Pandemic Parenting

I’m no expert, but it’s not hard to observe that parenting has shifted radically in the new millennium, especially in the South.

Gone are the days when a child would have their mouth washed out with soap, their face slapped or their bare bottom switched. Now, we send small children to the timeout chair. We place our pre-teens and teens on restriction. We have serious discussions about expectations, choices and consequences.

We all feel so much more civilized about our discipline methodologies. It’s rare for somebody to get a whoopin’ in the New South.

But the new ways break down quickly when society is upended, and nothing in recent memory has brought us to the brink of a societal breakdown like the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re all — parents and children alike — pushed past the limits of our patience. Who among us has not at least thought about bringing back the old ways, just once, and giving our mouthy offspring a swat on the behind?

Parents joking about their failures and wishing to return to a simpler time of punishments fill social media. We respond with our LOLs and SMHs knowing the feeling all too well.

In the heat of the moment, when a transgression surfaces and must be confronted,  it feels like a life-or-death struggle against the galactic forces of evil. We believe our children’s belligerence and disrespect must be stamped out or civilization will fall and they will grow up to be misanthropes.

In these dark days, we resort to the only tool seemingly left to us: taking away screen time.

laptop, iPad, Nintendo Switch, wireless earphones
This is what disciplining children looks like in the New South. We hope by taking away the laptop, tablet, game system, and wireless earphones, we are getting our kids’ attention.

Pre-pandemic, this was a relatively mild punishment. Depending on the duration, our children might actually prefer to have their devices confiscated for a few hours. I know in our home, not only did grounding from screens restore stability, our children actually seemed happier and more engaged in creative pursuits like reading, music, art and cooking. Each punitive action produced a mini Renaissance that restored our hope in them and their future.

That was then.

Now, if we remove the devices from our children’s lives for even just a day, it feels like we are cutting off their supply of oxygen. It’s the only pleasure they have left, their only connection to friends, their only outlet to escape the drudgery of isolation and quarantine.

In the pandemic, taking away screen time is the nuclear option.

We have to be careful to avoid the brinkmanship that leads to that ultimatum. If someone goes to the “no screen time”  penalty too quickly, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that results has no remedy. All that is left to silence the outcry is lengthening the time of the restriction. It’s a vicious cycle that ends with the parent losing their sanity, credibility or both.

This is the universal parenting quandary of the pandemic, and it is not limited by geography. Parents in the New South find themselves grappling with the same problem as parents across the globe.

So, what’s the answer?

Like I said, I’m no expert. 

As with everything during these seemingly endless days trapped in our homes, all we can do is try our best, exercise as much patience as possible and ask for forgiveness when we go too far.

Oh, and start saving for therapy bills. We’re all going to need to talk this out with someone when it’s over.

Maybe you’ve found a solution. What punishments have you found particularly effective during the pandemic? Please, by all means, share! Leave a comment and let us in on the secret.

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.

Truth in labeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all downhill

These were two journeys I didn’t want to take.

I was less than thrilled to be “voluntold” by my wife back before Christmas that I was chaperoning our son’s first snow skiing adventure in January with the youth from church. This attitude was mirrored in my less-than-enthusiastic embrace of said son reaching the adolescent milestone of turning 13 last week.

Barron and Lance on top of Beech Mountain
Barron and I have a literal mountain-top experience before heading down the slopes at the end of his first ski trip.

Why not? What’s there to be afraid of? Plenty.

I have reached the age when the number one question I ask myself before undertaking physical activity is “What are my chances of getting injured?” I am also at the comfortable parenting place where my children are all still responsive to my direction and shower me with attention and affection. Having the oldest transition to the teen years and threaten my sense of control feels like an activity in which I could get injured.

The last time I had been on Beech Mountain near Boone, N.C., was 18 years ago. I had to be sledded down the slope in that body basket thing, trailing behind a member of ski patrol. I had fallen head first over my skis on a patch of ice up on the mountain and twisted my knee. Even though I didn’t do any major damage to my knee and a few days of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) was all that was required to recover, I had this in the back of my mind as I journeyed in a 15 passenger van the five hours to the High Country of North Carolina.

This step of parenting a teenager is unprecedented for me. I have no prior experience with it. I have certainly heard the horror stories. I myself was a teenager once. Failing at this parental skill doesn’t just twist body parts, it breaks hearts. It’s been hard to really look forward to this milestone.

Barron snow skiing on the bunny slope
Barron and Johnny ready to tackle something more challenging than the bunny slope.

But Carla was right. The first time our son put on a pair of skis to go hurdling down a mountainside, I needed to be there. Probably. The parenting challenge of skiing with my son was this: help him learn how to ski without holding him back or undermining his confidence. Oh, and that thing about not getting injured myself. To make matters more complicated, I stumbled onto this parenting article from Forbes magazine that several of my Facebook friends recently posted: “7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors that Keep Children from Growing into Leaders.” I spent the ski weekend constantly evaluating myself on these criteria while trying not getting maimed.

