Preserving the art of Southern storytelling

I had been to Arkansas only once in my life until a month ago.

Now, I’m transported to the Starving Artist Café in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock once a week for an incredible 30-to-40-minute immersion into the wide-ranging true experiences of Southerners.

In the last month I’ve discovered and gotten hooked on the “Tales from the South” podcast. Around on public radio in Arkansas for seven years, “Tales from the South” can be funny, of course, or poignant or wistful or evoke any of a number of emotions. It definitely transforms my commute from a weary battle of taillights and bumpers to visions of pecan orchards, picnic baskets filled with fried chicken, stolen kisses in Sunday School classrooms and raccoons raiding birdfeeders.

I’m a recent convert to podcasts, and I’ve quickly learned the viral nature of the medium. It began with a Facebook post asking friends to recommend good podcasts to make my often hour-plus commute bearable. That led me to “This American Life,” a delight in its own right. Then, “This American Life” borrowed a story from “Snap Judgment,” another weekly podcast of stories around a theme, and it is now part of my weekly menu.

“Snap Judgment” aired a story a few weeks back by J.W. Taylor as read on “Tales from the South.” Taylor’s story of a church lock-in gone wrong and his coerced confession for making out resonated with me on a surprisingly deep level. As soon as I got to the office that morning, I subscribed to “Tales from the South” and now have a new weekly audio addiction.

The show is recorded each week in front of a live audience at the Starving Artist Café in North Little Rock. It features a musician and a visual artist, although obviously you can’t see the art on the podcast. There’s Mark Simpson with a bluesy guitar riffing in the background of the intros and outros. The podcast includes three stories from different storytellers and a song by the featured musician. Partial to Southern singer-songwriters, I think it’s a perfect formula.

All the credit goes to the show’s host and creator, Paula Martin Morell. A writer and creative writing instructor, Paula and her husband, Jason, own and operate the café. The pace of the show is quick and her commentary minimalist. The fine editing and production quality makes for a lively podcast, but with the sounds of the clinking silverware and glasses and audible responses from the audience, I can easily picture the scene with my mind’s eye.

I particularly enjoy the lack of pretension. These are writers, no doubt, and some are published. But all of the storytellers read their work with a down-to-earth “Hey, let me tell you about…” spirit that evokes barber and beauty shop conversations heard across the South.

And unlike my own put-on-for-effect Southern accent, their dialect is natural, unforced and not the least bit uneducated. Perhaps if I spent a little more time in Texas, I could retrieve my native accent that I purposefully suppressed when my family moved to Central Florida when I was 12. I think it would lend authenticity to my storytelling.

The stories themselves are treasures. Some are simple, some profound, and all of the stories are relatable. They aren’t always funny and not every attempt at humor succeeds, but as the storyteller reads his or her work, you can’t help pulling for them, joining in their quest to understand their emotions around a particular anecdote from their lives. Some authors are better than others at delivering their story without it sounding rote or monotone, but even those who aren’t performers still manage to give you something of value.

Besides, I’m sure it’s nerve wracking to get up in front of a live audience and bare your soul by sharing your writing. It’s hard enough some weeks for me to post a blog with embarrassing earnestness and vulnerability.

I’m grateful I found the “Tales from the South” podcast, but it’s a show that is begging to be experienced live. I’m polishing up my stories and planning a road trip to Little Rock. I’ll let y’all know when I get there.

Are there other Southern podcasts out there I’m missing? Please share! Leave a comment below and let me know what else I should be consuming to pass the time in my car. I’d be much obliged.

Truth in labeling

There comes a time in every parent’s life when they are faced with the sudden and shocking realization that their children are no longer children.

Monday morning I pulled an undershirt out of the drawer, and there at the back of the collar, just above the imprinted size and manufacturing information was the letter “L” written in black Sharpie.

Does "L" mean "Large" or "Lance"? See... very confusing.
Does “L” mean “Large” or “Lance”? See… very confusing.

Uh oh. It has happened. My oldest son’s clothes and my clothes are now so confusingly similar in size that my wife has resorted to coding our wardrobes to prevent mishandling. Like so many other of her schemes, the labeling was brought on by my complaining.

After Christmas, when each of us Wallace men received a new package of Hanes undershirts as gifts, I reached into my drawer, pulled out a fresh white T-shirt and slipped it over my head. Knowing that my workouts have been reduced to running, I felt sure that the snugness of the shirt was not caused by my rippling muscles.

