Mercer pride

Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people's Facebook profile across my network.
Suddenly, at about 2 p.m. Friday, this started popping up on people’s Facebook profile across my network.

I had just wrapped up a conference call and had about 15 minutes until I needed to leave my office for my next meeting on the other side of the Georgia Tech campus.

A quick check of the Mercer-Duke score revealed Duke had pulled ahead. No need to get excited. The Number 3 seed was doing what Number 3 seeds do in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I spent some time working on a PowerPoint presentation and managed a few more productive edits before I clicked back over to see the score. With just a couple of minutes left, Mercer, the overwhelming underdog, had pulled ahead.

“This might get interesting,” I thought.

So like a lot of other Mercer fans – an almost nonexistent term until yesterday – I indulged and gave up a few minutes of my day to see an improbable upset, leaving my office only when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

I wasn’t much good in my meeting. I kept checking Twitter and Facebook to see my myriad social media connections to Mercer light up with jubilation. The unbelievable had happened.

That’s when I felt it, a moment I had never felt as a holder of a master’s degree from Mercer: school pride. Did I mention I used to work there, too? No? Well, I did, and now that Mercer has defeated Duke in the NCAA tournament, you can bet I’ll be mentioning it a lot more in the future.

“Yeah, I used to work there… you know, Mercer? Yeah, that’s right, the school that beat Duke.”

The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.
The Mercer Entourage in Raleigh to witness the biggest win in school history. Photo courtesy of Cindy Drury of Mercer Campus Life.

In the South, you must have your teams. I know this is more of a football phenomenon in the Deep South, but when you look to the Appalachian or coastal regions, basketball is king.

Having pride in your school’s athletic accomplishments is not just a Southern thing, but in the New South, it definitely gives you markers with which you can identify yourself on social media. You are either a Dawg or a Jacket, an exclaimer of “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” a fan of Florida or Florida State and so on. This is a socially acceptable and even socially expected way to identify yourself.

And up until yesterday, the shorthand “Mercer fan” had not existed. Yes, I have plenty of friends who work at Mercer and some whose children go there, and a lot of people in my personal network, including my wife, went there, but even those with close connections to the school weren’t really rabid with Mercer basketball pride.

Even my wife, who has not one once of athletic interest, managed to come up with a Facebook post that entered the realm of euphoric fanaticism… for her:

“Be the Bear, Mercer Proud, and all that jazz!”

Lame, I know, but that’s the point: Mercer has a bunch of graduates and “fans” like this who are ill-prepared to celebrate a success of this magnitude. Even I didn’t know what to do with these feelings of Mercer pride at first, but now that I know what this is, it’s growing on me.

For all the academic purists out there, this is where you have to admit that athletics plays an important role in higher education. For every alumnus who goes on to invent something great or achieve a lofty position or have a national nightly cable show, not even Nancy Grace can give a school the kind of profile that a bracket-busting victory in the NCAA tournament can.

This is why schools have athletic programs. This is ultimately why Mercer reinstated its football program this year after a 72 year hiatus. Sports get people excited. High-profile victories against national powerhouse programs put you on their level, at least for a day. Alumni feel pride. The general public talks about your school. High school kids suddenly think they may want to go there. Donors are inspired to write big checks.

We’ll see what happens Sunday when Mercer takes on Tennessee, but for now, there’s plenty to celebrate for “Mercer Nation” … another term that has never before been used in the English language until yesterday.

I, for one, will break out my “Be the Bear” T-shirt and wear it with pride.

OK, Mercer fans, it’s your shining moment. Share what you were doing when Mercer beat Duke. Were you at the game in Raleigh? Were you at work sneaking a peak at the ESPN gamecast? What was it like? Leave a comment below and let the celebration continue.

Five ways to avoid being trapped in fantasy football conversations

As a chronicler of life in the New South, I am duty-bound to warn you that we have entered a time of year when sports obsession reaches new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view.)

