Thankful for great memories

Memories are fleeting. They come and go on their own timetable. I treasure my children and different memories of them flash into mind at seemingly random moments. Here are memories I cherish and hope revisit me often as the boys grow into adulthood:

Barron

Parents know the least with their firstborn, and we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We had to pull over during our drive home from the hospital because our newborn was crying in his car seat. We weren’t out of the parking lot five minutes before our circumstances outstripped our knowledge. We were pretty clueless.

Carla Wallace gives infant Barron Wallace a bath in a plastic baby tub on the kitchen counter.
Amazingly, Barron didn’t like bathing on the kitchen counter in the middle of February.

Barron was born in early February. He spent a lot of time in his footed pajamas and snuggly blankets as we conscientiously tried to keep him warm. For some reason, though, we never seemed to care how his body temperature dropped during bath time.

“He must really hate baths,” we thought. “He shakes and cries a lot.”

While we had fun playing with our newborn in the baby tub on the counter top in the kitchen in the middle of winter, we had the benefit of wearing clothes and having adult layers of built-in insulation. He was 10 pounds and completely exposed to the elements. Even with warm water and a strategically placed wash cloth, he shivered every time.

It was only in hindsight that we realized he was probably just cold. First born babies have a lot of teaching to do, and Barron’s brothers benefited from that and other lessons he taught us.

But he was cute, flailing his little arms and legs and splaying his fingers and toes, splashing us.

Harris

Our family has made many lasting memories at Santa Rosa Beach. One of my favorites is the summer I spent intentional time teaching Harris to ride a bike without training wheels.

The school year had proven too busy between Harris’s studies and my work schedule to make much progress on teaching him to ride his bike. Barron tried teaching him, too, using the methods his friend, Tyler Bennett, had used in helping him get the hang of it. It mostly consisted of Barron riding his bike down the hill in the grass in our backyard, giving him a soft place to crash and enough of a slope to help him build forward momentum.

Harris Wallace wearing an orange t-shirt, khaki shorts and a blue and orange bicycle helmet stands with his red bicycle among palm trees and palmetto bushes in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
Harris learned from his big brother that crashing on grass is a lot better than crashing on concrete.

Crashing was Harris’s biggest fear, so the grassy location was key. That year we stayed at a beach house in Old Florida Village, a community of vacation rentals with streets ideal for kids to bicycle. But the pavement was intimidating to Harris, and there were occasional speed bumps that had to be negotiated in the street. There were two grassy lots used for overflow parking, and Harris felt safer trying out his wobbly skills in those softer areas. Of course, the pedaling was more difficult, but when he fell over, all he got was dirty and not skinned up.

The missing ingredient was a slope. Florida is notoriously flat, and it was hard for Harris to gather much speed to learn how to keep his bike moving forward through the grass. We decided to load his bike in the back of the van and drive down 30A a mile or so to Gulf Place, a mixed use development with shops, cafes, condos and a large, grass amphitheater for concerts and shows. We began our 30A vacations staying at Gulf Place, and we always visited the artists’ booths, ice cream shop and the pizza place whether we stayed there or not. And when our vacations coincided with concerts, we took our beach chairs and towels and listened to live music on the lawn.

The lawn was the perfect place for Harris to complete his training and forever throw off the shackles of his training wheels. Mostly flat, the lawn sloped very subtly to a drain in the center. If you started in the corners of the field, you could get a good head of steam to go down through the middle to the opposite corner. The low-cut, bent grass helped Harris feel good about falling over, if it occurred, and I ran along behind him, my hand on the back of his seat to steady him.

Always hot at the beach, I worked up a sweat running after Harris as he made repeated trips from corner to corner of the lawn. After a half hour or so, Harris was making the trip himself, grinning from ear to ear. Before that vacation ended, he was cycling around the perimeter of the lawn on the sidewalk, and navigating the streets of Old Florida Village with a new found confidence and sense of freedom.

Carlton

As the youngest, Carlton has both benefited and suffered from being treated like the baby. He was cuddled and kissed long after he needed it or wanted it. My fondest memory with Carlton was the day I had the opportunity to drop him off and pick him up from the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods and witnessed him as a fully capable human being with talents and tastes all his own.

By this point in his culinary education, Carlton had already taken six or seven of the half-day cooking classes for kids at Salud, and he was on a first name basis with Chef Scott. We were among the first to arrive, and though no other kids were there yet, Carlton insisted I could go ahead and leave. He found the aprons and helped Chef Scott lay out the utensils as I lingered by the door. It made me happy to see him in his element, comfortable in his surroundings and feeling confident with his abilities.

