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.

Wedding faux pas?

Weddings in the New South bring up all sorts of issues never before encountered in the history of weddings.

Last weekend, Carla and I took our oldest son, Barron, to his first wedding — the marriage of his youth minister, Matt Hester, and our friend Courtney Phillips. It was a beautiful and somewhat unorthodox ceremony and reception that was very personal and deeply rooted in their faith journey and family history.

While we explained each element to Barron, who professed to be sleepy and yawned throughout, I couldn’t help but try to connect our Atlanta church friends to the ceremony, which was taking place in Courtney’s hometown of Orlando. We and two other couples were the only ones from our church in Atlanta who made it down for the wedding, and I knew the folks back home would want to participate vicariously in the celebration.

OK, I know I could be making matters worse by sharing the offending image here, but you have to see it to make a judgment. It's all about context. And isn't it a lovely wedding?
OK, I know I could be making matters worse by sharing the offending image here, but you have to see it to make a judgment. It’s all about context. And isn’t it a lovely wedding?

So, as the couple looked longingly into each other’s eyes and said their vows, I discreetly and silently took a photo with my iPhone. I wrote a simple caption and uploaded it to Facebook. Within minutes, several of our church friends “liked” or commented on the image and expressed thanks for my sharing it.

When we got to the dinner reception afterward, I showed Carla the photo and proudly proclaimed how thoughtful I had been by sharing this with our friends back home. That’s when I got the speech.

“You did NOT,” Carla said, wide eyed. “I thought we had talked about this at the last wedding we went to. They should have the opportunity to be the first ones to share pictures from their wedding. It’s THEIR wedding. What is it you say all the time: ‘It’s not your news to share?’”

Oops.

I began to doubt myself. We had talked about this at the last wedding we attended, and I couldn’t really remember, but I think I came out on the side of posting photos from a wedding in progress on Facebook was a no-no.

“Yeah, but there’s a bunch of people back in Atlanta who couldn’t be here. They would want to see it,” I meekly retorted.

Carla rolled her eyes in response.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just think it’s something that they should be able to do.”

I continued to mull it over as we joined our friends at the table for dinner. By the time we sat down, Carla had already recruited our friend, Autumn, to her point of view. Carla swore that she didn’t prime Autumn to respond in her favor.

That’s when the self-doubt really kicked in. Had I committed a faux pas? Should I have left well enough alone and let the new couple post the photos they wanted posted from their wedding when they were ready?

This may be a rationalization, but beyond the idea that I was sharing this with our Atlanta friends who could not attend, I also thought “Hey, everybody’s doing it.” These were young people getting married. There were dozens of people holding up iPhones capturing photos and videos of the ceremony. I just assumed I was not the only one posting them to Facebook.

And in my defense, it was a beautiful wedding. It was outside under a giant Live Oak tree draped in Spanish Moss, and it was the same location where her parents had been married. See! Beauty and meaning! It was practically begging to be shared on Facebook.

I was so troubled that when we spoke to the bride and groom at the reception, I barely got out my congratulations before confessing what I had done. In their typical, laid back and inclusive fashion – the groom and groomsmen were wearing Chuck Taylors for crying out loud – Courtney and Matt shrugged it off and said it was fine. They were OK with it.

So if the bride and groom don’t mind, is it OK?

Not to turn this into an episode of “The Marriage Ref,” but I thought I’d let you decide this week: Am I guilty of prematurely sharing an indelible image from someone else’s important life event or was I sharing an event with people who could not otherwise participate because of distance?

You make the call.

We have another wedding in a week, and I need to know how to behave.

Leave a comment below and let me know how you feel on this issue. I don’t want to be still hashing this out with Carla at the next wedding!

My little brother the leprechaun

Tomorrow is March 17, a date that looms large for my family.

My little brother, Lee, turns 39 tomorrow. He's slightly bigger now.
My little brother, Lee, turns 39 tomorrow. He’s slightly bigger now.

No, we’re not Irish. Well, we’re a little Irish, but not THAT Irish. You see, 39 years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, my little red-headed brother was born. He would end up being my first little brother, but none of us knew that at the time.

