The lost art of listening

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

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

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

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

Except I don’t.

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

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

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

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

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

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

What causes my distraction and what’s the cure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One year and counting

Today marks the first anniversary of my joining Georgia Tech Research Institute as director of communications.

I kept mentioning it to people all week because in some ways, I just couldn’t believe it. A year had flown by, and I have alternatingly felt like I have always worked at GTRI and it is my first day all over again. It’s a complicated place that solves some of the world’s most complex problems. It can be daunting.

Today’s essay is one of those times when my vocation and avocation collide. I chose to write about my employer because if Atlanta is the capital of the New South, then Georgia  Tech is at the technological center. Tech Tower rises among the historic brick buildings and stately oaks in Midtown, surrounded by some of the most technically-advanced laboratories in the world. The juxtaposition is exactly what I’d call “New South.”

The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.
The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.

As one of the top-ranked technology-focused learning institutions in the world, Georgia Tech is currently riding a wave of positive momentum. I was fortunate enough to arrive at Tech when enrollment has increased by 11 percent in the last five years and applicants increased by 70 percent. As more and more students want a Georgia Tech education, 2,764 freshmen were enrolled this year out of more than 17,000 applications. The average SAT score of a Georgia Tech freshman this year? 1,421. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t have gotten into Georgia Tech.

It’s not just the academic side that is experiencing growth. In the past five years, contract awards for research have increased by 40 percent to top out last year in excess of $655 million. GTRI alone has accounted for more than $300 million of that research each of the last two years.

Whether or not this record-setting pace continues remains to be seen, but these statistics support the idea that Georgia Tech is a good place to be. I’ll spare you any more of my public relations sales pitch, and instead offer three observations from my first year of working at Georgia Tech:

1.) People think you are smarter when you say you work at Georgia Tech. I have had this happen to me all year long. I try to explain that I’m not one of the smart ones, I’m just a PR guy, but when people see that yellow ID badge, they make assumptions. I do my best to keep my mouth shut and not shatter the illusion.

I exhaust my knowledge of technical topics very quickly, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to research communicators John Toon, Kirk Englehardt and the rest of my communications team for helping me acclimate.

Every day I have to remind myself that I know things that can help. These engineers and scientists may know things I could never wrap my mind around, but I can help them tell their story in a compelling way through the proper channels to engage people (and sponsors) in their work.

2.) Scientists and engineers are people, too. When I went into the interview process at GTRI for this position, I decided I could not make a case for my scientific acuity. Instead, I decided to treat everyone I came in contact with as a human being. Not only did it land me the job, but I think it has helped tremendously in building a rapport with colleagues who are world renowned experts in their fields.

I have found the people at GTRI and Georgia Tech to be some of the most engaging and accepting people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. They have welcomed me warmly, graciously taking the time to explain what they do and exhibiting good humor in the process.

They have lives outside of the lab, and enjoy connecting on a personal level. Yes, there are those who fall into the “Big Bang Theory” caricature, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

3.) Technology and discovery do not replace the power of relationship. When I came here a year ago, I never thought scientists and engineers could make a work environment feel like family. I know not everyone gets along with each other. I’m not naïve.

But the general atmosphere of GTRI is one of compassion and genuine concern for each other. I’ve seen a comforting embrace offered to someone who had just suffered a loss of a loved one. I’ve had prayer with a colleague who was concerned for a co-worker who was in the throes of traumatic illness and life circumstances. I’ve listened as team members shared their personal and family challenges.

As much as my Georgia Tech and GTRI colleagues are some of the world’s brightest minds, they have some of the world’s biggest hearts.

So at the risk of sounding like sophomore Nick Selby, who went viral this week when his Freshman Convocation Speech landed on YouTube, I’m thrilled to be at Georgia Tech. I can only hope to contribute to Tech’s upward trajectory.

Forgive my love letter to Georgia Tech, but maybe you have had similar experiences at a job or with colleagues? Leave a comment and share what makes your work place a great place to be. Or maybe you love Tech, too. It’s OK to say nice things about Tech. The Tech-Georgia game isn’t for another few months. I won’t tell on you.