I pulled it back over my head and discovered the truth: “M.” What happened next is somewhat in dispute. I may or may not have ranted like a lunatic about my children’s underwear ending up in my drawer, and I may or may not have made a statement such as “What’s next? Carlton’s Batman briefs tucked in with my boxers?”

Carla didn’t acknowledge my critique. She’s acquired the tone deafness that comes with 17 years of marriage. She just casually mentioned that I do most of the folding and putting away of the laundry. There is a fairly good chance that it was me who committed the heinous laundry foul of putting Barron’s mediums in my drawer.

Carla responded by doing what all mothers do: she relied on her resourcefulness and fondness for labeling to come up with a solution. So now, as a 40-something year-old man, I have been reduced to having my name written in my underwear like a third grader heading off to summer camp for the first time.

What I am discovering, though, is that her system is not consistent. While some of my undershirts have an “L” written in it, the boys’ shirts have a series of dots, or dashes, I can’t tell which. In the Wallace Family Underwear Morse Code, one dot means Barron, two dots means Harris and three dots mean Carlton. Except when it doesn’t.

Apparently when she was labeling our new shirts, she lapsed into other classifications. For example, one of Barron’s shirts accidentally has two dots with one of them marked through and the letter “B” written next to it. There is more written on this shirt at the nape of the neck than the fine print on a pharmaceutical ad in Reader’s Digest.

While I can usually eyeball the difference between Barron’s T-shirts and those belonging to his younger brothers, I tend to mix his and mine or Carlton’s and Harris’s. You would think a glance at the label would clear things up with the younger two, but when I have to look at the label, the Hanes people have made things inexplicably complex. All of the boys wear an “M.” I don’t understand how these stair-stepped children each about four years older than their sibling can all be wearing medium undershirts, but this quirk in the space-time continuum is undeniable.

Carla has very patiently explained that Barron is now wearing an adult medium, Harris is wearing a youth medium and Carlton is wearing a toddler’s medium. See why I am confused?

Barron, Lance and a pack of new Tshirts
Little did I know that this Christmas gift would come back to haunt me just two months later.

Perhaps my confusion and irritability over this whole issue is derived from the truth that my children are growing up. Despite the fact that my own father tells me frequently that the time will pass too quickly, it still comes as a surprise when these moments catch me off guard and I realize just how fast their childhoods are evaporating.

All parents go through this, I know, but that realization makes these epiphanies no less unsettling. With every passing day I wonder if I am doing enough to prepare them for what life is going to throw at them. I contemplate what our relationship will be like through their teen years and on into adulthood. I hope and pray that as their innocence transitions into knowing, they will somehow understand that my love is greater than any mistake they could make and my joy is inextricably linked to theirs.

The next time you see me squirming and fidgeting at the neck with one of my T-shirts, just nod knowingly and understand that I’ve once again made an undergarment selection error and I’m coping with parenthood.

At what moments do you realize life is fleeting? What are the circumstances that jolt you with the terrifying realization your children are growing up too fast? If you’ve been down this road, share your wisdom. If you’re going down this road, share your pain. Leave a comment, and we’ll all be better for it.

New tricks

Jack is an old dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Jack is different. He is an old dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack is an old dog.

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

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

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

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

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

Jack appears to be succeeding with me.

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

It’s all downhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tackling issues of faith

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

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

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

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

Snowpocalypse 2014: A product of the New South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in the Nose South

What does your house smell like?

Ours is a mixture of coffee, a hint of mildew wafting up from the basement (the dehumidifier is on the fritz), fabric softener, and bergamot. You heard me. Bergamot. You know bergamot, right? I didn’t think so.

You see, here in the New South we have new smells filling our homes. Gone are the days when your house smelled like last night’s supper, at least until the next morning’s bacon began to fry in the skillet. Now, we have a growing multitude of products to help our home smell more inviting.

When it comes to homemaking, I often tease my wife for going to Martha Stewartian extremes. However, I have to take the blame on this one. I have a sensitive sniffer. Smells affect me in powerful and mysterious ways.

After a hard day at the office and a difficult commute, what I smell when I open the door affects my mood. Even if the playroom looks like Tokyo at the end of a Godzilla movie, if there’s a pleasing aroma, I can cope. Aromatherapy was invented for people like me.

I’m like those people in the Febreeze commercial where they hide all the smelly garbage in a condo unit at a resort and invite people to spend the weekend. The Febreeze plug-in air fresheners cover the smell. Don’t get me wrong: I like things to look neat, too. It’s just that I’m very sensitive to the way things smell.

So over the 16-plus years of our marriage, Carla has figured this out and tried a number of ways to keep the house smelling fresh. At first it was candles. Anything named “Yankee Candle” does not deserve space in a blog about the South, so I’ll just move on.

