Lance Elliott Wallace lives and writes in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn. A native of Texas and a former resident of Florida and Alabama, Lance married a Georgia girl and together they are rearing three Georgia boys. By day he communicates for the higher education institutions of Georgia. He spends his early morning hours praying, writing and walking.
I am always seeking out ways to maneuver my offspring into meaningful conversations.
I went into this parenting thing believing the lie that family dramas on TV sell (I’m looking at you Seventh Heaven) about deep conversations with your children happening once every 23 minutes only to discover that it’s really hard to find a time – and a place – to talk to your kids about the most important stuff in life.
For my oldest and me, the red Old Town canoe I bought off my former boss Ben McDade has turned out to be that place for us. We had the canoe out again on Memorial Day this week, and the time together did not disappoint.
The red canoe didn’t start out as such a great facilitator of dialogue. Back when Barron was a pre-teen, we took the canoe to the beach with us for our family vacation. We had just procured it, and I was eager to take it out on Choctawhatchee Bay, which we did several times during that week.
Those first excursions produced amazing moments like having dolphins swim right up next to us. That’s when, in a panic, I realized how big they are and how easily they could have sent us swimming.
That day on the bay also taught me that canoe conversations cannot be forced. Carla had been after me for months to have “THE TALK” with Barron about the birds and the bees. I decided he would be a captive audience in the canoe, but when I got around to broaching the subject, about an hour into our paddling, Barron said emphatically, “If we’re going to talk about sex, I’m jumping out.”
Over the years we have found safer discussion topics that I have enjoyed thoroughly. My laughter is probably still echoing off Stone Mountain from the time Barron regaled with me all of his misadventures at Boy Scout camp, many of which I had never heard. Those were foundational experiences for him and taught him to be resourceful and self-reliant, traits he continues to exhibit into adulthood.
In the three or so hours it takes us to paddle around the entire circumference of Stone Mountain Lake, we can cover a broad range of topics. We usually spend some time talking about our location: What Barron would do if he owned Stone Mountain Park, speculation about what movie or TV show is filming there on location, why a chipmunk would be swimming in the middle of the lake, our favorite part of the lake (Barron’s is the covered bridge, which he recently learned was transplanted from Athens), how do golfers play through or around so many Canada geese and the phenomenon of stand up paddle boarding.
Then there’s the rankings: all time best songs, TV shows, movies, vacations, college football games, etc.
And, the reason I get out of bed early on a holiday and go to the trouble of strapping the canoe to the top of the minivan – we also talk about deep subjects such as faith, church, career choices, relationships, the future, parenting and what we’re looking forward to.
There are lots of ways you can connect with the important people of your life. Barron and I have found the canoe really helps.
I don’t know the next time we’ll have the Old Town back on the water, but I look forward to the conversation.
Where do you find that you have meaningful conversations? Share the places and settings where you find that you have the best talks with friends or family members by leaving a comment below.
This week our middle son, Harris, graduated from Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., with all the usual pomp, circumstance, cheers, tears, and, of course, speeches.
Parkview’s graduation speakers included the valedictorian, salutatorian, and several members of the senior class who were selected from two-minute auditions. Harris’s speech, titled “Unlimited Potential” was chosen, and he delivered it beautifully, receiving an affirming response. (You can see the entire speech, it’s about three-and-a-half-minutes long, at my post on Facebook.)
At my alma mater, Lake Wales High School in Lakes Wales, Florida, graduation was held in the winter home of the Black Hills Passion Play, an outdoor amphitheater tucked away in a giant orange grove. Against the backdrop of downtown Jerusalem, the speakers were the valedictorian and salutatorian. I graduated third in my class – the first boy, as my mother liked to point out – just out of the running to give a speech.
At the time I don’t remember being all that disappointed, but after seeing Harris knock it out of the park, it made me wonder what 18 year-old me would have told the Class of 1988. So let’s climb into Marty McFly’s DeLorean – a warm-up cultural reference to get you in the right mindset to revisit 1988 – here’s my undelivered high school graduation speech, with the benefit of hindsight but the hindrance of 35 years of elapsed time:
Class of 1988, you did it! You made it to this night earning your high school diploma. You are now officially educated. The piece of parchment Mr. Windham will hand you on this stage in just a few minutes is an official testament that you have completed the requirements for high school set by Polk County and the state of Florida.
And honestly, that’s about it.
This diploma does not mean you are smart. Regardless if you are wearing a National Honors Society sash or honor cords or if you have some Latin words following your name in the program, I know from experience you are an intelligent group, smart enough to achieve whatever you set your mind to. You are capable people with a variety of gifts and abilities, and academics and credentials don’t even begin to convey your intellect.
This diploma does not mean you possess good character. The decisions you have made inside and outside of the classroom these past four years say way more about your values and beliefs than passing 12th grade. When you made poor choices, you learned from them. When you made good choices, hopefully you were appropriately rewarded. You know right from wrong, and you have the capacity to make the world better.
This diploma does not mean you are talented. I’ve seen what you can do. From our gifted athletes to dedicated musicians to our service club members to home economics experts to members of the workforce and Future Farmers of America, you have displayed an array of gifts not measured by red ink on test papers. You are the future workforce and creators ready to fill floppy disks and VHS tapes with ideas and innovations and creative expression. You possess all the talent you need to make your mark.
