Four walls and a roof

I hate moving.

Moving is one of my least favorite activities because when you’re married to Carla, moving means painting. I hate painting.

Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.
Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.

When we first got married we lived in an apartment with vaulted ceilings. Because of her need for color and beauty, she insisted we paint the rooms, forfeiting our security deposit and spending hours painting huge walls. Thus the pattern was established for our marriage.

A year later when we bought our first home, she walked in and pronounced with enthusiasm “This is perfect! We can move in right now!” Little did I know that by “perfect” she meant that I would take a week of vacation to paint every room in the house.

By the time we moved into our current home in Lilburn 11 years ago, I was on to her little scheme. Plus, we were moving for my job, and I was traveling more. Carla did most of the painting herself, so my complaining was really more of just rehashing old inconveniences rather than a current set of circumstances.

This time, though, is not just about the anticipated lower back pain, stirring up dust and pollen to provoke allergies and taking time off work to become physically exhausted for a week straight. This time, there is an emotional pain that underlies the entire process.

As much as I like to put on a façade of stoicism about changing houses, I really have grown attached to our house. We brought our oldest to this house when he was just 2, and we added two more sons here. It’s the only house they have really known.

At some point before we purchased our current house, the previous owners converted the garage into a large room that we use as our playroom. We live in this room more than any other room in the house. I will miss this room and the laughter and tears and conversations it has held. Carla’s colorful paint scheme and cheery window treatments have turned the room into a space for imagination and bonding. Along with the fingerprints, thousands of pushpin holes and furniture marks, there is a coating of love on these walls that can only come from 11 years of being a family together in it.

I wrote a novel in this house – at this very desk I’m writing this blog now. Yes, I know, I need to finish the re-write, but the spot I tuned into the mental channel to get the essential story that became my book happened right here in this house.

Carla and I figured out how to be married in this house. We had been husband and wife only six years when we moved, and we were still sorting out the issues that beset young married couples. Our relationship has only grown stronger and sweeter in our time together in this house.

We have celebrated 10 Christmases in this house, lovingly decorating inside and out each year. All our decorations have a place, and the boys know those traditions. I will miss sitting in my living room with a cup of decaf talking with Carla in the twinkling glow of the lit Christmas tree on cold December nights as we make our lists and travel plans. And of course, I will miss the Christmas mornings in that living room, strategically tucked around the corner from the stairs where for years we’ve forced the boys to pause for photos while Nanny and Poppy get in position to enjoy the scene.

I will miss the dining room or breakfast room, which we used to call it back before we converted the dining room into a guest room, because of all the conversations and laughter we’ve had in that room. I will not miss the tortured cries at having to eat vegetables, but something tells me that will be coming with us to our new eating space.

For the past six years, we have welcomed the young adults of Parkway Baptist Church into our home once a month for Second Sunday. That is truly an incredible time in which we get to extend hospitality to friends who share good food, life’s journey and the presence of Christ. Our cozy living room has been a suitable context for much meaningful dialogue on what really matters.

Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.
Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.

Perhaps more than the inside, I will fondly remember the hours I have spent taming the lawn: mowing, trimming, blowing, pruning, raking, digging and spreading. Yard work is therapeutic, and I’ve left a lot of stress and anxiety out in that yard.

We’re moving less than a mile away. We’re not leaving friendships behind because we will be able to visit and see our friends and neighbors as much as we like. We’re not changing school districts, so the boys will not have to navigate that transition. We’re not painting anything… yet … and this house we’re moving into is a lovingly maintained, beloved home sold by a family who is facing similar sentiments of loss and grief as they leave the place they built and raised a daughter in.

I hate moving, but if I have to move, I’m glad it’s this house and it’s at this time in our lives. We will make new memories there. We will bond even more tightly as a family, especially as Mama gets to spend more time with us in our daily routines. And I’m sure at some point there will be painting.

It’s amazing how attached you can get to a place in 11 years and how much stuff you can accumulate. I’m just glad you don’t have to pack memories. We would need a bigger truck.

Have you ever left behind a house that you loved? Do you like moving and move frequently? Share your favorite home memories in a comment below. It will do us all some good to share our homesickness.

New tricks

Jack is an old dog.

To you and me he’s 16, but according to the Pedigree Dog Calculator, he’s the equivalent of an 80-year-old man.

Jack has outlived his brother, Joe, by about 10 years.

He’s outlived his best friend, my father-in-law, by three months now and counting.

He’s an old dog, but he is showing me every day that life goes on.

