Connecting with the past

When we hit the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from Charleston into Mount Pleasant the boys stopped watching Harry Potter on our minivan’s built-in DVD player.

From the span over the Cooper River we could see the U.S.S. Yorktown, parked at Patriots Point. It would be our home for a night, and it was lit impressively, beckoning us to come and explore.

“Wow! Is that it, Daddy?” and “I’ve never been on a ship like that before!” came from the back.

That’s when I knew it would be a good weekend.

Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown
Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in Charleston Harbor.

The boys and I joined 101 other Cub Scouts and parents from Pack 564 for an overnight visit to the retired aircraft carrier parked in the Charleston Harbor since 1975. The six hour drive was interrupted only by a stop in Sandersville to unload Carla and Carlton, who were spending the weekend with her parents.

What struck me most about the half hour stopover was Poppy’s excitement about the boys’ trip. He had served on the U.S.S. Little Rock in the 1960s, and began telling us about his experiences at sea. I referenced the conversation numerous times while on board the Yorktown, trying to help the boys connect with their grandfather in a new way.

For kids, the sheer size of the ship is a novelty. But throw in 38- and 50-caliber gun mounts to climb on, airplanes to get a closer look at and seemingly miles of passageways to explore, and you’ve got life-long memories.

Harris at the helm
Harris at the helm of the Yorktown.

What stood out to the boys? If you ask them, they will tell you about the galley with a recipe for 10,000 chocolate cookies printed on the wall. Or they’ll describe the brig, the massive engine room and the gigantic hangar containing old aircraft.

Their expressions of wide-eyed wonder as they took the helm and climbed into the captain’s chair spoke volumes about their experience, and the questions came faster than an F-18 catapulted from the deck of a carrier.

I could see the realities of life at sea with 2,600 other sailors begin to sink in with the boys as they stowed their gear in their “berths.” The stacks of bunks, three and four high connected by chains drew immediate calls for “top bunk.”

Barron even affirmed my career choice. After watching me duck through hatches all day, he said, “You wouldn’t be a very good sailor, Daddy. You would always be hitting your head.”

Barron in the captain's chair
Barron tries out the Captain's Chair.

When we got back to Sandersville to pick up Carla and Carlton, I caught a glimpse of a twinkle in Poppy’s eyes as the boys breathlessly fired facts and descriptions at him. They covered the highlights, pausing every now and then to let Poppy insert a story from his service to help provide context for what they saw.

It’s like the time I saw “Saving Private Ryan.” In the intensity of that film, I was able to barely grasp what it must have been like for my grandfather to serve in Normandy. Now my sons were seeing their grandfather in a whole new way as they experienced history.

We’re still processing the questions. The boys spent their President’s Day holiday drawing pictures of the Yorktown and setting up dioramas with their souvenirs, all the while asking more and more questions.

Perhaps even in the New South, there’s an appreciation for the experiences of our elders. I look forward to the conversations my boys will have with all their grandparents as their understanding of history grows and their bonds with them are strengthened.

How have you connected with your grandparents? Did a trip to a historical place or an afternoon of stories on the front porch or time at the dinner table give you a glimpse into their lives? Take a moment to share your experiences by leaving a comment.

Another British Invasion

Like most trends in popular culture, Carla and I are late to the ball on the Emmy-award-winning “Downton Abbey.”

Downton Abbey
The cast of Downton Abbey, now in its second season on PBS but gearing up for a third "series" on the BBC in September.

After many friends and co-workers insisted we join the cult of Downton, we reluctantly re-subscribed to Netflix last weekend so we could go back and watch the first season of the early 20th century British family drama now in its second season on PBS.

The first episode was pleasant enough to keep us watching, but it’s still hard for me to explain Downton mania.

The opening sequence of the first episode is beautiful cinematography. Sweeping shots of the interior of the house as the servants prepare for the day spoke volumes about the characters, the setting and even the plot. The story begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, and its impact on the heirs to the Downton estate.

It was hard to follow the dialogue at first. We had to tune our ears to the frequency that allows Americans to understand English spoken with a British accent and idioms.

