An unexpected journey

When Barron and Harris piled into the back of the new Hyundai, eager to ride with Daddy after another great meal at Los Hermanos, they had no idea we weren’t following Carla home.

Bilbo Baggins runs to catch up with the party of dwarves headed off on an unexpected journey.
Bilbo Baggins heads off on his unexpected journey.

We had already had a pretty good day. It was one of those rare days when Carla and Carlton still had preschool, but the older boys were already out for Christmas vacation. They hadn’t seen my office since I changed jobs, so other than having to get up earlier than they would have liked on their first day off from school, they didn’t mind coming downtown with me for a few hours and checking out my new digs.

It really was fun having them around. Even the rain-soaked commute, which lasted an hour longer than usual, was bearable with the two of them making up dialogue between the commuters they spied around us in the seven-lane-wide traffic jam on I-85.

They spent the morning playing Stratego and watching “Batman Begins” on the TV and DVD player in my office with the always cautious Barron keeping the volume low to avoid disturbing the almost empty hall. My co-worker, Robert, did get a little jealous when he came by to ask me about a story he was working on only to discover that Batman was on.

I treated them to lunch at The Varsity where they ate like it was their last meal. Barron scarfed down a double bacon cheeseburger while Harris had, in Varsity parlance, a “naked dog” and cheeseburger. They finished it off with a mountain of fries and frosted oranges. I drove them back to my building by way of the central campus, showing them the academic buildings, the football stadium, Tech tower and various residence halls, which they said reminded them of Hogwarts.

“The magic we do here at Tech is called ‘engineering,’” I said.

Carla was soon picking them up, and I was off to my 3 o’clock meeting. Before shutting down for the day, I checked out movie times at the theaters near us in Lilburn. Carla and I conferred with a quick phone call to confirm our plans, and I clicked a purchase of two children’s tickets and one adult ticket for the 7:30 showing of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

We both arrived at Los Hermanos at almost the same instant, and I winked at Carla, who returned a knowing smile. Our meal was delicious, and the boys continued to chatter away about their day at daddy’s office.

“Who wants to ride with me?” I asked nonchalantly as we headed for the parking lot. Of course Carlton wanted to but couldn’t. He was due for an early bedtime as indicated by his lack of composure at supper.

The boys climbed into the back of my car, Harris’s booster seat still in position from the morning commute. We followed the minivan to the neighborhood, but when Carla turned in and we kept going, the boys began to get suspicious.

“Hey, Daddy, you missed your turn.”

“I did? Oh, well, do you want me turn around?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know. Where are we going?

“Where does it look like we’re going?”

And thus the conversation went for the 12 minute ride to Snellville Oaks cinema.

Gandalf beckons Bilbo to join in an unexepected journey.
It doesn’t take a wise wizard to see the benefits of making a regular night out with your sons an adventure.

About three miles from the theater, still completely in the dark about our destination, the moment happened that will stay with me from this day long after the details of Bilbo’s adventure grow fuzzy in my memory.

“This is like something Paw Paw would do,” Barron said.

“What? Kidnap you?” I responded mischievously.

“No… you know, act like he missed a turn then take you some place fun.”

Barron got it. He connected this whole plan for me in a way that I hadn’t even understood myself. It wasn’t the joy of tricking or even surprising my children that gave me so much pleasure. It was that I was able to do for my kids what my dad had done for us.

You see, Barron was right. My dad frequently would take us somewhere without telling us the destination. Sometimes it would be amazing, and other times pedestrian, but every time became more exciting because of the unexpected.

“Dad, where are we going? You didn’t turn,” we would say in protest.

“To the moon,” he would answer.

My brother, Lee, and I will never forget the Thanksgiving night when he suggested we go for a ride. Four hours later we ended up in Houston for a great family weekend at Galveston and San Jacinto and other Texas landmarks.

With a simple trip to the movies, I had lived into the best of the Wallace family tradition. Just like my dad, I was able to turn a mundane car trip through the suburbs into an adventure.

“I guess it’s kind of appropriate,” Barron said.

“What is?” I asked.

“You took us on an unexpected journey to see the unexpected journey movie.”

The older I get, the more I believe the best parts of our journey are unexpected. I believe we all could use a little more adventure in our lives. I guarantee you’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.

What unexpected journeys have you taken? Did your parents ever surprise you with an unexpected trip or gift? Have you been able to surprise your kids? Leave your story in a comment below and share your tale with us.

Nerd alert

Carlton's seat for Dragon*Con
Carlton had the best view of the Dragon*Con parade last year.

Does dressing in the costume of your favorite super hero make you a nerd?

