News? What news?

I get my news from Will McAvoy.

The fact that he’s a fictional news anchor and the events he’s reporting on are two years old is really immaterial.

Jeff Daniels in a not so "dumb and dumber" pose as the anchor of ACN "News Night with Will McAvoy." Daniels won an Emmy this week for his work in the role.
Jeff Daniels in a not so “dumb and dumber” pose as the anchor of ACN “News Night with Will McAvoy.” Daniels won an Emmy this week for his work in the role.

My good friend, Bob, gave me season one of the HBO series “The Newsroom” on Blu-ray for my birthday this year, and it took me and Carla all of seven minutes to get hooked.

The irony is that my recent engorgement on two full seasons of the show has revealed that many of the actual news stories reported on by the fictional cable news team at “Atlantic Cable News,” were only vague recollections in my mind.

I’m talking major events: Deep Horizon oil rig explosion, killing Osama Bin Laden, shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, two years of a campaign for president. All of these were dramatized in the show, and I was fuzzy on details.

A former newspaper reporter, I have developed news consumption habits that are very New South.

I don’t recognize myself any more.

Who is this person that looks at his smart phone every five seconds for news updates from Twitter or CNN. Why does this person only read newspapers in an email or website? How can he use podcasts played through his car radio from a Bluetooth connection on his smartphone to fill every minute of his daily commute? And why is it that he has trouble remembering news events from two years ago?

I used to read at least three newspapers every day, and by that I mean physically hold pieces of paper. I grew up with the evening news as the background noise to my evenings at home. My parents’ preference was Peter Jennings and his “World News Tonight” on ABC. Various cable news channels were once a staple of my media diet. Radio news, particularly traffic and weather, was always on in my car.

But somehow I’ve managed to tune all that out. News happens, I receive it, and then promptly forget about it. It doesn’t have the same stickiness it once had.

This week Harris Interactive released a new poll revealing that Atlanta was one of the most disinterested cities in the U.S. when it comes to the news. You can get the gist of the report online. Atlanta wasn’t as bad as, say, Los Angeles, but a full 12 percent of respondents said “I am not really interested in the news; there are other ways that I prefer to spend my leisure time.”

And there you have it. My hypothesis is that in the New South, which really has never been covered well by the major news entities based in New York and Washington, people are just too busy to care. And when we do stop to gawk at train-wreck types of stories, we don’t retain the details because we move on in 3.6 seconds.

I also understand that news these days has flavors. Everyone watches the news that puts the most palatable spin on it for them. We are selective, choosing networks and news outlets that tend to reflect our general outlook on the world.

This one-two punch has greatly impacted our level of “informedness.” With so much information at our fingertips, we’re still not really sure what happened in the world last week.

(There’s a war on in Syria, by the way, and the U.S. may soon be dragged into it. It’s worth paying attention.)

So rather than conduct a current events quiz like we all used to take in social studies in school, I’d like to conduct a poll of my own: Do you consume news? In what format (online, TV, radio, print, other)? Do you view yourself as a news junkie? If not, why not?

While I wait for the New South polling data to roll in, I think I’ll re-watch some episodes of “The Newsroom” and try to figure out why I trust fictional reporters more than the real ones.

Thank you for making New South Essays a part of your weekly… OK, occasional… media consumption. We’ll try to do a better job of keeping your informed. Just like the Atlanta Journal used to purport, “Covering Dixie Like the Dew,” New South Essays is your trusted news source for the new millennium. Now, leave a comment!

Party planners

When did planning a child’s birthday party become a logistical nightmare?

Maybe some folks — you denizens of Pinterest, for example — love this delightful opportunity, but it’s beginning to wear on me.

As we prepare for Carlton’s fifth birthday celebration, Carla and I face strange dilemmas that didn’t seem to surface with his older brothers’ parties.

Little Gym birthday party
Last year’s venue, The Little Gym, worked well, and Carlton had a memorable party. Expectations are high this year.

