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 most important meal

The phrase “part of a balanced breakfast” is on the sound track of my childhood.

It was included in every super sugary cereal commercial during my decade-long consumption of Saturday morning cartoons. If Cookie Crisp is part of a balanced breakfast, then there had to be some really healthy stuff to go with it to balance it out.

As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate breakfast in a new way. With the challenges of managing a morning commute, a “healthy” breakfast has come to mean something completely different.

protein bar apple bottle of war
No foodie ever posted a pic like this to his or her Instagram feed, but it gets the job done.

There’s “healthy” in the sense that is low-carb, low-fat, low-cholesterol and low taste. I call this a “New South Breakfast.” For me this usually means a protein bar, banana and a liter of water consumed in the car while fighting traffic. My concentration is certainly not on the food, and there is nothing emotionally satisfying about the experience. I am fueled. My hunger is satiated. I can function.

This breakfast comes with a healthy dose of "hon" and "shugah" with every coffee pour.
This breakfast comes with a healthy dose of “hon” and “shugah” with every coffee pour.

At least once a week, I meet my boss for an “Old South Breakfast” at the Atlanta landmark, the Silver Skillet. I venture around the menu, including having just oatmeal and raisins, but I tend to go with two eggs over medium, grits and biscuits, no meat. If I’m really hungry, I’ll throw in a side of sausage patties. Oh, and as much coffee as the sassy and attentive servers can pour.

By any nutritional definition, this is not a healthy breakfast, but I actually enjoy it. I grew fond of grits during college, when it would be souped into giant vats and served with long handled spoons in the cafeteria at Troy. When I ventured out into the world on my own, I never made grits for myself and still find it too much trouble to mess with most of the time. But if my mother-in-law or the good folks at the Skillet are cooking them, count me in.

I’ve read that there is no nutritional value in grits. I guess that’s not the point. They’re filling, they help mop up anything else oozing on your plate, and with the right amount of butter and salt, they satisfy.

Perhaps my biggest nutritional sin at the Silver Skillet is the biscuit. Or, more accurately, biscuits. With the two-egg breakfast, they bring you two biscuits. Occasionally I can eat just one, but most of the time I end up eating two, with a little jelly.

That is not “healthy” by any definition. But these biscuits are very nearly perfect. They are fluffy without being dry. They have just the right amount of butter baked on top so that it has flavor but no grease. They are to be savored and enjoyed. I chalk it up to carbo-loading.

The breakfast I’ve come to view as the healthiest of my week is served on Saturday. After an 8 or 10 mile run, I’ll whip up a batch of pancakes and skillet-fried sausage patties or bacon for the whole family. I usually add sliced fruit to my pancakes rather than syrup, and because I’m starved after my run, I add two eggs over hard. It’s a lot of food, but it does the trick.

Wolfing this down usually keeps hunger at bay 'til supper time.
Wolfing this down usually keeps hunger at bay ’til supper time.

If that doesn’t sound healthy to you, consider this: Carlton usually helps me stir the batter. The boys eat at the kitchen counter, laughing and telling me all manner of unusual observations about life. When I finish the last batch, Carla and I retire to the dining room and enjoy a leisurely breakfast together, talking about our day, looking ahead to the next week’s schedule and generally catching up after an incredibly busy week.

Depending on your definition of healthy, you may rank my breakfast choices differently than I do. But I can’t help but feel that breakfast served with a liberal portion of conversation and family connection is the healthiest.

For me, bonding with my family is part of balanced breakfast, and I don’t get enough of it. As for the sugary cereals, they make for a great snack while watching TV before bedtime.

What is your breakfast food of choice? Do you ever take time to savor the breakfast experience? When does your family enjoy breakfast together and what do you eat? Do you have any breakfast favorites you can share? Leave a comment below. It’s part of a balanced blog experience.

The lost art of listening

Hello, my name is Lance, and I have listening problem.

This week I attended one of those four-hour workplace training sessions on emotional intelligence. It included an exercise on active listening. I was horrible.

listening device
Maybe someone at Tech could invent something like this to help me listen better.

