Wheels

As I write today’s entry, a life hangs in the balance.

This is not our car, but it's the same model. I don't think I ever parked it on the beach.
This is not our car, but it’s the same model. I don’t think I ever parked it on the beach.

Our 11-year-old Volvo V70 station wagon sits in the parking lot of a transmission repair shop awaiting its fate.

Those of you who are regular readers of New South Essays will remember that number 19 on my 30 days of Thanksgiving list was “functioning vehicles.” Apparently I didn’t knock on enough wood to stave off a jinx, but the Volvo has been tough. We’ve had near-death experiences before.

Almost five years ago, what was then Carla’s car received the terminal diagnosis of imminent transmission failure. The only treatment option, the dealer told us, was total replacement at a price tag exceeding $5,000.

That was nearly 100,000 miles ago. We elected not to pursue the replacement, and instead, Carla got a minivan and I started driving the grocery getter to work. Yes, we had to tolerate a certain level of “rough shifting,” but it’s amazing how much rough shifting you can live with for $5,000.

All has been well until I changed jobs at the end of August and started commuting to Midtown Atlanta. After a couple of months and several instances of the car just shutting off on me, Carla and I elected to switch vehicles. While I traded up in the reliability department, I made a lateral move in the coolness department.

For several months our boys, particularly our eldest, teased me that I was driving “an old lady car” when behind the wheel of our station wagon. When I started driving the Honda Odyssey, he said I was now driving a “Mommy Mobile.”

I would love nothing more than to have the Volvo put out of service and be able to buy a brand spanking new pick-up truck. But financial realities being what they are, a truck is not in my immediate future. We really need to be able to either A.) keep driving the Volvo or B.) trade it in for some value toward another vehicle. A truck would be about the least practical purchase for my daily commute.

It may be a stereotype, but the Clampett's car might be the most recognized Southern automobile this side of John Deere or NASCAR.
It may be a stereotype, but the Clampett’s car might be the most recognized Southern automobile this side of John Deere or NASCAR.

All this has me contemplating vehicles in the New South. If a pickup truck is a Southern icon (remember the opening ceremonies of the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta with the synchronized pickup routine?), has it been replaced? What is the iconic vehicle of the New South? Is it Mercedes Benz, manufactured in Vance, Ala.? Is it a BMW, made in Spartanburg, S.C.?

Or could it be the Kia or Hyundai models, manufactured in Georgia? Porsche is about to build a new headquarters in Atlanta at the site of the old Ford plant near the airport. Could a Porsche be the signature vehicle of the New South?

I don’t really know. It may be a minivan, for all I know. Every time we leave church or a scout meeting, the parking lot looks like a used car lot specializing in the Honda Odyssey.

This week’s post is interactive. Your vote counts, so participate and encourage others to answer today’s poll question: What is the quintessential vehicle of the New South? If we can answer this question definitively today, we could give car dealers something new to advertise during the holiday glut of red bow-topped cars.

Make your nomination by leaving a comment below. Results will be published with next week’s essay.

Boys and dogs

For the last several years, our boys – particularly our oldest – have been pleading for us to get a dog. My reply has always been, “We have a dog. Her name is Pasha.”

Our new dog, Tobey
Tobey is a poodle-Bichon Frise mix and the perfect dog for us.

This is only partially true. There is a dog named Pasha that lives next door to us. She is friendly and comes to the fence to watch us play and bark her greetings, but she is not our dog. We do not have to feed her, clean up after her or take her to the veterinarian.

In my way of thinking, Pasha is the perfect dog.

When the boys decided having their own dog was preferred to watching and petting the neighbor’s dog, I resorted to a more practical defense.

“We don’t have a fence around our backyard. We couldn’t keep the dog from running off.”

To this the boys simply indicated they didn’t really want a big yard dog anyway. They wanted a little indoor dog like Jack, who belongs to my in-laws, or Leo, who belongs to my parents.

I thwarted this argument on a medical basis.

“You boys and your mother are allergic to pet dander. If we got a dog you’d be sneezing your head off all the time.”

Barron, our oldest, now 11, has been particularly relentless. His research online has produced a list of  breeds that do not shed.