Arthur Lee Wallace, named for my mom’s father, proved to be a handful then and continues to enlighten and entertain us with his witticisms and misadventures. I was a mere 3 years and eight months old when Lee was born. When he came home from the hospital, I tried to hold him in my lap but failed to properly support his neck and head.

“His head is falling off!” I yelled as his fuzzy noggin lolled across my knees.

Lee, seen here on his first Easter, also survived my fashion disasters. Although to be fair, this wasn't my fault.
Lee, seen here with me on his first Easter, also survived my fashion disasters. Although to be fair, I didn’t choose this outfit.

He survived my fledgling attempts to hold him – though any damage he sustained may explain some behavioral eccentricities – and much worse at my hands as the years went on.

I will never forget the sick feeling in my stomach when I looked into the rear view mirror on my parents’ van and saw him rolling across the pavement of our driveway after I gunned it up the hill with him clinging white-knuckled to the spare tire on the back.

And then there was the time we fought. OK, well, we fought a bunch. In fact, the last whuppin’ I got from my dad occurred when I was 13. Lee and I we were hitting below the belt in a knock-down, drag-out tilt. I’m still not sure if we were punished for fighting or for fighting dirty.

Lee has also survived many a tongue lashing from my parents for following through on ideas I may or may not have planted in his mind.

“Lee, ask Dad if we can stay up and watch TV.”

“OK!” he eagerly responded.

Minutes later, after my father erupted at his post-bedtime appearance in the den, Lee returned, crying.

“Oh well. Guess that was a ‘No.’ Thanks, Lee. Good night!”

Lee is a talented musician and choir director. He sings WAY better than me and plays several instruments.
Lee is a talented musician and choir director. He sings WAY better than me and plays several instruments.

We shared a bedroom from as far back as I can remember until I left for college. We had long late-night chats about important topics like the Dallas Cowboys’ chances of winning a Super Bowl with Gary Hogeboom as the quarterback and how Darth Vader could possibly be Luke Skywalker’s father.

The conversation Lee likes to remind me of happened one night when I was 16. I professed to have found the woman of my dreams. Really, really, really wish I never shared that. Now Lee uses it to great comedic effect at family gatherings. He has a way of keeping me grounded if I ever get too full of myself.

Lee and the girl of his dreams, Karrie. What a handsome couple.
Lee and the woman of his dreams, Karrie.

Many years later I eventually found the woman of my dreams, and so did Lee. He actually preceded me in marriage by a full three years.

Although I would never tell him, I’m very proud of all that he has accomplished. He has been a youth and music minister for nearly 20 years, impacting the lives of hundreds of teenagers. He helps his wife, Karrie, run a very successful business in Lake Wales, and is excelling at selling nutritional and weight loss products. He and Karrie are raising an intelligent, beautiful and talented 11-year-old daughter, Kalee.

Our infrequent opportunities to catch up are treasures for me, and I enjoy following his exploits from afar on Facebook. My life changed forever 39 years ago tomorrow, and despite what I may have said in the heat of arguments during our childhood, I’m glad he was born.

While everyone else is donning the green tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick, I’ll be thinking of Lee, our family’s own lucky leprechaun. Having him in our lives is worth more than a pot of gold.

Here’s to you, January birthday person

For people who don't have a national holiday in the honor, January can be a tough month in which to have a birthday.
For people who don’t have a national holiday in their honor, January can be a tough month in which to have a birthday.

Conventional wisdom is that folks with December birthdays have it the worst. Their special day gets lost in the run up to Christmas, and those with Dec. 25-31 birthdays are completely overshadowed.

I think we have a contender for most under-appreciated birthday month people: that would be the January folks.

After looking at our calendar for the month and realizing we have seven friends or immediate family members with birthdays, I’m seeing first hand how the January birthday person suffers.

To avoid being indelicate, we will not attempt to examine the cause of January birthdays. We can all subtract nine. Instead, I offer five reasons why January birthday people face previously undocumented hardship:

1. Christmas hangover. People get depressed when they put away the Christmas decorations. It just happens. The vacations are over, the gifts have been received and need to be returned, the parties have ended and “cheer” is replaced with “drear.” In comes somebody with a birthday. People can’t even remember their name the first few days after the Christmas holidays much less your birthday. And when people finally realize they forgot, it’s spring.