This is exactly why the teen years are so important. Rationally, I know that you have to give your kids opportunities to fail, even ones that feel dangerous, so that they can learn from their failures and gain confidence from their successes. Emotionally, it’s very difficult to allow your child to experience pain, disappointment and regret. It’s hard to let go.

Like everything he does, Barron tackled the challenge of learning to ski methodically. While his more experienced friends dashed off to the green and blue slopes, he and I spent the first full day on the bunny slope, taking lessons and practicing the basics. By the end of the first day, he had built up enough courage to tackle a little hill that ran from the resort down to the bunny slope.

Barron opens presents on his 13th birthday
Barron is thrilled to get “Captain Phillips” on Blu-ray. What he may not understand is that his becoming a teenager is a big deal for his younger brothers, too.

On the second day of our ski trip, his goal was to tackle the green slope. And he did great. Of course he fell, but he was able to get back on his feet and continue down the hill without my help. It wasn’t long before he was able to join his friends.

That’s what I’m talking about:  that abandonment. It’s that moment when they are confronted with the choice of hanging out with you, the parent, or their friends. That can be very frightening, particularly if you have questions about your teenager’s friends. I know that teenagers need some separation from their parents so they can differentiate themselves, become their own person and continue growing toward independence.

Anyone who has been skiing before knows that one of the trickiest maneuvers for beginners is dismounting the lift. This proved to be the biggest challenge for Barron as well, but I have to admit, I was proud of how he handled it. He and Johnny fell the first time, but then, they started dismounting cleanly. One of his biggest spills coming off the lift occurred, though, when he and I went up the lift together. A couple of tall and gangly guys, all knees, skis and poles, got tangled as we stood up and the chair dispassionately deposited us in a heap.

When parents get too involved in their teen’s lives, it trips up both the teen and the parents. The result is more than bumps and bruises and embarrassment. The child’s maturity is stunted, his self-reliance undermined and the specter of self-doubt looms in every of decision. The parent is emotionally crippled, his or her life becomes vicarious and borrowed from their child and he or she loses all sense of perspective.

I’ve been told that parenting a teenager is not for the faint of heart. Flipping on the Olympics and watching Bode Miller on a downhill run will show you that skiing is not for the faint of heart. But as this trip down the slope we call life picks up speed and our equilibrium is threatened, we can experience exhilaration and euphoria.

I had a great time on the ski trip. Barron loved skiing and can’t wait to go back. I really enjoyed our family’s celebration of Barron reaching this momentous milestone. Barron seems to be taking it all in stride.

On or off the slopes, Barron is the kind of offspring that makes you look like a good parent. He’s level headed, sets goals, works hard, has a keen wit, displays creativity and helps out around the house without being asked. He is everything anyone would want in a son. I don’t want that to change.

Maybe by putting this in a blog, I’ll remember it when doubts arise and fears dismay. There are some journeys in life that are unavoidable and incredibly rewarding.

People say unsolicited advice is worth what you pay for it. I’m now soliciting your parenting advice. What words of wisdom do you have or have you found that you could share on how to parent a teen in the New South? Leaving a comment is definitely not scary at all.

Veggie tales

With age comes responsibility, and one of the responsibilities of children aged 5 and older in our house is eating vegetables.

Lest you think Carla and I are unreasonable parents, we are not clean platers. The quantity of the food consumed is not our beef, so to speak. We insist our children eat vegetables as a way to deliver the essential vitamins and nutrients they need to grow and develop a palette for food beyond French fries and macaroni and cheese.

Carlton discovers a vegetable in his fajita.
Parents are sneaky. They have been known to put vegetables into otherwise delicious dishes such as fajitas.

First bite of fajita.
Looks suspicious, but Carlton dives in anyway.

Carlton discovers the bell pepper in his fajita.
Oh no! The unthinkable has happened! Vegetable tongue contact!

Carlton holds up the offending slice of bell pepper.
All that fuss over one little slice of bell pepper.

This has set in motion an inevitable clash of wills between us and the newly-minted 5-year-old in our house. As every parent with at least two kids knows, it’s harder to hold the line on household policies with the youngest.

And with Carlton’s pleading, his older brothers have seized the moment to lobby for vegetable leniency. Hopefully, after this week, they will get it through their still developing cerebral cortexes. Appeal denied.

This week’s showdown occurred on Tuesday night with lettuce. That’s right, lettuce, the most innocuous of all the leafy vegetables. It was a salad of mixed greens, and Carlton balked. He knew the rules, and yet we had all washed our plates and left the table and still he sat. Oh the weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was almost comical if it wasn’t so annoying.

As bath time approached, a last minute compromise was struck to avert household shutdown: You can leave those last few pieces of your salad, but what you don’t eat tonight, you have to eat for breakfast.

You can see what we were doing there, right? No one wants to eat wilted lettuce. The only miscalculation in that strategy is that a 5-year-old doesn’t care about consequences. He only wants to get away from the table right then.