Five ways to avoid being trapped in fantasy football conversations

As a chronicler of life in the New South, I am duty-bound to warn you that we have entered a time of year when sports obsession reaches new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view.)

You need to be prepared for the threat of any conversation being derailed by talk of someone’s fantasy football team. With more than 35 million people now playing fantasy sports the threat is real and the effects are devastating.

someecard on fantasy football that says: "My fantasy job is to work with people who don't incessantly talk about fantasy football at work."
If you have ever felt this way, you may be suffering from UFFD.

There you are, minding your own business, talking about something completely neutral like politics or religion, and someone launches into a tirade about losing a fantasy football game because a coach elected to go for the two-point conversion rather than kick the extra point.

What do you do? How do you protect yourself?

I can help.

You see, I am prone to Unwanted Fantasy Football Dialogue (UFFD). A fantasy football player since the early 1990s, I will participate in three leagues this year. I once drafted a team on accident while trying to join a mock draft and ended up keeping the team and playing in the league with a bunch of random guys. I have been guilty of discussing the performance of my fantasy team(s) with people who didn’t care and I have seen the impact.

So, as a public service or maybe penance for all of the fantasy football conversation I have inflicted on people over the years, I am offering the non-fantasy player self-defense techniques.

1.) Change the subject. At the first sign of trouble, you must immediately bridge to a more palatable conversation. “So my starting running back is out for the season now with a torn ACL” can be thwarted by responding with “Speaking of running backs, did you hear that Publix has rutabagas buy one-get one?” See how that works? Very smooth. Seamless transition. In public relations we call that “bridging.”

2.) Talk to the hand. It’s time to pull this tired cliché out of moth balls and deploy it whenever you suspect the next words out of someone’s mouth might be “… I can still make the playoffs in my fantasy league if I score 123 points and …” You don’t even have to actually say “Talk to the hand.” Just put up your hand. It’s like training your pet. Give the person a visual cue that you are not going to listen. And if they persist? Keep raising the hand. Do this three or four times and the person should get the message. If they don’t, you may have to resort to swatting them with a rolled up newspaper or spraying their face with a misting water bottle.

Fantasy football excuses
If you get sucked into UFFD, you will hear some if not all of these.

3.) Avoidance. The worst offenders of UFFD are so immersed in the imaginary world of playing football general manager that they have no idea they are tiresome bores to all. They cannot be rehabilitated. Do not try. If you see them coming, walk the other way. If they are in the elevator, let it pass and get the next one. If they are heading to the bathroom at the same time as you, hold it. Discretion is the better part of valor. Live to fight another day.

4.) Go on the offensive. There are topics that can recoil even the most insensitive UFFD sufferer. My wife is an expert at this strategy. Like Raid sprayed on an intrusive palmetto bug are such conversation starters as “Honey, what do you think of this fabric sample?” and “I want to plant seasonal color” or “Did you hear that Dee Dee’s sister’s cousin is having 14 attendants at her wedding?” It might be helpful to have three or four of these written on a card so you won’t have to worry about memory issues. In particularly serious cases of UFFD, you may have to come up with as many 10 or 12 such topics to repel an attack.

5.) Fight fire with fire. Here is the one piece of wisdom that unlocks the medical mystery that is UFFD: fantasy football players only want to talk about their team. They don’t really care about anyone else’s team or anyone else’s league. It is a narcissistic pursuit. You can fend off all UFFD with this simple strategy: get your own team and talk about it. When someone starts in with “I can’t believe both of my wide receivers have a bye this weekend” you respond with “Yeah, and can you believe this guy tried to trade me Le’Ron McClain for Marshawn Lynch?” And when they counter with “That’s nothing. There was a guy who tried to get me to take Percy Harvin for Brandon Marshall” you say, “I know, right? Why didn’t Arian Foster get any playing time this preseason? I have no idea what I’m going to get out of him this year.” The more you talk about fantasy football not involving his or her team, the more they will become bored and seek to disengage. You only have to deploy this technique a couple of times before the UFFD sufferer will avoid you completely.

So there you have it. This is your survival guide for the next six months of fantasy football. You may get lonely and have no one to talk to, but at least you’ll still have your health. And that’s worth something, right?

