College visits produce anxiety, nostalgia

The joke about campus tours is that they’re all the same.

This short video from College Humor captures it nicely.

After taking two such tours this week with my middle son, Harris, I’ve concluded that, yes, touring campuses starts to feel like deja vu after a while, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot you can learn about your children… and yourself.

I never took a campus tour at what was then Troy State University before deciding to matriculate there in May of 1988. I took them up on their scholarship offer late in my senior year of high school. It was a practical decision made for purely financial reasons. The first time I set foot on the Troy campus was for pre-college orientation that summer.

Lance and Harris pose with the bronze statue of the Mercer Bear in front of the University Center building.
Harris and I pose for a selfie with the ferocious Mercer Bear outside of the University Center.

I have taken a few campus tours since, and now that I work in higher education, I’ve given a few. Carla and I did a round of college visits with our oldest when he was making his college selection. Visits to University of Georgia, Clemson, and Kennesaw State along with an informal, football-centric trip to Auburn (thanks to our friends, the Hursts!), rounded out his explorations. He ultimately landed at KSU for a year and a half before transferring to Georgia where he is now happily ensconced.

Barron was all about the college experience, particularly the marching band experience. He was coming off two years as drum major of his high school marching band, and he wanted to march in a big-time college band that played big-time games on big-time television and gave him big-time memories. At the time of those tours, he didn’t really know what he wanted to major in, vacillating between communications and music education.

Fast forward three years and he’s now a furnishings and interiors major with a concentration in historic preservation and played his trumpet on the field at the national championship game in Indianapolis back in January. So things worked out just fine. The campus tour did not make or break his future.

Harris Wallace listens to a tour guide outside of the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building on the historic quad of Mercer University's campus.
When we think of Mercer, we think of the historic quad, including the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building.

Our second son, Harris, is different in just about every way possible. While he has loved his marching band experience in high school, he is not seeking that from college. He is already working his 30-year plan, which includes a run for public office concluding with the White House. The two visits he took this week were to Mercer and UGA where one of the chief features the two have in common is a law school. (Emory is on the list to visit as well.)

The rah-rah portions of the tour didn’t appeal to him as much. He did soak up the vibe, which was a hot one this week, but his interests were more about academics, application processes, scholarships, honors programs and dual degrees that allow a student to complete a bachelor’s and master’s in an abbreviated time. His goals are more academic and profession-based than his brother’s. 

As the parents on these tours, Carla and I try to be present and offer advice without taking over. That was easier at UGA than at Mercer from which both of us have a degree. Carla particularly wanted to go into every building to see how it was different from when she went there back in the ‘90s. Spoiler alert: the campus has changed quite a bit.

Harris Wallace poses in front of the University of Georgia School of Law.
Harris can envision himself attending classes here at the University of Georgia School of Law one day.

I think our nostalgia annoyed Harris more than it helped, but our personal connections to the institution made that inevitable. Those connections did lead to Harris getting to meet Mercer President Bill Underwood, something no one else on our tour with Kelli was able to do. I don’t think Harris minded our Mercerian status then.

Here’s what I have learned from the college visit process from two cycles:

Separate emotion from data. Start with your child’s career interests and work backward. It’s not criminal if they don’t know what they want to do, but if they have an idea, it’s a good starting point. Then look at the academic degrees offered. Faculty matter in those fields, too, but don’t get hung up on rankings and reputational stuff. Good students succeed no matter where they are planted. And if you, like us, have some alma maters in the running, try not to let your glory days have too much influence. Our children need to blaze their own trails. If they do choose your school, know that their experience will be different from yours.

Your child’s future is not at stake. Try to relax and help your child enjoy the tour. It may feel like getting into the right school and making the right college choice is a life-or-death decision, but it’s not. Transferring is a reality. There are many paths to success. If you feel your anxiety level rising during the campus tour, take a time out and try not to let your issues infect your child. They will make better decisions without all the extra emotional baggage.

Don’t bring that helicopter. A colleague at another university recently told me that at their college orientation, the student life staff purposely have multiple options for free T-shirts just so they can force students to make a decision. It’s part of their preparation for college. She said all too often parents will step in, or, even worse, the student will turn to the parent and ask them which shirt they should pick. Staff are trained to then redirect the question to the student: “Which shirt do YOU want?” If you haven’t already built the habit of letting your child make some decisions for themselves, the campus tour is a good place to start.

As we wait for test scores and applications to open, I’m working on being present with Harris as he contemplates his future. It’s both a help and a hindrance that I work in higher education. You don’t have to be an expert to help your child navigate this decision, and your child’s choice will not determine the course of their entire life. Their future is still very much in their hands.

We’re on our second of three times through this journey of campus tours and college selection. Harris’ experience is different from Barron’s, and I’m sure Carlton’s will be unique from his older brothers’. 

Harris Wallace talks with a female UGA tour guide on the Million Dollar Staircase on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Harris gets to know “Lou” our UGA tour guide from Greensboro, NC, as they walk down the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

Carla likes to talk about seasons of life. This is one of those seasons that I’m learning to enjoy. It’s fun to reminisce, but I’m trying to let Harris make his own memories.

Hey, let me tell you about that time my roommate Scott skulled a possum in the parking lot of our dorm…

What was your campus tour like? How has it been different with your children? Did you find it stressful? Let’s process this together. Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.

River rescue

From my earliest days as a rookie features writer at The Macon Telegraph in 1992, I heard reporters talk about canoeing the Ocmulgee River and writing about it for the paper.

I was young and foolish enough to attempt it.

In the late summer of 1993 I began the ambitious project of paddling the entire 255 miles of the Ocmulgee River from its origin at the base of Lloyd Shoals Dam at Lake Jackson to the confluence with the Oconee River forming the Altamaha River near Lumber City.

