Four walls and a roof

I hate moving.

Moving is one of my least favorite activities because when you’re married to Carla, moving means painting. I hate painting.

Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.
Our new home, less than a mile from our current residence in Lilburn.

When we first got married we lived in an apartment with vaulted ceilings. Because of her need for color and beauty, she insisted we paint the rooms, forfeiting our security deposit and spending hours painting huge walls. Thus the pattern was established for our marriage.

A year later when we bought our first home, she walked in and pronounced with enthusiasm “This is perfect! We can move in right now!” Little did I know that by “perfect” she meant that I would take a week of vacation to paint every room in the house.

By the time we moved into our current home in Lilburn 11 years ago, I was on to her little scheme. Plus, we were moving for my job, and I was traveling more. Carla did most of the painting herself, so my complaining was really more of just rehashing old inconveniences rather than a current set of circumstances.

This time, though, is not just about the anticipated lower back pain, stirring up dust and pollen to provoke allergies and taking time off work to become physically exhausted for a week straight. This time, there is an emotional pain that underlies the entire process.

As much as I like to put on a façade of stoicism about changing houses, I really have grown attached to our house. We brought our oldest to this house when he was just 2, and we added two more sons here. It’s the only house they have really known.

At some point before we purchased our current house, the previous owners converted the garage into a large room that we use as our playroom. We live in this room more than any other room in the house. I will miss this room and the laughter and tears and conversations it has held. Carla’s colorful paint scheme and cheery window treatments have turned the room into a space for imagination and bonding. Along with the fingerprints, thousands of pushpin holes and furniture marks, there is a coating of love on these walls that can only come from 11 years of being a family together in it.

I wrote a novel in this house – at this very desk I’m writing this blog now. Yes, I know, I need to finish the re-write, but the spot I tuned into the mental channel to get the essential story that became my book happened right here in this house.

Carla and I figured out how to be married in this house. We had been husband and wife only six years when we moved, and we were still sorting out the issues that beset young married couples. Our relationship has only grown stronger and sweeter in our time together in this house.

We have celebrated 10 Christmases in this house, lovingly decorating inside and out each year. All our decorations have a place, and the boys know those traditions. I will miss sitting in my living room with a cup of decaf talking with Carla in the twinkling glow of the lit Christmas tree on cold December nights as we make our lists and travel plans. And of course, I will miss the Christmas mornings in that living room, strategically tucked around the corner from the stairs where for years we’ve forced the boys to pause for photos while Nanny and Poppy get in position to enjoy the scene.

I will miss the dining room or breakfast room, which we used to call it back before we converted the dining room into a guest room, because of all the conversations and laughter we’ve had in that room. I will not miss the tortured cries at having to eat vegetables, but something tells me that will be coming with us to our new eating space.

For the past six years, we have welcomed the young adults of Parkway Baptist Church into our home once a month for Second Sunday. That is truly an incredible time in which we get to extend hospitality to friends who share good food, life’s journey and the presence of Christ. Our cozy living room has been a suitable context for much meaningful dialogue on what really matters.

Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.
Our current home in 2003 when we moved in.

Perhaps more than the inside, I will fondly remember the hours I have spent taming the lawn: mowing, trimming, blowing, pruning, raking, digging and spreading. Yard work is therapeutic, and I’ve left a lot of stress and anxiety out in that yard.

We’re moving less than a mile away. We’re not leaving friendships behind because we will be able to visit and see our friends and neighbors as much as we like. We’re not changing school districts, so the boys will not have to navigate that transition. We’re not painting anything… yet … and this house we’re moving into is a lovingly maintained, beloved home sold by a family who is facing similar sentiments of loss and grief as they leave the place they built and raised a daughter in.

I hate moving, but if I have to move, I’m glad it’s this house and it’s at this time in our lives. We will make new memories there. We will bond even more tightly as a family, especially as Mama gets to spend more time with us in our daily routines. And I’m sure at some point there will be painting.

It’s amazing how attached you can get to a place in 11 years and how much stuff you can accumulate. I’m just glad you don’t have to pack memories. We would need a bigger truck.

Have you ever left behind a house that you loved? Do you like moving and move frequently? Share your favorite home memories in a comment below. It will do us all some good to share our homesickness.

Preserving the art of Southern storytelling

I had been to Arkansas only once in my life until a month ago.

Now, I’m transported to the Starving Artist Café in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock once a week for an incredible 30-to-40-minute immersion into the wide-ranging true experiences of Southerners.

