Unusually warm February weather teased me with a taste of spring this week. The sun peaked out from behind the clouds, and I left my office and took a lap of the campus, basking in the warmth, smiling at the students and getting my blood flowing. It was bliss.
Perfect happiness doesn’t exist, but my walk across campus prompted me to reflect on what brings me closest:
Perfect happiness is contentment. No matter what is going on in my life, if I can be content in those circumstances, I can experience happiness. Like most of my emotions, I subjugate happiness to discipline. Contentment takes training and work, so my happiness, when I achieve it, is hard fought. I have to recognize that I can choose happiness. It requires taking my eyes off the swirling events around me and giving focus to what I can learn, process and express in the midst of those events, even if they are negative.
Perfect happiness is expression. Giving form to thoughts or imaginings is a unique pleasure that releases more than chemicals in the brain. Expressing ideas, particularly ones that gain traction and resonate with people, is fundamental to my makeup. To think that expression can live on well after I am gone is deeply satisfying. But similar to contentment, expression takes effort. My first drafts require revision. Being creative feels good, but true expression is work.
Perfect happiness is being present in the moment. Everything about my job in communications pulls me away from the moment. Every “ding” of a received text message, every chirping cell phone ring, every flagged email grabs my attention and leaves my loved ones starved for my acknowledgement. When I am aware of my surroundings — the conditions, temperatures, people, sounds, smells, and vistas — I feel truly alive. This takes so much effort sometimes that I fail myself and everyone around me by defaulting to the device in my pocket, succumbing to the greatest weapon against happiness the world has ever experienced – the smart phone.
Perfect happiness is physical exertion. The theme of hard work is laced throughout each of these descriptions, and for me, putting forth effort makes me happy. Whether it’s cutting the grass, going for a long run, swimming laps, or doing a bodyweight exercise circuit, I am happy when I am in motion and my heart rate is elevated. I like to sweat and push my limits. I want to be active until I die, and it makes me happy to think of myself as an old man puttering around the neighborhood, health club or even the mall, staying in motion.
Perfect happiness is accomplishment. The old adage among marathoners “it’s not about the race, it’s about the training” rings true to me. I also feel great happiness when I complete something. It’s nice to receive recognition for accomplishing a task or a goal, but it’s not necessary for my happiness. Most of the time I can recognize the accomplishment for what it is internally because I know what went into it. This pattern has been repeated so many times in my life I can’t even remember them all: serving as deacon chair for the first time, earning an MBA, writing a novel, running a marathon, canoeing the Ocmulgee River. There was happiness in the moment of each of those experiences, and there was happiness at accomplishing them.
Perfect happiness is relationship. I used to believe that love was measured in effort. If a relationship was effortless, I believed it wasn’t true love. It was just a momentary emotion, and it wouldn’t last. After nearly 26 years of marriage, I have come to believe that while relationships take work, they also provide comfort, affirmation, and embrace of the whole self. When Carla and I are connected and in sync, there is great happiness. I have reached the point in my life when I cannot imagine happiness apart from Carla. She amplifies my happiness because as we join in happiness together, it grows exponentially and infects each other and our children and those around us. When we are happy together, people are drawn to us, and we are our best selves.
Perfect happiness is sharing. Being able to give a part of myself away makes me happy. Whether it’s sharing my money, my French fries, the bed covers, my writing, or my attention, I am happpy when I am focused on others. Contributing to something greater pulls me out of that dangerous and destructive emotional space of self. I believe life isn’t about me, even my own life. It makes me happy to make life about others, giving to them, being with them and sharing with them, particularly humor.
Perfect happiness is laughter. It’s not a great revelation to profess laughter to be beneficial. Everyone knows and quotes the old saying “Laughter is the best medicine.” It is both a symptom and an ingredient in my idea of perfect happiness. The physicality of deep laughter robs me of breath like a workout. The emotional cleansing is more thorough than weeping. Laughter resets my mood and emotions better than meditation. Finding laughter spontaneously rather than seeking it or forcing it gives it power. It’s the one item from this list that is more effective for me with less effort.
For me, this list are the components or ingredients required for me to be happy, but individual sources of happiness that contribute to my wholeness. It’s probably not even an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.
I would do well to remember this list and reflect on it often.
