Discovering a new Southern voice in comedy

With all of this talk of viruses, pandemics and vaccinations, I’ve recently gotten a hold of some of the best medicine, thanks to Nashville-based comedian Dusty Slay.

I have reached the point in life when my entertainment choices can be guided by my children rather than the other way round. During the recent Christmas break, our oldest was at home for an extended period. Barron is always on the lookout for good comedians, and he introduced us to several he had discovered that he thought we would like. Among them was a gravel-voiced, bearded, bespectacled, long-haired dude in a trucker hat named Dusty Slay.

Comedian Dusty Slay

I was skeptical when the YouTube clip first appeared on the screen. It’s a shame, but I must admit I judged the book by the cover. I felt like my son’s tastes may not be as refined as mine and expected the four-minute clip of Slay’s standup would be mildly amusing at best, cliched and offensive at worst.

I was wrong. The clip, in which Slay talked about putting in your two weeks notice to quit a job, was genuinely funny to me. I LOLed, as the kids would say. Barron then took us down a YouTube rabbit hole for the next hour showing us clip after clip from Slay’s appearances on Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central.

When we watched the clip of Slay demonstrating how the trucker hat changes people’s estimation of him, I was hooked. That’s when I realized there was a method to his madness, and his appearance wasn’t meant to be a cartoon. He was making a statement: “Don’t judge me by my looks, listen to what I have to say.” And for the last six weeks or so, I have been listening.

The child of divorce, Slay grew up rotating between his mom’s place in a trailer park in Opelika, Ala, and his dad’s farm near LaFayette, Ala. He was poor, but never lacked for food, clothing and shelter. He had all of the best and worst experiences you might expect from living in a trailer park: having lots of playmates AND getting into lots of scrapes. Not academically motivated, Slay did not go to college. He had a run-in with the law that kept him from the Army, and in his late teens and twenties dealt with drinking and drugs.

Still in his late 30s, he appears to have his life together. It’s been about nine years since he gave up drinking. He’s married and settled in Nashville. He’s been performing comedy steadily for the past 10 years and in 2018 he started to break through.

Driving back from my parents’ house in Florida at Christmas, we listened to both of his albums on Spotify, “Son of a Ditch” and “Makin’ That Fudge.” I laughed so hard at his stories about drinking gas, having your identity stolen and the rivalry between letters of the alphabet, I had tears. I released life’s stresses in a way I hadn’t been able to in a long time.

Since then, I’ve been catching up on his weekly podcast, “We’re Having a Good Time.” I went all the way back to 2018 when he and his Canadian comic wife, Hannah Hogan, began recording it. (I can’t help myself, I have to start at the beginning.) As a result, I’ve heard the evolution of his voice and delivery, learned his story and listened firsthand how his professionalism and identity have solidified with practice.

His YouTube series, “Dusty Slay’s Top 5 Country Songs About…” are worth your time if you, like me, appreciate the best of ‘90s country. He genuinely likes country music, and isn’t just making easy jokes at its expense.

I’m not ready to put him in the pantheon of Southern comics like Andy Griffith, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, James Gregory, Ron White, Jerry Clower or Minnie Pearl. But he does have strong Southern bona fides, a recognizably Southern rhythm and pacing to his storytelling, and an authentic Southern voice that isn’t a caricature.

He generally works clean, though sometimes his content has “adult themes.” I don’t expect everyone to share my reaction to his comedy. What people find funny is subjective. All I can say is right now, I’m into it.

Maybe my fondness for Slay’s work is all about timing. We are, after all, in a pandemic, and I am in need of the best medicine in the worst way. His jokes aren’t necessarily universal. It helps if you have worn a NASCAR T-shirt or are related to someone who wears NASCAR T-shirts.

I haven’t lived his life. I don’t know what it’s like to wait tables or pass out drunk. What I appreciate is that he finds the humor in the situations he’s found himself in. He possesses an infectious humility that draws me in. The truth is, Slay tells jokes I find clever. There is something very smart behind his self-effacing storytelling.

I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’m hoping for good things because we could all use a good laugh right about now.

When I’m listening to Dusty Slay, it’s hard not to be convinced of his signature line: “We’re having a good time.”

Happy birthday, Mama!

Carla and I call her “Mama.”

Our boys call her “Nanny.”

No matter what name she goes by, my mother-in-law embodies much of what I envision when I think of the New South. She retains a bit of the old-fashioned, Southern ways even as she embraces change. She came of age in a close-knit, rural community surrounded by family. Now she navigates a new life in an urban center with unfamiliar technologies and a faster pace swirling around her.

January 9 is her birthday. I appreciate her every day, but today is the perfect time to celebrate all the ways she enriches our family.

picture of Cynthia Barron standing beside a planter with coral-colored flowers
Cynthia Barron, AKA “Mama”, AKA “Nanny”

I love her Southern expressions. Her speech is always kind, full of grace and never “ugly.” Rooted in a past so innate to her, it wouldn’t occur to her to say things differently. She delights us with her “Nannyisms,” which include “mashing the foot feed” for pushing the car’s gas pedal; “playing on the sliding board” for going down the slide at a playground; calling a building a “house” as in “going to the school house;” referring to the movies as “the picture show;” drawing our attention to something by advising us to “look over yonder;” requesting a “dibble” as a portion to be served at mealtimes; and her go-to “golly pete” to express amazement.