Have you ever been subjected to UFFD? Are you a fantasy football widow/widower? What do you love/hate about fantasy football? What tactics have worked for you in avoiding UFFD? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, and good luck on the  upcoming season… unless you’re in one of my leagues.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’

The argument usually starts with this admonition from my wife: “You need to learn to say ‘No.’”

The problem is that by the time this conversation happens, it’s too late. I’ve already committed myself to a number of conflicting responsibilities. At the moment I say “Yes” to anything, I’m starting down a path that will ultimately lead to a discussion of priorities.

By saying “Yes” to some things, I’m saying to “No” to others.

To do list with glasses
If only it were this simple.

For example, by agreeing to attend a district scout leader meeting on a Thursday night, I am saying “No” to spending a quiet evening at home, recovering from a busy day at the office, conversing with my children, reading my boys their bedtime stories and connecting with my wife a for a few minutes at the end of the day.

In hindsight, that seems like a high price to pay to attend a meeting, but at the time I say “Yes” I am delusional. I think I can do everything. I can pile commitments upon commitments without consequences.

Most disturbing is that this is a habitual failure. It started when I was in college. By my junior year I had amassed commitments all over campus, filled my day planner with a year’s worth of activity each week, and sacrificed necessary biological functions like eating and sleep.

Back then I failed to grasp how I got into these “Yes” messes. I couldn’t see it coming. It would pile up and all of a sudden I was buried, unable to escape my to-do list. Fast forward 20 years, and I have no excuse. I should know better.

I have a family that needs unstructured time with me. I have to get enough rest to function at work. The consequences of overcommitting are more serious.

It would be too easy to blame the New South, to call this a symptom of a busy, digital age in which inputs never stop and failing to unplug robs us of time to connect with the important people in our lives. And it would be misplaced to blame all the people who ask me to do things. No one puts a gun to my head.

My friend and mentor calls saying “No” being “socially firm.”

Is it genetic? With a family in ministry, I’m just one in a group of over-committers, biting off more than we can chew in our schedules to do good for others while we fail to give ourselves the time we need to be restored.

Is it mental illness? What form of OCD makes a person compulsively say “Yes” to everything and how deep does one have to be in denial to think he or she can do it all?

Is it just poor judgment? It’s not like what I’m saying “Yes” to is bad. I’m choosing to do a good thing, but often at the expense of doing the best thing.

It’s still the beginning of the school year, and parents everywhere are helping their kids adjust to the demands, the schedules, and the extra work that must be done for the next nine months. Just as their kids have a routine they must return to, parents who give their time to their kids’ schools, sports teams, scout groups, church activities and music rehearsals and performances have to gear up mentally for the 9-month grind.

In my defense, my biggest volunteer commitments are overlapping for only two-and-a-half months. I’m learning to enlist help. I’m trying to pick activities that put me into greater contact with my children. The time I’m giving away will have a return.

But still, the question remains: Why do I do it?

I want to help. I have an overdeveloped sense of obligation, a duty to give back to causes that have benefitted me or that benefit others.

I have recently turned down two significant time commitments, so maybe I am learning. But when the schedule is overflowing already, it’s not really that difficult to see that nothing else can fit.

It’s August, and it’s a long way until June when things can calm down again. There will be highs and lows, but getting through it is all about time management.

And saying “No” to anything else.

Where are your soft spots when people ask you to do things? Is it volunteering? Is it supporting your kids’ activities? Is it your church? Is it social commitments? How do you say “No?” Say “Yes” to leaving a comment below and share your wisdom.

The favorite part of my day

With so much noise in our lives in the New South, I often fail to listen to my children.

Now that school has started again, I have a daily opportunity to engage with my boys on a meaningful level each night at the dinner table.

It’s the favorite part of my day.

Boys with their dog on the first day of school
Our customary first day of school photo, minus Carlton who was at his grandparents. Oh, and Tobey is making his debut in the annual photo.

This week we sent our two older boys back to school. Our youngest must wait until the more reasonable start of the day after Labor Day. Back to school brings many challenges – social anxiety, homework, time management – but it also ushers in the return of the “How was your day?” conversation.

I ask this question at the dinner table every night, but during the summer I am more likely to get shrugs, “I don’t knows” or a recounting of a convoluted plot line from “Adventure Time.”