What is perfect happiness for you? Leave a comment and let us in on your ideas.
(This is the final installment of a three-part series on why we gave each of our boys their name. Barron’s birthday is Feb. 6, so today’s post is timed to coincide with that wonderful, life-changing event. Happy 22nd, Barron!)
What’s in a name? For us, it’s family.
Our three boys are roughly four years apart in age. We wanted each to have a strong, distinctive name. Carla and I always thought names had more meaning when they came from beloved and respected ancestors. Passing on their names extends the memory of those who have gone before and gives our children a differentiator in a world where so many boys their age bear trendy names.
Naming was the opposite of parenting. It became harder as we had more children. With each child we learned how to be better parents, but with each male child, we had a more difficult time selecting a name we liked with a meaningful family connection.
Our first born is Barron Elliott Wallace. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say we decided what our oldest son would be called about six minutes after we got engaged. As soon as we started talking seriously about our future, we settled on family names like “Ruth” and “Helen” for a girl and “Barron,” Carla’s maiden name, for a boy.
Continuing Carla’s family name is a lot for Barron to carry, but since she was an only child, we both felt the urge to give her family name to our firstborn. “Elliott,” his middle name, originated with my grandmother. Her maiden name is both my and my father’s middle name. It rolls off the tongue in combination with “Barron,” and it pays tribute to my father’s mother’s family.
Barron likes the distinctiveness of his name. He appreciates his connection to his roots. As his college studies focus on furnishings and interiors with an emphasis on historic preservation, he lives into his name. He is pursuing a career restoring objects and structures from the past.
Whenever anyone brings up the youngest child of former president Donald Trump, our Barron is quick to point out, “I had the name first.” He’s soon to be 22 years old, and I cannot imagine Barron having any other name.
(In honor of Carla’s birthday on Nov. 13, here’s a reflection on our introduction and courtship.)
My deepest and most profound season of happiness came in January of 1996.
One Sunday night after church, I was introduced to a young woman who worked with the children in the nursery. The Sunday night crowd was always small, and after worship I emerged from the chapel to be greeted by a crescent of friends that included the pastor’s wife, the children’s minister and the director of preschool ministries.
At the end of this semi-circle was a woman I didn’t recognize. I suspected it was a set up immediately. They introduced the young woman as Carla Barron, a Mercer student who worked downstairs in the nursery. She seemed nice and was attractive, but I put the encounter out of my mind almost immediately.
Either out of stubbornness or fear, I didn’t feel I was ready to date at that point, having just emerged from a relationship and trying to recalibrate my identity as an individual.
I was consumed with work and planning the Southeast regional conference for the Society of Professional Journalists. Scheduled for April in Macon that year, I had meetings after work most days as the planning committee lined up speakers and nailed down details such as the location for the opening night reception and the conference hotel. I took my volunteer responsibilities as the regional director seriously, and I used the extra work as an excuse not to think about dating and especially not the intriguing young woman at church.
My church friends were persistent. Every time I saw them, they found a way to bring up Carla. It wasn’t long before they suggested we all go to Cracker Barrel after church on a Sunday night. That’s how I found myself across the table from her with all of our church friends doing their best to get us together.
In the course of the conversation, we landed on the subject of books and what everyone was reading. I made disparaging remarks about Danielle Steele, even though I had never read anything she had written, and Carla offered that she liked Danielle Steele and had read many of her books. It wasn’t the last time I would put my foot in my mouth with Carla or that Carla would speak her mind forthrightly.
The next Wednesday night after prayer meeting, I felt drawn downstairs to the nursery, though I had no business being there. I found Carla watching the children out on the playground, and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. She didn’t seem to hold my disdain for Danielle Steele against me. The conversation was pleasant and easy, and I told her I would call her sometime. This went on for several months before I finally came to my senses.
The journalism conference went off without a hitch in late April, and I could no longer hide behind planning the conference as an excuse. That’s when Carla’s honesty got my attention. The next Wednesday during my weekly visit with her on the playground, I apologized for not calling. She responded with the expected and typical “It’s OK,” but then she paused and surprised me.
“No, it’s not OK,” she said, without a hint of anger. “If you want to call me, call me. If you don’t want to, don’t. Just quit saying you’re going to call me if you’re not.”