We mimic and laugh, but we do so with affection, not ridicule. Her speech patterns and sayings are authentic, not put on. She talks like the women of her family have for generations. She is not a caricature Hollywood invented. When she slips in a Nannyism, it’s a treat that makes our day and causes us to love her even more.

I admire her courage. Humans are notoriously resistant to change, self included. In the past year, Mama sold her home in Sandersville and moved into an independent living apartment building near our home. She did the difficult work of letting go and moving on, parting with so many of the possessions she had held onto since her husband passed away seven years ago. We moved her to Lilburn on the Saturday before the COVID lockdown in Georgia, and although she chose independent living over moving in with us because of her desire to make friends and stay active, she was forced to quarantine and remain isolated in a new, unfamiliar place.

We kept close tabs on her, visiting her and having her visit us as often as we were allowed. The isolation took its toll. When her lease was up after the first six months, she made the bold decision to move again to another, newer, more resident-responsive independent living residential complex near us. They have managed the COVID-19 restrictions differently, and Mama is thriving with new friends, activities and beautiful surroundings. Through it all, she has been a trooper, adopting a spirit of “can do” rather than become discouraged by circumstances. She has thus far remained virus-free and inspires us with her resilience.

I marvel at her stamina in the face of many health challenges. Mama has battled chronic lymphocytic leukemia for more than a decade and held up under regular treatments and infusions that bolster her immune system allowing her to cope with a number of other chronic conditions. With Carla at her side or on FaceTime when COVID rules won’t allow her to accompany her mother to doctor visits, Mama has faced enumerable medical appointments, medicines and treatments. Every day she draws breath is a testament to God’s grace and her inner strength.

Born prematurely, Mama credits her Granny Fulghum with holding her, warming her and nurturing her to survive the first year of life at a time when medical technology was not as advanced at providing such care. Mama received her grandmother’s grit and determination during those months of swaddling and rocking. We are grateful she has fought so bravely for so long because each day with her is a gift.

I benefit from her perspective and good humor. Long after my attempted witticisms have ceased to have any impact on my wife of 23-plus years, Mama still appreciates my jokes, puns and anecdotes. Our three boys all work harder than a stand-up comedian at an open mic night to get her chuckling, and the affirmation we feel when she smiles at something we say is the embodiment of blessing.

She can also tell a good story. I enjoy hearing her reminisce about growing up and the circumstances that give her joy now to think back on. She loves her sister, Edna, and cherishes the memory of her brother, James, while missing her husband, Lanny, every day. Those remembrances are full of humor and love.

I am blessed by her kindness. The phrase “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD” made the rounds a few years back in Christian circles, and I live by a close corollary: “What would Mama say?” She simply cannot bring herself to say anything bad about anyone, even if she has every evidence of ill motives. She is patient and extends the benefit of the doubt even when we feel she risks being taken advantage of. I’m sure she’s not happy with everyone she encounters, but she does not show it. Nothing makes her happier than to do something for others. She is constantly looking for ways to be helpful.

She will always be a teacher at heart. She taught children for 30 years in elementary school and Sunday School and can’t help but see craft projects and object lessons in every recyclable household item.

If I have a resolution for 2021, it’s to be more like Mama — creative and colorful in my speech, bold and courageous in my decision making, strong and dedicated to good health, creating space for listening and laughing, and showing kindness to everyone I come into contact with, including those I spend the most time with during this pandemic.

Happy birthday, Mama. We love you. You are worth celebrating.

Having Myself a Very COVID Christmas

Nothing has been the same in 2020. The holiday season is no exception. The 36 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day that include Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa will be unlike any other in my lifetime.

We’ve reached December. The music, weather, and lengthy to-do list are the same, but many facets of the holidays are unrecognizable. Here are 10 ways I’m anticipating the pandemic will impact my Christmas celebration:

Exterior of house decorated with lights and wreaths for Christmas.
The 2020 version of our Christmas decorations feature new ribbons on our wreaths and new positioning of the floodlights. It’s the little things during the pandemic that bring joy.

No parties. Typically, our family’s calendar is filled with social gatherings for my wife and me and for our children. I have complained in the past of having an overstuffed December social calendar. Not this year. I have one event on the calendar at the moment, and it is a socially distanced, masked, hour-long party for my middle son. I’m sure a few more social occasions might trickle in, but they won’t resemble the festivities of years’ past.

No concerts. Our boys are musically inclined. Concerts, parades, and recitals are as much a part of our holiday season as parties. Sometimes the performances and parties occur in combination. I will miss my boys’ musical events and the way they set the mood for my Christmas celebration. Music fills me with Christmas spirit, but Spotify can’t replace the live performances that have become our tradition.

Shopping online exclusively. As has been documented in New South Essays in the past, I’m not a fan of shopping. I embraced online shopping a few years back, but I usually take the boys out for individual excursions so they can purchase gifts for family members and each other. We avoid the peak times, but these relatively short forays provide me with all the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping I need. This year, I’m planning for all of it online.

Limited family interaction. Our biggest struggle this year is getting together with family. We traditionally go to Florida after Christmas to spend time with my parents. Occasionally my Texas-based brothers are able to join in, and our boys get to see their cousins. Such was the plan this year, but those plans are shifting. We have been taking precautions for nine months allowing us to stay healthy and care for my immunocompromised mother-in-law. This close to the distribution of a vaccine, we simply can’t risk a trip to be around out-of-state family. The fear of missing out is most acute for me with this component of our holiday celebrations. To compensate, I am placing a high priority on a trip to Texas when the pandemic ends.

