Nerd alert

Carlton's seat for Dragon*Con
Carlton had the best view of the Dragon*Con parade last year.

Does dressing in the costume of your favorite super hero make you a nerd?

Does carrying a plastic gun or laser sword make you a nerd?

Does donning pointed ears and makeup to resemble an elf make you a nerd?

Does getting up early on a holiday weekend to go downtown and watch a parade of these people make you a nerd?

My nerd tendencies have always had an uneasy coexistence with my jock inclincations. Before the days of fanboys and geek chic, I had a sense that my interest in “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” and other art forms from that genre had a place, but not a very public one if I valued my reputation.

Dragon*Con Parade storm troopers
Hey, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Put that gun away!

As pop culture references to such things have become more mainstream, I’ve been a little more willing to give my inner nerd some room to breathe. And now that I have three boys who have fully embraced “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and “Batman” I am confronted with a dilemma: do I encourage their interest in imagination-inducing entertainment or dampen their enthusiasm for elements of nerd culture and get them to embrace more mainstream elements of pop culture?

Last year I completely gave in to nerddom by taking the whole family — even Carla — downtown to see the spectacle that is the annual Dragon*Con parade. You know Dragon*Con right?

It is the big gathering of nerds held every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. Officiallly, it “is the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe.” I can’t challenge their assertion because, frankly, I haven’t traveled much outside of our solar system.

Batmobile at the Dragon*Con parade
“Engine to power. Turbine to speed.” No, I’m not talking about the Batmobile, I’m talking about Barron’s heart when he saw it!

We didn’t buy tickets to the event, so it was a fun, cheap way to spend a Saturday. The boys got to see people dressed in costumes of their favorite characters, including a 1966 replica Batmobile (Barron’s current obsession) and I got to relive a portion of my own childhood with all the Star Wars costumes.

The float and characters promoting the haunted houses were a little much for Carlton, who was 2 years-old at the time. Otherwise, it was a family-friendly parade.

So why am I going back again this year?

1. It’s fun. It’s not every day you see people trying to bring to life fictional characters who live only in your imagination, on the movie or television screen or in books. It has the same vibe as running into a celebrity at the airport, only that usually doesn’t involve plastic weapons.

2. It’s a time to bond with my boys. I’ve dedicated a lot of space in this blog to talking about how I bond with my children. Camping is one way. Engaging in the “campy” elements of pop culture is another.

3. Who doesn’t love a parade? I still remember sitting on the frozen curb as a child watching the Cotton Bowl parade with my friend, Ryan, one New Year’s Day. It’s a spectacle, and the democracy of the Dragon*Con approach of taking all comers (who sign in and arrive at the check point on time) is refreshing. There’s really no skill involved. And it’s interesting to try to pick out what each group of nerds is representing. There are some pretty obscure corners of pop culture represented, and fortunately, my friend, Rob, is an expert who can help identify the more niched references.

4. Sometimes the real world is just a downer. There’s world hunger, hurricanes, war in Syria, stalled economy, crime, etc., etc., etc. Being transported to another place and time for a few hours may not be productive but it does make it easier to cope.

5. I’m still a kid at heart. As much as I try to repress my urge to pick up a light saber and run around the yard joining in my boys’ Jedi combat, I must have an outlet for my inner child. Yes, it’s a little nerdy to always be quoting Obi Wan Kenobi (“Trust your feelings”) or Gandalf (“It’s the deep breath before the plunge”) at the office, but giving space for these fantastical diversions moderates the highs and lows of a workday.

So if you’re looking for me Saturday morning, I’ll be at the corner of Peachtree Street and International Boulevard hanging out with my boys watching the denizens of Dragon*Con strut their stuff. And if that makes me a nerd, well, so be it.

Do you have hidden nerd tendencies? What’s your secret nerd indulgence? Go ahead and get it out in the open. You’ll feel better. We won’t laugh. I promise.

What’s up with SUP?

Kneeling on the stand-up paddle boarding
Just like babies have to crawl before they can walk, you have to kneel before you can stand on a SUP.

For the last several years during my beach vacation I’ve been seeing people standing on surf boards with big paddles.

Curious but too timid to tackle this sport on my own, I finally got a taste of stand-up paddle boarding (or SUP as it’s commonly known) this week during a work retreat at Chickamauga Lake in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As I suspected, balance plays a part in your enjoyment of this sport.

