Thoughts on Lanny

On Nov. 1, 2013, my father-in-law, Lanny Barron, was in an automobile accident on his way to his house in Sandersville from his family’s farm outside of town. He died on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Today’s essay is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at Lanny’s funeral. He and Cynthia would have been married 49 years on March 28. He would have turned 72 on April 2. To help remember him during this significant week, Carla asked that I post this eulogy. I hope you get a glimpse of what made him special.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.
Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny Carl Barron lived his life between the farm and town.

He spent his formative years on the family farm on the Sparta-Davisboro Road a few miles outside of town in what is known as the Downs Community. There he learned the ways of planting, harvesting, hunting, preparing food and generally occupying himself with practical pursuits ultimately meant to provide sustenance for his family.

His family moved into town as his father worked in law enforcement. He developed a love of sports and cars and other pursuits hot-blooded males of his generation appreciated. But he was never far from the farm and the woods.

In high school he met and fell in love with Cynthia Goodman. Though she went off to Georgia Southern and he to the U.S. Navy, his intense love only grew in their separation. Not one to put on much of a show or engage in what he referred to as “that kissy, kissy mess,” Lanny was smitten in a way that affected him to his core. And when Cynthia turned down his original proposal of marriage, the iron will and determination – some might call it stubbornness – that those who knew him well recognized as a central part of his character helped him woo her past the point of refusal.

They were married, and he spent his shifts, both days and nights, operating heavy equipment in the kaolin mines of Washington County, an honorable occupation many of you know well. As Cynthia went into the classroom to put her training and gifts of teaching and nurturing to use with the children of Tennille, Lanny had all he wanted out of life. Except for a child.

It was nearly a decade before Carla was born, and though he was, perhaps, better suited to teach a boy the importance of the land, honest character, the intricacies of the forward pass and the sacrifice bunt, Lanny was challenged to develop his more tender side as he learned to love and show affection to a daughter.

This wasn’t always easy for him, and for a time he struggled with his role as husband and father. But in her patience, love, and resolve, Cynthia helped him decide what was worth giving his life to and what was not. Lanny made up his mind that the woman who had been worth pursuing in his youth and the daughter they had so desperately wanted were worth spending time with, and once again through his will and determination he made the kind of life change that many are never able to accomplish.

Still, Lanny was not much of a churchman for many years. He could clearly recall his days as a young boy at the church at Downs, but his distaste for pretense and his ability to sniff out hypocrisy kept him from darkening the church door, though Cynthia and Carla were at church every time those doors were open.

In his 50s after suffering a heart attack, Lanny recommitted himself to the faith of his childhood. As he described it to me one day while driving from town out to the farm, he realized it was the church folk who visited him in the hospital and looked after Cynthia and Carla while he recovered. After that, Lanny was in church the first Sunday he was able, and he became a faithful member and servant. He was eventually named a deacon, a title to which he had not aspired in his earlier days. It was yet another example of him making up his mind and making a 180-degree turn, never to look back.

His lifestyle changes included a new commitment to physical fitness. He walked all over Washington County, mostly in the backwoods of his family’s land. By the time I met Lanny in 1996, he had shifted to riding a bike, and he could often be seen out on the Fall Line pedaling along with his little Pekingnese named Bossy, in the front basket.  He was a man who was nearly always in the company of a dog, and among those who grieve his passing now the most is his little buddy and constant companion, Jack.

Among the first occasions I had to spend an extended amount of time with Lanny was at Carla’s graduation from Mercer. His pride in the accomplishments of his daughter helped him overcome his distaste of pomp and circumstance. He put on a tie and made the drive over to Macon and along with about 10,000 other folks, he applauded his daughter achieving her college degree.

And when I went from being the boyfriend to the son-in-law, he put on a tuxedo to escort his beautiful Carla down the aisle.

