ChatGPT South Essays

Unless you have withdrawn completely from society in the last few months, it has been impossible to avoid hearing about ChatGPT and artificial intelligence.

In my day job I work in higher education, and there has been much hand wringing about what it will mean to education if students can go online and asked a computer to generate writing of a specific length on a given topic. Students have already been using it to write papers for classes, essays for college entrance applications, speeches, and any other assignment they don’t want to do themselves.

All this AI talk got my attention when one of my favorite podcasts, the Nateland Podcast hosted by comedian Nate Bargetze, recently used ChatGPT to generate jokes in his style. The jokes were terrible and hacky, but they were in Nate’s voice.

Then, this week Michael Smart, a friend and one of my media relations heroes, dedicated his newsletter to how artificial intelligence will impact public relations.

My epiphany was that artificial intelligence isn’t coming in the future. It is already here. The proverbial frog has done been boilt.

To join in the fun of seeing just how this works, I opened a trial account on ChatGPT and asked it to “write a 400-word blog post about contemporary culture in the Southern United States.” I also asked AI Pro, the parent website of ChatGPT, to generate a piece of art to go with the blog post that was a “quintessentially Southern vista.”

Here’s what AI served up:

Contemporary culture in the Southern United States is a complex mosaic that reflects the region’s vibrant and diverse heritage. From the long-established traditions of genteel antebellum Southern society to the influence of hip-hop, rap, and other popular music styles, the region has a rich and varied cultural landscape.

Old broken down home with workers in the dusty front yard
This is the scene AI Pro generated in less than one minute when I asked it to create art of a “vista representative of the Southern United States.”

The traditional music found throughout the Southern United States has deep roots in the region’s history. Country music, blues, and gospel music were all integral elements of African American folk traditions and are still enjoyed today. Country and bluegrass music, as well as jazz and traditional music, echo throughout the region. Additionally, some of the modern genres of popular music such as blues, hip-hop, rap, and others, have all had an impact on cultural aspects of the South.

Southern hospitality is well known. Greeting guests, being generous and generous to others, and prizing tradition are all aspects of Southern culture that still thrive today. Southern cuisine is also a huge part of the culture, featuring an abundance of barbecue, seafood dishes, and comfort foods.

The South is a diverse region of the United States, with a population comprised of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Americans, and other ethnic and racial groups. This diversity has had an influence on the contemporary culture in the South, particularly in the realms of music and cuisine. The South has been a place for new ideas and cultural blending, creating a unique and eclectic cultural landscape.

The history of the region has also had an effect on contemporary culture in the South. Events such as the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and other moments of history have left their mark on the region and its culture. Today, the modern South is home to a vibrant and diverse population, each bringing their unique cultural perspectives and nuances to the region.

No matter your view of the cultural climate in the South today, it’s clear that the region has a rich and impactful cultural history. Whether you’re enjoying a classic Southern comfort dish, admiring antebellum architecture, or listening to blues on the radio, the culture of the South is alive and well.

Hmmmmm….. Not a lot of character or flavor, but its chock full of content, quickly accessed and compiled from the internet.

My buddies Bob and Brian love soccer. I have no interest in or understanding of “The Beautiful Game,” so when they begin rehashing the latest Premier League match between Bournemouth and Leicester City on our texting thread, I ignore it. Recently, though, I latched onto an idea to annoy them both even more than asking dumb questions about soccer. I started writing texts in the voice and tone of ChatGPT with information I cut and pasted from AJC articles or Wikipedia. They caught on pretty quickly, but I kept it up until they threatened to “cancel” me from the thread.

My conclusion from that bit of fun: It’s much harder for a human to write like a soul-less computer than for a computer to write like a human. And unlike humans, the computers are getting better.

When robots took people’s jobs on the auto assembly lines in Detroit, I honestly didn’t care. Now it’s hitting close to home. AI is already generating news releases, media pitches and speeches for public relations practitioners.

To me the solution is obvious: become a better, more personal writer. Sharing from my unique experiences in my unique voice will distinguish me from generic, computer-generated text. It’s the difference between writing and generating content.

The wake up call is to become a better writer.