In the last month I’ve discovered and gotten hooked on the “Tales from the South” podcast. Around on public radio in Arkansas for seven years, “Tales from the South” can be funny, of course, or poignant or wistful or evoke any of a number of emotions. It definitely transforms my commute from a weary battle of taillights and bumpers to visions of pecan orchards, picnic baskets filled with fried chicken, stolen kisses in Sunday School classrooms and raccoons raiding birdfeeders.

I’m a recent convert to podcasts, and I’ve quickly learned the viral nature of the medium. It began with a Facebook post asking friends to recommend good podcasts to make my often hour-plus commute bearable. That led me to “This American Life,” a delight in its own right. Then, “This American Life” borrowed a story from “Snap Judgment,” another weekly podcast of stories around a theme, and it is now part of my weekly menu.

“Snap Judgment” aired a story a few weeks back by J.W. Taylor as read on “Tales from the South.” Taylor’s story of a church lock-in gone wrong and his coerced confession for making out resonated with me on a surprisingly deep level. As soon as I got to the office that morning, I subscribed to “Tales from the South” and now have a new weekly audio addiction.

The show is recorded each week in front of a live audience at the Starving Artist Café in North Little Rock. It features a musician and a visual artist, although obviously you can’t see the art on the podcast. There’s Mark Simpson with a bluesy guitar riffing in the background of the intros and outros. The podcast includes three stories from different storytellers and a song by the featured musician. Partial to Southern singer-songwriters, I think it’s a perfect formula.

All the credit goes to the show’s host and creator, Paula Martin Morell. A writer and creative writing instructor, Paula and her husband, Jason, own and operate the café. The pace of the show is quick and her commentary minimalist. The fine editing and production quality makes for a lively podcast, but with the sounds of the clinking silverware and glasses and audible responses from the audience, I can easily picture the scene with my mind’s eye.

I particularly enjoy the lack of pretension. These are writers, no doubt, and some are published. But all of the storytellers read their work with a down-to-earth “Hey, let me tell you about…” spirit that evokes barber and beauty shop conversations heard across the South.

And unlike my own put-on-for-effect Southern accent, their dialect is natural, unforced and not the least bit uneducated. Perhaps if I spent a little more time in Texas, I could retrieve my native accent that I purposefully suppressed when my family moved to Central Florida when I was 12. I think it would lend authenticity to my storytelling.

The stories themselves are treasures. Some are simple, some profound, and all of the stories are relatable. They aren’t always funny and not every attempt at humor succeeds, but as the storyteller reads his or her work, you can’t help pulling for them, joining in their quest to understand their emotions around a particular anecdote from their lives. Some authors are better than others at delivering their story without it sounding rote or monotone, but even those who aren’t performers still manage to give you something of value.

Besides, I’m sure it’s nerve wracking to get up in front of a live audience and bare your soul by sharing your writing. It’s hard enough some weeks for me to post a blog with embarrassing earnestness and vulnerability.

I’m grateful I found the “Tales from the South” podcast, but it’s a show that is begging to be experienced live. I’m polishing up my stories and planning a road trip to Little Rock. I’ll let y’all know when I get there.

Are there other Southern podcasts out there I’m missing? Please share! Leave a comment below and let me know what else I should be consuming to pass the time in my car. I’d be much obliged.

Truth in labeling

There comes a time in every parent’s life when they are faced with the sudden and shocking realization that their children are no longer children.

Monday morning I pulled an undershirt out of the drawer, and there at the back of the collar, just above the imprinted size and manufacturing information was the letter “L” written in black Sharpie.

Does "L" mean "Large" or "Lance"? See... very confusing.
Does “L” mean “Large” or “Lance”? See… very confusing.

Uh oh. It has happened. My oldest son’s clothes and my clothes are now so confusingly similar in size that my wife has resorted to coding our wardrobes to prevent mishandling. Like so many other of her schemes, the labeling was brought on by my complaining.

After Christmas, when each of us Wallace men received a new package of Hanes undershirts as gifts, I reached into my drawer, pulled out a fresh white T-shirt and slipped it over my head. Knowing that my workouts have been reduced to running, I felt sure that the snugness of the shirt was not caused by my rippling muscles.

I pulled it back over my head and discovered the truth: “M.” What happened next is somewhat in dispute. I may or may not have ranted like a lunatic about my children’s underwear ending up in my drawer, and I may or may not have made a statement such as “What’s next? Carlton’s Batman briefs tucked in with my boxers?”