For the past 16 years, the Lanny I have known has been a fan of the Golden Hawks, Bulldogs and Braves; quick with a joke (not many of which I would dare retell in this solemn gathering) and full of wisdom from his uncomplicated but principled upbringing. His mischievous smile was never brighter than when he picked at those he had fondness for, including Cynthia, his co-workers, church friends and, of course, his sister-in-law, Linda Goodman, who has always been able to give it back as good as she got it.

And at least a hand full of times I have been with him as he rode out to the farm to the Red House to find his nephew, Johnny, sitting on the back porch in the autumn, mid-morning sun. Better than any program on the Outdoor Channel, he loved to hear Johnny tell of the morning’s hunt. Lanny listened as Johnny with characteristic exaggeration and good humor described how the big one got away or humbly submit how his superior hunting skills led him to take a prized buck.

In those years Lanny and Cynthia together were wonderful caregivers to his mother, Ruth, who lived with them. He looked after his mother as dutifully and as conscientiously as I hope our boys will look after theirs. He was a model son, and an inspiration to Carla who has tried to be with him and her mama through every step of this journey.

I have seen firsthand his love for Cynthia in her recent years of illness. He was attentive to her every need and relished proving to her that he could cook, clean up and even do laundry.

In my experience with Lanny, he has been at his very best as a grandfather, or as my boys have known him, Poppy. Never too fond of hospital rooms, three times he made his way to be with us after the birth of our boys and every time, he held a new grandson, he would beam and pronounce them “handsome young men, just like their grandfather.”

He loved grilling for them and preparing their favorite foods. He absolutely loved seeing them devour a bowl of ice cream, even before their infant digestive tracks could handle it. He always asked them how they were doing in school and if they were chasing the little girls. He loved taking them out to the farm, letting them drive his camouflaged golf cart and feed and chase the goats.

He came to their performances at school and at church, and even adopted the new tradition of waiting out Santa’s arrival at our house in Lilburn. No visit with Poppy ever concluded without him reaching into his wallet and giving each of them a $20 bill. He pulled them close, hugged them, said “Love you, Buddy. Make your mama and daddy buy you some ice cream.”

I asked my boys what I should say today to let you know how much he meant to them. Carlton, in all the eloquence his five years could muster, said: “Poppy was really nice, and I loved his hamburgers and hotdogs.”

Harris, who three weeks ago sat down in his Poppy’s hospital room in Augusta and refused to leave until Poppy got better, said: “He taught me to drive a golf cart, and I could never beat him at checkers.”

Barron, his first-born grandson and the benefactor of his generous excesses of grandfatherly affection, said: “Poppy always wanted to hear me play my trumpet and my guitar, and I had fun last summer working with him on his old car.”

And if given the chance to stand here and offer words of your memories, you would no doubt mention many more traits that made Lanny Carl Barron the unique individual that he was. In the last three days I have heard stories from you that were familiar and part of the lore that was his life story. I have heard new stories that I had never known but were completely consistent with the man I have come to love and admire.

Let this not be the last days those stories escape your lips. Lanny lives on in each telling. Cynthia is comforted by the sound of his name and the knowledge that you miss him right along with her. Carla needs to be reminded often of the kind of person her daddy was, so she can know where she came from and what’s important in life. And these grandsons need to know their Poppy in fuller and richer ways than the perspective of their youth can afford them now.

If you have loved Lanny in life, I ask you to speak these stories with joy and laughter and with frequency. Lanny always enjoyed a laugh and a good story, grounded in timeless truths, even those tales that pointed out his own foibles. He will enjoy hearing you tell them from his new vantage point.

Perhaps no one has more stories than you, James. You are above all others, a man held in high esteem by Lanny. You have gone farther than the formal relationship of brother-in-law would obligate a man. You have been the sidekick in many of Lanny’s misadventures, always the voice of caution, always offering a word of reason, but all too often dismissed to Lanny’s detriment. Still, you went with him to the farm each morning to tend the goats. And you went with him to auctions and sales and wide-ranging quests for tractor parts or purchases of hay. Too many times you had to be the one to call 911 or worse, your sister, when things went badly. Lanny probably pushed you too far outside of your comfort zone too many times, but in his boldness and disregard for safety, he was comforted by your presence. There is no telling how many disasters you helped avert, how many inconveniences you prevented from becoming full-blown fiascoes. Lanny was fortunate to have you as a brother, and he knew it.

