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.

More than a day

Barron with birthday presents
Celebration Part One: Barron’s 12th birthday celebration began with cake, ice cream and presents with his grandparents in Sandersville.

It wasn’t that long ago that a birthday was just that – a day.

In the New South, however, we celebrate a person’s birthday for many, many days. I have a theory about why this is: It takes us longer to celebrate birthdays now because of geographic dispersion of family, over-stuffed schedules and the vicious cycle of birthday one-upmanship.

My oldest son, Barron, recently turned 12. Our commemoration of this blessed event began with a Saturday trip to Sandersville to celebrate with Carla’s parents. There was cake, ice cream and presents. My folks live 8-10 hours away. Although they have sacrificially made the drive to be with us on some of the milestone birthdays, we don’t see them on most birthdays.

Grandparents are an important part of birthdays for us, and we have to make the time to go to them. When we lived in Macon, it was no big deal. We might even be able to scoot over to Sandersville for an afternoon. But now that we are in the Atlanta area, it’s a bit more of a commitment and takes some scheduling. When families lived closer together, it wasn’t as much of a challenge getting everyone together for a birthday, but covering the miles takes planning. With our schedule, making a trip to see family causes the birthday season to become elongated.

Barron with birthday card mustache.
Celebration Part Two: Barron’s other grandparents from Florida sent a cool card with a mustache disguise in case all of the birthday mushyness caused him to need a disguise.

This leads me to my second point: birthday celebrations take more than a day now because of our overflowing schedules. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find time to celebrate a birthday, particularly if it happens to fall in the middle of a work/school week.

Barron’s big day occurred on a Wednesday. We acknowledged his actual birthday by opening gifts on that day, but our mid-week church activities took precedence over any celebration. The sad truth is, most of our weeks are a sprint that may have only one or two small openings at night or on a weekend afternoon. And our kids aren’t even involved in sports. That ups the ante even higher.

We ended up celebrating with Barron by going out for pizza and bowling on a Friday. It was fun, and we all enjoyed it, but it was several days removed from Barron’s actual 12th birthday. This brings me to my final point: birthday celebrations have become a season because we feel the need to make each year better than the previous year.

If we started at the first birthday with a candle, a song and a cupcake, this wouldn’t be so bad. But we make the first birthday such a production that by the time kids are old enough to actually remember their birthdays we have to rent bounce houses or invite 30 friends to the gymnastics center or go bowling or play mini-golf or ride ponies or rent a limo or go to Disney World or on and on and on.

Barron at the bowling alley.
Celebration Part Three: Barron celebrates a strike as he dominates the family, including dear old dad, in a game of bowling.

Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the birthday destination of choice was Crystal’s Pizza Palace in Irving. As a kid the place seemed massive, and it was the only place to play such arcade game classics as Sea Hunt, Galaxian, Joust and Pacman. I didn’t feel that my parents were under pressure to deliver a bigger and better birthday experience each year. I just wanted to go to Crystal’s.

But these days, it’s a hard pressure to resist. We want desperately to give our kids memorable birthdays. To do this, we sometimes have to schedule the event in increments, like Barron’s this year. It makes for a season of birthday celebration rather than a single day.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m talking about a societal phenomenon that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like we take enough time to appreciate our loved ones anyway, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about getting too much attention for their birthday.

I just hope we can finish celebrating Barron’s 12th birthday before his 13th rolls around.

Do your birthday celebrations extend past the actual day? How do you handle it? What was your most memorable birthday celebration? Leave a comment and extend this blog beyond a single day.

Boogie-woogie bugle boy

There are many challenges in life for which I believe I am unprepared: landing a disabled aircraft, selecting a paint color for a formal living room, lecturing on physics or attending a baby shower.

The next big life hurdle staring me in the face is being a band parent.

Barron with trumpet
Doesn’t he just look like Dizzy Gillespie?

Last Saturday Barron took possession of a trumpet, loaned to him by my friend, Brian, himself, a veteran of high school and collegiate marching band. Since that time, what could be mistaken for the love-sick mating call of the Canada goose has been reverberating off my rafters as Barron “familiarizes” himself with the instrument.

His brothers take particular delight in how the “music” Barron coaxes from it resembles the sound of flatulence or other bodily functions boys of a certain age find hilarious. Somehow I don’t think Barron’s band instructor will find these noises quite as humorous.

This is completely new turf for me. While I enjoy music, particularly the singer-songwriter, folksy-country variety, I have not an ounce of musical talent. I made it as far as flutophone, for which I earned a B- in second grade. And please, don’t get me started about my singing. I and those misfortunate souls who attended Sunday night church are still recovering from the emotional scars of my singing solos.

I did grow up with musicians in the family. One of my strongest memories of my childhood was my mother practicing her voice lessons to a cassette tape. Now those were some interesting vocalizations. And my middle brother played several instruments, including the baritone saxophone, which he used to sneak up behind me while I was doing homework and blast a fog horn tone in my ear.