The humiliating experience caused me to reexamine a fundamental assumption about myself. Deep down, I believe that I have pretty good emotional intelligence. I feel like I know myself and can read people pretty well. I know how to make eye contact and affirm people when they talk.

Except I don’t.

The examples of my failures to listen are starting to pile up.

Two weeks ago during dinner, my 12-year-old son had to confiscate my iPhone because I was texting during dinner. Talk about role reversal!

Last weekend, while driving to see my in-laws in Sandersville, Carla said an entire paragraph of information that I completely missed. I suspect I had dozed off.

And now, with the pressure on and in an intentional exercise to practice active listening, the best I could do was nod and say “Hmmm….”

Pathetic.

This experience reminded me of a time earlier in my marriage when I first became aware that I cannot listen if a television is on anywhere in my vicinity. When you first begin cohabitating with someone in the throes of marital bliss, you hang on their every syllable. But after a while, words, sentences and even entire monologues can go by, particularly if there’s a ballgame on.

Robert Mankoff New Yorker cartoon
This Robert Mankoff cartoon from The New Yorker is all too true.

Earlier in my marriage after a particularly bad run of non-listening, I sought the advice of my travel companions during a car trip across Missouri. From Harold, the trained minister, I got words of wisdom and reassurance about “focus and priorities.” From Ben, my boss and mentor who had taught me much in my career, I got: “Well, maybe she just needs to say fewer or more important things.”

Fast forward a few weeks when my inattention reoccurred. Guess which pithy saying popped into my head to answer a barrage of accusations? Yep, the wrong one. Like a scene from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I tried to retract the words as they were coming out of my mouth.

Although Carla swears she doesn’t remember the exchange today, I do, and I can tell you unequivocally, don’t ever say anything like that to your spouse … or anyone.

What causes my distraction and what’s the cure?

To no one’s surprise, one of the biggest culprit’s in the New South is technology. Barron was right to take away my phone. I have done the same thing to him. Conversations are the building blocks of good relationships, and as we enter the teen years with our children, they are essential. I have to learn to turn the screens off.

Another culprit is busyness and preoccupation. If I’m busy rushing off to a meeting after church, it’s nearly impossible for me to focus on the person trying to share an important concern. Being in the moment and being with the person in front of you is a discipline.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to self-absorption. I find it hard to listen because I am inside my own head way too much. I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded with thoughts on everything from what I’m going to say next to my to-do list. And if someone is sharing a problem, I think about possible solutions, rather than displaying empathy, letting them share their feelings and affirming them.

Here’s how the course I took described passive vs. active listening:

active vs. passive listening chartAdmitting you have a problem is the first step. You, the loyal readers of New South Essays, are my support group. Hold me accountable. If you catch me not listening, call me on it.

Now stop reading this blog and go listen to someone important to you. You may find that you also have some work to do in the listening department.

What annoys you most about people not listening? Is it the ever-present smart phone or tablet screen? Are you a good listener? How do you do it? What techniques might help the rest of us non-listeners? Leave a comment and help in my recovery. It takes all of us.

‘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.

The favorite part of my day

With so much noise in our lives in the New South, I often fail to listen to my children.

Now that school has started again, I have a daily opportunity to engage with my boys on a meaningful level each night at the dinner table.

It’s the favorite part of my day.

Boys with their dog on the first day of school
Our customary first day of school photo, minus Carlton who was at his grandparents. Oh, and Tobey is making his debut in the annual photo.

This week we sent our two older boys back to school. Our youngest must wait until the more reasonable start of the day after Labor Day. Back to school brings many challenges – social anxiety, homework, time management – but it also ushers in the return of the “How was your day?” conversation.

I ask this question at the dinner table every night, but during the summer I am more likely to get shrugs, “I don’t knows” or a recounting of a convoluted plot line from “Adventure Time.”