2. Almost a tax write-off baby. When I worked in newspapers, I worked several new year’s day holidays, which meant I went to the hospital to interview the parents of the first baby of the new year. Their joy was always mitigated by the knowledge that they missed a significant tax deduction by mere minutes. When you are resented as being “late” at birth and costing your parents money, that can carry over for your entire life. “Yay. You were born at 12:01. Now we will be reminded every year that we missed out on an extra $3,600. Happy birthday, you.”

3. Friends and family are broke. I’m sure all of you follow Clark Howard and Dave Ramsey and budget for Christmas gifts so that you actually are cash flush come January, but some people aren’t. And they are related to you. So even if they remember your birthday, the best you will get is a card. Gee, thanks. A card. How thoughtful.

4. People are narcissistic because of new year’s resolutions. In January people are exuding so much energy to stick to their new exercise regimen and diets that you don’t even register as a life form in their universe. They will not realize other people live around them until the resolutions wear off or their birthday, whichever comes first. They will acknowledge other people when they want them to give them a party and some nice gifts. You? You’re dead to them.

5. Bad weather. After about the second or third week of winter, the absence of sunlight and cabin fever form a deadly depressive mood that dominates people’s outlooks. They might remember your birthday, but it will just depress them. They will dwell on their own mortality, and if they throw you a party, it won’t be a good party. It will be one of those obligatory, dud parties where everyone talks about their medical conditions and all the people they know who have recently died. Try making a wish in that environment.

This will help you January birthday people feel better, I'm sure.
This will help you January birthday people feel better, I’m sure.

I am not one of those misfortunate ones with a January birthday. Mine comes at the end of July when people are sun tanned, relaxed, vacationated and generally mellow. They are so mellow that they give extravagant gifts, and it’s been so long since they’ve had a holiday excuse to throw a party that they welcome the opportunity to celebrate your birth. So, I’ve got it good, and I know it.

But for anyone not named “Elvis” — people like my mother-in-law, brother, dad and other close friends — fate has dealt them a bad hand. I’m sure they are glad they were born, and January was a fine time for that. I just don’t think they’ve ever gotten the attention they deserve for the grief they valiantly carry.

So, here’s to you, January birthday person, you are loved and appreciated, and no matter how late your day is acknowledged or how few gifts you receive, you are important and you are worth celebrating.

Now excuse me while I get these cards in the mail.

Do you have a January birthday? What has been your experience? Does your birthday get overlooked or am I off base? Leave a comment below and speak out. Maybe we won’t be too depressed or cold or self-absorbed to notice

Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.

An unexpected journey

When Barron and Harris piled into the back of the new Hyundai, eager to ride with Daddy after another great meal at Los Hermanos, they had no idea we weren’t following Carla home.

Bilbo Baggins runs to catch up with the party of dwarves headed off on an unexpected journey.
Bilbo Baggins heads off on his unexpected journey.

We had already had a pretty good day. It was one of those rare days when Carla and Carlton still had preschool, but the older boys were already out for Christmas vacation. They hadn’t seen my office since I changed jobs, so other than having to get up earlier than they would have liked on their first day off from school, they didn’t mind coming downtown with me for a few hours and checking out my new digs.

It really was fun having them around. Even the rain-soaked commute, which lasted an hour longer than usual, was bearable with the two of them making up dialogue between the commuters they spied around us in the seven-lane-wide traffic jam on I-85.

They spent the morning playing Stratego and watching “Batman Begins” on the TV and DVD player in my office with the always cautious Barron keeping the volume low to avoid disturbing the almost empty hall. My co-worker, Robert, did get a little jealous when he came by to ask me about a story he was working on only to discover that Batman was on.

I treated them to lunch at The Varsity where they ate like it was their last meal. Barron scarfed down a double bacon cheeseburger while Harris had, in Varsity parlance, a “naked dog” and cheeseburger. They finished it off with a mountain of fries and frosted oranges. I drove them back to my building by way of the central campus, showing them the academic buildings, the football stadium, Tech tower and various residence halls, which they said reminded them of Hogwarts.