You need to be prepared for the threat of any conversation being derailed by talk of someone’s fantasy football team. With more than 35 million people now playing fantasy sports the threat is real and the effects are devastating.

someecard on fantasy football that says: "My fantasy job is to work with people who don't incessantly talk about fantasy football at work."
If you have ever felt this way, you may be suffering from UFFD.

There you are, minding your own business, talking about something completely neutral like politics or religion, and someone launches into a tirade about losing a fantasy football game because a coach elected to go for the two-point conversion rather than kick the extra point.

What do you do? How do you protect yourself?

I can help.

You see, I am prone to Unwanted Fantasy Football Dialogue (UFFD). A fantasy football player since the early 1990s, I will participate in three leagues this year. I once drafted a team on accident while trying to join a mock draft and ended up keeping the team and playing in the league with a bunch of random guys. I have been guilty of discussing the performance of my fantasy team(s) with people who didn’t care and I have seen the impact.

So, as a public service or maybe penance for all of the fantasy football conversation I have inflicted on people over the years, I am offering the non-fantasy player self-defense techniques.

1.) Change the subject. At the first sign of trouble, you must immediately bridge to a more palatable conversation. “So my starting running back is out for the season now with a torn ACL” can be thwarted by responding with “Speaking of running backs, did you hear that Publix has rutabagas buy one-get one?” See how that works? Very smooth. Seamless transition. In public relations we call that “bridging.”

2.) Talk to the hand. It’s time to pull this tired cliché out of moth balls and deploy it whenever you suspect the next words out of someone’s mouth might be “… I can still make the playoffs in my fantasy league if I score 123 points and …” You don’t even have to actually say “Talk to the hand.” Just put up your hand. It’s like training your pet. Give the person a visual cue that you are not going to listen. And if they persist? Keep raising the hand. Do this three or four times and the person should get the message. If they don’t, you may have to resort to swatting them with a rolled up newspaper or spraying their face with a misting water bottle.

Fantasy football excuses
If you get sucked into UFFD, you will hear some if not all of these.

3.) Avoidance. The worst offenders of UFFD are so immersed in the imaginary world of playing football general manager that they have no idea they are tiresome bores to all. They cannot be rehabilitated. Do not try. If you see them coming, walk the other way. If they are in the elevator, let it pass and get the next one. If they are heading to the bathroom at the same time as you, hold it. Discretion is the better part of valor. Live to fight another day.

4.) Go on the offensive. There are topics that can recoil even the most insensitive UFFD sufferer. My wife is an expert at this strategy. Like Raid sprayed on an intrusive palmetto bug are such conversation starters as “Honey, what do you think of this fabric sample?” and “I want to plant seasonal color” or “Did you hear that Dee Dee’s sister’s cousin is having 14 attendants at her wedding?” It might be helpful to have three or four of these written on a card so you won’t have to worry about memory issues. In particularly serious cases of UFFD, you may have to come up with as many 10 or 12 such topics to repel an attack.

5.) Fight fire with fire. Here is the one piece of wisdom that unlocks the medical mystery that is UFFD: fantasy football players only want to talk about their team. They don’t really care about anyone else’s team or anyone else’s league. It is a narcissistic pursuit. You can fend off all UFFD with this simple strategy: get your own team and talk about it. When someone starts in with “I can’t believe both of my wide receivers have a bye this weekend” you respond with “Yeah, and can you believe this guy tried to trade me Le’Ron McClain for Marshawn Lynch?” And when they counter with “That’s nothing. There was a guy who tried to get me to take Percy Harvin for Brandon Marshall” you say, “I know, right? Why didn’t Arian Foster get any playing time this preseason? I have no idea what I’m going to get out of him this year.” The more you talk about fantasy football not involving his or her team, the more they will become bored and seek to disengage. You only have to deploy this technique a couple of times before the UFFD sufferer will avoid you completely.

So there you have it. This is your survival guide for the next six months of fantasy football. You may get lonely and have no one to talk to, but at least you’ll still have your health. And that’s worth something, right?

