Truth in labeling

There comes a time in every parent’s life when they are faced with the sudden and shocking realization that their children are no longer children.

Monday morning I pulled an undershirt out of the drawer, and there at the back of the collar, just above the imprinted size and manufacturing information was the letter “L” written in black Sharpie.

Does "L" mean "Large" or "Lance"? See... very confusing.
Does “L” mean “Large” or “Lance”? See… very confusing.

Uh oh. It has happened. My oldest son’s clothes and my clothes are now so confusingly similar in size that my wife has resorted to coding our wardrobes to prevent mishandling. Like so many other of her schemes, the labeling was brought on by my complaining.

After Christmas, when each of us Wallace men received a new package of Hanes undershirts as gifts, I reached into my drawer, pulled out a fresh white T-shirt and slipped it over my head. Knowing that my workouts have been reduced to running, I felt sure that the snugness of the shirt was not caused by my rippling muscles.

I pulled it back over my head and discovered the truth: “M.” What happened next is somewhat in dispute. I may or may not have ranted like a lunatic about my children’s underwear ending up in my drawer, and I may or may not have made a statement such as “What’s next? Carlton’s Batman briefs tucked in with my boxers?”

Carla didn’t acknowledge my critique. She’s acquired the tone deafness that comes with 17 years of marriage. She just casually mentioned that I do most of the folding and putting away of the laundry. There is a fairly good chance that it was me who committed the heinous laundry foul of putting Barron’s mediums in my drawer.

Carla responded by doing what all mothers do: she relied on her resourcefulness and fondness for labeling to come up with a solution. So now, as a 40-something year-old man, I have been reduced to having my name written in my underwear like a third grader heading off to summer camp for the first time.

What I am discovering, though, is that her system is not consistent. While some of my undershirts have an “L” written in it, the boys’ shirts have a series of dots, or dashes, I can’t tell which. In the Wallace Family Underwear Morse Code, one dot means Barron, two dots means Harris and three dots mean Carlton. Except when it doesn’t.

Apparently when she was labeling our new shirts, she lapsed into other classifications. For example, one of Barron’s shirts accidentally has two dots with one of them marked through and the letter “B” written next to it. There is more written on this shirt at the nape of the neck than the fine print on a pharmaceutical ad in Reader’s Digest.

While I can usually eyeball the difference between Barron’s T-shirts and those belonging to his younger brothers, I tend to mix his and mine or Carlton’s and Harris’s. You would think a glance at the label would clear things up with the younger two, but when I have to look at the label, the Hanes people have made things inexplicably complex. All of the boys wear an “M.” I don’t understand how these stair-stepped children each about four years older than their sibling can all be wearing medium undershirts, but this quirk in the space-time continuum is undeniable.

Carla has very patiently explained that Barron is now wearing an adult medium, Harris is wearing a youth medium and Carlton is wearing a toddler’s medium. See why I am confused?

Barron, Lance and a pack of new Tshirts
Little did I know that this Christmas gift would come back to haunt me just two months later.

Perhaps my confusion and irritability over this whole issue is derived from the truth that my children are growing up. Despite the fact that my own father tells me frequently that the time will pass too quickly, it still comes as a surprise when these moments catch me off guard and I realize just how fast their childhoods are evaporating.

All parents go through this, I know, but that realization makes these epiphanies no less unsettling. With every passing day I wonder if I am doing enough to prepare them for what life is going to throw at them. I contemplate what our relationship will be like through their teen years and on into adulthood. I hope and pray that as their innocence transitions into knowing, they will somehow understand that my love is greater than any mistake they could make and my joy is inextricably linked to theirs.

The next time you see me squirming and fidgeting at the neck with one of my T-shirts, just nod knowingly and understand that I’ve once again made an undergarment selection error and I’m coping with parenthood.

At what moments do you realize life is fleeting? What are the circumstances that jolt you with the terrifying realization your children are growing up too fast? If you’ve been down this road, share your wisdom. If you’re going down this road, share your pain. Leave a comment, and we’ll all be better for it.

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.

Party planners

When did planning a child’s birthday party become a logistical nightmare?

Maybe some folks — you denizens of Pinterest, for example — love this delightful opportunity, but it’s beginning to wear on me.

As we prepare for Carlton’s fifth birthday celebration, Carla and I face strange dilemmas that didn’t seem to surface with his older brothers’ parties.