I was able to get upright my first time, and managed to stay up for about 90 seconds before wiping out and losing my sunglasses – a small price to pay for a new experience and laughter by onlookers.

Standing unsteadily on a stand-up paddle board
I’ve often been accused of being unbalanced. Here’s photographic evidence.

At 6-foot-four, I was also somewhat of sail, being “blown about by the wind and tossed,” to quote Scripture. My colleagues took to it a little bit easier, but I won’t let my physique be an excuse.

After a couple of days of SUP, I did a little research and found out stand-up paddle boarding is taking the New South by storm.

Like all forms of surfing, the sport has its origins as a form of transportation among the islands of the Pacific. It made a resurgence in Hawaii in the 1960s before surfers exported it to California where it experienced something of a renaissance in the mid-1990s.

Now it’s migrating to the East Coast where you can see stand-up paddle boarders in rivers, lakes and the ocean from Florida to Maine. The Yolo board company calls Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., just outside of Destin, its home. That just so happens to be where my family vacations. No wonder we’ve been seeing stand-up paddle boarders!

Proficient at stand-up paddle boarding
After only one day, I’m a pro.

My colleague and talented photo blogger Patricia Heys tried paddle boarding during a recent vacation to Venice Beach, Calif. Patricia has a symbiotic relationship with the sun and enjoys water sports, so naturally she took to the sport with addictive fervor. When she returned to Atlanta, she found a used paddle board online and equipped her family’s lake house with the newfangled watercraft.

“I just like to be on the water,” she said. “It’s calming… and it’s a good workout, particularly for your core.”

And the more you fall, the more cardio is involved. It seems every time I took a plunge, I fell backwards, sending the board shooting off 20 or 30 yards away. The paddle doesn’t float, so swimming one-armed to the board was enough to burn a few hundred calories in about 15 minutes.

Sweet victory
The thrill of victory…

And everything I observed and read is that women are better at it than men.

I need more practice to master this sport, but never having surfed, I think this is a realistic alternative for me. And it doesn’t require waves or even saltwater. Perfect for the backyard pond or lake, I can see stand-up paddle boarding taking hold in the New South in a big way.

There are only a few more weeks of summer, so if you’re going to try it, better hurry.

Paddle on, friends.

Have you tried stand-up paddle boarding? What was your experience? Leave a comment below and share your story.

Can I have a second helping of home décor?

I’ll eat just about anything you can put on a plate, but I won’t admire just any plate you can put on a wall.

Those plates must be historic. And Southern. And tell a story.

When my wife of 15 years and I were concocting our wedding registry, (OK, let me restate that more accurately: when my wife of 15 years was concocting her wedding registry) there was one item that popped up on the “must have” list I had never heard of.

“Honey, what’s a Georgia plate?”

That’s when I got that look. You married guys know the one. The look that says “Are you really so unrefined as to not know about Georgia plates?”

Louise Irwin
Louise Irwin, creator of the Georgia Plates, would be so proud of our living room wall.

It’s the same look, incidentally, that I received when I asked such questions as “Aren’t window treatments really just curtains?” and “What’s a toile?” and “Why do there need to be so many pillows?”

As it turns out these Georgia plates are so famous that practically everyone who ever attended a Transylvania Club of Sandersville meeting knows all about them.

What? You say you don’t know the story of Louise Irwin and the Transylvania Club of Sandersville? OK, well, maybe I don’t feel so bad.

You see, back in 1932, Mrs. Irwin latched onto the idea of creating a series of Wedgwood plates depicting scenes from Georgia’s history to sell as a fundraiser for the club. Clearly Mrs. Irwin envisioned that 80 years later suburban housewives would be assembling and reassembling them into artistic formations on their living room walls.

Nancy Hart on a pink Georgia Plate
Nancy Hart says to the Tories: “Don’t be bringin’ that Torie stuff into MY log cabin!”

These plates are actually pretty cool. My favorite is the one depicting Nancy Hart holding a bunch of Tories, whoever they are, at gunpoint. Nothing says “Georgia pride” like gun violence against men in wigs in pink Wedgwood.

I think we’ve eaten on these plates exactly one time. It was a special occasion, like Christmas or Easter, when it seemed appropriate to stare at James Edward Oglethorpe under a pile of mashed red potatoes infused with gorgonzola.