What I discovered this week as the boys headed back to their respective schools with loaded backpacks in tow, is that I actually look forward to this part of the day most of all. Yes, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and talking over each other and general rambunctiousness. But we are already settling into a routine.

By simply asking “What happened at school today?” I get a window into their world. I hear names of friends and classmates I don’t know. I learn about their reactions to teachers’ instructions or correction. I am asked for input on how to handle difficult situations with peers. The picture of who they are becoming comes into a little bit clearer focus.

Take Harris, my middle son, for example. He’s been eager to tell me how he’s setting up his first writing assignment. He likes to write in his journal, and the fact that he is excited about expressing his thoughts makes me happy. He spent the last two weeks of summer vacation talking about starting a blog.

Barron seems to be hung up on the quality of food served in the middle school cafeteria. Each night we’ve been getting a food critic’s view of the menu, presentation and service of that day’s lunchroom experience. He seems to think it was better in elementary school. He’s already becoming a grumpy old man! “Back when I was in elementary school, they gave us a full plate, and the fruit was fresh and ripe and you had enough time to eat!”

At Carlton’s pre-school, they put the children in a circle at the end of each day and sing a song: “Carlton, Carlton, what would you say? What was your favorite part of the day?” He brought that tradition home, and often we’ll go around the table and sing that question to each family member in turn. The dog can’t bear the singing, but it’s music to my ears.

I know it’s just the first week and harder days are coming. There will be procrastinated projects, math tests, over-commitments from extra-curricular activities, band auditions and hours of reading and journaling, but that’s OK. To me, these are opportunities to enter my children’s world and be a resource to them and help them learn.

My mother and I formed strong bonds over math homework the ill-fated year I took honors Algebra II and honors Geometry at the same time. She was my nightly tutor, and she hung in there with me despite my frustrations and protestations. And in those rare “aha” moments, we were able to share a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love summer. It’s great to see your kids invent ways to fill their time and get much-needed rest. I enjoy taking time off from my work to be with them and go places and do things the school schedule won’t allow. But it is in the daily experience of life that I derive the most meaning. These ordinary times are when my relationships with my children are deepened.

So welcome back to school. If you or your kids haven’t started back they soon will. I hope you are able to greet that day with open arms and enjoy the dinner table conversation that night with an open heart.

What kinds of stories or information do you get from your kids after a day of school? Do you welcome “back to school” or dread it? When do you feel that you bond most with your children? Take a moment to reflect and share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.

My semi-annual appraisal

There are two times a year I evaluate the direction of my life: New Year’s and my birthday.

New Year’s resolutions are somewhat cliché, but the start of a new calendar year is a natural time to take stock of your life, look at your goals and determine course corrections. My birthday falls nearly eight months later on July 30. That’s plenty of time to see how things are working.

This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I'm another year older and it's time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe at third thing: They think I'm great.
This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I’m another year older and it’s time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe a third thing: They think I’m great.

This week, as I turn 43 and look at my life, there are four words that stand out: writing, running, family and rest. Let’s take them in order:

Writing

Friends and regular readers of New South Essays know this has been a year of transition for me. Taking a new job and moving things around in my schedule to accommodate a new commute has caused me to tinker with things a little. It cost me a few weeks of inconsistent posting back in the spring before I finally determined that I needed to dedicate two mornings a week to New South Essays.

It was impossible to do anything of quality by getting up on Saturday morning, opening up a vein and bleeding into WordPress. I now take Wednesday mornings to work up the first draft of the week’s post, allowing time for my editor, Carla, to take a whack at it. I have three days to get my photo or art arranged and Saturday morning to edit, rewrite, post and share.

This seems to be working well. I am maintaining my creative outlet and fulfilling my compulsion to write while traffic to New South Essays has never been higher. Thanks for your response and your continued reading.

What I’d like to figure out now is how to get back to the re-write on my novel, which has been lying dormant for more than a year now. That goal may just have to wait.

Running

I had the delusional goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon when I turned 40 three years ago. Somehow I thought I could get 10 years older AND 13 minutes faster. It didn’t happen. I finished the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachicola, Fla., in October 2010 in 4:04, well off the qualifying pace.