That’s when it hit me how selfish and inconsiderate I had been. I realized I had been jerking her around for months. She was interested in me, and I was creating expectations of getting together and not following through. By that point, I knew she was nice and intelligent, and as our pastor’s wife described her to me on multiple occasions, “quality.” Carla didn’t deserve to be treated that way.
So the next day I called her and asked her to dinner the next Friday night. She agreed, thankfully not returning my bad behavior by playing hard to get.
I picked her up after her shift at Interior Bargains. We went to J.L.’s barbecue restaurant, which I purposefully chose because it wasn’t fancy or extravagant. I didn’t want our surroundings to get in the way of getting to know each other, and I was still tentative about re-entering the dating scene. I felt I could be more honest and more myself if we were having a plate of pulled pork barbecue and slaw rather than filet mignon and arugula salad.
It worked like truth serum. The conversation flowed naturally and honestly all through dinner. Not wanting to end our conversation but careful not to send the wrong message, I invited her back to my apartment to sit on the screened-in porch and continue our conversation. We sat in the porch swing and talked through the night, confessing our personality disorders, character flaws and past relationship missteps. We shared our stories and bonded. Our connection was strong, our feelings were real, and our future together became concrete. I was convinced she was the one I wanted to see more often and get to know better.
For the next eight months we went out nearly every week. I would pick her up at her apartment on Mercer’s campus, which felt weird. I had been out of college for four years at that point, and dating a college girl seemed to be robbing the cradle. I convinced myself it was OK because Carla had finished her classes in December but was still living in an on-campus apartment until graduation in May.
I met her parents and went to her graduation where NBC Today Show anchor Katie Couric spoke. Carla attended the singles Sunday School class I taught at church, and we started attending group outings as a couple. The group spent a day on Lake Sinclair skiing and riding a tube. I had to leave early to take a friend from college to dinner for her birthday. It was awkward, but I had committed to the evening before Carla and I started dating. While I enjoyed seeing my friend and wanted to show here a nice time for her birthday, I spent the entire evening thinking about Carla, worried that she would think I was two-timing her.
Over time it became clear she was the one I was interested in, and when I spent three weeks in a hotel by the Atlanta airport while covering the 1996 Summer Olympics, she wrote me nearly every day. We exchanged letters like I was off at war. Absence, although only 90 miles, definitely made my heart grow fonder for Carla.
Later that summer I took her to Lake Wales to meet my parents, and we spent a day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. My brothers warmed to her, and my parents liked her immediately. The affirmations of our relationship kept adding up, and it didn’t take long before I realized I could marry her… I should marry her.
She made me genuinely happy in a deep and profound way I had never experienced in previous relationships. My fear of marrying the wrong person felt silly and misplaced. She had all the traits I was looking for, and I knew I could commit to a lifetime with her.
I’ve written in great detail about our engagement a few months back. The four months of planning our wedding were stressful, but we were both in a stage of life that made delaying seem foolish. We married on May 3, one week shy of the one-year anniversary of our first date.
I am blessed by a number of people in my life who inspire me.
Jesus inspires me to love. I start each day before everyone rises to spend time alone in prayer and with the scriptures. The words and example of Jesus comfort and challenge me. Jesus not only commanded me to love God and love my neighbor, he showed me how. When I read his story and pay close attention, I am inspired to love unconditionally and without expectation.
Carla inspires me to be my best. Feeling needed and appreciated is a feedback loop that has created a never-ending cycle in our marriage of wanting and trying to do better. She gives me honest feedback and helps me prioritize what is truly important. She helps me focus on elements of life beyond myself, helping me avoid a shallow and self-absorbed existence. Left to my own devices, I could become too insular and selfish. She engages me directly and pulls me out of my self-protecting habits to share my feelings, good and bad, and put effort into the best areas of my life.