Carla didn’t acknowledge my critique. She’s acquired the tone deafness that comes with 17 years of marriage. She just casually mentioned that I do most of the folding and putting away of the laundry. There is a fairly good chance that it was me who committed the heinous laundry foul of putting Barron’s mediums in my drawer.

Carla responded by doing what all mothers do: she relied on her resourcefulness and fondness for labeling to come up with a solution. So now, as a 40-something year-old man, I have been reduced to having my name written in my underwear like a third grader heading off to summer camp for the first time.

What I am discovering, though, is that her system is not consistent. While some of my undershirts have an “L” written in it, the boys’ shirts have a series of dots, or dashes, I can’t tell which. In the Wallace Family Underwear Morse Code, one dot means Barron, two dots means Harris and three dots mean Carlton. Except when it doesn’t.

Apparently when she was labeling our new shirts, she lapsed into other classifications. For example, one of Barron’s shirts accidentally has two dots with one of them marked through and the letter “B” written next to it. There is more written on this shirt at the nape of the neck than the fine print on a pharmaceutical ad in Reader’s Digest.

While I can usually eyeball the difference between Barron’s T-shirts and those belonging to his younger brothers, I tend to mix his and mine or Carlton’s and Harris’s. You would think a glance at the label would clear things up with the younger two, but when I have to look at the label, the Hanes people have made things inexplicably complex. All of the boys wear an “M.” I don’t understand how these stair-stepped children each about four years older than their sibling can all be wearing medium undershirts, but this quirk in the space-time continuum is undeniable.

Carla has very patiently explained that Barron is now wearing an adult medium, Harris is wearing a youth medium and Carlton is wearing a toddler’s medium. See why I am confused?

Barron, Lance and a pack of new Tshirts
Little did I know that this Christmas gift would come back to haunt me just two months later.

Perhaps my confusion and irritability over this whole issue is derived from the truth that my children are growing up. Despite the fact that my own father tells me frequently that the time will pass too quickly, it still comes as a surprise when these moments catch me off guard and I realize just how fast their childhoods are evaporating.

All parents go through this, I know, but that realization makes these epiphanies no less unsettling. With every passing day I wonder if I am doing enough to prepare them for what life is going to throw at them. I contemplate what our relationship will be like through their teen years and on into adulthood. I hope and pray that as their innocence transitions into knowing, they will somehow understand that my love is greater than any mistake they could make and my joy is inextricably linked to theirs.

The next time you see me squirming and fidgeting at the neck with one of my T-shirts, just nod knowingly and understand that I’ve once again made an undergarment selection error and I’m coping with parenthood.

At what moments do you realize life is fleeting? What are the circumstances that jolt you with the terrifying realization your children are growing up too fast? If you’ve been down this road, share your wisdom. If you’re going down this road, share your pain. Leave a comment, and we’ll all be better for it.

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.

Snowpocalypse 2014: A product of the New South

As I worked this week from home in my pajamas, I couldn’t help but join the millions of Atlantans and Birminghamians, among others, in contemplating just how Snowpocalypse 2014 happened.

This will not surprise you, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fault of the New South.

Traffic stands still in snowy Atlanta
Perhaps the most iconic image from Tuesday’s disastrous commute in snowy Atlanta.

Although much has been written already on this topic, permit me to weigh in and offer five supporting arguments for my assessment. Feel free to disagree and tell me so. And for the record, I did not write this during my 2 hour and 20 minute commute (one of the shorter ones in metro Atlanta on Tuesday):

1. Southern Pride. Down South, we never surrender, and we’re tired of being mocked. Government officials, school superintendents and business owners did not want to close Tuesday on the threat of snow because they did not want to keep everybody home and this storm turn out to be a light dusting. I don’t care what they say now about taking this threat seriously. Clearly, this arrogance in the face of eminent danger was at least an indirect psychological factor in the minds of Southern deciders.

The sad thing is, the Yankees still won. It’s like heckling a batter while he’s in the on-deck circle. If he ever acknowledges you, even with a nod, a smile or giving you the one finger salute, you know you got in his head. You won.

This was the same scenario. Folks more accustomed to snow mock Southerners each time there’s a threat of winter weather. They ridicule our excitement, need to rush to the grocery store to buy bread and milk and complete lack of ability to drive in those conditions. I believe this got in the heads of us Southerners, so much so that we went against our better judgment. We wanted to stick it out. Sherman (General Tecumseh, not Richard) would not have the last laugh.