Does carrying a plastic gun or laser sword make you a nerd?

Does donning pointed ears and makeup to resemble an elf make you a nerd?

Does getting up early on a holiday weekend to go downtown and watch a parade of these people make you a nerd?

My nerd tendencies have always had an uneasy coexistence with my jock inclincations. Before the days of fanboys and geek chic, I had a sense that my interest in “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” and other art forms from that genre had a place, but not a very public one if I valued my reputation.

Dragon*Con Parade storm troopers
Hey, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Put that gun away!

As pop culture references to such things have become more mainstream, I’ve been a little more willing to give my inner nerd some room to breathe. And now that I have three boys who have fully embraced “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and “Batman” I am confronted with a dilemma: do I encourage their interest in imagination-inducing entertainment or dampen their enthusiasm for elements of nerd culture and get them to embrace more mainstream elements of pop culture?

Last year I completely gave in to nerddom by taking the whole family — even Carla — downtown to see the spectacle that is the annual Dragon*Con parade. You know Dragon*Con right?

It is the big gathering of nerds held every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. Officiallly, it “is the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe.” I can’t challenge their assertion because, frankly, I haven’t traveled much outside of our solar system.

Batmobile at the Dragon*Con parade
“Engine to power. Turbine to speed.” No, I’m not talking about the Batmobile, I’m talking about Barron’s heart when he saw it!

We didn’t buy tickets to the event, so it was a fun, cheap way to spend a Saturday. The boys got to see people dressed in costumes of their favorite characters, including a 1966 replica Batmobile (Barron’s current obsession) and I got to relive a portion of my own childhood with all the Star Wars costumes.

The float and characters promoting the haunted houses were a little much for Carlton, who was 2 years-old at the time. Otherwise, it was a family-friendly parade.

So why am I going back again this year?

1. It’s fun. It’s not every day you see people trying to bring to life fictional characters who live only in your imagination, on the movie or television screen or in books. It has the same vibe as running into a celebrity at the airport, only that usually doesn’t involve plastic weapons.

2. It’s a time to bond with my boys. I’ve dedicated a lot of space in this blog to talking about how I bond with my children. Camping is one way. Engaging in the “campy” elements of pop culture is another.

3. Who doesn’t love a parade? I still remember sitting on the frozen curb as a child watching the Cotton Bowl parade with my friend, Ryan, one New Year’s Day. It’s a spectacle, and the democracy of the Dragon*Con approach of taking all comers (who sign in and arrive at the check point on time) is refreshing. There’s really no skill involved. And it’s interesting to try to pick out what each group of nerds is representing. There are some pretty obscure corners of pop culture represented, and fortunately, my friend, Rob, is an expert who can help identify the more niched references.

4. Sometimes the real world is just a downer. There’s world hunger, hurricanes, war in Syria, stalled economy, crime, etc., etc., etc. Being transported to another place and time for a few hours may not be productive but it does make it easier to cope.

5. I’m still a kid at heart. As much as I try to repress my urge to pick up a light saber and run around the yard joining in my boys’ Jedi combat, I must have an outlet for my inner child. Yes, it’s a little nerdy to always be quoting Obi Wan Kenobi (“Trust your feelings”) or Gandalf (“It’s the deep breath before the plunge”) at the office, but giving space for these fantastical diversions moderates the highs and lows of a workday.

So if you’re looking for me Saturday morning, I’ll be at the corner of Peachtree Street and International Boulevard hanging out with my boys watching the denizens of Dragon*Con strut their stuff. And if that makes me a nerd, well, so be it.

Do you have hidden nerd tendencies? What’s your secret nerd indulgence? Go ahead and get it out in the open. You’ll feel better. We won’t laugh. I promise.

Separation anxiety

We tell ourselves it is necessary to send our children away on their own to prepare them for adulthood. I am beginning to believe we must send our children away on their own to prepare us for their adulthood.

Carla and Barron, in his scout uniform
It’s hard to tell who is more unsure about going to camp, Carla or Barron.

Last Sunday morning we dropped our 11-year-old son off at the Publix parking lot where he and about 40 of his fellow scouts boarded a charter bus bound for a week at Camp Rainey Mountain near Clayton, Ga. Only a month ago we dropped him off for a three-night mini-camp for new scouts at Fort Yargo State Park, so this experience was supposed to be only marginally more difficult.

For some reason, it’s not.

Since we left him he has not been far from my thoughts. Even though I have complete confidence in the adult chaperones and camp staff, I find myself wondering how he is faring emotionally with being away from home on his own for an extended period of time.