Have you ever been subjected to UFFD? Are you a fantasy football widow/widower? What do you love/hate about fantasy football? What tactics have worked for you in avoiding UFFD? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, and good luck on the  upcoming season… unless you’re in one of my leagues.

Goofy Southern Golfers: A New Tradition Unlike Any Other

The Masters Tournament, the first of professional golf's four major tournaments each year, is played at the stately Augusta National Country Club in Augusta, Ga.
The Masters Tournament, the first of professional golf’s four major tournaments each year, is played at the stately Augusta National Country Club in Augusta, Ga.

Based on in-depth demographic research, I’ve determined that New South Essays readers may not know that this week is the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. As a public service, I am writing to let you know that this is happening , and it is important.

Or at least it is to some people. Like CBS. And Augusta, Ga. And Tiger Woods.

As I scoured the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) headlines for some New South nugget to pull from the array of staid and stodgy story lines, I found and discarded the story of the 14-year-old Chinese phenom, Tianlang Guan. No New South angles there.

Then there’s Tiger. Trying to win a fifth Green Jacket (that’s what they give the winners. Not very practical. They can only wear it at Augusta National Country Club) might be interesting to some folks, but in the New South, it’s about as exciting as watching Alabama play Georgia State in football. Oh, and there’s a lot of hullabaloo about Woods breaking some arcane rule and needing to disqualify himself, but that will never happen.

Before you judge, admit it, you've been known to slouch around school classrooms, too, haven't you?
Before you judge, admit it, you’ve been known to slouch around school classrooms, too, haven’t you?

Then, I found this: the latest trend among pro golfers is called “Dufnering.” Named for 36-year-old Jason Dufner, an Auburn grad currently tied for 7th at the Master’s, who had his picture taken by journalists while sitting awkwardly in a school classroom back on March 28.

Bubba Watson mocked Jason Dufner with a Dufnering pose in his garage with his beloved Gen. Lee.
Bubba Watson “Dufnering” in his garage with his beloved General Lee.

The photo quickly went viral, and soon, Dufner’s golfing buddies proliferated the image through Twitter and named the pose “Dufnering.”

It doesn’t appear to be hurting his game.

Then there’s Bubba Watson, the 2012 Master’s champion. Much was made of his victory last year, and the 34-year-old Bagdad, Fla., native and University of Georgia graduate has quickly become one of the bright stars of the golf world with his buttoned-up golf shirts and pink drivers.

Bubba in his 2011 debut music video "Oh, Oh, Oh."
Bubba in his 2011 debut music video “Oh, Oh, Oh.”

He and his buddies have taken to making music videos. Yes, you heard me correctly: music videos. Perhaps you’ve seen the 2011 rendition of “Oh, Oh, Oh”? Watson and fellow golfers Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan followed up that effort with  “2.Oh,” another in their series of madcap musical mayhem.

An argument can be made that Watson’s musical exploits could be interfering with his game as he currently sits at four-over-par, 10 shots off the lead.

In the Old South, golf was a genteel game practiced by wealthy gentlemen. In the New South, it’s a bunch of rambunctious frat boys seemingly taking it all in stride and having fun. Not since John Daly — the chain-smoking, long-driving, overweight, alcoholic everyman — was competitive have Southerners had someone they felt they could truly root for in a tournament.

Is it me or is Davis Love III "Dufnering" back in 2008 on the cover of Garden & Gun?
Is it me or is Davis Love III “Dufnering” back in 2008 on the cover of Garden & Gun?

Yes, I know, lots of golfers hail from the South. You’ll even see such stalwarts as Davis Love III gracing the cover of Garden & Gun magazine. But will you ever see Davis Love III “Dufnering” or performing in a rap video?

Sometime in the last 10 years, golf… or I should say golfers… stopped taking themselves so seriously. Whether this makes golf more accessible to the public and ultimately more popular remains to be seen. What I think you can predict is that whether people watch the tournaments or not, they’ll feel a stronger kinship with the athletes, and that has to be a boon to the sport.