Every night when I come home from work I face a different array of venue options and themes. One night it’s a jumpy place. The next night it’s at home in the backyard.  I’ve lost track, frankly, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas… or at least the indecision I have to confront in helping my wife settle on a Christmas card design. Speaking of which, it’s about that time.

The considerations for the ideal party location are cost, convenience and choice. We do try to let Carlton have some say in the matter, but honestly, we can just about talk him into anything. He’s like a jury that’s convinced of guilt or innocence after each contradicting testimony.

“Carlton, do you want to have your party in the back yard with all your friends and play in tents with a camping theme?”

“Yeah, and have a tent jumpy.”

Or…

“Carlton, how about a pizza-themed party where everybody comes and plays games and the invitations have pizzas on them and we eat pizza?”

“Yeah, and have a pizza jumpy.”

OK, so there is a common theme in his responses, a clue that has led us to choose Catch Air. Carlton has been to a party or two at the Suwanee location, and now that one is about to open nearby in Snellville, it seems like a good fit. So we’ve settled on it… as of press time. We’ll see if it sticks.

Making a decision based on convenience has to do with set-up, clean-up and food preparation. Again, with Carlton’s two older brothers, we’ve had our share of at home parties. It is a monumental task to get ready, and you have to be the host and entertainer. Well, I guess you could have a clown or something, but clowns kind of freak me out. Instead, we tend to be amateur cruise directors and move the kids through a series of “centers” like a noisy, chaotic sugar-infused day session of preschool.

When you have a party at a jumpy place or some other venue, they take care of all those details. I remember last year during Carlton’s 4th birthday party at The Little Gym. It was weird. I was actually standing around some of the time, talking to my parents and in-laws and friends, while the staff led the kids through a series of tumbles and jumps. I had time to take pictures at the event rather than having to play Captain Kangaroo for a gaggle of children.

The best part is that when it’s all said and done, it’s all said and done. No mess. No red punch spilled on the carpet. No random strands of a piñata showing up in the lawn clippings six months later. No remnants of chalk art on the driveway. You load up your haul of loot and head out the door… after you write the check, that is.

For Harris' sixth party, we were all about low-budget, and it was still a huge hit. Maybe variety is the key.
For Harris’ sixth party, we were all about low-budget, and it was still a huge hit. Maybe variety is the key.

That brings us to the final element in this agonizing decision: cost. By having a party at home, you certainly can save money. For a modest budget, you can invite unlimited friends, serve a few snacks and a couple of batches of cupcakes, and send everyone home with the obligatory goodie bag filled with dollar store treasures. However, my wife is not content to do the minimum required or the goody bag filled with candy and junk, and a backyard party can end up costing four times as much as a venue would when you factor in fresh pinestraw, new flowers, fabric tablecloths, and all the other things my wife thinks a party should have.

When you go to a party venue, you pay for the convenience of a built-in party. Add to that my wife’s compulsion to do the extras herself as a some sort of creative, Pinterest-y marathon, and the cost starts to skyrocket.

The other problem with party venues like a jumpy place is that it creates this awkward tension around the issue of siblings. If you’re just in the backyard, you can freely let all the non-invited siblings attend with a “more the merrier” attitude. When you’re paying per child, you have to be draconian in your guest list and parents with multiple children have their own logistical problems to solve. My wife, the people pleaser and mother of three children herself, can’t stand the thought of causing another mom to have to stress out over what to do with her other kids during our party, and of course she doesn’t want kids to not be able to attend because of siblings in tow.

Don’t even get me started on the gifts. Many parents these days are including “no gifts, please” on the invitation, and we have done this before with our older children. My wife thought the plethora of toys we already have and the fact that Carlton’s party last year included an overload of generous gifts was reason enough to go with a “no gifts” party this year. While Carlton is easily persuaded to see our way on location and theme, he will not be swayed when it comes to gifts. Perhaps the gifts become less important as children grow older, but apparently, for a five-year-old, gifts are non-negotiable. We continue to struggle with this as parents. Do we do the practical thing or what that will make our child happy?

