‘Yes’ and ‘No’

The argument usually starts with this admonition from my wife: “You need to learn to say ‘No.’”

The problem is that by the time this conversation happens, it’s too late. I’ve already committed myself to a number of conflicting responsibilities. At the moment I say “Yes” to anything, I’m starting down a path that will ultimately lead to a discussion of priorities.

By saying “Yes” to some things, I’m saying to “No” to others.

To do list with glasses
If only it were this simple.

For example, by agreeing to attend a district scout leader meeting on a Thursday night, I am saying “No” to spending a quiet evening at home, recovering from a busy day at the office, conversing with my children, reading my boys their bedtime stories and connecting with my wife a for a few minutes at the end of the day.

In hindsight, that seems like a high price to pay to attend a meeting, but at the time I say “Yes” I am delusional. I think I can do everything. I can pile commitments upon commitments without consequences.

Most disturbing is that this is a habitual failure. It started when I was in college. By my junior year I had amassed commitments all over campus, filled my day planner with a year’s worth of activity each week, and sacrificed necessary biological functions like eating and sleep.

Back then I failed to grasp how I got into these “Yes” messes. I couldn’t see it coming. It would pile up and all of a sudden I was buried, unable to escape my to-do list. Fast forward 20 years, and I have no excuse. I should know better.

I have a family that needs unstructured time with me. I have to get enough rest to function at work. The consequences of overcommitting are more serious.

It would be too easy to blame the New South, to call this a symptom of a busy, digital age in which inputs never stop and failing to unplug robs us of time to connect with the important people in our lives. And it would be misplaced to blame all the people who ask me to do things. No one puts a gun to my head.

My friend and mentor calls saying “No” being “socially firm.”

Is it genetic? With a family in ministry, I’m just one in a group of over-committers, biting off more than we can chew in our schedules to do good for others while we fail to give ourselves the time we need to be restored.

Is it mental illness? What form of OCD makes a person compulsively say “Yes” to everything and how deep does one have to be in denial to think he or she can do it all?

Is it just poor judgment? It’s not like what I’m saying “Yes” to is bad. I’m choosing to do a good thing, but often at the expense of doing the best thing.

It’s still the beginning of the school year, and parents everywhere are helping their kids adjust to the demands, the schedules, and the extra work that must be done for the next nine months. Just as their kids have a routine they must return to, parents who give their time to their kids’ schools, sports teams, scout groups, church activities and music rehearsals and performances have to gear up mentally for the 9-month grind.

In my defense, my biggest volunteer commitments are overlapping for only two-and-a-half months. I’m learning to enlist help. I’m trying to pick activities that put me into greater contact with my children. The time I’m giving away will have a return.

But still, the question remains: Why do I do it?

I want to help. I have an overdeveloped sense of obligation, a duty to give back to causes that have benefitted me or that benefit others.

I have recently turned down two significant time commitments, so maybe I am learning. But when the schedule is overflowing already, it’s not really that difficult to see that nothing else can fit.

It’s August, and it’s a long way until June when things can calm down again. There will be highs and lows, but getting through it is all about time management.

And saying “No” to anything else.

Where are your soft spots when people ask you to do things? Is it volunteering? Is it supporting your kids’ activities? Is it your church? Is it social commitments? How do you say “No?” Say “Yes” to leaving a comment below and share your wisdom.

A new page

Did you miss me?

For the first time since I started New South Essays in March 2011 I have hit a wall. Failing to post an essay three out of the last four weeks, I’ve succumbed to inertia, and it threatens my blogging endeavor.

Blogging with brooding intensity at sunrise
Blogging with brooding intensity at sunrise

In addition to my absence from the blogosphere, I also have to admit that the quality of recent posts is suffering. The greater percentage of posts have been “misses” rather than “hits.” Like all bloggers, I track my statistics compulsively, and unsurprisingly, my readership has waned at about the same time as the quality of my content began to decline. Changing my posting day after 18 months from Friday to Saturday probably didn’t help either.

A little more than two years into New South Essays, I am failing to fulfill the two basic requirements of blogging: quality content and consistent posting. The culprit? Time and energy.

The time I previously spent writing on Saturday mornings is now split between weekly planning for the Cub Scout den I lead and getting in a long run as I vainly attempt to defy aging and fool myself into thinking I can still someday qualify for the Boston Marathon. Something has to give, and lately it’s been the blog.

