Playing catch up

I’ve spent the better part of the last week in Fort Worth, Texas, working long hours, enduring incredible heat and spending time with my youngest brother and his family.

The 8-day odyssey to the place of my birth felt more like two trips in one.  The first four days I was engaged in the annual meeting of the organization for which I work. The second four days, I was treated to a laid back schedule and the rare gift of time with my brother, whom I had not laid eyes on in two and a half years.

Lyle and his bass
See the family resemblance? With the guy in the hat, not the bass.

The oldest of three boys, I have found it difficult to keep in touch with my brothers as our lives have gone in divergent directions. My family and I ended up in Atlanta, my middle brother and his family live in Lake Wales, Fla., and my youngest brother and his family are back in Fort Worth after a two-year stint in Junction, Texas. I do okay keeping in touch with my parents, who serve as connectors for the three of us, but there is no substitute for spending time one-on-one.

Lyle is 10-and-a-half years my junior. He was entering second grade when I went off to college, and for the next 24 years, we’ve only had stolen moments to spend together: spring breaks, Christmas holidays, occasional shared family vacations and rare business trips that took me to his neck of the woods. And because of his family’s transitions the last few years, we haven’t even been able to get together at Christmas.

This lack of a relationship with my brother affects me in ways I don’t like to think about. While Lee – the middle brother – and I catch up at Christmas as the grounding point for our relationship, Lyle and I have missed out on that altogether. And unlike my weekly routine of calling my parents, with Lyle there is no consistent time that our schedules converge to allow meaningful conversation.

So we rely on Facebook to keep up with the daily events of each other’s lives, a weak substitute for an actual relationship.

This week went a long way toward helping to bridge the gap between us. As we toured the Fort Worth Stockyards, worshipped together, visited the national scouting museum, took in the giant Cabela’s store, swam with our kids and beat the 100-plus-degree heat with a dollar movie, our conversation was easy, genuine and full of the respect and affection brothers often feel but rarely express.

Typically, brothers express their emotions with a slug and an insult. Lyle and I simply don’t have time for that. When we’re together, we have to connect in meaningful ways or else we could completely lose touch.

Lyle and Haydn at Cabela's
Lyle and his 7-year-old son, Haydn, try out reels at Cabela’s on Tuesday.

That’s what struck me so much about our time together this past week. I was able to relate to Lyle, not as my little brother, but as a minister-in-training, parent, tour guide and friend. Yes, we spent some time around the table telling stories on each other, and on Uncle Lee, much to our children’s delight, but the inadvertently weakened bonds of our brotherhood were strengthened just at the time they needed it most.

I can’t remember a time that Lyle and I have been at odds, but that’s because we’ve been so distant we haven’t had a chance. I don’t want to pick fights with anyone, least of all my brothers, but I would trade a few disagreements for a closer relationship.

So as my summer heads into a middle stretch between trips, I’m back in my comfortable routine. I’m just going to commit one more time to find a way to not lose touch with both my brothers as life unfolds.

There’s simply too much to be gained to let go.

How do you keep up with your siblings? Have you recently been able to share in some quality time with your brother or sister? Leave a comment below and share your secret to staying connected to your siblings.

Want to keep cool? Wear more clothes

I know, I know, it’s counterintuitive, but as summer pays its annual, six-month visit to the South, it’s important to know how to dress for success.

White T-shirt collar
Showing a little white collar under a polo isn’t a sign of fashion clumsiness. It’s about keeping cool.

In an era when underclothes are getting way too much exposure for my taste, one example that is not only appropriate but expedient is men’s undershirts. In the South, it is not unusual to see the neck of a white, crew undershirt under a polo or golf shirt. It’s a secret Southern men have learned as they adapted to their humid environment.

First, let’s deal with the science. This may gross you out, but your body is secreting oils and fluids all the time. This stuff is what creates body odor and unsightly stains on your clothing, particularly the arm pits. You can avoid this mess showing up on your clothes by wearing an undershirt.

Among those aforementioned fluids is sweat. Southern summers induce sweating the way the smell of bacon induces salivating. No amount of antiperspirant can keep sweat from soaking your clothes. You need a barrier between your skin and your shirt. An undershirt not only traps moisture preventing it from soaking your outer clothes, it wicks the moisture away from your skin allowing evaporative cooling to take place. Hence, the title of today’s entry: stay cool by wearing more clothes.

Internet forums devoted to men’s fashion are divided on the topic, but as a long-time undershirt wearer, I can attest to the validity of the wicking and cooling properties of a T-shirt.