Carlton Wallace in a blue T-shirt holds a fork of french toast ready to eat it with wooden tables and chairs in the background at the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods in John's Creek, Georgia.
The best part of the Salud Cooking School at Whole Foods was the tasting!

I went across the street to Panera and had a leisurely breakfast, working on a writing project on my laptop. Leaving myself a little more than an hour, I headed back down State Bridge Road to Kroger where I completed the family’s weekly grocery shopping. I arrived back at Whole Foods in time to see them finishing up with the “Special Weekend Menu” breakfast and prepared to serve us.

Carlton attentively showed me to the buffet where he and I fixed our plates. He breathlessly gave me the rundown on each item and the special tricks they had employed to make them just so. There were blueberry pancakes with buttermilk syrup; baked eggs with sausage, spinach and cheese; easy breakfast potatoes; candied bacon (Carlton’s favorite) and homemade buttermilk biscuits (my favorite.)

It smelled and tasted delicious, and I savored each bite as Carlton and I enjoyed the food and each other’s company. I knew Carla would be jealous, so we scraped together some leftovers to bring to her.

As much as I enjoyed the food, I relished the time with Carlton even more. I was on his turf in a place unfamiliar to me but very familiar to him. He knew some of the other kids in the class and felt at home with Chef Scott and the other adult volunteers. He beamed with pride at having created such satisfying food.

I will never forget the feeling of deep joy of experiencing him doing what he loved and sharing it with me.

These are three memories I should reflect on more often when circumstances seem dire. They will sustain me, lift my spirits and help me reconnect with my boys. Memories such as these have cemented our bonds to withstand the inevitable trials that will strain them.

Beach happy

I am blessed with myriad joys in my life — being married to Carla, parenting three wonderful young men, participating in our family of faith at Parkway Baptist Church, and many more. When joy is given a location — the now cliche “happy place” — my mind always goes to our summer family vacations to Santa Rosa Beach.

Every summer since 2001, we’ve taken a family vacation to the beach. The first time we took Barron, still an infant, to Saint Simons Island. Then we discovered Santa Rosa Beach on County Road 30A in South Walton County in the panhandle of Florida. Except for one visit to Cocoa Beach with our friends the Bennetts in 2010, we’ve been there every summer since. Discovering the beaches of South Walton – or, more accurately, re-discovering them for me – has brought me as much happiness as anything in my life.

Lance Wallace in straw hat and sun glasses with beach and blue-green waters in the background.
Unshaven, big sun hat, long sleeve swim shirt, SPF 5000 sunblock and prescription sunglasses — It’s the old man at the beach look, for sure, but it’s worth it for a little peace and rest.

The warm, clear waters of the Emerald Coast are the best anywhere for playing and relaxing. The bright, white sand beaches are beautiful to behold and perfect for setting up chairs under an umbrella and listening to the waves. The restaurants serve up our favorite seafood and provide unmatched atmosphere. The music venues feature local and unknown artists putting their heart and soul into their music, giving us many great nights under the stars. Santa Rosa Beach has been my haven of happiness.

I wrote the first five chapters of my novel at the beach. I taught Harris and Carlton to ride a bike in the lawn at Gulf Place. I played board games with the boys and made Skip-Bo our family card game. I watched family movies revealing to the boys such classics as “Jaws” and “Treasure Island.” I walked the beach at sunset, holding hands with Carla and watching our boys run along the water’s edge, splashing each other and chasing sand crabs. I ate a lot of ice cream. There were years when it rained more than we would have liked or when we spent too much time in the beach house rather than at the pool or on the beach, but I cannot remember a bad vacation at Santa Rosa Beach.

I think our vacations there create so much happiness because the stresses of our lives at home are stripped away. All that’s left is each other and time. Truth be told, we could probably make space for such experiences anywhere in the world. In fact, we do achieve these moments when we are at home, but the beach brings happiness in the anticipation of it as much as the actual trip. For me it’s like the season of anticipation before Christmas.

Lance Wallace and his three boys sit at a picnic table on the balcony of a beach condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico with plates of corn, red potatoes, shrimp and sausage in front of them.
One of our favorite meals at the beach is Carla’s low country boil with fresh Gulf shrimp caught that morning and purchased from Shrimpers. The family time is what makes this vacation so important to me.

