Thoughts on Lanny

On Nov. 1, 2013, my father-in-law, Lanny Barron, was in an automobile accident on his way to his house in Sandersville from his family’s farm outside of town. He died on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Today’s essay is the eulogy I had the honor of delivering at Lanny’s funeral. He and Cynthia would have been married 49 years on March 28. He would have turned 72 on April 2. To help remember him during this significant week, Carla asked that I post this eulogy. I hope you get a glimpse of what made him special.

Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.
Lanny and Barron on the front porch several years ago. This smile is how I remember him.

Lanny Carl Barron lived his life between the farm and town.

He spent his formative years on the family farm on the Sparta-Davisboro Road a few miles outside of town in what is known as the Downs Community. There he learned the ways of planting, harvesting, hunting, preparing food and generally occupying himself with practical pursuits ultimately meant to provide sustenance for his family.

His family moved into town as his father worked in law enforcement. He developed a love of sports and cars and other pursuits hot-blooded males of his generation appreciated. But he was never far from the farm and the woods.

In high school he met and fell in love with Cynthia Goodman. Though she went off to Georgia Southern and he to the U.S. Navy, his intense love only grew in their separation. Not one to put on much of a show or engage in what he referred to as “that kissy, kissy mess,” Lanny was smitten in a way that affected him to his core. And when Cynthia turned down his original proposal of marriage, the iron will and determination – some might call it stubbornness – that those who knew him well recognized as a central part of his character helped him woo her past the point of refusal.

They were married, and he spent his shifts, both days and nights, operating heavy equipment in the kaolin mines of Washington County, an honorable occupation many of you know well. As Cynthia went into the classroom to put her training and gifts of teaching and nurturing to use with the children of Tennille, Lanny had all he wanted out of life. Except for a child.

It was nearly a decade before Carla was born, and though he was, perhaps, better suited to teach a boy the importance of the land, honest character, the intricacies of the forward pass and the sacrifice bunt, Lanny was challenged to develop his more tender side as he learned to love and show affection to a daughter.

This wasn’t always easy for him, and for a time he struggled with his role as husband and father. But in her patience, love, and resolve, Cynthia helped him decide what was worth giving his life to and what was not. Lanny made up his mind that the woman who had been worth pursuing in his youth and the daughter they had so desperately wanted were worth spending time with, and once again through his will and determination he made the kind of life change that many are never able to accomplish.

Still, Lanny was not much of a churchman for many years. He could clearly recall his days as a young boy at the church at Downs, but his distaste for pretense and his ability to sniff out hypocrisy kept him from darkening the church door, though Cynthia and Carla were at church every time those doors were open.

In his 50s after suffering a heart attack, Lanny recommitted himself to the faith of his childhood. As he described it to me one day while driving from town out to the farm, he realized it was the church folk who visited him in the hospital and looked after Cynthia and Carla while he recovered. After that, Lanny was in church the first Sunday he was able, and he became a faithful member and servant. He was eventually named a deacon, a title to which he had not aspired in his earlier days. It was yet another example of him making up his mind and making a 180-degree turn, never to look back.

His lifestyle changes included a new commitment to physical fitness. He walked all over Washington County, mostly in the backwoods of his family’s land. By the time I met Lanny in 1996, he had shifted to riding a bike, and he could often be seen out on the Fall Line pedaling along with his little Pekingnese named Bossy, in the front basket.  He was a man who was nearly always in the company of a dog, and among those who grieve his passing now the most is his little buddy and constant companion, Jack.

Among the first occasions I had to spend an extended amount of time with Lanny was at Carla’s graduation from Mercer. His pride in the accomplishments of his daughter helped him overcome his distaste of pomp and circumstance. He put on a tie and made the drive over to Macon and along with about 10,000 other folks, he applauded his daughter achieving her college degree.

And when I went from being the boyfriend to the son-in-law, he put on a tuxedo to escort his beautiful Carla down the aisle.

For the past 16 years, the Lanny I have known has been a fan of the Golden Hawks, Bulldogs and Braves; quick with a joke (not many of which I would dare retell in this solemn gathering) and full of wisdom from his uncomplicated but principled upbringing. His mischievous smile was never brighter than when he picked at those he had fondness for, including Cynthia, his co-workers, church friends and, of course, his sister-in-law, Linda Goodman, who has always been able to give it back as good as she got it.