This diploma does not mean you are a good friend. I experienced the best of what the Class of 1988 can be in loving and accepting each other when I transferred to Lake Wales High School my sophomore year. I knew maybe five or six of you, and still, you welcomed me with open arms. Whether it was Miss Lee’s AP calculus class, the yearbook staff, the basketball and football teams, the Academic Team or FCA, I never felt excluded and always found a friendly face in every group. You have demonstrated care and concern for each other, and that will take you far.
And finally, this diploma does not mean you have the faith you need to see you through life’s challenges. Obviously, y’all heard my dad Sunday night at Baccalaureate, so you know how I have grown up. Being a preacher’s kid does subject you to scrutiny and can make you feel isolated. But in addition to being friendly, what I saw in the Class of 1988 is a yearning for faith and a commitment to God that transcended denominations and worship styles. As a group, you have a foundation to build on and to draw on when you face difficult days.
So I leave you with this bit of wisdom I heard from Coach Hale back this summer during two-a-days while running wind sprints at the end of practice. With temperatures in the 90s and relative humidity hovering around 100%, he blew his whistle and yelled: “Sometimes you’ve got to puke on the run!”
I’m not sure I fully appreciated that sentiment at the time, but today, on our last day of high school, I think it means you have to be resilient, have fortitude, persevere. That diploma you are about to be handed doesn’t bestow it on you, but it’s a pretty good indication that at one time or another during these past four years, you’ve had to puke on the run.
Congratulations, Class of 1988. It’s been real.
As I recall, Kendra Lawrence and Esther Wine gave appropriately inspirational speeches without any references to vomiting, so it’s probably a good thing I didn’t get to give a speech.
Congratulations to the Class of 2023!
Did you give a speech at your graduation? What did you say? Have you had a burning desire to pass on your wisdom to your classmates? Leave a comment with excerpts from your own undelivered speech and join the conversation.
I’m still in the heat of battle of raising children. It is beyond my comprehension that I will one day have grandchildren, much less that they will have children.
The thought of having great grandchildren gives me hope, and in that spirit I offer the following advice to them as a voice from beyond the grave:
Be kind. How you treat people matters more than how successful you are. It matters more than how much money you make, how popular you are, how well known you are. Kindness is in itself one of the greatest contributions you can make to this world and a profound legacy to leave after you’re gone.
Put down your device. I can’t imagine what technology you will have at your fingertips, but I can imagine that it will be even more intrusive than the smart phones we have allowed to consume our attention in my day. Technology is a useful tool, but you need time when you set it aside to focus on what’s real and tangible and right in front of you.
Focus on relationships. Loneliness and isolation can trouble you in an almost inexpressibly profound way. Look for ways to connect, human-to-human with others. Giving your time and attention to others will make you a better listener, a better thinker, a better person. It’s an important investment.
Move. Nothing feels better than exertion. Work out. Dance. Walk. Hike. Run. Skip. Ride a bike. Paddle a kayak. Skate. Get outside and move around. I’m no scientist, but I believe moving your body will help you appreciate it, keep it functioning and give it the best chance to serve you well for a lifetime.
Take risks. Don’t let fear keep you from tackling your goals and following your dreams. There is a downside for every attempt at something worthwhile. You will learn from your failures and develop your skills and your character. The satisfaction of taking a risk, following through and achieving a goal is one of life’s greatest experiences.
Make time for creativity. I gravitated to writing. Your great grandmother enjoyed design and decorating. Your grandfather and uncles made music, performed in theater, cooked, drew, built, restored and wrote. There is something in each of us that is yearning to be expressed. Listen to your creative impulses and follow them. It will add meaning to your life and give you joy.
Love God, love others. Everyone is on a faith journey. For some, it’s a straight line from birth to death without straying one step from the faith handed down to them by their parents. For others, it’s a meandering path of alternating adherence and rejection and acceptance and questioning. For still others, it’s a mystery to be embraced and discovered and experienced as they wander through life. And there are many who reject faith altogether. My hope and prayer for you is that you know God’s love and allow that love to flow through you to others.
I leave you with this blessing: May God grant you the wisdom to know your gifts and the courage to use them.
What advice would you give or have you given to your great grandchildren? Leave a comment and share!
This week Carla and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary with a Friday night dinner at Perry St. Chophouse in downtown Lawrenceville. Highly recommend, by the way.
The night out reminded me of one of the best anniversary dates of our 26-year run.
The best dates are the ones that begin with low or no expectations and turn out to be filled with conversation, laughter, good food and new experiences. Such was the case when we had a simple dinner date at the legendary Atlanta eatery, Dante’s Down the Hatch.
In the spring of 2007, we wanted to mark our 10th anniversary with something special and memorable. Our anniversary tradition has always been to alternate planning. I plan our celebration in the odd years, and Carla plans the even. For our 10th, Carla arranged for the boys to spend the weekend with her parents in Sandersville, and she booked a room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead, a section of Atlanta filled with upscale dining and high dollar retail. It wasn’t a long way from our home in Lilburn as measured on a map, but having the weekend to ourselves was lightyears away from our suburban existence.
Carla used Priceline.com to book a five-star hotel at three-star prices. The trick was, when she accepted the price and booked the rooms, the location wasn’t revealed until after the transaction was confirmed. That bit of spontaneity was only the beginning. Once our accommodations were revealed to be at the Intercontinental, she researched nearby restaurants and activities putting together a great weekend of fine dining, unique shopping and neighborhood touring.
The first night we ate at the pristine and trendy restaurant Aria. The food was delicious, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The all-white, modern decor felt cold and antiseptic, but we had a great time and called it a “win.”
Saturday night turned out to be the most memorable of the weekend.