Peace, contentment, relationship, creative stimulation, success, discovery, and rest are all common threads in my happiest times. Now that I have surpassed 50, I have come to believe more firmly than ever that happiness is a state of mind I can create for myself rather than rely on circumstances to dictate.

I’m looking forward to this year’s version of beach happiness and hope your summer has some for you, too.

Where is your beach happy? Share your favorite beach destination and why in a comment below.

What’s up with SUP?

Kneeling on the stand-up paddle boarding
Just like babies have to crawl before they can walk, you have to kneel before you can stand on a SUP.

For the last several years during my beach vacation I’ve been seeing people standing on surf boards with big paddles.

Curious but too timid to tackle this sport on my own, I finally got a taste of stand-up paddle boarding (or SUP as it’s commonly known) this week during a work retreat at Chickamauga Lake in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As I suspected, balance plays a part in your enjoyment of this sport.

I was able to get upright my first time, and managed to stay up for about 90 seconds before wiping out and losing my sunglasses – a small price to pay for a new experience and laughter by onlookers.

Standing unsteadily on a stand-up paddle board
I’ve often been accused of being unbalanced. Here’s photographic evidence.

At 6-foot-four, I was also somewhat of sail, being “blown about by the wind and tossed,” to quote Scripture. My colleagues took to it a little bit easier, but I won’t let my physique be an excuse.

After a couple of days of SUP, I did a little research and found out stand-up paddle boarding is taking the New South by storm.

Like all forms of surfing, the sport has its origins as a form of transportation among the islands of the Pacific. It made a resurgence in Hawaii in the 1960s before surfers exported it to California where it experienced something of a renaissance in the mid-1990s.

Now it’s migrating to the East Coast where you can see stand-up paddle boarders in rivers, lakes and the ocean from Florida to Maine. The Yolo board company calls Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., just outside of Destin, its home. That just so happens to be where my family vacations. No wonder we’ve been seeing stand-up paddle boarders!

Proficient at stand-up paddle boarding
After only one day, I’m a pro.

My colleague and talented photo blogger Patricia Heys tried paddle boarding during a recent vacation to Venice Beach, Calif. Patricia has a symbiotic relationship with the sun and enjoys water sports, so naturally she took to the sport with addictive fervor. When she returned to Atlanta, she found a used paddle board online and equipped her family’s lake house with the newfangled watercraft.

“I just like to be on the water,” she said. “It’s calming… and it’s a good workout, particularly for your core.”

And the more you fall, the more cardio is involved. It seems every time I took a plunge, I fell backwards, sending the board shooting off 20 or 30 yards away. The paddle doesn’t float, so swimming one-armed to the board was enough to burn a few hundred calories in about 15 minutes.

Sweet victory
The thrill of victory…

And everything I observed and read is that women are better at it than men.

I need more practice to master this sport, but never having surfed, I think this is a realistic alternative for me. And it doesn’t require waves or even saltwater. Perfect for the backyard pond or lake, I can see stand-up paddle boarding taking hold in the New South in a big way.

There are only a few more weeks of summer, so if you’re going to try it, better hurry.

Paddle on, friends.

Have you tried stand-up paddle boarding? What was your experience? Leave a comment below and share your story.

Method to my madness

Today marks the 52nd weekly post of New South Essays, and it’s high time I let you in on a little secret: I started this blog a year ago to capture your attention, entice you to engage with my writing and whet your appetite for my book.

chapter 1
I'm five and a half years into my first book. Hopefully the others will take less time.

This journey began in 2006. Two years after completing an MBA, I was in need of a new intellectual pursuit, a challenge that provided a creative outlet. I needed a mental exercise that matched the physical exercise of my foolhardy marathon hobby. So I returned to my first love – writing.

My day job in public relations had progressed to the stage in which I spent more time managing budgets than crafting sentences. My need for written expression was going unmet. During our family vacation to Santa Rosa Beach in July 2006, I wrote a chapter a day on the novel I had been kicking around in my head for a few years.

For the next four years I got up early each Saturday and wrote a chapter. My only reader was Carla, who found the book captivating enough to anticipate the next week’s installment with her Saturday morning coffee. A loving but unhesitating editor, she offered instant feedback, telling me when a character was inconsistent, a plot line implausible or dialogue hollow.

