Words mean things

I used to work for a South Carolinian who issued colorful quips and witticisms the way most people speak casual greetings.

One of Ben’s favorites was “Words mean things.”

This week the Internet has been abuzz with the controversy surrounding the words used by Southern cooking diva Paula Deen. The brouhaha over Paula’s admission in a deposition that she used the “N” word 25 years ago and her public apologies has been front and center for a week now. In the media I consume, it has overtaken groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

This is a controversy born of the New South. As recently as maybe 15 or 20 years ago, this would not have been news. But in the New South, sensitivities to racial issues take on greater importance.

What is contemporary about this flap, is that people are retreating from Paula because of the perception that she hasn’t really gotten beyond the meaning behind words from long ago. Even while she is apologizing, there is a hint, an undertone, that Paula doesn’t really understand why people think she could be a racist.

NBC's Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on "Today" Wednesday morning.
NBC’s Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on “Today” Wednesday morning.

While Paula Deen has used a lot of words this week – probably too many – she has sent mixed messages. In saying “I’m sorry” and “I is what I is” she has given her detractors room to work, to interpret the meanings of these words in ways she may not have intended.

The setting here does make a big difference. Savannah is, in many ways, the capital of the Old South, and Paula is its ceremonial queen. If this former employee who brought the lawsuit wanted to bring Paula down, she has already succeeded whether or not her allegations of harassment are true.

Yes, we have all said things we regret. Yes, we all carry with us biases the origin of which even we ourselves cannot explain. And, yes, if on the defensive, any of us could sound unintentionally racist. But what I take away from this situation with Paula Deen is that once you have the racist label attached to you, it’s hard to convince people otherwise, no matter what words you use.

As this situation continues to play out, fueled by Paula’s missteps with the media, she will have her share of detractors and admirers. There’s nothing all that new or unusual about people lining up on opposite sides of an issue, particularly in these very partisan times.

Is Paula sincere? Yes, I believe she is. Does she understand why people are so upset? Maybe. Does she know how to get out of this mess and move on? No, I don’t believe she does.

The lesson from Paula’s downfall that all of us non-cooking show icons can take is that in contemporary society our words can more easily destroy than build up. And regardless of what offensive things we may say, if our comments reflect racism, it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise.

Why can’t we all just get along? When it comes to race, there’s simply too much history. Words mean things.

Based on what I’m reading on other blogs and the comments on news stories, I ask only that as you share your thoughts on New South Essays, you do so respectfully. I’d love to hear why you are supporting Paula or why you can’t, and if you have any advice that could help her negotiate these waters any better. As always, thanks for your input!

Flip flops and running shoes

What you pack for vacation says a lot about you.

Vacation is that time of year when you are released from the bonds of work long enough for your true personality to emerge. Maybe it’s the only time all year you have real choices about how to spend your time. Maybe it’s when you discover there is such a thing as leisure time.

What you choose to take with you is a portrait of what makes you tick.

My wife always stocks up on reading material. She brings a stack of magazines that have piled up over the last few months, including New South essentials Southern Living and Garden & Gun. And she scrolls through the bestseller list to pull the most intriguing in “chick lit” and anything by Atlantan Emily Giffin.

The boys bring their bicycles and a giant tub of beach and pool toys. They usually load an entire suitcase with nothing but board and card games. Having recently taught the boys to play chess, I think I’m in for a lot of that classic game this year, with a few marathon sessions of Skip-Bo thrown in.

For me, it’s my flip flops and running shoes. I don’t wear flip flops nearly enough. I think my last pair lasted longer than our van’s tires. I’ve got a new pair for Father’s Day, and they need some breaking in.

OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.
OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.

As my wife frequently reminds me, I’m terrible at unwinding. At least for this week, I will try not to wear regular shoes or socks, unless it’s my running shoes, of course.

I have written about my passion for running in this space before, so I’ll spare you another ode to my running shoes. I will say that when I run on vacation, it’s a totally different experience. My mind isn’t processing what’s on tap for the day, major decisions or problems to be solved. My mind wanders in all kinds of directions.