Little Gym birthday party
Last year’s venue, The Little Gym, worked well, and Carlton had a memorable party. Expectations are high this year.

Every night when I come home from work I face a different array of venue options and themes. One night it’s a jumpy place. The next night it’s at home in the backyard.  I’ve lost track, frankly, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas… or at least the indecision I have to confront in helping my wife settle on a Christmas card design. Speaking of which, it’s about that time.

The considerations for the ideal party location are cost, convenience and choice. We do try to let Carlton have some say in the matter, but honestly, we can just about talk him into anything. He’s like a jury that’s convinced of guilt or innocence after each contradicting testimony.

“Carlton, do you want to have your party in the back yard with all your friends and play in tents with a camping theme?”

“Yeah, and have a tent jumpy.”

Or…

“Carlton, how about a pizza-themed party where everybody comes and plays games and the invitations have pizzas on them and we eat pizza?”

“Yeah, and have a pizza jumpy.”

OK, so there is a common theme in his responses, a clue that has led us to choose Catch Air. Carlton has been to a party or two at the Suwanee location, and now that one is about to open nearby in Snellville, it seems like a good fit. So we’ve settled on it… as of press time. We’ll see if it sticks.

Making a decision based on convenience has to do with set-up, clean-up and food preparation. Again, with Carlton’s two older brothers, we’ve had our share of at home parties. It is a monumental task to get ready, and you have to be the host and entertainer. Well, I guess you could have a clown or something, but clowns kind of freak me out. Instead, we tend to be amateur cruise directors and move the kids through a series of “centers” like a noisy, chaotic sugar-infused day session of preschool.

When you have a party at a jumpy place or some other venue, they take care of all those details. I remember last year during Carlton’s 4th birthday party at The Little Gym. It was weird. I was actually standing around some of the time, talking to my parents and in-laws and friends, while the staff led the kids through a series of tumbles and jumps. I had time to take pictures at the event rather than having to play Captain Kangaroo for a gaggle of children.

The best part is that when it’s all said and done, it’s all said and done. No mess. No red punch spilled on the carpet. No random strands of a piñata showing up in the lawn clippings six months later. No remnants of chalk art on the driveway. You load up your haul of loot and head out the door… after you write the check, that is.

For Harris' sixth party, we were all about low-budget, and it was still a huge hit. Maybe variety is the key.
For Harris’ sixth party, we were all about low-budget, and it was still a huge hit. Maybe variety is the key.

That brings us to the final element in this agonizing decision: cost. By having a party at home, you certainly can save money. For a modest budget, you can invite unlimited friends, serve a few snacks and a couple of batches of cupcakes, and send everyone home with the obligatory goodie bag filled with dollar store treasures. However, my wife is not content to do the minimum required or the goody bag filled with candy and junk, and a backyard party can end up costing four times as much as a venue would when you factor in fresh pinestraw, new flowers, fabric tablecloths, and all the other things my wife thinks a party should have.

When you go to a party venue, you pay for the convenience of a built-in party. Add to that my wife’s compulsion to do the extras herself as a some sort of creative, Pinterest-y marathon, and the cost starts to skyrocket.

The other problem with party venues like a jumpy place is that it creates this awkward tension around the issue of siblings. If you’re just in the backyard, you can freely let all the non-invited siblings attend with a “more the merrier” attitude. When you’re paying per child, you have to be draconian in your guest list and parents with multiple children have their own logistical problems to solve. My wife, the people pleaser and mother of three children herself, can’t stand the thought of causing another mom to have to stress out over what to do with her other kids during our party, and of course she doesn’t want kids to not be able to attend because of siblings in tow.

Don’t even get me started on the gifts. Many parents these days are including “no gifts, please” on the invitation, and we have done this before with our older children. My wife thought the plethora of toys we already have and the fact that Carlton’s party last year included an overload of generous gifts was reason enough to go with a “no gifts” party this year. While Carlton is easily persuaded to see our way on location and theme, he will not be swayed when it comes to gifts. Perhaps the gifts become less important as children grow older, but apparently, for a five-year-old, gifts are non-negotiable. We continue to struggle with this as parents. Do we do the practical thing or what that will make our child happy?

It just seems that all of this fuss is a construct of the New South. Some parents feel pressure to do it up bigger and better each year, or, worse, to throw a better party than the Joneses. I think for Carla, she just feels the pressure to plan what she views as the perfect party scenario, whatever that means at the moment.