Then we tried sprays. Lysol sure smells clean but in that “someone just vomited” kind of way. And anyone who’s ever heard Jeff Foxworthy’s routine about the air fresheners in the bathroom “not fooling anybody” (“Walt, what have you been doing in there, arranging flowers?”) understands the depths of their inefficiency.

Carla even went so far one year as to buy these very concentrated sprays from Bath and Body Works. Maybe she just got the wrong ones, but a hit from these things could peel the paint off the walls. I have the smell of Bartlett Pear forever seared into my memory. I’m gagging a little right now as I type this.

One Christmas a few years back, my brother and sister-in-law gave us some plug-in scent warmers called Scentsy. They’re like little fondue pots you plug into the outlet and feed with scented wax bars. They are amazing and come in a variety of fragrances that help keep the house smelling good… at least until the bar has to be replaced.

Wallflowers are as lovely as they smell, in a way that begs preschoolers to play with your electrical outlets.
Wallflowers are as lovely as they smell, in a way that begs preschoolers to play with your electrical outlets.

We’re currently using a product called Wallflowers, also from Bath and Body Works, hence my recent education on bergamot. Like all of these products, you can buy seasonal fragrances. We’ve been through the fall scents of pumpkin, cinnamon and autumn woodland and are still shaking off the residues of Christmas: “Vanilla Snowflake,” “Frosted Cranberry” and “Twisted Peppermint.” As the throes of winter gloom pin us down in our homes, we can eagerly anticipate “Honeysuckle,” “Beach Cabana” and “Watermelon Lemonade.”

Whatever their names, these aromas are now part of our daily lives in the New South. So whether your boudoir smells of bergamot or your foyer welcomes guests with lilac, the modern Southern home is a nasal sanctuary. And as ridiculous as some of the names of our new smells are, it sure beats dog vomit, dirty feet or post-burrito bathroom.

I know I am not alone in this wacky world of Wallflowers. This topic begs for an interactive component: What five words would you use to describe the way your house smells? Leave your response in a comment below, and let us all imagine the aroma you describe.

A son-in-law’s grief

At approximately 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1, my mother-in-law called me on my mobile phone as I was driving out of the parking garage at work in Midtown Atlanta.

“Lanny has been in accident,” were the words that began a journey for our family that culminated in another phone call, at about 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

“He’s gone, he’s gone, Daddy’s gone,” my wife heartbreakingly wept into the phone.

When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it's hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.
When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it’s hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.

During the last two months, our lives have been emotionally and somewhat physically upended. My mother-in-law lived at the hospital in Augusta for more than three weeks while Daddy was treated in the shock and trauma unit. Carla spent countless hours commuting back and forth to Augusta to be by her mama’s and daddy’s side. Hundreds of people supported us with childcare, meals and financial gifts to defray the cost of travel and feeding our family while Carla was out of work.

Our church family at Parkway proved that care and love was not lip service. My parents left their busy lives and commitments to come and be with us, getting the boys on and off the bus and allowing me to do my job. Our across-the-street neighbors took our boys on so many occasions I have lost count, including on Thanksgiving Day just moments after our boys learned that their grandfather had died.

This is a lot to go through, to understand, to process, to grieve. And like an actor in a supporting role, I have tried to play my part, dutifully, with strength and grace, out of the limelight but lifting up those around me.

But in the process, I fear that I have tamped down my own feelings of loss and regret.

As the son-in-law, I have no blood-relation claim to the grief that my wife carries and is so amazingly overcoming. Even my sons have certain rights, by my way of thinking, which entitle them to grieve this loss in an open way, as best as children can, according to their emotional maturity.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I know this is not about me. I’ve repeated that mantra so many times in the quiet moments at home around the supper table with my boys as their mother was away. I’ve whispered it to myself in hospital waiting rooms. I’ve recited it as I drove to the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, tears obscuring my vision, knowing I was about to stand with two people I love dearly and look on the face of my father-in-law who would no longer be present in that body.

I know this isn’t about me. I really do.

But how in God’s name am I supposed to feel? Am I allowed any grief? How can I ease the pain of loss that is just beneath the surface, taking all my energy to control as I navigate through my days trying to focus on working and receiving the generosity and care of others and giving care and strength to my family while celebrating holidays?

How do I get over this? Do I get over this? Is trying to move forward a dishonor to Daddy’s memory? Is feeling or desiring joy a betrayal? Is gloom and sorrow the only emotion to feel? Why do I think that showing sadness just makes me appear weak, pathetic and a pretender, someone who simply wants attention or to participate in a loss that isn’t really his?