The grand adventure would have been to canoe it from start to finish in one multi-day trip, camping along the route. If you figure the average person can cover 10-15 miles of river a day, you can quickly see how impractical that was. I could not put my life on hold nor would my editors at The Telegraph let me out of my other duties for three weeks.

As I puzzled over the logistics, the Central Georgia River Runners canoeing and kayaking club learned about my ambitious project and one of its members, Joe Beall, took an interest. A former naval aviator and graduate of the Citadel, Joe was single, in his early 40s, and had a lot of time on his hands. He loved kayaking and history, and his unquenchable curiosity provided the impetus and skills I needed to make the journey a reality.

Lance Wallace holds up a Central Georgia River Runners T-shirt beside an aluminum canoe at the shore of the Altamaha River in Lumber City, Georgia, with the Uvalda Bridge in the background.
I earned my Central Georgia River Runners bumper sticker and T-shirt when I finished paddling the Ocmulgee River here at the bridge in Lumber City just below the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers, but I did need rescuing a time or two along the way.

Joe became my unofficial guide. We spent hours together pouring over topographical maps and looking at ways to break the trip into segments. Being a young, single guy myself, I was willing to give weekends and occasional weekday trips to the journey so as not to interfere with my regular workload. We divided the entire project into 10-15 mile excursions, invited the River Runners to join us when they could, and began the quest.

The Ocmulgee River, which derives its name from the Hichti words “oki” (water) and “molki” (bubbling or boiling), acts like two different rivers. The upper Ocmulgee above the Fall Line, which runs just north of Macon, is bubbling like the mountain rivers and streams in north Georgia and Tennessee. There are shoals and rapids through which the water moves quickly and can prove challenging for inexperienced paddlers like I was. Truth be told, I had to be rescued several times after falling in when my canoe was toppled by a small rapid. The River Runners called the shameful act “swimming,” and even devoted a column in their monthly newsletter called “Seen Swimming” to call out those who turned over during an outing.

“Seen Swimming” included my name several times the first few trips because I was so inexperienced. I made the beginner’s mistake of sitting up too high and grabbing the gunnels when I started to lose my balance. I had to learn to fight those instincts, get low in a canoe, and keep paddling to maintain my balance. I think the River Runners drew straws to see who would take me in their canoe those first few trips because they didn’t want to be “seen swimming” along with me.

South of the Fall Line as Georgia’s Piedmont region gives way to the Coastal Plain, the Ocmulgee spreads out, slows down and becomes a wide, meandering river, like a smaller version of the Mississippi. We did several of the southern segments in multi-day, overnight trips camping on the shoreline or on sandbars. Particularly near the end, we tried to cover as much of the river as we could with each trip.

North of Macon, the river ran fairly straight, but south of town, there were stretches where the Ocmulgee was winding and serpentine. Even with Joe’s navigational skills, it was sometimes hard to calculate the distance of a trip from a topographical map.

Such was the case on an early spring day when Joe and I had hoped to paddle a section south of Macon originating near Bond Swamp that would end up at the Bullard Landing public boat ramp near Dry Branch in Twiggs County.

It’s those twists and turns that can make estimating the time and distance tricky on the river.

There were several factors that freighted the day with stress. First, we needed to have The Telegraph’s photographer with us on more of the trips to capture some good imagery to accompany my story. Maryann Bates and I had worked well together on multiple projects, and she had expressed interest. Our plan was to go back after the story was outlined and get photos from the bank, but we did need her to join us on a couple of the trips. We didn’t want to risk her equipment, so picking an easier segment without rapids or shoals seemed ideal.

Maryann was like a big sister to me. Older and wiser, she had taken me under her wing at the paper, dispensing good natured teasing and wisdom in equal measure. She and her husband, Larry, were good friends, and at times I felt like I was part of their family, which back then included three kids. Maryann had commitments that I didn’t, so finding a day to be on the river proved challenging.

When we paddled a section of the river, we had to start the day by setting the shuttle, which meant leaving the canoes and kayaks at the put-in point, driving to the take-out with two vehicles so you could leave one to get you back to your other vehicle at the end of the day, and driving back to the boats at the put-in. Maryann drove a Nissan Pathfinder, so we left the canoe and kayak at the put-in and planned to leave her truck at the take-out. The last half mile of the road to Bullard Landing was red clay, and recent rains left it slick. Maryann handled it well, but we were both tense from the slipping and sliding to get to the takeout.

Once we put in and found our pace, and the trip became pleasant. I could hear Maryann’s camera clicking away, and the warming sunshine eased our minds. That section was somewhat remote, but there was ample evidence we were south of an urban area. We found pockets along the route where fallen trees created eddies that held captive all manner of detritus, including basketballs, styrofoam ice chests, and other garbage that washed into the river from the streets of Macon.

After a full eight hours of paddling, Maryann began to grow anxious about the time. She had a family commitment that evening and needed to be home by 7 p.m. Based on Joe’s calculations, we were doing a 13-mile stretch and should have been off the river well before nightfall. The Ocmulgee’s twists and turns proved deceptive, though, and the sunset, though beautiful, fueled our nervousness about the time.

Finding a takeout, even a well-marked public boat ramp, can be challenging if you’ve never before approached it from the water. It’s easy to miss landmarks because it all looks so different from the river. In the dark, it’s impossible to find your take out. Missing it compounds the aggravation. You eventually paddle so far down river that you realize you must have passed it. You find a spot to get out, leave your canoe where you can get back to it, and walk back up the bank through trees and thickets to where you think your vehicle should be. It can add hours to your excursion.

Maryann’s tight schedule upped the stakes of finding the take out on the first try. With daylight fading, we studied the left bank as we rounded each bend hoping for a glimpse of the Bullard Landing boat ramp. We had been on the river in excess of 10 hours as the dim light of dusk completely faded.