For me, I could not care less about the Joneses or a perfect party. I just want to catch a few authentic smiles and hear some unprompted belly laughs from the birthday boy.  Oh, and a cupcake wouldn’t be bad either.

Where do you like to have or go to children’s birthday parties? Has it gotten out of hand? How do you solve the sibling issue? Leave a comment below and give hope to the beleaguered parents of the New South who don’t even realize it’s all just practice for their child’s wedding.

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.

The gift of a time machine

Programming note: For nearly two years, New South Essays has been published on Friday mornings. Because of my job change, I’m finding that Saturdays are working better. I hope you’ll stick with me as I move to Saturdays. To ensure that you never miss a weekly post, click the email subscription link on the right. Thanks!

I was minding my morning business a few months back, checking the daily media mentions of my employer, when I ran across an article with the ominous lead sentence: “The video game is 40.”

I nearly fainted.

Immediately, two conflicting thoughts flashed to mind: “Has it really been that long?” and “Have video games really only been around for 40 years?”

Carlton plays Space Invaders
Carlton at 4 had no trouble picking up Space Invaders.

Fast forward to Christmas. During our visit to my parents in Lake Wales, Fla., we took the boys to see “Wreck it Ralph,” one video game villain’s quest for heroism that featured a walk down arcade game memory lane with dozens of characters from video games of the past. It was one of those occasions when the boys stared at me in wonder as I laughed out loud at what they thought were inappropriate moments.

On the night we arrived in Florida, not long after opening our gifts from Mom and Dad, we discovered my mother was obsessed about one Christmas gift she ordered on Amazon that didn’t get delivered in time. True to my parents’ form, they had ordered one for each of their three sons, but it had not arrived for any of us. Sitting at her computer, Mom diligently followed the tracking number across the country and each morning over my coffee she updated me on the shipping status of the mystery gift.

Honestly, I had forgotten about it by Wednesday when I returned to work. With the resumption of my routine, Christmas and its gifts were far from my mind when the UPS truck pulled up outside our home. Then I remembered there was one more gift to open.

We made the boys wait until after supper before diving into the plain cardboard box. I could not have predicted the bizarre emotional reaction I felt when the “Atari Flashback 4” emerged. I stared at the box, not with the eyes of a 42 year-old father of three but with the eyes of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning unwrapping a pulse-quickening, hours-wasting, life-changing, dream-making device. It was the Holy Grail. It was my Red Ryder BB gun. It was the most amazing device my brother and I had ever seen.

Desperate to plug it in and get started on the 75 games that came pre-programmed on the slightly smaller console, the boys pleaded and begged for me to set it up. As I examined the contents, I had that strange feeling of deja vu. The console and power pack were smaller. The joysticks were wireless. There were buttons on the front of the console where the little levers used to be. I was both taken back in time and a little confused.

So I did what any parent does in those moments: I sent the boys to bed. I needed time to sort this out. No, I didn’t need help plugging it in and turning it on. I needed to sort out the complex emotions this gift evoked.

Harris plays Atari
Harris didn’t know what to do with the overly simple controller at first.

By the time I got home from work on Thursday, the boys had figured out how to hook up the system. The family was gathered in the living room around the “old TV”. As I made my way from the kitchen, I could hear the rumble of tanks. The appropriately named “Flashback” did just that, taking me back to my youth when my brother, Lee, and I would press the red buttons and strain the vinyl-covered stick as we tried to put English on the bullets coming from our tanks.

Video games have played a part in my life almost since I was old enough to play them. Seeing that Atari’s Pong had turned 40 and then seeing this “Flashback” console made me wonder what will be the retro toys my boys will find memory-provoking 40 years from now.

I can’t imagine where technology is headed. I just hope my boys will have positive memories from their wasted hours playing video games together. For me and my brothers, the memories are what made the wasted hours worth it.

So what’s your earliest memory of video games? What was your favorite? Were you an Atari or an Intelivision person? Did you blow untold fortunes in quarters at the arcade? Share your memories by leaving a comment below.

An unexpected journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Daddy, you missed your turn.”

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

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know. Where are we going?

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Kidnap you?” I responded mischievously.

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

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

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

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

“To the moon,” he would answer.

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

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

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

“What is?” I asked.