It just seems that all of this fuss is a construct of the New South. Some parents feel pressure to do it up bigger and better each year, or, worse, to throw a better party than the Joneses. I think for Carla, she just feels the pressure to plan what she views as the perfect party scenario, whatever that means at the moment.

For me, I could not care less about the Joneses or a perfect party. I just want to catch a few authentic smiles and hear some unprompted belly laughs from the birthday boy.  Oh, and a cupcake wouldn’t be bad either.

Where do you like to have or go to children’s birthday parties? Has it gotten out of hand? How do you solve the sibling issue? Leave a comment below and give hope to the beleaguered parents of the New South who don’t even realize it’s all just practice for their child’s wedding.

The most important meal

The phrase “part of a balanced breakfast” is on the sound track of my childhood.

It was included in every super sugary cereal commercial during my decade-long consumption of Saturday morning cartoons. If Cookie Crisp is part of a balanced breakfast, then there had to be some really healthy stuff to go with it to balance it out.

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate breakfast in a new way. With the challenges of managing a morning commute, a “healthy” breakfast has come to mean something completely different.

protein bar apple bottle of war
No foodie ever posted a pic like this to his or her Instagram feed, but it gets the job done.

There’s “healthy” in the sense that is low-carb, low-fat, low-cholesterol and low taste. I call this a “New South Breakfast.” For me this usually means a protein bar, banana and a liter of water consumed in the car while fighting traffic. My concentration is certainly not on the food, and there is nothing emotionally satisfying about the experience. I am fueled. My hunger is satiated. I can function.

This breakfast comes with a healthy dose of "hon" and "shugah" with every coffee pour.
This breakfast comes with a healthy dose of “hon” and “shugah” with every coffee pour.

At least once a week, I meet my boss for an “Old South Breakfast” at the Atlanta landmark, the Silver Skillet. I venture around the menu, including having just oatmeal and raisins, but I tend to go with two eggs over medium, grits and biscuits, no meat. If I’m really hungry, I’ll throw in a side of sausage patties. Oh, and as much coffee as the sassy and attentive servers can pour.

By any nutritional definition, this is not a healthy breakfast, but I actually enjoy it. I grew fond of grits during college, when it would be souped into giant vats and served with long handled spoons in the cafeteria at Troy. When I ventured out into the world on my own, I never made grits for myself and still find it too much trouble to mess with most of the time. But if my mother-in-law or the good folks at the Skillet are cooking them, count me in.

I’ve read that there is no nutritional value in grits. I guess that’s not the point. They’re filling, they help mop up anything else oozing on your plate, and with the right amount of butter and salt, they satisfy.

Perhaps my biggest nutritional sin at the Silver Skillet is the biscuit. Or, more accurately, biscuits. With the two-egg breakfast, they bring you two biscuits. Occasionally I can eat just one, but most of the time I end up eating two, with a little jelly.

That is not “healthy” by any definition. But these biscuits are very nearly perfect. They are fluffy without being dry. They have just the right amount of butter baked on top so that it has flavor but no grease. They are to be savored and enjoyed. I chalk it up to carbo-loading.

The breakfast I’ve come to view as the healthiest of my week is served on Saturday. After an 8 or 10 mile run, I’ll whip up a batch of pancakes and skillet-fried sausage patties or bacon for the whole family. I usually add sliced fruit to my pancakes rather than syrup, and because I’m starved after my run, I add two eggs over hard. It’s a lot of food, but it does the trick.

Wolfing this down usually keeps hunger at bay 'til supper time.
Wolfing this down usually keeps hunger at bay ’til supper time.

If that doesn’t sound healthy to you, consider this: Carlton usually helps me stir the batter. The boys eat at the kitchen counter, laughing and telling me all manner of unusual observations about life. When I finish the last batch, Carla and I retire to the dining room and enjoy a leisurely breakfast together, talking about our day, looking ahead to the next week’s schedule and generally catching up after an incredibly busy week.

