New tricks

Jack is an old dog.

To you and me he’s 16, but according to the Pedigree Dog Calculator, he’s the equivalent of an 80-year-old man.

Jack has outlived his brother, Joe, by about 10 years.

He’s outlived his best friend, my father-in-law, by three months now and counting.

He’s an old dog, but he is showing me every day that life goes on.

Jack, or "Jack Jack" as he is  sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.
Jack, or “Jack Jack” as he is sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.

Jack has come to live with us in Lilburn most of the time. From that first weekend after my father-in-law’s accident when Jack suddenly found himself in a semi-familiar place, full of unfamiliar sights and smells – not to mention a pesky, jittery, hyperactive younger Tobey – he has been adjusting.

As I have written in this space before, I am not predisposed to compassion for canine companions. It has been a struggle to tolerate Tobey’s eccentricities, which I’m sure are instinctual habits for dogs of his nature and nurture. Tobey hasn’t evoked sentimental affection, and when I catch him lifting his leg on the corner of the sofa, it is by sheer force of will that I do not drop kick that animal out of my house permanently.

But Jack is different. He is an old dog.

Yes, I have lost my patience a time or two when his veterinarian version of Lasix kicked in and he couldn’t hold it until he got outside. Or when he failed to communicate that it was time to do his business, and the middle of the playroom floor served as his toilet.

When Jack first come to stay with us, he wandered the neighborhood if we let him out unattended. If we took him out on a leash, he refused or didn’t understand that he was supposed to do his business. He was accustomed to roaming many more acres at his house and at the farm. I tried to remedy this by erecting a series of barricades across our driveway and parking pad to keep him in the back yard.

I either finally succeeded at building a better prison, or he lost the will to escape. The backyard was his domain. But when my father-in-law was moved from a hospital in Augusta to one here in Atlanta, Carla came back home and her mother came to stay. We had to be able to get access to the parking pad and back door. The barricades came down and the free-for-all started over.

Carla couldn’t understand why I went to such lengths just so Jack could wander freely around our spacious back yard.

“Just put him on a leash and leave him out there.”

“Jack is used to roaming,” I insisted. “He’s lost everything else that he enjoyed or that is familiar. I feel somehow like this is what I can do to make things easier for him.”

Carla shook her head. She knows I’m not the most affectionate with animals.

Now that Lanny is gone and Jack’s relocation to our house seems to be mostly permanent, my compassion – and respect – for Jack has only increased. He’s messing in the house much less frequently. Even without a fence, he doesn’t leave the backyard. He’s learned not to accost me at the dinner table. At night, he goes to his blanketed crate on his own without protest or barking. All things considered, he’s a really good dog.

In the morning when I open up the dogs’ crates and let them out before their breakfast, Tobey is out, done his business and run 14 laps across the back yard before Jack has even gotten to his feet. His arthritic stretching is painful to watch. His slow and slippery waddle across the wood floor to the back door is simultaneously pitiful and comic.

Jack is an old dog.

A Pekingese-poodle mix, he was bred to be a companion. As a younger dog, he accompanied Lanny everywhere. He was a great farm dog, frolicking with the goats and giving varmints the what-for, keeping danger, as he perceived it, at bay.

Now he’s essentially in assisted living. He has caretakers he’s only half known and usually tried to escape from when they came to visit his house. He’s adjusted to the noise and trampling and bothersome attempts at play.

During family movie night a few weeks ago, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I picked Jack up, held him in my lap and stroked his fur, careful not to irritate the skin lesions or sore joints. I could feel his overly-rapid heartbeat on my legs and watched his labored breathing expand and contract his abdomen.

Maybe Jack isn’t the only one adjusting. Maybe my care of Jack isn’t really about Jack at all but some small attempt to show kindness to Daddy in the only tangible way I can now that he’s gone.

For as long as we have Jack with us, I will hold him, pet him, clean up after him, feed him and give him his medicine, because maybe, just maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Jack appears to be succeeding with me.

Thank you for tolerating more of my journey of grief over the loss of my father-in-law, Lanny Barron. It’s my hope that these essays don’t bring you down but give you hope. Take a minute to leave a comment and offer your insight, and if you are so inclined, share this post with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I am grateful for your readership.

It’s all downhill

These were two journeys I didn’t want to take.

I was less than thrilled to be “voluntold” by my wife back before Christmas that I was chaperoning our son’s first snow skiing adventure in January with the youth from church. This attitude was mirrored in my less-than-enthusiastic embrace of said son reaching the adolescent milestone of turning 13 last week.

Barron and Lance on top of Beech Mountain
Barron and I have a literal mountain-top experience before heading down the slopes at the end of his first ski trip.

Why not? What’s there to be afraid of? Plenty.

I have reached the age when the number one question I ask myself before undertaking physical activity is “What are my chances of getting injured?” I am also at the comfortable parenting place where my children are all still responsive to my direction and shower me with attention and affection. Having the oldest transition to the teen years and threaten my sense of control feels like an activity in which I could get injured.