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

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

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

A month’s worth of thankfulness in one serving

November brings with it a number of seasonal peculiarities: falling leaves, premature Christmas decorations, cooler temperatures and now, in the New South, daily thanksgiving posts on Facebook.

It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy
Being thankful is a lifestyle, not a state of mind.

I’m not sure when the trend started, but taking the month of November to post “What I am thankful for today” status updates has caught on. Yes, there is the expected reaction of satire and mockery, but overall what fills my Facebook newsfeed these days is more genuine than humorous.

My wife started the November Thanksgiving Facebook status updates last year and has continued the tradition this year. She reports that it’s more difficult to come up with something on harder days, but she always manages to post. So far she hasn’t been guilty of that prayer practice of small children who merely recite their thanksgivings to God by looking around the room and mentioning everything they see: “Thank you, God, for my socks and for Lego and for puzzles and for squirrels and for Thomas the Tank Engine…”

One of the most difficult disciplines is regulating your attitude apart from your circumstances. If we surrender control of our mood to the randomness of life, say a bad commute home from work or a vomiting child, then we will most likely be miserable most of the time.

gratitude is the memory of the heartHowever, if we approach each day with the reminder of all that’s good in our lives, we can ride the waves of life rather than be drowned by them.

I haven’t participated in this new Thanksgiving tradition simply because I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know that I could come up with 30 days of thankfulness in the moment each morning, so to send you into Thanksgiving week, I’m offering a month’s worth of thanksgivings all at once (in no particular order):

  1. A faith that is strong enough to endure challenges but flexible enough to grow when confronted with truth.
  2. Carla. Simply stated, the best wife I could have ever been fortunate enough to marry.
  3. My parents. They instilled in me early on the right priorities and have offered encouragement and guidance when I needed it most.
  4. Barron. A dad couldn’t ask for a better oldest son. Responsible, creative and funny.
  5. Harris. Like the crème filling of an Oreo, he makes the middle the best part. I particularly enjoy our talks.
  6. Carlton. Resourceful and self-reliant, his zest for life re-energizes.
  7. My in-laws. Gracious, generous and always delightful to be around, they make visits to their home a respite.
  8. My brother, Lee, and his family. I have the utmost respect for his ministry and know he has more integrity than just about anyone I know.
  9. My brother, Lyle, and his family.  I don’t get to see them enough, so each visit is a treasure, and I know he is preparing for a life-long ministry that will touch many, many lives.
  10. Our home. Not only do we have enough bedrooms for everybody, we have space to open our home to friends and family on a regular basis, and we are always the better for it.
  11. Good friends. You know who you are. No matter what segment of my life they enter through, my closest friends enrich my life with laughter, challenging ideas and support. I could have listed each of you as a separate item, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just lump you all into one entry.
  12. My neighbors. You never want to take for granted having considerate and friendly neighbors. Even just a smile and a wave add something to my life.
  13. My job. Working at Georgia Tech doesn’t just pay the bills. It stretches and challenges me while giving me the opportunity to form new relationships with quality people.
  14. Parkway Baptist Church. A place where I can serve, learn and enjoy the company of fellow travelers on the road.
  15. My daily bread. Haven’t missed a meal, and I don’t take that for granted knowing there is real poverty in the world.
  16. Good health. Despite a nagging shoulder/back strain right now, I enjoy exercise and nothing makes me feel more alive than a good run.
  17. Down time. It may be infrequent, but when it happens I cherish it.
  18. Lilburn. A great community filled with a diverse population who are involved and care about their children and is not so far outside the perimeter.
  19. Functioning vehicles. This may be a “knock-on-wood” entry, but for now, all systems are “go” on the station wagon and minivan. Never dreamed I would ever be thankful for a station wagon and minivan.
  20. Google search. Everything is knowable. No more struggling to remember which actor played in which movie or what the lyrics are to a song stuck in your head. It really has become our brain supplement.
  21. Fantasy football. A diversion I allow myself. It’s fun whether I win or lose.
  22. Summer vacation. We always go to Santa Rosa Beach, and it’s one of the highlights of the year for our family.
  23. Sunday afternoon naps. Forced to take them as a child, naps are now the most-anticipated event of the week.
  24. Scouts. The experience has given me so many opportunities to spend quality time with my boys that no matter what rank they achieve, I know it has been a worthy investment of time.
  25. Saturday morning pancakes. I contribute so little to meal preparation in my household that it’s nice when I get to prepare our weekly pancake breakfast. Even I can’t mess up pancakes.
  26. Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s millions of dollars of profit notwithstanding, this has been a great way to keep in touch and reconnect with friends from all over the world.
  27. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Not only was it a fantastic place to work for 10 years, it’s a worthwhile ministry doing amazing things worthy of support.
  28. Christmas vacation. Always includes a trip to Florida and time with both sets of grandparents. Beautiful weather, rest and great memories.
  29. Writing. Even though I don’t get to do it enough, I am enriched by each opportunity to express my thoughts. My book will get finished someday.
  30. Blog readers. You put up with a lot of lackluster writing, but you have hung with me for nearly 20 months now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Share what you are thankful for by leaving a comment below, then share this post with others!