After evaluating what went wrong, I decided I needed to train harder. I registered for the Nashville Marathon in April of 2011 and began a more rigorous training regimen. The result? A bad case of plantar fasciitis which caused me to miss the race. I now have a $100 T-shirt to show for it.

I’m back to running three days a week, working out with weights two and resting two. I’m no closer to Boston, but I’m also not injured. Sometimes, you just have to set your goals a little lower. I may make another attempt at a marathon in the future, but I’m letting go of that dream for now.

Family

Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that being in my family’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m with them. I was naïve to think my children didn’t notice when my mind was elsewhere. I used to believe that as long as I was physically involved in our family activity my frame of mind didn’t matter.

I was wrong. In order for me to be the husband and father my family needs me to be, I have to lay aside the unfinished work of the day, build time into my schedule for just hanging out and engage in each outing with gusto. Only then can I strengthen the bonds with my wife and children and create lasting memories.

And that’s just the people who live in my house. I still have a need to stay connected with my parents in Florida and my brothers in Alabama and Texas. These are challenges I never dreamed would be so difficult when we all lived under the same roof.

My goal is depth. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to connect with members of my family in deep and meaningful ways. Life is too short for pleasantries or issue avoidance.

Rest

Simply put, I need more sleep. This is the steady refrain I hear from Carla on a weekly basis. I aim for 7 hours a night, but generally get somewhere around six or less, even on the weekends. I used to brag about this schedule, laughing it off when people said I was crazy.

I’m beginning to think people are right.

If I nod off in an afternoon meeting at work, it undermines my effectiveness. If I get behind the wheel of my car on my afternoon commute feeling drowsy, I could end up on the sky copter traffic report. Caffeine can only take me so far. I need to find a way to get more sleep.

But the early morning is when I do the things I enjoy: running, writing, praying. I am fed by these activities. This is one of my constant and biggest challenges. Plus, guess when I do all the work for my volunteer commitments? That’s right, before sunrise.

Going forward I’m altering my schedule. We’ll see how I do putting a priority on sleep.

Despite these challenges, I conclude this summer evaluation with a sense of optimism. My life isn’t quite up to par in all areas, but it is good. The love and affection showered on me on my birthday was heart-warming. It reminded me that I am richly blessed with all the good gifts of life that matter.

I can’t help but try to make things just a little better. We’ll see how I’m doing come New Year’s.

When do you evaluate your life? Do you follow a structure or do you think about life when prompted by your circumstances? Maybe you take stock once a week or once a month. What are the words that come to mind when you evaluate your current state? Share how, when and what your measure yourself by in a comment below. In fact, make it a goal to make more comments on New South Essays!

A case for camp

Children need summer camp. Whether it is secular or religious, one week or several, day camp or residential, children need to participate in camp.

I have no credentials to make this assertion. I am not a noted child psychologist or a Ph.D. in childhood development. I’m just a parent who has been to camp with kids. I’ve seen the advantages with my own eyes.

Kids play a parachute game
Where else but camp can kids have fun with parachutes (and not jump out of an airplane)? Photo by Rebecca Orton (http://rebeccaortonphotography.com/)

My particular preference is an overnight camp away from home, and my experience is mostly with church camp, although I have volunteered at Cub Scout day camp. For the past four years I have chaperoned the third through sixth graders from my church at PassportKIDS camp at the Clyde M. York 4-H Center in Crossville, Tenn.

Fresh off this year’s experience, here are five reasons why kids should attend summer camp, especially kids in the New South:

1. Unplugging. In this case, I mean literally. Parents have a sense that their children spend too much time in front of screens: television, computer, tablet, personal device, game system, etc. Unless it’s computer camp, kids have the opportunity to look up and see the world around them. They interact with each other, for good or bad, and learn how to relate to each other, solve problems and deal with the challenges of human relationships. They pay attention to their surroundings and notice details of the natural world that may have escaped them. They are more teachable and alert to possibilities and their potential for growth.

2. Moving. There is no better cure for summer coach potato syndrome than a good dose of camp. Kids are constantly in motion at camp, running, playing, competing, and even getting from place to place across the facility. Most of the recreational activities at PassportKIDS are creative games that don’t require athleticism. All kids need to do is commit to the activity and get in the game. Fun, not proficiency, is the goal. Sweating may produce a stinky suitcase and a cabin that could use generous quantities of Febreze, but that’s a small price to pay in exchange for burning calories and getting some exercise.