I continued to parry and dodge their pleas with such logic as “They cost money” and “What do we do with them when we travel?” and the coup de gras: “They die after you get attached to them.”

This week, I lost the battle. Two weeks after Barron and Carla met a poddle-Bichon Frise mix (or “poochon” if you prefer) named “Tobey,” at a pet store adoption day, we brought home another bundle of joy.

Tobey, who is somewhere between 5 and 7 years-old, doesn’t shed. He doesn’t bark. He is house broken. He is playful without being rambunctious. He’s little. He’s been fixed. He can ride with us in the car when we go out of town.

Tobey kisses Barron's chin
Barron was the biggest advocate for adding a pooch to our family. He’s reaping the rewards.

Tobey has an answer to my every objection. Well, every objection except one, which may have been my real, deep-seated reason all along. Tobey will die one day after I’ve grown attached to him.

How do I know this? Besides the obvious and unavoidable truth that all living things must die, I have experienced the loss of a pet. Perhaps I’ve never gotten over it.

When I was a toddler, my father worked the night shift for American Airlines at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Not wanting to leave my mother alone at night, he bought her a German Shepherd. Her name was “Tippi” for the tuft of black fur on the end of her tail.

Tippi was a great dog. Intelligent, protective and loving, Tippi tolerated all manner of my annoying habits, from trying to ride her like a horse to holding her tail and following her up and down the backyard fence line wearing a bucket on my head and singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army.”

Tippi developed tumors, and eventually the canine cancer progressed to the point that my parents had to have her euthanized. By that point I was old enough to have read “Where the Red Fern Grows” and watched “Old Yeller.” Losing Tippi was every bit as painful as vicariously grieving the loss of those fictional pets.

My defense was to shut down my capacity for connecting with animals. I avoided other people’s pets and even shunned my parents’ dogs when we moved into a house my sophomore year of high school that had a large, fenced-in yard. Their two lab mixes were as friendly and loyal as ever two dogs could be, but I resolutely kept myself from getting attached.

No dog could replace Tippi, and I knew that if I let another dog into my life, it would end in heartache.

But here I go again. Maybe Tobey can help me access a side I have shut off for 30 years. Maybe the joy of seeing my boys laugh and play with their dog will soften the pain I have suppressed for decades. Maybe I will be old enough now to understand that the companionship of a dog is so sweet that even the pain of its passing can’t outweigh the time spent building that special bond.

Tobey isn’t a very manly dog, and I know I will look and feel ridiculous walking this little white, curly-haired fellow through the neighborhood. A Southern gentleman should have a sporting dog to help hunt and fetch game. But because I don’t hunt, I think Tobey will suit me just fine. After all, as Kate Campbell sings in her send-up of contemporary Southern culture, “New South:” “Bichon frises are our new hounds.”

I will also take this opportunity to teach the boys responsibility. They will bathe him, feed him, give him water, walk him and clean up his poop.

Aw, who am I kidding. It’ll be me standing out in the backyard in freezing temperatures with a plastic bag on my hand waiting for him to do his business.

And as I stand there shivering and contemplating my sanity, I will bond with Tobey. He’ll be my little friend, too. And maybe, just maybe, I will heal from a little boy’s loss and learn to love again.

Do you remember your first pet? Have you had to recover from the traumatic loss of an animal companion? Share your story by leaving a comment below. You’ll feel better, I promise!

A month’s worth of thankfulness in one serving

November brings with it a number of seasonal peculiarities: falling leaves, premature Christmas decorations, cooler temperatures and now, in the New South, daily thanksgiving posts on Facebook.

It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy
Being thankful is a lifestyle, not a state of mind.

I’m not sure when the trend started, but taking the month of November to post “What I am thankful for today” status updates has caught on. Yes, there is the expected reaction of satire and mockery, but overall what fills my Facebook newsfeed these days is more genuine than humorous.