No one has made me feel this way. It’s all in my head. But until now it has remained in my head.

Regular readers of New South Essays will know that I haven’t published since the day of the accident. Even though I had a topic in the queue and a draft ready to post, this medium seemed so distant in my priorities that I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there. I have been in a state of survival numbness that has blocked my ability to express anything, much less an essay.

I was blessed with the opportunity to offer a personal eulogy at the graveside service. It took all of my resources to craft an appropriate word, and writing it did offer a beginning of my own healing. Delivering it to a hurting company of family and friends on that gray December day left me utterly spent as I struggled to say words that were so connected to my heart that I struggled to breathe and give voice to them. I haven’t written anything since.

Today, I am making you part of my journey of grief. If I have resolved to do anything differently this new year, it is to loosen the reins on my emotions and let some of this out. I can’t keep pretending I’m OK. I’m really not.

Lanny Carl Barron was not a perfect man, but he was “Daddy” to me. I have a father. I am blessed to have a dad whom I deeply love and who is still here for me to guide me and support me. I need that wisdom and care now more than ever. But that does not stop me from missing Daddy.

Too often I refrain from saying out loud just how much because I don’t want to upset my wife, Mama or the boys. But here, now, I am telling you that the loss of my father-in-law is affecting me in a profound way, tapping into unresolved grief from losing my grandparents and maybe every other type of loss I’ve ever experienced back to the days when my first boyhood dog had to be put to sleep.

I promise not to let New South Essays become a morose stream of my darkest thoughts. As the clouds part, I will be able to give energy to other topics, but today, I have to begin my return to feeling by sharing this.

Thank you for reading. And if this somehow speaks to you in your own journey of grief, then God bless  you. I know that I am not alone, and that does make a difference.

This has always been an interactive forum, and you are invited to leave your thoughts in a comment below. Thank you for being loyal readers, patient with my two-and-a-half month sabbatical. Perhaps you have unexpressed feelings of loss and that putting those feelings in a comment here will help. I invite you to share.

Veggie tales

With age comes responsibility, and one of the responsibilities of children aged 5 and older in our house is eating vegetables.

Lest you think Carla and I are unreasonable parents, we are not clean platers. The quantity of the food consumed is not our beef, so to speak. We insist our children eat vegetables as a way to deliver the essential vitamins and nutrients they need to grow and develop a palette for food beyond French fries and macaroni and cheese.

Carlton discovers a vegetable in his fajita.
Parents are sneaky. They have been known to put vegetables into otherwise delicious dishes such as fajitas.
First bite of fajita.
Looks suspicious, but Carlton dives in anyway.
Carlton discovers the bell pepper in his fajita.
Oh no! The unthinkable has happened! Vegetable tongue contact!
Carlton holds up the offending slice of bell pepper.
All that fuss over one little slice of bell pepper.

This has set in motion an inevitable clash of wills between us and the newly-minted 5-year-old in our house. As every parent with at least two kids knows, it’s harder to hold the line on household policies with the youngest.

And with Carlton’s pleading, his older brothers have seized the moment to lobby for vegetable leniency. Hopefully, after this week, they will get it through their still developing cerebral cortexes. Appeal denied.

This week’s showdown occurred on Tuesday night with lettuce. That’s right, lettuce, the most innocuous of all the leafy vegetables. It was a salad of mixed greens, and Carlton balked. He knew the rules, and yet we had all washed our plates and left the table and still he sat. Oh the weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was almost comical if it wasn’t so annoying.

As bath time approached, a last minute compromise was struck to avert household shutdown: You can leave those last few pieces of your salad, but what you don’t eat tonight, you have to eat for breakfast.

You can see what we were doing there, right? No one wants to eat wilted lettuce. The only miscalculation in that strategy is that a 5-year-old doesn’t care about consequences. He only wants to get away from the table right then.

The next morning I was already embroiled in my commute by the time Carlton made it down to his breakfast of soggy leaves. The outcome? We’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the key points of contention raised by my older boys is the type of vegetable prepared for them. They want less spinach and zucchini and more corn on the cob and potatoes. Carla has informed them that those are “starchy” vegetables and don’t count. Nevermind about those Southern meat-and-three restaurants that include mac-n-cheese as a vegetable.

This distinction has produced the most protest. Barron is willing to eat more broccoli if he can have a break with the Brussels sprouts one night. It seems that his issue is balancing the less appetizing vegetables with the more tolerable ones.