What I discovered this week as the boys headed back to their respective schools with loaded backpacks in tow, is that I actually look forward to this part of the day most of all. Yes, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and talking over each other and general rambunctiousness. But we are already settling into a routine.

By simply asking “What happened at school today?” I get a window into their world. I hear names of friends and classmates I don’t know. I learn about their reactions to teachers’ instructions or correction. I am asked for input on how to handle difficult situations with peers. The picture of who they are becoming comes into a little bit clearer focus.

Take Harris, my middle son, for example. He’s been eager to tell me how he’s setting up his first writing assignment. He likes to write in his journal, and the fact that he is excited about expressing his thoughts makes me happy. He spent the last two weeks of summer vacation talking about starting a blog.

Barron seems to be hung up on the quality of food served in the middle school cafeteria. Each night we’ve been getting a food critic’s view of the menu, presentation and service of that day’s lunchroom experience. He seems to think it was better in elementary school. He’s already becoming a grumpy old man! “Back when I was in elementary school, they gave us a full plate, and the fruit was fresh and ripe and you had enough time to eat!”

At Carlton’s pre-school, they put the children in a circle at the end of each day and sing a song: “Carlton, Carlton, what would you say? What was your favorite part of the day?” He brought that tradition home, and often we’ll go around the table and sing that question to each family member in turn. The dog can’t bear the singing, but it’s music to my ears.

I know it’s just the first week and harder days are coming. There will be procrastinated projects, math tests, over-commitments from extra-curricular activities, band auditions and hours of reading and journaling, but that’s OK. To me, these are opportunities to enter my children’s world and be a resource to them and help them learn.

My mother and I formed strong bonds over math homework the ill-fated year I took honors Algebra II and honors Geometry at the same time. She was my nightly tutor, and she hung in there with me despite my frustrations and protestations. And in those rare “aha” moments, we were able to share a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love summer. It’s great to see your kids invent ways to fill their time and get much-needed rest. I enjoy taking time off from my work to be with them and go places and do things the school schedule won’t allow. But it is in the daily experience of life that I derive the most meaning. These ordinary times are when my relationships with my children are deepened.

So welcome back to school. If you or your kids haven’t started back they soon will. I hope you are able to greet that day with open arms and enjoy the dinner table conversation that night with an open heart.

What kinds of stories or information do you get from your kids after a day of school? Do you welcome “back to school” or dread it? When do you feel that you bond most with your children? Take a moment to reflect and share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.

My semi-annual appraisal

There are two times a year I evaluate the direction of my life: New Year’s and my birthday.

New Year’s resolutions are somewhat cliché, but the start of a new calendar year is a natural time to take stock of your life, look at your goals and determine course corrections. My birthday falls nearly eight months later on July 30. That’s plenty of time to see how things are working.

This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I'm another year older and it's time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe at third thing: They think I'm great.
This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I’m another year older and it’s time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe a third thing: They think I’m great.

This week, as I turn 43 and look at my life, there are four words that stand out: writing, running, family and rest. Let’s take them in order:

Writing

Friends and regular readers of New South Essays know this has been a year of transition for me. Taking a new job and moving things around in my schedule to accommodate a new commute has caused me to tinker with things a little. It cost me a few weeks of inconsistent posting back in the spring before I finally determined that I needed to dedicate two mornings a week to New South Essays.

It was impossible to do anything of quality by getting up on Saturday morning, opening up a vein and bleeding into WordPress. I now take Wednesday mornings to work up the first draft of the week’s post, allowing time for my editor, Carla, to take a whack at it. I have three days to get my photo or art arranged and Saturday morning to edit, rewrite, post and share.

This seems to be working well. I am maintaining my creative outlet and fulfilling my compulsion to write while traffic to New South Essays has never been higher. Thanks for your response and your continued reading.

What I’d like to figure out now is how to get back to the re-write on my novel, which has been lying dormant for more than a year now. That goal may just have to wait.

Running

I had the delusional goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon when I turned 40 three years ago. Somehow I thought I could get 10 years older AND 13 minutes faster. It didn’t happen. I finished the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachicola, Fla., in October 2010 in 4:04, well off the qualifying pace.

