Time passes one brick at a time

Yesterday we took the boys to the new Legoland Florida theme park. The boys had an amazing day, judging by their smiles, laughter and my over-exuberant uploading of photos to Facebook.

Carla and I couldn’t help but reflect on our two previous visits to that property, each in a very different set of circumstances.

Barron and his cousin, Kalee
Barron and Kalee at Cypress Gardens in 2005

Before it was Legoland, the 150-acre site was Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s first theme parks, built around the natural beauty of Lake Eloise, meticulous and exotic gardening and incredible feats of skill on water skis.

I moved to central Florida at the age of 12, and had been to the park numerous times before Carla and I visited in 1996 while we were still dating. Carla was down to meet my family for the first time and see what many tourists spend thousands of dollars during vacations to experience.

During that trip we visited the Magic Kingdom, which stood in stark contrast to the aging and low-key Cypress Gardens. Leisurely strolling through the gardens hand-in-hand was a welcomed change of pace from the crowds at Disney, but other than dozens of photos of each other in front of various plants, waterfalls and other natural phenomena, there wasn’t much that was memorable from the trip.

The next time we visited, it was about 10 years later. Carla and I were married, and Barron was 4 and Harris was just a baby.  Cypress Gardens had been sold, refurbished, upgraded with new rides and reopened as “Cypress Gardens Adventure Park.” My brother and his family went with us, so Barron had his cousin, Kalee, to go on the kiddie rides with.

There are few pictures of the natural beauty, and almost none of Carla or me. We have dozens of images of Barron and Kalee, looking cherubic in their poses, but I don’t think we spent much time in the gardens.

Our boys at Legoland
Our three boys at Legoland

This time, Cypress Gardens had undergone the biggest transformation of all. Engulfed by the new Legoland identity, the gardens are still there but they are relegated to a corner of the park. We didn’t even go into the gardens during this visit. We were too busy admiring plastic brick creations, shuffling our boys between rides and taking in Lego-themed shows.

Carla and I took turns pushing the stroller, which alternated carrying Carlton and our backpack. As my Facebook friends can attest, we have more than a hundred photos, only one of which has Carla and me together. I don’t think we held hands once the whole day.

Life just isn’t about us anymore. With three kids, we spend our time, money and energy being parents and making memories for our family. It doesn’t even occur to us to think about what we want to see, ride or do during a day at a theme park.

The Wallaces at Legoland
The Wallaces at Legoland on Island in the Sky, Carlton's favorite ride.

In a way, Cypress Gardens and now Legoland is a door frame for us to put pencil marks on, measuring our relationship’s growth.

Who knows when we’ll be back or what life-changing circumstance will have occurred before our next visit. I do know that if the boys have their way, it will be soon.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens/Legoland? What was your experience like? Is there another place that helps you measure your life and growth? Share it with us! Leave a comment a below.

No matter how far away we roam

I’ll be home for after Christmas.

We’re at T-minus two days and counting until the big day. Soon, Carla’s parents will be arriving and we’ll being going to Christmas Eve services at church. The surprise and joy of Christmas morning will give way to the irritability and arguing of sleep-deprived children.

Cognitively, I know that Christmas isn’t for me. It’s for the kids. Emotionally, though, I need to have a connection with my past before I can truly feel I’ve celebrated Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, Christmas with my wife and children in our own home is special. I treasure the traditions we are developing and enjoy building life-long memories with our boys. But for me to feel like I’ve had Christmas requires a trip to my parents’ house in Central Florida.

Since I left for Troy University in 1988, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to Lake Wales some time during the holidays. The 502-miles of pavement allow my mind to travel through time to revisit memories of previous Christmases.

Michael Jordan cardboard stand up with Lee and Lance
Lee and I measure up with Mike, circa 1994.

Like the time I gave my brother, Lee, the life-size cardboard standup Michael Jordan for Christmas. All our Christmas pictures that year had Mike wearing a Santa hat in the background.

Or the year my youngest brother Lyle ate too many helpings of Lee’s famous barbecue meatballs during an all-night Madden football video game tournament. He has since sworn off meatballs.

Like Christmas itself, now that I have kids of my own, the trips to Florida have taken on a different meaning. My children look forward to these vacations because they get to spend time with grandparents they don’t often see, and, yes, they get even more presents.

My dad’s unpredictability adds to the excitement. One year he took the boys and their cousins for a night-time hay ride through the orange groves. Not a year goes by that he doesn’t introduce them to such classic songs as “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.”

Paw Paw takes the grandkids on a hay ride
Paw Paw's lawn tractor and trailer entertains the grandkids with a Christmas hayride in 2009.

So like so many snowbirds over the next several weeks, we’ll load up the minivan and head down I-75. If you have to drive home for Christmas, Central Florida isn’t a bad destination. At the risk of sounding like a member of the Florida Tourism board, this is really the best time of year to visit. It’s in that narrow window of about two months when the weather isn’t unbearably hot and humid. With temperatures in the 60s and 70s, we will be packing shorts and T-shirts, ready to enjoy outdoor play in my parents’ expansive yard or at one of the nearby parks.