Joe had been apologizing for an hour when Maryann finally broke.

“SHUT UP, JOE!” she yelled at him, unable to contain her frustration.

He wisely held his tongue as we kept paddling in the dark, getting as close to the left bank as possible risking getting hung up in a fallen tree.

Just when I gave up all hope, I heard the sound of a boat motor in the distance behind us. As it grew louder, I turned to look over my shoulder to see the beam of a spotlight scanning the shoreline. Their light hit our canoe, and they called out to us.

“Hey, y’all know where the Bullard Landing boat ramp is?” a friendly male voice called from behind the light.

“We think so. We’ve been trying to get to it,” Joe answered.

“Y’all need some help?”

“Yes! Please!” Maryann answered.

Illuminated by a lantern and the spotlight, our saviors appeared to be two guys in a jon boat. Whether they were fishermen who had been caught on the river by the darkness or deer hunters looking to do some illegal “shining,” we did not know… or care.

They threw us a rope, which Maryann tied to the front of our canoe. They continued sweeping the bank for the boat ramp as they gently accelerated, pulling us safely behind them. Joe followed, pushing his tired arms and shoulders well past exhaustion.

In just a few minutes, they spotted the ramp. When the light reflected off Maryann’s Pathfinder, I exhaled in relief.

Such was life on the river. For the eight months it took us to paddle the Ocmulgee, I experienced an array of feelings: the ecstasy of seeing nature’s beauty, exhaustion from effort, fear of noises in the night, inconvenience of logistical mistakes and accomplishment when each stretch was completed. We had other mishaps. I even turned over our canoe one more time on a more southerly segment when we took a high water cut through and got pinned against a tree trunk. But that night in the darkness, searching desperately for Bullard Landing, I was rescued and I was grateful.

The only clue I have to the identity of our rescuers is a scrap of paper torn from the small manilla envelopes Telegraph photographers used to put their film in for processing. It bears the names “Rusty Evans” and “Dave” in ballpoint pen. There’s a phone number, and the words “coon hunter” and “airboat Bullard’s Landing” written under them.

Rusty and Dave didn’t make it into my story that ran over two successive weekends in The Telegraph June 12 and June 19, 1994. But their rescue has been forever imprinted in my memory.

What I learned from being a ‘Big’

As a husband and father, many of the choices I make are inherently selfless because there are so many people for whom I am responsible. This is baked into the experience of middle age; it doesn’t even register with me as selfless.

What stands out in my mind as one of the most selfless acts I’ve performed was a commitment I made to serve as a “Big” in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in Macon, Ga. This seems so long ago now, back in the early 1990s when I was single and on my own. It was back when being selfless was not baked into my stage of life.

A boy standing next to a boy in a motorized wheel chair.
Cleven and Steven possessed infectious joy.

I went to work as a features writer at The Macon Telegraph in August of 1992 right out of what was then Troy State University. After a summer of working at home mowing lawns and doing odd jobs around my dad’s church office, I was ready and excited to begin my post-college journalism career and live on my own. I don’t think I was any more selfish than any other person at that age who by necessity focuses on themselves as they start their career and begin their life separate from their family. I was in a new place among new people. While I did seek a church, I was not looking for community involvement. As a single guy in my early twenties, volunteering was not high on my to-do list. A series of personal connections put it on my list.

Ed Grisamore was a columnist and long-time news reporter at The Telegraph who was growing into a fixture in the community he chronicled. As his career progressed and the senior members of the writing staff retired, Ed became THE columnist, writing compelling human-interest stories several times a week. Ed’s wife, Delinda, ran the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, and she frequently visited Ed in the newsroom. The features staff sat up at the front of the newsroom, and with her outgoing personality, Delinda never failed to speak to us and engage us with good humor and a positive disposition. She was a welcomed distraction in our day.

Delinda was also an outstanding ambassador for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and never missed an opportunity to promote her organization and her cause. The young people of Macon and Bibb County needed mentoring. They needed adults in their lives who could invest in them. The problem she kept running into was the time commitment. There simply weren’t enough people willing to give the time to a child that the program required. In hindsight I see now that I would never again have so much free time, but back then I, too, felt l was too busy to take on such responsibility. “I don’t have the time” was an excuse, and a poor one at that.

The day Delinda approached me about participating in a new program through the schools requiring only one hour a week, I was defenseless. Tailor-made for people who thought they were too busy to take on the full schedule of having a little brother or sister in the program, this special pilot project let the school counselors identify which students could benefit most from an adult’s involvement. They provided a space at the school for the student and their mentor to meet, and the time was typically around lunch. This allowed the big brother or sister to socialize with their student as well as time to work on academic subjects they needed help with or issues they needed to work out. Delinda recruited several of us in the newsroom during one of her visits, and the built-in accountability of knowing other colleagues had been asked took away any objection I might raise. I signed up, got the background check, and in no time I was sitting at a conference table in the library of Tinsley Elementary being introduced to a third grader named Cleven.

Our first meeting proved challenging. He was friendly, outgoing and delightful, but he would not sit still. He crawled under, around and over the top of the table. Always smiling, he ran circles around the table, and our conversation was halting at best. His incredibly short attention span and hyperactivity were clear issues that would need to be dealt with. But there was something intangible about him that melted my heart. He was so happy and kind. He thrived on winning my attention, affection and approval.

We started by reading together. He read a page, and I read a page. We gradually worked our way up from board books to chapter books, and his counselors reported great improvement in his reading scores. I began to notice, too, that his personality seemed to become more subdued. He was often tired and would put his head down during our sessions. I learned that Cleven had been prescribed medication, and while it was working at calming him down in the classroom, it was making him sleepy and lethargic.