There is so much I don’t understand about home decorating, and I’m sure this essay only confirms my lack of sophistication and taste. I don’t know when it became a “thing” to put plates on walls, but ever since our wedding guests happily complied with my wife’s dreams of owning the entire collection, we’ve had Georgia plates on our walls.

Georgia Plates
A very symmetrical and orderly display of Georgia’s history in Wedgwood plate form on my living room wall. Ain’t I sophisticated?

I do think they add something to our home, though, in a weird museum kind of way. In good light and at the right distance, I can actually read them. And if I take one down, I can flip it over on the back and have marvelous dinner party conversation starters: “Did you know that in 1734 Oglethorpe traveled to London to present the Creek Indian chief Tomochichi to the Colony’s Trustees? Yes, well, they were accompanied by John Musgrove and his wife, Mary, who had served as the interpreter for Tomochichi and Oglethorpe. Can you pass the asparagus?”

Hmmm … maybe I’m beginning to understand why we don’t have many dinner party guests.

What I do think these plates say about the New South is that there is still an appreciation of history. In the Old South, there was a devotion to tradition. In the New South, we like old stuff to remind us we have roots, a foundation upon which we can innovate, but we aren’t held captive to it. Touches of the old accentuate the new in our lives reminding us that as much as society changes, we still have a narrative that unites us as Georgians and Southerners.

So, go ahead and put those Georgia plates on the walls. The Sandersville public library will benefit from the proceeds, and before you know it, there will be another day on the calendar appropriate for using them to eat, like Leap Day or Guy Fawkes Day.

What place do plates have in your decorating? Do you use dinnerware in your décor? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, and happy eating/decorating!

When all the world was young

This June marked the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Troy University, and after spending this week with 140 college students at a conference in Alabama, I can’t help but reflect on how students are different in the New South.

Discussions in small groups at the SELAHvie conference in Alabama.
That’s me, the old guy on the left, leading a small group discussion at the SELAHvie conference for college students at Shocco Springs Conference Center in Alabama this week. Photo by Meggie Dant.

As a small group leader who did double duty as an interviewer and reporter covering the event, I spent the four-day conference studying these young adults, hearing their stories and processing my own journey along with them. Here are five characteristics of today’s students I observed from the week:

First, New South collegians are well travelled. I never left the confines of the United States until I was 29. Today’s college students most likely have several stamps in their passports before they reach graduation. They have shrunk the world as they experience new cultures and visit what would have been considered exotic and remote locales back in my day.

They are not only experienced travelers, they have a global worldview. They see how we are connected and how the actions of one country impact others. They understand intuitively that we are connected and cannot live in isolation. They have relationships with people in other countries and can personalize another cultural perspective.

Second, students today don’t expect much from the economy. Yes, they have career aspirations and a strong sense of calling, but because they have been matriculating during a global economic downturn, they don’t take good jobs for granted.

They also don’t base their identity on their careers. Of course, many of them are still sorting all that out, but in general, they don’t think of themselves as accountants, engineers, ministers, lawyers or physicians. They think of themselves as individuals first and people who have or need jobs second. They don’t define themselves by or invest too much ego in their future careers.

Third, their closets are much less crowded with shoes. In fact, a single pair of flip flops can accessorize any outfit in their wardrobes. There is no occasion that is not appropriate for flip flops. I understand that this conference was in August, but I think they would acknowledge that their flip flop habit extends well beyond summer.

When I was in college, the only flip flops I owned I wore in the community showers in the dorm. Now, students in the New South wear them everywhere.

Students at the SELAHvie conference
Students built community while at the SELAHvie conference. Photo by Meggie Dant.

Fourth, today’s students appreciate the small gesture. Twenty years ago when we talked of changing the world, we seemed invested in the idea of the big change – world peace, ending hunger, curing cancer. This generation of collegians keeps those larger goals in perspective and understands that big change happens incrementally.

They celebrate small victories and understand that something as minute and basic as a smile is a step toward world peace. This week they shared stories from their summers of how those little moments became powerful examples of larger changes in their lives and in the world around them.

Finally, I observed that today’s college students seek out and build community wherever they go. I don’t even think community was a word 20 years ago. Or at least it wasn’t applied conceptually the way it is today among young people. This sense of community goes beyond fraternities and sororities, athletic teams, music and theater performers, dorm neighbors, social cliques, religious groups or other formal configurations of relationships.

