to try something similar in Lake Wales. Now, she’s expanded her business to include Vera Bradley, Brighton and OkaB shoes.

Polka Dots & Co. has been so popular that she outgrew the original location and had to move to a new downtown location. She’s recently opened a coffee, sandwich and pottery shop next door called Beans & Brushes.  It’s run by my high-school friend, Krista, and
her husband, Keith.

Monograms are not new. They’ve been found as early as 350 BC, and like everything fancy and traditional, there are standards for their use. But the urge to imprint our belongings with our mark seems to be growing. I understand how a monogram can be visually appealing. I’m a word person, so fonts and lettering are artistic to me, but I sometimes struggle with the idea of tagging everything like a rancher’s cattle.

I will attest, though, that it does make things easier when picking up your child from preschool or the church nursery. Everything that goes with the child has his or her initials on it.

I embrace and highly endorse embroidered monograms on gifts. I believe they add meaning. As Amy said, “I love giving monogrammed gifts because it lets the recipient know that you took the extra time to purchase something that is specifically made for them.”

I’m learning to live with the ubiquitous “CWL” in our home, but if it shows up on my boxer shorts, I’m drawing the line.


By now you’ve heard about Kathryn Stockett’s novel and recently released film “The Help.” The story looks at the lives of African American maids and the white women they serve in Jackson, Miss., in 1960.

The Help movieStockett has obviously hit a nerve. Her book is currently number one on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book best seller list. The movie opened last weekend number two behind “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” by earning $25.5 million.

The book has also drawn a lawsuit from Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper in Mississippi who alleged Stockett’s main character, Aibelene, was based on her life. The lawsuit
was dismissed
on Aug. 16.

And when the film opened, the Association of Black Women Historians issued an open
critical of “The Help” saying the film “distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”

This fascinating and still unfolding melodrama over Southern culture circa 1960 has me wondering. Who are “the help” in today’s society?

The Help bookI didn’t live in that time or place, and frankly, I don’t have much of a connection to that era. I’m  reading the book now – a year after my wife insisted I read it. I’m nothing if not prompt. If I do see the movie (having three children under age 10 has limited my movie-going to animated or family-friendly fare) it will only be after I’ve finished reading the book. I’m biased toward authors, but I don’t ever want to see a film treatment of a subject until I’ve read the author’s intent first.

I don’t know if the book or movie will change my perspective. Personally, I have a hard-wired aversion to being helped in any way. I simply don’t like to be waited on. Friends and family will attest that I am stubbornly resistant to assistance.

Call it hubris, call it humility, call it unsocial, but I don’t like to trouble people. I would rather do it for myself. I love self-checkout at the grocery store. I prefer to stay in hotels where I can carry my own luggage. When I go to a restaurant, I want to park my own car. Those rare times when I do receive assistance, I put it in my mental checklist of people to whom I owe favors. Yes, it’s sick and a little crazy.

This personality quirk, though, makes me attentive to those who help me. I tend to over-tip wait staff. I am overly grateful when help is extended. I try to recognize and affirm those who make their livelihood by serving others.

I’m particularly inspired by my friend and coworker, Bo Prosser. He and his wife, Gail, have taken up residence at a local Mexican restaurant where they have “adopted” the employees there, basically serving as their chaplains. Bo and his wife took one of the servers to dinner for his birthday one night. The waiter, unaccustomed to the attention, broke down in tears and said “No one has acknowledged my birthday in 16 years.”

I don’t know how accurate “The Help” is or whether the criticism is justified. I do know that I am grateful for all the help I receive and strive to recognize the humanity in everyone.

Heaven forbid someone writes a book 50 years from now about the way we’ve treated our “help” in 2011. We would all do well to remember that helpers are people, too, just like us.

Football dreams

Every August I have the same dream/nightmare. It varies a little, but the essence remains the same each year.

In the dream, I’m back in high school participating in two-a-day football practices again as a member of the Lake Wales Fighting Highlanders.

Lance in football uniform
When your mascot is a man in a skirt, you have to compensate by scowling.

Similar to the college nightmares people report having about not showing up for a class for an entire semester and then suddenly having to take the final exam, this dream takes me back to an impressionable time in my life when I tackled a challenge that was both immensely difficult and personally rewarding.

Much has been written about the elevated status of football in Southern culture, and my formative years spent in two football hotbeds – Texas and Florida – instilled a desire to prove my mettle on the gridiron.

Playing football in Central Florida is incredibly difficult. It is hot almost the entire season, and the afternoon rains don’t cool things off as much as add unbearable humidity. My annual August dream evokes memories of lying in grass, soggy with dew, in full pads, stretching my hamstrings, staring through my facemask at a beautiful sunrise as temperatures climbed into the 80s. I simultaneously loved and hated it.

Some years my dream is that I still have eligibility, and like the episode of “My Name is Earl” in which Earl’s grown behemoth of a brother, Randy, gets to go back to high school to try and score a touchdown in a game, I get to come back and play, armed with adult wisdom if not actual physical size and skill.