Jack, or "Jack Jack" as he is  sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.
Jack, or “Jack Jack” as he is sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.

Jack has come to live with us in Lilburn most of the time. From that first weekend after my father-in-law’s accident when Jack suddenly found himself in a semi-familiar place, full of unfamiliar sights and smells – not to mention a pesky, jittery, hyperactive younger Tobey – he has been adjusting.

As I have written in this space before, I am not predisposed to compassion for canine companions. It has been a struggle to tolerate Tobey’s eccentricities, which I’m sure are instinctual habits for dogs of his nature and nurture. Tobey hasn’t evoked sentimental affection, and when I catch him lifting his leg on the corner of the sofa, it is by sheer force of will that I do not drop kick that animal out of my house permanently.

But Jack is different. He is an old dog.

Yes, I have lost my patience a time or two when his veterinarian version of Lasix kicked in and he couldn’t hold it until he got outside. Or when he failed to communicate that it was time to do his business, and the middle of the playroom floor served as his toilet.

When Jack first come to stay with us, he wandered the neighborhood if we let him out unattended. If we took him out on a leash, he refused or didn’t understand that he was supposed to do his business. He was accustomed to roaming many more acres at his house and at the farm. I tried to remedy this by erecting a series of barricades across our driveway and parking pad to keep him in the back yard.

I either finally succeeded at building a better prison, or he lost the will to escape. The backyard was his domain. But when my father-in-law was moved from a hospital in Augusta to one here in Atlanta, Carla came back home and her mother came to stay. We had to be able to get access to the parking pad and back door. The barricades came down and the free-for-all started over.

Carla couldn’t understand why I went to such lengths just so Jack could wander freely around our spacious back yard.

“Just put him on a leash and leave him out there.”

“Jack is used to roaming,” I insisted. “He’s lost everything else that he enjoyed or that is familiar. I feel somehow like this is what I can do to make things easier for him.”

Carla shook her head. She knows I’m not the most affectionate with animals.

Now that Lanny is gone and Jack’s relocation to our house seems to be mostly permanent, my compassion – and respect – for Jack has only increased. He’s messing in the house much less frequently. Even without a fence, he doesn’t leave the backyard. He’s learned not to accost me at the dinner table. At night, he goes to his blanketed crate on his own without protest or barking. All things considered, he’s a really good dog.

In the morning when I open up the dogs’ crates and let them out before their breakfast, Tobey is out, done his business and run 14 laps across the back yard before Jack has even gotten to his feet. His arthritic stretching is painful to watch. His slow and slippery waddle across the wood floor to the back door is simultaneously pitiful and comic.

Jack is an old dog.

A Pekingese-poodle mix, he was bred to be a companion. As a younger dog, he accompanied Lanny everywhere. He was a great farm dog, frolicking with the goats and giving varmints the what-for, keeping danger, as he perceived it, at bay.

Now he’s essentially in assisted living. He has caretakers he’s only half known and usually tried to escape from when they came to visit his house. He’s adjusted to the noise and trampling and bothersome attempts at play.

During family movie night a few weeks ago, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I picked Jack up, held him in my lap and stroked his fur, careful not to irritate the skin lesions or sore joints. I could feel his overly-rapid heartbeat on my legs and watched his labored breathing expand and contract his abdomen.

Maybe Jack isn’t the only one adjusting. Maybe my care of Jack isn’t really about Jack at all but some small attempt to show kindness to Daddy in the only tangible way I can now that he’s gone.

For as long as we have Jack with us, I will hold him, pet him, clean up after him, feed him and give him his medicine, because maybe, just maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Jack appears to be succeeding with me.

Thank you for tolerating more of my journey of grief over the loss of my father-in-law, Lanny Barron. It’s my hope that these essays don’t bring you down but give you hope. Take a minute to leave a comment and offer your insight, and if you are so inclined, share this post with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I am grateful for your readership.

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!

Commuter dude

I recently changed jobs, and in the process traded a consistent 30-minute commute for a nail-biting daily adventure into downtown Atlanta.

Atlanta traffic
Here’s a clue about my new work destination. It’s also now an all-too familiar view out of my windshield.

Commuting is not a remarkable activity in and of itself. It is a necessary evil for those of us with kids, living the suburban “dream.” And, unfortunately, it is one of those activities that characterizes life in the New South — at least the urban New South.

According to the U.S. Census, Atlanta has the sixth longest commute time — an average of 30.3 minutes — in the U.S., behind such undrivable places as New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago and Los Angeles.