Community is a shared core value. They want to be able to share their lives with each other beyond one-on-one dating relationships, and they embrace shared experiences over rugged individualism. They appear to be less selfish, more giving and more open to living in a way that includes a larger network than we ever imagined 20 years ago.

Why these sociological trends are so is a topic for another day, and I understand that I’m being overly general in this analysis. But as colleges welcome back students all across the South, they are welcoming back a different kind of student than the one who stepped foot on campus 20 years ago.

But what do I know? I’m old school.

New South Essays leaves open the possibility that these observations could be completely wrong! Feel free to share your thoughts by commenting below.

Asocial behavior

Sheets of rain lashed the balcony of our condo, soaking our nearly dry swimsuits and towels. Day six of our week-long family vacation was being washed out, not by a stray afternoon Florida thunderstorm, but by a day-long, soaking tropical rain.

Harris buried in the sand
Harris takes cocooning to a new level.

With the exception of a couple of forays to local restaurants, we had thus far been able to avoid human contact. We alternated hours at the beach and pool with cocooning in our condo unit to play Life, Skip-Bo and Monopoly. There were sibling squabbles and peach ice cream breakfasts. Carla had her escapist beach reads, and I had my sweltering morning runs along scenic highway 30A.

It was the vacation we all wanted and needed, largely devoid of interacting with other people. But the rain changed all that.

As the sniping and whining reached a fever pitch, we turned to an outing to Destin Commons in desperation to save our sanity.

An annual trip to the outdoor-configured mall, home to a Rave movie theater, Bass Pro Shops and the giant money vacuum known as Build-a-Bear Workshop, had been part of our vacation tradition. In past years we had seen such cinematic classics as “Despicable Me” and “Space Chimps” there, and had finally convinced our boys that a matinee of “Brave” would not turn them into princesses.

The problem with the seemingly fail-safe plan? People.

As it turns out, what I have come to value most about my vacation is time away from people. Now before you get all judgmental and mistakenly call me “antisocial” (as my friend Brian likes to say, the word you are looking for is “asocial” unless you want to kill people), you know what I’m talking about.

You see, I’m extraverted. People are my power source. The more time I spend with people, the more energy I have. Like a science fiction contraption, I absorb the interactions of others until I become an unstoppable talking and engaging machine, engulfing everyone in my path with wit, charm, clever sayings and humorous anecdotes.

But every machine has an off switch. Batteries need recharging. Vacation is the time when I put my figurative Wii remotes in the charger and turn off the console. I avoid people for a week and spend time with just those people I list on my tax return.

The realization of this truth hit me as I stood in the twisting queue at the Rave cinema, tangled in a mass of humanity. Like an apocalyptic daycare with children crying over dropped ice cream cones and wet pull-ups as their parents tried to salve their every whim with handfuls of cash, the scene sent me reeling.

Why had I come out of my cave? Why had I voluntarily left the confines of the condo and the serenity of my beach chair for this?

When I reached the kiosk and learned from the swearing parent in front of me that “Brave” was sold out, I texted Carla. She informed me that she was spending quality time with our boys at Build-a-Bear Workshop.

As if the movie line wasn’t enough, I casually flip-flopped over to the Build-a-Bear, still shaking the effects of the people out of my head like so much accumulated pool water in my ears. What I encountered when I strode into that, that place, was so overwhelming that I thought I seriously might faint.

rainbow sherbet
Ice cream at Miss Lucille’s… A vacation tradition.

Dragging myself to the entrance under the auspices of checking e-mail on my smartphone, I gulped in the moist air and began formulating our escape plan. I was relieved when Carla agreed that she’d had enough of the scene, too, and we could return to the condo.

The rain abated, and the traffic east out of Destin was flowing. In no time I was in my soggy swimming trunks, mindlessly splashing around in the pool with the boys, laughing at squishy noises and playing made up games of tapping out the “Andy Griffith Show” theme on the bottom of the pool.

Vacation means a lot of different things at different times. For me, at this stage of my life, vacation means avoiding people. After a week or so, I can re-enter society and continue my socially carnivorous behavior.

Here’s hoping you got the vacation you needed this summer. I know I did.

What’s vacation mean to you? Do you like to totally veg out or do you like to see new things and have new experiences? Do you need a break from people or do you like to hang out with friends? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.