My wife started the November Thanksgiving Facebook status updates last year and has continued the tradition this year. She reports that it’s more difficult to come up with something on harder days, but she always manages to post. So far she hasn’t been guilty of that prayer practice of small children who merely recite their thanksgivings to God by looking around the room and mentioning everything they see: “Thank you, God, for my socks and for Lego and for puzzles and for squirrels and for Thomas the Tank Engine…”

One of the most difficult disciplines is regulating your attitude apart from your circumstances. If we surrender control of our mood to the randomness of life, say a bad commute home from work or a vomiting child, then we will most likely be miserable most of the time.

gratitude is the memory of the heartHowever, if we approach each day with the reminder of all that’s good in our lives, we can ride the waves of life rather than be drowned by them.

I haven’t participated in this new Thanksgiving tradition simply because I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know that I could come up with 30 days of thankfulness in the moment each morning, so to send you into Thanksgiving week, I’m offering a month’s worth of thanksgivings all at once (in no particular order):

  1. A faith that is strong enough to endure challenges but flexible enough to grow when confronted with truth.
  2. Carla. Simply stated, the best wife I could have ever been fortunate enough to marry.
  3. My parents. They instilled in me early on the right priorities and have offered encouragement and guidance when I needed it most.
  4. Barron. A dad couldn’t ask for a better oldest son. Responsible, creative and funny.
  5. Harris. Like the crème filling of an Oreo, he makes the middle the best part. I particularly enjoy our talks.
  6. Carlton. Resourceful and self-reliant, his zest for life re-energizes.
  7. My in-laws. Gracious, generous and always delightful to be around, they make visits to their home a respite.
  8. My brother, Lee, and his family. I have the utmost respect for his ministry and know he has more integrity than just about anyone I know.
  9. My brother, Lyle, and his family.  I don’t get to see them enough, so each visit is a treasure, and I know he is preparing for a life-long ministry that will touch many, many lives.
  10. Our home. Not only do we have enough bedrooms for everybody, we have space to open our home to friends and family on a regular basis, and we are always the better for it.
  11. Good friends. You know who you are. No matter what segment of my life they enter through, my closest friends enrich my life with laughter, challenging ideas and support. I could have listed each of you as a separate item, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just lump you all into one entry.
  12. My neighbors. You never want to take for granted having considerate and friendly neighbors. Even just a smile and a wave add something to my life.
  13. My job. Working at Georgia Tech doesn’t just pay the bills. It stretches and challenges me while giving me the opportunity to form new relationships with quality people.
  14. Parkway Baptist Church. A place where I can serve, learn and enjoy the company of fellow travelers on the road.
  15. My daily bread. Haven’t missed a meal, and I don’t take that for granted knowing there is real poverty in the world.
  16. Good health. Despite a nagging shoulder/back strain right now, I enjoy exercise and nothing makes me feel more alive than a good run.
  17. Down time. It may be infrequent, but when it happens I cherish it.
  18. Lilburn. A great community filled with a diverse population who are involved and care about their children and is not so far outside the perimeter.
  19. Functioning vehicles. This may be a “knock-on-wood” entry, but for now, all systems are “go” on the station wagon and minivan. Never dreamed I would ever be thankful for a station wagon and minivan.
  20. Google search. Everything is knowable. No more struggling to remember which actor played in which movie or what the lyrics are to a song stuck in your head. It really has become our brain supplement.
  21. Fantasy football. A diversion I allow myself. It’s fun whether I win or lose.
  22. Summer vacation. We always go to Santa Rosa Beach, and it’s one of the highlights of the year for our family.
  23. Sunday afternoon naps. Forced to take them as a child, naps are now the most-anticipated event of the week.
  24. Scouts. The experience has given me so many opportunities to spend quality time with my boys that no matter what rank they achieve, I know it has been a worthy investment of time.
  25. Saturday morning pancakes. I contribute so little to meal preparation in my household that it’s nice when I get to prepare our weekly pancake breakfast. Even I can’t mess up pancakes.
  26. Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s millions of dollars of profit notwithstanding, this has been a great way to keep in touch and reconnect with friends from all over the world.
  27. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Not only was it a fantastic place to work for 10 years, it’s a worthwhile ministry doing amazing things worthy of support.
  28. Christmas vacation. Always includes a trip to Florida and time with both sets of grandparents. Beautiful weather, rest and great memories.
  29. Writing. Even though I don’t get to do it enough, I am enriched by each opportunity to express my thoughts. My book will get finished someday.
  30. Blog readers. You put up with a lot of lackluster writing, but you have hung with me for nearly 20 months now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Share what you are thankful for by leaving a comment below, then share this post with others!