Central Florida also just happens to be home to a number of theme parks. This year we’ll be trying out the new Legoland Florida, which opened this fall a convenient 20 minutes up the road from my parents’ house.

There is no place like home for the holidays, even for grown ups. I look forward to making more memories with my family even while reminiscing about a few that happened before I had one of my own.

Now I’ve got to go find my shorts to pack.

It’s your turn! Where do you travel for the holidays? Do you take family vacations or do you travel great distances to see family? Are you separated from family by geography and miss out and seeing family members? Leave a comment below on how you cope with holiday travel.

With every Christmas card I write

Even before my children start their annual greed lists, my wife begins a months-long odyssey of creating the perfect family image to send to loved ones at Christmas.

What some people dismiss as an antiquated practice involving such archaic institutions as the U.S. Postal Service, sending Christmas cards is the apogee of the season for Carla, who cannot fully enjoy Christmas until the refrigerator of every person we know is adorned with a unique artistic rendering of our family.

The 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card
The 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card. For the record, Carlton is helping his smile a bit by pushing up his cheeks, a tactic I frequently employed at his age.

Oh, to be one of those lucky families whose self-appointed public relations manager simply goes to one of those new-fangled websites, uploads a family photo from the past year into a template, electronically transfers a few dollars from their credit card and is finished with another year of sending Christmas cards.

But, alas, when I said “I do” to Carla Barron, I was saying “I do want to make sending Christmas cards an annual chore somewhere between cleaning out the basement and re-doing the kitchen on the difficulty scale.”

Yes, Carla does all the work, but having to offer feedback on her designs is like a bad trip to the optometrist.

“This one or this one?”

“A or B?”

“Clearer or brighter?”

I take some comfort in knowing that when British businessman Sir Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card in 1843 adorned with an image of a family offering a toast around a table, it was roundly criticized for promoting drunkenness. See! People have been making bad decisions with their Christmas card designs from the very beginning. This should take some of the pressure off us, shouldn’t it?

Despite all the customization we go through each year, there really is a method to our madness. We rotate annually between a family portrait and a shot of just the boys. Personally, I’m ready to cede every year to the boys, who for now, seem to be growing in cuteness while we just look older each year.

This year’s twist in our Christmas card was the introduction of a chalkboard. With this device, we could convey such pithy messages as “Merry Christmas” in black and white. Using Mixbook.com, Carla’s creation included a message from each of the boys under the headline “Wishing you a new year filled with …”

The back of the 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card
The boys' wishes were written in their own hand... well, except Carlton. His would have just been scribbles.

Barron and Harris stayed in the normal and somewhat predictable range of “joy” and “happiness,” both good sentiments. Carlton, as usual, went somewhat off the map with his wish. The conversation went something like this:

“Carlton, what do you want to wish everyone? Wishing you a new year filled with… what?” Carla asked.

“Good,” he said.

“Good what?” she asked, hoping to elicit something more grammatically correct.

“Good naps.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

There are nine days until Christmas. Almost all the shopping is done. The kids are on their last school day of the year, and I’m prepping for two weeks of Christmas vacation myself. We’ve been to numerous parties, spent time with friends, experienced meaningful worship and enjoyed family traditions that make this season so special.

I am most happy to report that the Wallace family Christmas card is done and on the way to you or, better yet, already on your mantel or other place of honor.

Whether or not it conveys the message we wanted or portrays our family in the best light, it’s done. Now I can have at least six weeks before I have start giving my opinion on what next year’s Christmas card needs to look like.

Think I’ll get started on those good naps.

Do you send Christmas cards? What’s your process? Do you do photo cards? How do you choose your message? Do you still do a Christmas letter? Leave your comment below and share your pain with us. This Christmas therapy is free!

Build yourself a merry Lego Christmas

That children inherit certain physical and personality traits from their parents is indisputable. Carla and I are both planners and list makers, so it should be no surprise that our children follow suit.

However, I am having trouble explaining the borderline mental disorder that has beset my children this year as they compulsively write and rewrite their Christmas lists. Never mind that they are completely focused on the “receiving” rather than the “giving.” So far those lectures have fallen on deaf ears.

Harris and Santa
Harris visits Santa, operating from memory without his Lego list.

And let’s also set aside the fact that they already possess enough toys to stock a discount super store. The children’s marketing machine that is Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel has convinced them there is so much more that they need.

I remember that it wasn’t so long ago that my own list was more than socks, underwear and an Amazon gift card. Growing up, my brothers and I compiled lists consisting of Atari games and Star Wars action figures and their requisite battle equipment. It wasn’t that we didn’t exhibit the same level of greed and self-involvement; it’s just that there were real limits. The problems children face today in compiling their lists is that their options are literally endless.

