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!

Flip flops and running shoes

What you pack for vacation says a lot about you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That other Lance

Lance Armstrong's less triumphant pose. Oprah Winfrey Network photo.
Lance Armstrong’s less triumphant pose. Oprah Winfrey Network photo.

If an electric current pulses through a device in your home or pocket, you have been inundated with the confessions of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong this week.

With a given name like “Lance,” it’s impossible for me to escape the iconic figure who once stood for so much more than a sport.

The similarities are myriad:

We’re both Texans. We’re both in our 40s. We both spent a portion of our careers at nonprofits that do good in the world. We’re both named “Lance.” We’re both world-class athletes. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but we both have run marathons.

The contrasts are profound:

He won seven Tours de France from 1999 to 2005. He beat testicular cancer. He pumped performance enhancing drugs into his body. He lied about it. He destroyed people’s lives who tried to expose him. He went on the Oprah Winfrey Network to make a calculated confession.

Me and the boys after the 2010 Running for the Bay Marathon in Appalachicola, Fla. I confess: I took two Ibuprofen during the race.
Me and the boys after the 2010 Running for the Bay Marathon in Appalachicola, Fla. I confess: I took two Ibuprofen during the race.

I’ve run four marathons from 1998 to 2010. I’ve never had cancer. I did take two Ibuprofen during the Running for the Bay Marathon in 2010 which enhanced my performance so that I could cope with a raging case of plantar fasciitis and finish the race. I haven’t lied about it. I try to be kind and honest with the people around me and help them in their careers. I met Oprah Winfrey in 1991 but didn’t confess anything to her… that I can remember.

With a name like “Lance,” I’ve had a lot of nicknames: Sir Lancelot, Lancer, the Lance Man, the Lancenator, Lancey-poo (it took a lot to type that), and even Lance Armstrong.

I have no delusions about my athletic prowess… OK, maybe a few delusions, but I never thought of myself as being in the same league as Lance Armstrong. He won arguably the most grueling sporting event in the world seven times after beating cancer. To be called “Lance Armstrong” used to be something that was appealing.

Not anymore.

I won’t waste the time or virtual space to castigate Armstrong any further. The consequences of his actions are obvious and significant. I will say what I think I have learned from Lance Armstrong.

First, we can all succumb to temptation. My mentor and former boss used to say “Your morals are only as strong as the last time they were tested.” There are many disciplines in which I engage to prevent moral lapses, but I am not a man of steel. I am human. I must always keep that in mind.

Hollow victory?
Hollow victory?

Second, pursuit of a goal is noble, but when it turns into an obsession and is fed by a drive so strong that it removes our ability to distinguish right from wrong, it is destructive. I like structure. I have goals. There are certain achievements in life I strive for. But I cannot allow those goals to rule me.

Finally, ego is an insidious and catastrophic element of our makeup.  My diagnosis of Lance Armstrong’s chief malady is that Southern idiom, “He got too big for his britches.” It’s really not hard to be “too big for your britches” when you wear those skin-tight, spandex cycling shorts, but that’s a whole different topic for another day. The bottom line is that when we get too full of ourselves, there is no room for anyone or anything else.

Lance Armstrong’s story is sad. He no doubt had drive and talent. Just completing the Tour de France, with or without doping, requires a tremendous amount of strength, endurance and determination. The seeds of heroism were present in his character. However, the line between heroism and villainy is often thin. What separates the two are choices.

Lance Armstrong could have won fewer Tours and still been admired and continue to inspire those battling cancer. He didn’t need to win to be a winner.

Too timid to call into sports talk radio shows? Leave your comment below, pro or con, and share your unvoiced perspective on the latest scandal of betrayal to rock our society.

New South Bracketology

There are times I pretend to be an expert: any discussion of running, life in the New South, Star Wars and fantasy football.

There are other times when no amount of pretending can cover up glaring ignorance: parenting, relationships, basic plumbing and filling out NCAA tournament brackets.

2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket
Here it is, in all its glory: the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament bracket. After one day, mine is taking on water.

The mania that has swept the country during the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments (although primarily the men’s) overshadows real news of importance in people’s lives. The never-ending Republican primary plays in the background as gas prices soar, tensions rise in Afghanistan and Iran and severe weather spreads across tornado alley through the Midwest and South.

All that stuff impacts people’s lives, but for a few days, the NCAA tournament distracts us from all that and gives us something else to think about.

NCAA Final Four logo
What teams did you pick for the Final Four? Leave a comment below with your picks and join the madness!

Of course, the Internet is to blame for this. Back in the day, you had to go out and buy an actual newspaper to fill out a bracket. I can’t remember the last time I put pencil (definitely not pen!) to a bracket on newsprint. Maybe 1997? In any case, the ubiquitous bracket online and the obnoxious presence of ESPN have conspired to empower anyone to fill out a March Madness bracket.