But now, I am the parent of a band member. It’s early yet in his career, but after nearly two years with the guitar, a more gentle, soothing sound to be sure, we are entering unchartered waters. I want to be supportive, but I really don’t know what to do. I guess wearing earplugs would send the wrong message.

Here’s what I know about band parents: they work a lot of hours in concession stands. They sell lots of gift wrap and magazine subscriptions. They incur huge dry cleaning expenses. They form tight bonds with other band parents.

Back in the day, I spent most of my extracurricular time in athletic pursuits, not that I had much more athletic talent than musical talent. Everything I know about band I learned from watching my brother, including going to his concerts, which — don’t tell him — I kind of enjoyed.

Barron shows off his new trumpet
Brian’s trumpet has been through enough marching seasons that whatever Barron dishes out shouldn’t phase it. Thanks, Brian, (I think) for loaning it to Barron!

I will never forget the first middle school band concert I attended. After the first selection, the band teacher approached a petite girl with a French horn. He gently took the horn from the girl, removed the spit valve and in full view of the gathering, drained what seemed to be 32 ounces of saliva. Some lessons are best learned through humiliation, I guess.

Perhaps I’m getting the cart before the horse on this whole band thing. Maybe when the fun of blowing loudly at his brothers has worn off and he actually has to practice, Barron may decide to go in another direction.

But if he sticks with it, I’ll be right there, attending every performance, working my turn in the concession stand and selling gift wrap and magazine subscriptions to raise money for the band trip to Washington, D.C., or wherever. I’ll beam with pride as he plays Sousa and Beethoven and whatever else trumpet players play these days.

I have just one question: does anyone know if a trumpet has a spit valve?

What helpful suggestions would you offer a rookie band parent? Share your experiences and thoughts by leaving a comment below. It’s cheaper than therapy!

With every Christmas card I write

Even before my children start their annual greed lists, my wife begins a months-long odyssey of creating the perfect family image to send to loved ones at Christmas.

What some people dismiss as an antiquated practice involving such archaic institutions as the U.S. Postal Service, sending Christmas cards is the apogee of the season for Carla, who cannot fully enjoy Christmas until the refrigerator of every person we know is adorned with a unique artistic rendering of our family.

The 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card
The 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card. For the record, Carlton is helping his smile a bit by pushing up his cheeks, a tactic I frequently employed at his age.

Oh, to be one of those lucky families whose self-appointed public relations manager simply goes to one of those new-fangled websites, uploads a family photo from the past year into a template, electronically transfers a few dollars from their credit card and is finished with another year of sending Christmas cards.

But, alas, when I said “I do” to Carla Barron, I was saying “I do want to make sending Christmas cards an annual chore somewhere between cleaning out the basement and re-doing the kitchen on the difficulty scale.”

Yes, Carla does all the work, but having to offer feedback on her designs is like a bad trip to the optometrist.

“This one or this one?”

“A or B?”

“Clearer or brighter?”

I take some comfort in knowing that when British businessman Sir Henry Cole sent the first Christmas card in 1843 adorned with an image of a family offering a toast around a table, it was roundly criticized for promoting drunkenness. See! People have been making bad decisions with their Christmas card designs from the very beginning. This should take some of the pressure off us, shouldn’t it?

Despite all the customization we go through each year, there really is a method to our madness. We rotate annually between a family portrait and a shot of just the boys. Personally, I’m ready to cede every year to the boys, who for now, seem to be growing in cuteness while we just look older each year.

This year’s twist in our Christmas card was the introduction of a chalkboard. With this device, we could convey such pithy messages as “Merry Christmas” in black and white. Using Mixbook.com, Carla’s creation included a message from each of the boys under the headline “Wishing you a new year filled with …”

The back of the 2011 Wallace Family Christmas Card
The boys' wishes were written in their own hand... well, except Carlton. His would have just been scribbles.

Barron and Harris stayed in the normal and somewhat predictable range of “joy” and “happiness,” both good sentiments. Carlton, as usual, went somewhat off the map with his wish. The conversation went something like this:

“Carlton, what do you want to wish everyone? Wishing you a new year filled with… what?” Carla asked.

“Good,” he said.

“Good what?” she asked, hoping to elicit something more grammatically correct.

“Good naps.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

There are nine days until Christmas. Almost all the shopping is done. The kids are on their last school day of the year, and I’m prepping for two weeks of Christmas vacation myself. We’ve been to numerous parties, spent time with friends, experienced meaningful worship and enjoyed family traditions that make this season so special.

I am most happy to report that the Wallace family Christmas card is done and on the way to you or, better yet, already on your mantel or other place of honor.

Whether or not it conveys the message we wanted or portrays our family in the best light, it’s done. Now I can have at least six weeks before I have start giving my opinion on what next year’s Christmas card needs to look like.

Think I’ll get started on those good naps.

Do you send Christmas cards? What’s your process? Do you do photo cards? How do you choose your message? Do you still do a Christmas letter? Leave your comment below and share your pain with us. This Christmas therapy is free!