The setting could not have been more dramatic or romantic, like something out of a modern-day adaptation of “Cinderella.” We dressed up a little, but not too fancy. We decided to take advantage of the hotel’s limo service to have a driver take us and pick us up, so we wouldn’t have to worry about parking, which we understood could be a problem at Dante’s.
When we hit the lobby, we were greeted by a scene straight out of the red carpet on Oscar’s night: dozens of Atlanta’s rich and famous arriving at the hotel’s ballroom in luxury cars. Because we married in May, our anniversary often falls during high school prom season. On more than one occasion, we have found ourselves celebrating our anniversary at a nice restaurant with high school kids in tuxedos and gowns sitting at the tables next to us.
This was prom on steroids. We had no idea when we booked our stay that the Intercontinental was hosting a high-dollar benefit gala. While we waited for the hotel car to pick us up, we enjoyed the people watching and engaged in a little vicarious promenading.
When the car did finally pull around to the front doors and pick us up, the concierge put another couple in the limo with us. He asked us if that was a problem, and, of course, we were amenable. They turned out to be another suburban Atlanta couple that looked to be about our age doing the same thing we were — having a weekend “in the city” getaway. They, too, were heading out for a night on the town.
It was fun chatting about the gala-goers and comparing just how similar our lives were. We were kindred spirits sharing a car intent on putting our mundane Monday through Friday lives behind us. The driver dropped them off first, leaving us by ourselves for a few minutes as he navigated Peachtree Street to Dante’s.
“Y’all ever been there before?” he asked us as he turned into the parking lot.
“Nope, first time,” I answered.
“You’re in for an experience.”
From the moment we stepped in the door, we knew our driver was right.
Rather than the austere and fashionable decor of Aria the night before, we were greeted by a carnival scene. It was dark, though outside it was barely dusk. The street lamps and lanterns illuminated a replica wooden pirate ship at port circa 1717.
The strains of jazz music hit our ears, another of Dante’s inexplicable paradoxes. The music was lively and contributed to a festive atmosphere, but it seemed like an odd choice given the restaurant’s decor and theme.
The air was damp and the smell musty as we plunked across a wooden boardwalk on the way to our table. We were escorted up a wooden stair to a cozy table overlooking the harbor. Known for its fondue menu, we went with the signature meal beginning with bread dipped in melted cheese before progressing to the steak and shrimp cooked on a little pot of oil over a burner right at the table. We used skewers and long, skinny forks to cook and dip our food, and it took a few tries to get it right. By the end of our meal, we were getting the texture and flavor we liked.
Fondue, jazz and a pirate ship were as odd a combination as I could have possibly imagined in my worst fever dream. I didn’t know if I should feel that the experience was tacky and shameful or hilarious and wonderful.
It looked and felt like we were having dinner in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It was not fancy. It was not fine dining. It was whimsical and weird, the perfect setting to enjoy each other’s company and laugh.
Like the first 10 years of our marriage, we decided to just go with it. As dates go, it was the perfect combination of unexpected and fun.
What’s your best or most memorable date? Ever been to Dante’s back in the day? Share your memories with a comment below.
It’s the end of another school year — the senior year for my middle son Harris — and I am once again sitting through awards ceremonies, concerts, performances and graduation events. When not doom scrolling on my phone in the more tedious moments of such rites of passage, I find myself reflecting on what all the awards mean.
My definition of success has changed drastically.
I once believed success meant winning. To achieve, I believed you had to be best, finish at the top, win the award, receive the recognition, earn the promotion and accept the accolades. Up until recently, that was my focus.
My school years brought much of the recognition I associated with achievement. I received numerous awards through grade school, high school and college. Being named “Mr. Senior” to finish out high school and earning the top academic award for both liberal arts and journalism graduates at what was then Troy State University were high honors. But time has altered how I view those awards. They do not come close to feeling significant anymore.
Recognition was more difficult to come by in the work world. I won a few reporting awards in journalism competitions, but my highest honor was earning second place in the state of Georgia Associated Press competition. It was in the feature writing category for a story I collaborated on about Georgians on the Titanic. Second place was the best I could do. I listed it on my resume for a long time, but it’s hardly worth mentioning now. It was, after all, only second place.
After I left journalism, there weren’t as many awards to win. Instead, I focused on other metrics: writing communications plans that achieved goals, either a certain number of media placements and contacts or hitting a fundraising mark. There were a few noteworthy achievements to list on a resume, but they hardly felt like the culmination of a life’s work.
When I returned to higher education communication, achievement meant earning promotions and becoming more influential in my roles on campus. I worked at Georgia Tech, one of the highest ranked public institutions in the country, but that was not a personal ranking. I did little to influence that ranking. I moved from serving as Senior Director of Communications and Marketing for the Georgia Tech Research Institute to the Director of Media Relations in the central communications office for the entire institute. It felt like an achievement at the time, but over the next four years, the job consumed me. I was on call 24/7 and dealt with crisis after crisis, large and small. I believed it was worth it because I was building my career with each experience. I thought my performance would position me well to become an associate vice president and then vice president of Institute Communications. When I failed to earn those titles in two search processes, I learned the hard way that my career was a poor way to seek affirmation and achievement.
I have never believed that recognition for volunteering or leadership roles in service organizations should be counted as achievements. When I gave considerable time to Cub Scouts as a den leader, Cubmaster and Popcorn Kernel, I didn’t feel an ego boost. I felt satisfaction when the program ran smoothly, but after a dozen years, I was glad to step aside and let others lead.