The characters were interesting, and the interplay between the hired help set apart from the wealthy family had all the intrigue of a back-stabbing corporate drama. Like most of these British dramas, which Carla particularly likes in movie form, the plot seemed to turn slowly around relatively minor points.

It reminded me of the 1992 Oscar-winning film “Howard’s End,” which involved a similar plot about who would inherit an English estate. Perhaps I was too shallow back then to appreciate the story, preferring instead movies with lasers, explosions and car chases. My chief impression of “Howard’s End” was that it was overly long and less-than-exciting. The most compelling action in the entire movie was [SPOILER ALERT] a bookcase falling on someone.

But what enamored the Academy, if not twenty-something male movie-goers, is also true of Downton: the writing is brilliant and the characters well-crafted.

Dowton Abbey's servants
Wouldn't you like a staff of servants to help you keep your "estate" in order?

The way American television develops characters lacks subtlety. Writers and directors feel a need to stick to stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals to keep things simple. With Downton, every nod or wink or wince keeps you guessing about what is really going on with a character. Is Lord Crawley going to dismiss his war buddy, Mr. Bates, because of his disability? The dilemma plays out slowly and with nuance, holding your attention to the very last moment.

However, I must confess that Downton feeds one of my many annoying habits: poorly imitating British accents and phraseology.

As I cleaned up our plates of take-out Chinese, I couldn’t keep myself from saying in the clipped and precise manner of Carson, the head butler, “Is that all, your grace?”

I got a courtesy chuckle from Carla, but I could tell her patience with the Queen’s English wouldn’t last very long.

So I guess we’ll be visiting Downton Abbey regularly, joining the rest of you people who insisted we come along for the ride. With such a dearth of decent programming on the telly, this is a welcomed weekly retreat we can enjoy after putting the kids to bed.

I’ll try to keep a tight rein on Anglicising my vocabulary, and keep an eye out for falling bookcases.

Cheerio!

Do you watch Downton Abbey? What do you love about it? You say you hate British dramas? What do you detest? Take a minute and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Love means never having to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’

The longer I am married, the less Valentine’s Day means to my relationship with my wife.

valentine's day roses
I'm sorry but this just isn't natural.

I have learned that my wife operates by a simple but sometimes confusing philosophy: if everyone else is doing it, she wants no part of it. Therefore, if I come home on Valentine’s Day with a dozen red roses, I get the third degree on why I overpaid for flowers.

But, if I show up with a dozen white or pink or even yellow roses for no reason in the middle of June, I’m a hero.

The same is true for cards. If I go out and spend $4 on a Hallmark Valentine’s card, no matter what the message, she questions my sanity. If I take a blank piece of stationery and write a heart-felt note on a random Tuesday in September, I’m a champ.

Don’t even go there with chocolate. If I want to induce self-loathing in my wife, there’s no quicker way than to give her a giant box of chocolates that will tempt her until they’re gone.

I can only imagine her utter horror if a box of pajamas or a giant teddy bear was delivered. In fact, if there’s a commercial for it during the two weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, she finds it distasteful.  As much as she may appreciate diamonds, she has an involuntary convulsion every time she hears the jingle “Every kiss begins with Kay.”

Don’t get me wrong. Carla wants me to shower her with love and affection, just not on the same day and in the same way everyone else does.

Over the years, I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that Valentine’s Day just doesn’t mean anything for us anymore. And maybe there are others like us.

Carla has this theory that the earlier you are in your relationship, the more important Valentine’s Day is. Insecurity is at the root of all the card-writing and gift-giving, not romance.

valentine's day chocolates
Just because they come in a heart-shaped box doesn't necessarily mean they will evoke affection.

After you’ve been together for, oh, let’s say 15 years as a completely hypothetical duration, there’s less insecurity in the relationship. Demonstrating love and commitment comes in more practical forms.

If I really want to make my wife’s day, I’ll take the kids off her hands, send her out shopping or let her watch “Say Yes to the Dress” uninterrupted while I read to the boys. If I really want to show her how much I love her, I will leave her alone completely.

Before you think we’ve lost all sense of romance, let me say that we enjoy date nights from time to time, and any day other than Valentine’s Day is a good day for me to show up with flowers.