I notice things during my vacation runs that I don’t seem to pick up very often: the different bird calls, sea breezes, turtles perched on a log in a lake. Knowing that when I finish my run I don’t have anything to do but sit by the pool, go to the beach and build sand castles or ride the waves with the boys or play board games is incredibly freeing.

Here’s one probably not-so-surprising confession: I bring a laptop, but it’s not for the reason you might guess. OK, yes, I do check work emails while I’m away. I limit it to once a day, but it’s just a necessity these days. My real use for the laptop is writing. You may remember that I both started and completed my still-being-edited-and-rewritten novel while at the beach.

I’m planning this trip to spend some time working on New South Essays, you’ll be happy to know, to prevent any more lapses in quality content or consistent publishing. I’ve got to flesh out all the ideas you have been so gracious to send me.

So watch Facebook or Twitter for the now-cliché photo of my feet from the beach. I’ll be wearing either flip flops or running shoes … maybe one of each.

What are your must-haves for vacation? Share your packing list in a comment below and join the spirit of vacation season. See you at the beach!

A Father’s Wish

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted hours in the car with my oldest son. There were certain topics I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to discuss with him to take advantage of this gift of time alone.

We had no trouble talking about how he spent his week with my parents or the attractions he enjoyed at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure with my brother and my niece. It was easy to discuss his opportunities to eat out, the menus and the humorous moments with his Paw Paw and Granny. I got a detailed run down on the movies they watched and new television shows he wanted to add to his repertoire.

But when there was a lull in the conversation, before I had a chance to introduce a more serious subject, the iPad would come out, the headphones would go on and Barron would immerse himself in his music.

I get to celebrate Father's Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn't staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot.
I get to celebrate Father’s Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn’t staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot. Photo by Maureen Atwood Photography.

I don’t believe for a second that he was being defensive. I don’t think he was avoiding anything. He had no idea I had an agenda. He was doing what he always does, what comes naturally.

I’m a talkative guy. I typically don’t have a problem striking up a conversation, meaningful or trivial, with anyone. Over the years, I’ve even grown in my ability to talk about painful subjects with my own father and mother, a feat many adults never achieve.

Somehow, though, on this day, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I always do, what comes naturally for me.

Our conversation for the remaining three hours of the trip was intermittent. When Barron thought of something to tell me, he would pause his Hans Zimmer or Alan Silvestri or John Williams long enough to express it. When the conversation lagged and before I could bring up my list of talking points, he went back under the headphones.

With about 45 minutes left in our trip, I calculated we had enough time to cover at least one or two topics. Discussions with pre-teens don’t typically last as long as you plan.

I became nervous. I consciously tried not to convey anxiety as I casually transitioned the conversation during one of his headphone breaks. The car can be a safe place to have these kinds of talks because you don’t have to make eye contact, but the risk is that your child feels cornered with no escape.

Naturally he reached for the headphones. I told him he didn’t have to go back to his music just yet. So for about 20 minutes we had a good conversation on a meaningful topic before returning to lighter fare.

That’s it. Twenty minutes out of four hours. Somehow, I couldn’t carry on an in-depth conversation with my 12-year-old son for more than 20 minutes.

The trip ended with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Happy at our progress, I had to fight back the feeling that I failed to achieve my objective.

Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?

I suddenly had a small window into the world of my own father. How many times had Dad tried to discuss important subjects with me, only to have me unwittingly or even wittingly undermine it with trivial conversations about sports or entertainment?

This Father’s Day, I may get all manner of practical, thoughtful and lovingly-presented gifts from my wife and three sons, but all I really want is to have meaningful conversations with each of them. It doesn’t have to be on Father’s Day. In fact, it would be nice to spread them throughout the year.

I will continue to look for ways to have these conversations. They are truly gifts that I treasure, and someday my boys will think back on them and realize the truth that I now grasp: being a father means taking risks and sometimes feeling like a failure. But there is no more rewarding way I could spend my life.