What do you think of artificial intelligence? Has it reached the tipping point and is now just part of the culture? Have you tried ChatGPT? Have you read something you suspect was written by artificial intelligence? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and share this post with friends. It’ll either scare them to death or get a good laugh.

The talent I wish I had

Musical talent runs in my family.

Mom plays piano and sings. Dad played trumpet and sang in the church choir. Both of my brothers play guitar, and Lee plays piano, saxophones of various shapes and sizes, leads choral singing and sings. My oldest son plays trumpet, drums, guitar and conducts marching bands. My middle son plays trombone. My youngest plays piano and sings. I am generationally sandwiched by a musically talented family.

I earned a B- in flutophone in elementary school, and do not now play an instrument. I sing off key and cannot read music. Expressing emotions and ideas through music eludes me, and I often resort to written and spoken word to occupy my mind.

If I could choose a talent to have, it would be music.

Parkview High School Wind Ensemble takes its bows on stage after performing
The Parkview High School Wind Ensemble — in which our middle son, Harris, plays trombone — performed an amazing concert of highly technical selections this week. I was blown away. These kids have a metric ton of musical talent.

I know, I know, “Whatever you set your mind to…” blah, blah, blah. My lack of talent isn’t from a lack of trying. As a teenager I sang in the church choir and performed solos at church and even at a church competition. In my 20s, I flirted with country and blues harmonica. Neither experience revealed a hidden talent for music.

I enjoyed singing in the church choir, and not just because as a preacher’s kid I was expected to be ready to “preach, pray or sing” at any time. In the 9th grade, my friend Dwayne and I transferred to Temple Christian School in Lakeland, Florida, because finances closed the Christian school at my dad’s church. The first day of school we were presented with a choice for our one elective: study hall or chorus.

Dwayne was heading to chorus. I didn’t have the slightest inclination to participate. I went to the cafeteria for study hall. When I arrived, I took one look around and realized immediately Dwayne had made the better choice. The collection of derelicts and academic refugees monitored by the stern faculty proctors had more of a feel of detention than academic pursuit. I ran to catch up to Dwayne and entered Mr. Huff’s second floor chorus room at the same time, preventing the other students from thinking chorus was not my first choice.

The scene in chorus was much different. About 50 or so students filled the classroom, which felt too small for such a number. A quick scan of that room revealed a female to male ratio of about 12-to-1. Dwayne smiled at me and said, “See? Isn’t this great?”

We enjoyed the company of young ladies the entire year and even spent a day out of school traveling by motorcoach to a Christian school choral competition in Jacksonville. I don’t know how much music I learned, but I found the scenery a vast improvement over study hall.

Emboldened by our choral studies, Dwayne and I joined the church choir. I applied with less success my strategy of blending in. I could do OK singing the tenor part if someone nearby could carry the note, and I could follow along. The problem arose when I had to lead, or, heaven help, on those rare occasions I tested my pubescent voice with “special music.”

I performed the “special music” in church a handful of times and always on Sunday night, when the B-team of singers were given their chance to work on their craft in front of a smaller audience. The first time I sang a solo, I chose Andre Crouch’s “My Tribute.” My mom accompanied me on the piano. It was such a disaster, me struggling to find the melody of the opening repeated notes for the lyric, “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me…”

My nasally, off-key monotone was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my dad on the platform wincing through my performance while Mom blissfully unaware plunked away on the piano, drowning out my vocal abomination. To this day, my brothers love to imitate the horrendous noise. In a way I’m almost proud of how terrible it was.

My grandest vocal failure, though, came at a World Baptist Fellowship Youth Conference. It was held at Arlington Baptist College in Texas and required two years of fundraising to afford the travel for our church in Central Florida. Everyone in our small youth group entered many categories in order to maximize our experience. I competed in the public speaking, quiz team, choir and solo categories, the latter being my downfall.

For my solo we chose “I’d Rather Have Jesus” because it fit well in my vocal range. Mrs. Mulberry, our church pianist, recorded two versions of the song on cassette, one in the key it was written in and one in a lower key in case that proved easier. I used that cassette to practice and to compete, a gigantic logistical mistake.