Our lunches were always interesting. At 6-foot-4, I stood out in the elementary school lunch line. His classmates interrogated Cleven about me every time I showed up.

“Who is that?”

“He’s tall!”

“Cleven, is that your daddy?”

Cleven thought the questions were hilarious.

“Nah, he’s just my friend,” he would say.

Tinsley was in the heart of Macon, and Cleven rode the bus from South Macon each day. Tinsley had a program in which kids with a range of physical and/or mental disabilities were integrated into the classroom and not kept apart in special education classes. Cleven was at Tinsley because he had a twin brother, Steven, who had developmental disabilities and was confined to a motorized wheelchair. When I met Steven, I couldn’t miss the resemblance. Steven was as bright and cheerful as his brother. He performed better academically because he was not as prone to distraction as his twin. They gave each other a hard time, but they were mostly sweet together. It was clear that Cleven craved attention partially because his brother received so much of it, by necessity.

When I left The Telegraph to work at Mercer University, I continued to see Cleven once a week during the school year. My new boss, Ben, recruited me to coach a youth basketball team in his church’s Upward Basketball League, a type of youth sport focused on learning the game, building teamwork, and exposing families to faith. Ben thought it might be a good idea to involve Cleven. I got permission from Big Brothers/Big Sisters to transport Cleven from his house to the church for weekly practices and games, and our relationship began to take on a new dimension.

Cleven had never played team sports before, but he was a natural athlete. He was quick and showed good hustle, even if his dribbling and shooting skills were underdeveloped. Upward Basketball divvied up its teams on the basis of skills. Each participant performed a series of drills and was evaluated during a try out. The teams were formed so that talent was evenly distributed across the league. On paper this was a great organizing principle. In practice, however, Upward neglected one key characteristic that impacts success at basketball – height. I had a team with quickness, sound ball handling and decent shooting, but the boys were all undersized. This disadvantage emerged in our first game. When kids who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time loomed over our little players repeatedly blocking their shots. We also had the mathematical anomaly of addition by subtraction. After all the tryouts had happened, teams assigned and practices started, we were assigned a new player. We were not introduced to this new player until the first game. He lived with his grandparents, and like a lot of the boys, had never played sports before, much less basketball. He showed up late for the first game, and when he arrived in the gym, without a uniform or even a sense of which team he was on, he immediately charged onto the court and started harassing the dribbler and trying to steal the ball. I had a lot of work to do.

The season lasted eight or 10 weeks, and our team improved. Cleven and I bonded. On Saturdays, I would load Cleven and Steven into the cab of my little Chevy S-10 pickup, strap Steven’s mechanized wheelchair into the bed of the truck and head to the church gym for our weekly thrashing. We lost every game.

My favorite part was seeing Cleven develop a rapport with the other boys and listen to Steven’s post-game analysis on the way home.

“Cleven, your team is terrible!” Steven would say with brutal honesty. “You guys can’t even shoot the ball.”

“Shut up, Steven.”

“I mean, you pass it around real good, but you can’t get it in the basket.”

“Yeah, well you can’t even walk. What do you know about basketball?”

One weeknight after practice, I had to take one of my other players home in addition to Cleven. He lived way out in North Macon, practically in Monroe County. As we rode out of the city limits and deeper into the woods, Cleven asked excitedly, “Where are we going? There aren’t any lights out here. We must be in the country now. I’ve never been to the country.”

Cleven and I went a lot of places we had never been before. I was introduced to his parents one day when I was still working at The Telegraph. My editor, David, who was bent on expanding my cultural horizons, insisted on taking me to his favorite soul food restaurant. It happened to be the one where Cleven’s parents both worked. I could see the family resemblance with his father immediately. He inherited his father’s smile and his mother’s kindness. As I watched David eat his pig’s ear and grin, I couldn’t help but wonder who benefitted most from this relationship, me or Cleven.

The program ended when Cleven went on to middle school. I called him occasionally for a few years to keep in touch, but then my life took its own turns. I got married, we bought house, we started a family, we moved to the Atlanta area, and over time I lost track of Cleven. A few years back I found him on Facebook. He seemed to be well and doing fine. At least that’s what his curated social media presence showed. In any case, I hope I made a difference to him. He certainly did to me.

It’s hard to call this a selfless act, though, because I gained so much from it. Doing something for someone else and becoming involved in his or her life with no strings attached and no expectations of receiving anything in return was transformative. It prepared me for the stage of life I’m in now. It helped me grow as a person. It defined my character. I am grateful Cleven was a part of my life.

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.

A trip to Georgia’s oldest city to feel new again

I’ve kicked around Georgia now for more than 21 years, almost half my life. In all that time, I had only been to Savannah twice.

The third time was definitely a charm last weekend as Carla and I were able to parlay a work event Friday night into an excuse to leave the boys with Carla’s parents and have a weekend away.

It was just what the doctor ordered for us in the early stages of a rat-race school year overly filled with scouts, band, work and other volunteer responsibilities that prevent such basic relationship necessities as uninterrupted conversations and rest.

You can't beat the Westin Savannah Harbor for a weekend getaway. It's across the river from downtown, but worth the extra distance.
You can’t beat the Westin Savannah Harbor for a weekend getaway. It’s across the river from downtown, but worth the extra driving distance.

We stayed at the Westin Savannah Harbor overlooking the Savannah River, and were treated to a great, 11th floor view of the channel and its bustling activity: freighters laden with containers, tugboats trailing or pulling the container ships, ferries running tourists back and forth to River Street and even the occasional personal watercraft piloted by those who don’t think the last weekend in September is too late in the year to be in the water.