Whatever pride I felt when Highland Hills Baptist Church elected me chairman of deacons at age 33 melted when I had to deal with people behaving at their worst on issue after issue. Who knew replacing an air conditioning unit could divide a congregation into factions? Now that I have served two terms as chair of deacons at Parkway Baptist Church, I view the opportunity to pray for, visit, encourage and lead the diaconate as a privilege rather than an honor I somehow earned. Volunteering is about service, not recognition.
I started running for exercise in January 1993 and gradually succumbed to the allure of the marathon. Still, even though I have completed four marathons, and I posted my fasted time of 3:33 at the New York Marathon in 2000, physical feats don’t come anywhere close to feeling like a greatest achievement, especially now that my fastest times are decades behind me.
The years have shown me none of what I previously sought or claimed with pride is important to me anymore. As time marches on, there is nothing more important to me than my family. I could never receive another recognition or public affirmation again in my life, but if my wife, my children and my parents and mother-in-law know that I love them and will be there for them unconditionally, then that is my greatest achievement.
I would rather have a hug from Carla than my name on any certificate. Sharing a task with Barron is better than a trophy. Meaningful conversation with Harris means more to me than completing a work project. Preparing a pound cake with Carlton brings deeper satisfaction than a promotion or pay raise. Getting to spend time with Mom and Dad and having conversation over coffee around the dining room table or out on the screened-in porch is a richer blessing than being thanked for serving in a leadership role. Helping my mother-in-law with even the smallest of chores she can no longer physically do for herself is better than setting a personal record in the marathon.
There is a temptation for men of my age to shift the burden of achievement to their children, pressuring them to achieve what they never could. While I have great pride in what my boys achieve, I don’t view them as vehicles for my frustrated attempts at success. I am grateful to be with them on their journeys, encouraging them when they need a boost, picking them up when they fail, and celebrating with them when they win. To my former self, this sounds like the rationalization of someone who isn’t a winner, but what I’ve realized is that life isn’t enriched by achieving goals. Life is made worth living by the experiences accumulated along the way toward reaching the goals.
My greatest achievements? Laughter, affection, sharing, dialogue, presence. In a word, my greatest achievement in life so far is family.
It goes without saying that you support your children’s endeavors, but when our oldest son, Barron, started doing sketches and watercolors of buildings on a commission basis for actual money, I was proud of his entrepreneurial spirit, amazed at his talent and hopeful for his future.
As his spring semester at the University of Georgia winds down, Barron invested his time this week in launching a website for his house portrait business, Real Nice Art Co. The “About” page of his site spells it out like this:
“Real Nice Art Co. was founded in February 2022. We provide custom house and building portrait services to commemorate specific special places. We also have portraits of real nice places that everyone loves! Our artworks focus on the details that make a place special to us, whether it’s a college, an old home, a place we work, or a place we get married; any place that we love and is historical to our own stories deserves to be savored and shared forever. House and building portraits are a great way to take special places and moments with you, no matter where you live or where you will go.”
What began as a hobby, and, to be completely honest, as doodles on the church bulletin during worship, is now a bona fide sole proprietorship complete with tax ID number. That’s more red tape than I’ve ever wanted to wade through on behalf of New South Essays.
He’s seen the demand. It’s been slowly building over the last several years. Two years ago at Christmas, he had so many house portraits commissioned he worked through the holiday, even with COVID-19, to finish up his orders. And that was back when his only sources of customers were word of mouth and his Instagram account, which you should definitely follow.
I’m using this week’s post to announce the global launch of Barron’s imprint, not just because I have a vested interest in his success, I believe in the product. As a popular line of hair growth product ads proclaim, I’m not just a spokesperson for Real Nice Art Co., I’m also a client!
There may not be enough time to get a custom house portrait commissioned and drawn by Mother’s Day, but if you’re thinking that way, you’re on the right track. Barron has drawn first homes, churches where people were married, buildings that interested him, and he recently added a line of prints for such iconic structures as The Arch on the University of Georgia campus.
When people ask me what Barron is up to these days, I get to launch into my prepared script: He’s got one more year at the University of Georgia where he’s majoring in Furnishings and Interiors with a minor in Historic Preservation. He’s got his own business sketching and watercolor painting portraits of houses and other buildings, and he’s just landed an internship at the University of Georgia’s Department of Architecture and Space Planning.
It’s been wonderful to see him take ownership of his art and ideas, and as he finishes up his degree next year and enters the workforce for real (coming off my payroll completely!), I am happy to tell the world about what he’s been up to.
You should definitely get you some of his art. It’s real nice.
Last week our family managed to take a three-day getaway during Gwinnett County Public Schools’ official spring break.
We spent the rain-soaked time relaxing in a cabin in Highlands, N.C., where we escaped during the pandemic in 2021. This year we ate in restaurants, shopped in downtown Highlands and nearby Cashiers, grilled out, played games, watched movies, read and generally relaxed. It was a decidedly family friendly mini-vacation bearing no resemblance to the stereotypical college spring break of lore.
Part of that lore was a travel piece I wrote for The Macon Telegraph way back in 1996 when I was a cub reporter. It was the height of the college spring break phenomenon at Panama City Beach, Florida, and MTV was broadcasting shows live from PCB during the college spring break season in March and early April.
My story for The Telegraph was part travelog, part service journalism. It was meant to appeal to those considering going on spring break to Panama City Beach as well as inform those who would never go but wanted to know what it was like. It appeared in the special Monday feature section I was coordinating for Generation X readers named “Tel X.” The audience for the Tel X section was young adults who were abandoning newspaper readership in droves. The enterprise attempted to provide content twentysomethings might find compelling and useful. Spoiler alert: Tel X did not reverse that trend. It lasted about a year.