The last time I had been on Beech Mountain near Boone, N.C., was 18 years ago. I had to be sledded down the slope in that body basket thing, trailing behind a member of ski patrol. I had fallen head first over my skis on a patch of ice up on the mountain and twisted my knee. Even though I didn’t do any major damage to my knee and a few days of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) was all that was required to recover, I had this in the back of my mind as I journeyed in a 15 passenger van the five hours to the High Country of North Carolina.

This step of parenting a teenager is unprecedented for me. I have no prior experience with it. I have certainly heard the horror stories. I myself was a teenager once. Failing at this parental skill doesn’t just twist body parts, it breaks hearts. It’s been hard to really look forward to this milestone.

Barron snow skiing on the bunny slope
Barron and Johnny ready to tackle something more challenging than the bunny slope.

But Carla was right. The first time our son put on a pair of skis to go hurdling down a mountainside, I needed to be there. Probably. The parenting challenge of skiing with my son was this: help him learn how to ski without holding him back or undermining his confidence. Oh, and that thing about not getting injured myself. To make matters more complicated, I stumbled onto this parenting article from Forbes magazine that several of my Facebook friends recently posted: “7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors that Keep Children from Growing into Leaders.” I spent the ski weekend constantly evaluating myself on these criteria while trying not getting maimed.

This is exactly why the teen years are so important. Rationally, I know that you have to give your kids opportunities to fail, even ones that feel dangerous, so that they can learn from their failures and gain confidence from their successes. Emotionally, it’s very difficult to allow your child to experience pain, disappointment and regret. It’s hard to let go.

Like everything he does, Barron tackled the challenge of learning to ski methodically. While his more experienced friends dashed off to the green and blue slopes, he and I spent the first full day on the bunny slope, taking lessons and practicing the basics. By the end of the first day, he had built up enough courage to tackle a little hill that ran from the resort down to the bunny slope.

Barron opens presents on his 13th birthday
Barron is thrilled to get “Captain Phillips” on Blu-ray. What he may not understand is that his becoming a teenager is a big deal for his younger brothers, too.

On the second day of our ski trip, his goal was to tackle the green slope. And he did great. Of course he fell, but he was able to get back on his feet and continue down the hill without my help. It wasn’t long before he was able to join his friends.

That’s what I’m talking about:  that abandonment. It’s that moment when they are confronted with the choice of hanging out with you, the parent, or their friends. That can be very frightening, particularly if you have questions about your teenager’s friends. I know that teenagers need some separation from their parents so they can differentiate themselves, become their own person and continue growing toward independence.

Anyone who has been skiing before knows that one of the trickiest maneuvers for beginners is dismounting the lift. This proved to be the biggest challenge for Barron as well, but I have to admit, I was proud of how he handled it. He and Johnny fell the first time, but then, they started dismounting cleanly. One of his biggest spills coming off the lift occurred, though, when he and I went up the lift together. A couple of tall and gangly guys, all knees, skis and poles, got tangled as we stood up and the chair dispassionately deposited us in a heap.

When parents get too involved in their teen’s lives, it trips up both the teen and the parents. The result is more than bumps and bruises and embarrassment. The child’s maturity is stunted, his self-reliance undermined and the specter of self-doubt looms in every of decision. The parent is emotionally crippled, his or her life becomes vicarious and borrowed from their child and he or she loses all sense of perspective.

I’ve been told that parenting a teenager is not for the faint of heart. Flipping on the Olympics and watching Bode Miller on a downhill run will show you that skiing is not for the faint of heart. But as this trip down the slope we call life picks up speed and our equilibrium is threatened, we can experience exhilaration and euphoria.

I had a great time on the ski trip. Barron loved skiing and can’t wait to go back. I really enjoyed our family’s celebration of Barron reaching this momentous milestone. Barron seems to be taking it all in stride.

On or off the slopes, Barron is the kind of offspring that makes you look like a good parent. He’s level headed, sets goals, works hard, has a keen wit, displays creativity and helps out around the house without being asked. He is everything anyone would want in a son. I don’t want that to change.

Maybe by putting this in a blog, I’ll remember it when doubts arise and fears dismay. There are some journeys in life that are unavoidable and incredibly rewarding.

People say unsolicited advice is worth what you pay for it. I’m now soliciting your parenting advice. What words of wisdom do you have or have you found that you could share on how to parent a teen in the New South? Leaving a comment is definitely not scary at all.

Tackling issues of faith

We interrupt our regular schedule with this New South Essays news bulletin: once a month I’ll be posting to the new blog, Coracle, hosted on the Smyth & Helwys website, Next Sunday Resources.

My first post is all about where to sit in church, hopefully with that same New South Essays voice you’ve come to enjoy.

If you are a person of faith and are interested in following my posts there, check it out and explore the new site. It’s loaded with helpful resources for those looking to enrich their spiritual journey.

Thanks for reading New South Essays and sharing the content. A new post will be up soon!

Snowpocalypse 2014: A product of the New South

As I worked this week from home in my pajamas, I couldn’t help but join the millions of Atlantans and Birminghamians, among others, in contemplating just how Snowpocalypse 2014 happened.