My energy level is still high, but it is focused in another direction. I started a new job at Georgia Tech back in the fall, and this new challenge has turned my creative energies toward learning a large and complex organization, managing a different staff and strategizing about a unique set of audiences and messages. It has been a fascinating and invigorating journey of discovery.

But when it comes to my blog, I am bereft of what I need in order to produce good content. I am a creature of habit, craving routine to channel my creativity. When my routine breaks down or shifts, it takes me a little time to come up with a new approach to compensate.

I hope you’ll stick with me as I find new footing and a new routine. I also ask that you contribute by letting me know what you are interested in, what you are seeing in the New South or what topics you would like  for me to address.

Remember, this isn’t just one-way communication. Enter the dialogue. You can e-mail me at lanceelliottwallace@gmail.com or just leave a comment below.

You’ve been great to stick with me so far, and I aim to make it worth the trouble.

Absolute power

Pinewood Derby track starting line.
The starting line of a typical Pinewood Derby track. I get nervous just seeing the picture.

Every January since 2008, I have been participating in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, a diabolical scheme in which a young boy and his dad are supposed to transform a 1.25-by-1.75-by- 7-inch block of wood into a 5-ounce vehicle capable of speeds up to 140 miles per hour.

If you are an engineer or a woodworker or have a son who is an engineer or a woodworker, this is great fun.

If you are an ordinary Joe without the right tools or access to the right tools, it can be a gut-wrenching activity fraught with peril.

The most stressful part of the entire affair is check-in. This is when you take the fruits of your (and theoretically your son’s) labor and hand it to some pimply-faced boy scout or adult leader who carefully inspects your car to ensure it can lawfully compete in the next day’s race.

I have approached the table with my heart racing and fear welling in my soul.

Pinewood Derby check-in table
The moment of truth. There should be a tissue box at the check-in table… not for the kids but for the parents.

That guy with his pencil and his template board that’s cut to mimic the dimensions of the track, studying his notes, measuring with his little ruler, has absolute power over you in that moment. I hate that guy.

Last night, I was that guy.

I don’t really know how it happened. I’m currently a den leader and an Assistant Cubmaster, learning the ropes from our seasoned Cubmaster. Because I’ll be taking on even more responsibility next year, I had to learn the ways of the Pinewood Derby this year from Reed. That meant I sat, as his understudy, judging people’s hard work, marking off the 15-point checklist and banishing them to the work table where they could alter their cars to meet the specifications.

After inspecting about 50 cars, I got to the point where I could just tell by looking which ones wouldn’t make it. My day job is public relations. I had to use every one of my tricks of the trade to communicate bad news in a way that a 6-foot-6, 300-plus pound dad would hear me without snapping my pencil neck.

Pinewood Derby car parts
This is all you get. It is maddening and wonderful, all at the same time.

I am also a seasoned church goer with years of experience working with people on their spiritual journeys. I had to use every counseling technique in my arsenal to comfort the teary-eyed mom who had employed all possible resources to get the car built but had come up short on wheel clearance.

I recognized the emotions on their faces. I knew the pain they felt. I have been there. I have been banished to the work table to frantically add weight, straighten axles or align wheels, all with my boys staring over my shoulder, looking at the clock, offering helpful reminders such as “Dad, we’re not going to finish it in time!”

What I needed then and what I needed last night was a giant dose of perspective. This, I think, is the real benefit of Pinewood Derby. Yes, I have written before about how the derby gives you an opportunity to work on a project with your son. And that’s still a valuable gift.

But having sat in the seat of judgment for two hours, feeling the tension rise up my spine until my neck and shoulders locked up, I realized that this was a child’s event, not a matter of life and death. The worst possible outcome was disappointment, which is really just a teachable moment for boys and their parents.

aircraft carrier pinewood derby car
Harris chose an aircraft carrier for his design this year. Let’s hope it’s faster than an aircraft carrier.

So today as the cars race, I will be otherwise occupied at my church. Carla will have the boys huddled around the track with 100 or so members of our community, watching the engineer and woodworking dads reap the rewards of their hobbies. They’ll cheer for each other, and Harris’s aircraft carrier will hopefully receive some design recognition if not capture a first, second or third in speed.

After all the cheering dies down and the elementary school cafeteria is cleaned and reset for serving lunches, I hope we can take a deep breath, recognize the good from our investment of time with our sons and get that giant dose of perspective.

But then again, there are only 364 days until the next Pinewood Derby.