We purposefully did not fill our schedule, although we had contemplated everything from a historic trolley tour to a ghost tour.  Instead, we just went with our impulses. Sleeping late, brunch, enjoying a breezy walk down River Street and ultimately up into the historic downtown. Inadvertently accomplishing a major Christmas shopping milestone and sampling the goods at Byrd’s Cookie Company was as ambitious as our day got.

We left plenty of time for napping poolside and a stack of Southern Livings and Garden & Guns.

The Olde Pink House is supposedly haunted and is one the Savannah Ghost Tour. The food is hauntingly good.
The Olde Pink House is supposedly haunted and is on the Savannah Ghost Tour. The food is hauntingly good.

As much as we enjoyed each other’s company, the highlight of the trip was dinner Saturday night at The Olde Pink House, a Savannah landmark and memorable culinary and cultural experience. Our good friends from Macon, Dusty and Tonya, have survived several vacation outings with us, including a cruise, and are the kind of good friends every couple should have.

They invite you to be yourself in a sincere way, laugh at your jokes, empathize with your child rearing challenges because of their own three kids, and know enough of the same people to gossip but have enough new in their lives to keep conversation interesting. And since they moved to Savannah two years ago, they have an intimate knowledge of the city they now call home.

Interestingly enough, though we spent the better part of six hours together, our conversation tended to break into gender-specific cliques. They talked home decorating while we talked football and Georgia Tech, Dusty’s alma mater and my employer.

Not one to have to be the life of the party, Dusty gave us an unexpected treat when The Olde Pink House’s roving improvisational singer came by the table. His premeditated, and perhaps rehearsed, harmonizing with the vocalist on Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” including the whistling part, gave our friendship yet another lifelong memory and the room full of diners something to giggle and whisper about. What can I say, that’s just Dusty.

The Savannah City Hall is a landmark that may be impossible to take a bad picture of. It's one of many beautiful historic landmarks in the city filled with parks and squares.
The Savannah City Hall is a landmark that may be impossible to take a bad picture of. It’s one of many beautiful historic buildings in a city filled with parks and squares.

Here’s what I learned from the weekend: you appreciate a time out from your regular routine more when it’s infrequent. You need time away from your children in order to appreciate them more. You should never fail to appreciate good friends because you never know when circumstances may separate you. And, finally, you can appreciate your spouse more if you have time to actually talk to him or her.

Anyone within a few hundred miles should plan a trip to the oldest city in Georgia – just don’t do it during Spring Break. That’s when we’re planning a return. This time we’ll bring the boys along and have a different kind of memorable weekend that will help the entire family bond.

What do you like or dislike about Savannah? Have you ever been? What are must-dos and must-eats in this historic city? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

My cheatin’ foot

When you try a different hair stylist or dental hygienist, don’t you feel a little bit like you’re cheating on the relationship?

Since the mid-1990s I have been buying my running shoes at Phidippides, the first-ever specialty running store which opened in 1973 in Tallahassee, Fla., and now operates at Atlanta’s Ansley Mall. Even when I lived in Macon, I would drive to Midtown Atlanta to buy my running shoes from real runners who knew what they were talking about as opposed to the teenagers in referee uniforms at those shops in the mall or the big box stores.

screen image of my high arches
I have a high arch… so says the computer screen and the eyeball test.

For at least the last three years as I have dealt with a number of injuries, a running buddy of mine has been trying to convince me to visit Big Peach Running, an Atlanta running store chain that opened in 2004. He talked about their fit process and how they looked at your feet on some sort of scanner and then videotaped your gait and foot falls on a treadmill to determine your needs in a running shoe.

I stubbornly protested, saying I preferred the low-tech approach of Phidippides where they watch you run with their eyes and tell you the same information. I said I didn’t want to succumb to the “soul-less, technology-driven” approach of the new-fangled Big Peach.

After logging WAY too many miles on my shoes, I decided it was time to get some new ones. I had been complaining about my shoes to anyone who would listen for several months. Finally, my wife had heard enough.

“Go buy some shoes already!” was her less than sympathetic response.

Now that I work in Midtown, I made plans to slip over to Phidippides during a lunch hour. Before I could go, though, my running buddy made one last appeal for Big Peach. This time when I launched into my old school argument, he was ready.

“Wait, don’t you work at Georgia Tech? Why are you so afraid of technology?”

Touché.

I looked up Big Peach’s locations and found a brand new one on Peachtree Street, 1.7 miles from my office. Resistance was futile. I was assimilated.

During lunch last Friday, I drove over to the new Big Peach location, feeling guilty for abandoning my beloved Phidippides. The clerks, who, like at Phidippides, were clearly very knowledgeable runners, asked me the same diagnostic questions I used to get at Phidippides:

  1. How much are you running these days?
  2. What are you are currently running in?
  3. Are you having any problems?
  4. Are you training for something specific?

screen image of food landing in stable position
My foot lands in a stable position. Extra cool shot of my ankle, too, with my dress pants rolled up.

Because I knew all these answers so readily, they started to just pull some shoes they knew would work and go from there. But I sheepishly said, “Aren’t you going to do all that high-tech stuff to my feet?”

Embarrassed, they backtracked and had me step on the sensor pad to measure my arch. I have a high arch, by the way, which I already knew.

Then, they put me on the treadmill with the little camera aimed at my feet. I took off and actually got it going a little too fast (on accident, not to show off) so that my foot fall images were blurry. They found a clean frame and showed me how my stride is stable. I neither over- or under-pronate. I have a stable foot and need a neutral shoe. Again, this was information I already knew.

They let me trot around in the newest model of the Asics Gel Cumulus, which I’ve been running in for the better part of 10 years. They felt great, like rubber-soled comforters for my feet.