Barron inspires me to persist. As the oldest, Barron has had to endure a lot of parenting missteps. He has developed a thick skin and a tolerance for hard work that continues to pay dividends. When he didn’t get any leadership roles in marching band at the end of his freshman year, he didn’t complain, and he asked us not to go to the band directors and complain on his behalf. Instead, he put his head down, went to work and spent his sophomore year leading by example, without a title. His work ethic and positive attitude combined with his mastery of conducting set up him up to serve as a drum major for his junior and senior year of high school. After attending drum major camp at the University of Georgia for two years, his heart was set on attending the state’s flagship institution and march in and eventually conduct their renown Redcoat Marching Band. Despite repeated attempts to get his SAT score up in the mid-range for UGA admissions standards, the best he could muster was to get wait-listed. When he was ultimately denied admission for fall semester 2019, he gratefully accepted his place at Kennesaw State University, auditioned and played trumpet in the Marching Owls. He auditioned for drum major as a freshman after learning how to handle a mace and master the high-step stadium entrance required of the Owls’ drum major, and he won the position. He maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average through his first year, and within days of reporting to band camp for his second year at KSU, he received notification that he had been admitted to UGA for spring semester 2021. He is more than half way through his second season as a Redcoat trumpet player and was eyewitness to the national championship, had an opportunity to audition for drum major and is a rank leader in the trumpet section this year while the Dawgs pursue a repeat. That is persistence, and when I see how much effort Barron puts into reaching for his goals, I am inspired to do the same.
Harris inspires me to learn. As the middle son, Harris has carved his own niche, distinguishing himself from his older brother. He has his own personality, but he is continuing many of the positive habits of hard work and goal setting. Harris has an insatiable thirst for knowledge about history, public policy, leadership, government and the interplay among them. His ability to recall names, dates and events serves him well when making arguments, either in mock trial or negotiating an after-dinner trip to Bruster’s for ice cream. Even with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and his isolation in the basement for hours a day of online learning, Harris routinely put in five or six additional hours of study to complete assignments or go down rabbit holes to learn more about topics he wants to understand better. Whether it’s LEGO, Lord of the Rings, World War II or governors of Georgia, Harris’s obsessions are fed by an unquenchable desire to know things and understand how they work. Just half-way through his high school career, Harris has yet to make a “B” in a subject, and I have no doubt he will achieve his academic and professional goals, which are lofty. He has served as a band captain for three years for the Parkview Marching Band and led the Parkview Mock Trial team to the regional finals last year, the farthest the team had ever progressed. When I spend time with Harris and really listen to his verbal exploration of ideas, I am inspired to use my time and energy to be a life-long learner.
Carlton inspires me to create. As the youngest, he faces the greatest potential for becoming overwhelmed by his older brothers’ interests, achievements and pursuits, but his strong will and matching personality cause him to make his own way. When the omnipresent screens in his life are made to go dark, his mind reacts like flame to oxygen. His artistic instincts have found expression in drawing and painting, writing and storytelling, theater and the dramatic arts, singing, playing piano, and even baking and cooking dishes that please both his sweet tooth and his taste for the savory. He possesses a quick wit that can serve as his muse. When he exercises his creativity muscle, he becomes self-actualized in a profound way that he doesn’t fully understand or appreciate yet. When I have moments of clarity in my time with him, I am amazed at how his mind works and processes life around him. When I see him on stage belting out a ballad or pulling big laughs from the audience, I am inspired to make time for creative pursuits and recognize how much that contributes to my quality of life and feeds my need for creative expression.
My parents inspire me to display integrity. I believe character is taught more than inherited, and I have been blessed to have been raised by parents who placed high value on honesty, fairness, hard work and trustworthiness. Throughout my youth while I was under their roof, these principles were reinforced. Now that I am a parent and our interactions are largely reduced to one or two visits a year and weekly phone calls, I hear in their conversations a desire not only for my happiness and for the fulfillment of my family but a hope that I am contributing and making a difference in the world by being a person of character. They have often said that my title and level in the organizational hierarchy doesn’t matter to them nearly as much as that I am honest and work hard. They inspire me to do things the right way.
My mother-in-law inspires me to be kind. I’ve never heard her say anything bad about anyone, and whether she liked that person or not, she treats everyone she has dealings with kindly. I’m sure she has her moments, but she keeps them well hidden. I’m sure I have gotten on her nerves, too, but all I have ever received from her is generosity, affection, love and support. When I am in her presence, I am reminded that kindness is in short supply in this world and experiencing it from someone is a great gift. Cynthia inspires me to give people the benefit of the doubt and express genuine kindness rather than frustration or anger.