“The magic we do here at Tech is called ‘engineering,’” I said.

Carla was soon picking them up, and I was off to my 3 o’clock meeting. Before shutting down for the day, I checked out movie times at the theaters near us in Lilburn. Carla and I conferred with a quick phone call to confirm our plans, and I clicked a purchase of two children’s tickets and one adult ticket for the 7:30 showing of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

We both arrived at Los Hermanos at almost the same instant, and I winked at Carla, who returned a knowing smile. Our meal was delicious, and the boys continued to chatter away about their day at daddy’s office.

“Who wants to ride with me?” I asked nonchalantly as we headed for the parking lot. Of course Carlton wanted to but couldn’t. He was due for an early bedtime as indicated by his lack of composure at supper.

The boys climbed into the back of my car, Harris’s booster seat still in position from the morning commute. We followed the minivan to the neighborhood, but when Carla turned in and we kept going, the boys began to get suspicious.

“Hey, Daddy, you missed your turn.”

“I did? Oh, well, do you want me turn around?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know. Where are we going?

“Where does it look like we’re going?”

And thus the conversation went for the 12 minute ride to Snellville Oaks cinema.

Gandalf beckons Bilbo to join in an unexepected journey.
It doesn’t take a wise wizard to see the benefits of making a regular night out with your sons an adventure.

About three miles from the theater, still completely in the dark about our destination, the moment happened that will stay with me from this day long after the details of Bilbo’s adventure grow fuzzy in my memory.

“This is like something Paw Paw would do,” Barron said.

“What? Kidnap you?” I responded mischievously.

“No… you know, act like he missed a turn then take you some place fun.”

Barron got it. He connected this whole plan for me in a way that I hadn’t even understood myself. It wasn’t the joy of tricking or even surprising my children that gave me so much pleasure. It was that I was able to do for my kids what my dad had done for us.

You see, Barron was right. My dad frequently would take us somewhere without telling us the destination. Sometimes it would be amazing, and other times pedestrian, but every time became more exciting because of the unexpected.

“Dad, where are we going? You didn’t turn,” we would say in protest.

“To the moon,” he would answer.

My brother, Lee, and I will never forget the Thanksgiving night when he suggested we go for a ride. Four hours later we ended up in Houston for a great family weekend at Galveston and San Jacinto and other Texas landmarks.

With a simple trip to the movies, I had lived into the best of the Wallace family tradition. Just like my dad, I was able to turn a mundane car trip through the suburbs into an adventure.

“I guess it’s kind of appropriate,” Barron said.

“What is?” I asked.

“You took us on an unexpected journey to see the unexpected journey movie.”

The older I get, the more I believe the best parts of our journey are unexpected. I believe we all could use a little more adventure in our lives. I guarantee you’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.

What unexpected journeys have you taken? Did your parents ever surprise you with an unexpected trip or gift? Have you been able to surprise your kids? Leave your story in a comment below and share your tale with us.

Boys and dogs

For the last several years, our boys – particularly our oldest – have been pleading for us to get a dog. My reply has always been, “We have a dog. Her name is Pasha.”

Our new dog, Tobey
Tobey is a poodle-Bichon Frise mix and the perfect dog for us.

This is only partially true. There is a dog named Pasha that lives next door to us. She is friendly and comes to the fence to watch us play and bark her greetings, but she is not our dog. We do not have to feed her, clean up after her or take her to the veterinarian.

In my way of thinking, Pasha is the perfect dog.

When the boys decided having their own dog was preferred to watching and petting the neighbor’s dog, I resorted to a more practical defense.

“We don’t have a fence around our backyard. We couldn’t keep the dog from running off.”

To this the boys simply indicated they didn’t really want a big yard dog anyway. They wanted a little indoor dog like Jack, who belongs to my in-laws, or Leo, who belongs to my parents.

I thwarted this argument on a medical basis.

“You boys and your mother are allergic to pet dander. If we got a dog you’d be sneezing your head off all the time.”

Barron, our oldest, now 11, has been particularly relentless. His research online has produced a list of  breeds that do not shed.