Different faith observances. I’ve written extensively over at View from the Pew about how our church experience has been different during the pandemic. Our pastor is determined to make sure we have a Christmas Eve service. We’ll bundle up and gather outdoors, keeping our distance and foregoing parts of the service that bring us into close contact. I will welcome the Christmas Eve service in any form, but there are many other annual observances I am missing, especially our church choir’s Christmas music. Again, Spotify is an imperfect substitute.

Appreciation of health. I am experiencing greater appreciation for my health this holiday season. This year in which I turned 50 has been full of health challenges. In February I had a bout of the flu and pneumonia before COVID-19 raged across the country. Then in March I tore my meniscus which I finally had repaired with arthroscopic surgery in November. In spite of those setbacks, we haven’t had to deal with a case of COVID in my household. I am grateful and hopeful that continues into 2021.

Gratitude for each other. We will be around each other more this Christmas than any other, and while that contributes to the petty arguments and frustrations boiling over, it will also cement our family’s bond. Sitting around our Thanksgiving table and calling my parents later that day filled me with gratitude for the people in my life in a profound way.

Decorating early. I saw a lot of social media posts this year of people “needing a little Christmas, right this very minute” back on Nov. 1. We weren’t quite there, but this year I’ve forsaken my annual complaint of people skipping Thanksgiving and going right to Christmas. We all do what we have to do to make it through. Our own Christmas decorations didn’t go up early. In fact, because of some home projects, our tree sat lit but undecorated longer than usual, but early decorating is the rule rather than the exception in 2020.

Clinging to tradition. We’re not giving up traditions this year, we’re reinventing and re-interpreting them. We’re boiling them down to their essential quality and meaning and finding a way to do them safely. The best example so far is our Saturday after Thanksgiving trip to Ihop and Christmas tree shopping. This year, we made a huge breakfast at home, had a leisurely morning, cleaned up the kitchen together, and finally made it to the tree lot around noon. There was less time to decorate, but the boys agreed this may be a permanent change to our holiday traditions.

Seeking joy. More than gifts, food or nostalgia, I am seeking joy this Christmas. I cannot remember entering a holiday season in my lifetime with such a desperate need to be uplifted, encouraged and inspired. Whether it’s in the laughter of my family around our table, hearing the familiar words of Luke 2 on Christmas Eve or the strains of Harry Connick’s “Harry for the Holidays” album, I will savor the feeling of joy that has been so elusive these past nine months.

That’s my list. I’m curious how your holiday season will be different this year. Whatever may come, I hope your holidays are safe, meaningful, memorable and above all, joyful.

The official New South Essays Thanksgiving Meal Planner

As a public service, New South Essays would like to inform you that Thanksgiving is just 19 days away.

If you haven’t already started planning this year’s feast, now is the time to jumpstart your meal preparation. Of all the holidays and traditions we experience in a year, Thanksgiving is a meal-based celebration. It requires planning and pre-work, even if you are simply ordering a turkey and “fixins” from the grocery store.

The Wallaces at the Thanksgiving table in 2019.
The Wallace Family Thanksgiving table in 2019.

Allow me to alleviate your Thanksgiving preparation anxiety and introduce the New South Essays Thanksgiving Meal Planner. I’ll break down each decision, and you fill in the blanks. When you finish reading this post, you’ll be ready to head to the grocery store and get to work. This planner works best if you print it and have a black ink pen or no. 2 pencil handy. Better yet, laminate it for repeated annual use:

  1. Meat. Turkey, ham, turducken, tofurkey, BBQ, other (circle one). I’ve had all but the turducken and tofurkey for past Thanksgiving meals. Yes, I had pulled pork barbecue one year. An unusual choice to be sure, but it was delicious just the same. For some reason, this year my dad has taken to the idea of having BBQ on Thanksgiving. Maybe with this pandemic everything is so off-kilter that he’s thinking “Why not have a nontraditional protein for Thanksgiving?” We’re cooking a small turkey again this year, but we’re still undecided on whether to smoke or roast. We will definitely be brining for added flavor and moisture.
  • Vegetables. Sweet potatoes/yams, carrots, corn, green beans, squash – butternut/other, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, eggplant (I don’t know what you like!), okra, field peas, English peas, black-eyed peas, Swiss chard (just checking to see if you were still paying attention) and, of course, mushrooms. (There may be more than one correct answer). This cannot possibly be an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to get you started. You are allowed to write in the margins. I’m also aware that most vegetables get converted into their casserole form for Thanksgiving because we all love to take a perfectly healthy vegetable, soak it in cream and smother it in cheese, Ritz crackers or marshmallows.
  • Starch. Mac n’ cheese, mashed potatoes, stuffing – cornbread/bread crumb/other, dinner rolls, biscuits, other (circle all that apply). Now before you go arguing about the selections in this category, know that in my house, the mac n’ cheese at Thanksgiving has been one of the most divisive and hotly contested issues. While popular, it is decidedly not a vegetable, despite what you may see on meat-and-three restaurant menus in the South. Personally? I’m not a fan. I don’t dislike mac n’ cheese, I just don’t see the point. I will also not eat mac n’ cheese on Thanksgiving when there is just so much other goodness to be had.
  • Salad. Garden, chopped, spinach, cranberry, congealed (insert congealable substance here:___________), other, none of the above (Why waste room on your plate with salad?) I cannot help myself when it comes to my mom’s congealed salad. I don’t even know its proper name. I know it is yellow, has a foamy top, contains pecans and grated cheddar cheese, and tastes like Thanksgiving. This might be too personal a preference for you, but I do hold open the possibility that you have a favorite salad for Thanksgiving. I do not go in for pears with a dollop of mayonnaise. That ain’t a salad. And anything with Jello and four cups of sugar definitely counts as a salad, not a dessert. Speaking of desserts…
  • Dessert. Pie – pumpkin, pecan, apple, sweet potato, chocolate, coconut cream, chess, buttermilk, non-pie, other. (More than one answer is assumed). At my house we’re pumpkin and pecan people, but we have been known to mix in a sweet potato or chocolate pie on occasion. My youngest is obsessed with pumpkin spice, so pumpkin pie is a must. I’m partial to pecan and particularly enjoy the “Mystery Pecan Pie” recipe with cream cheese my dad introduced us to a few years back. The mystery is that the mixture flips during baking, and the pecans float to the top. My youngest insists there is no mystery. He says it should be called “Science Pecan Pie.” I don’t think it has the same ring to it. In any case, if you have something other than pie, I’d like to hear about it because it just doesn’t seem right. But I’m open to new ideas.