I’ve found that I fall right into that average, depending on what time I leave my house in the morning and the office in the afternoon.

Way back in 2008, Forbes magazine did a piece on the worst cities in America for commuters. No surprise to anyone who has ever been stuck on one of Atlanta’s “thoroughfares,” Atlanta ranked no. 1 on the list of worst cities for commuters. The reasons? Back then, Atlanta was the fastest growing city in America, and infrastructure improvements could not keep up with growth.

Also, the public transit system does not reach out into the suburbs sufficiently to be a convenient alternative to driving. The growth and urban sprawl conspire to put more people behind the wheel because there is simply no alternative.

My new commute is 23.7 miles, one way. If I leave the house in the vicinity of 7 a.m., it’s at least 45 minutes. If I leave before 6:30 a.m., it’s a half hour. This is a no brainer. I’ve latched onto a schedule that has me leaving the house at 5 a.m. (I’m up at this time any way) and arriving at the gym near my office when it opens at 5:30 a.m. That puts me behind my desk and ready to work at 7 a.m., without the stress of fighting traffic.

The afternoon has been a more difficult  puzzle to solve. If I leave between 4 and 4:30 p.m., my commute is about 45 minutes. Departing the office anywhere near 5 p.m., and it’s upwards of an hour. I’ve tried multiple routes already, but the only sure-fire solution is to hit the door before 4:30 p.m.

Atlanta traffic 100 years ago
What a difference 100 years make. This is Peachtree Street, circa the turn of the last century. Now that’s a commute!

It’s taken me 10 years as an Atlantan to get to experience what most Atlantans deal with from day one. It’s early yet, so I have no right to complain, but what the experience is teaching me about life in the New South is enlightening:

1. Time is our most precious resource. Money can’t buy happiness, nor can it give you back the time you spend in your car. Time is a zero sum game. The more time I am in the car in the afternoon, the less time I am spending with my boys or talking to my wife.

2. Transportation must be functional. I used to want a pickup truck. Not anymore. Now I want to replace my 2001 Volvo V70 wagon with the most fuel-efficient car on the market. I’d even drive one of those solar-panelled, sailboat-looking things if it was reliable.

3. Sleep deprivation is deadly. My wife says I don’t get enough sleep. Well, if she is correct, then I need to make some changes. Tooling down the back roads of Gwinnett County while in need of some shut-eye will get you into a ditch. Nodding off while fighting the hordes on the Connector or I-85 will get you killed.

4. Mental health is on the line. Nothing tests your true state of mind like a commute. If you are calm and at peace, it’s no big deal. You’re willing to let someone cut in, you drive safely and patiently, and you make it to your destination in one piece. If you are already amped up before you get behind the wheel, look out world! Road rage will spill over onto your co-workers or family. Serenity now!

5. The Golden Rule applies. Hey, we’re all just people out there trying to get where we’re going. It’s not a race. The most basic of all rules governing human interactions can save lives during a commute — or at least save your sanity.

See you on the highways!

Do you have an awful commute or are just minutes away from the office? How do you cope with commuting? Share your pain or brag by leaving a comment below.

Selling encyclopedias

I was already hungry when I took my seat on the seventh pew on the right of the Decatur Presbyterian Church.

John T. Edge and Charles Reagan Wilson
John T. Edge, left, and Charles Reagan Wilson discuss “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” Sept. 1 at Decatur Presbyterian Church.

After a long day fighting the crowds at Dragon*Con with the boys, Carla and I were enjoying a night out, so naturally I dragged her to the Decatur Book Festival and the panel discussion of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” Hosted by the 24-volume epic’s editor, Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and co-editor of the original “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” the five presenters were luminaries in the field of Southern scholarship:

  • John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of several books, including “Fried Chicken: An American Story.” In addition to serving as editor of the encyclopedia volume on “Foodways,” he also serves as general editor of the book series “Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing” (volumes 1, 2, and 3 of which are available from the University of North Carolina Press.)
  • Ted Ownby, professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of “Subduing Satan: Recreation, Religion, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920” (UNC Press).
  • James G. “Jimmy” Thomas, associate director of publications at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and managing editor of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” series.
  • Larry J. Griffin, is the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences research professor at Georgia Southern University. He holds appointments in the sociology and history departments and directs the university’s American studies program. He edited the volume on social class.

After a brief introduction of the New Encyclopedia by Wilson, who said a new encyclopedia was needed to update the existing “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” because “It’s a new south,” Edge led all of the panelists in making a brief introduction of the “Foodways” volume.