For grins, they showed me perhaps the ugliest shoes I have ever seen in my life. Newtons, they were called, as in Sir Isaac. And, no, they were not of the fig variety. They were of the $170 variety. They had little rubber blocks on the sole under the ball of the foot designed to induce proper running form. In case you’re not keeping up, these days proper running form is to land on the mid-foot or ball of the foot rather than the heel-to-toe technique most of us grew up learning.

My new Nike Flyknit Trainers.
Money, it’s gotta be the shoes. Nike Flyknit Trainers will get me over the hump in qualifying for Boston.

I donned these hideous shoes and trotted around a bit. They felt good and actually did make me run on the balls of my feet. But it wasn’t $170 worth of improvement, so I tried out the sports car model. These chartreuse Nike’s Flyknit Trainers were the lightest shoe I had every picked up. Made with engineered fabric, the shoes weighed just 1.2 ounces each. For legs that aren’t getting any younger, I swallowed my pride and bought the brightest pair of shoes I will ever own.

I am officially in the 21st Century of running. I wear neon green shoes that have a little pocket in the insole for a microchip (which I did not purchase) that can sync via Bluetooth technology with my iPhone to record my runs. I shop at a store that scans your feet electromagnetically and uses video cameras to record your running motion. I have officially moved to the New South of running.

I may not be the six million dollar man, but with these new shoes, I am the $145 man. I just hope they will help me qualify for Boston soon or else I may go back to my Luddite ways at Phidippides.

How hi-tech are your trainers? How do you buy your shoes? Have you succumbed to the technological generation and go for every GPS, heart-rate-monitor, sensor and microchip available?  Leave a comment and sure your running technology preferences.

The Yahoo Policy

Once upon a time there was a place people went in order to complete tasks and earn a paycheck. This place was called an office.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO
CEO Marissa Mayer rescinded the Yahoo “work from home” policy. She may not be laughing long.

About the time commutes, family needs and office culture conspired to nearly eliminate productivity 10 or more years ago, companies began letting their employees telecommute or work from home. The new work place is distributed – it can be anywhere your laptop or tablet can get an Internet signal: coffee shops, airports, hotels, public transit or even your kitchen.

This reality of the contemporary work place was challenged this week when Yahoo’s CEO and new mom, Marissa Mayer, issued a new directive requiring employees to work from the office. Flying in the face of recent corporate trends, the move has set off a firestorm of criticism.

My own experience with working from home was a gradual progression. When I first took the CBF communications job in 2002, I commuted from Macon to Atlanta four days a week and was allowed to work from home on Wednesdays until I relocated to the Atlanta area. It lasted four months, but with laptops and cell phones, my Wednesdays were as connected and as productive as any other day of the week.

But I didn’t like not being physically there. While I was glad to avoid the 90+ minute commute, it was difficult to build rapport with new colleagues, learn a new culture and be a part of essential meetings and conversations. Doing this remotely was a challenge.

My boss didn’t have hang-ups with working from home. In fact, he encouraged it. He worked from home on Fridays as a way to catch up, particularly after a busy week of travel. As my role evolved into more of a “No. 2” in the office and his proxy, I began to feel a real internal conflict over working from home. I felt I needed to be there to answer questions and collaborate, but because I was attending so many meetings and had so many interruptions, I was having difficulty getting my work done.

So I started working from home one day a week during the school year, when the house was empty. It was a good catch up day, and with my trusty laptop and mobile phone, I was always accessible.

Now that I am in a new job learning a new culture and building new relationships again, I feel a need to be in the office. I have worked from home once or twice, and the option is certainly available to me at Georgia Tech. But I find once again the need to be physically present.

productivity
Where are you most productive? Work there.

This is where I resonate most acutely with Yahoo’s policy. Deep down I really do believe “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” to quote Mayer’s memo. But I also understand and need for flexibility for myself and my employees. There are some tasks that are better suited for working at home, and there are some times when working from home solves a lot of personal/familial scheduling problems.

A story on the policy change from NPR this week quoted one worker as saying she appreciated the ability to work from home because it sent the message that the company trusts its employees. Yes, that is a powerful morale boost. As long as the trust is rewarded with performance, it’s hard to argue against a work from home policy. But when work from home becomes “work at home” and an employee spends his or her day doing laundry, watching children or surfing the Internet, I believe that is theft.

Yes, I’m a little old school. Yes, I am also extroverted and like the interaction with people. Yes, I waste too much time getting involved in interacting with colleagues in the work place.

But no matter what Yahoo decrees, I believe work from home is as much a part of the modern workplace – as much a part of the culture of the New South – as being tethered to the office through mobile devices. I have yet to hear if Yahoo will rescind all of the laptops and mobile devices it gives its workers or alleviate them of the responsibility of responding to phone calls or e-mail while at home.

If it does make this radical shift, I might believe the move has merit and the company respects work-life balance. Because Mayer is having a nursery built next door to her office, a perk no other employee at Yahoo can pull off, I believe the company is blurring the lines between work and life even further, and the draconian “no working from home” will be a failed policy that is scrapped before the end of the year.

Now, I need to get back to some email. It’s Saturday morning and the kids will be up soon. What’s that about work-life balance?

Where is your favorite place to work? Do you prefer to work in the office, at home, a coffee shop, in nature? Where do you get the most done? Leave a comment below and enlighten us as we achieve maximum productivity.

An encounter with the irascible Dr. Sams

Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.
Dr. Ferrol Sams with his characteristic grin.

Dr. Ferrol Sams died this week at the age of 90. If you don’t know who he is, then shame on you.

He might have said something to the effect of “You ain’t got a lick-a-sense if you’ve never read my books.”

The author of “Run With the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River” and “When All the World Was Young,” is one of Georgia’s best-known and best-loved writers. His passing this week reminded me of my discovery of his work and my dealings with the mischievous and sometimes profane Southern literary luminary.