Bob inspires me to laugh. Bob Perkins and I have been friends since 1987 when he showed up as the fresh-out-of-Baylor University sports editor of The Lake Wales Daily Highlander. His rambunctious energy and sometimes over-the-top sense of humor pulled me out of my shell and helped me embrace the absurd in some of life’s most difficult situations. Over the years we have maintained a friendship through sharing brief conversations and enjoying periods when we lived near enough to each other that visits and lunches and ballgames were treasured times of distraction and amusement. Bob knows me well, and he reminds me to laugh when circumstances can feel overwhelming.
Brian inspires me to be healthy. It’s not just that Brian Greer is 15 years my junior and has not yet had to have any surgeries or prolonged layoffs from exercise because of injury. I respect his discipline in not eating a French fry in more than 20 years. He’s careful about what he puts in his body and how he takes care of himself. With a wife and four children, he understands that there are habits he can embrace now that will allow him to enjoy life longer as he ages. He also has wisdom beyond his years about the need for balance. He inspires me to embrace well-being in all the facets of life: spiritual, physical, mental and emotional.
Clyde Edgerton inspires me to write. There are many writers whose work I admire, but the author I consistently enjoy and relate to and derive inspiration from is North Carolina-born Clyde Edgerton. He so deftly weaves stories of family, faith, tradition, race, class, humor, and Southern identity, I marvel at his books and wish to find my own voice to reach others in a similar way. The opportunity I had back in 2011 to hear him speak at the Decatur Book Festival was a treat, and I reflect on it often when I’m stuck in the middle of the re-write of my book. I can’t imagine ever being mentioned in the same breath as Clyde Edgerton, but for now, it’s inspiring enough to know what I’m aiming for looks like.
Inspiration comes in many forms, and for me, these people all provide me with the fuel I need to make life fulfilling.
Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about romance. After 24-plus years of marriage, romance can be elusive. To help Carla and me, and hopefully you, rekindle the spark of true love, here is the 100% true story of the night I asked Carla Barron to be my wife, by far the most romantic moment of my life:
Up front I will admit that it was not a spontaneous, caught-up-in-emotion flight-of-fancy experience. Rather, it was a highly choreographed, logistically analyzed and obsessively scheduled gesture designed to overwhelm Carla with emotion prompting her to elicit the one word that would unleash our future together: “Yes!”
We started dating in May 1996, and by November I was seriously contemplating marriage. We were both out of college, had jobs and were maintaining separate residences as good Christian young people did. But as I tried to follow the 1996 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees exclusively on the radio driving between our apartments, I really saw benefits to making our relationship permanent and consolidating to one household.
My plans started with the ring. I could have gone to any number of jewelry stores, but I knew Carla had specific tastes. She wanted an emerald cut diamond solitaire. For years I had gone to the Gary Bear Barber Shop next door to Mayer Jewelers in downtown Lakes Wales, Florida. I didn’t really know any other jewelers. I trusted the good people at Mayer to re-create the ring I described, so early in my week-long Christmas visit with my family, I stopped in to look at diamonds and ordered the ring. They said they could have it ready before I headed back to Macon, quoted what I thought was a reasonable price, and the deed was done. My fate was sealed.
How to deliver said ring was not as simple. As a traditionalist, I knew I would have to talk with Carla’s parents to “ask for her hand in marriage.” As ridiculous as that seems now, I took their blessing very seriously. I targeted New Year’s Eve as the special night to pop the question, and I called Lanny and Cynthia to schedule lunch with them at Quincy’s in Milledgeville. I took an extended lunch break from my job as a features writer at The Macon Telegraph that day and drove the 30 minutes to meet them. I was so nervous I don’t think I ate a single one of Quincy’s famous yeast rolls. The Barrons seemed genuinely thrilled that I was moving forward with my relationship with their daughter, and they gave their blessing. I even paid for lunch, one of the few times I ever remember getting away with buying a meal for my generous in-laws.
I didn’t know if Carla was suspicious about my asking her out on New Year’s Eve, but we had been apart while I was in Lake Wales for Christmas. We wanted to see each other, and the idea of a night together as 1996 came to a close was appealing. I didn’t tell her anything beyond what time I would pick her up. I was aiming for as much surprise as possible.