I continued to parry and dodge their pleas with such logic as “They cost money” and “What do we do with them when we travel?” and the coup de gras: “They die after you get attached to them.”

This week, I lost the battle. Two weeks after Barron and Carla met a poddle-Bichon Frise mix (or “poochon” if you prefer) named “Tobey,” at a pet store adoption day, we brought home another bundle of joy.

Tobey, who is somewhere between 5 and 7 years-old, doesn’t shed. He doesn’t bark. He is house broken. He is playful without being rambunctious. He’s little. He’s been fixed. He can ride with us in the car when we go out of town.

Tobey kisses Barron's chin
Barron was the biggest advocate for adding a pooch to our family. He’s reaping the rewards.

Tobey has an answer to my every objection. Well, every objection except one, which may have been my real, deep-seated reason all along. Tobey will die one day after I’ve grown attached to him.

How do I know this? Besides the obvious and unavoidable truth that all living things must die, I have experienced the loss of a pet. Perhaps I’ve never gotten over it.

When I was a toddler, my father worked the night shift for American Airlines at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Not wanting to leave my mother alone at night, he bought her a German Shepherd. Her name was “Tippi” for the tuft of black fur on the end of her tail.

Tippi was a great dog. Intelligent, protective and loving, Tippi tolerated all manner of my annoying habits, from trying to ride her like a horse to holding her tail and following her up and down the backyard fence line wearing a bucket on my head and singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army.”

Tippi developed tumors, and eventually the canine cancer progressed to the point that my parents had to have her euthanized. By that point I was old enough to have read “Where the Red Fern Grows” and watched “Old Yeller.” Losing Tippi was every bit as painful as vicariously grieving the loss of those fictional pets.

My defense was to shut down my capacity for connecting with animals. I avoided other people’s pets and even shunned my parents’ dogs when we moved into a house my sophomore year of high school that had a large, fenced-in yard. Their two lab mixes were as friendly and loyal as ever two dogs could be, but I resolutely kept myself from getting attached.

No dog could replace Tippi, and I knew that if I let another dog into my life, it would end in heartache.

But here I go again. Maybe Tobey can help me access a side I have shut off for 30 years. Maybe the joy of seeing my boys laugh and play with their dog will soften the pain I have suppressed for decades. Maybe I will be old enough now to understand that the companionship of a dog is so sweet that even the pain of its passing can’t outweigh the time spent building that special bond.

Tobey isn’t a very manly dog, and I know I will look and feel ridiculous walking this little white, curly-haired fellow through the neighborhood. A Southern gentleman should have a sporting dog to help hunt and fetch game. But because I don’t hunt, I think Tobey will suit me just fine. After all, as Kate Campbell sings in her send-up of contemporary Southern culture, “New South:” “Bichon frises are our new hounds.”

I will also take this opportunity to teach the boys responsibility. They will bathe him, feed him, give him water, walk him and clean up his poop.

Aw, who am I kidding. It’ll be me standing out in the backyard in freezing temperatures with a plastic bag on my hand waiting for him to do his business.

And as I stand there shivering and contemplating my sanity, I will bond with Tobey. He’ll be my little friend, too. And maybe, just maybe, I will heal from a little boy’s loss and learn to love again.

Do you remember your first pet? Have you had to recover from the traumatic loss of an animal companion? Share your story by leaving a comment below. You’ll feel better, I promise!

A month’s worth of thankfulness in one serving

November brings with it a number of seasonal peculiarities: falling leaves, premature Christmas decorations, cooler temperatures and now, in the New South, daily thanksgiving posts on Facebook.

It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy
Being thankful is a lifestyle, not a state of mind.

I’m not sure when the trend started, but taking the month of November to post “What I am thankful for today” status updates has caught on. Yes, there is the expected reaction of satire and mockery, but overall what fills my Facebook newsfeed these days is more genuine than humorous.