3. Cheering. Kids have nine months to use their indoor voices. At camp, they can let it all out, usually at the encouragement of hyped-up, over-zealous college students who seem to be fueled by Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor. It usually takes kids a little while to join in, but by the end of camp, the yelling and chanting and cheering have drawn out even the most extreme introverts. By selling out and rooting for each other and themselves, the kids tap into a source of self-confidence and selflessness that can cure narcissism, cynicism and several other “isms” that you don’t want your kids to have.

4. Listening. It’s nearly universal: kids at camp pay attention. When I am at home and have to get my kids to the dinner table, I have to repeat my instructions at least three times. When kids are at camp, they are more focused on what is being communicated. They hear you when you talk to them. They learn. They internalize truths so much more readily than when they are distracted by the noise and toys of home. If you don’t believe me, try being a chaperone one time. It will suddenly make you feel like the best parent ever. Kids listen at camp.

5. Being independent. This is the one point that my chaperoning may have impeded my children’s growth. When kids are at camp by themselves, they learn to get around, follow a schedule, keep up with their stuff, and generally take responsibility for themselves and each other in ways they can never do while a parent is hovering. I noticed this year at camp, rather than pick a bunk above mine or even near it, Barron picked the one at the opposite end of the room. He’s also had two summers of being at Boy Scout Camp on his own, and he’s found that he likes it. Children need to learn to make decisions for themselves, and as a parent, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing or knowing your child has made a good choice on his or her own. At camp when you’re not around, they have to make their own choices. Sure, they may come home with a fewer socks or towels, but that’s part of the learning experience, too. The next year, they’ll be more likely to keep up with their stuff.

Camp may be over for this year, but I’ve already marked my calendar for next summer. I can’t wait to go with the kids from Parkway again and see the next generation experience the wonders of camp.

What did you learn from camp? What are your fondest memories of camp? Did you have a positive or a negative experience? What do you think your kids get from their camp experiences?  Leave a comment below or you can’t ride in my little red wagon…. Oompa, ooompa, oooompapa.

Preachers

I am fascinated by preachers. It’s not a delusional, put-them-on-a pedestal kind of thing but more like a burning curiosity to understand what makes them tick.

I’ve been thinking about preachers a lot lately. My brothers and my dad are preachers of one sort or another, and their recent transitions have been on my mind. Last Sunday my church celebrated the 10th anniversary of our beloved pastor and his family. As I crafted a tribute and worked up a script for serving as master of ceremonies, I thought a lot about how the role and perception of preachers has changed through the years.

Jim King at Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth, Georgia
My preacher, the Rev. Dr. James King at Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth, Ga. Glad he’s been with us for 10 years!

It’s no secret that the South is what is known as the “Bible Belt.” Religious expression has been a part of the Southern landscape from the beginning, and as Protestant Evangelicalism spread across the region in the mid-1700s the preacher began to emerge as an influential member of the community. So much so that the Southern preacher has become an archetype bordering on cliché.

The portrayals of Southern preachers in pop culture range from “The Apostle’s” Eulis ‘Sonny’ Dewey, played by Robert Duvall to Flannery O’Connor’s atheist evangelist, Hazel Motes, in “Wise Blood.” They tend to be Protestant, evangelical and high strung with a penchant for podium pounding and pulpiteering. (To explore these literary characters further, check out G. Lee Ramsey’s “Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves: The Minister in Southern Fiction.”)

I believe the concept of the preacher is changing. As the church’s influence wanes, even in the South, preachers are not looked upon with the same sense of awe and admiration. Not to be too general, but the reputation of preachers as a profession took several high-profile hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s as they took to the airwaves to build media empires only to have it all crumble under the weight of greed, lust and betrayal.

Just as trust in the American president declined after Richard Nixon, people began to look at their own pastors differently after Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker fell from their lofty televised pulpits, and every Ted Haggard or Eddie Long reinforces the collective cynicism we have towards our clergy.