I routinely wore undershirts with my Sunday clothes as a kid and teenager, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I began wearing them under everyday casual wear. Attending school in Troy, Ala., I was exposed to what I thought at the time were pretty arcane fashion choices, one of which was undershirts with collared, knit pull-overs. In fact, I called it the “Troy Boy Look.” It consisted of a polo with white crew-neck undershirt showing through at the top, jeans, khakis or even khaki shorts with white socks and buck oxford shoes. Sounds real sporty, don’t it?

I mocked it for a while before eventually assimiliating, mostly because of an Alabama girl who gave me wardrobe “suggestions.”

While I don’t wear white socks and bucks anymore, I have kept the undershirt as all-occasion wear. It has absorbed the sweat trickling down my back at a sweltering September day game at Sanford Stadium. It has provided an extra layer of insulation when a cool breeze kicked up during a round of golf (although I can’t remember the last time I played and couldn’t find my clubs with a map.) And I always wear them under my dress shirts as any self-respecting man should.

So while everyone else in society today is showing off their underwear distastefully, I think it’s OK for a little white to be visible at the collar of a polo. I have learned that fashion sometimes gives way to practicality, and with this particular style, cultural adaptation results from prevalence.

undershirt
It’s more than a fashion statement, it’s a sign of intelligence.

I’ll admit this style is headed in a weird direction. I recently discovered that Spanx, a company that makes women’s “controlling undergarments,” has moved into the market of men’s “compression undershirts.” No, I’m not talking about athletic compression wear that shows off rippling muscles and aids in athletic performance. The new “compression undershirts” by Spanx are essentially girdles for men. I can’t vouch for their effectiveness at “holding everything in,” but they do give you the same effect of showing a little white T-shirt at your collar.

Anyone not living in the South may be a bit confused by this week’s post, but I assure you, this is an issue confronting Southern men every day. And if you want to look and smell your best during the summer, you’ll proceed to the closest Wal-Mart and get yourself a pack of Hanes crewneck undershirts.

If they’re good enough for Michael Jordan, they’re good enough for me.

What’s your take on men’s undershirts? Do they really keep you cooler or is it psychosomatic? Do you find it tacky to see a man’s undershirt at the collar of his polo? Leave a comment below to help guide the fashion impaired on this Southern style.

What I want to tell my dad

Of all the retail-induced holidays, Father’s Day requires the most time at the greeting card shelf.

It takes me forever to find something that captures the essence of the relationship I have with my dad. I don’t know who writes cards these days, but some of us would like something more meaningful than fishing, golf, napping, giving your children money, flatulence and drinking beer.

Dad shares funny videos with Harris and Carlton
Dad, sporting his sabbatical moustache, shares funny YouTube videos with his grandsons Harris and Carlton.

I also don’t feel that the sappy cards say exactly what I feel either, and it’s hard for sons to imagine giving voice to such sentiments. If you buy into the fact that a card can say something that you can’t verbalize, then maybe those cards are appropriate, but I strive for authenticity in my Father’s Day message.

So rather than let a greeting card company speak for me this year, I thought I’d subject you to a list – five things I want to tell Dad this year:

1. As I get older, I don’t need you less; I need you in a different way. I understand if it feels like what you used to do for me isn’t needed or appreciated, but now that I’m a father of three boys, your accumulated wisdom and experience can benefit me. And when we have an open line of communication, I can share my questions and problems in a way that invites your input. Ultimately I may make different choices than you did, but it is helpful to hear what you learned from raising us three.

2. It gives me great joy to see you enjoy your grandchildren. I can buy you gifts. I can finally afford to buy you dinner now and then. I can offer verbal affirmations that may lift your spirits. But I feel like the best I can give you is time with my boys. When I see you laughing and singing those crazy songs with them, it reminds me of those special times I enjoyed with you when I was young. I believe it brings you real joy to have those times, and maybe you are getting to re-live your best moments with your sons. I know it means a lot to my boys because of the way they talk about their Paw Paw.

Dad and Daniel Vestal
Pastor Wallace and Dr. Daniel Vestal, two preachers telling fish stories at my 40th birthday party.

3. Although you have been a pastor for more than 30 years, you were my dad first. While I have seen you in the role of spiritual leader and adviser, I need you primarily to be my dad. Last month as Carla and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, I watched the video from the rehearsal dinner.  As I listened to a much younger version of me explain why I asked you to be my best man rather than officiate the ceremony, I was struck by how I feel the same today. I have always respected your convictions and your ministry, but your support, correction and guidance have had a greater impact on shaping who I am. You always seemed to know that, and I am grateful.