Fiscal cliff

Lately my wife and I have been talking a lot about money.

fiscal cliff ahead road sign
This message may be personal as well as national.

No, not the exciting “What would we do if we won the lottery?” kinds of conversations about money. More of the “If we refinance our mortgage what does our monthly budget look like?” kinds of conversations about money.

During the seemingly never-ending presidential campaign, we heard a lot about the economy, but my hypothesis is that most couples either don’t talk about or don’t like talking about finances, even if they have plenty of money.

It’s definitely a wedge issue in most marriages. Carla and I avoid the subject like the plague. I know; it’s silly. It’s the same principal Carlton employs when he covers his own eyes to “hide” during Hide-and-Seek. Somehow, we think if we don’t discuss it, we have all the money in the world.

Well, when it comes to money, ignorance is definitely only blissful in the short term. Eventually, you have to face reality. Everyone has a fiscal cliff.

It’s interesting that we criticize our government for not being able to sit down and solve our debt crisis without devolving into partisan bickering while at the same time, most of us married couples can’t have a civil conversation about spending.

Like Congress and the President, we wait until there’s a crisis. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? One spouse has inadvertently overused the debit card pushing the account to the brink of being overdrawn. Or maybe an extravagant purchase was made without the consent of both spouses. Or money that was set aside for savings ended up being slowly eroded over time to meet monthly budget overruns or used for something unexpected like a new set of tires. These are the situations that cause most of us to finally sit down and talk about our finances.

Carla and I tend to discuss our finances while driving. It’s just easier to discuss money when you don’t have to look your spouse in the eye. My recent job change has necessitated more of these windshield chats to talk through our budgetary realignment. For starters, I went from being paid every two weeks to once a month. This kind of shock to your system requires conversation.

A couple with a dollar sign in the middle
At first, conversations about money can sound a lot like arguments. You have to get past that phase in order to make progress.

We scheduled a summit – not the kind of summit where we jet off to Sea Island and discuss heady world economic challenges over shrimp cocktail and Dom Perignon.  This was a kind of intentional conversation that allowed for total honesty, no blame and mutual support. The result? We had our personal 10-point economic plan for avoiding a fiscal cliff.

I am not a marriage counselor or a certified financial planner. That said, I humbly share five tips to help you and your spouse talk about your finances:

1.) Whatever it is, it’s both of you. If the money is flowing in and your problem is how to spend it, it can’t be just about one spouse or the other. Even if you maintain separate bank accounts, your collective largesse or indebtedness is a financial reality that must be owned and shared by both of you. If you take credit or assign blame, you will kill any dialogue before it starts.

2.) Start with the big picture. Most couples are penny wise but pound foolish. It’s easier to begin the conversation by talking about overall assets and liabilities than jumping down into the details of expenditures. This also helps set the stage for shared ownership of your financial situation.

3.) Neutralize your language. Speak in realities without assigning blame. “You” and “yours” must be “us” and “ours.” Avoid loaded phrases like “your spending” or “my salary.” It’s more helpful to talk about household income and expenditures.

4.) This is a private conversation. If you share too many of the details with your loved ones, you will find yourself talking about your spouse instead of to them. If you talk in front of your children, you may find your name on the church prayer list under “financial concerns” because your child mentioned what they overheard in Sunday School. Seriously, it freaks kids out to hear their parents arguing about money. It’s not very sexy, but if you must, plan a date night to have “the talk.”

5.) Schedule regular updates. This can’t be a once-every-six-months conversation. You need to write into your calendars consistent, monthly meetings to help you get over the awkwardness and conflict. Like any habit, it’s gets easier over time.

For what it’s worth, this is what I think. We live in a New South that isn’t as financially stable as it once was. Marriages have many points of conflict, but we all know money can be one of the biggest.

If Congress can do this, surely you can.

What tips would you offer to help couples discuss their finances more openly? What has been your experience that others may find helpful? Leave a comment below and channel your inner-Dave Ramsey.