Long gone are the days my father used to describe when Christmas gifts from Santa were whatever could fit in a stocking and were highlighted by citrus products. A new bicycle or the now infamous Red Ryder BB Gun was a gift of amazing magnitude.

Lego dragon
Unleashing Lego on Christmas has resulted in a lot of indecision in my household... and sore feet.

Now, such “large” items are afterthoughts behind a dozen different video gaming systems, both home and portable, action figures from every movie that hits the silver screen and the bottomless pit that is the Lego franchise.

Ah, Lego. Here’s where my children really struggle at honing their lists. Back in my day, my brothers and I had a couple of boxes of Legos with which we constructed houses, cars and other rather rudimentary contraptions from our own imaginations, or a limited number of suggestions from pictures on the box.

No longer. Lego has a fully-customized set for all the same movies that produce all those action figures, complete with their own little action figures with removable accessories. The execs at Lego have figured this game out, and parents are parting with more and more of their hard-earned cash only to spend Christmas day re-creating movie sets.

Carlton and Santa
My Christmas list includes seeing more smiles like these from Carlton.

There are so many numbered Lego sets to choose from, they can’t narrow down their selections. Barron and Harris both have submitted lists that look like nuclear missile launch codes. Barron even typed his on the computer. When Harris found out we were seeing Santa last Sunday after church, he panicked because he didn’t have his list of Lego set numbers with him.

So as you cajole your children into narrowing their Christmas lists, allow me to offer mine. With apologies to Amy Grant, here’s my grown-up Christmas list:

  1. Peace on earth, etc.
  2. Patience to build complicated structures and apparatuses out of plastic bricks
  3. Skill to read blueprints and schematics for building with plastic bricks
  4. Money to pay for the plastic bricks
  5. Awareness that this phase of life passes all too quickly and that the memories made this year for my children will strengthen our bonds and make for good stories sitting around the dinner table as they grow into adulthood.

So what’s on your or your children’s Christmas list this year? What’s this year’s “Must Have” toy or gift? Leave a comment below and share your Christmas joy/pain with us. I promise it will help you feel better.

O Christmas tree

“How about this one?”

I held the 6-and-a-half foot Frasier Fir at arm’s length, shaking it vigorously so the branches would fall into a more natural position.

“Nope. Too skinny,” my wife said, frowning and shaking her head.

“You keep rejecting these trees because they’re too skinny. I’m starting to get a complex,” I said with a Vanna White sweep of my hand toward my own slender physique.

Barron helps me pick a Christmas tree
The one on the left lost out because it was too skinny.

This year’s Christmas tree selection process went about the same as it has for the last several. Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we load up the family in our minivan, go out for a big breakfast at Waffle House or IHOP, then head to the most convenient tree farm with the best selection – Lowe’s.

I’m sure there was a day where good Southern folk went into the woods to select their trees, cutting them right where they stood. Those days are rapidly fading into memories.

My wife’s father, who grew up on a farm, loves to tell about their annual Christmas tree selection. It involved a lot of sweat and, occasionally, some blood and tears.

The only tears in our selection process come from our 3-year-old when his brothers won’t push him around on the rolling skid.

Growing up in Dallas-Fort Worth, where there ain’t but so many trees to begin with, this wasn’t an option for us. We went the live tree route for several years, until we figured out that my brother always seemed to be sick during the entire Christmas season. Turned out he was allergic, so we switched to an artificial tree.

As I handed Barron two trees to hold so I could get a good look at them side-by-side, I couldn’t help but wonder how families made these decisions when trees were still attached to the ground. Friends who grew up going to a Christmas tree farm describe how the family would split up, indelicately yelling across the farm when they had found one, playing a waterless version of Marco Polo. The advent of the mobile telephone changed all that, but they confess that they do miss the hollering part.

By the time we settled on our tree – a nice fat one – tied it down to the roof of our van, got it home safely, whacked off a few branches from the bottom so it will fit in the base and put it in its proper place in our living room, it didn’t look the same. It’s lost a few pounds. Apparently, like some of us, it was carrying all of its girth in those lower branches.

Our Christmas tree
The finished product

Because of relatively low ceilings, the 6-and-a-half footer is all that will fit in our living room, but with lights and ornaments, it was transformed. Never mind that its needles began falling before the first strand of lights was affixed, our tradition is our tradition and we stand by it.

“You know, it wouldn’t matter if we waited a week to get our tree,” I said, unwinding the cord on the vacuum to get up the needles. “They still cut all these trees in October.”

But the tree turned out to be beautiful, and with each personalized ornament, the telling of the story behind it, the excited skipping about and the breathless and repeated asking “Is Christmas this day?” I saw just how important this symbol is to our family.

Though they may be updated from time to time, traditions add meaning. Here’s hoping your traditions make your Christmas season meaningful.

How do you pick your Christmas tree? What are the characteristics you look for in a tree? Where do you get your tree? Have you gone artificial? Do you have a pre-lit tree? Share your tree traditions and memories by leaving a comment below.