I planned a themed date. It was a look back at our relationship over the year, from our first date in May to December. I selected one location in town to represent each month of our courtship, and after dinner at the Golden Palace Chinese restaurant, I took her to eight locations with some connection to an event from a month in our relationship. At each stop, I read an original poem I wrote for the occasion, and we reminisced about that month’s activity. It reminded us both of how our relationship had grown during the eight months of dating and began to have a cumulative effect by the time we got to December. The date could not have been planned or executed any better.
Our final stop that night was our beautiful church, Highland Hills Baptist Church. I chose Highland Hills to represent December because we had both been in the church’s Live Nativity production that month. Carla portrayed an angel, of course, and I was a wise man, potentially a stretch for my acting abilities, but the giant gold turban fit. It was also the perfect location to propose because of its beauty, privacy and meaning. We had met at Highland Hills in January, and it felt appropriate to get engaged there.
Timing was crucial. We arrived at the church a few minutes before midnight. The nativity drama had been in the church’s outdoor amphitheater, so we made our way down the steps in the dark to the front row. When we sat down in the middle of the built-in brick seating, I started shaking; whether it was from nerves or the temperature, I don’t know.
We talked for a few minutes about the events of our relationship from December, and I went through my reading about the Nativity drama. Firecrackers began to sizzle and pop in the distance, and as 11:59 showed on my watch, I recited from memory Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand’ring bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me prov’d, I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
When I finished, I retrieved the ring box from my pocket, got down on one knee and asked, “Carla Barron, will you marry me?”
Through tears, she nodded and said “Yes!”
In response, I went in for a kiss, to seal the moment and give her the affirmation of my commitment.
We have no doubt experienced unplanned, organic moments of romance in the intervening years, but though it was highly planned, that kiss, punctuating our engagement and a night of reflection and emotion, was the most romantic moment of my life.
I am the firstborn son of a firstborn son, but it wasn’t until my first son was born 21 years ago that I began to understand how little I knew about being a parent.
Carla and I waited until she finished her master of social work degree before having children. It took us a little while to get pregnant. I never liked the phrase “we’re trying to get pregnant” when describing our status as a young couple because everyone knows what causes pregnancy. It seemed a little too revelatory and put visuals in people’s minds I’d rather them not have.
That summer day I learned we were pregnant is burned into my memory. I returned from a morning run and was stretching on the back deck of our small, brick house on Highpoint Drive in Macon, Georgia. Carla came to the back window of what would become our baby’s room and held up a pregnancy test. It took it a minute to dawn on me what she was saying. She came out the back door and despite my sweat and odor, she hugged me, and through tears said, “It’s positive!”
Telling family and friends was the fun part. In the pre-social media days of the year 2000, there wasn’t as much pressure to be instantaneous. We didn’t have to worry that word would leak out through Facebook or Twitter, and loved ones would find out, offended they hadn’t heard it from us directly. There were considerations, however. We were due to spend a week with my family at a cabin on Lake Eufaula in Alabama. We could not imagine telling my family before Carla broke the news to her parents, who themselves experienced great difficulty in conceiving. An only child, Carla knew how much the news would mean to them and strongly desired to tell them in person. Despite the geographic inconvenience, on the day we were due at Lake Eufaula, we got up early and drove east to Sandersville to surprise Mama and Daddy.
They were down by the lake where Daddy was building a brick barbecue pit when we arrived. Making sure he could hear us, Carla loudly announced our news. Mama squealed with delight, and Daddy issued a laughing “Sho ‘nuf?!?” Tears of joy flowed.
Telling my family proved to be a little more fraught. Buoyed by bringing Mama and Daddy into our little secret, we drove to Eufaula deciding that dinner would be the best time to break the news. When we arrived at the cabin, we learned that my dad had not made the trip because of his health. He had not yet been diagnosed with diabetes, so his absence was confusing and disappointing. Undaunted, we shared the news with my two brothers, my sister-in-law and my mom over combination dinners at the Mexican restaurant in downtown Eufaula. The response was more subdued than when we told Mama and Daddy, but such is the way of things with my family. There was still joy, and they offered sincere congratulations.