And at least a hand full of times I have been with him as he rode out to the farm to the Red House to find his nephew, Johnny, sitting on the back porch in the autumn, mid-morning sun. Better than any program on the Outdoor Channel, he loved to hear Johnny tell of the morning’s hunt. Lanny listened as Johnny with characteristic exaggeration and good humor described how the big one got away or humbly submit how his superior hunting skills led him to take a prized buck.

In those years Lanny and Cynthia together were wonderful caregivers to his mother, Ruth, who lived with them. He looked after his mother as dutifully and as conscientiously as I hope our boys will look after theirs. He was a model son, and an inspiration to Carla who has tried to be with him and her mama through every step of this journey.

I have seen firsthand his love for Cynthia in her recent years of illness. He was attentive to her every need and relished proving to her that he could cook, clean up and even do laundry.

In my experience with Lanny, he has been at his very best as a grandfather, or as my boys have known him, Poppy. Never too fond of hospital rooms, three times he made his way to be with us after the birth of our boys and every time, he held a new grandson, he would beam and pronounce them “handsome young men, just like their grandfather.”

He loved grilling for them and preparing their favorite foods. He absolutely loved seeing them devour a bowl of ice cream, even before their infant digestive tracks could handle it. He always asked them how they were doing in school and if they were chasing the little girls. He loved taking them out to the farm, letting them drive his camouflaged golf cart and feed and chase the goats.

He came to their performances at school and at church, and even adopted the new tradition of waiting out Santa’s arrival at our house in Lilburn. No visit with Poppy ever concluded without him reaching into his wallet and giving each of them a $20 bill. He pulled them close, hugged them, said “Love you, Buddy. Make your mama and daddy buy you some ice cream.”

I asked my boys what I should say today to let you know how much he meant to them. Carlton, in all the eloquence his five years could muster, said: “Poppy was really nice, and I loved his hamburgers and hotdogs.”

Harris, who three weeks ago sat down in his Poppy’s hospital room in Augusta and refused to leave until Poppy got better, said: “He taught me to drive a golf cart, and I could never beat him at checkers.”

Barron, his first-born grandson and the benefactor of his generous excesses of grandfatherly affection, said: “Poppy always wanted to hear me play my trumpet and my guitar, and I had fun last summer working with him on his old car.”

And if given the chance to stand here and offer words of your memories, you would no doubt mention many more traits that made Lanny Carl Barron the unique individual that he was. In the last three days I have heard stories from you that were familiar and part of the lore that was his life story. I have heard new stories that I had never known but were completely consistent with the man I have come to love and admire.

Let this not be the last days those stories escape your lips. Lanny lives on in each telling. Cynthia is comforted by the sound of his name and the knowledge that you miss him right along with her. Carla needs to be reminded often of the kind of person her daddy was, so she can know where she came from and what’s important in life. And these grandsons need to know their Poppy in fuller and richer ways than the perspective of their youth can afford them now.

If you have loved Lanny in life, I ask you to speak these stories with joy and laughter and with frequency. Lanny always enjoyed a laugh and a good story, grounded in timeless truths, even those tales that pointed out his own foibles. He will enjoy hearing you tell them from his new vantage point.

Perhaps no one has more stories than you, James. You are above all others, a man held in high esteem by Lanny. You have gone farther than the formal relationship of brother-in-law would obligate a man. You have been the sidekick in many of Lanny’s misadventures, always the voice of caution, always offering a word of reason, but all too often dismissed to Lanny’s detriment. Still, you went with him to the farm each morning to tend the goats. And you went with him to auctions and sales and wide-ranging quests for tractor parts or purchases of hay. Too many times you had to be the one to call 911 or worse, your sister, when things went badly. Lanny probably pushed you too far outside of your comfort zone too many times, but in his boldness and disregard for safety, he was comforted by your presence. There is no telling how many disasters you helped avert, how many inconveniences you prevented from becoming full-blown fiascoes. Lanny was fortunate to have you as a brother, and he knew it.

There are others of you here who were important to him whom I have not mentioned: Martha and Ann, Edna and Steve, Jason, Emily, Amy and all the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lanny’s older brother, John, but I know for a fact how much he looked up to him, and how important John’s family was to him. He treasured visits with Lois, Sherri, Johnny and Jonathan because they helped him feel connected to his roots, especially in the days after his daddy and mama had passed.

Lanny, today we lay your body to rest, knowing that you are not in this casket. Our faith leads us to anticipate a glorious reunion someday, and we are comforted by the idea that you sit with your mother and father, your brothers and your friends who have gone before you.