Other years, I wake up in terror thinking I’m going to have to survive the heat and humidity, getting drinking water only as a reward and wearing 40 pounds of gear in extreme temperatures.

But I mostly reflect positively on my two-a-day memories. Like the day when Coach Hale, perched in his aluminum tower above the field called out to defensive lineman Patrick Kessler who had removed himself from wind sprints.

“Coach, I’m going to puke,” wheezed Kessler who was doubled over on the sideline.

“Puke on the run, Kessler! Puke on the run!”

Forrest Jones
Forrest Jones

Two-a-day practices can be deadly. In the last few weeks, Georgia high school football players Forrest Jones of Locust Grove High School and D.J. Searcy of Fitzgerald High School, both 16, died after pre-season drills. In both cases, heat played a factor and the highly-specific heat restrictions on Georgia high school football practices didn’t come into play because they were involved in voluntary, pre-season workouts. Searcy was even out of the state at the time attending a pre-season camp in north Florida.

D.J. Searcy
D.J. Searcy

These types of deaths are increasing. A recent Reuters news story about deaths included the findings of University of Georgia associate professor Andrew Grundstein that 123 players died from heat exhaustion between 1960 and 2009. Grundstein’s research on hyperthermia revealed that the annual death rate has increased from an average of about one per year in the 1980s to a 2.8 yearly average in the last 15 years.

He attributes this increase to higher annual temperatures and bigger players. Grundstein told Reuters that 95 percent of those players were overweight, 60 percent died after heat exposure in the morning hours, 85 percent were linemen and a full two-thirds of them died in the first two weeks of the preseason.

It makes me immensely sad for the families of these young men, both of whom had dreams of playing football as a career. While I grew out of those dreams, for many, their futures are predicated on how hard they work in those sauna-like practices each summer.

As we learn more about the science of sport and physiology, maybe it will become self-evident that dressing big boys in layers of equipment and sending them out to perform strenuous exercise in extreme heat is harmful rather than helpful.

I find it interesting that a key point in the negotiations of the new labor agreement in the National Football League was ending two-a-day practices in summer training camps. Even the pros don’t do it anymore. Maybe the administrators who regulate high school athletics will soon come to a similar conclusion.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the Jones and Searcy families. Their dreams have turned to nightmares. May God be with them as they grieve.

Peeled or fuzzy?

There are some activities in my home that would appear odd to an outsider.

Take my 2-year-old, for instance. It is not uncommon for him to walk past, pushing a chair or other piece of furniture. This indicates he is on a mission to scale some book case or reach the top shelf in order to retrieve a sought-after plaything. He might simply be looking for a sense of accomplishment. Why do people climb Mount Everest? Why does Carlton get on top of the buffet? Because it is there.

Carlton's peach
Carlton and the giant peach -- skin on.

This summer, his climbing has taken on more of a hunter-gatherer purpose. He forages in the pantry for snacks and has lately taken to robbing the fruit bowl. This fruit filching isn’t really such a bad thing. I prefer he take from its bounty rather than eat fruit-like gummy snacks from the pantry.

A few weeks ago the family was in the – what else – family room, and after hearing the tell-tale scratches of a chair being pushed across a wood floor, we turned to see Carlton enter the room clutching a peach with both hands, his teeth in it to the pit and juice running down his hands and staining his shirt.

We have finally gotten to the place in our coupon-obsessed and budget-conscious family that we only buy fruit that is in season – here in the U.S. that is. As a result, the quality of our fruit has improved while its cost has declined.

As former residents of what the locals call “Middle Georgia,” we have a fondness for the Fort Valley-based Lane Packing Company’s peaches. We’ve been lucky enough to find them in the produce section of our local grocery stores, and we’ve been enjoying their delicious peaches since June. But Carlton’s rogue and seemingly random indulgence in the fruit has caused a debate within our family.

Are you supposed to eat the skin of a peach?

My wife is adamantly opposed to it. Anything with fuzz on it should not be consumed. I learned last weekend that she gets this from her mother who grew up peeling peaches because that’s how her family has always done it.

In my younger days, it never occurred to me to not eat the skin. It’s part of the peach. As an adult I’ve come to understand the nutritional value of the skins of lots of fruits and vegetables – once the pesticides and herbicides have been safely washed away. But even as an innocent child, I assumed that you ate a peach with the skin on.

So which is it, peeled or fuzzy?

Carlton has it right, in my mind. A well-ripened peach, slightly soft and aromatic, should be thoroughly experienced, skin and all. Your teeth should occasionally bump into the hard pit. The juice should run down your chin to your hand and even down your arm.

A peach is one of life’s simple pleasures. I’m not interested in debating the superiority of Georgia vs. South Carolina or even, heaven forbid, California peaches. I’m just glad Carlton has discovered a snack worth climbing for.