Oh, you should hear the speeches I make to Carla, lecturing her on the need for Barron to have these formational experiences of independence within safe boundaries. I have boldly proclaimed the benefits to his self-confidence and maturity. I make definitive statements about his safety and enjoyment of the merit badge classes.

In reality, I’m trying to convince myself.

In their wisdom, the troop leaders sent an e-mail to parents on Wednesday reassuring us that all is well. They even included a wish list from each scout. When I saw that Barron’s wish was for a “1989 Michael Keaton Batman Batmobile,” I knew he was just fine.

I’m beginning to understand that the biggest problem with sending your children away is the disconnection. He’s spent a week with grandparents before, and I’ve taken him along with the other church kids to Passport Kids camp the past two years. What makes this different is that we can’t talk to him. We haven’t heard from him. We can’t know how he is really doing.

As they say at the church, I’m “reaping what I’ve sown” for all the times in college I went weeks without calling home. And think, this is just the beginning!

Noah and Barron load the bus for camp
Best bud, Noah, left, and Barron, right, load their footlockers onto the charter bus bound for a week at Camp Rainey Mountain in Northeast Georgia. Photo courtesy of Chip Johns.

I am certain that he is loving his canoeing and woodcarving classes. I’m sure first aid is interesting. He will greatly benefit from the survival swimming as he learns the Bear Grylls-esque skill of turning his clothes into a flotation device and treading water until rescued. Cognitively, I get it. Emotionally, I need some assurances he’s OK.

As parents it’s hard to conceive, give birth, care for every need, teach, nurture, guide and prepare our children then suddenly at age 18 send them out into the wild. It’s natural and unnatural all at the same time.

This week I’ve realized that Barron needed to go to camp to teach us how to be his parents when he’s out of the nest as much as he needed to go to learn new skills and how to be on his own.

When we show up at the church to pick him up tomorrow, I’m sure we will hear the details of a great week. There will be low moments he’ll tell us about, but if minicamp is any indication, he’ll be singing “Bo Diddly Bop” and chanting “You Can’t Ride in My Little Red Wagon” while breathlessly re-telling us the jokes he heard around the camp fires and every adventure he and his best friend, Noah, experienced.

And I’ll savor the moment, knowing that 18 follows quickly after 11, and the time we have him to ourselves under our roof is limited.

Maybe next year will be easier – for me and for him.

What was it like for you when you were a kid and went away on your own for the first time? Have you sent your child away? What was it like for you the first time? Do you have an empty nest? How do you cope with parenting from a distance? How do you maintain contact with your college-aged kids? Leave a comment below and share your parenting journey with us.   

The Power of Pine

For the last five years, I’ve spent one Saturday in January at a unique sporting event that induces anxiety, quickens the pulse and triggers a few tears.

Of course I’m talking about the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

Harris and Barron working on their Pinewood Derby cars
Harris and Barron hard at work turning their blocks of wood into works of art... fast art.

This anachronistic competition is a throw-back to the days when kids made their own toys out of what they found lying around. In an era when everything is plastic and comes with detailed picture instructions, the Pinewood Derby challenges kids to use their imagination and show dexterity with sharp implements.

It’s a simple concept: You get a block of wood. That’s it. Oh, and four small nails and four plastic wheels. It’s an intimidatingly blank canvas.

Pinewood Derby makes me anxious because I am not a woodworker. I do not possess woodworking tools. I do not possess woodworking skills. We have relied on the help of our friends, Jeff and Christine, who have been gracious with their time, expertise and equipment. They help us get the body of the cars into their basic shapes, so the boys can go to town on them with files, sandpaper and paint to achieve their artistic vision.

Barron's 1966 Batmobile and best bud Noah's Mach 5 of Speedracer fame.
Barron's 1966 Batmobile and best bud Noah's Mach 5 of Speedracer fame.

Each year, my oldest son, Barron, has come up with designs that flow right out of his interests. The first year it was a Jeff Gordon replica car straight from his NASCAR obsession. A week after a visit to Sea World in Orlando, he came up with a Shamu car, complete with dorsal fin. After “riding the Ducks” at Stone Mountain he conceived of the amphibious “Duck” vehicle. Beginning guitar lessons last year produced an instrument on wheels. This year he reproduced the 1966 Batmobile, which ran pretty well and received lots of attention from the dads, if not their sons, who remembered watching the old Batman series as kids.

This year was Harris’ first foray into the world of Pinewood Derby. Like all second-born children, he benefitted from his brother’s experience. I still have nightmares about Barron’s first year. I felt like a terrible parent as I watched Barron stand, dejected, at the foot of the race track while Jeff Gordon didn’t have enough weight to roll down to the finish line. I hadn’t done the research from among the myriad websites to help him be at least moderately successful.