My wife started the November Thanksgiving Facebook status updates last year and has continued the tradition this year. She reports that it’s more difficult to come up with something on harder days, but she always manages to post. So far she hasn’t been guilty of that prayer practice of small children who merely recite their thanksgivings to God by looking around the room and mentioning everything they see: “Thank you, God, for my socks and for Lego and for puzzles and for squirrels and for Thomas the Tank Engine…”

One of the most difficult disciplines is regulating your attitude apart from your circumstances. If we surrender control of our mood to the randomness of life, say a bad commute home from work or a vomiting child, then we will most likely be miserable most of the time.

gratitude is the memory of the heartHowever, if we approach each day with the reminder of all that’s good in our lives, we can ride the waves of life rather than be drowned by them.

I haven’t participated in this new Thanksgiving tradition simply because I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know that I could come up with 30 days of thankfulness in the moment each morning, so to send you into Thanksgiving week, I’m offering a month’s worth of thanksgivings all at once (in no particular order):

  1. A faith that is strong enough to endure challenges but flexible enough to grow when confronted with truth.
  2. Carla. Simply stated, the best wife I could have ever been fortunate enough to marry.
  3. My parents. They instilled in me early on the right priorities and have offered encouragement and guidance when I needed it most.
  4. Barron. A dad couldn’t ask for a better oldest son. Responsible, creative and funny.
  5. Harris. Like the crème filling of an Oreo, he makes the middle the best part. I particularly enjoy our talks.
  6. Carlton. Resourceful and self-reliant, his zest for life re-energizes.
  7. My in-laws. Gracious, generous and always delightful to be around, they make visits to their home a respite.
  8. My brother, Lee, and his family. I have the utmost respect for his ministry and know he has more integrity than just about anyone I know.
  9. My brother, Lyle, and his family.  I don’t get to see them enough, so each visit is a treasure, and I know he is preparing for a life-long ministry that will touch many, many lives.
  10. Our home. Not only do we have enough bedrooms for everybody, we have space to open our home to friends and family on a regular basis, and we are always the better for it.
  11. Good friends. You know who you are. No matter what segment of my life they enter through, my closest friends enrich my life with laughter, challenging ideas and support. I could have listed each of you as a separate item, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just lump you all into one entry.
  12. My neighbors. You never want to take for granted having considerate and friendly neighbors. Even just a smile and a wave add something to my life.
  13. My job. Working at Georgia Tech doesn’t just pay the bills. It stretches and challenges me while giving me the opportunity to form new relationships with quality people.
  14. Parkway Baptist Church. A place where I can serve, learn and enjoy the company of fellow travelers on the road.
  15. My daily bread. Haven’t missed a meal, and I don’t take that for granted knowing there is real poverty in the world.
  16. Good health. Despite a nagging shoulder/back strain right now, I enjoy exercise and nothing makes me feel more alive than a good run.
  17. Down time. It may be infrequent, but when it happens I cherish it.
  18. Lilburn. A great community filled with a diverse population who are involved and care about their children and is not so far outside the perimeter.
  19. Functioning vehicles. This may be a “knock-on-wood” entry, but for now, all systems are “go” on the station wagon and minivan. Never dreamed I would ever be thankful for a station wagon and minivan.
  20. Google search. Everything is knowable. No more struggling to remember which actor played in which movie or what the lyrics are to a song stuck in your head. It really has become our brain supplement.
  21. Fantasy football. A diversion I allow myself. It’s fun whether I win or lose.
  22. Summer vacation. We always go to Santa Rosa Beach, and it’s one of the highlights of the year for our family.
  23. Sunday afternoon naps. Forced to take them as a child, naps are now the most-anticipated event of the week.
  24. Scouts. The experience has given me so many opportunities to spend quality time with my boys that no matter what rank they achieve, I know it has been a worthy investment of time.
  25. Saturday morning pancakes. I contribute so little to meal preparation in my household that it’s nice when I get to prepare our weekly pancake breakfast. Even I can’t mess up pancakes.
  26. Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s millions of dollars of profit notwithstanding, this has been a great way to keep in touch and reconnect with friends from all over the world.
  27. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Not only was it a fantastic place to work for 10 years, it’s a worthwhile ministry doing amazing things worthy of support.
  28. Christmas vacation. Always includes a trip to Florida and time with both sets of grandparents. Beautiful weather, rest and great memories.
  29. Writing. Even though I don’t get to do it enough, I am enriched by each opportunity to express my thoughts. My book will get finished someday.
  30. Blog readers. You put up with a lot of lackluster writing, but you have hung with me for nearly 20 months now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Share what you are thankful for by leaving a comment below, then share this post with others!