OK, let’s all assume the position and do some “Dufnering” while we watch the final two rounds of the Master’s. It’s a tradition unlike any other.

Who’s your favorite PGA star? Do you think it disgraces golf for players to be dancing around in overalls and sitting awkwardly in school classrooms? Leave a comment below and share your reaction to the current crop of crazy Southern golfers.

My cheatin’ foot

When you try a different hair stylist or dental hygienist, don’t you feel a little bit like you’re cheating on the relationship?

Since the mid-1990s I have been buying my running shoes at Phidippides, the first-ever specialty running store which opened in 1973 in Tallahassee, Fla., and now operates at Atlanta’s Ansley Mall. Even when I lived in Macon, I would drive to Midtown Atlanta to buy my running shoes from real runners who knew what they were talking about as opposed to the teenagers in referee uniforms at those shops in the mall or the big box stores.

screen image of my high arches
I have a high arch… so says the computer screen and the eyeball test.

For at least the last three years as I have dealt with a number of injuries, a running buddy of mine has been trying to convince me to visit Big Peach Running, an Atlanta running store chain that opened in 2004. He talked about their fit process and how they looked at your feet on some sort of scanner and then videotaped your gait and foot falls on a treadmill to determine your needs in a running shoe.

I stubbornly protested, saying I preferred the low-tech approach of Phidippides where they watch you run with their eyes and tell you the same information. I said I didn’t want to succumb to the “soul-less, technology-driven” approach of the new-fangled Big Peach.

After logging WAY too many miles on my shoes, I decided it was time to get some new ones. I had been complaining about my shoes to anyone who would listen for several months. Finally, my wife had heard enough.

“Go buy some shoes already!” was her less than sympathetic response.

Now that I work in Midtown, I made plans to slip over to Phidippides during a lunch hour. Before I could go, though, my running buddy made one last appeal for Big Peach. This time when I launched into my old school argument, he was ready.

“Wait, don’t you work at Georgia Tech? Why are you so afraid of technology?”

Touché.

I looked up Big Peach’s locations and found a brand new one on Peachtree Street, 1.7 miles from my office. Resistance was futile. I was assimilated.

During lunch last Friday, I drove over to the new Big Peach location, feeling guilty for abandoning my beloved Phidippides. The clerks, who, like at Phidippides, were clearly very knowledgeable runners, asked me the same diagnostic questions I used to get at Phidippides:

  1. How much are you running these days?
  2. What are you are currently running in?
  3. Are you having any problems?
  4. Are you training for something specific?

screen image of food landing in stable position
My foot lands in a stable position. Extra cool shot of my ankle, too, with my dress pants rolled up.

Because I knew all these answers so readily, they started to just pull some shoes they knew would work and go from there. But I sheepishly said, “Aren’t you going to do all that high-tech stuff to my feet?”

Embarrassed, they backtracked and had me step on the sensor pad to measure my arch. I have a high arch, by the way, which I already knew.

Then, they put me on the treadmill with the little camera aimed at my feet. I took off and actually got it going a little too fast (on accident, not to show off) so that my foot fall images were blurry. They found a clean frame and showed me how my stride is stable. I neither over- or under-pronate. I have a stable foot and need a neutral shoe. Again, this was information I already knew.

They let me trot around in the newest model of the Asics Gel Cumulus, which I’ve been running in for the better part of 10 years. They felt great, like rubber-soled comforters for my feet.

For grins, they showed me perhaps the ugliest shoes I have ever seen in my life. Newtons, they were called, as in Sir Isaac. And, no, they were not of the fig variety. They were of the $170 variety. They had little rubber blocks on the sole under the ball of the foot designed to induce proper running form. In case you’re not keeping up, these days proper running form is to land on the mid-foot or ball of the foot rather than the heel-to-toe technique most of us grew up learning.

My new Nike Flyknit Trainers.
Money, it’s gotta be the shoes. Nike Flyknit Trainers will get me over the hump in qualifying for Boston.