So there, Amazon, put that on your “Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” direct e-mail marketing campaign.

Can you remember having important conversations with your children or your parents? How did it happen? Were they good memories or do they dredge up repressed emotions? What advice would you give on how to have meaningful dialogue with your kids? Take a minute to leave your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all benefit from your wisdom.

Wedding faux pas?

Weddings in the New South bring up all sorts of issues never before encountered in the history of weddings.

Last weekend, Carla and I took our oldest son, Barron, to his first wedding — the marriage of his youth minister, Matt Hester, and our friend Courtney Phillips. It was a beautiful and somewhat unorthodox ceremony and reception that was very personal and deeply rooted in their faith journey and family history.

While we explained each element to Barron, who professed to be sleepy and yawned throughout, I couldn’t help but try to connect our Atlanta church friends to the ceremony, which was taking place in Courtney’s hometown of Orlando. We and two other couples were the only ones from our church in Atlanta who made it down for the wedding, and I knew the folks back home would want to participate vicariously in the celebration.

OK, I know I could be making matters worse by sharing the offending image here, but you have to see it to make a judgment. It's all about context. And isn't it a lovely wedding?
OK, I know I could be making matters worse by sharing the offending image here, but you have to see it to make a judgment. It’s all about context. And isn’t it a lovely wedding?

So, as the couple looked longingly into each other’s eyes and said their vows, I discreetly and silently took a photo with my iPhone. I wrote a simple caption and uploaded it to Facebook. Within minutes, several of our church friends “liked” or commented on the image and expressed thanks for my sharing it.

When we got to the dinner reception afterward, I showed Carla the photo and proudly proclaimed how thoughtful I had been by sharing this with our friends back home. That’s when I got the speech.

“You did NOT,” Carla said, wide eyed. “I thought we had talked about this at the last wedding we went to. They should have the opportunity to be the first ones to share pictures from their wedding. It’s THEIR wedding. What is it you say all the time: ‘It’s not your news to share?’”

Oops.

I began to doubt myself. We had talked about this at the last wedding we attended, and I couldn’t really remember, but I think I came out on the side of posting photos from a wedding in progress on Facebook was a no-no.

“Yeah, but there’s a bunch of people back in Atlanta who couldn’t be here. They would want to see it,” I meekly retorted.

Carla rolled her eyes in response.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just think it’s something that they should be able to do.”

I continued to mull it over as we joined our friends at the table for dinner. By the time we sat down, Carla had already recruited our friend, Autumn, to her point of view. Carla swore that she didn’t prime Autumn to respond in her favor.

That’s when the self-doubt really kicked in. Had I committed a faux pas? Should I have left well enough alone and let the new couple post the photos they wanted posted from their wedding when they were ready?

This may be a rationalization, but beyond the idea that I was sharing this with our Atlanta friends who could not attend, I also thought “Hey, everybody’s doing it.” These were young people getting married. There were dozens of people holding up iPhones capturing photos and videos of the ceremony. I just assumed I was not the only one posting them to Facebook.

And in my defense, it was a beautiful wedding. It was outside under a giant Live Oak tree draped in Spanish Moss, and it was the same location where her parents had been married. See! Beauty and meaning! It was practically begging to be shared on Facebook.

I was so troubled that when we spoke to the bride and groom at the reception, I barely got out my congratulations before confessing what I had done. In their typical, laid back and inclusive fashion – the groom and groomsmen were wearing Chuck Taylors for crying out loud – Courtney and Matt shrugged it off and said it was fine. They were OK with it.

So if the bride and groom don’t mind, is it OK?

Not to turn this into an episode of “The Marriage Ref,” but I thought I’d let you decide this week: Am I guilty of prematurely sharing an indelible image from someone else’s important life event or was I sharing an event with people who could not otherwise participate because of distance?

You make the call.

We have another wedding in a week, and I need to know how to behave.