There you have it. Hopefully you used a pencil if you need to go back and make alterations to your menu. Just don’t take too long making up your mind. If you’re going to have everything ready by lunch on Thanksgiving day, you’ll have to start soon. You don’t want poor planning to cause a traffic jam in the oven and the turkey to be undercooked.

Here’s hoping this year, despite it all, you have reasons to be thankful and can enjoy your family feast.

Social dilemmas

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Because of COVID-19, we are supposed to…

  • Avoid gathering in crowds in indoor spaces.
  • Avoid isolation because of the negative impact on our mental health.
  • Wear a mask to protect others from the droplets in our breath that might spread the coronavirus to others.
  • Wear a smile to help lift the spirits of those you come into contact with during these dispiriting times.
  • Stay at least six feet apart from everyone, maintaining “social distance.”
  • Stay socially connected with friends and family, checking in with them through phone calls, texts and social media.
  • Stay off social media to prevent fear of missing out (FOMO), negative comparison and envy, manipulation by fake news, failing to have real experiences, and anxiety caused by the cacophony of negativity and general nastiness spread on various social media platforms.

Everywhere I turn these days there is contradiction, and it only adds to the mounting frustration I feel as I attempt to cope with a world I don’t recognize anymore. I am, frankly, out of easy answers, exhausting those within the first few weeks of stay-at-home protocols and isolation when I could not imagine we would still be dealing with this when the scent of pumpkin spice returned to our lives.

It feels like a bit of a trap, these cascading sets of contradictory instructions. At the heart of it, is our need for socialization. I struggle with making sense of the greater priority sometimes. Should I be more concerned about the spread of COVID-19 or the impact of isolation on my mental health?

Even our decisions about our children’s education is rife with difficult choices. We sent our oldest off to college where he has one of four classes in a hybrid format, meaning it meets twice a week but he only goes once a week. The other three classes are online. He goes to marching band practice twice a week, but the band will not perform this fall because the football season was postponed until spring.

Was this a worthy risk? We moved him into his apartment almost two months ago, and so far he’s doing fine. The possible negative consequences assault my mind every time I sit still long enough to have a thought.

Our high schooler and middle schooler are doing digital learning from home. That has its own challenges, but so far we’re managing. What seems incongruent is keeping them home from school but taking one to marching band practice twice a week and the other to drama multiple days a week for rehearsals. We tell ourselves they need an outlet, and the program leaders in both band and drama are following all the experts’ recommendations and guidelines. There are still risks, any of which lie in wait in my thoughts ready to derail my concentration and stop my productivity.

Every decision feels freighted with life or death consequences.

image of cracked cell phone screen with ad for social dilemma documentary

Adding to our consternation was our recent viewing of the new Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” As if we didn’t feel bad enough about the amount of screen time we were permitting our children during quarantine, we watched 94 minutes of tech gurus explaining how social media companies serve up their customers to be marketed to and manipulated all in the name of user growth and engagement.

I felt like just as much of a parental failure as if I had sent my child mask-less to a super-spreader birthday party. The movie tugged at all the underlying suspicions and overt fears I’ve had of technology since I created my Facebook account in 2008.

What’s the solution?

Before I completely give in to despair, I have to recognize the false dichotomy inherent in the “social distance” guidance. It’s not either you and your family plunge into a coronavirus-riddled crowd singing and shouting mask-less with hugs and handshakes aplenty OR spend hours alone on Instagram looking at ways to improve your wardrobe, home décor or vacation plans.

There has to be a third way.

I’m thinking we need to revert to analog activities. Go outside. Walk, hike, bike, run. Play games. Talk to people. If those people are in your household, you can talk to them up close. If you need to maintain six feet of separation, you can both wear masks, stay outside, make good eye contact and really listen.

I have to remind myself most of us are doing the best we can, balancing our physical and mental health, our needs with the needs of the medically fragile, and our digital platforms with human interaction. I have to resist the oppression of second guessing and hand wringing over all the social dilemmas this pandemic has introduced into my life.

When this is all over, I hope the legacy of COVID-19 for me is a rediscovery of meaningful, interpersonal connections in real life and a rejection of the artificial, moderated interactions in the virtual world.

Maybe we will all have a better grip on what’s real and what’s a distraction.

So what’s your secret for coping with your desire for socialization during the pandemic? What are your thoughts on the saturation of screen time? Have you been tempted to pull the plug on your social media accounts? Add your ideas and make this a more meaningful experience for all of us.