On competition day when I ascended the platform and retrieved my cassette tape, properly rewound to the version I planned to sing, the tape snagged on a string in my shirt pocket and began to unwind as I handed it over. All the color left my face as the audio technician at the tape deck stuck in a pencil and turned until the tape was at the beginning, or so he said.

On cue, I went to the center podium in the massive auditorium and waited for the music to start. It came in at the end of the first recording, which sounded a lot like the intro, so I picked up with the beginning of the song where I thought the first verse should have been. I hadn’t even made it to the refrain when the song started over in a higher key. Panicked, I didn’t have a choice but to stop. Rivulets of sweat dripped down my face. My only cover was the truth. Into the microphone I said, “I’m so embarrassed.”

The technician rewound the tape, and I was allowed to start again. Fortunately, the only witnesses were my youth group and chaperones and the judges. I did not place in the vocal performance.

My attempts at learning and performing a musical instrument were only slightly better.

In the mid-1990s during my heartbroken and lonely single days, I bought a harmonica with a companion book appropriately titled, “Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless.” I longed to sound like Clint Black on the intro to “State of Mind” from his 1993 album “No Time to Kill.” Instead, I sounded like a wounded goose wheezing its final breaths.

I sat in the swing on my screened in porch, puffing and inhaling on that harmonica for months, sending my landlord’s dog, Eudora, into fits of howling as she tried to match my key and pitch.

The “musically hopeless” book didn’t have sheet music. The holes on the harmonica were numbered. Rather than staffs filled with half note and whole note symbols or even the letters of the notes — A, B, C, D, E, F, G — it just had lines of numbers representing the holes you were supposed to blow or suck air through. If it was just the number listed, you were to blow. If the number was circled, you sucked in air. It was an easy system to read, but you were on your own with the tempo. Hardly Beethoven.

In the end, I had a couple of gigs, playing “You Are My Sunshine” at both my brother’s and my own wedding rehearsal dinners. It went over big on both occasions, but more for comedic rather than melodic reasons.

Maybe all my slobbery honking on the harmonica was therapeutic, but I was going for something more pleasing to the ear. I had visions of jamming with friends. They would be playing their guitars, and I could pull out my harmonica, which I would just happen to carry around with me everywhere, and play along, complementing their musicianship with the most amazing country and blues harmonica riffs ever imagined. That dream never materialized.

I won’t say “never” to a musical hobby, but I can safely say that any hopes of achieving musical proficiency have long been abandoned. Given three wishes by a genie in a bottle, though, I’d likely make one of them having musical talent.

Perfect happiness

Unusually warm February weather teased me with a taste of spring this week. The sun peaked out from behind the clouds, and I left my office and took a lap of the campus, basking in the warmth, smiling at the students and getting my blood flowing. It was bliss.

Perfect happiness doesn’t exist, but my walk across campus prompted me to reflect on what brings me closest:

Carla and Lance Wallace embrace on top of Rockefeller Center with the New York City skyline behind them.
I’m on top of the world when I’m with Carla. Here we are having a perfect happiness moment back in December at the top of Rockefeller Center.

Perfect happiness is contentment. No matter what is going on in my life, if I can be content in those circumstances, I can experience happiness. Like most of my emotions, I subjugate happiness to discipline. Contentment takes training and work, so my happiness, when I achieve it, is hard fought. I have to recognize that I can choose happiness. It requires taking my eyes off the swirling events around me and giving focus to what I can learn, process and express in the midst of those events, even if they are negative.

Perfect happiness is expression. Giving form to thoughts or imaginings is a unique pleasure that releases more than chemicals in the brain. Expressing ideas, particularly ones that gain traction and resonate with people, is fundamental to my makeup. To think that expression can live on well after I am gone is deeply satisfying. But similar to contentment, expression takes effort. My first drafts require revision. Being creative feels good, but true expression is work.

Perfect happiness is being present in the moment. Everything about my job in communications pulls me away from the moment. Every “ding” of a received text message, every chirping cell phone ring, every flagged email grabs my attention and leaves my loved ones starved for my acknowledgement. When I am aware of my surroundings — the conditions, temperatures, people, sounds, smells, and vistas — I feel truly alive. This takes so much effort sometimes that I fail myself and everyone around me by defaulting to the device in my pocket, succumbing to the greatest weapon against happiness the world has ever experienced – the smart phone.