I snapped a few photos and scribbled some notes, all the while my stomach reminding me that all I had consumed during the day was a solitary doughnut, a banana and a chicken sandwich.

Foodways cover
The “Foodways” volume by John T. Edge will evoke plenty of memories as well as provoke your appetite.

Edge talked of yams, lunch counters, ways to cook an opossum and the subject of his volume’s cover photo, okra. Okra is, perhaps, the most Southern of all vegetables, at its best when fried. My mind quickly set on the most recent batch of fried okra I’d had, a different take on the traditional dish served up at Miller Union near the Georgia Tech campus in downtown Atlanta. Miller Union sliced its okra longways and cooked it in a batter that was light on grease allowing the okra to crunch a little on its own. It had good flavor and was satisfying even as one of four options on my vegetable plate.

In fact, it was the second fulfilling helping I’d had of fried okra this summer. The first was a wonderful side dish accompanying the family dinner of ribs we ordered from Lilburn’s Spiced Right Barbecue. It was sliced the more typical way into little nuggets, but the flavor of the batter and consistency of the okra was wonderful.

As each of the panelists took their turn, my note taking dropped off as I fiddled with my new iPhone. There were powerful and humorous anecdotes shared by each of the other panelists, but I stared into space, contemplating the humble okra plant.

fried okra
No. 246’s fried okra satisfied my lecture-induced craving for this Southern delicacy. I normally don’t find photos online of people’s meals very appetizing, but take my word for it, this fried okra was amazing.

The reward for Carla’s patience at the panel discussion was dinner at No. 246 in downtown Decatur. Although it’s not intelligible from the name, the restaurant is actually Italian. So naturally I was shocked to see fried okra listed as an appetizer.

“I don’t care what else we get, but I’ve got to have some okra.”

It did not disappoint.

If I save my pennies, I might be able to someday acquire the entire 24-volume set of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” and I will continue to follow Edge on Twitter, lapsing into drool at his posts on dining and cooking experiences across the South.

But most importantly, I think I experienced what is meant to be the point of his volume on Southern foodways: Southerners have unique cuisine that connects them and evokes strong memories of shared experience.

So as the season for fresh okra winds down, you better not waste any time in getting you a heapin’ plate of it.  You’ll be glad you did.

Do  you like okra? How do you prefer it, in gumbo, fried or prepared some other newfangled way? Share your love/hate relationship with okra by leaving a comment below.

Magnolia malady

How the magnolia became a Southern symbol, I’ll never know. Sure, it thrives in warm, humid climates and has lovely blossoms that emerge this time of year to give the air a sweet and intoxicating aroma.

But, let’s face it, this tree is a mess. It takes a special homeowner who can handle it. I am not that homeowner.

Magnolia leaf
Why do you lie there, mocking me?

I have an admission: what some people call “discipline” in my lifestyle is more accurately diagnosed as a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The more chaotic my life gets, the more I focus on trying to control small components of it. Back during my newspaper days I wrote an entire column on how I enjoyed ironing. Yes, I know. I’m sick.

The magnolia tree feeds that sickness like no other living thing, and this is the season of the year it taunts me the most.

While every other non-evergreen drops its leaves in the fall, the magnolia sheds thousands of its “leaves” in the spring. As my zoysia lawn finally begins to slowly go from brown to green, it gets covered in the ugly, brown and yellow shards of non-biodegradable cardboard that fall endlessly from the giant magnolia in my front yard.

To make matters worse, this year Carla and I finally did what we should have done when we first moved into our Lilburn home nine years ago: we brought in a landscaping company. Instead of experimenting with plants that would end up dying or that we would replant to a more suitable location, we should have just bitten the bullet and had someone give us what we wanted.

They completed the work two weeks ago, and as the greenery has started to take hold and the gardenias started to flower, the magnolia has begun its annual mischief.

I can’t handle it.

Front yard
The view from upstairs bathroom window. Pardon me while I go down and get a few magnolia leaves up.

When I gaze upon my lawn each morning, I have the urge to run out in my pajamas and start picking up leaves. It’s maddening.

Last weekend as our oldest was getting his first shot at mowing the front yard, I helplessly watched as 20 mile-per-hour winds blew hundreds of leaves onto the pristine lawn.

In the fall when my grass goes dormant, I don’t really feel a compulsion to get up the leaves that fall by the truckloads from my two giant silver maples. I usually wait until the week of Thanksgiving to begin blowing and raking, just in time to put up the Christmas decorations at the end of the week.