I have no such cynicism. I grew up in a pastor’s home. I am, in church parlance, a “PK” or “Preacher’s Kid.” I have always known my father as my dad first, pastor second. While I hold him in great esteem, his humanity is not hidden from me. Maybe that’s why I am drawn more to the quieter, less public side of pastoral ministry.

What a professional minister does is so much more than stand up and preach. Perhaps that’s why I find myself using the word “minister” more frequently than “preacher” as I age. Certainly I enjoy and am inspired by a good sermon, but what I see as the bedrock of pastors’ ministries is their presence.

This has been said by more theologically astute scholars than me, but I have come to believe preachers earn the right to tell people things because they are with people in their times of crises. Ministerial credibility comes from sitting with the sick and dying in their hospital room, standing close with families at the funeral home or listening intently as parishioners pour out their struggles.

Pastors can have a pulpit persona that is detached and inauthentic. I treasure real, honest conversations with members of the clergy. I learn as much or more from those interactions than from 100 sermons.

In a day when preachers are holographic or televised images beamed to multiple locations, I think the world needs more flesh-and-blood humans walking alongside them in their day-to-day life. Preachers need to be real with people, but not in an air-your-dirty-laundry way.

My hope is that the role of the preacher in the New South isn’t reduced to Sunday sermons. My hope is that the preacher will be more welcomed into people’s lives as a person who genuinely cares for people, demonstrating God’s love in a way that can then be imitated and shared with others.

You can keep your techno-preachers and their holograms and big productions. I want a fellow pilgrim on the journey, someone to, as hymn writer Richard Gillard puts it, “help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.”

What does “preacher” mean to you? What do you like about your preacher? Do you think the role of the minister is changing in our post-modern world? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, but don’t get too … well … preachy.

Dear Writer Lance: A Letter from Your Wife

Dear Writer Lance,

One of the first things I loved about you–even before I knew I loved you–was your way with words. You see, back when I knew who you were and was dying for you to ask me out but you hadn’t yet, I started subscribing to The Macon Telegraph. Now why would a never-cared-about-the-news-before college student pay good money to subscribe to a daily paper? Because I was stalking you. I searched the pages every day for your name in a byline. Of course, you were writing features stories then, so almost everything you wrote I found interesting, but what I loved most was getting to know you through your words on paper. You made me laugh and you showed me what was important to you.

Once you finally came to your senses and called me I felt like I already knew you in some ways. What I didn’t know was why it took you so freaking long to pick up the phone and call. Now I do. You are methodical.  You do one thing at a time and you do it well. At the time that I was obsessing over you, I was on your radar, but I was not the “one thing”. You were overthinking it. You were too disciplined for your own good. Do you know that you missed out on five extra months of knowing me because of your self-discipline? FIVE MONTHS, dude! That’s a lot of lost Carla time!

Patience is not one of my virtues but I stuck it out waiting for that phone call. I guess I knew you well enough through your writing to know that you were worth the wait. I was right. It’s been sixteen years, two cities, three homes, three children, seven vehicles and one dog since that call and I’ve never regretted it. I thank God every day for you.

I thank God that you are the exact opposite of me in so many important ways. The biggest difference in me and you: You are disciplined, you are patient, you are not a quitter. Now when it comes to your health, dealing with our children, working on our finances, and keeping up the house, these virtues benefit our whole family. I will admit that even when it comes to your writing I know that discipline is key. Getting something out there is important even if you’re not particularly inspired on a given day. It’s what serious writers do. They practice. They write even when they don’t feel like it. Sometimes it’s worth reading. Sometimes it’s not.

When it is worth reading, you know it. You know how I know you know it? Because your face lights up, your confidence shines through, you are the Lance that I fell in love with.  You glow. Now I know people use that term a lot to refer to women who are expecting a baby, but it’s sort of the same thing. You are radiating the feeling that you are in your element, you are doing what you are meant to do, you are creating something amazing, and you can’t contain your pride. Now I know we can’t all glow all the time. How annoying would that get?( Three babies and I’m done glowing for a while.) You? You’re not done. You have lots of glowing left to do and I look forward to it.