I don’t remember how I got the idea but it was an eye-opening and exhausting experience. It had mostly faded in my memory until I recently found the story in my basement archives of old Tel X sections and Macon Telegraph story clips. Rereading the piece invoked a few chuckles and some winces.
The executive summary of the story is that college students went to Panama City Beach to party.
The details of the story revealed that the “party” was not nearly as glamorous in real life as it was on MTV.
Upon checking into the hotel I had been directed to by a newspaper colleague at The Panama City News Herald, I immediately found six guys from Georgia Southern who allowed me to join their group for the weekend. They gave me permission to use their names and print exactly what I saw.
“Dude! This is awesome! It’s like ‘Real World’ but for the newspaper. We’re going to be famous!” one of them enthused.
(For those who may not remember, “The Real World” was one of the first reality shows on television appearing on MTV with the opening lines, “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped — to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”)
There’s famous and then there’s Macon Telegraph Monday Tel X edition famous. So, yeah, not that famous. I’m sure their parents read the piece with great interest.
I will refrain from reprinting the entire story here, but I will give you the opening graph to set the scene:
“Tel X coordinator Lance Wallace spent the weekend on spring break at Panama City Beach to see what happens when young adults from across the country gather to cut loose. PANAMA CITY BEACH – A white shoe polish sign on a Honda hatchback from Georgia sums up the spring break attitude… “Spring Break: Get tan, get drunk, get laid, but not necessarily in that order.” For college students, spring break presents an opportunity and excuse to vent all of their anxieties and frustrations.”
The story included timed dispatches like this: “Friday, 5:42 p.m. Donald Hansil and Stephen Clark pile into the hotel elevator, each clutching a Natural Light and an empty ice chest. They’re in search of an ice machine that hasn’t already been plundered… After scouring the entire hotel for ice, it was 15 feet from their room.”
Other highlights included beach volleyball matches, a bikini contest at Club La Vela, dinner at Hooters, being summoned to the stage by a female rap artist and miraculously incurring no additional damage charges for their room upon checkout. They had crammed 12 people in a room for eight to keep their costs down. For the record, I did not stay in their room, and I left them each night about 2:30 a.m. Even at 25, I could not keep up.
I have never been a partier. My visitation to that scene was like an anthropologist conducting research in a remote jungle village. It gave me enough distance to be objective, and I was not tempted to join in. I merely observed and captured such moments as this: “The group is beginning to look haggard. Steve explains how difficult the room situation has become. Jeff says as long as everyone’s drinking, people get along. Shower time is especially complicated – 12 people, one shower.”
As I drove away from Panama City Beach on that Monday morning in mid-March 1996, I resolved that if I ever had offspring and they ever asked to go to Panama City Beach with their college buddies for spring break, I would advise against it.
So far that’s one parenting resolution I’ve managed to stick to.
What are your memorable spring break experiences? Maybe you don’t want to put it out for the internet, but if you are willing to risk it, leave a comment below and join the conversation.
My family isn’t really a big food family. Sure, we eat together, and like all families, we have made good memories and had meaningful conversations over meals. And we have our share of good cooks. But in my mind, no one person wins the prize as “best cook” in our family.
For sheer variety and taste, my wife, Carla, is without a doubt the best. Whether she fixes a Southern staple or an Asian delicacy, she knows how to efficiently prepare meals that are nutritional and flavorful. She has good instincts, not always needing a recipe to come up with a tasty combination of what she has on hand. Her meals always satisfy, and on the rare occasion a new dish misses the mark, she diagnoses the mistake or missing ingredient and improves it the next time. She has good taste in food herself and researches ways to give her meals extra pop.
If you ask her mother, Cynthia, she would say she is amazed at Carla’s kitchen prowess. She’s not surprised Carla is a good cook; she just doesn’t remember Carla showing much interest in cooking while growing up. I think she underestimates how much she taught Carla through osmosis. Much of Carla’s expertise in the kitchen stems from Cynthia’s instinctive abilities with dishes she knows by heart. Cynthia is an excellent cook in her own right, and she can make cubed steak and gravy in the crock pot better than anyone. It’s always delicious, never bland, and is tender, not chewy, like an undercooked or flash-cooked cubed steak. She is also a natural with traditional breakfast staples, making the best soft scrambled eggs and crisp bacon. When Carla and I first started dating, and we visited her parents for meals, I always ate too much because there was so much goodness set before me. Her pressure-cooked butter beans were my favorite, and I always appreciated the quantity and variety of vegetables she offered. Her creamed corn, broccoli or squash casserole and field peas complemented every feast.
My own mother was a master of stretching the quantity of food to fill three growing boys and accommodate sudden additions to our Sunday lunch table. I witnessed multiple occasions in which she would re-enact on a smaller scale the miracle of the “Feeding of the 5,000.” Whether it was stretching the instant potatoes by mixing in more milk, adding another can of green beans to the pot or slicing the roast thinner for each serving, everyone at our table always had plenty. My favorite among Mom’s recipes is her special occasion-only congealed salad. The combination of Jello, pineapple, cheese and pecans made every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal better.
Growing up, I did not appreciate how much effort was required for meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation, especially when my mom worked a full-time job outside of the home. She did not seem to love cooking, though she never complained and never failed to ensure we had nutritious and satisfying meals. My father spoke up most frequently with complaints or what he called “constructive criticism.” His time in the Air Force gave him a specific set of requirements for his meals. He had an aversion to casseroles, and he insisted food should have flavor.