4. I still want to make you proud. I’m not bringing home report cards or playing high school sports anymore, but I am not so differentiated that your approval doesn’t carry significant weight. The profound impact you have had on my identity comes through with nearly every important decision I make. What you think, whether I want to admit it or not, still enters into the equation as I consider options and angles. You continue to make a difference in my life and worldview.

5. I can’t say this any other way: I love you. I love you on your best day, and I love you on your worst. I love you when you feel like you are being a good dad, and I love you when you feel that you have failed. I love you when you preach your best sermon, and I love you when you deliver a dud. I love you when you give surprising and extravagant gifts, and I love you when all you can offer is an encouraging word. As I grow to understand a father’s love from firsthand experience, I love you more each day. No circumstance I can imagine will change that.

So if there’s a card on the shelf that says all that, I couldn’t find it. I hope you don’t mind that I shared this in a public forum. I have a hunch that there are a lot of sons out there who would say similar things to their dads if they could find the right card.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I look forward to many more years of learning from you, loving you and depending on you.  You’re a great father, and I hope that truth will give you more joy than a gift card.

OK, I’ve had my chance, what would you say to your dad if you could? In what ways has your father made an impact on you? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

On the move

As I dipped a scoop of chocolate ice cream onto a sugar cone, it hit me: the Normans really are moving.

A Sunday afternoon ice cream party for our friends appeared to be a typical Southern backyard get-together. Children played. Adults talked. Everybody ate. But what I hadn’t really thought about as we prepared for the festivities was that the Normans were moving away.

Insert “change” cliché here.

for sale sign
Signs like these spring up in lawns around our neighborhood every spring and summer like flowering weeds.

There are so many I won’t even attempt to supply one, but any of them will work to express the cultural phenomenon of transition that has come to characterize life in the New South.

Carla and I are feeling the disorientation of relationships transitioning as several friends are moving away from the Atlanta area this summer. We’ve had summers like this before, and in our nine-plus years in the Atlanta suburbs, we have said goodbye to dozens of good friends.

This time through the cycle, though, I can’t help but notice how these transitions reflect the culture of the New South. As this economy spurts and stalls, folks have to move to advance in their careers or, in some cases, just keep their jobs. Plus, some folks land jobs after prolonged periods of unemployment and have to move.

The effect of all this moving is that relationships tend to be more temporary, more seasonal.

Rebecca, Michelle and Carla
No more coffees, no more Easter Sunday lunches, no more commiserating about husbands for Rebecca, Michelle and Carla. Michelle Norman, center, is moving to Greece this summer, breaking up this trio.

Long gone are the days when you started with a company after you finished your education and retired from that organization 40 years later. We all know intuitively that changing jobs, even changing careers, is part of the fabric of our lives these days, but it takes a toll on our relationships.

Yes, we can now stay connected with friends through Facebook, but what is lost is the interaction. The cookouts, the play dates, the church suppers, the celebrations of new births and graduations as well as support during medical or personal crises. Our kids don’t get to grow up together, and they see and feel firsthand the emotional pangs of letting go.

I remember making a huge transition from Dallas-Fort Worth to central Florida as a 12-year-old. It was traumatic, but it was a change I embraced at the time. I think it helped me have a sense of independence and possibility, so that when it came time to go off to college, I was better prepared emotionally to begin to separate from my parents and live on my own.

Maybe all of our transitions help our children cope with change, but I fear that it’s teaching them to be cautious in their relationships. They are learning subconsciously to not form deep attachments because they’ll only be hurt or disappointed.

It’s too much of a generalization to say that all relationships in the New South are only at a surface level, but I do think it’s much more likely now than 30 or 40 years ago.

Matt Norman
Everyone was all smiles at the going away party for Matt, foregound, and Michelle, background, but now that they’re gone so is a part of us.

I celebrate the transitions my friends have been able to make over the past few years and will make in the months to come. The Normans have been trying to move to Greece for at least two years, and the relocation represents the fulfillment of a dream and a calling. I’m genuinely happy for them.

But I can’t help but feel a little diminished each time we lose the close connection with a family that we once spent time with. Yes, we can visit, and they can come back here to visit, but over time, those visits become impractical and the busyness of life takes over.

Rather than give into shallowness, here are my three strategies for enjoying friendships in the New South:

First, enjoy your friends while you can. Invest in other people deeply. Eat together often. Get together. Play. Laugh. Don’t count the cost or worry about the future. Be present for each other and enjoy each other while you can. You don’t know how long it will last, so don’t take the relationship for granted.

Second, do what you have to do. Don’t let your friendships hold you in limbo if an opportunity arises that you need to pursue. Sometimes, a better thing requires a move. Go for it. You can continue to invest in your friends – although in a different way – from a distance, and you will discover new friends.