2. Selective hearing. Our attention spans in the New South are waning, and this was on full display Tuesday morning. When the forecast was changed from a slight dusting in Atlanta with most of the precipitation falling south of the metro area to the possibility of 2 to 3 inches hitting squarely on the metro area, we didn’t really notice. We heard the first thing forecasters said, not the last thing.

We had it in our heads that this would be another of the dozens of near-misses rather than the rare direct hit, and when the National Weather Service issued updated warnings, it fell on deaf ears. We had already made up our minds and were on to other things. Anyone who paid attention and acted accordingly was discounted as a “Nervous Nelly,” unable to handle two inches of snow.

3. Sprawl. I can’t speak for Birmingham, but in Atlanta, we’ve gotten too big for our lifestyle. The Atlanta metropolitan area spans 8,376 square miles. That’s a lot of snow-covered roadway to traverse going to and from work. The average Atlanta commuter spends 240 hours commuting each year. For the mathematically challenged, that’s the equivalent of 30 work days.

Atlanta’s commute ranks no. 7 nationally, according to Bloomberg and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, on the list of worst commutes. It’s clearly not an ideal situation on a good day. Tuesday was not a good day. All of us in our cars trying to get back to the suburbs left downtown at roughly the same time. By the time we all figured out that this was a bad idea, it was too late.

4. Saving cash. Preventive maintenance is sound, reasonable thinking, but it flies in the face of human nature. We don’t want to do anything we don’t absolutely have to. So before we criticize the Alabama and Georgia departments of transportation for not pre-salting and graveling the roads, let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves: when was the last time we changed our vehicle’s oil on time? OK, then.

It’s no secret that we don’t have resources to deal with winter weather – namely salt trucks and snow plows – in the South, and no one would blame us. It only snows like this once every four or five years. We wouldn’t get a good return on that investment. And it costs money to operate the equipment and purchase the salt and gravel that we’re just going to throw around. Why salt and spread if you don’t have to?

Officials gambled and lost. I think we can all admit we would have at least been reluctant to make the call to spend the cash to pre-treat the roads when the threat did not seem that bad.

5. Scapegoating is our favorite pastime. None of us want to take personal responsibility for contributing to the circumstances that caused the commuting disaster on Tuesday, but if just a fraction of us had taken personal ownership of our lives and made different decisions, the crisis would have been mitigated if not averted. But where’s the fun in that? In the New South, we cannot move on from any disaster without affixing blame. It’s what we do.

We are going to blame our mayors, our emergency management leaders, and our governors regardless because this is the most basic reason why we vote: to have someone to blame when things go wrong. They’re not so much elected to lead us as to be our scapegoats. Tuesday’s commute disaster needs a scapegoat.

Officials tried to pin this on the forecasters. But when you run a 24-hour cable network, you have plenty of time to rebut. With state elections in Georgia just around the corner, I’m afraid challengers to incumbents will help make this blame game stick on those currently holding office as they lay out their attack ads leading into the fall.

One of my takeaways from Tuesday will be gratitude for not having a worse or more dangerous experience. I’ll also try to let the memories of the boys joyously sledding on Wednesday replace thoughts of Tuesday’s awful commute.

Regionally shared experiences are rare. Throughout the South, we now have harrowing experiences and stories to share for generations to come. In our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural New South, we all have Snowpocalypse 2014 in common.

Was the area in which you live touched by Winter Storm Leon? What was your experience like? If you live in Atlanta, what was your commute like on Tuesday? Did you pick your kids up early from school? Did you heed the warnings? Let’s begin sharing our stories by leaving comments below.

Living in the Nose South

What does your house smell like?

Ours is a mixture of coffee, a hint of mildew wafting up from the basement (the dehumidifier is on the fritz), fabric softener, and bergamot. You heard me. Bergamot. You know bergamot, right? I didn’t think so.

You see, here in the New South we have new smells filling our homes. Gone are the days when your house smelled like last night’s supper, at least until the next morning’s bacon began to fry in the skillet. Now, we have a growing multitude of products to help our home smell more inviting.

When it comes to homemaking, I often tease my wife for going to Martha Stewartian extremes. However, I have to take the blame on this one. I have a sensitive sniffer. Smells affect me in powerful and mysterious ways.

After a hard day at the office and a difficult commute, what I smell when I open the door affects my mood. Even if the playroom looks like Tokyo at the end of a Godzilla movie, if there’s a pleasing aroma, I can cope. Aromatherapy was invented for people like me.