But when the rest of the yard is blooming and greening and looking its best, the magnolia’s insidious littering drives me to distraction.

Allow me to make a simple proposal: the New South needs a new symbol.

You can make the case for the lovely but sometimes fragile dogwood. Atlanta’s Dogwood Festival at Piedmont Park was just last weekend, so it’s got a good following already.

I would nominate the pine, but those continually falling needles and pine cones put it in the same annoying and high maintenance category as the magnolia. And don’t get me started about the Sweet Gum, with its prickly little balls that render a scamper to the mailbox hazardous.

In the New South, we don’t have time to pick up after our trees.

So, after much thought and deliberation, I humbly submit, the official tree of the New South should be the crape myrtle. Though many people hack it unmercifully, mistakenly believing it won’t bloom otherwise, this seasonal ornamental has become ubiquitous in recently developed areas of the South.

It doesn’t require much, but it doesn’t give much in return. For good or ill, this sounds exactly like a New Southerner to me.

What’s your favorite Southern tree? What’s your least favorite? Would you nominate something else as the quintessential tree of the New South? Leave a comment below to offer your perspective.

Toilet trouble

I believe every homeowner should be able to patch a hole in drywall, install a ceiling fan and stop a running toilet. If self-reliance and resourcefulness aren’t Southern traits I don’t know what are.

My two-week battle with a running toilet tested my convictions in ways that both surprised and infuriated me.

It all started with a stuck flapper. The upstairs commode used primarily by our three boys would run because the flapper would somehow become stuck in the upright position, allowing water to flow ad infinitum from the tank into the bowl.

In addition to an inflated water bill, this relatively minor nuisance also produced one or two incidents of overflowing the bowl when one of our dear offspring clogged it. After several weeks of having to remove the lid and push the flapper back into place, I finally committed to making what I knew from experience to be a simple and inexpensive repair.

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FAIL! Do not attempt to install a Mansfield flapper valve on an American Standard toilet. I believe the technical problem is, as my plumber told me, "It don't work."

I stopped into Home Depot, headed for the toilet plumbing aisle and was reaching for the $2.98 rubber flapper when I was engaged by an under-utilized employee, eager to help. The orange-aproned gentlemen announced he was a plumber by trade and insisted I purchase a top-of-the-line, Mansfield flapper valve and not just the flapper itself. This device, which I had never seen before, was $8.98.

Still inexpensive enough not to raise any alarms, I was taken in by his expertise. He then proceeded to explain the wonders of the pressure valve and asked if I had ever tested my home’s water pressure. Naturally, if one doesn’t know one’s water pressure, one cannot begin to work on a toilet.

So I added a $20 water pressure gauge to my nearly $10 flapper. As I scanned my items at the do-it-yourself checkout lane, my certainty and pride at addressing root causes rather than just surface symptoms began to wane. Doubt crept into my mind as I walked slowly to my car, studying the packaging on the two items.

First, I realized that I had been talked into spending 10-times what I had intended. Second, I discovered that to install this “best flapper valve in the world,” I would have to remove the tank.

Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and I should have stopped right there, turned around and exchanged my purchases for a $3 flapper that would have fixed my known problem. But I didn’t. Good ol’ Southern self-reliance, remember? No, instead, I spent the next two hours wrestling my toilet.

After I finally got the old flapper valve out and the new one installed and tank reattached, I turned the water back on to the tank and proceeded to clean up the mess.

That’s when I heard it: the first shot in the uncivil war between me and that toilet. The refill valve kicked on for a few seconds and then fell silent. I suspiciously eyed the toilet and decided it was just adjusting to the new valve.

After two weeks of the toilet sporadically running for a few seconds every three or four minutes and my changing the level of the refill valve float dozens of times, I finally decided it was more than an adjustment period that was the problem.

I attached the water pressure gauge to the spigot at the back of the house. The Home Depot expert had informed me that a household pressure should be between 40 and 80 PSI. I left the gage attached for 12 hours to allow for any pressure fluctuations. It topped out at 120 PSI.

I reluctantly returned to the scene of my first debacle and detached the tank again and started the process over. With my laptop on the vanity showing the “how to stop a running toilet” video, I checked every possible cause of the problem. Finding no obvious mistakes in my handiwork, I reattached the tank and discovered a new problem.

Not only was the toilet still running every few minutes, it was now leaking. At the pinnacle of frustration and depth of despair I sought the phone number of our neighborhood plumber. The cloud of failure overtook my mood, and what started out so well was now headed into the dreaded contractor zone – all because of a $3 flapper.