This will not surprise you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fault of the New South.

Traffic stands still in snowy Atlanta
Perhaps the most iconic image from Tuesday’s disastrous commute in snowy Atlanta.

Although much has been written already on this topic, permit me to weigh in and offer five supporting arguments for my assessment. Feel free to disagree and tell me so. And for the record, I did not write this during my 2 hour and 20 minute commute (one of the shorter ones in metro Atlanta on Tuesday):

1. Southern Pride. Down South, we never surrender, and we’re tired of being mocked. Government officials, school superintendents and business owners did not want to close Tuesday on the threat of snow because they did not want to keep everybody home and this storm turn out to be a light dusting. I don’t care what they say now about taking this threat seriously. Clearly, this arrogance in the face of eminent danger was at least an indirect psychological factor in the minds of Southern deciders.

The sad thing is, the Yankees still won. It’s like heckling a batter while he’s in the on-deck circle. If he ever acknowledges you, even with a nod, a smile or giving you the one finger salute, you know you got in his head. You won.

This was the same scenario. Folks more accustomed to snow mock Southerners each time there’s a threat of winter weather. They ridicule our excitement, need to rush to the grocery store to buy bread and milk and complete lack of ability to drive in those conditions. I believe this got in the heads of us Southerners, so much so that we went against our better judgment. We wanted to stick it out. Sherman (General Tecumseh, not Richard) would not have the last laugh.

2. Selective hearing. Our attention spans in the New South are waning, and this was on full display Tuesday morning. When the forecast was changed from a slight dusting in Atlanta with most of the precipitation falling south of the metro area to the possibility of 2 to 3 inches hitting squarely on the metro area, we didn’t really notice. We heard the first thing forecasters said, not the last thing.

We had it in our heads that this would be another of the dozens of near-misses rather than the rare direct hit, and when the National Weather Service issued updated warnings, it fell on deaf ears. We had already made up our minds and were on to other things. Anyone who paid attention and acted accordingly was discounted as a “Nervous Nelly,” unable to handle two inches of snow.

3. Sprawl. I can’t speak for Birmingham, but in Atlanta, we’ve gotten too big for our lifestyle. The Atlanta metropolitan area spans 8,376 square miles. That’s a lot of snow-covered roadway to traverse going to and from work. The average Atlanta commuter spends 240 hours commuting each year. For the mathematically challenged, that’s the equivalent of 30 work days.

Atlanta’s commute ranks no. 7 nationally, according to Bloomberg and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, on the list of worst commutes. It’s clearly not an ideal situation on a good day. Tuesday was not a good day. All of us in our cars trying to get back to the suburbs left downtown at roughly the same time. By the time we all figured out that this was a bad idea, it was too late.

4. Saving cash. Preventive maintenance is sound, reasonable thinking, but it flies in the face of human nature. We don’t want to do anything we don’t absolutely have to. So before we criticize the Alabama and Georgia departments of transportation for not pre-salting and graveling the roads, let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves: when was the last time we changed our vehicle’s oil on time? OK, then.

It’s no secret that we don’t have resources to deal with winter weather – namely salt trucks and snow plows – in the South, and no one would blame us. It only snows like this once every four or five years. We wouldn’t get a good return on that investment. And it costs money to operate the equipment and purchase the salt and gravel that we’re just going to throw around. Why salt and spread if you don’t have to?

Officials gambled and lost. I think we can all admit we would have at least been reluctant to make the call to spend the cash to pre-treat the roads when the threat did not seem that bad.

5. Scapegoating is our favorite pastime. None of us want to take personal responsibility for contributing to the circumstances that caused the commuting disaster on Tuesday, but if just a fraction of us had taken personal ownership of our lives and made different decisions, the crisis would have been mitigated if not averted. But where’s the fun in that? In the New South, we cannot move on from any disaster without affixing blame. It’s what we do.

We are going to blame our mayors, our emergency management leaders, and our governors regardless because this is the most basic reason why we vote: to have someone to blame when things go wrong. They’re not so much elected to lead us as to be our scapegoats. Tuesday’s commute disaster needs a scapegoat.

Officials tried to pin this on the forecasters. But when you run a 24-hour cable network, you have plenty of time to rebut. With state elections in Georgia just around the corner, I’m afraid challengers to incumbents will help make this blame game stick on those currently holding office as they lay out their attack ads leading into the fall.

One of my takeaways from Tuesday will be gratitude for not having a worse or more dangerous experience. I’ll also try to let the memories of the boys joyously sledding on Wednesday replace thoughts of Tuesday’s awful commute.

Regionally shared experiences are rare. Throughout the South, we now have harrowing experiences and stories to share for generations to come. In our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural New South, we all have Snowpocalypse 2014 in common.

Was the area in which you live touched by Winter Storm Leon? What was your experience like? If you live in Atlanta, what was your commute like on Tuesday? Did you pick your kids up early from school? Did you heed the warnings? Let’s begin sharing our stories by leaving comments below.