Those nine months of preparation were by turns interminable and fleeting. I started a master of business administration program at Mercer University, taking a prerequisite economics class during the day with undergraduate students and a corporate accounting class with the MBA students two nights a week. As diligent as I was in my studies of earnings, asset ratios and debt loads, I was even more intensely studious about childbirth and infancy. I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Now That You’re a Dad,” and a big medical book, “Conception, Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Knowledge gleaned from books on a subject as experiential and instinctive as having a child is insufficient. It is a classic example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.”
I was anxious about the health of the baby and Carla’s condition. I worried for her when I thought about the labor and delivery. The minor inconveniences I had to endure were nothing compared to Carla’s adapting to hormones and her ever-changing body. My strongest memory is of our sleeping arrangements. Our first bed was a full-size, perfect for snuggling when it was just the two of us. But when she started growing and needed a body pillow to find a comfortable sleeping position, there was less and less real estate for me. Carla always was a “tuck-and-roll” sleeper, grabbing more and more blanket with each turn throughout the night. That combined with her keeping the air conditioning lower to accommodate her elevated body temperature helped prepare me for the sleepless nights that awaited us once our bundle of joy arrived.
Carla is not into delayed gratification. She is a planner, so knowing the sex of the baby was vital for making decisions on paint colors, window treatments and bedding in the baby’s room. I was fine to know, and I didn’t see any point in going into the big day even less prepared by keeping the sex a secret. We found out at the 20-week ultrasound appointment we were having a boy.
That’s when the name game started in earnest. We knew early on we wanted Carla’s maiden name “Barron” to be the first name. We were committed to having family names only. We also liked pairing “Barron” with my middle name “Elliott,” which was also Dad’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name.
Going into the holidays, it was nice to know that swelling in Carla’s belly was our son, Barron. I even on occasion did that awkward thing new parents do of reading to him in utero. It added to the expectation and joy. Traditionally, we spent Christmas day with Carla’s parents and then traveled to Florida see my family the days immediately following. With the due date coming so close to Christmas, we didn’t feel we should travel 8-10 hours away, and with Carla’s growing discomfort and frequent restroom visits, a car trip was out of the question. My Dad and youngest brother came up with presents from my side of the family after Christmas while Mom stayed behind in Lake Wales to look after her mother. It was a quick trip, but at least it allowed us to keep connected with my family as we anticipated the arrival of the first grandchild for both sides of the family.
One of my favorite parts of the preparation time was the childbirth class. Beyond eye-opening, he weekly sessions for couples helped expand my knowledge in ways the books couldn’t have. To this day I am grateful for the father-to-be who asked all the questions I wanted answers to but was too embarrassed to ask. I never got his name, but I knew he drove a Snap-On Tools truck, so he became “the Snap-On Tools guy” to us.
We have always been creatures of habit, so it was no surprise that on the night of Monday, February 5, 2000, a day past the due date, we were in bed watching one of our favorite TV shows, “7th Heaven.” The idealized family drama about a minister’s brood of seven children in many ways affected my view of having children. It was silly, I now know, but I really did think parenting was all about having deep, meaningful conversations with your children the way Rev. Camden and Annie did with their children on “7th Heaven.” When that night’s episode ended, exhausted from a day of work, I turned off the lamp and told Carla, “Please don’t go into labor tonight. I’m too tired for us to have the baby.” Less than a half hour later, we were up with the onset of labor.
Like all first-time parents, we probably went to the hospital too soon. Trying not to be stereotypically over-anxious, we waited at home as long as we could, timing contractions and getting our stuff together for a hospital stay. We went on to Coliseum Hospital when the contractions were consistently eight minutes apart believing Barron’s arrival would come before daybreak. It was a busy night for labor and delivery. We were well taken care of, but after medications were administered, Carla’s labor slowed way down. She labored through the night and into the next day. I felt more than a little guilt at slipping away and grabbing lunch at Nu Way with my buddy, Mitch, before returning for the main event.
Juggling our video camera, and doing my best to preserve Carla’s modesty and dignity, I experienced sensory overload. The room was dimly lit except for a spotlight on the “area of interest.” Barron glistened in the light when the doctor delivered him, and in seconds the nurse had him at a table in the corner, taking his vitals and cleaning him up. I felt a rush of emotions – relief that Carla’s suffering was over, joy that Barron was healthy, anxious about what was coming next, and eager to share the news with the world.