New South TV

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently spent 53.2 hours, give or take a few minutes, in the charming little town of Bluebell, Alabama.

Never heard of it? Neither had I until a few weeks ago.

Carla and I just finished a pandemic binge of “Hart of Dixie” on Netflix. We’re always late on pop culture trends, so of course we missed this romantic comedy’s original 76-episode run from 2011-2015, before anything with the word “Dixie” in it was widely recognized as problematic. It was on the CW, so a lot of you probably missed it, too. It’s highest ratings came in 2012 when it hit a whopping no. 142 in the Nielsen’s.

Bluebell, Ala., has more triangles than a geometry textbook.

Carla and I usually have a show we watch together, you know, one that’s not “Lord of the Rings,” Star Wars, Marvel or sports. Carla heard about “Hart of Dixie” from her friend and walking partner, Natalie, whose Southern bona fides are indisputable.

Carla took her suggestion as gospel and dived in, watching the first two episodes without me. She was hooked from the beginning. I joined for episode three, and it became our nightly diversion at a time when bad news was followed by worse news.

Not since childhood when I hung out in Mayberry for hours on end have I spent so much time in a fictional, Southern small town. Unlike “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Hart of Dixie” has more love triangles and WAY more festivals. Among the more zany town events are Founder’s Day, Homecoming, Planksgiving, Bluebell Battle, Sweetie Pie Dance, Watermelon Festival, Mother-Daughter Tea, Debutante Ball, Gumbo Cook-Off, Turtle Derby, Miss Cinnamon Cider Pageant, Disaster Preparedness Drill, and the Strawberry Festival. These folks make their own fun, and when they need a taste of big city life they road trip to Mobile or New Orleans.

Make no mistake, this show is not high art. The accents aren’t consistent. The plots are contrived. The characters are cliché. But it is just the kind of escape during COVID-19 that made me overlook all of that and embrace my inner Bluebellian.

Without giving anything away, here’s the basic plot: New York City heart surgeon Dr. Zoe Hart (the show’s namesake and protagonist) moves to Bluebell, Ala., to practice medicine when she’s denied a prestigious surgical fellowship because she lacks bedside manner and genuine concern for her patients. She rents a cottage from the town’s mayor, LaVon Hayes, a former University of Alabama and NFL star who has a pet alligator named Burt Reynolds. Dr. Zoe Hart falls into and out of love with a number of locals – including her bad boy neighbor, Wade Kinsella, and town lawyer and golden boy, George Tucker – and has an ongoing rivalry with Lemon Breland, a debutante and Southern belle who is a force to be reckoned with on every issue and at every town festival.

In my college days, I spent some time in the Mobile area, and I can attest that there is no place like Bluebell in that geography. But I didn’t watch “Hart of Dixie” for realism. By the end, I didn’t even watch for the “will they or won’t they” back-and-forth of the romances. My greatest pleasure was listening for Mayor Hayes’ signature line, expressed at least once per episode when circumstances inevitably turned against him: “Nah! Nah! Nah!”

So if all the bad news is weighing on you and you’re in need of at least a virtual getaway, I highly recommend a visit to Bluebell, Ala. I think Founder’s Day is coming up soon.

All this time in Bluebell has me wondering about depictions of life in the South on TV, and which ones are the best. There are no shortage of rankings available online these days, but I’m curious what your top five would be. Leave a comment below and share your all time favorite Southern shows. You’ll be glad you did.

I was told there would be answers

Milestone birthdays tend to end in zero.

I had one Thursday, and like that first trip to the gym after too long a layoff, I’m feeling a little sore today.

Twice a year like clockwork, I contemplate my life: New Year’s and my birthday. However, the extended period of being homebound during the COVID-19 pandemic has given me a head start on my birthday reflection, so this year has produced a bumper crop of loose ends and unanswered questions.

Birthday plate full of barbecue pork ribs, cole slaw, baked beans, french fries and fried okra
Carla made a fantastic BBQ rib dinner for my birthday. Here’s one piece of wisdom I did acquire from this milestone: eating like this every night will kill you.

Here are a few that have been knocking around in my head in recent weeks:

Am I helping or hindering my kids?

Am I where I’m supposed to be in my career and who decides what “supposed to be” even means?

Am I carrying my weight around the house with chores and home management duties?

Am I saying what I mean?

What’s really important and have I been investing in that?

What should I be doing to keep my family safe and healthy?

How can I make the most of our extended time together?

When will all this end?

Can I really celebrate a birthday under these circumstances?

Is this pain in my knee just age-related or something I should get checked out?

Why am I always cold?

When did a nap become my greatest desire?

At what point did I stop caring about sports?

How do I live out my faith when I encounter almost no one I’m not related to?

Am I saying the important things to the people I love even though they are the hardest things to say?

Do I lean into or fight against aging?

You can only distract yourself with work, household projects and TV for so long before you feel you need answers to at least a few of life’s questions. I believed that the answers would come the morning of July 30 when I awakened at the ripe old age of 50. I thought for sure an epiphany would accompany this milestone.

That’s supposed to be the payoff of aging, right? You trade your health, mobility, hearing, and vision for wisdom and 10 percent discounts at restaurants and retailers.

The trouble is, wisdom is eluding me. I’d like to blame it on the extraordinary global conditions we are immersed in at the moment. That would be at least one helpful thing COVID-19 could give me – an excuse. Truth be told, though, with each passing year my questions keep mounting and my answers diminish. I’m beginning to understand why one of my dad’s frequent refrains these days is “But what do I know? I don’t know anything.”