Third, talk to your kids about transitions. Don’t leave them to process these grief experiences alone.  They can learn from other people’s transitions as well as their own and begin to prepare for their inevitable life transitions.

So as we all say “goodbye” with greater frequency, take time to savor your friendships. Celebrate the successes and new opportunities your friends experience. And keep putting yourself out there, investing in people and relationships.

New or old, the South just isn’t the same without a sense of community.

Have you had to make a transition recently? How did you handle it? What did you do to help your kids weather the move? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

In search of the moment

As temperatures rose into the upper 80s, I packed the minivan for a three-night campout at Black Rock Mountain State Park just north of Clayton. With sweat running down my forehead and my patience waning, Carlton and Harris sat in their seats too eager to get underway to heed my repeated instructions to stay out of the van.

We all received anxious hugs and kisses from Carla, and soon we were headed north, the strains of a “Harry Potter” movie on the DVD player.

Carlton and Harris roasting marshmallows.
Roasted marshmallows for breakfast.

Last year on Memorial Day weekend I discovered two truths: don’t ever try tent camping in South Georgia in late May and, more importantly, there is no activity that helps you spend uninterrupted time with your children like camping.

My deal with Carlton, 3, since last year was that he could go camping as soon as he learned to go in the potty. He finally crossed that hurdle a few months ago, so his time had arrived.

He was so excited to be going on his first camping trip that he asked me every day for a week “Is dis da day we go camping?”

Dis was da day.

The boys fishing at Black Rock Lake
Drowning worms

In two hours we were winding our way up Black Rock Mountain, carefully maneuvering the switchbacks. I was thankful I wasn’t towing a camper. The campground was nearly full, but we found a perfect spot with a shaded picnic table a short distance from the “comfort station.”

The echoes of children’s laughter, the crackling of wood in fire pits and the whirring of bike tires gave evidence that family camping is alive and well in the New South. As we set up camp and started the charcoal for supper, I could feel the tension ease in my neck and shoulders. Even with Carlton getting into everything and asking a zillion questions (“What does dis ting do?”) I began to notice small subtle details about my children that I haven’t been able to see in the rush of our everyday, hectic existence.

I hadn’t really thought about what I was after by planning this trip. I enjoy camping, even though I need an air mattress these days, and the boys enjoy it, too. Camping always brings back memories of the camping vacations I took with my family at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City, Fla.

Barron checks out a scenic overlook with binoculars
Scanning the horizon

Conversation came easily as we ate our meals of hot dogs, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, pancakes, bacon, eggs, sandwiches – the menu wasn’t nearly as important as the time at the table. Yes, there was the usual inane rehashing of TV show or movie plots that drives me insane, but there was also deeper reflection.

Harris, in particular, has a habit of saying “I love you, Daddy” when he’s in a good mood. The “I love you, Daddys” were flowing as well as the victory dances when he won six games of Skip-Bo in a row.

We fished, we played at the playground, we took pictures at the scenic overlooks. We even toured the Foxfire Appalachian heritage museum. The trip had just enough structure and activity to keep us from getting bored, but most of the time we built fires, played cards, laughed and talked.

Carlton asleep
Camping takes it out of you.

Carlton did fine with camping. He fell asleep the last night a little after six, roused only long enough to eat a S’more (which he called “snores”) before succumbing to sleep again. He was joined in his early bedtime by Harris who couldn’t even wake up enough to join us for a S’more.

So Barron and I passed the dusk into early nighttime with Uno, the old standby of camp entertainment. When the bugs descended, we moved into his small, two person tent and played by flashlight. We talked and laughed. It was unforced and natural, a bonding that I try too hard to make happen at times and then miss altogether at other times.

Yes, my boys are growing up, Barron will enter middle school next year. Harris will be in second grade, and Carlton is rapidly leaving the toddler stage. I can’t always treasure the moments like I should. But when you get out in the woods, you notice everything. And if my boys are anything like me, they’ll remember a lot of it, too.

The four Wallace men
Happy campers

I had my moments with each of the boys, moments when I saw something behind their eyes, something more than just their outward appearance. I recognized myself and Carla in them. I saw glimpses of their spirit, flashes of their souls. A few times, I even thought I saw their future selves.

It’s amazing what we see when we slow down and set aside all distractions.

Camping isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. What’s a few bugs in your tent if you are building stronger relationships with your children?

Do you like camping? What do you remember about the campouts of your youth? What do you like to do on camping trips? Where is your favorite destination? Share your thoughts in a comment below.