‘Yes’ and ‘No’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And saying “No” to anything else.

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

The favorite part of my day

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

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

It’s the favorite part of my day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My semi-annual appraisal

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

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

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

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

Writing

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

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

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

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

Running

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

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

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

Family

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

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

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

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

Rest

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

I’m beginning to think people are right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A case for camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flip flops and running shoes

What you pack for vacation says a lot about you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Father’s Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime blues

My innocent Facebook post on Tuesday sparked enough comments to let me know I struck a nerve.

Here’s what I posted the morning after Memorial Day: “Remembering that as I return to work today, Carla is at work 24/7. Summer vacation for children means summer overtime for parents who stay at home full- or part-time.”

One commenter suggested I blog about this topic. Challenge accepted.

Don't be alarmed. Don't call 911. He's not dead or even in a coma. He's just on summer vacation.
Don’t be alarmed. Don’t call 911. He’s not dead or even in a coma. He’s just on summer vacation.

Unless you are “Phineas and Ferb,” summer vacation holds a mixture of dread and anticipation. We all can remember the exhilaration of that final bell and those carefree days of “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.”

Like everything else, summer is more complicated in the New South. For working parents, there is a logistical puzzle that must be assembled so that your children are cared for every moment you are not at home. For parents who stay at home with the kids, summer can be just as daunting. Even the most doting and loving of parents has a limit of child time, and playing cruise director for your kids all summer can make you want to experience some of that heart fondness that can only come from absence.

Upon further review, I think I’ve isolated six reasons summer is no vacation. Feel free to disagree. Here goes:

1. Filling the hours. Whether you are at home with your kids or having to work, you must find something for them to do. Not to put too a fine a point on it, but if you fail to occupy their time, they will be possessed by Satan and destroy you. Or, you’ll get arrested for child neglect. Either way, it’s bad.

2. Fighting. If you are blessed to have multiple children, you know that where two or more are gathered, there is mortal combat. Carla, who is an only child, frequently asks: “Were you like this with your brothers?” And since there were three of us boys in my family just as I have three boys now, I say with a smile and a shake of the head: “Yes… yes, in fact, I was exactly like this with my brothers.” One of the universal truths of siblings is that there will be bloodshed, particularly if the hours are not filled constructively (see item no. 1).

3. Lack of routine. We all know children need structure. Your household is only two or three nights of staying up late to watch “Phineas and Ferb” away from utter chaos. Irregular sleep patterns begets irritability which begets unpleasantness which begets conflict which begets tears which begets punishment which begets whining which begets parental insanity.

4. Dietary battles. Cheese puffs and chocolate chip cookies in massive quantities make children crazy. No scientific study needed. Don’t even get me started on the “cleaning your plate” conversation. Cheese puffs and cookies will invariably invoke the “I’m not hungry” declaration at a well-balanced meal consisting of vegetables.

5. Electronics and TV. Back in the day, we only had re-runs and cartoons on the telly to idle away the hours. Now, children have an array of devices to keep their heads buried in all summer. I don’t know about your children, but when mine watch too much television and stay on their iDevices too long, they make poor decisions that result in my elevated blood pressure and their solitary confinement.

6. No break from children. Even the weakest of us can sustain decent parenting for a few hours, maybe even a few days. Summer is the ultra-marathon of parenting. It’s a 100-day relentless slog through the perils of having to be a negotiator, diplomat, nutritionist, chauffeur, party planner, referee, electronics technician, chef, lifeguard, teacher, shepherd, and the list goes on and on.

Summer isn’t just a frolic in the pool, and I’m sure parents have been dealing with these challenges for generations. It may seem harder these days, but I think the hardest part for us as parents is that we have to find balance. We can’t afford the luxury of narcissism. Yes, we may steal a few moments here and there, but in order for summer to be enjoyable for our children and survivable for us, we have to change our mindset. For the next 100 days, it’s really not about us.

To help you with this challenge, I leave you with the immortal wisdom of Phineas and Ferb:

There’s 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it.

Good luck finding the good way to spend it without spending all of your income.

Do you dread school ending for the summer? How do you cope? What are your fondest memories of summer as a child? What are some activities you plan in order to keep your kids occupied? Leave a comment and share your wisdom.

Bracing

You cannot bear your children’s burdens for them.

On Wednesday, our 12-year-old son, Barron, began a two-year journey with orthodontia. My wife and I can commiserate, but we cannot take away the discomfort and self-consciousness. As one of my former editors used to say, it’s his bear to cross.

I'm sure Barron is under no such delusion.
I’m sure Barron is under no such delusion.

By the grace of God and my mother’s good dental genes, I avoided braces altogether, but I remember coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s when a prescription for braces as a teenager was a death sentence for popularity. I can clearly recall several instances of friends who had to undergo the painful process of orthodontics, erasing their smiles for two to three years and earning such unflattering nicknames as “metal mouth,” “brace face” and “jaws.” It was even worse for the kids who had to wear headgear attached to their braces.

In reading up on orthodontia, I learned that braces are now nearly ubiquitous. From 1982 to 2008, the number of teenagers with braces has increased by 99 percent. Gone are the days of the snaggletooth Southern stereotype. In the New South, wearing corrective braces is a rite of passage common to nearly every teen and pre-teen.

My wife is the one with orthodontic experience in our household, and she has offered reassurances that there is life after braces. It’s probably better that she be the parent with empathy because I suspect our boys would rather have her for comfort than their often less-than-sympathetic old man.