Dad came into his own as a cook after I was out of the house. When I was growing up, he did the grilling, of course, and would occasionally try to recreate a recipe he remembered from childhood. Not all turned out well. During one trip to see his parents in Columbus, Georgia, he and my grandmother tried for hours to recreate a divinity candy recipe from memory, turning out batches and batches of experimental sweets. Not knowing the difference, my brothers and I ate from each sheet that came out of the oven, oblivious to the qualities that made it a success or failure. No one in my family will forget Dad’s infamous Key Lime Pie failure. He blamed the overly tart concoction on a misprint in the recipe. He used two cups of Key Lime juice rather than a half cup, and we all puckered. Our Sunday lunch guest that day was Ben, a college student from Oregon. As our guest, he was served first. He was so polite that he gritted through the pain in his face to eat his slice of pie while we were still being served. When we took our first bites and couldn’t swallow them, we marveled at his manners and his willpower to choke it down.
By the time I reached adulthood, Dad had latched onto a pecan pie recipe with cream cheese that he liked, and he never made just one. During the holidays he would make a batch of his “Mystery Pecan Pie,” and we would deliver several to friends and families in the church. The supposed “mystery” in the recipe was how the pecans ended up on top after baking when you put them in first to be covered by the egg and cream cheese mixture. When my youngest, Carlton, and I made a Mystery Pecan Pie last Thanksgiving, Carlton explained that the pie was not a mystery at all. “It’s just science, Dad,” he explained. That may be true, but “Science Pecan Pie” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
On the grill, my Dad was meticulous, and it showed. He always uses charcoal, preferring the flavor of coals to cooking with gas, and he is careful not to overcook. Some time after I left home, he really got into smoking meats, and he learned how to stack different cuts in his vertical smoker so that the juices of his pork shoulder dripped onto his turkey. And the spices he added to his liquid mixture made it all smell and taste delicious. Not afraid to experiment, Dad loved adding special twists to simple favorites like grilled hamburgers and hotdogs. He learned to double up his grilled hamburger patties with green chilies, pineapple or cheese inside, making stuffed burgers that were juicy, delicious and filling. His bacon-wrapped hotdogs became an instant favorite with my boys, and now he makes a point to include them on the menu during every visit.
If I had to pick a favorite among Dad’s recipe’s, it is hands down his homemade orange sherbet. The mixture is simple: two liters of Orange Crush, a can of crushed pineapple and a can of sweetened condensed milk. It is perfect for late summer, which is when my birthday happens to fall… hint, hint.
When it comes to grilled steak, my father-in-law, Lanny, was the best grillmaster. He ruined me on ever ordering steak when I eat out. Few restaurant steaks can compare to his for tenderness, juiciness and flavor. I will always remember standing with him at his little gas grill and watching in amazement as he turned the steaks at just the right time so that they were seared but not burned. I was also amazed that he didn’t have to use grilling tongs. He left the lid open and moved the steaks around so that the fat would drip onto the burners and produce the flame-kissed effect my wife now demands of my grilling. It’s just one of the many ways I can’t live up to her Daddy’s legacy.
Some of my earliest food memories of my grandparents are of their special dishes. I remember my dad’s mom, Granny, making buttermilk biscuits from scratch. She served them with supper, though they were even better the next morning, split in half, buttered and grilled in a skillet. The summer we spent two weeks at my grandparents’ house, we had so many biscuits, my brother and I gained 10 pounds apiece. My mom’s mom, Maw Maw, had a number of treats she made for us during her time living in our house. She usually made the dessert for Sunday lunch. I remember most fondly her potato burgers. A Girl Scout Leader with a keen sense of resourcefulness, Maw Maw’s famous potato burgers originated as a Girl Scout recipe. The texture of the shredded potatoes mixed in with the ground beef held the flavors when fried to perfection. It’s a travesty I haven’t tried to re-create this delicacy for my own children.
As for my boys, male children aren’t traditionally the ones who get culinary skills passed down to them in Southern homes, but our oldest and youngest have expressed interest in mastering some of the cooking arts. Barron, our oldest, likes to innovate with the classics like burgers and tacos. He tries various toppings and mixes in different flavors to produce the kind of comfort food that would be popular at a food truck or small stand. Carlton, our youngest, has received the most formal training. He’s taken nine or 10 cooking classes for kids from Whole Foods’ Salud Cooking School. He’s learned everything from a multi-course French bistro meal to breakfast buffets to traditional Italian dinners. He has become proficient at baking during the largely home-confined period of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s held several bake sales through the spring and summer, baking batches of pound cakes ranging from butterscotch pecan to plain butter. His Nutella-iced cupcakes have been a big seller. When he has someone to cut up the peaches, he likes making fresh peach pies from scratch, which requires planning. The dough has to be made the day before and chilled overnight. Reports from his customers have been encouraging. For my money, his pie crusts are as flaky as I’ve ever tasted.
I frequently tell people that I do not have an emotional relationship with food. Food is fuel to me, and I’ll eat what’s put in front of me. Upon further review, I have to offer a slight amendment: food is fuel, to be sure, but it’s also memory.
I’m grateful for the memories I have of so many loving hands preparing delicious meals, and I can’t wait to make more memories of good food and conversation with my children as they refine their skills in the kitchen.
Who are the best cooks in your family? Leave a comment and give some credit where credit is due.
I was listening to a special episode of the podcast “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” during my Saturday walk a couple of weeks ago. The guest was 77-year-old Canadian-American singer-songwriter Neil Young.