It was January of 1993, six months into my stint as a features writer for The Macon Telegraph. I was given the assignment of researching and revealing Macon’s “secret places” – those rumored and legendary haunts around town that many had heard of but few had ever seen. It was a great story that took several weeks of interviewing and reading to pull together. It was in the reporting for this story that I first learned of Ferrol Sams and his work.

One of the secret places I was including in the piece was a room at the base of the spire of Mercer University’s administration building where Porter Osborne Jr., Sams’ main character from the “The Whisper of the River,” lost his virginity. Incoming Mercer freshmen are required to read “The Whisper of the River,” but since I had not matriculated at that fine institution at the time of my story assignment, I hadn’t even heard of Ferrol Sams.

I devoured the book – a thinly veiled autobiographical novel of Sams’ time at Mercer. In the book, Osborne, a country boy, goes off to Willingham College in the fictional version of Macon, and mad-cap and bawdy adventures ensued, including, of course, the chapter when Osborne has his fledgling sexual encounters in the secret room in the bell tower.

It was just such chapters that led my friend and fellow church member, the late Dr. William Shirley, to tell me one day after church “Lance, that’s a dirty book.” Dr. Shirley was a classmate of Dr. Sams at Mercer, and although I went back and re-read “The Whisper of the River” looking for him, I couldn’t figure out which character represented Dr. Shirley.

At Mercer University's 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.
At Mercer University’s 175th Anniversary in 2008, Ferrol Sams signs the Mercer tower.

It was somewhat awkward the day I went with Telegraph photographer Maryann Bates to Mercer to do interviews about the room. A young, rather attractive woman from the University Relations Office escorted us up to the room where she told us all about the space and how it achieved notoriety.

I remember blushing and stuttering the question “So, is this the room where… you know… IT happened?”

Maryann couldn’t suppress a laugh at my poor attempt at euphemism.

When the story appeared, I received a letter from retired – and now deceased – Macon attorney Hendley Napier. Mr. Napier insisted my story had incorrectly identified the location of the secret room as the Kappa Alpha fraternity’s chapter room, and he was most offended.

My editor, James Palmer, and I went back and forth over how best to respond to Mr. Napier. It was this experience that taught me there is no one more tenacious than a retired attorney with time on his hands. James determined that Mr. Napier reached his conclusion about my story erroneously. I had not said the KA chapter room was the secret room, but some imprecise language, specifically the antecedent of the impersonal pronoun “it,” was the source of the confusion. We did not run a correction or even a clarification.

This didn’t sit well with Mr. Napier who proceeded to carry out a one-man campaign against me and The Telegraph until justice was done and the KA chapter room exonerated. In one of the letters, Mr. Napier threatened to contact Dr. Sams himself to set the record straight.

About a month later, as I struggled with writing original prose about the 1993 Macon Cherry Blossom Festival, the phone at my desk rang. (The following is a loose transcript based on my memory, not the actual notes.)

“Macon Telegraph, this is Lance Wallace,” I recited.

“Is this Lance Wallace?” came the agitated response.

“Uh, yes… yes, it is. How may I help you?”

“You the one who did that story about the secret room at Mercer?”

“Yes… yes sir, I’m the one.”

“Well, I don’t know what you did, but you sure got Hendley Napier all stirred up.”

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry.”

“This is Dr. Sams up in Fayette County. It seems you have written something about my book and have Hendley Napier all out of sorts. He asked me to give you a call to clear this up. You got a pen?”

“Uh… yes, yes sir, right here.”

The cover of the copy of "Whisper of the River" I read back in 1993.
The cover of the copy of “Whisper of the River” I read back in 1993.

“Good. You take this down: The Kappa Alpha Chapter Room at Mercer University is a hallowed and sacred place. Many significant rites and solemn vows were made in that room where the bonds of brotherhood were firmly established with the utmost fervor and conviction. No male human could possibly attain an erection much less consummate the act of sexual intercourse in so grave and somber an environment. Furthermore, any rumor contradicting the widely-known and indisputable fact that Hendley Napier graduated Mercer University anything other than a virgin is an egregious and bald-faced lie.”

“Uh… Dr. Sams… uh… I can’t…”

“Son, you ain’t got no hair on your ass if you don’t put that in the newspaper.”

“Well… I don’t  think…”

“If that Hendley Napier calls you again, please tell him I called. Have a good day.”

Stunned, I slowly returned the handset to the base and stared down at the scribbling in my reporter’s notebook. When I relayed the conversation to my editor, James laughed so hard he nearly had tears. Shaking his head he said to me, “Yep, that sounds like Ferrol Sams. You be sure to keep those notes.”

Well, I’m sure I have those notes somewhere in my basement, but the memory is so vivid they are unnecessary.

I’m sorry to learn of his passing, but at 90, it can be said that Ferrol Sams lived a full life. I’m glad he shared it with us through his books.

Have you read any of Ferrol Sams’ work? If so, which is your favorite? Leave a comment with your assessment of his writing. You don’t have any hair… well, you get the idea… if you don’t leave a comment!

Guys’ night out

“Decompression” is the best word to describe my rare night out with the guys last Tuesday.

The idea for the outing sprang up last week when I saw that the San Francisco Giants were coming to town to play the Atlanta Braves. Carla was amenable to giving me the night off, so plans were set in motion.

Brian and Daniel
Brian, left, and Daniel, right, met all the requirements of compatriots for a guys’ night out: they’re guys.

I haven’t seen a Braves game since my buddy, Bob, moved away several years ago, and I felt it was time. My friend, Brian, is a life-long fan of the Giants, and our mutual friend, Daniel, lives in Grant Park, about a mile from the stadium. Not only did he provide free parking, Daniel’s baseball knowledge combined with Brian’s pop culture omniscience set the tone for the perfect guys’ night out conversation.