In turning an age that I used to associate with morbidity, I have been able to reflect with gratitude on my life’s best gifts. I am closer than ever to family and friends. I have my health. I have a challenging career that allows me to use my gifts. My basic needs are taken care of, allowing me to contemplate the items higher up on Maslow’s Hierarchy. I get to take naps on the weekend.

When I turned 20, it was a blip, barely worth noting. Thirty was fun and full of surprises. Forty represented an arrival at serious adulthood with big time decisions and responsibilities. I expected 50 to bring with it the answers to all the questions. Maybe the answers have been lost in shipping by Amazon. Maybe porch pirates made off with them before I could retrieve them. More likely, I had unrealistic expectations of this milestone.

Because of family schedules, the big celebration has continued into the weekend, and next week we will head to the lake to steal a few last days together before sending our oldest back to college. It will have been a celebration full of family, good food, laughter, and myriad well-wishes on social media. It was a good birthday, and I’ll take it, given all that the world is going through at the moment.

I’m choosing to be grateful. One of my dad’s favorite quips which he attributes to my Maw Maw: “Having birthdays sure beats the alternative.”

As for the answers to all my questions, it’s like I said – milestone birthdays tend to end in zero.


Planting Generosity

Today’s New South Essay comes from good friend and former colleague Don Durham. I’ve invited Don to tell us about his life on the farm, feeding the hungry, launching a podcast, and challenging all of us to do our part to end hunger.

In another life I had the privilege of working with Lance for most of a decade when we both worked for the same Baptist organization. I worked with the foundation connected to the organization, and Lance worked in the communication office. That’s when I learned how talented, incisive, focused, creative, driven, and effective he was. I even got to peek behind the scenes with a writing project or two he was working on at the time. Even though I was already a fan of his work at the day job, those sneak peaks still afforded me the opportunity to fall into that favorite vortex of enjoyment that only comes from discovering a new writer whose voice speaks to you. After Lance and I both moved on to other work in other places this blog was my only source of an occasional fix of the writing I’d come to enjoy so much.

All of that to say what a particular honor and pleasure it is to be invited into this space to share a bit of a story. Thank you, Lance.

The new work I moved on to was starting a farm to grow food to give away. The place where that work happens is a farm, Healing Springs Acres, in central North Carolina. It’s owned by another former co-worker of ours whose family donated the property for this purpose. How I found that property and came to have the use of it is a whole ‘nother story involving far more Providence than I actually believe in. We’ll save that for another time.

Tractor plowing a field
Growing food to give away isn’t glamorous, but it is important.

For about 10 years I’ve been planting a few acres of produce to give away. The usual mix is green beans, corn, okra, squash, zucchini, and pink-eyed purple hulled peas – because I like to say, “pink-eyed purple hulled peas.” The other reason I use that mix of vegetables is that they are relatively dense in nutrition, and they have a fairly stable shelf life.

All of the food I grow is distributed through existing food pantries or distribution programs. I’ve got all I can say grace over to keep the Johnson grass from spreading its pernicious evil through the fields, and I’m not qualified to set up and run a legit intake and needs assessment process to determine who should get the food. I’d never be able to get past the assumption that everyone should have all the food they need. So, I just grow the food and take it to folks who have already figured out how to distribute it in the most helpful ways.

Planting acres and acres of food is easy. Having enough hands to hoe the weeds and harvest the produce is a different matter. Volunteers are an essential ingredient in making everything work at harvest time. Given that constraint, I usually only plant a couple of acres in total. That usually yields six to eight thousand pounds of food.

Fortunately, the solution to hunger is not for my farm to grow bigger and bigger. From the beginning our mantra has been: Planting Generosity. Providing Food. Proclaiming Others Can Do the Same!

Healing Springs Acres logoThe solution to hunger is for more and more small local projects to emerge here and there in your community and other communities. I’m not even saying everyone should go start a farm to grow food to give away. That probably wouldn’t make much sense in a lot of situations. I had a unique set of circumstances that made that a feasible option for me. The question is, what is the best thing for you and your neighbors to do to help end hunger in your community’s unique set of circumstances? Once you answer that question, I’d love to hear the answer.

A little over a year ago I was approached by a podcast producer in Atlanta who had heard about the farm and thought it would make an interesting podcast to tell that story – unbelievable Providence and all.  I thought it over for about five minutes and decided it would bore me to death to have to listen to myself monologue for 30 minutes or so at a time about my own project. It would also be a fairly short-lived podcast.  It’s just not that complicated of a story. I have a farm. I grow food to give away. Done.

The good thing about a mantra is that if you say it often enough, you can hear yourself repeating it back in those moments when you most need to hear it.  “… Proclaiming That Others Can Do the Same!”

After a few days, I called him back. “Yes. I want to make a podcast. No. It’s not going to be about me or my farm.”

In the 10 years I’ve been working on this project, a lot of other folks have started a lot of other really cool and effective food and hunger focused projects of their own. Those are stories I want to hear. What are people doing to end hunger?

One of my favorite adages is, “Those who say something can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt the folks who are doing it.” No doubt about it, hunger is an overwhelming, pervasive, systemic problem that is bigger than any one of us. But, there are people solving that problem. I wanted to create an uninterrupted platform for telling their stories.

So, “Welcome to the Table!: what people are doing to end hunger.”