There are others of you here who were important to him whom I have not mentioned: Martha and Ann, Edna and Steve, Jason, Emily, Amy and all the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lanny’s older brother, John, but I know for a fact how much he looked up to him, and how important John’s family was to him. He treasured visits with Lois, Sherri, Johnny and Jonathan because they helped him feel connected to his roots, especially in the days after his daddy and mama had passed.

Lanny, today we lay your body to rest, knowing that you are not in this casket. Our faith leads us to anticipate a glorious reunion someday, and we are comforted by the idea that you sit with your mother and father, your brothers and your friends who have gone before you.

We have made a little bit of a fuss over you. I hope it’s OK and you don’t mind. You’ll have to forgive us, because you are worth it.

Somewhere between the farm and town, we lost you. May we never forget all that you have taught us from traveling that road back and forth. We are all better for knowing you.

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.

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.

Lions and monkeys and turtles, oh my!

For the past two weeks, Carlton has been without his favorite sleep-aid: Lion.

This now raggedy stuffed animal with the roaring voice box that hasn’t worked in several years has been his constant sleeping companion for the better part of five years. But two weeks ago, a weekend with the grandparents was so much fun that Lion opted for an extended visit.

Carlton hangs on to Lion and his apple juice before his first plane ride back in June 2012.
Carlton hangs on to Lion and his apple juice before his first plane ride back in June 2012.

On the first night without Lion there were tears. It hasn’t been easy for Carlton to adjust to life without Lion, and some nights he has begged us to call Nanny to have her mail it to us. He even tried earlier this week to persuade Carla to drive to Sandersville on Friday just to get Lion. Overall I’d say this has been an important weaning process and not nearly as painful as we first imagined.

Carlton is not unlike his brothers in his attachment to a stuffed animal. Barron has his Yee-hi. This furry monkey was given to him by our Macon friends, Cass and Ruth DuCharme. For a while it appeared that Barron would succumb to the old cliché and take Yee-hi to college, but he gave him up before elementary.

Harris was the least attached to a stuffed animal. One year our school had a donated stuffed animal adoption at Winter Fest. Harris was somewhere around 3 at the time. He fell in love with a cuddly turtle that he promptly named “Swimmy.” I know, turtles aren’t known for being especially cuddly, and Swimmy must not have been either because he was relegated to the stuffed animal box in less than a year.

Swimmy was also impractical because he was kind of big. It’s hard carrying around a 150-year-old giant sea turtle. OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but he was about half as big as Harris was at the time.

All of this adjusting to not having a figurative security blanket reminded me of my own, literal security blanket. I carried around a very masculine, Winnie-the-Pooh sleeping bag long past any age when it was appropriate, probably 17 or 18. Again, I jest. Maybe 6 or 7. In any case, I really liked this blanket. I would drag it into the den and lay on it while watching cartoons.

Back then, it was good to be close to the TV so you could turn the channel. Yeah, I’m old.

Truth be told, I feel like his “lovies” are harmless. It’s OK for children to have items they cling to a little bit for comfort. I’m no child psychologist, but as long as they give them up before middle school, it’s not something I get worked up about.

What I do wonder about is what we replace them with. Do we really ever give up our Lions and Yee-his and Swimmys? Do we just latch on to something else for security? Do we become emotionally mature or do we just switch to our iDevice, a piece of jewelry or fashion accessory? Where does our sense of comfort and security come from as we age?

Lion has been there for some of the best naps and longest car rides.
Lion has been there for some of the best naps and longest car rides.