Harris seems to find the supper table to be an apropos stage to rehearse such histrionics that would surely win him an Oscar, an Emmy or a Tony. The gagging, the eye watering, the wailing, the begging. Parents with lesser resolve would have caved in years ago. But in the three years since he came of required vegetable consumption age, I’ve come to be more amused by his antics. They remind me of the stunts my brothers and I used to play: scattering the English peas. Adding squash to your brother’s plate when his head was turned. Chewing up the liver and onions and spitting it into your napkin.

I’m sure none of those tactics worked with my parents, just as I am sure none of them work for my boys.

Back to the lettuce. I got home from work that night, and with a big smile Carlton proclaimed “Daddy, I ate my salad for breakfast!” Definitely not the reaction I expected. Maybe the trick is to start the vegetable consumption early in the day, before they are awake enough to know what they are eating.

So why do we do put ourselves through this? It’s simple. Love. We want what’s best for our children, including a healthy diet, and we are willing to put up with some nonsense to achieve that goal.

They may not thank us, but one day, they’ll have a good laugh at the crazy stuff they used to do to avoid foods they readily eat as adults.

What are the foods your children refuse to eat? What are the methods they used to avoid it? What is your counter-attack? What is your view on forcing kids to eat vegetables? Are we being cruel? Leave us your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all be healthier for it.

Carrying cash

If this is a rare experience for you, you must be living in the New South.
If this is a rare experience for you, you must be living in the New South.

There is no amount of wealth that can surpass the all-too-rare occurrence of having a wallet full of cash.

In these days when plastic pays for everything, the times in which I have actual greenbacks on my person are so few that I can’t help but feel special. It doesn’t matter if its $7. Carrying cash makes me feel like I’ve got money, no matter what the bank statement says.

I think it’s another symptom of life in the New South. People used to have to carry cash. How else would you get a “Co-cola” when the impulse arose? Or how would you fill your gas tank without a $10 tucked away in a money clip?

For about the last 10 years, whenever we need cash for an activity, we have to borrow it from our kids. Carla’s Dad always has cash on him. He’s of that generation, and, frankly, it’s one of those attributes in him I admire. I somehow feel less masculine to be penniless and have to pull out a card to pay for something.

He shares this cash with his grandsons liberally. Every time we visit, he concludes his time with the boys by handing them their “Poppy Money.” Hence the reason they always have cash.

A few years back Carla implemented the cash-only Dave Ramsey method of financial management. We tightened our belts and spent less than we ever have, but I felt like Warren Buffet because I always had a wallet-full of paper money.

I never Dave Ramsey without cash. He must be doing something right.
I never see Dave Ramsey without cash. He must be doing something right.

The theory behind Ramsey’s approach is simple: you spend less when you realize how much you are spending. Swiping a credit or debit card doesn’t have the same psychological impact as handing a cashier money. The economic principle of scarcity doesn’t exist when you use plastic because you never really know where the bottom is. With cash, when your wallet is empty, you stop spending.

All the folders and envelopes got to be a nuisance, and we eventually abandoned the plan out of logistics and time shortage, but when it comes to feeling in control of your money, nothing beats having cash.

It used to be that carrying cash made us feel more vulnerable. Someone could grab your purse or lift your wallet, and you would lose money. Today, however, it’s more likely that someone will steal your credit card number or, worse, your identity, and rack up huge charges before you ever find out. In most cases, cash is actually safer.

When debit cards first came into being, we bought the lie of convenience. You don’t want to have to go get money out of the ATM to have cash. Well, if you remember, there was a day, not so long ago, when you received an actual pay check. You took said check to a bank where you cashed it, depositing some into savings and checking to cover the bills you paid with a check. You left the bank with money in your pocket, and you spent that money until it was gone. And when it was gone, you stopped spending. That’s not inconvenience. That’s intelligence.

Debit cards give you access to more of your money than is prudent, and credit cards are a bottomless pit. Besides, I have no relationship with my money anymore. My remuneration is directly deposited into my bank account. I never see it. Bills are paid automatically out of my bank account or are paid with the click of a mouse online. I haven’t conducted the experiment, but I bet I could very nearly abandon cash altogether.

So at the risk of sounding like a Depression-era financial adviser let me simply conclude that cash is a rare commodity in the New South. I don’t know if it is progress or not. The absurdity of paying more than $5 for a cup of coffee surely would sink in if this was a purchase we regularly used cash for.

Do you find that you never have cash anymore? Do you find it as embarrassing as I do to be caught without money? Have you tried or are you still using Dave Ramsey’s cash-based personal financial plan? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. We’ll all be richer for it.