The result? More ground lost to women in the battle of the sexes.

That’s right, the bracket is no longer male-only turf. All it takes is for one woman to post a bracket on Pinterest and suddenly, millions of women discover that they, too, can compete. Perhaps their significant others have been hiding this bracket from them in order to preserve the last bastion of competition where men can pretend to have superiority.

The democratization of the bracket now has more women entering – and winning – NCAA tournament pools. Why? Women aren’t bogged down in details like offensive rebounds, road records and defensive styles. Their picks reflect the truly random nature of the NCAA tournament.

Vandy takes down Harvard
The Harvard of the South defeated the actual Harvard in round one of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Thursday.

Back when I worked in newspapers, it was always the sports writers who did the worst. All of their knowledge only clouded their judgment. The newsroom pool was usually won by a copy editor with a degree in English literature who made her selections on the basis of which school had the best library or most published authors.

I’m just grateful that my wife hasn’t shown any interest. The humiliation of losing to her in an NCAA tournament pool would only add to the list of subjects in which I can no longer debate her with any credibility. That list includes colors, the arrangement of furniture, baby names, etiquette, television and relationships.

This is really the only week the tournament matters. After the field is narrowed to 16 this weekend, the majority of the country’s brackets will be hopelessly mangled, and the tournament will join the other current events as background noise to our lives. Only the real, hardcore fans will stick with this thing to the end on April 2.

Besides, the real fun lies in figuring out a way to avoid work on Thursday and Friday of the opening week to watch the games. Again, the Internet has brought about a huge sea change on how people slack off from work to watch basketball.

Back in the day, you had to sneak away for a three-hour lunch to watch games or somehow get a portable television into your office. Now you can just log on to ESPN.com and let the Gamecast take it from there – not that I would EVER do that.

When the number of games diminishes to three or four a night, and they all appear in prime time, the illicit nature of the tournament will be gone, along with most of our final four picks, and life can return to normal.

So at the risk of being held accountable by my faithful readers, I will reveal my Final Four selections: Kentucky, Missouri, Florida State and North Carolina. I predict North Carolina will beat Kentucky in the championship, 76-69.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Have you filled out your bracket? Who made your final four? Who is your champion? Leave New South Nation your picks in a comment below and join the fun!

Running on fumes

Glowing like a nightlight in my reflective vest, I barreled down the hill as a Parkview school bus chugged past. On the last leg of a four-mile pre-dawn run, my lungs filled with the noxious fumes the bus belched as it crawled up toward the intersection.

Diesel fumes
Who wouldn't love a face full of this stuff to help get them going on a morning run?

In my 18 years as a runner, this scene has played out roughly the same so many times I can’t even count. What made this notable was that it was my first diesel fume blast of the season.

I have no experience with inhalants or hallucinogenic drugs, so I can’t really compare the sensation you get when your muscles, starved for oxygen are instead fed a helping of
carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and aldehydes
. Let’s just say it feels as if all of your energy seeps out like air escaping from a leaky balloon.

You don’t need a code orange smog alert from the Clean Air Campaign to know this really isn’t good for you. Our awareness is probably greater here in Atlanta because of the annual emissions tests our cars have to pass before we can renew our tags, but I think in general people who walk or run for exercise are the most sensitive to the contents of our air.

I remember watching the marathon during the Beijing Summer Olympic games as the athletes choked through smog so thick it was visible on television.

“That can’t be good,” I thought.

I’ve already written about the prevalence of asthma inhaler use I’ve noticed among kids in the Atlanta area, and I’ve used this space to tell how I relive my grandmother’s cooking when I smell bacon cooking. Diesel fumes cause a similarly evocative experience. While I’m coughing and gagging and losing precious seconds on my split times, I’m simultaneously transported back to the fall of 1991 when I interned in Washington, D.C.

You can insert your own political commentary about how the smell of pollution makes me think of our nation’s capital, but during that fall, I didn’t have a car. I really didn’t need one because the Metro took me everywhere I needed to go. But to get to the Metro, I walked. And as I trod upon the sidewalks around the Capitol, dodging the homeless and avoiding the picketers, I was frequently treated to a puff of diesel fumes from the ubiquitous transit buses.

The Capitol
Maybe as much air pollution inside this building as outside.

Maybe it’s the combination of the fall air with the smell that makes me think of that semester I spent in D.C., but once again, last Thursday as another school bus rumbled past me, I thought about that time on Constitution Avenue with my four roommates as I learned the way journalism works or doesn’t work inside the Beltway.

I know buses are a necessary evil. I know clean air should be a right not a luxury. I know alternative fuels come with their own set of problems. But, I look forward to the crisp, fall morning when a jog doesn’t have to result in a face full of toxic fumes.

Guess I’ll just have to get up earlier.