Welcome to the Table podcast logoNot only did the mantra lead me to the right focus for the podcast, but finding the right focus for the podcast finally made the last part of the mantra a true reality. We’ve done a decent enough job of living into the first two parts, “Planting Generosity & Providing Food.” Until now though, the third part has just been rhetoric.

Each episode is an interview with an entrepreneurial instigator who has started their own food or hunger focused project from scratch. I love that these efforts grow up and become institutionalized in some way. However, I’m not interested in interviewing the staff that carries on the work. I’m focused on sharing the stories of the folks who went from doing nothing, to doing something. Of course, sometimes it’s important to break your own rules. When the story is worth it, I’ll expand the focus. No matter who I’m talking to, the questions I always ask are:

  • Why did this matter to you and how did you get started?
  • How do you define success and what have your experiences been?
  • What are your most significant challenges and what are you doing about them?
  • Why are people hungry in your area?
  • What do you wish more people would do more of, more often to help end hunger?

It’s the last two questions that I hope will linger in listeners’ ears.  Why are people hungry in your area, and what can you do more of, more often to help end hunger in your community?

If you’d like to find your way to good answers to those questions, I’d invite you to listen to the conversations I’m having with the people who are “doing it.”  We can all learn from their experiences and benefit from their inspiring wisdom. There are also coaches available if you’d like to talk with someone about helpful things to consider as you’re just getting started with your own food or hunger focused project, or if you’d like to consider ways to make an existing project more effective.

The first cluster of episodes tell the story of how my hometown of High Point, N.C., responded to being named the number one city in the entire country for concentrated food hardship in 2015. They’ve moved up to number #14. Listen to find out how.

I’m currently releasing a series of episodes from Immokalee, Fla., focused on efforts to help end hunger among the farm workers who pick most of America’s wintertime produce, particularly tomatoes.  These are the workers who pay the brutal cost of providing inexpensive groceries to American grocery stores year round. You’re probably already involved in these stories.  Listen to find out how.

Either way, I appreciate Lance inviting me to invite you to take a listen to the new podcast. I hope you hear something that inspires you to do more of something effective to help end hunger in your community.  I’d also love to hear from you if you know of a story worth telling about an entrepreneurial instigator who is doing something to help end hunger.


We all need a vacation from COVID-19.

But in case you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s not likely any time soon. Sorry to be a downer, but after a week at the beach, our annual family vacation was impacted by the global pandemic in many ways, some subtle and some obvious.

If you have been able to get away on a vacation this year, you have experienced this firsthand. If you are still planning or hoping to get away, you are sweating the unknowns.

waves come to shore at Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
The foaming waves catch the light of daybreak during my morning walk at Santa Rosa Beach.

Our family has been to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., 17 of the past 18 years. We anticipate this annual trip for a season, like Advent before Christmas, planning and reminiscing for weeks before actually heading south to the panhandle of Florida.

Now that it’s over, here are the ways COVID-19 impacted our vacation this year and what you should consider if planning a trip this summer:

Scheduling. We knew this year would be different from the beginning. We initially booked our week at the beach beginning Memorial Day weekend so that our oldest son could join us. He was supposed to spend the summer working as a staffer at Passport Choices camp in Greensboro, N.C., but when that opportunity succumbed to the global pandemic, we moved our reservation to a week later in the summer. We also didn’t know if the beaches of South Walton would even be open Memorial Day week. As it turned out, they opened that weekend, but we were glad we moved our booking back. That gave us time to see how COVID conditions might change. As our departure date neared, the resurgence of coronavirus made us afraid we might have to cancel. Fortunately, nothing interfered, and we were able to make the trip as re-scheduled.

Masking. A few years ago, we discovered we could “steal” an extra day of vacation by leaving early on check-in day, beating the inevitable Atlanta exodus to the 30-A area. We could have our lunch poolside while we waited for check-in at our beach house or condo unit after cleaning. This year, the early departure had the added benefit of limiting the number of people we encountered by making fewer stops. We weren’t so careful as to avoid public restrooms altogether, but we couldn’t help but notice that we were the only ones at the rest area south of Eufaula, Ala., wearing masks. While the debate about whether to mask or not raged nationally, we saw it play out firsthand everywhere we went all week. For the record, the unmasked far outnumbered the masked.

Social distancing. While we don’t avoid people on our vacation, we also don’t mix and mingle. We have regular activities we enjoy as a family that don’t bring us into contact with anyone: cooking and eating in, playing board and card games, riding bikes and taking walks, reading and watching movies. But there are components of a beach vacation that unavoidably include other people: going to the beach, splashing in the pool, going out to eat, shopping, or taking in a movie. This year we limited our shopping and the movie was out of the question. We tried our best to keep our physical distance while at the beach and pool. The first day at the beach, we were a little unnerved by how close the umbrellas and chairs were set by the outfitter. The rest of the week we never had anyone on both sides of us at the same time, so spreading out was easier. I spent most of my time in the water, which also made avoiding people easier. There were times when the social distance alarm bells were going off in our heads. Ditto for restaurants. We ate out a few times, each time after Carla called and interrogated the restaurant staff on their safety precautions. We felt OK about half the time. The worst was arriving extremely early at Captain Anderson’s in Panama City only to discover that social distancing was observed inside the restaurant, but the queue forming out front before opening was a cattle call of people more concerned about getting fresh hushpuppies than maintaining a COVID-free aerosol zone.