Fiscal cliff

Lately my wife and I have been talking a lot about money.

fiscal cliff ahead road sign
This message may be personal as well as national.

No, not the exciting “What would we do if we won the lottery?” kinds of conversations about money. More of the “If we refinance our mortgage what does our monthly budget look like?” kinds of conversations about money.

During the seemingly never-ending presidential campaign, we heard a lot about the economy, but my hypothesis is that most couples either don’t talk about or don’t like talking about finances, even if they have plenty of money.

It’s definitely a wedge issue in most marriages. Carla and I avoid the subject like the plague. I know; it’s silly. It’s the same principal Carlton employs when he covers his own eyes to “hide” during Hide-and-Seek. Somehow, we think if we don’t discuss it, we have all the money in the world.

Well, when it comes to money, ignorance is definitely only blissful in the short term. Eventually, you have to face reality. Everyone has a fiscal cliff.

It’s interesting that we criticize our government for not being able to sit down and solve our debt crisis without devolving into partisan bickering while at the same time, most of us married couples can’t have a civil conversation about spending.

Like Congress and the President, we wait until there’s a crisis. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? One spouse has inadvertently overused the debit card pushing the account to the brink of being overdrawn. Or maybe an extravagant purchase was made without the consent of both spouses. Or money that was set aside for savings ended up being slowly eroded over time to meet monthly budget overruns or used for something unexpected like a new set of tires. These are the situations that cause most of us to finally sit down and talk about our finances.

Carla and I tend to discuss our finances while driving. It’s just easier to discuss money when you don’t have to look your spouse in the eye. My recent job change has necessitated more of these windshield chats to talk through our budgetary realignment. For starters, I went from being paid every two weeks to once a month. This kind of shock to your system requires conversation.

A couple with a dollar sign in the middle
At first, conversations about money can sound a lot like arguments. You have to get past that phase in order to make progress.

We scheduled a summit – not the kind of summit where we jet off to Sea Island and discuss heady world economic challenges over shrimp cocktail and Dom Perignon.  This was a kind of intentional conversation that allowed for total honesty, no blame and mutual support. The result? We had our personal 10-point economic plan for avoiding a fiscal cliff.

I am not a marriage counselor or a certified financial planner. That said, I humbly share five tips to help you and your spouse talk about your finances:

1.) Whatever it is, it’s both of you. If the money is flowing in and your problem is how to spend it, it can’t be just about one spouse or the other. Even if you maintain separate bank accounts, your collective largesse or indebtedness is a financial reality that must be owned and shared by both of you. If you take credit or assign blame, you will kill any dialogue before it starts.

2.) Start with the big picture. Most couples are penny wise but pound foolish. It’s easier to begin the conversation by talking about overall assets and liabilities than jumping down into the details of expenditures. This also helps set the stage for shared ownership of your financial situation.

3.) Neutralize your language. Speak in realities without assigning blame. “You” and “yours” must be “us” and “ours.” Avoid loaded phrases like “your spending” or “my salary.” It’s more helpful to talk about household income and expenditures.

4.) This is a private conversation. If you share too many of the details with your loved ones, you will find yourself talking about your spouse instead of to them. If you talk in front of your children, you may find your name on the church prayer list under “financial concerns” because your child mentioned what they overheard in Sunday School. Seriously, it freaks kids out to hear their parents arguing about money. It’s not very sexy, but if you must, plan a date night to have “the talk.”

5.) Schedule regular updates. This can’t be a once-every-six-months conversation. You need to write into your calendars consistent, monthly meetings to help you get over the awkwardness and conflict. Like any habit, it’s gets easier over time.

For what it’s worth, this is what I think. We live in a New South that isn’t as financially stable as it once was. Marriages have many points of conflict, but we all know money can be one of the biggest.

If Congress can do this, surely you can.

What tips would you offer to help couples discuss their finances more openly? What has been your experience that others may find helpful? Leave a comment below and channel your inner-Dave Ramsey.