I donned these hideous shoes and trotted around a bit. They felt good and actually did make me run on the balls of my feet. But it wasn’t $170 worth of improvement, so I tried out the sports car model. These chartreuse Nike’s Flyknit Trainers were the lightest shoe I had every picked up. Made with engineered fabric, the shoes weighed just 1.2 ounces each. For legs that aren’t getting any younger, I swallowed my pride and bought the brightest pair of shoes I will ever own.

I am officially in the 21st Century of running. I wear neon green shoes that have a little pocket in the insole for a microchip (which I did not purchase) that can sync via Bluetooth technology with my iPhone to record my runs. I shop at a store that scans your feet electromagnetically and uses video cameras to record your running motion. I have officially moved to the New South of running.

I may not be the six million dollar man, but with these new shoes, I am the $145 man. I just hope they will help me qualify for Boston soon or else I may go back to my Luddite ways at Phidippides.

How hi-tech are your trainers? How do you buy your shoes? Have you succumbed to the technological generation and go for every GPS, heart-rate-monitor, sensor and microchip available?  Leave a comment and sure your running technology preferences.

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.

Little gym, big gym

Last Saturday Carlton and our family and friends celebrated his fourth birthday at The Little Gym in Snellville.

Carlton and friends at The Little Gym
See? Smiles everywhere. Carlton and his friends had a blast.

Though Carlton only took classes there for six weeks, he often asks to go back. The birthday party was the perfect excuse.

The folks at The Little Gym were organized, well-staffed, professional but personal, and they made the entire experience a pleasure. We got to watch the kids have fun and take pictures while the staff ran the party. I can’t recommend The Little Gym enough. There’s a reason Parents magazine named The Little Gym the number one place to host children’s birthday parties.

Along with my recent job change, I’ve changed gyms as I seek to find a schedule that makes sense for me. I’m no longer at the Fitness 19 around the corner, though I had a good experience there for several years.

Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech
The BIG gym. Actually, it’s the biggest gym I think I’ve ever been in.

Now, I’m at the palatial Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech, the modified former venue of Olympic swimming and diving. It’s massive, with 14 machines of every type, and the equipment is so new I don’t even know what to do with some of it.

All this gym talk had me thinking about the similarities and differences between Carlton’s gym and my gym. So here’s my analysis, using the five senses as an organizing principle:

Sight: The Little Gym is full of bright, primary colors appropriate for children who are learning such basic concepts. The big gym has the appropriate Georgia Tech old gold and white with the navy and black accent colors tastefully and athletically applied. Both are well lit. Obviously, the patrons of The Little Gym are quite a bit shorter but after a rousing game of follow the leader or parachute circle, no less sweaty than their larger equivalents at the big gym. The key difference? The Little Gym people have way more smiling going on.

Carlton gets dizzy with the parachute game
No skydiving required for this parachute, but Carlton still got a little dizzy.

Smell: Without putting too fine a point on it, adults who are exerting smell bad. Children who are exerting have no real smell; unless they are so busy playing they forget to take a potty break. Both gyms smell of antibacterial cleanser, although I have to say The Little Gym has some of the “Scentsy” candle air fresheners that are aromatherapeutic–a nice added touch.

Taste: When I’m at the big gym, all I have is water. It’s pretty much tasteless, unless some of my salty sweat drips down my face while I’m at the water fountain. At The Little Gym, we had juice pouches, popcorn and cupcakes. Now that is fuel for a workout! I do eat a protein bar and a banana or apple after my workout, but as far as breakfasts go, it’s lacking.

Sound: Both gyms have up-tempo music playing to help you get revved up. At The Little Gym, they played a number of hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s such as “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” “Rockin’ Robin” and others. At the big gym, it’s typically a mix of hits from the ‘90s, dance tunes, and hip-hop. It’s enough to make me want my ear buds, but I tend to tune it out most of the time.

The view from the high dive platform
Mere mortals are not allowed up on the high dive platform, but it does make for a really nice view of the big gym’s pool.