By the time I finished the first draft, while on vacation in Santa Rosa Beach exactly four years later, I had generated 146,912 words in 76 chapters. Disjointed and choppy, amateurish and unwieldy, the as-yet-unnamed project was a long way from being finished. I put it aside for six months, dreading the hard work of paring it down to a more reasonable length and a more comprehensible story.

The Saturday after the 2011 blizzard had kept all of Atlanta homebound for a week, I met a friend’s dad for coffee. He is a published author, and I had arranged to talk with him ostensibly about what was involved in the publishing process. Sam gave me all that and more. I came away from our conversation with a renewed commitment to seeing the task through, and picked back up on the rewrite.

I’m now 54 chapters into the first rewrite, splitting my early morning writing time between editing and writing New South Essays. I’ve loved the weekly discipline of writing the blog, and your response and feedback has only encouraged me to continue. For an old newspaper hack like myself, a weekly column is a familiar medium and the consistency of it appeals to my regimented and disciplined side.

My free-spirited side is fed by working on the book. If I’m honest, I’d have to guess that I’m still a year or more away from having a polished manuscript to show prospective agents and publishers. An editor friend and former roommate has the first five chapters, working to help me improve it, one installment at a time.

Macon post card
Before you can leave Macon, you have to go there first.

What I’d describe as contemporary Southern fiction, the book is tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and it chronicles the life of a young junior leaguer who in one tumultuous year discovers her husband is unfaithful, her three-year-old is unruly, her acquired wealth is unfulfilling and her identity unsettled. Through a series of new relationships, including her son’s redneck Tae Kwon Do instructor and an African-American woman restaurateur, she uncovers her true self and finds courage to move forward with her dreams.

Thank you for coming along with me and giving me courage to move forward with my dreams. There’s plenty more to discover and report on in the New South, and I welcome your ideas and participation. Who knows where this will lead.

Some beach, somewhere

Southerners don’t just go to the beach anymore. They go to a particular beach.

Carla's toes at Santa Rosa Beach
Carla's view from her beach chair at Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. This year the seaweed washing ashore has affected the visual beauty, but the beach is still the beach.

These beaches aren’t just the popular ones: Panama City Beach, Daytona Beach, Myrtle Beach, Virginia Beach, Hilton Head. In the New South, it is fashionable to go to a boutique beach with its own charming small-town feel.

There are still thousands of people who flock to the popular beaches each year. Clearly the Destins and Panama Citys and Daytonas are still popular, but the trend I’ve noticed over the last few years is how specific everyone is now about where they stay. It has almost turned into a competition to see who can come up with the most obscure beach. I’m beginning to think half of these beaches don’t really exist.

My friend, John, pointed out this trend back at the beginning of the summer when he asked when and where we were taking our family vacation.

Santa Rosa Beach. It’s between Destin and Panama City.”

“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “Everybody goes to one of those beaches these days. No one says
they’re going to Destin anymore.”

In the weeks that have passed since that conversation, I’ve given this some thought. I believe he’s right. Maybe it’s pretentiousness, maybe it’s pride in finding something we think is relatively undiscovered or maybe it’s rationalization for spending so much money on vacation, but it seems some of us need to go to a smaller beach so we can feel special.

We discovered our boutique beach about 10 years ago. Friends told us about the beautiful beaches in Florida’s panhandle. My wife went online, did some investigating and, voila, we rented a condo in paradise. I knew a little about the beaches of South Walton County from interning back-to-back summers in the early ’90s at The Destin Log. Not as crowded as Destin and Panama City, these beaches, such as Seaside, used principles of new urbanism to guide their development.

30A logo
Doesn't this make you want to go to these special beaches?

So each July we make a trek from Atlanta to Scenic Florida Highway 30A. If you see the little “30A” bumper circle, that’s what they’re hinting at: bragging about their little boutique beach. Another common way to show off your beach is the “SoWal” square, which stands for “South Walton” as in “the beaches of South Walton County.”

Those of you who have discovered these communities of Rosemary Beach, Seagrove, Seaside, Alys Beach, Watercolor, Grayton Beach and Blue Mountain Beach (still haven’t found the mountain) etc., already know the flavor and appeal of a boutique beach.

I have to resist my own snootiness when it comes to my beach vacation. The fact is, there are only so many things you can do at the beach, and people do the same things at the beach no matter which beach it is. Sure, the sand may be a different color and texture or the water may be colder or wavier, but the beach is still the beach.

Maybe I’ll adopt the practice of my children. When asked where they are going on vacation, they say simply “the beach.” Isn’t that all that really matters?