Carlton turned five this week. We are nearing the end of the stuffed animal stage altogether. I guess it’s time to find that box where Yee-hi and Swimmy hang out. It won’t be long before Lion joins them in retirement.

What was your childhood security blanket or lovie? Do your children have them? Does it concern you that your children are so attached to their stuffed animals? Leave a comment and tell us your story of your beloved animal and reconnect with that sense of comfort and safety. You’ll feel good all over again, I promise.

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!

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.

Summertime blues

My innocent Facebook post on Tuesday sparked enough comments to let me know I struck a nerve.

Here’s what I posted the morning after Memorial Day: “Remembering that as I return to work today, Carla is at work 24/7. Summer vacation for children means summer overtime for parents who stay at home full- or part-time.”

One commenter suggested I blog about this topic. Challenge accepted.

Don't be alarmed. Don't call 911. He's not dead or even in a coma. He's just on summer vacation.
Don’t be alarmed. Don’t call 911. He’s not dead or even in a coma. He’s just on summer vacation.

Unless you are “Phineas and Ferb,” summer vacation holds a mixture of dread and anticipation. We all can remember the exhilaration of that final bell and those carefree days of “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.”

Like everything else, summer is more complicated in the New South. For working parents, there is a logistical puzzle that must be assembled so that your children are cared for every moment you are not at home. For parents who stay at home with the kids, summer can be just as daunting. Even the most doting and loving of parents has a limit of child time, and playing cruise director for your kids all summer can make you want to experience some of that heart fondness that can only come from absence.

Upon further review, I think I’ve isolated six reasons summer is no vacation. Feel free to disagree. Here goes:

1. Filling the hours. Whether you are at home with your kids or having to work, you must find something for them to do. Not to put too a fine a point on it, but if you fail to occupy their time, they will be possessed by Satan and destroy you. Or, you’ll get arrested for child neglect. Either way, it’s bad.

2. Fighting. If you are blessed to have multiple children, you know that where two or more are gathered, there is mortal combat. Carla, who is an only child, frequently asks: “Were you like this with your brothers?” And since there were three of us boys in my family just as I have three boys now, I say with a smile and a shake of the head: “Yes… yes, in fact, I was exactly like this with my brothers.” One of the universal truths of siblings is that there will be bloodshed, particularly if the hours are not filled constructively (see item no. 1).

3. Lack of routine. We all know children need structure. Your household is only two or three nights of staying up late to watch “Phineas and Ferb” away from utter chaos. Irregular sleep patterns begets irritability which begets unpleasantness which begets conflict which begets tears which begets punishment which begets whining which begets parental insanity.

4. Dietary battles. Cheese puffs and chocolate chip cookies in massive quantities make children crazy. No scientific study needed. Don’t even get me started on the “cleaning your plate” conversation. Cheese puffs and cookies will invariably invoke the “I’m not hungry” declaration at a well-balanced meal consisting of vegetables.

5. Electronics and TV. Back in the day, we only had re-runs and cartoons on the telly to idle away the hours. Now, children have an array of devices to keep their heads buried in all summer. I don’t know about your children, but when mine watch too much television and stay on their iDevices too long, they make poor decisions that result in my elevated blood pressure and their solitary confinement.

6. No break from children. Even the weakest of us can sustain decent parenting for a few hours, maybe even a few days. Summer is the ultra-marathon of parenting. It’s a 100-day relentless slog through the perils of having to be a negotiator, diplomat, nutritionist, chauffeur, party planner, referee, electronics technician, chef, lifeguard, teacher, shepherd, and the list goes on and on.

Summer isn’t just a frolic in the pool, and I’m sure parents have been dealing with these challenges for generations. It may seem harder these days, but I think the hardest part for us as parents is that we have to find balance. We can’t afford the luxury of narcissism. Yes, we may steal a few moments here and there, but in order for summer to be enjoyable for our children and survivable for us, we have to change our mindset. For the next 100 days, it’s really not about us.