I’m like those people in the Febreeze commercial where they hide all the smelly garbage in a condo unit at a resort and invite people to spend the weekend. The Febreeze plug-in air fresheners cover the smell. Don’t get me wrong: I like things to look neat, too. It’s just that I’m very sensitive to the way things smell.

So over the 16-plus years of our marriage, Carla has figured this out and tried a number of ways to keep the house smelling fresh. At first it was candles. Anything named “Yankee Candle” does not deserve space in a blog about the South, so I’ll just move on.

Then we tried sprays. Lysol sure smells clean but in that “someone just vomited” kind of way. And anyone who’s ever heard Jeff Foxworthy’s routine about the air fresheners in the bathroom “not fooling anybody” (“Walt, what have you been doing in there, arranging flowers?”) understands the depths of their inefficiency.

Carla even went so far one year as to buy these very concentrated sprays from Bath and Body Works. Maybe she just got the wrong ones, but a hit from these things could peel the paint off the walls. I have the smell of Bartlett Pear forever seared into my memory. I’m gagging a little right now as I type this.

One Christmas a few years back, my brother and sister-in-law gave us some plug-in scent warmers called Scentsy. They’re like little fondue pots you plug into the outlet and feed with scented wax bars. They are amazing and come in a variety of fragrances that help keep the house smelling good… at least until the bar has to be replaced.

Wallflowers are as lovely as they smell, in a way that begs preschoolers to play with your electrical outlets.
Wallflowers are as lovely as they smell, in a way that begs preschoolers to play with your electrical outlets.

We’re currently using a product called Wallflowers, also from Bath and Body Works, hence my recent education on bergamot. Like all of these products, you can buy seasonal fragrances. We’ve been through the fall scents of pumpkin, cinnamon and autumn woodland and are still shaking off the residues of Christmas: “Vanilla Snowflake,” “Frosted Cranberry” and “Twisted Peppermint.” As the throes of winter gloom pin us down in our homes, we can eagerly anticipate “Honeysuckle,” “Beach Cabana” and “Watermelon Lemonade.”

Whatever their names, these aromas are now part of our daily lives in the New South. So whether your boudoir smells of bergamot or your foyer welcomes guests with lilac, the modern Southern home is a nasal sanctuary. And as ridiculous as some of the names of our new smells are, it sure beats dog vomit, dirty feet or post-burrito bathroom.

I know I am not alone in this wacky world of Wallflowers. This topic begs for an interactive component: What five words would you use to describe the way your house smells? Leave your response in a comment below, and let us all imagine the aroma you describe.

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.

‘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.

Preachers

I am fascinated by preachers. It’s not a delusional, put-them-on-a pedestal kind of thing but more like a burning curiosity to understand what makes them tick.

I’ve been thinking about preachers a lot lately. My brothers and my dad are preachers of one sort or another, and their recent transitions have been on my mind. Last Sunday my church celebrated the 10th anniversary of our beloved pastor and his family. As I crafted a tribute and worked up a script for serving as master of ceremonies, I thought a lot about how the role and perception of preachers has changed through the years.

Jim King at Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth, Georgia
My preacher, the Rev. Dr. James King at Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth, Ga. Glad he’s been with us for 10 years!

It’s no secret that the South is what is known as the “Bible Belt.” Religious expression has been a part of the Southern landscape from the beginning, and as Protestant Evangelicalism spread across the region in the mid-1700s the preacher began to emerge as an influential member of the community. So much so that the Southern preacher has become an archetype bordering on cliché.

The portrayals of Southern preachers in pop culture range from “The Apostle’s” Eulis ‘Sonny’ Dewey, played by Robert Duvall to Flannery O’Connor’s atheist evangelist, Hazel Motes, in “Wise Blood.” They tend to be Protestant, evangelical and high strung with a penchant for podium pounding and pulpiteering. (To explore these literary characters further, check out G. Lee Ramsey’s “Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves: The Minister in Southern Fiction.”)

I believe the concept of the preacher is changing. As the church’s influence wanes, even in the South, preachers are not looked upon with the same sense of awe and admiration. Not to be too general, but the reputation of preachers as a profession took several high-profile hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s as they took to the airwaves to build media empires only to have it all crumble under the weight of greed, lust and betrayal.

Just as trust in the American president declined after Richard Nixon, people began to look at their own pastors differently after Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker fell from their lofty televised pulpits, and every Ted Haggard or Eddie Long reinforces the collective cynicism we have towards our clergy.