Truth be told, I think more women subscribe to Carla’s view than the Valentine’s Industrial Machine wants to admit. It requires no thought, no planning, no special effort to give your loved one the same gifts that everyone else is buying.

It’s like “Romance for Dummies.” There’s nothing about those traditional gifts that have meaning once you reach a certain stage in your relationship.

So while the rest of the guys out there are shelling out $50 for roses, $30 for chocolates or $100 for an oversized teddy bear, I’ll score major points by putting the kids to bed early, turning the lights down low and uttering those three little words that melt her heart:

“Here’s the remote.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Am I right, people? If the over-commercialized ideal of Valentine’s Day still appeals to you, speak up! Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Working moms

Carla drove our white minivan down Oak Road toward Snellville as I sat in the passenger seat, dreading the cost of the repairs to our 11-year-old Volvo station wagon.

Then she ventured to bring up a subject that interjects stress into all marriages.

Revenue.

Specifically, how we could increase our household income to be able to better absorb unforeseen expenditures and live debt free.

Dave Ramsey
Next time Dave Ramsey starts handing out cash, we need to be in that line.

I’m no Dave Ramsey, but increasing revenue seems pretty simple on the surface. I rambled for a few minutes about the possibilities of freelance work or looking for another job, but she wanted to discuss the idea of going back to work outside of the home.

Like the phases of the moon, this conversation resurfaces cyclically, but unlike the moon which influences tides, this reoccurring phenomenon is connected to the ebb and flow of our cash.

This topic always makes me a little nervous because I don’t know what to say. It seems self-serving for me to weigh in on either side, so I usually default to “What do you want to do?”

Carla is a capable, well-educated woman with skills and experience that would be employable in the marketplace. For the past 9 years, she has chosen to concentrate on managing our household and raising our three boys. I am grateful for her choice.

As we talked about the benefits and challenges of her returning to work full time, I couldn’t help but hear the “mommy wars” playing out in our discussion. Forgive my generalizations, but women who choose to work outside of the home tend to be defensive about how much time they spend with their children. Women who choose to not work outside of the home tend to be defensive about how they spend their time period.

I usually excuse myself from that debate by saying “Everyone makes choices.”

I know that men are just as capable of making the choice to work in the home so their wives can work outside of the home, and I have several friends who have made that choice. In our situation, it just so happens that right now we are following the more traditional scenario in which I am the one in the workforce.

Working moms face a lot of pressure. My own mother worked while I was growing up, taking time off to be with each of her three boys for a couple of years or more when we were born. Her career as a computer programmer then high school math teacher was interrupted several times, but each time she was able to find a good job and land on her feet. That’s the model I am used to and perhaps even unconsciously assume could work for us.

When Carla gets ready to go back to work outside of the home, she will have no trouble. But she still struggles with a sense of identity and self-esteem that comes from getting dressed up, going to another location, working hard and being rewarded for her effort with compensation and affirmative words.

The rewards of being a stay-at-home mom are often less tangible.

working mom image of Rosie the Riveter with a baby
All moms work. It's just a matter of location.

But moms who work in the home face a lot of pressure as well. When the economy takes a downturn and your health insurance premiums eat up any cost of living increases you get over the course of several years, all-the-while your children are growing up and your overall living expenses increase, moms can feel like they need to contribute financially to the bottom line.

The question women face of “to work” or “not to work” outside of the home has been with us for decades, but it does seem to have higher stakes in the New Economy in the New South. Having two incomes feels necessary to survive.

But is it?

I tried my best in the span of the 10 minutes left on our car trip to affirm Carla’s choices. I don’t miss the things we can’t afford because we live on one salary, and I enjoy the order, organization and overall tranquility her presence at home provides.

We are just now entering that phase of life when our children’s activities have us going different directions during the week. This will only get worse for the next few years. Our need for flexibility will only grow as we have multiple kids involved in Scouts, music lessons of some variety, sports or other school activities.

“All moms work,” I told her. “If you don’t need to work outside of the home for personal fulfillment right now, then I say keep working at home. We’re all a lot saner because of it.”

So are we the only ones who struggle with this? Do you question whether or not you should be working outside the home? Have you contemplated going back to work? What was your reasoning? How do you balance work outside of the home with family time? Take a minute to share your experience.