I almost skipped it, but I’ve learned that anytime a podcast lands in my feed that I don’t think I’ll care much about, if I give it a few minutes, I’ll usually take away something that is meaningful and thought provoking.
Sure enough, Conan’s interview with Neil Young eventually evoked the question for me, “What are your earliest memories of songs?”
The interview inevitably prompted me to think about my earliest memories of music. As has been well-documented on this and my other blog, “View From the Pew,” I grew up in church, and my earliest memories of live music are hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and sacred choral works like Handel’s “Messiah.”
I have been hearing and singing those songs so much over the years that it’s truly hard to tell what I remember from childhood vs. what I sang in church last month. I decided for this exercise, I would focus on my earliest memories of recordings, either from my families’ collection or radio play.
Here are the 15 songs by 10 artists that came back to me after giving it some thought. It’s almost exclusively country:
“Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” “I Believe in Music” and “It’s Hard to be Humble” by Mac Davis
“Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” and “Raindrops Keep Falling my Head” by B.J. Thomas
“You Needed Me” by by Anne Murray
“Big Iron” by Marty Robbins
“Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver
“The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich
“Delta Dawn” by Tanya Tucker
“Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle
“Bed of Rose’s” and “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott” by the Statler Brothers
Memory is a tricky thing. It’s hard for me to know with some of these if I remember their original radio play or those ubiquitous TV commercials in the 1980s for Time-Life collections of country music. One outlier on my list is Marty Robbins’ 1960 recording of “Big Iron” from his album, “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” My brother Lee and I would sneak into the living room and listen to my dad’s albums on our stereo occasionally, and we liked the ones about cowboys shooting each other.
Beyond a shadow of doubt the songs of Mac Davis are among my earliest memories. I clearly recall our light brown Chevrolet station wagon and the eight-track player with the red Mac Davis tape. Even without much comprehension, Mac Davis imprinted on me so strongly that I conjured an imaginary friend named “Davis.”
My parents love to tell stories of me saving a place at the supper table for Davis and blaming him for all my misdeeds. “Davis did it” is a common punch line in those tales. Unfortunately, Davis ran away from our home sometime around March 1974 when my brother Lee was born. Weird.
Some of these songs evoke specific memories. In the case of “You Needed Me” by Anne Murray, I clearly remember hearing it at the home of our babysitter, Mrs. Sandra Smith, on a snow day off of school. And “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was forbidden in our home because it took the Lord’s name in vain, but I remember it being played at a Texas Rangers baseball game I went to as a young boy.
I’m a Spotify subscriber, so I compiled these songs into a playlist, which you are welcome to enjoy if you have a Spotify account. If you are about my age – early 50s – then you may have a similar “earliest memories” playlist. I encourage you to at least jot down your own playlist even if you don’t have a streaming music subscription service.
Not all of these songs are great music, but they are evocative of an era. Whenever I hear one, it transports me to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in the early 1970s. It’s fun to revisit those earliest memories from time-to-time, especially as age catches up with me.
Besides, I know these are some of Davis’ favorites, and ever since he came back, he and I like to listen to them together.
What are your earliest song memories? Leave a comment below and share what you remember. You can even leave a link to your own Spotify playlist.
Genuine surprise strikes rarely. When the circumstance is good, we treasure the experience. When it is tragic, we spend a lifetime ridding ourselves of the impression it made on our psyche.
I have been blessed to have more of the good and fewer of the traumatic. Here are some of the memorable and significant surprises I’ve experienced:
Christmas mornings as a child. My parents knew how to celebrate Christmas well, and they outdid themselves year after year with amazing gifts under our tree on Christmas morning. My brothers and I studied the Sears catalog and had wish lists, but the best surprises from my parents or from Santa Claus were the gifts we hadn’t asked for but brought tremendous enjoyment.
My earliest memories were of G.I. Joes with watch towers, jeeps and airplanes. The scale of the 12-inch dolls — er…. action figures… and their vehicles made for dramatic Christmas morning reveals. Those set the standard for future Christmases. After G.I. Joe, “Star Wars” action figures and their playsets and vehicles took over. It always felt like too much to wish for to want the bigger playsets, and my parents always downplayed the possibility that Santa would bring something so large and expensive.
But when Christmas morning came and the Death Star, Millennium Falcon, tie fighter and X-wing and AT-AT were under the tree, it made for a satisfying surprise that entertained us for hundreds of hours.
Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Speaking of “Star Wars,” the most shocking surprise from my childhood obsession with the science fiction films came when my mother took my brother Lee and I to see “The Empire Strikes Back” at a large theater in Fort Worth. We had been waiting for three years, and it was Lee’s first chance to experience “Star Wars” storytelling on the big screen.
The payoff matched the anticipation, and I was thoroughly engrossed from the opening scene-setting screen crawl to the climactic lightsaber duel between the evil Darth Vader and the young jedi knight in training, Luke Skywalker. When Vader maimed Luke by cutting off his hand, it truly felt that evil was going to triumph. My heart was in my throat as Darth menaced the wounded and defenseless Luke and invited him to join the dark side. His appeal rejected, Darth Vader then made the all-time most surprising reveal in movie history. Spoiler alert: He had not killed Luke’s father. He was Luke’s father.
From that moment on, all other cinematic surprises would be compared to that plot twist. My age and impressionability caused the moment to be deeply imprinted on me like no other piece of entertainment had before or probably since.