Harris posing for a photo for his second place design.
Despite the forced smile, Harris really was thrilled to earn second place for "showmanship" among the Tiger cubs for his hot rod school bus.

This time around, we were ready. Harris’s hot rod school bus did well, earning a second place in showmanship among all the Tiger cubs and first place in speed for our den. His flaming bus may not be sanctioned by the Gwinnett County School Board, but it will get you to school on time.

All told we probably spent 20-30 hours on this year’s cars, including helping Carlton with his car. Carlton’s idea of working on his car was putting five coats of paint on the pine block, each a different color.

Overall it was a great morning at the races. Our nerves gave way to laughs as we spent time with friends. The boys displayed good sportsmanship, pulling for their buddies and not throwing tantrums when their cars weren’t the fastest.

After five years I’ve finally figured out the magic of the Pinewood Derby – time. It’s all about the time Barron, Harris, Carlton and I spent together hacking at, sanding, painting and sealing a block of wood.

Like the race itself, life passes all too quickly. What matters most isn’t finishing first. It’s building what it takes to get you to the finish line.

Holy costume, Batman, it’s Halloween!

Life is filled with difficult decisions. When you are the ages of my boys, one of the most agonizing choices is which costume to wear on Halloween. The conversation this year began in earnest about April.

The Wallace boys as Batman, Robin and little Batman
Gotham City would have no doubt been cleaned up a long time ago if Batman and Robin had been joined by a Batman Jr. to help out.

My boys have a bin of costumes from which they could select any number of identities: Power Ranger (Red), Power Ranger (Blue), cowboy, farmer, soldier, train engineer, train conductor, doctor, chipmunk (can’t tell if it’s Chip or Dale), Abraham Lincoln, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader, Bob the Builder, fireman and those are just the ones I can think of without really looking.

But these will never do. Each year, we must come up with something new. Gone are the days of rushing out to the retail outlet a couple of days before Halloween to pick up a flimsy, plastic (and highly flammable) suit with a stiff, plastic face mask with thin slits for eye holes, nostrils and mouth and a thin rubber band to hold it all together. Back in the day we didn’t
look any more like Superman or G.I. Joe than the man in the moon, but that’s just what everybody did.

In the New South, everybody has to have muscles. Costumes are much more realistic these days, if you call fake foam muscles on a three-year-old “realistic.” Every boy has the abs of Ryan Reynolds and the pecs of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This year, the official Wallace family Halloween costumes are the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin. And, well, Batman again. When you have three children it makes it difficult to be a crime-fighting duo. While the older two wanted their 3-year-old brother to dress up like one of Batman’s numerous nemeses, Carlton wanted no part of the Joker, Penguin, the Riddler, Two Face, etc.

So we have Batman, Robin and Batman Jr.

Most of what my kids know of Batman comes from two comic book series they’ve been reading and a Cartoon Network show, which is the basis of one of the comic books. The obsession grew when Harris wanted to watch a movie on his birthday. At the time, we were still among the 800,000 or so people who hadn’t dropped Netflix, so I went to the streaming options and found the 1966 ”Batman” starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Batman 1966 movie poster
The REAL Batman and Robin, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, minus phony abs.

They fell in love with the whole campy concept: everything with a “bat-” label, such as “Bat Cave,”  “Batmobile” and even “Bat Shark Repellent Spray;” not-so-scary villains in garish getups, the convenient placement of vehicles wherever Batman and Robin needed them, and, of course, the deductive dialogues between the caped crusaders frequently involving the phrases “Holy” and “Precisely!”

Current Batman obsession + a half hour of Internet shopping + $50 = Halloween costumes. Did you know that Americans spend nearly $7 billion on Halloween? That puts Halloween number two on the most commercialized holiday list behind only Christmas.

The costumes are getting good use, though, with a Trunk-or-Treat event at church, a costume party Saturday night and Trick-or-Treating on Monday night – not to mention all the photos that will be taken, digitally scrapbooked, Facebooked and shared with grandparents in a variety of media.

When the sugar-induced comas wear off, the Dark Knight, the Boy Wonder and the little Dark Knight will undoubtedly retire to the costume bucket where perhaps they can be recycled for some other Bat-o-philes in the future.

In the meantime, Carla and I have to begin thinking about our biggest Halloween decision: how to discard 20 pounds of candy without the boys noticing.

So what’s your costume this year? What was your favorite costume of all time?

Let us know and have a safe and happy Halloween.