After evaluating what went wrong, I decided I needed to train harder. I registered for the Nashville Marathon in April of 2011 and began a more rigorous training regimen. The result? A bad case of plantar fasciitis which caused me to miss the race. I now have a $100 T-shirt to show for it.

I’m back to running three days a week, working out with weights two and resting two. I’m no closer to Boston, but I’m also not injured. Sometimes, you just have to set your goals a little lower. I may make another attempt at a marathon in the future, but I’m letting go of that dream for now.

Family

Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that being in my family’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m with them. I was naïve to think my children didn’t notice when my mind was elsewhere. I used to believe that as long as I was physically involved in our family activity my frame of mind didn’t matter.

I was wrong. In order for me to be the husband and father my family needs me to be, I have to lay aside the unfinished work of the day, build time into my schedule for just hanging out and engage in each outing with gusto. Only then can I strengthen the bonds with my wife and children and create lasting memories.

And that’s just the people who live in my house. I still have a need to stay connected with my parents in Florida and my brothers in Alabama and Texas. These are challenges I never dreamed would be so difficult when we all lived under the same roof.

My goal is depth. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to connect with members of my family in deep and meaningful ways. Life is too short for pleasantries or issue avoidance.

Rest

Simply put, I need more sleep. This is the steady refrain I hear from Carla on a weekly basis. I aim for 7 hours a night, but generally get somewhere around six or less, even on the weekends. I used to brag about this schedule, laughing it off when people said I was crazy.

I’m beginning to think people are right.

If I nod off in an afternoon meeting at work, it undermines my effectiveness. If I get behind the wheel of my car on my afternoon commute feeling drowsy, I could end up on the sky copter traffic report. Caffeine can only take me so far. I need to find a way to get more sleep.

But the early morning is when I do the things I enjoy: running, writing, praying. I am fed by these activities. This is one of my constant and biggest challenges. Plus, guess when I do all the work for my volunteer commitments? That’s right, before sunrise.

Going forward I’m altering my schedule. We’ll see how I do putting a priority on sleep.

Despite these challenges, I conclude this summer evaluation with a sense of optimism. My life isn’t quite up to par in all areas, but it is good. The love and affection showered on me on my birthday was heart-warming. It reminded me that I am richly blessed with all the good gifts of life that matter.

I can’t help but try to make things just a little better. We’ll see how I’m doing come New Year’s.

When do you evaluate your life? Do you follow a structure or do you think about life when prompted by your circumstances? Maybe you take stock once a week or once a month. What are the words that come to mind when you evaluate your current state? Share how, when and what your measure yourself by in a comment below. In fact, make it a goal to make more comments on New South Essays!

A case for camp

Children need summer camp. Whether it is secular or religious, one week or several, day camp or residential, children need to participate in camp.

I have no credentials to make this assertion. I am not a noted child psychologist or a Ph.D. in childhood development. I’m just a parent who has been to camp with kids. I’ve seen the advantages with my own eyes.

Kids play a parachute game
Where else but camp can kids have fun with parachutes (and not jump out of an airplane)? Photo by Rebecca Orton (http://rebeccaortonphotography.com/)

My particular preference is an overnight camp away from home, and my experience is mostly with church camp, although I have volunteered at Cub Scout day camp. For the past four years I have chaperoned the third through sixth graders from my church at PassportKIDS camp at the Clyde M. York 4-H Center in Crossville, Tenn.

Fresh off this year’s experience, here are five reasons why kids should attend summer camp, especially kids in the New South:

1. Unplugging. In this case, I mean literally. Parents have a sense that their children spend too much time in front of screens: television, computer, tablet, personal device, game system, etc. Unless it’s computer camp, kids have the opportunity to look up and see the world around them. They interact with each other, for good or bad, and learn how to relate to each other, solve problems and deal with the challenges of human relationships. They pay attention to their surroundings and notice details of the natural world that may have escaped them. They are more teachable and alert to possibilities and their potential for growth.