Touch: Nearly everything at The Little Gym is padded. There are parallel bars, a high bar, rings and other apparatus that feel the same for the kids as they would the grownups, but overall, it’s soft place to fall, jump, tumble, flip and bounce. The surfaces of the big gym are less forgiving. There is a rubber floor, which absorbs the impact of dumbbells and barbells, and the four or five mats do offer some padding for stretching, yoga or other forms of fitness-related torture. In general, though, the big gym isn’t a place you’d want to fall down.

OK, so what’s my point? All of this is obvious, you say. Well, it’s clear that kids have more fun at The Little Gym than adults do at the big gym. And I think the reasons are in my analysis above. But more than the atmosphere and the physical setting, it’s about attitude.

No matter what color the walls are painted or how the place smells we can all bring a little more child-like play to our fitness. Not only would we enjoy it more, we would probably get healthier in the process.

I think I need a little more Little Gym in my big gym.

OK, it’s your turn. What do you like about your gym? What don’t you like? Have you had any experience with the Little Gym or places that are similar? Leave a comment below and share!

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.

Guys’ night out

“Decompression” is the best word to describe my rare night out with the guys last Tuesday.

The idea for the outing sprang up last week when I saw that the San Francisco Giants were coming to town to play the Atlanta Braves. Carla was amenable to giving me the night off, so plans were set in motion.

Brian and Daniel
Brian, left, and Daniel, right, met all the requirements of compatriots for a guys’ night out: they’re guys.

I haven’t seen a Braves game since my buddy, Bob, moved away several years ago, and I felt it was time. My friend, Brian, is a life-long fan of the Giants, and our mutual friend, Daniel, lives in Grant Park, about a mile from the stadium. Not only did he provide free parking, Daniel’s baseball knowledge combined with Brian’s pop culture omniscience set the tone for the perfect guys’ night out conversation.

Admittedly, Daniel is better friends with Brian, based on a relationship that dated back to when the two were in seminary at Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, but baseball talk is a universal language, and our conversation was easy and constant all night.

It’s been my experience that when guys attend a ball game, they talk about all of the previous times they have been to ball games. Over time, our memories fade, and we are left more with impressions than the ability to relive the experience play-by-play. Details such as who hit home runs, who pitched, special promotions, the importance of the game, whether someone achieved a milestone or broke a record, who won, weather conditions and run-ins with unruly fans all coalesce to form the substance of guys’ ball game conversations.

Our view at Turner Field
Our view from the lower level, first base side in right at Turner Field.

None of this talk was of earth shattering importance, but that was precisely the point. No problems to solve, no children to console, no “honey-do” lists or sharing our feelings. The two married guys were only interrupted by phone calls from our wives once a piece. That’s notable.

For Braves fans, Tuesday night was completely forgettable. The Braves lost 9-0, thanks mostly to a poor outing by Jair Jurrjens and clutch hitting for the Giants by Leesburg, Ga., native Buster Posey, who drove in five runs. But the outcome didn’t matter. For a few hours we were just guys talking about baseball. I’m sure our analysis was flawed, our view of bang-bang plays obstructed and our stories exaggerated. Still, the evening met all the criteria for a great night out.

Afternoon showers that stopped just before game time gave us a cooler-than-normal climate to enjoy being at “The Ted.” Our first level seats, bought off the Internet for a steep discount, were ideal for watching Jason Heyward track down fly balls hit to right field.

Buster Posey
Buster Posey drove in five of the Giants’ nine runs. Oh well, if you have to get beat by somebody, may as well be a Georgia boy.

We weren’t accosted by any obnoxious fans, and there were no drunk loudmouths to ruin the evening. Through social media I learned that our church friends, the Akins, were also at the game, and when I looked up at the giant screen between the first and second inning, I saw more church friends, the Willises, laughing it up and having a good time. I learned the next day that our friends from Macon, the Brownes, were also at the game. It was a veritable family reunion.

And speaking of family, I’m beginning to feel that it’s time to take the boys to a game. If our friends, the Ortons, can take their almost one-year-old son, Jack, then I think we can stand to get Harris and Carlton to their first game. Barron is old enough to understand what’s going on now, and Carla always enjoys a chance to people watch.