We have made a little bit of a fuss over you. I hope it’s OK and you don’t mind. You’ll have to forgive us, because you are worth it.

Somewhere between the farm and town, we lost you. May we never forget all that you have taught us from traveling that road back and forth. We are all better for knowing you.

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.

A son-in-law’s grief

At approximately 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1, my mother-in-law called me on my mobile phone as I was driving out of the parking garage at work in Midtown Atlanta.

“Lanny has been in accident,” were the words that began a journey for our family that culminated in another phone call, at about 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

“He’s gone, he’s gone, Daddy’s gone,” my wife heartbreakingly wept into the phone.

When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it's hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.
When someone has been a part of every major life event for 18 years, it’s hard to say goodbye. Here, Daddy welcomes Carlton into the world in October 2008.

During the last two months, our lives have been emotionally and somewhat physically upended. My mother-in-law lived at the hospital in Augusta for more than three weeks while Daddy was treated in the shock and trauma unit. Carla spent countless hours commuting back and forth to Augusta to be by her mama’s and daddy’s side. Hundreds of people supported us with childcare, meals and financial gifts to defray the cost of travel and feeding our family while Carla was out of work.

Our church family at Parkway proved that care and love was not lip service. My parents left their busy lives and commitments to come and be with us, getting the boys on and off the bus and allowing me to do my job. Our across-the-street neighbors took our boys on so many occasions I have lost count, including on Thanksgiving Day just moments after our boys learned that their grandfather had died.

This is a lot to go through, to understand, to process, to grieve. And like an actor in a supporting role, I have tried to play my part, dutifully, with strength and grace, out of the limelight but lifting up those around me.

But in the process, I fear that I have tamped down my own feelings of loss and regret.

As the son-in-law, I have no blood-relation claim to the grief that my wife carries and is so amazingly overcoming. Even my sons have certain rights, by my way of thinking, which entitle them to grieve this loss in an open way, as best as children can, according to their emotional maturity.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I know this is not about me. I’ve repeated that mantra so many times in the quiet moments at home around the supper table with my boys as their mother was away. I’ve whispered it to myself in hospital waiting rooms. I’ve recited it as I drove to the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, tears obscuring my vision, knowing I was about to stand with two people I love dearly and look on the face of my father-in-law who would no longer be present in that body.

I know this isn’t about me. I really do.

But how in God’s name am I supposed to feel? Am I allowed any grief? How can I ease the pain of loss that is just beneath the surface, taking all my energy to control as I navigate through my days trying to focus on working and receiving the generosity and care of others and giving care and strength to my family while celebrating holidays?

How do I get over this? Do I get over this? Is trying to move forward a dishonor to Daddy’s memory? Is feeling or desiring joy a betrayal? Is gloom and sorrow the only emotion to feel? Why do I think that showing sadness just makes me appear weak, pathetic and a pretender, someone who simply wants attention or to participate in a loss that isn’t really his?

No one has made me feel this way. It’s all in my head. But until now it has remained in my head.

Regular readers of New South Essays will know that I haven’t published since the day of the accident. Even though I had a topic in the queue and a draft ready to post, this medium seemed so distant in my priorities that I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there. I have been in a state of survival numbness that has blocked my ability to express anything, much less an essay.

I was blessed with the opportunity to offer a personal eulogy at the graveside service. It took all of my resources to craft an appropriate word, and writing it did offer a beginning of my own healing. Delivering it to a hurting company of family and friends on that gray December day left me utterly spent as I struggled to say words that were so connected to my heart that I struggled to breathe and give voice to them. I haven’t written anything since.

Today, I am making you part of my journey of grief. If I have resolved to do anything differently this new year, it is to loosen the reins on my emotions and let some of this out. I can’t keep pretending I’m OK. I’m really not.

Lanny Carl Barron was not a perfect man, but he was “Daddy” to me. I have a father. I am blessed to have a dad whom I deeply love and who is still here for me to guide me and support me. I need that wisdom and care now more than ever. But that does not stop me from missing Daddy.

Too often I refrain from saying out loud just how much because I don’t want to upset my wife, Mama or the boys. But here, now, I am telling you that the loss of my father-in-law is affecting me in a profound way, tapping into unresolved grief from losing my grandparents and maybe every other type of loss I’ve ever experienced back to the days when my first boyhood dog had to be put to sleep.

I promise not to let New South Essays become a morose stream of my darkest thoughts. As the clouds part, I will be able to give energy to other topics, but today, I have to begin my return to feeling by sharing this.