Willy Wonka's braces
After having watched or listened to the Wonka remake about 150 times, I couldn’t help but picture these braces when I first learned Barron would have to be subjected to orthodontia.

I don’t know how normative her experience is, though. She reported to have desired braces so much in her pre-teen years that she used tin foil to pretend to have braces. To her, orthodontics was the status symbol of cool, teenaged girls.

Barron will not be alone in his misery. One of his buddies has already been through braces, getting them at the age of 10 and recently having them removed. Another friend has them now and has been a good peer guide through the process. His younger brothers, though, haven’t been as sympathetic.

“Uh, Harris, you know you will be going down this road yourself in a couple of years,” I reminded our 7-year-old.

Thoughtful silence.

“I’d be a lot more sympathetic if I were you.”

“Well, I better make fun of him all I can while I have the chance.”

Epic parenting fail.

After the first week with braces on his top teeth – the bottom braces will be installed in about six months – he’s managed to deal with the soreness, find a way to keep them clean and work around the new protrusions to make his requisite trumpet embouchure. More adjustments are coming, I’m sure, but at least for now, we’ve not had to deal with any questions about kissing.

Again, wisdom from his younger brother:

“You won’t be able to kiss any girls,” Harris rejoined with a wide smile.

“That’s the least of my worries,” Barron said.

No, that’s the least of OUR worries.

Probably at the top of our list, right under his pain, is our financial pain. Braces aren’t cheap. I’ve used installment plans and credit to purchase everything from mattresses to cars to homes, but I never imagined I would be employing these financing tools to make my kids’ teeth straight. This isn’t the first nor will it be the last time I am surprised by a big-ticket expense in raising children.

So as my expedition with orthodontia begins, I welcome the collective wisdom of you who have traveled this road before me. What do I have to expect? What do I have to dread? What do I have to celebrate? It may not take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a bank.

Leave your comment below and share how you coped with your own braces or your child’s braces. We’ll all benefit from your experience.

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.

More than a day

Barron with birthday presents
Celebration Part One: Barron’s 12th birthday celebration began with cake, ice cream and presents with his grandparents in Sandersville.

It wasn’t that long ago that a birthday was just that – a day.

In the New South, however, we celebrate a person’s birthday for many, many days. I have a theory about why this is: It takes us longer to celebrate birthdays now because of geographic dispersion of family, over-stuffed schedules and the vicious cycle of birthday one-upmanship.

My oldest son, Barron, recently turned 12. Our commemoration of this blessed event began with a Saturday trip to Sandersville to celebrate with Carla’s parents. There was cake, ice cream and presents. My folks live 8-10 hours away. Although they have sacrificially made the drive to be with us on some of the milestone birthdays, we don’t see them on most birthdays.

Grandparents are an important part of birthdays for us, and we have to make the time to go to them. When we lived in Macon, it was no big deal. We might even be able to scoot over to Sandersville for an afternoon. But now that we are in the Atlanta area, it’s a bit more of a commitment and takes some scheduling. When families lived closer together, it wasn’t as much of a challenge getting everyone together for a birthday, but covering the miles takes planning. With our schedule, making a trip to see family causes the birthday season to become elongated.

Barron with birthday card mustache.
Celebration Part Two: Barron’s other grandparents from Florida sent a cool card with a mustache disguise in case all of the birthday mushyness caused him to need a disguise.

This leads me to my second point: birthday celebrations take more than a day now because of our overflowing schedules. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find time to celebrate a birthday, particularly if it happens to fall in the middle of a work/school week.

Barron’s big day occurred on a Wednesday. We acknowledged his actual birthday by opening gifts on that day, but our mid-week church activities took precedence over any celebration. The sad truth is, most of our weeks are a sprint that may have only one or two small openings at night or on a weekend afternoon. And our kids aren’t even involved in sports. That ups the ante even higher.

We ended up celebrating with Barron by going out for pizza and bowling on a Friday. It was fun, and we all enjoyed it, but it was several days removed from Barron’s actual 12th birthday. This brings me to my final point: birthday celebrations have become a season because we feel the need to make each year better than the previous year.

If we started at the first birthday with a candle, a song and a cupcake, this wouldn’t be so bad. But we make the first birthday such a production that by the time kids are old enough to actually remember their birthdays we have to rent bounce houses or invite 30 friends to the gymnastics center or go bowling or play mini-golf or ride ponies or rent a limo or go to Disney World or on and on and on.

Barron at the bowling alley.
Celebration Part Three: Barron celebrates a strike as he dominates the family, including dear old dad, in a game of bowling.

Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the birthday destination of choice was Crystal’s Pizza Palace in Irving. As a kid the place seemed massive, and it was the only place to play such arcade game classics as Sea Hunt, Galaxian, Joust and Pacman. I didn’t feel that my parents were under pressure to deliver a bigger and better birthday experience each year. I just wanted to go to Crystal’s.

But these days, it’s a hard pressure to resist. We want desperately to give our kids memorable birthdays. To do this, we sometimes have to schedule the event in increments, like Barron’s this year. It makes for a season of birthday celebration rather than a single day.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m talking about a societal phenomenon that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like we take enough time to appreciate our loved ones anyway, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about getting too much attention for their birthday.

I just hope we can finish celebrating Barron’s 12th birthday before his 13th rolls around.

Do your birthday celebrations extend past the actual day? How do you handle it? What was your most memorable birthday celebration? Leave a comment and extend this blog beyond a single day.