Have you been that anxious parent at the Pinewood Derby check-in? Do your child’s or grandchild’s activities make you a nervous wreck? How do you cope? Leave a comment below and help us all get the invaluable perspective we so desperately need with our children’s activities.

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.

Playing catch up

I’ve spent the better part of the last week in Fort Worth, Texas, working long hours, enduring incredible heat and spending time with my youngest brother and his family.

The 8-day odyssey to the place of my birth felt more like two trips in one.  The first four days I was engaged in the annual meeting of the organization for which I work. The second four days, I was treated to a laid back schedule and the rare gift of time with my brother, whom I had not laid eyes on in two and a half years.

Lyle and his bass
See the family resemblance? With the guy in the hat, not the bass.

The oldest of three boys, I have found it difficult to keep in touch with my brothers as our lives have gone in divergent directions. My family and I ended up in Atlanta, my middle brother and his family live in Lake Wales, Fla., and my youngest brother and his family are back in Fort Worth after a two-year stint in Junction, Texas. I do okay keeping in touch with my parents, who serve as connectors for the three of us, but there is no substitute for spending time one-on-one.

Lyle is 10-and-a-half years my junior. He was entering second grade when I went off to college, and for the next 24 years, we’ve only had stolen moments to spend together: spring breaks, Christmas holidays, occasional shared family vacations and rare business trips that took me to his neck of the woods. And because of his family’s transitions the last few years, we haven’t even been able to get together at Christmas.

This lack of a relationship with my brother affects me in ways I don’t like to think about. While Lee – the middle brother – and I catch up at Christmas as the grounding point for our relationship, Lyle and I have missed out on that altogether. And unlike my weekly routine of calling my parents, with Lyle there is no consistent time that our schedules converge to allow meaningful conversation.

So we rely on Facebook to keep up with the daily events of each other’s lives, a weak substitute for an actual relationship.

This week went a long way toward helping to bridge the gap between us. As we toured the Fort Worth Stockyards, worshipped together, visited the national scouting museum, took in the giant Cabela’s store, swam with our kids and beat the 100-plus-degree heat with a dollar movie, our conversation was easy, genuine and full of the respect and affection brothers often feel but rarely express.

Typically, brothers express their emotions with a slug and an insult. Lyle and I simply don’t have time for that. When we’re together, we have to connect in meaningful ways or else we could completely lose touch.

Lyle and Haydn at Cabela's
Lyle and his 7-year-old son, Haydn, try out reels at Cabela’s on Tuesday.

That’s what struck me so much about our time together this past week. I was able to relate to Lyle, not as my little brother, but as a minister-in-training, parent, tour guide and friend. Yes, we spent some time around the table telling stories on each other, and on Uncle Lee, much to our children’s delight, but the inadvertently weakened bonds of our brotherhood were strengthened just at the time they needed it most.

I can’t remember a time that Lyle and I have been at odds, but that’s because we’ve been so distant we haven’t had a chance. I don’t want to pick fights with anyone, least of all my brothers, but I would trade a few disagreements for a closer relationship.

So as my summer heads into a middle stretch between trips, I’m back in my comfortable routine. I’m just going to commit one more time to find a way to not lose touch with both my brothers as life unfolds.

There’s simply too much to be gained to let go.

How do you keep up with your siblings? Have you recently been able to share in some quality time with your brother or sister? Leave a comment below and share your secret to staying connected to your siblings.

Just a swingin’

Childhood obesity. Video games. Television. Air quality. Bugs. Weather.

There are lots of circumstances that conspire against children playing outdoors these days, so much so that getting kids outside is one of the biggest challenges of parenting in the New South.

Carlton on the rope swing
Even the little guy can hold his own on the new rope swing.

Long gone are the days when barefoot children hit the screen door after breakfast and wouldn’t return until supper time. Now, you have to pry them off the sofa with a giant spatula, forcibly remove them from in front of a digital screen and lock the doors after them if you want them to spend any time soaking in Vitamin D or getting fresh air.

This spring I unwittingly hit upon a new weapon that has kept my kids outside more than in any previous year: a disc swing.

For eight years we’ve had a small, red disc swing hanging in a dogwood tree. Yes, I know, that’s the not ideal dendrological solution for a rope swing, but the swing is unobtrusive and bears the weight of smaller children just fine.

Harris on the rope swing
Not every ride is death-defying, though Harris may have you believe this.

But now that our oldest is around 100 pounds and there are three of them fighting over one swing, Carla and I decided it was time to either cut the “red swing” down or put up another one.