The next morning I was already embroiled in my commute by the time Carlton made it down to his breakfast of soggy leaves. The outcome? We’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the key points of contention raised by my older boys is the type of vegetable prepared for them. They want less spinach and zucchini and more corn on the cob and potatoes. Carla has informed them that those are “starchy” vegetables and don’t count. Nevermind about those Southern meat-and-three restaurants that include mac-n-cheese as a vegetable.

This distinction has produced the most protest. Barron is willing to eat more broccoli if he can have a break with the Brussels sprouts one night. It seems that his issue is balancing the less appetizing vegetables with the more tolerable ones.

Harris seems to find the supper table to be an apropos stage to rehearse such histrionics that would surely win him an Oscar, an Emmy or a Tony. The gagging, the eye watering, the wailing, the begging. Parents with lesser resolve would have caved in years ago. But in the three years since he came of required vegetable consumption age, I’ve come to be more amused by his antics. They remind me of the stunts my brothers and I used to play: scattering the English peas. Adding squash to your brother’s plate when his head was turned. Chewing up the liver and onions and spitting it into your napkin.

I’m sure none of those tactics worked with my parents, just as I am sure none of them work for my boys.

Back to the lettuce. I got home from work that night, and with a big smile Carlton proclaimed “Daddy, I ate my salad for breakfast!” Definitely not the reaction I expected. Maybe the trick is to start the vegetable consumption early in the day, before they are awake enough to know what they are eating.

So why do we do put ourselves through this? It’s simple. Love. We want what’s best for our children, including a healthy diet, and we are willing to put up with some nonsense to achieve that goal.

They may not thank us, but one day, they’ll have a good laugh at the crazy stuff they used to do to avoid foods they readily eat as adults.

What are the foods your children refuse to eat? What are the methods they used to avoid it? What is your counter-attack? What is your view on forcing kids to eat vegetables? Are we being cruel? Leave us your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all be healthier for it.

Lions and monkeys and turtles, oh my!

For the past two weeks, Carlton has been without his favorite sleep-aid: Lion.

This now raggedy stuffed animal with the roaring voice box that hasn’t worked in several years has been his constant sleeping companion for the better part of five years. But two weeks ago, a weekend with the grandparents was so much fun that Lion opted for an extended visit.

Carlton hangs on to Lion and his apple juice before his first plane ride back in June 2012.
Carlton hangs on to Lion and his apple juice before his first plane ride back in June 2012.

On the first night without Lion there were tears. It hasn’t been easy for Carlton to adjust to life without Lion, and some nights he has begged us to call Nanny to have her mail it to us. He even tried earlier this week to persuade Carla to drive to Sandersville on Friday just to get Lion. Overall I’d say this has been an important weaning process and not nearly as painful as we first imagined.

Carlton is not unlike his brothers in his attachment to a stuffed animal. Barron has his Yee-hi. This furry monkey was given to him by our Macon friends, Cass and Ruth DuCharme. For a while it appeared that Barron would succumb to the old cliché and take Yee-hi to college, but he gave him up before elementary.

Harris was the least attached to a stuffed animal. One year our school had a donated stuffed animal adoption at Winter Fest. Harris was somewhere around 3 at the time. He fell in love with a cuddly turtle that he promptly named “Swimmy.” I know, turtles aren’t known for being especially cuddly, and Swimmy must not have been either because he was relegated to the stuffed animal box in less than a year.

Swimmy was also impractical because he was kind of big. It’s hard carrying around a 150-year-old giant sea turtle. OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but he was about half as big as Harris was at the time.

All of this adjusting to not having a figurative security blanket reminded me of my own, literal security blanket. I carried around a very masculine, Winnie-the-Pooh sleeping bag long past any age when it was appropriate, probably 17 or 18. Again, I jest. Maybe 6 or 7. In any case, I really liked this blanket. I would drag it into the den and lay on it while watching cartoons.

Back then, it was good to be close to the TV so you could turn the channel. Yeah, I’m old.

Truth be told, I feel like his “lovies” are harmless. It’s OK for children to have items they cling to a little bit for comfort. I’m no child psychologist, but as long as they give them up before middle school, it’s not something I get worked up about.

What I do wonder about is what we replace them with. Do we really ever give up our Lions and Yee-his and Swimmys? Do we just latch on to something else for security? Do we become emotionally mature or do we just switch to our iDevice, a piece of jewelry or fashion accessory? Where does our sense of comfort and security come from as we age?

Lion has been there for some of the best naps and longest car rides.
Lion has been there for some of the best naps and longest car rides.

Carlton turned five this week. We are nearing the end of the stuffed animal stage altogether. I guess it’s time to find that box where Yee-hi and Swimmy hang out. It won’t be long before Lion joins them in retirement.

What was your childhood security blanket or lovie? Do your children have them? Does it concern you that your children are so attached to their stuffed animals? Leave a comment and tell us your story of your beloved animal and reconnect with that sense of comfort and safety. You’ll feel good all over again, I promise.

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.

Party planners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, and have a tent jumpy.”

Or…

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

“Yeah, and have a pizza jumpy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most important meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lost art of listening

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

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

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

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

Except I don’t.

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

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

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

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

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

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

What causes my distraction and what’s the cure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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