There will be a time when my whole family makes it to a game, but sometimes you have to hang out with just the guys. It’s just necessary.

At the risk of sounding like the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” I don’t need a guys’ night out often, but when I do, I like the Atlanta Braves. Stay baseball fans, my friends.

Where do you like to go for guys’ night out? Where do you send your husbands or boyfriends when they need to get away or you need them to get away? Have you had memorable nights at a Braves’ game? Join the conversation by sharing your comments below.

What makes the Braves Southern

Next Thursday the Atlanta Braves will begin another marathon baseball season with aims of winning a World Series. Oddsmakers give them a 22 to 1 chance to accomplish this feat.

The 1995 Atlanta Braves after winning the World Series
The Atlanta Braves celebrate winning their only World Series championship in 1995. Even with unprecedented regular season success, championships have eluded the Braves.

Whether or not they actually succeed really isn’t the point. I’ve been a Braves’ fan since 1982 when my Aunt Phyllis took me and my brother, Lee, to our first Braves game during a vacation visit from Texas. The Braves have won the World Series exactly once since 1982. For all their success in the 1990s and early 2000s, winning 14 division titles and one World Series, it still comes down to championships. By that measure, the Braves have been a disappointment.

Who can forget the meltdown that ended last season? Cruising into the playoffs, the Braves blew a 10-game lead allowing the Cardinals to get into the post season and win the World Series. It was agonizing to watch the Braves’ hopes die on that last Wednesday of the season.

Disappointment: That’s what makes the Atlanta Braves a quintessential Southern team.

Southern identity is inevitably linked to the War Between the States, though less now in the New South. Judging by the number of “Second Place Trophies” – those monuments to Southern bravery and fallen heroes that adorn many town squares throughout the South – there is a sense of pride in having fought the battle no matter what the outcome. Southern identity is about fighting, not necessarily winning.

You can argue that its more frustrating to fall just short than to be out of it before August, but to me, baseball’s lengthy season, series format for its playoffs and championship and even the grueling 9-inning, often 4-hour plus games all conspire to make winning consistently year after year as rare as a two-headed calf.

Braves fans took a lot of abuse around the league toward the end of the run when first round playoff games wouldn’t sell out. We were called “spoiled” and “lackadaisical” and “unsupportive.” But honestly, who wants to be brought to the brink so many times, only to be let down?

Having grown up in Texas with a hapless franchise to pull for, I have followed the Rangers from a distance, naming them my “American League team.” Fans of the Rangers have gotten a taste of the Braves fans’ diet. After years of futility, the team has made two straight World Series appearances only to lose them both. They were one out away from winning the World Series last year against St. Louis on two different occasions.

That, my friends, is frustrating.

Chipper Jones
Can Chipper rebound from his knee injury to make a meaningful contribution to the team in his final season?

While hope springs eternal in major league cities around the country, I have come to appreciate elements of the Braves outside of winning championships. I have followed with interest as the Braves – like the rest of us in this economy – have tried to manage their payroll. I was intrigued by the way they handled the transition from legendary manager Bobby Cox to Fredi Gonzalez. I enjoy seeing the development of players through their minor league system, watching guys like Craig Kimbrel and Freddie Freeman burst onto the scene.

So whether or not the Braves make a World Series run, I will root for them this year. I will follow them as closely as I can, losing track a few times during the season when they make lengthy West Coast road trips, but being entertained by their pursuit of victory for the next seven months.

They will have increased competition from the Washington Nationals and Miami Marlins. The Phillies are still the team to beat in the division. There are question marks in the lineup with Chipper’s spring training injury and youth at shortstop. Young arms abound in the starting rotation and bullpen, but whether all the promise materializes remains to be seen.

But it will be seen. Millions of people across the South still claim with pride to be Braves fans. Here’s hoping for a fun season, win, lose or rain.

Play ball!

Are you a Braves fan? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below telling us why or why not.

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!