Sick day

Raise your hand if you ever envied your sick child’s excused day of lying on the sofa watching cartoons and napping.

OK, so I’m the only one?

No? You say you have felt that way, too? You have been burning the candle at both ends until there’s no wick left and you still haven’t found a way to extinguish the flame?

know when to take a sick day billboard
Sometimes what you need to do IS on a billboard in front of you.

A week ago today I came home from a business trip to Pittsburgh to find Carlton vomiting. Welcome home. I can’t really complain because Carla had been dealing with it all day. The 24-hour stomach virus ended up lasting 72 and required at least four changes of bed linens. Seriously. Four.

The kid would run around all day without a symptom.  He would go 18, 20, even 24 hours without vomiting and we would think we were home free.  Then he would fall asleep at night, completely exhausted. Several hours into my own REM cycle, his cries would send us scrambling to his room where the evidence of his illness hit our nostrils before our eyes could adjust in the darkness. It was not remotely pleasant.

But Carlton was sick during the weekend. It was such a relatively busy weekend that I didn’t have time to envy him. Carla and I juggled him as we kept up our pace – she bought groceries, I went to a deacon’s meeting, she took Barron to youth group, I took Harris’ Cub Scout den bowling, and on and on, back and forth. We didn’t slow down at all.

Monday came and Carlton cleared the 24-hour hurdle. He was pronounced cured, so he could return to preschool on Tuesday. Carla’s day of teaching preschool was not threatened. We held our breath, hoping that our mandatory household hand-washing regimen and antibacterial wipe-down of every surface was enough to keep the scourge at bay.

Alas, at 3 a.m., Harris was knocking on our bedroom door giving off that now all-too-familiar malodorous clue that something was amiss. The cycle was repeating.

Fortunately, my two meetings of the day were such that I could phone in, and my very understanding supervisor permitted me the opportunity to work from home. This allowed Carla to carry out her plans for her preschool class without having to get a substitute, and everything else was fairly normal.

Harris was no distraction at all. After about 10 a.m., there were no more symptoms. He simply lay on the sofa with “Tom & Jerry” dueling in front of him. He ate a couple of crackers and drank a juice pouch at about 2 p.m. and seemed to perk up a little.

As I stood there conducting my visual scans for any hint of his condition an unfiltered thought burst into my consciousness: “Wow, I wish I could be sick.”

What? No. I didn’t mean that. No one would wish to have the awful stomach bug. It had completely paralyzed our family a couple of years earlier when we all shared it. That experience was seared into my memory. I couldn’t possibly want another dose of that.

I edited myself.

“What you meant to think was ‘I wish I could have a sick day.’”

See, public relations people even put words in their own mouths.

It’s not that work is overwhelming. I’m thoroughly enjoying my new job, and the challenges and fresh problems to solve and new people to meet have been invigorating.

It’s not that I don’t believe in service to my church. Serving as a deacon is a privilege, and every interaction with the families I care for is sacred and brings me closer to my community and to God.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy serving as a Cub Scout den leader. Those boys with their boundless energy and endless curiosity love tackling new challenges together and learning new skills.

sorry your sick day is due to actual sickness
Wouldn’t you rather get some rest before it comes to this?

It’s just that sometimes it all has to stop in order for me to get my bearings again. You know what I’m describing, right? It’s like when you’ve got nine browser windows open with at least two of them streaming sports highlights and one playing country music and your computer can’t process the data fast enough so the machine just locks up.

The real truth is that our bodies do the same thing. Whether it’s a head cold or a stomach flu or exhaustion, if we don’t have the good sense to slow down and rest, our bodies will force down time on us.

Rest is fleeting in the New South. Busy is the norm.