To help you with this challenge, I leave you with the immortal wisdom of Phineas and Ferb:

There’s 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it.

Good luck finding the good way to spend it without spending all of your income.

Do you dread school ending for the summer? How do you cope? What are your fondest memories of summer as a child? What are some activities you plan in order to keep your kids occupied? Leave a comment and share your wisdom.

Robertsons taking the New South by storm

They’re bearded. They’re quotable. They’re camouflaged. They’re armed. They’re wildly popular. They are the Robertsons.

Unless you manage to completely avoid all media – other than New South Essays, of course – then you have probably seen or heard about the Robertson family. The pride of West Monroe, La., the Robertsons are self-proclaimed rednecks who have turned a duck call manufacturing business into one of the most popular reality shows on television.

From left, Jase, Si, Willie and Phil Robertson are bearded Louisiana rednecks who are ruling the reality TV airwaves.
From left, Jase, Si, Willie and Phil Robertson are bearded Louisiana rednecks who are ruling the reality TV airwaves.

We discovered the Robertsons last year when my dad turned us on to “Duck Dynasty” while it was still in its first season. Not typically an early adopter, Dad was on board from the beginning after finding their duck hunting show “Duck Commander” on the Outdoor Channel. It seems that while searching for his beloved fishing shows one day, he stumbled onto the wise-cracking Robertsons . Although he cared nothing for duck hunting, he found them so compelling he started watching.

The Robertsons then found an unlikely TV home on the Arts and Entertainment channel when they premiered in March 2012. A little more than a year later, “Duck Dynasty” is A&E’s highest rated program. Renewal for season four is currently on hold until new contracts can be negotiated. The Robertsons are reportedly seeking $200,000 per episode.

The season finale airs this week on April 24 to mark the end of the third season. I’m trying to figure out why “Duck Dynasty” has caught on in the New South like no other redneck reality show, and there are many.

So why are the Robertsons so popular?

Not since The Waltons has a TV family consistently shared a prayer of thanksgiving at meal times. The Robertsons end each episode with a blessing, pronounced by Phil, the patriarch. They are obviously people of faith with their involvement in their church featured regularly on the show.

They also demonstrate a strong commitment to their family. The brothers squabble and their Uncle Si is a foil to all their well-laid plans, but in the end, they embrace, pray and pass the victuals.

Conservative Christians gravitate to the Robertsons because they finally feel represented. A family with their general beliefs is on television, and they are drawn to them.

Truth is, there aren’t many shows that we watch as a family. The kids watch their typical fare of Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon or Disney Channel, but with “Duck Dynasty,” we can and want to watch together.  There’s no cursing, and only the occasional expression of marital bliss between Phil and Kay can be considered “adult content.” It may be gross, but there’s a lot worse on television than an affectionate older married couple showing that their love still burns brightly.

The Robertson women, from left, Jessica (goes with Jep), Missy (goes with Jase), Miss Kay (Goes with Phil) and Korie (goes with Willie... or the other way around.)
The Robertson women, from left, Jessica (goes with Jep), Missy (goes with Jase), Miss Kay (Goes with Phil) and Korie (goes with Willie… or the other way around.)

My wife, Carla, fully admits to enjoying the segments of the show that include the younger Robertsons’ wives and children. She particularly likes seeing their homes, their choices in clothing, and how they parent their children, who just happen to be a mix of biological and adopted. She is fascinated by these beautiful, thin, well-coifed women and what drew them to their redneck husbands. Photos are circulating online that prove under their massive beards there are men who were once handsome enough to woo these lovely women.

Despite all these reasons for watching, the real reason for their success is that they are funny. We never fail to laugh when watching the Robertsons. I’m not so naïve as to think everything that happens is unplanned, but even with a sense that scenarios may be contrived, I can’t help but giggle.