Sick day

Raise your hand if you ever envied your sick child’s excused day of lying on the sofa watching cartoons and napping.

OK, so I’m the only one?

No? You say you have felt that way, too? You have been burning the candle at both ends until there’s no wick left and you still haven’t found a way to extinguish the flame?

know when to take a sick day billboard
Sometimes what you need to do IS on a billboard in front of you.

A week ago today I came home from a business trip to Pittsburgh to find Carlton vomiting. Welcome home. I can’t really complain because Carla had been dealing with it all day. The 24-hour stomach virus ended up lasting 72 and required at least four changes of bed linens. Seriously. Four.

The kid would run around all day without a symptom.  He would go 18, 20, even 24 hours without vomiting and we would think we were home free.  Then he would fall asleep at night, completely exhausted. Several hours into my own REM cycle, his cries would send us scrambling to his room where the evidence of his illness hit our nostrils before our eyes could adjust in the darkness. It was not remotely pleasant.

But Carlton was sick during the weekend. It was such a relatively busy weekend that I didn’t have time to envy him. Carla and I juggled him as we kept up our pace – she bought groceries, I went to a deacon’s meeting, she took Barron to youth group, I took Harris’ Cub Scout den bowling, and on and on, back and forth. We didn’t slow down at all.

Monday came and Carlton cleared the 24-hour hurdle. He was pronounced cured, so he could return to preschool on Tuesday. Carla’s day of teaching preschool was not threatened. We held our breath, hoping that our mandatory household hand-washing regimen and antibacterial wipe-down of every surface was enough to keep the scourge at bay.

Alas, at 3 a.m., Harris was knocking on our bedroom door giving off that now all-too-familiar malodorous clue that something was amiss. The cycle was repeating.

Fortunately, my two meetings of the day were such that I could phone in, and my very understanding supervisor permitted me the opportunity to work from home. This allowed Carla to carry out her plans for her preschool class without having to get a substitute, and everything else was fairly normal.

Harris was no distraction at all. After about 10 a.m., there were no more symptoms. He simply lay on the sofa with “Tom & Jerry” dueling in front of him. He ate a couple of crackers and drank a juice pouch at about 2 p.m. and seemed to perk up a little.

As I stood there conducting my visual scans for any hint of his condition an unfiltered thought burst into my consciousness: “Wow, I wish I could be sick.”

What? No. I didn’t mean that. No one would wish to have the awful stomach bug. It had completely paralyzed our family a couple of years earlier when we all shared it. That experience was seared into my memory. I couldn’t possibly want another dose of that.

I edited myself.

“What you meant to think was ‘I wish I could have a sick day.’”

See, public relations people even put words in their own mouths.

It’s not that work is overwhelming. I’m thoroughly enjoying my new job, and the challenges and fresh problems to solve and new people to meet have been invigorating.

It’s not that I don’t believe in service to my church. Serving as a deacon is a privilege, and every interaction with the families I care for is sacred and brings me closer to my community and to God.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy serving as a Cub Scout den leader. Those boys with their boundless energy and endless curiosity love tackling new challenges together and learning new skills.

sorry your sick day is due to actual sickness
Wouldn’t you rather get some rest before it comes to this?

It’s just that sometimes it all has to stop in order for me to get my bearings again. You know what I’m describing, right? It’s like when you’ve got nine browser windows open with at least two of them streaming sports highlights and one playing country music and your computer can’t process the data fast enough so the machine just locks up.

The real truth is that our bodies do the same thing. Whether it’s a head cold or a stomach flu or exhaustion, if we don’t have the good sense to slow down and rest, our bodies will force down time on us.

Rest is fleeting in the New South. Busy is the norm.

My wish for all of you is that it doesn’t take a sick day for you to find some down time. In fact, you should go ahead and plan on it right now. Go ahead. Put it on your calendar. Find a day. You need it more than you realize.

If you don’t, your body will.

If you couldn’t relate at all to today’s post, then great.  You are a better person than I am. But if you have ever been jealous of your sick child because they got to rest, then you’ve got a problem. Share your story by leaving a comment below, and then go take a nap. You’ll feel better. I promise.