Depending on your definition of healthy, you may rank my breakfast choices differently than I do. But I can’t help but feel that breakfast served with a liberal portion of conversation and family connection is the healthiest.

For me, bonding with my family is part of balanced breakfast, and I don’t get enough of it. As for the sugary cereals, they make for a great snack while watching TV before bedtime.

What is your breakfast food of choice? Do you ever take time to savor the breakfast experience? When does your family enjoy breakfast together and what do you eat? Do you have any breakfast favorites you can share? Leave a comment below. It’s part of a balanced blog experience.

The lost art of listening

Hello, my name is Lance, and I have listening problem.

This week I attended one of those four-hour workplace training sessions on emotional intelligence. It included an exercise on active listening. I was horrible.

listening device
Maybe someone at Tech could invent something like this to help me listen better.

The humiliating experience caused me to reexamine a fundamental assumption about myself. Deep down, I believe that I have pretty good emotional intelligence. I feel like I know myself and can read people pretty well. I know how to make eye contact and affirm people when they talk.

Except I don’t.

The examples of my failures to listen are starting to pile up.

Two weeks ago during dinner, my 12-year-old son had to confiscate my iPhone because I was texting during dinner. Talk about role reversal!

Last weekend, while driving to see my in-laws in Sandersville, Carla said an entire paragraph of information that I completely missed. I suspect I had dozed off.

And now, with the pressure on and in an intentional exercise to practice active listening, the best I could do was nod and say “Hmmm….”

Pathetic.

This experience reminded me of a time earlier in my marriage when I first became aware that I cannot listen if a television is on anywhere in my vicinity. When you first begin cohabitating with someone in the throes of marital bliss, you hang on their every syllable. But after a while, words, sentences and even entire monologues can go by, particularly if there’s a ballgame on.

Robert Mankoff New Yorker cartoon
This Robert Mankoff cartoon from The New Yorker is all too true.

Earlier in my marriage after a particularly bad run of non-listening, I sought the advice of my travel companions during a car trip across Missouri. From Harold, the trained minister, I got words of wisdom and reassurance about “focus and priorities.” From Ben, my boss and mentor who had taught me much in my career, I got: “Well, maybe she just needs to say fewer or more important things.”

Fast forward a few weeks when my inattention reoccurred. Guess which pithy saying popped into my head to answer a barrage of accusations? Yep, the wrong one. Like a scene from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I tried to retract the words as they were coming out of my mouth.

Although Carla swears she doesn’t remember the exchange today, I do, and I can tell you unequivocally, don’t ever say anything like that to your spouse … or anyone.

What causes my distraction and what’s the cure?

To no one’s surprise, one of the biggest culprit’s in the New South is technology. Barron was right to take away my phone. I have done the same thing to him. Conversations are the building blocks of good relationships, and as we enter the teen years with our children, they are essential. I have to learn to turn the screens off.

Another culprit is busyness and preoccupation. If I’m busy rushing off to a meeting after church, it’s nearly impossible for me to focus on the person trying to share an important concern. Being in the moment and being with the person in front of you is a discipline.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to self-absorption. I find it hard to listen because I am inside my own head way too much. I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded with thoughts on everything from what I’m going to say next to my to-do list. And if someone is sharing a problem, I think about possible solutions, rather than displaying empathy, letting them share their feelings and affirming them.

Here’s how the course I took described passive vs. active listening:

active vs. passive listening chartAdmitting you have a problem is the first step. You, the loyal readers of New South Essays, are my support group. Hold me accountable. If you catch me not listening, call me on it.

Now stop reading this blog and go listen to someone important to you. You may find that you also have some work to do in the listening department.

What annoys you most about people not listening? Is it the ever-present smart phone or tablet screen? Are you a good listener? How do you do it? What techniques might help the rest of us non-listeners? Leave a comment and help in my recovery. It takes all of us.