In reviewing some “before and after” photos of our yard, Carla stumbled across a photo of the back when we first moved in. There, hanging from the big tree in the center of the backyard was a fraying nylon rope, knotted in several places. It brought back memories of Barron, then 2, falling from the rope while my dad pushed him just a week after we moved in. That was the end of that. The rope came down.

But now that our kids are older, the idea once again had merit. So on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the local home improvement store, we found a rope disc swing kit, bought 50 feet of nylon rope and created the solution to all of our couch potato problems.

The new rope swing hangs about 20 feet beneath a sturdy branch in a large tree I can’t identify in our backyard. The extra length of rope and relatively obstacle free swinging zone – not including the tree itself – makes the new swing a much better ride than the old one.

Perhaps more entertaining than the actual swing itself was watching me try to hang it. At first I attempted the lasso technique. I’m a lousy cowboy, so I reverted to tying the rope to the tailfin of a modified Nerf mini-football. The rope was too heavy and my technique was so poor I finally resorted to tying a string to the tailfin and connecting that to the rope. It worked like a charm, but it took the better part of an hour for me to figure it out.

Naturally, the boys now fight over the new swing, but it does give them an incentive to get outside. They race to see who can be first, and any time the swing is unoccupied, one of our boys is likely to dart outside – with our without shoes – and get some undisturbed swing time in.

We’ve had several backyard occasions this spring in which the disc swing was a huge hit. Harris’ Lego-themed seventh birthday featured an inflatable, a piñata, a sandbox and a Lego table, but it was the rope swing that was the main attraction. Likewise at our recent end-of-the scouting year den meeting.

Barron on the rope swing
This is “Batman Barron’s” preferred way to fly.

What makes this throw-back recreational device such a popular addition to our backyard?

First, it’s simple. It doesn’t require skill or strength or coordination. Kids don’t have to figure out how to use it. They get on, they push off (or they call for Daddy to come push them, more likely) and they go. It requires no batteries, no electricity.

Second, it provides a safe thrill. Sure, if they let go they can get hurt. Barron learned that lesson at age two. But not a lot else in the backyard can give you that giggle-inducing tickle in your stomach.

Third, it helps you attain new heights, literally. Kids love pushing boundaries and competing. Who can jump the farthest, run the fastest, hold their breath the longest? The rope swing gives them one more limit they can push: gravity. Who can swing the highest?

It’s been a great spring weather-wise in Atlanta. Carla and I have enjoyed the view of our backyard from our Adirondack chairs as the kids have laughed and swung and run and played for hours. When the kids are in the yard, it just feels like the way childhood is supposed to be.

What’s your secret to getting your kids to play outside? Perhaps you had a beloved rope swing as a child? Leave us your thoughts in a comment below.

Connecting with the past

When we hit the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge from Charleston into Mount Pleasant the boys stopped watching Harry Potter on our minivan’s built-in DVD player.

From the span over the Cooper River we could see the U.S.S. Yorktown, parked at Patriots Point. It would be our home for a night, and it was lit impressively, beckoning us to come and explore.

“Wow! Is that it, Daddy?” and “I’ve never been on a ship like that before!” came from the back.

That’s when I knew it would be a good weekend.

Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown
Boarding the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in Charleston Harbor.

The boys and I joined 101 other Cub Scouts and parents from Pack 564 for an overnight visit to the retired aircraft carrier parked in the Charleston Harbor since 1975. The six hour drive was interrupted only by a stop in Sandersville to unload Carla and Carlton, who were spending the weekend with her parents.

What struck me most about the half hour stopover was Poppy’s excitement about the boys’ trip. He had served on the U.S.S. Little Rock in the 1960s, and began telling us about his experiences at sea. I referenced the conversation numerous times while on board the Yorktown, trying to help the boys connect with their grandfather in a new way.

For kids, the sheer size of the ship is a novelty. But throw in 38- and 50-caliber gun mounts to climb on, airplanes to get a closer look at and seemingly miles of passageways to explore, and you’ve got life-long memories.

Harris at the helm
Harris at the helm of the Yorktown.

What stood out to the boys? If you ask them, they will tell you about the galley with a recipe for 10,000 chocolate cookies printed on the wall. Or they’ll describe the brig, the massive engine room and the gigantic hangar containing old aircraft.

Their expressions of wide-eyed wonder as they took the helm and climbed into the captain’s chair spoke volumes about their experience, and the questions came faster than an F-18 catapulted from the deck of a carrier.