Doubting. Any time we found ourselves near people, we questioned the safety of what we were doing. There were plenty of times this vacation felt as if we were living dangerously compared to the three months of lockdown we had just experienced. When we were the only ones wearing masks, we felt self-conscious. When we didn’t wear a mask, we felt irresponsible. We questioned everything. It was annoying and not an emotion we had thought much about beforehand. It was a constant battle.

Keeping up. I’m in the communications business, so part of my unplugging on vacation is avoiding the news. This was impossible this year. Every shred of COVID news was shared and discussed, particularly as it related to the reopening of Gwinnett County Public Schools and the University System of Georgia institutions. After a couple of days, our children asked us to stop discussing it in front of them. They wanted to be on vacation and not think about school in any form, digital or otherwise. And just when we could let go of any alarming new “surging numbers” reports, we encountered a laminated sign on the gate to the pool reminding us of safety precautions. COVID-19 was never far from our thoughts.

Joking. There has been quite a bit of gallows humor to help us cope with the pandemic. With three boys all trying to out-do each other with wisecracks, the potentially offensive humor of COVID-19 was ever present in our joking. My favorite and most oft-repeated line of the week: “I’ll bet they got some of that COVID in there.” Our giggles revealed our anxiety. We were all worried about it to some degree, and no amount of joking could completely alleviate the concern.

Now that vacation is over, and we’re heading back home, we’re interested to see how well we did at staying safe. If we can make it the next two weeks without signs of infection, we’ll call our vacation a success. But every clearing of the throat, cough, sneeze or headache is going to give us pause. We’re on high alert for symptoms now, and the hangover from our vacation is a bout of anxiety that is unavoidable if you are planning to get away.

Vacation 2020 is just like everything else in this season of COVID-19, fraught with worry, doubt and decisions. With the federal and local governments ending mandatory shelter-in-place orders and allowing businesses to re-open, everyone has to make up their own mind about what is an acceptable level of risk.

I can say for us that mental health was an important consideration. All of us needed to get away. We couldn’t imagine not taking this trip after we spent so much time planning and anticipating. It’s so hardwired into our family’s calendar and traditions that if there was any way we thought we could pull this off, even if it was just a delusion, we had to make the attempt.

The Wallace Family Beach Vacation 2020 certainly will be memorable. I’m hoping that in two weeks, we’ll be able to say it was memorable in a good way.

If you are among the lucky ones who have taken your vacation, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how COVID-19 impacted you, and if you are planning to travel soon, I’d be curious to hear what’s worrying you. Share your thoughts in a comment below. It’ll feel better just to get that out there.

Stay safe and be well.


Containers and Surprises

Growing up, I opened enough tubs of butter only to find three-week-old green beans that I developed serious trust issues.

I recently confronted these past traumas when Carla and I spent the day in her hometown of Sandersville cleaning out her mother’s refrigerators and freezers in preparation for selling her house. Most of my experience has been with Country Crock containers, but in this case, it was Cool Whip.

Two Cool Whip containers, one closed and one open to reveal turnip greenss

Frosty Cool Whip or frozen turnip greens? You don’t know until you open it.

What I think throws people about this practice is the deception. Here you have a nice, hot biscuit waiting to be buttered, and you crack open the Country Crock only to find creamed corn. I think it’s a little worse with Cool Whip. In that case you might have a slice of pecan pie waiting for its mandatory dollop of whipped topping, but instead you get turnip greens.

Lord knows I heard my father rail against this practice plenty of times in my youth. I don’t think he minded the frugality of saving the butter tubs. He used plenty of them around his workshop to hold assorted nuts, bolts and screws. He actually preferred baby food jars, though, because you could readily identify the contents. I think what offended him more about my mom’s practice was the age of the contents of the butter dishes. From years of scientific observation, I can authoritatively state that putting leftovers in butter or whipped topping containers does not give it unnaturally long life. Given enough time it will molder and rot just the same as if it were sealed in Tupperware.

That’s the chief problem of re-purposing containers. You don’t know what’s inside. Of course, a Sharpie can rectify that problem. I would recommend keeping one in your kitchen junk drawer.

No Southerner with any sense would criticize the resourcefulness of reusing containers. It is the height of wastefulness to throw out all that plastic when it can be put to good use holding leftover butter beans, turnip greens or creamed corn. In our house, we don’t re-use such containers. In the New South, we put them in the bin and let the waste management company recycle them.

After my weekend of examining the contents of plastic food containers, I have to wonder if we’re missing out. Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates, but he could have just as easily said, “Life is like a container of Cool Whip in Mama’s freezer — you never know what you’re gonna get.”

We have many containers in our lives, and their contents rarely match the label. “Successful career” is actually filled with stress and disappointment. In reality, “Happy marriage” contains resentment and conflict. “Well-behaved child” is instead loaded with depression and anxiety. We don’t write with Sharpie what our containers hold, and we don’t tend to let people know what’s really going on in the containers of our lives.

These days I am rarely surprised by the contents of my plastic containers, and my trust issues have faded along with the memories of moldy English peas. But by recycling my containers rather than reusing them, I am letting go of the element of surprise. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Maybe my life needs a few surprises.

Perhaps I’ll hide the next batch of leftover Brussels sprouts in a gelato jar. That should introduce some unpredictability. And when a member of my family finds it, they’ll learn a valuable lesson about judging the contents by the container.

OK, it’s your turn. I know you have similar stories. What’s the weirdest thing you found in a deceptive dish in your parents’ or grandparents’ refrigerator or freezer? Leave a comment and share your story. Consider it therapy for your trust issues. I promise it will help.