I have no such cynicism. I grew up in a pastor’s home. I am, in church parlance, a “PK” or “Preacher’s Kid.” I have always known my father as my dad first, pastor second. While I hold him in great esteem, his humanity is not hidden from me. Maybe that’s why I am drawn more to the quieter, less public side of pastoral ministry.

What a professional minister does is so much more than stand up and preach. Perhaps that’s why I find myself using the word “minister” more frequently than “preacher” as I age. Certainly I enjoy and am inspired by a good sermon, but what I see as the bedrock of pastors’ ministries is their presence.

This has been said by more theologically astute scholars than me, but I have come to believe preachers earn the right to tell people things because they are with people in their times of crises. Ministerial credibility comes from sitting with the sick and dying in their hospital room, standing close with families at the funeral home or listening intently as parishioners pour out their struggles.

Pastors can have a pulpit persona that is detached and inauthentic. I treasure real, honest conversations with members of the clergy. I learn as much or more from those interactions than from 100 sermons.

In a day when preachers are holographic or televised images beamed to multiple locations, I think the world needs more flesh-and-blood humans walking alongside them in their day-to-day life. Preachers need to be real with people, but not in an air-your-dirty-laundry way.

My hope is that the role of the preacher in the New South isn’t reduced to Sunday sermons. My hope is that the preacher will be more welcomed into people’s lives as a person who genuinely cares for people, demonstrating God’s love in a way that can then be imitated and shared with others.

You can keep your techno-preachers and their holograms and big productions. I want a fellow pilgrim on the journey, someone to, as hymn writer Richard Gillard puts it, “help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.”

What does “preacher” mean to you? What do you like about your preacher? Do you think the role of the minister is changing in our post-modern world? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, but don’t get too … well … preachy.

Words mean things

I used to work for a South Carolinian who issued colorful quips and witticisms the way most people speak casual greetings.

One of Ben’s favorites was “Words mean things.”

This week the Internet has been abuzz with the controversy surrounding the words used by Southern cooking diva Paula Deen. The brouhaha over Paula’s admission in a deposition that she used the “N” word 25 years ago and her public apologies has been front and center for a week now. In the media I consume, it has overtaken groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

This is a controversy born of the New South. As recently as maybe 15 or 20 years ago, this would not have been news. But in the New South, sensitivities to racial issues take on greater importance.

What is contemporary about this flap, is that people are retreating from Paula because of the perception that she hasn’t really gotten beyond the meaning behind words from long ago. Even while she is apologizing, there is a hint, an undertone, that Paula doesn’t really understand why people think she could be a racist.

NBC's Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on "Today" Wednesday morning.
NBC’s Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on “Today” Wednesday morning.

While Paula Deen has used a lot of words this week – probably too many – she has sent mixed messages. In saying “I’m sorry” and “I is what I is” she has given her detractors room to work, to interpret the meanings of these words in ways she may not have intended.

The setting here does make a big difference. Savannah is, in many ways, the capital of the Old South, and Paula is its ceremonial queen. If this former employee who brought the lawsuit wanted to bring Paula down, she has already succeeded whether or not her allegations of harassment are true.

Yes, we have all said things we regret. Yes, we all carry with us biases the origin of which even we ourselves cannot explain. And, yes, if on the defensive, any of us could sound unintentionally racist. But what I take away from this situation with Paula Deen is that once you have the racist label attached to you, it’s hard to convince people otherwise, no matter what words you use.

As this situation continues to play out, fueled by Paula’s missteps with the media, she will have her share of detractors and admirers. There’s nothing all that new or unusual about people lining up on opposite sides of an issue, particularly in these very partisan times.

Is Paula sincere? Yes, I believe she is. Does she understand why people are so upset? Maybe. Does she know how to get out of this mess and move on? No, I don’t believe she does.

The lesson from Paula’s downfall that all of us non-cooking show icons can take is that in contemporary society our words can more easily destroy than build up. And regardless of what offensive things we may say, if our comments reflect racism, it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise.

Why can’t we all just get along? When it comes to race, there’s simply too much history. Words mean things.

Based on what I’m reading on other blogs and the comments on news stories, I ask only that as you share your thoughts on New South Essays, you do so respectfully. I’d love to hear why you are supporting Paula or why you can’t, and if you have any advice that could help her negotiate these waters any better. As always, thanks for your input!