Thank you for reading. And if this somehow speaks to you in your own journey of grief, then God bless  you. I know that I am not alone, and that does make a difference.

This has always been an interactive forum, and you are invited to leave your thoughts in a comment below. Thank you for being loyal readers, patient with my two-and-a-half month sabbatical. Perhaps you have unexpressed feelings of loss and that putting those feelings in a comment here will help. I invite you to share.

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.

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.

One year and counting

Today marks the first anniversary of my joining Georgia Tech Research Institute as director of communications.

I kept mentioning it to people all week because in some ways, I just couldn’t believe it. A year had flown by, and I have alternatingly felt like I have always worked at GTRI and it is my first day all over again. It’s a complicated place that solves some of the world’s most complex problems. It can be daunting.

Today’s essay is one of those times when my vocation and avocation collide. I chose to write about my employer because if Atlanta is the capital of the New South, then Georgia  Tech is at the technological center. Tech Tower rises among the historic brick buildings and stately oaks in Midtown, surrounded by some of the most technically-advanced laboratories in the world. The juxtaposition is exactly what I’d call “New South.”

The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.
The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.

As one of the top-ranked technology-focused learning institutions in the world, Georgia Tech is currently riding a wave of positive momentum. I was fortunate enough to arrive at Tech when enrollment has increased by 11 percent in the last five years and applicants increased by 70 percent. As more and more students want a Georgia Tech education, 2,764 freshmen were enrolled this year out of more than 17,000 applications. The average SAT score of a Georgia Tech freshman this year? 1,421. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t have gotten into Georgia Tech.

It’s not just the academic side that is experiencing growth. In the past five years, contract awards for research have increased by 40 percent to top out last year in excess of $655 million. GTRI alone has accounted for more than $300 million of that research each of the last two years.

Whether or not this record-setting pace continues remains to be seen, but these statistics support the idea that Georgia Tech is a good place to be. I’ll spare you any more of my public relations sales pitch, and instead offer three observations from my first year of working at Georgia Tech:

1.) People think you are smarter when you say you work at Georgia Tech. I have had this happen to me all year long. I try to explain that I’m not one of the smart ones, I’m just a PR guy, but when people see that yellow ID badge, they make assumptions. I do my best to keep my mouth shut and not shatter the illusion.

I exhaust my knowledge of technical topics very quickly, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to research communicators John Toon, Kirk Englehardt and the rest of my communications team for helping me acclimate.

Every day I have to remind myself that I know things that can help. These engineers and scientists may know things I could never wrap my mind around, but I can help them tell their story in a compelling way through the proper channels to engage people (and sponsors) in their work.

2.) Scientists and engineers are people, too. When I went into the interview process at GTRI for this position, I decided I could not make a case for my scientific acuity. Instead, I decided to treat everyone I came in contact with as a human being. Not only did it land me the job, but I think it has helped tremendously in building a rapport with colleagues who are world renowned experts in their fields.

I have found the people at GTRI and Georgia Tech to be some of the most engaging and accepting people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. They have welcomed me warmly, graciously taking the time to explain what they do and exhibiting good humor in the process.

They have lives outside of the lab, and enjoy connecting on a personal level. Yes, there are those who fall into the “Big Bang Theory” caricature, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

3.) Technology and discovery do not replace the power of relationship. When I came here a year ago, I never thought scientists and engineers could make a work environment feel like family. I know not everyone gets along with each other. I’m not naïve.

But the general atmosphere of GTRI is one of compassion and genuine concern for each other. I’ve seen a comforting embrace offered to someone who had just suffered a loss of a loved one. I’ve had prayer with a colleague who was concerned for a co-worker who was in the throes of traumatic illness and life circumstances. I’ve listened as team members shared their personal and family challenges.

As much as my Georgia Tech and GTRI colleagues are some of the world’s brightest minds, they have some of the world’s biggest hearts.

So at the risk of sounding like sophomore Nick Selby, who went viral this week when his Freshman Convocation Speech landed on YouTube, I’m thrilled to be at Georgia Tech. I can only hope to contribute to Tech’s upward trajectory.

Forgive my love letter to Georgia Tech, but maybe you have had similar experiences at a job or with colleagues? Leave a comment and share what makes your work place a great place to be. Or maybe you love Tech, too. It’s OK to say nice things about Tech. The Tech-Georgia game isn’t for another few months. I won’t tell on you.

‘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!