Leave a comment below and let me know how you feel on this issue. I don’t want to be still hashing this out with Carla at the next wedding!

Summertime blues

My innocent Facebook post on Tuesday sparked enough comments to let me know I struck a nerve.

Here’s what I posted the morning after Memorial Day: “Remembering that as I return to work today, Carla is at work 24/7. Summer vacation for children means summer overtime for parents who stay at home full- or part-time.”

One commenter suggested I blog about this topic. Challenge accepted.

Don't be alarmed. Don't call 911. He's not dead or even in a coma. He's just on summer vacation.
Don’t be alarmed. Don’t call 911. He’s not dead or even in a coma. He’s just on summer vacation.

Unless you are “Phineas and Ferb,” summer vacation holds a mixture of dread and anticipation. We all can remember the exhilaration of that final bell and those carefree days of “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.”

Like everything else, summer is more complicated in the New South. For working parents, there is a logistical puzzle that must be assembled so that your children are cared for every moment you are not at home. For parents who stay at home with the kids, summer can be just as daunting. Even the most doting and loving of parents has a limit of child time, and playing cruise director for your kids all summer can make you want to experience some of that heart fondness that can only come from absence.

Upon further review, I think I’ve isolated six reasons summer is no vacation. Feel free to disagree. Here goes:

1. Filling the hours. Whether you are at home with your kids or having to work, you must find something for them to do. Not to put too a fine a point on it, but if you fail to occupy their time, they will be possessed by Satan and destroy you. Or, you’ll get arrested for child neglect. Either way, it’s bad.

2. Fighting. If you are blessed to have multiple children, you know that where two or more are gathered, there is mortal combat. Carla, who is an only child, frequently asks: “Were you like this with your brothers?” And since there were three of us boys in my family just as I have three boys now, I say with a smile and a shake of the head: “Yes… yes, in fact, I was exactly like this with my brothers.” One of the universal truths of siblings is that there will be bloodshed, particularly if the hours are not filled constructively (see item no. 1).

3. Lack of routine. We all know children need structure. Your household is only two or three nights of staying up late to watch “Phineas and Ferb” away from utter chaos. Irregular sleep patterns begets irritability which begets unpleasantness which begets conflict which begets tears which begets punishment which begets whining which begets parental insanity.

4. Dietary battles. Cheese puffs and chocolate chip cookies in massive quantities make children crazy. No scientific study needed. Don’t even get me started on the “cleaning your plate” conversation. Cheese puffs and cookies will invariably invoke the “I’m not hungry” declaration at a well-balanced meal consisting of vegetables.

5. Electronics and TV. Back in the day, we only had re-runs and cartoons on the telly to idle away the hours. Now, children have an array of devices to keep their heads buried in all summer. I don’t know about your children, but when mine watch too much television and stay on their iDevices too long, they make poor decisions that result in my elevated blood pressure and their solitary confinement.

6. No break from children. Even the weakest of us can sustain decent parenting for a few hours, maybe even a few days. Summer is the ultra-marathon of parenting. It’s a 100-day relentless slog through the perils of having to be a negotiator, diplomat, nutritionist, chauffeur, party planner, referee, electronics technician, chef, lifeguard, teacher, shepherd, and the list goes on and on.

Summer isn’t just a frolic in the pool, and I’m sure parents have been dealing with these challenges for generations. It may seem harder these days, but I think the hardest part for us as parents is that we have to find balance. We can’t afford the luxury of narcissism. Yes, we may steal a few moments here and there, but in order for summer to be enjoyable for our children and survivable for us, we have to change our mindset. For the next 100 days, it’s really not about us.

To help you with this challenge, I leave you with the immortal wisdom of Phineas and Ferb:

There’s 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it.

Good luck finding the good way to spend it without spending all of your income.

Do you dread school ending for the summer? How do you cope? What are your fondest memories of summer as a child? What are some activities you plan in order to keep your kids occupied? Leave a comment and share your wisdom.