2. Moving. There is no better cure for summer coach potato syndrome than a good dose of camp. Kids are constantly in motion at camp, running, playing, competing, and even getting from place to place across the facility. Most of the recreational activities at PassportKIDS are creative games that don’t require athleticism. All kids need to do is commit to the activity and get in the game. Fun, not proficiency, is the goal. Sweating may produce a stinky suitcase and a cabin that could use generous quantities of Febreze, but that’s a small price to pay in exchange for burning calories and getting some exercise.

3. Cheering. Kids have nine months to use their indoor voices. At camp, they can let it all out, usually at the encouragement of hyped-up, over-zealous college students who seem to be fueled by Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor. It usually takes kids a little while to join in, but by the end of camp, the yelling and chanting and cheering have drawn out even the most extreme introverts. By selling out and rooting for each other and themselves, the kids tap into a source of self-confidence and selflessness that can cure narcissism, cynicism and several other “isms” that you don’t want your kids to have.

4. Listening. It’s nearly universal: kids at camp pay attention. When I am at home and have to get my kids to the dinner table, I have to repeat my instructions at least three times. When kids are at camp, they are more focused on what is being communicated. They hear you when you talk to them. They learn. They internalize truths so much more readily than when they are distracted by the noise and toys of home. If you don’t believe me, try being a chaperone one time. It will suddenly make you feel like the best parent ever. Kids listen at camp.

5. Being independent. This is the one point that my chaperoning may have impeded my children’s growth. When kids are at camp by themselves, they learn to get around, follow a schedule, keep up with their stuff, and generally take responsibility for themselves and each other in ways they can never do while a parent is hovering. I noticed this year at camp, rather than pick a bunk above mine or even near it, Barron picked the one at the opposite end of the room. He’s also had two summers of being at Boy Scout Camp on his own, and he’s found that he likes it. Children need to learn to make decisions for themselves, and as a parent, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing or knowing your child has made a good choice on his or her own. At camp when you’re not around, they have to make their own choices. Sure, they may come home with a fewer socks or towels, but that’s part of the learning experience, too. The next year, they’ll be more likely to keep up with their stuff.

Camp may be over for this year, but I’ve already marked my calendar for next summer. I can’t wait to go with the kids from Parkway again and see the next generation experience the wonders of camp.

What did you learn from camp? What are your fondest memories of camp? Did you have a positive or a negative experience? What do you think your kids get from their camp experiences?  Leave a comment below or you can’t ride in my little red wagon…. Oompa, ooompa, oooompapa.

Flip flops and running shoes

What you pack for vacation says a lot about you.

Vacation is that time of year when you are released from the bonds of work long enough for your true personality to emerge. Maybe it’s the only time all year you have real choices about how to spend your time. Maybe it’s when you discover there is such a thing as leisure time.

What you choose to take with you is a portrait of what makes you tick.

My wife always stocks up on reading material. She brings a stack of magazines that have piled up over the last few months, including New South essentials Southern Living and Garden & Gun. And she scrolls through the bestseller list to pull the most intriguing in “chick lit” and anything by Atlantan Emily Giffin.

The boys bring their bicycles and a giant tub of beach and pool toys. They usually load an entire suitcase with nothing but board and card games. Having recently taught the boys to play chess, I think I’m in for a lot of that classic game this year, with a few marathon sessions of Skip-Bo thrown in.

For me, it’s my flip flops and running shoes. I don’t wear flip flops nearly enough. I think my last pair lasted longer than our van’s tires. I’ve got a new pair for Father’s Day, and they need some breaking in.

OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.
OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.

As my wife frequently reminds me, I’m terrible at unwinding. At least for this week, I will try not to wear regular shoes or socks, unless it’s my running shoes, of course.

I have written about my passion for running in this space before, so I’ll spare you another ode to my running shoes. I will say that when I run on vacation, it’s a totally different experience. My mind isn’t processing what’s on tap for the day, major decisions or problems to be solved. My mind wanders in all kinds of directions.