Admittedly, Daniel is better friends with Brian, based on a relationship that dated back to when the two were in seminary at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, but baseball talk is a universal language, and our conversation was easy and constant all night.

It’s been my experience that when guys attend a ball game, they talk about all of the previous times they have been to ball games. Over time, our memories fade, and we are left more with impressions than the ability to relive the experience play-by-play. Details such as who hit home runs, who pitched, special promotions, the importance of the game, whether someone achieved a milestone or broke a record, who won, weather conditions and run-ins with unruly fans all coalesce to form the substance of guys’ ball game conversations.

Our view at Turner Field
Our view from the lower level, first base side in right at Turner Field.

None of this talk was of earth shattering importance, but that was precisely the point. No problems to solve, no children to console, no “honey-do” lists or sharing our feelings. The two married guys were only interrupted by phone calls from our wives once a piece. That’s notable.

For Braves fans, Tuesday night was completely forgettable. The Braves lost 9-0, thanks mostly to a poor outing by Jair Jurrjens and clutch hitting for the Giants by Leesburg, Ga., native Buster Posey, who drove in five runs. But the outcome didn’t matter. For a few hours we were just guys talking about baseball. I’m sure our analysis was flawed, our view of bang-bang plays obstructed and our stories exaggerated. Still, the evening met all the criteria for a great night out.

Afternoon showers that stopped just before game time gave us a cooler-than-normal climate to enjoy being at “The Ted.” Our first level seats, bought off the Internet for a steep discount, were ideal for watching Jason Heyward track down fly balls hit to right field.

Buster Posey
Buster Posey drove in five of the Giants’ nine runs. Oh well, if you have to get beat by somebody, may as well be a Georgia boy.

We weren’t accosted by any obnoxious fans, and there were no drunk loudmouths to ruin the evening. Through social media I learned that our church friends, the Akins, were also at the game, and when I looked up at the giant screen between the first and second inning, I saw more church friends, the Willises, laughing it up and having a good time. I learned the next day that our friends from Macon, the Brownes, were also at the game. It was a veritable family reunion.

And speaking of family, I’m beginning to feel that it’s time to take the boys to a game. If our friends, the Ortons, can take their almost one-year-old son, Jack, then I think we can stand to get Harris and Carlton to their first game. Barron is old enough to understand what’s going on now, and Carla always enjoys a chance to people watch.

There will be a time when my whole family makes it to a game, but sometimes you have to hang out with just the guys. It’s just necessary.

At the risk of sounding like the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” I don’t need a guys’ night out often, but when I do, I like the Atlanta Braves. Stay baseball fans, my friends.

Where do you like to go for guys’ night out? Where do you send your husbands or boyfriends when they need to get away or you need them to get away? Have you had memorable nights at a Braves’ game? Join the conversation by sharing your comments below.

Method to my madness

Today marks the 52nd weekly post of New South Essays, and it’s high time I let you in on a little secret: I started this blog a year ago to capture your attention, entice you to engage with my writing and whet your appetite for my book.

chapter 1
I'm five and a half years into my first book. Hopefully the others will take less time.

This journey began in 2006. Two years after completing an MBA, I was in need of a new intellectual pursuit, a challenge that provided a creative outlet. I needed a mental exercise that matched the physical exercise of my foolhardy marathon hobby. So I returned to my first love – writing.

My day job in public relations had progressed to the stage in which I spent more time managing budgets than crafting sentences. My need for written expression was going unmet. During our family vacation to Santa Rosa Beach in July 2006, I wrote a chapter a day on the novel I had been kicking around in my head for a few years.

For the next four years I got up early each Saturday and wrote a chapter. My only reader was Carla, who found the book captivating enough to anticipate the next week’s installment with her Saturday morning coffee. A loving but unhesitating editor, she offered instant feedback, telling me when a character was inconsistent, a plot line implausible or dialogue hollow.

By the time I finished the first draft, while on vacation in Santa Rosa Beach exactly four years later, I had generated 146,912 words in 76 chapters. Disjointed and choppy, amateurish and unwieldy, the as-yet-unnamed project was a long way from being finished. I put it aside for six months, dreading the hard work of paring it down to a more reasonable length and a more comprehensible story.

The Saturday after the 2011 blizzard had kept all of Atlanta homebound for a week, I met a friend’s dad for coffee. He is a published author, and I had arranged to talk with him ostensibly about what was involved in the publishing process. Sam gave me all that and more. I came away from our conversation with a renewed commitment to seeing the task through, and picked back up on the rewrite.

I’m now 54 chapters into the first rewrite, splitting my early morning writing time between editing and writing New South Essays. I’ve loved the weekly discipline of writing the blog, and your response and feedback has only encouraged me to continue. For an old newspaper hack like myself, a weekly column is a familiar medium and the consistency of it appeals to my regimented and disciplined side.

My free-spirited side is fed by working on the book. If I’m honest, I’d have to guess that I’m still a year or more away from having a polished manuscript to show prospective agents and publishers. An editor friend and former roommate has the first five chapters, working to help me improve it, one installment at a time.

Macon post card
Before you can leave Macon, you have to go there first.

What I’d describe as contemporary Southern fiction, the book is tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and it chronicles the life of a young junior leaguer who in one tumultuous year discovers her husband is unfaithful, her three-year-old is unruly, her acquired wealth is unfulfilling and her identity unsettled. Through a series of new relationships, including her son’s redneck Tae Kwon Do instructor and an African-American woman restaurateur, she uncovers her true self and finds courage to move forward with her dreams.

Thank you for coming along with me and giving me courage to move forward with my dreams. There’s plenty more to discover and report on in the New South, and I welcome your ideas and participation. Who knows where this will lead.