Sick day

Raise your hand if you ever envied your sick child’s excused day of lying on the sofa watching cartoons and napping.

OK, so I’m the only one?

No? You say you have felt that way, too? You have been burning the candle at both ends until there’s no wick left and you still haven’t found a way to extinguish the flame?

know when to take a sick day billboard
Sometimes what you need to do IS on a billboard in front of you.

A week ago today I came home from a business trip to Pittsburgh to find Carlton vomiting. Welcome home. I can’t really complain because Carla had been dealing with it all day. The 24-hour stomach virus ended up lasting 72 and required at least four changes of bed linens. Seriously. Four.

The kid would run around all day without a symptom.  He would go 18, 20, even 24 hours without vomiting and we would think we were home free.  Then he would fall asleep at night, completely exhausted. Several hours into my own REM cycle, his cries would send us scrambling to his room where the evidence of his illness hit our nostrils before our eyes could adjust in the darkness. It was not remotely pleasant.

But Carlton was sick during the weekend. It was such a relatively busy weekend that I didn’t have time to envy him. Carla and I juggled him as we kept up our pace – she bought groceries, I went to a deacon’s meeting, she took Barron to youth group, I took Harris’ Cub Scout den bowling, and on and on, back and forth. We didn’t slow down at all.

Monday came and Carlton cleared the 24-hour hurdle. He was pronounced cured, so he could return to preschool on Tuesday. Carla’s day of teaching preschool was not threatened. We held our breath, hoping that our mandatory household hand-washing regimen and antibacterial wipe-down of every surface was enough to keep the scourge at bay.

Alas, at 3 a.m., Harris was knocking on our bedroom door giving off that now all-too-familiar malodorous clue that something was amiss. The cycle was repeating.

Fortunately, my two meetings of the day were such that I could phone in, and my very understanding supervisor permitted me the opportunity to work from home. This allowed Carla to carry out her plans for her preschool class without having to get a substitute, and everything else was fairly normal.

Harris was no distraction at all. After about 10 a.m., there were no more symptoms. He simply lay on the sofa with “Tom & Jerry” dueling in front of him. He ate a couple of crackers and drank a juice pouch at about 2 p.m. and seemed to perk up a little.

As I stood there conducting my visual scans for any hint of his condition an unfiltered thought burst into my consciousness: “Wow, I wish I could be sick.”

What? No. I didn’t mean that. No one would wish to have the awful stomach bug. It had completely paralyzed our family a couple of years earlier when we all shared it. That experience was seared into my memory. I couldn’t possibly want another dose of that.

I edited myself.

“What you meant to think was ‘I wish I could have a sick day.’”

See, public relations people even put words in their own mouths.

It’s not that work is overwhelming. I’m thoroughly enjoying my new job, and the challenges and fresh problems to solve and new people to meet have been invigorating.

It’s not that I don’t believe in service to my church. Serving as a deacon is a privilege, and every interaction with the families I care for is sacred and brings me closer to my community and to God.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy serving as a Cub Scout den leader. Those boys with their boundless energy and endless curiosity love tackling new challenges together and learning new skills.

sorry your sick day is due to actual sickness
Wouldn’t you rather get some rest before it comes to this?

It’s just that sometimes it all has to stop in order for me to get my bearings again. You know what I’m describing, right? It’s like when you’ve got nine browser windows open with at least two of them streaming sports highlights and one playing country music and your computer can’t process the data fast enough so the machine just locks up.

The real truth is that our bodies do the same thing. Whether it’s a head cold or a stomach flu or exhaustion, if we don’t have the good sense to slow down and rest, our bodies will force down time on us.

Rest is fleeting in the New South. Busy is the norm.

My wish for all of you is that it doesn’t take a sick day for you to find some down time. In fact, you should go ahead and plan on it right now. Go ahead. Put it on your calendar. Find a day. You need it more than you realize.

If you don’t, your body will.

If you couldn’t relate at all to today’s post, then great.  You are a better person than I am. But if you have ever been jealous of your sick child because they got to rest, then you’ve got a problem. Share your story by leaving a comment below, and then go take a nap. You’ll feel better. I promise.