I could see the realities of life at sea with 2,600 other sailors begin to sink in with the boys as they stowed their gear in their “berths.” The stacks of bunks, three and four high connected by chains drew immediate calls for “top bunk.”

Barron even affirmed my career choice. After watching me duck through hatches all day, he said, “You wouldn’t be a very good sailor, Daddy. You would always be hitting your head.”

Barron in the captain's chair
Barron tries out the Captain's Chair.

When we got back to Sandersville to pick up Carla and Carlton, I caught a glimpse of a twinkle in Poppy’s eyes as the boys breathlessly fired facts and descriptions at him. They covered the highlights, pausing every now and then to let Poppy insert a story from his service to help provide context for what they saw.

It’s like the time I saw “Saving Private Ryan.” In the intensity of that film, I was able to barely grasp what it must have been like for my grandfather to serve in Normandy. Now my sons were seeing their grandfather in a whole new way as they experienced history.

We’re still processing the questions. The boys spent their President’s Day holiday drawing pictures of the Yorktown and setting up dioramas with their souvenirs, all the while asking more and more questions.

Perhaps even in the New South, there’s an appreciation for the experiences of our elders. I look forward to the conversations my boys will have with all their grandparents as their understanding of history grows and their bonds with them are strengthened.

How have you connected with your grandparents? Did a trip to a historical place or an afternoon of stories on the front porch or time at the dinner table give you a glimpse into their lives? Take a moment to share your experiences by leaving a comment.

The Power of Pine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bake me a cake as fast as you can

Cub Scout Dad and Lad Cake Bake off
Barron's last and Harris' first Cub scout Dad & Lad Cake Bake off

I pulled Harris’ overflowing train molded cake pan out of the oven precisely at 3:30 p.m. and put the bowl containing Barron’s yellow cake mix in at 350 degrees for 42 minutes.
Then I left.

As I drove to Alpharetta for yet another weekend work commitment, guilt pursued me like a Lilburn cop after someone who entered the turn lane too soon (not that I would know anything about that.) For the third weekend in a row, I had to leave my family to do my job.

Perspective can be illusive when guilt surfaces. I really don’t have to work on the weekend that much. I enjoy my job. Each of the last three weeks has offered enjoyable engagement with good people and meaningful times of worship. I am extremely involved in my children’s lives and show up most every time there is something to show up for.
So why did I feel so guilty?

Christmas Train Cake
All aboard Harris' Christmas Train Cake express. Next stop... first place!

I was bailing mid-cake bake on what was supposed to be our father-son bonding time as we prepared our entries for the annual Cub Scout pack Dad & Lad Cake Bakeoff.
The competition is designed to get boys and their “non-cooking” parents to spend time together in the kitchen. Cake Boss I am not, but whipping up the batter from the box and putting it into the oven I can handle. That’s all I was able to do Sunday, and when I got home at nearly 11 p.m. that night, I studied Harris’ fully-decorated Christmas train cake with a mix of emotions.

I was sincerely impressed at his handiwork. He had unwrapped Halloween candy to adorn the train cars which sat on tracks made of pretzels. He included big marshmallows in the shape of a Christmas tree, snow man and Santa Claus to add flair. But I was disappointed that I hadn’t been there to see his smiles of pride or help steady his hand as he poured on the glaze. It was a moment we hadn’t shared. His cake had been more “lad” than “dad.”

Stone Mountain Campout Cake
Not all components of the Stone Mountain Campout Cake are edible, but the mountain itself was mighty tasty!

Monday night was my chance at redemption. Barron’s cake was still unadorned, so together we mixed up batches of icing in appetizing colors like granite gray and grass green to re-create our recent campout at Stone Mountain Park. We printed off a picture of the carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and while Barron carefully applied it to the big gray-covered, bowl-cooked cake, we discussed what he was learning about the Civil War.

Those were the moments the competition was designed to induce.
Tuesday night as Barron collected his second place ribbon for the scouting category and then the overall “Cubmaster’s Choice” award, I watched him suppress a smile as he stood on the platform. I was more anxious than an Oscar-nominee waiting for the envelope to be opened when the Cubmaster got to the holiday category. Harris wasn’t called for third place or second, and not having seen the competition, I was worried that Harris might go home empty handed.

But sure enough, Harris won first place.

As I tucked them into bed that night, I was grateful that my times away are infrequent, my boys are creative, we enjoy spending time together and success as a parent isn’t measured in blue ribbons.