I am not your best advocate when it comes to the discipline of your writing. How many times have you been stressed, busy and uninspired just to hear me say, “Skip it!” My advice to you is to mark it off your list and move on. You won’t hear of it. Today is one of those days. You spent your normal blog-writing morning this week working on writing for a commitment you made to our church. You knew when you did that that you would find yourself on Saturday morning struggling to write a post for New South Essays. You woke at the crack of dawn to drive over two hours to pick up our son and his friend from scout camp. And I know you. As much as you are wanting to enjoy the ride home right now with those boys, you have one thing on your mind: You have no inspiration or time to post on your blog today.

This is my gift to you. Surprise! Your blog for today has been published. You don’t allow me many opportunities to do things for you and you would never have allowed me this one. I took it anyway. Now come home, take a nap, and enjoy the day with your family. Rest and be rejuvenated and ready to write something awe-inspiring next week.

I love you.

Carla

Privacy in the New South

Wouldn’t you hate to be the guy at the National Security Agency (NSA) reading all the lame Facebook posts trying to find evidence of terrorist activity or foreign espionage?

OK, so it’s probably not some guy analyzing petabytes of data over at the NSA, but still, it’s got to be a thankless job. Even a super computer would turn its digital nose up at some of the Tweets floating out there in cyber space.

The outrage over the NSA’s Internet monitoring reached a fever pitch this week with a special Fourth of July online protest. The NSA’s online information collection program leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden caused ripples of anger and anxiety around the world, sparking a renewed interest in privacy.

There’s seems to be an inherent irony here: people are angry when they think the government is collecting data on them, but they freely broadcast personal information through social media on a daily basis.

k-bigpicMuch has been written about how to protect your private personal information online. What’s difficult to reconcile is why we ignore these warnings when posting to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook but feel so violated when we think someone may be spying on us. Even Maxwell Smart could find out all he wanted about us by reading the information we post daily on Facebook.

There was a time, particularly in the South, when people valued privacy so much that they went to great lengths to maintain “appearances.” In those days, language was cloaked in euphemism to cover any embarrassing revelations. Such a conversation from, say, 40 years ago may not even be recognizable today.

“We missed you and your family down to the church social last Saturday night.”

“Well, we had company and spent a little too much time round the table so that Daddy had a touch of the virus by Saturday evening. We just thought it best to stay home.”

Can you guess what really happened from that exchange? Probably, but it’s certainly not flaunted or celebrated.

Here’s how a similar set of circumstances might be shared in the New South, probably via Facebook or Twitter:

“5 shots in 30 minutes. So drunk I can’t stand up. Think I’ll swear off Patron for a few days. Can somebody bring me some food?”

I’m not downplaying the seriousness of the NSA program, but it is worth asking whether it is more personally harmful to know that an email was sent from your IP address at 11:15 a.m. on March 23, 2008, or that you have a binge drinking problem?

imagesCA1L7M03In recent weeks, I have been attempting to expand the Twitter presence of New South Essays. A quick scan of Twitter these days is enough to send the Church Lady into spasms of shock and condemnation. Because people place such importance on authenticity, they strive to “keep it real” when posting to social media.

When you mix in an absence of inhibition, you have a recipe for over-sharing. In the New South, we tell everything without reservation and hope to get a few “likes” or “shares” out of it on our social media platforms.

I am a public relations practitioner. It is my job to think about how messages reflect on individuals and organizations. I certainly value authenticity and honesty, but I do wonder just how all of this personal revelation will serve us down the road. Has anyone Tweeting the details of their love life considered this possible future conversation?

“Hey, Mom, look what I found! It’s your old Facebook account on the Internet. Did you really do _____?”

And that’s ignoring the present possibility of potential employers seeing how you spent your weekend or what you really think of your supervisor.

Before we join in any privacy protests, it may be worth asking ourselves: “What am I telling the world that may not serve me well in the future?”

Sometimes an ounce of discretion can prevent a pound of humiliation.

Now, excuse me, I have to go to the doctor. You see I’ve got this rash on my backside that is shaped like Oklahoma.

What are your privacy standards? Are you concerned about what you reveal about yourself online? What is the line you won’t cross? Have you ever posted something on social media and have it come back to haunt you? Join in the conversation and share your thoughts below. I’m sure the NSA will get a kick out of it.