My last three milestone birthdays. Carla is a master planner, and those skills were sharpest in pulling off surprise parties for my 30th and 40th birthdays and a surprise family trip for my 50th. At 30, she conspired with my dad to delay me after Sunday night church with a meandering trip through Walmart. I was none the wiser because my parents were in town, and I believed an intimate celebration with them was plenty for a happy birthday. I also didn’t suspect Dad was stalling because I have been on many meandering trips to retail stores with him, and this shopping experience didn’t seem any different. When we got home and entered the house, it was mysteriously quiet. Stepping into the dining room and being greeted with the requisite “Surprise!” truly caught me off guard. Carla had commissioned a running shoe birthday cake from our friend, Tonya Allen, and all of our best friends from church were there to celebrate. It was a lot of fun, and I know, a lot of work.
Having been surprised at 30, I was convinced there was nothing surprising about turning 40. Again, my parents were in town, and this time, Carla’s parents joined in the fun. We all celebrated with a lovely meal in our dining room, and I had no reason to suspect the celebration would continue. But the next day, I was summoned to a meeting at work. In those days, I worked as director of communications at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The office was divided into two halves by a large atrium, and my sudden meeting was on the other side of the building. Only when I arrived there did I find all of my colleagues, my parents, Carla and the boys waiting with a big cake. They hit me with a hearty “Surprise!” which caught me off guard, again. It was one of my best days at CBF, and Carla had managed to “fool me twice.”
Perhaps her greatest challenge was when I turned 50. In the middle of a pandemic, there would be no surprise gatherings of any kind. Content to celebrate with immediate family at a meal of my favorite barbecue pork ribs and German chocolate cake, I did not anticipate or desire another component to reaching the 50 milestone. But Carla planned a wonderful getaway.
Because of my work schedule, she had to delay until the week after my birthday, and all I knew initially was that I needed to take three days off work. The night of my birthday party she hit me with the news that we would be spending three days at Lake Oconee. She had rented a fourth floor condo overlooking the lake. She needed a little help finalizing the plan to rent a pontoon boat and deciding on a takeout/eating out schedule given the pandemic, but again she outdid herself with her planning. It was one of the best family trips we have ever taken, and I will treasure the two days we spent on the lake alternating swimming and tubing while hitting up waterfront restaurants and listening to tunes out on the water. All three birthdays were glorious surprises.
Meeting Carla on a Sunday night after church. It is no exaggeration to say I was the only single guy under 40 at Highland Hills Baptist Church in the early to mid-1990s. Perhaps because I was the only single guy, my love life attracted quite a bit of attention from the matchmakers in the congregation. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate their efforts and worked to keep news of my socializing to myself.
Who I went out with was none of their business, I reasoned, and besides, as a preacher’s kid, I had experience with the whole church meddling in my relationships. I was not eager to go back to having everyone in the church in my business. I had been a member of Highland Hills for about four years when I started hearing about a young woman who worked in the nursery. I don’t know how deep the conspiracy ran, but I know it included the pastor’s wife, Susan; the children’s minister, Ruth; and the director of preschool ministries, Carol. The holy trinity of matchmaking worked overtime to finagle a “chance” meeting for me and the nursery worker.
One Sunday night in January as I was unsuspectingly exiting the chapel after vespers, I was greeted by a crescent of smiling faces. A quick scan of the half dozen or so greeters failed to register what was happening until I saw someone I didn’t recognize. A young, attractive woman. I wasn’t so deep into my self-declared monasticism that I couldn’t recognize true beauty. That’s when it hit me. This was the nursery worker. This was a set up. I was introduced to Carla, the nursery worker who had just finished at Mercer University.
Because I had already prepared for the cold and put on gloves, I had to awkwardly remove them and even more awkwardly shake Carla’s hand. I can’t say there was electricity, except maybe the static kind that frequently strikes during the winter when the air is dry, but there was definitely curiosity. And as the old campfire chorus goes, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”
In the weeks that followed, the “committee” arranged an after-Sunday night church group dinner at Cracker Barrel that just coincidentally included both Carla and me. I somehow doubted that nursery workers were invited to such gatherings, but by then the conspiracy was in full bloom. Although I waited another four months after that initial meeting to ask her out, I did begin to frequent the lower level on Wednesday nights, chatting up the nursery workers, and all the while the “committee” did their work. Ultimately, it was Susan who proved most persuasive when she pronounced Carla “quality.” I finally asked Carla out the second weekend in May, and we were married 51 weeks later. My life has been immeasurably enriched because of that Sunday night surprise.
Learning we would be parents. It took us many months to get pregnant with our first child. We were both overly stressed about the process the way first-time parents are. I was biologically a step removed from the awareness of conception and gestation of a baby. I’m sure Carla had suspicions which led her to purchase the home pregnancy test. Preparing to drive to Lake Eufaula for a week of vacation with my family, I went out for a 6-mile run, which was my habit.
It was already mid-summer hot and humid though the calendar was still in June. Drenched with sweat, I stood on the back deck going through my regimen of post-run stretches. Carla appeared at the back window looking out onto the deck. I went over to the window, and she held up the pregnancy test with the faint plus sign visible. It took more than a few seconds for me to catch up to the significance of the plus sign. I felt more and more overwhelmed as the reality set in. Now 22 years later, I can truthfully say I had no idea what that moment meant for the course of our lives.
Our lives changed when we learned we were expecting each of our three boys. The impact of bringing a new life into the world is unique among all surprises, and I’m grateful for each of those three lives and the journey we have been on as a family.
What are your biggest surprises? Leave a comment below to share your unexpected moments.