Uncle Si trying to earn enough tickets at a local pizza arcade to win a stuffed purple gorilla is funny. Godwin, a co-worker at the duck call plant, shirtlessly scurrying across a path on all fours to see if he resembles a panther from a distance is funny. Willie and Jase taking their wives hunting and Korie dousing herself in doe urine is funny. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

“Duck Dynasty” may not be everyone’s blue Tupperware cup of iced tea, but the Robertsons have become heroes to a segment of the population that can’t find many in the media these days. We can debate whether or not they are role models, but you cannot deny they are trending.

It remains to be seen how many seconds are left on their 15 minutes of fame, but when the season finale airs Wednesday, as Si would say, “I’m down like a rodeo clown, Jack!”

What’s your take on the Robertsons? Do you watch and laugh out loud or do you cringe and avoid them like the plague? If you are a fan, what are your reasons? Leave a comment and make us “happy, happy, happy.”

Bracing

You cannot bear your children’s burdens for them.

On Wednesday, our 12-year-old son, Barron, began a two-year journey with orthodontia. My wife and I can commiserate, but we cannot take away the discomfort and self-consciousness. As one of my former editors used to say, it’s his bear to cross.

I'm sure Barron is under no such delusion.
I’m sure Barron is under no such delusion.

By the grace of God and my mother’s good dental genes, I avoided braces altogether, but I remember coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s when a prescription for braces as a teenager was a death sentence for popularity. I can clearly recall several instances of friends who had to undergo the painful process of orthodontics, erasing their smiles for two to three years and earning such unflattering nicknames as “metal mouth,” “brace face” and “jaws.” It was even worse for the kids who had to wear headgear attached to their braces.

In reading up on orthodontia, I learned that braces are now nearly ubiquitous. From 1982 to 2008, the number of teenagers with braces has increased by 99 percent. Gone are the days of the snaggletooth Southern stereotype. In the New South, wearing corrective braces is a rite of passage common to nearly every teen and pre-teen.

My wife is the one with orthodontic experience in our household, and she has offered reassurances that there is life after braces. It’s probably better that she be the parent with empathy because I suspect our boys would rather have her for comfort than their often less-than-sympathetic old man.

Willy Wonka's braces
After having watched or listened to the Wonka remake about 150 times, I couldn’t help but picture these braces when I first learned Barron would have to be subjected to orthodontia.

I don’t know how normative her experience is, though. She reported to have desired braces so much in her pre-teen years that she used tin foil to pretend to have braces. To her, orthodontics was the status symbol of cool, teenaged girls.

Barron will not be alone in his misery. One of his buddies has already been through braces, getting them at the age of 10 and recently having them removed. Another friend has them now and has been a good peer guide through the process. His younger brothers, though, haven’t been as sympathetic.

“Uh, Harris, you know you will be going down this road yourself in a couple of years,” I reminded our 7-year-old.

Thoughtful silence.

“I’d be a lot more sympathetic if I were you.”

“Well, I better make fun of him all I can while I have the chance.”

Epic parenting fail.

After the first week with braces on his top teeth – the bottom braces will be installed in about six months – he’s managed to deal with the soreness, find a way to keep them clean and work around the new protrusions to make his requisite trumpet embouchure. More adjustments are coming, I’m sure, but at least for now, we’ve not had to deal with any questions about kissing.

Again, wisdom from his younger brother:

“You won’t be able to kiss any girls,” Harris rejoined with a wide smile.

“That’s the least of my worries,” Barron said.

No, that’s the least of OUR worries.

Probably at the top of our list, right under his pain, is our financial pain. Braces aren’t cheap. I’ve used installment plans and credit to purchase everything from mattresses to cars to homes, but I never imagined I would be employing these financing tools to make my kids’ teeth straight. This isn’t the first nor will it be the last time I am surprised by a big-ticket expense in raising children.

So as my expedition with orthodontia begins, I welcome the collective wisdom of you who have traveled this road before me. What do I have to expect? What do I have to dread? What do I have to celebrate? It may not take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a bank.

Leave your comment below and share how you coped with your own braces or your child’s braces. We’ll all benefit from your experience.