My wish for all of you is that it doesn’t take a sick day for you to find some down time. In fact, you should go ahead and plan on it right now. Go ahead. Put it on your calendar. Find a day. You need it more than you realize.

If you don’t, your body will.

If you couldn’t relate at all to today’s post, then great.  You are a better person than I am. But if you have ever been jealous of your sick child because they got to rest, then you’ve got a problem. Share your story by leaving a comment below, and then go take a nap. You’ll feel better. I promise.

Little gym, big gym

Last Saturday Carlton and our family and friends celebrated his fourth birthday at The Little Gym in Snellville.

Carlton and friends at The Little Gym
See? Smiles everywhere. Carlton and his friends had a blast.

Though Carlton only took classes there for six weeks, he often asks to go back. The birthday party was the perfect excuse.

The folks at The Little Gym were organized, well-staffed, professional but personal, and they made the entire experience a pleasure. We got to watch the kids have fun and take pictures while the staff ran the party. I can’t recommend The Little Gym enough. There’s a reason Parents magazine named The Little Gym the number one place to host children’s birthday parties.

Along with my recent job change, I’ve changed gyms as I seek to find a schedule that makes sense for me. I’m no longer at the Fitness 19 around the corner, though I had a good experience there for several years.

Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech
The BIG gym. Actually, it’s the biggest gym I think I’ve ever been in.

Now, I’m at the palatial Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech, the modified former venue of Olympic swimming and diving. It’s massive, with 14 machines of every type, and the equipment is so new I don’t even know what to do with some of it.

All this gym talk had me thinking about the similarities and differences between Carlton’s gym and my gym. So here’s my analysis, using the five senses as an organizing principle:

Sight: The Little Gym is full of bright, primary colors appropriate for children who are learning such basic concepts. The big gym has the appropriate Georgia Tech old gold and white with the navy and black accent colors tastefully and athletically applied. Both are well lit. Obviously, the patrons of The Little Gym are quite a bit shorter but after a rousing game of follow the leader or parachute circle, no less sweaty than their larger equivalents at the big gym. The key difference? The Little Gym people have way more smiling going on.

Carlton gets dizzy with the parachute game
No skydiving required for this parachute, but Carlton still got a little dizzy.

Smell: Without putting too fine a point on it, adults who are exerting smell bad. Children who are exerting have no real smell; unless they are so busy playing they forget to take a potty break. Both gyms smell of antibacterial cleanser, although I have to say The Little Gym has some of the “Scentsy” candle air fresheners that are aromatherapeutic–a nice added touch.

Taste: When I’m at the big gym, all I have is water. It’s pretty much tasteless, unless some of my salty sweat drips down my face while I’m at the water fountain. At The Little Gym, we had juice pouches, popcorn and cupcakes. Now that is fuel for a workout! I do eat a protein bar and a banana or apple after my workout, but as far as breakfasts go, it’s lacking.

Sound: Both gyms have up-tempo music playing to help you get revved up. At The Little Gym, they played a number of hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s such as “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” “Rockin’ Robin” and others. At the big gym, it’s typically a mix of hits from the ‘90s, dance tunes, and hip-hop. It’s enough to make me want my ear buds, but I tend to tune it out most of the time.

The view from the high dive platform
Mere mortals are not allowed up on the high dive platform, but it does make for a really nice view of the big gym’s pool.

Touch: Nearly everything at The Little Gym is padded. There are parallel bars, a high bar, rings and other apparatus that feel the same for the kids as they would the grownups, but overall, it’s soft place to fall, jump, tumble, flip and bounce. The surfaces of the big gym are less forgiving. There is a rubber floor, which absorbs the impact of dumbbells and barbells, and the four or five mats do offer some padding for stretching, yoga or other forms of fitness-related torture. In general, though, the big gym isn’t a place you’d want to fall down.

OK, so what’s my point? All of this is obvious, you say. Well, it’s clear that kids have more fun at The Little Gym than adults do at the big gym. And I think the reasons are in my analysis above. But more than the atmosphere and the physical setting, it’s about attitude.

No matter what color the walls are painted or how the place smells we can all bring a little more child-like play to our fitness. Not only would we enjoy it more, we would probably get healthier in the process.

I think I need a little more Little Gym in my big gym.

OK, it’s your turn. What do you like about your gym? What don’t you like? Have you had any experience with the Little Gym or places that are similar? Leave a comment below and share!