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This is my toilet tank, conveniently labeled for all you do-it-yourselfers and arm-chair plumbers to marvel at. This is how it looks after someone who knows what they are doing has fixed it.

A few days later, our plumber friend came over and had our toilet working properly in less than an hour. As it turned out, the “world’s best flapper valve” only works on toilets made by that manufacturer. He replaced the refill valve, which was also damaged in my repairs, and we were back in business. The tank looked exactly as it would have if I had simply replaced the flapper as I had originally intended.

But the not-so-helpful Home Depot helper was right about my water pressure. Our plumber told us that Lilburn runs its water pressure higher than most municipalities, and he gets a lot of business in the area replacing home water pressure valves. Failure to address this problem, which is not something undertaken by even an ambitious do-it-yourselfer, leads to much more costly failures such as the hot water heater, faucets and even washing machines and dish washers.

All told our bill was about $400, roughly half of what it would have been were not for our friend’s aggressive discounting.

So what life application could I derive from this encounter?

I amended my credo about what home projects everyone should know how to do. I now believe every homeowner should have the phone number of a good drywall contractor, electrician and plumber.

Your mental health is worth something.

Can you tell a similar tale about a household project gone wrong? Are you still kicking yourself for turning something simple into a complete mess? Share your story by leaving a comment below. It’s therapeutic!

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.

A 10-minute conversation

When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do?

Think about it.

Let’s take it one step further: When was the last time you had 10 minutes with nothing to do and you did nothing?

Umm-hmm. That’s what I thought.

I’ve been doing a lot of weekend travel for my day job recently, so my boss forced me to take Tuesday off. It’s a sad commentary on my mental status that he had to twist my arm. Seriously, I argued with him about taking the day off. He finally just told me not to come in on Tuesday and muttered something about “gift horses.”

My off day began with sleep – something I get very little of most nights because I’m an early riser. Carla believes I am perpetually sleep deprived, but how else am I going to fit everything in that I need to keep me sane: spiritual disciplines, running and working out and writing.

So when I slept until 8:30 Tuesday morning, it was the latest I had slept in months, including vacations. Rest. What a concept.

Carlton reads "Pete the Cat."
Carlton "reads" his current favorite book, "Pete the Cat."

The morning was great. Carlton and I spent time together before he went to preschool, reading his favorite book “Pete the Cat,” which he basically recited to me. Then it was off to the gym before volunteering in Harris’ first grade class with Carla.

When I entered the classroom, the kids were all in groups working on math centers. Not waiting for an orientation or instructions, I dived in, helping kids with math facts, counting dimes and reading clocks. It was a whirlwind 30 minutes, but every time Harris looked my way, a big smile took over his face. We even stayed for his lunch, preferring not to partake in the cafeteria food but still enjoying Harris’ company.

Lunch was a rare treat. Carla and I enjoyed the special at Always Fresh, the place to go in Lilburn when you have a hankerin’ for some traditional Southern meat and three. We talked about plans for her birthday over baked chicken, pork loin, sweet potato casserole, field peas, mashed potatoes and gravy and cornbread muffins. We skipped dessert on account of the sweet potato casserole.

And that’s when it happened.

We were 10 minutes early to pick Carlton up from preschool. We just sat in our minivan in the parking lot. I turned off the radio. I resisted the urge to pick up my smart phone and allow my burgeoning inbox to rob me of serenity. I looked at my watch. I looked at Carla. We sat still. It was quiet.

“When was the last time we didn’t do anything?” I asked.

Carla then proceeded to give me a summary of a book or something she had read online
about white space and filling our lives up with too much activity.

She held out about another two minutes before her ever-present iPhone was back at her face. She put it down when I mocked her for only being able to be still and converse for five minutes.

Ten-Minute-Pillowcase-Apron
And you thought I was making this up. Go ahead, you can "pin it."

The rest of the day was just as restful, but what stuck out to me was how rare those 10 minutes were. We didn’t have any relational breakthroughs or resolve any of life’s big quandaries. We were warmed by sunshine. We noticed the changing colors of the leaves. We sat still and talked.

More was accomplished in that 10 minutes than in a thousand “to-do” list-filled hours.

In a world where everything from ab workouts to manicures to turning a pillowcase into an apron is advertised as taking “just 10 minutes,” sometimes the best use of that time is to do nothing.

So go ahead. Do nothing. You have 10 minutes. Starting… now.