I notice things during my vacation runs that I don’t seem to pick up very often: the different bird calls, sea breezes, turtles perched on a log in a lake. Knowing that when I finish my run I don’t have anything to do but sit by the pool, go to the beach and build sand castles or ride the waves with the boys or play board games is incredibly freeing.

Here’s one probably not-so-surprising confession: I bring a laptop, but it’s not for the reason you might guess. OK, yes, I do check work emails while I’m away. I limit it to once a day, but it’s just a necessity these days. My real use for the laptop is writing. You may remember that I both started and completed my still-being-edited-and-rewritten novel while at the beach.

I’m planning this trip to spend some time working on New South Essays, you’ll be happy to know, to prevent any more lapses in quality content or consistent publishing. I’ve got to flesh out all the ideas you have been so gracious to send me.

So watch Facebook or Twitter for the now-cliché photo of my feet from the beach. I’ll be wearing either flip flops or running shoes … maybe one of each.

What are your must-haves for vacation? Share your packing list in a comment below and join the spirit of vacation season. See you at the beach!

A Father’s Wish

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted hours in the car with my oldest son. There were certain topics I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to discuss with him to take advantage of this gift of time alone.

We had no trouble talking about how he spent his week with my parents or the attractions he enjoyed at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure with my brother and my niece. It was easy to discuss his opportunities to eat out, the menus and the humorous moments with his Paw Paw and Granny. I got a detailed run down on the movies they watched and new television shows he wanted to add to his repertoire.

But when there was a lull in the conversation, before I had a chance to introduce a more serious subject, the iPad would come out, the headphones would go on and Barron would immerse himself in his music.

I get to celebrate Father's Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn't staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot.
I get to celebrate Father’s Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn’t staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot. Photo by Maureen Atwood Photography.

I don’t believe for a second that he was being defensive. I don’t think he was avoiding anything. He had no idea I had an agenda. He was doing what he always does, what comes naturally.

I’m a talkative guy. I typically don’t have a problem striking up a conversation, meaningful or trivial, with anyone. Over the years, I’ve even grown in my ability to talk about painful subjects with my own father and mother, a feat many adults never achieve.

Somehow, though, on this day, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I always do, what comes naturally for me.

Our conversation for the remaining three hours of the trip was intermittent. When Barron thought of something to tell me, he would pause his Hans Zimmer or Alan Silvestri or John Williams long enough to express it. When the conversation lagged and before I could bring up my list of talking points, he went back under the headphones.

With about 45 minutes left in our trip, I calculated we had enough time to cover at least one or two topics. Discussions with pre-teens don’t typically last as long as you plan.

I became nervous. I consciously tried not to convey anxiety as I casually transitioned the conversation during one of his headphone breaks. The car can be a safe place to have these kinds of talks because you don’t have to make eye contact, but the risk is that your child feels cornered with no escape.

Naturally he reached for the headphones. I told him he didn’t have to go back to his music just yet. So for about 20 minutes we had a good conversation on a meaningful topic before returning to lighter fare.

That’s it. Twenty minutes out of four hours. Somehow, I couldn’t carry on an in-depth conversation with my 12-year-old son for more than 20 minutes.

The trip ended with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Happy at our progress, I had to fight back the feeling that I failed to achieve my objective.

Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?

I suddenly had a small window into the world of my own father. How many times had Dad tried to discuss important subjects with me, only to have me unwittingly or even wittingly undermine it with trivial conversations about sports or entertainment?

This Father’s Day, I may get all manner of practical, thoughtful and lovingly-presented gifts from my wife and three sons, but all I really want is to have meaningful conversations with each of them. It doesn’t have to be on Father’s Day. In fact, it would be nice to spread them throughout the year.

I will continue to look for ways to have these conversations. They are truly gifts that I treasure, and someday my boys will think back on them and realize the truth that I now grasp: being a father means taking risks and sometimes feeling like a failure. But there is no more rewarding way I could spend my life.