The next couple of days in the hospital started the sleep deprivation with hourly checks by the attentive nursing staff. I slept in the pull-out sleeper chair as we kept Barron in the room as much as possible to change his first diapers, cuddle and bond with him, and work on the tricky but necessary latching on required for breast feeding. Visitors lifted our spirits, and there were many, many pictures.
The experience, though, is probably best summed up in our car ride home. Always fastidious about vehicle safety, Carla ensured we had properly installed the car seat in her Honda Accord. We tucked Barron in and headed toward our house. We didn’t get far before he started crying, as infants do. At a loss for what was causing it, we pulled over to make sure he wasn’t being pinched by the straps or was suffering in some less-than-obvious way. Ultimately, we buckled him back in and made it the rest of the way without incident.
That’s how I felt about having our first child. I was nervous. I wanted an explanation for every whimper and reaction. I worried about doing the right thing in caring for his physical needs. I loved holding him. I got a rush every time I read to him. I was happy to have a healthy son and watch his every reaction. I was caught up in the day-to-day, subtle changes; so much so that it was hard to imagine what his journey to adulthood would be like.
Looking back 21 years later, I can’t believe how little I understood about life and being a parent back then, but I’m profoundly grateful for the experience and for the intense bond I now have with Carla and all three of our boys. I may not know much more about parenting a young adult and two teenagers, but I am comforted by the knowledge that we’ll get through it together.
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 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.
When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do?
Think about it.
Let’s take it one step further: When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do and you did nothing?
Umm-hmm. That’s what I thought.
I’ve been doing a lot of weekend travel for my day job recently, so my boss forced me to take Tuesday off. It’s a sad commentary on my mental status that he had to twist my arm. Seriously, I argued with him about taking the day off. He finally just told me not to come in on Tuesday and muttered something about “gift horses.”
My off day began with sleep – something I get very little of most nights because I’m an early riser. Carla believes I am perpetually sleep deprived, but how else am I going to fit everything in that I need to keep me sane: spiritual disciplines, running and working out and writing.
So when I slept until 8:30 Tuesday morning, it was the latest I had slept in months, including vacations. Rest. What a concept.
The morning was great. Carlton and I spent time together before he went to preschool, reading his favorite book “Pete the Cat,” which he basically recited to me. Then it was off to the gym before volunteering in Harris’ first grade class with Carla.
When I entered the classroom, the kids were all in groups working on math centers. Not waiting for an orientation or instructions, I dived in, helping kids with math facts, counting dimes and reading clocks. It was a whirlwind 30 minutes, but every time Harris looked my way, a big smile took over his face. We even stayed for his lunch, preferring not to partake in the cafeteria food but still enjoying Harris’ company.
Lunch was a rare treat. Carla and I enjoyed the special at Always Fresh, the place to go in Lilburn when you have a hankerin’ for some traditional Southern meat and three. We talked about plans for her birthday over baked chicken, pork loin, sweet potato casserole, field peas, mashed potatoes and gravy and cornbread muffins. We skipped dessert on account of the sweet potato casserole.
And that’s when it happened.
We were 10 minutes early to pick Carlton up from preschool. We just sat in our minivan in the parking lot. I turned off the radio. I resisted the urge to pick up my smart phone and allow my burgeoning inbox to rob me of serenity. I looked at my watch. I looked at Carla. We sat still. It was quiet.
“When was the last time we didn’t do anything?” I asked.
Carla then proceeded to give me a summary of a book or something she had read online
about white space and filling our lives up with too much activity.
She held out about another two minutes before her ever-present iPhone was back at her face. She put it down when I mocked her for only being able to be still and converse for five minutes.
The rest of the day was just as restful, but what stuck out to me was how rare those 10 minutes were. We didn’t have any relational breakthroughs or resolve any of life’s big quandaries. We were warmed by sunshine. We noticed the changing colors of the leaves. We sat still and talked.
More was accomplished in that 10 minutes than in a thousand “to-do” list-filled hours.
In a world where everything from ab workouts to manicures to turning a pillowcase into an apron is advertised as taking “just 10 minutes,” sometimes the best use of that time is to do nothing.
So go ahead. Do nothing. You have 10 minutes. Starting… now.