So there, Amazon, put that on your “Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” direct e-mail marketing campaign.

Can you remember having important conversations with your children or your parents? How did it happen? Were they good memories or do they dredge up repressed emotions? What advice would you give on how to have meaningful dialogue with your kids? Take a minute to leave your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all benefit from your wisdom.

Wedding faux pas?

Weddings in the New South bring up all sorts of issues never before encountered in the history of weddings.

Last weekend, Carla and I took our oldest son, Barron, to his first wedding — the marriage of his youth minister, Matt Hester, and our friend Courtney Phillips. It was a beautiful and somewhat unorthodox ceremony and reception that was very personal and deeply rooted in their faith journey and family history.

While we explained each element to Barron, who professed to be sleepy and yawned throughout, I couldn’t help but try to connect our Atlanta church friends to the ceremony, which was taking place in Courtney’s hometown of Orlando. We and two other couples were the only ones from our church in Atlanta who made it down for the wedding, and I knew the folks back home would want to participate vicariously in the celebration.

OK, I know I could be making matters worse by sharing the offending image here, but you have to see it to make a judgment. It's all about context. And isn't it a lovely wedding?
OK, I know I could be making matters worse by sharing the offending image here, but you have to see it to make a judgment. It’s all about context. And isn’t it a lovely wedding?

So, as the couple looked longingly into each other’s eyes and said their vows, I discreetly and silently took a photo with my iPhone. I wrote a simple caption and uploaded it to Facebook. Within minutes, several of our church friends “liked” or commented on the image and expressed thanks for my sharing it.

When we got to the dinner reception afterward, I showed Carla the photo and proudly proclaimed how thoughtful I had been by sharing this with our friends back home. That’s when I got the speech.

“You did NOT,” Carla said, wide eyed. “I thought we had talked about this at the last wedding we went to. They should have the opportunity to be the first ones to share pictures from their wedding. It’s THEIR wedding. What is it you say all the time: ‘It’s not your news to share?’”

Oops.

I began to doubt myself. We had talked about this at the last wedding we attended, and I couldn’t really remember, but I think I came out on the side of posting photos from a wedding in progress on Facebook was a no-no.

“Yeah, but there’s a bunch of people back in Atlanta who couldn’t be here. They would want to see it,” I meekly retorted.

Carla rolled her eyes in response.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just think it’s something that they should be able to do.”

I continued to mull it over as we joined our friends at the table for dinner. By the time we sat down, Carla had already recruited our friend, Autumn, to her point of view. Carla swore that she didn’t prime Autumn to respond in her favor.

That’s when the self-doubt really kicked in. Had I committed a faux pas? Should I have left well enough alone and let the new couple post the photos they wanted posted from their wedding when they were ready?

This may be a rationalization, but beyond the idea that I was sharing this with our Atlanta friends who could not attend, I also thought “Hey, everybody’s doing it.” These were young people getting married. There were dozens of people holding up iPhones capturing photos and videos of the ceremony. I just assumed I was not the only one posting them to Facebook.

And in my defense, it was a beautiful wedding. It was outside under a giant Live Oak tree draped in Spanish Moss, and it was the same location where her parents had been married. See! Beauty and meaning! It was practically begging to be shared on Facebook.

I was so troubled that when we spoke to the bride and groom at the reception, I barely got out my congratulations before confessing what I had done. In their typical, laid back and inclusive fashion – the groom and groomsmen were wearing Chuck Taylors for crying out loud – Courtney and Matt shrugged it off and said it was fine. They were OK with it.

So if the bride and groom don’t mind, is it OK?

Not to turn this into an episode of “The Marriage Ref,” but I thought I’d let you decide this week: Am I guilty of prematurely sharing an indelible image from someone else’s important life event or was I sharing an event with people who could not otherwise participate because of distance?

You make the call.

We have another wedding in a week, and I need to know how to behave.

Leave a comment below and let me know how you feel on this issue. I don’t want to be still hashing this out with Carla at the next wedding!