Perfect happiness is physical exertion. The theme of hard work is laced throughout each of these descriptions, and for me, putting forth effort makes me happy. Whether it’s cutting the grass, going for a long run, swimming laps, or doing a bodyweight exercise circuit, I am happy when I am in motion and my heart rate is elevated. I like to sweat and push my limits. I want to be active until I die, and it makes me happy to think of myself as an old man puttering around the neighborhood, health club or even the mall, staying in motion.

Perfect happiness is accomplishment. The old adage among marathoners “it’s not about the race, it’s about the training” rings true to me. I also feel great happiness when I complete something. It’s nice to receive recognition for accomplishing a task or a goal, but it’s not necessary for my happiness. Most of the time I can recognize the accomplishment for what it is internally because I know what went into it. This pattern has been repeated so many times in my life I can’t even remember them all: serving as deacon chair for the first time, earning an MBA, writing a novel, running a marathon, canoeing the Ocmulgee River. There was happiness in the moment of each of those experiences, and there was happiness at accomplishing them.

Perfect happiness is relationship. I used to believe that love was measured in effort. If a relationship was effortless, I believed it wasn’t true love. It was just a momentary emotion, and it wouldn’t last. After nearly 26 years of marriage, I have come to believe that while relationships take work, they also provide comfort, affirmation, and embrace of the whole self. When Carla and I are connected and in sync, there is great happiness. I have reached the point in my life when I cannot imagine happiness apart from Carla. She amplifies my happiness because as we join in happiness together, it grows exponentially and infects each other and our children and those around us. When we are happy together, people are drawn to us, and we are our best selves.

Perfect happiness is sharing. Being able to give a part of myself away makes me happy. Whether it’s sharing my money, my French fries, the bed covers, my writing, or my attention, I am happpy when I am focused on others. Contributing to something greater pulls me out of that dangerous and destructive emotional space of self. I believe life isn’t about me, even my own life. It makes me happy to make life about others, giving to them, being with them and sharing with them, particularly humor.

Perfect happiness is laughter. It’s not a great revelation to profess laughter to be beneficial. Everyone knows and quotes the old saying “Laughter is the best medicine.” It is both a symptom and an ingredient in my idea of perfect happiness. The physicality of deep laughter robs me of breath like a workout. The emotional cleansing is more thorough than weeping. Laughter resets my mood and emotions better than meditation. Finding laughter spontaneously rather than seeking it or forcing it gives it power. It’s the one item from this list that is more effective for me with less effort.

For me, this list are the components or ingredients required for me to be happy, but individual sources of happiness that contribute to my wholeness. It’s probably not even an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.

I would do well to remember this list and reflect on it often.

What is perfect happiness for you? Leave a comment and let us in on your ideas.

Choices in childrearing

This week’s “Rethinking” podcast from organizational psychologist Adam Grant prompted us to rethink the choices we’ve made parenting our three boys.

Adam interviewed Dr. Becky Kennedy, who is rapidly becoming the Millennial Generation’s answer to Dr. Spock, the noted pediatrician not the Vulcan science officer on “Star Trek.” She challenged the notion that parents’ job is to make their child happy. We were struck by her assertion that parents need to set boundaries and validate feelings.

We’re still processing this advice, but it got me to thinking about some of the choices we’ve made in raising our three boys. Although we’re a long way from “gettin’ them grown,” we are past the formative years when implementing Dr. Becky’s advice would have been more impactful.

Harris, Carlton and Barron Wallace sitting in front of red front doors as children.
I barely remember these days, but it was back when parenting was becoming exponentially more complex.

Former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

That’s been our experience of childrearing. We had all these ideas about how we would be perfect parents and produce children with model behavior. It didn’t take long before we were off the script, improvising daily based on any number of instincts and embedded patterns that came from places in our psyches we didn’t even know existed.

Here are a few of the parenting choices we made along the way:

Prioritize church. I was in church a few weeks after I was born, and although the church is not a cure-all for behavioral ills afflicting children, Carla and I agreed that we would raise our children in church. We took seriously the commitments we made at the baby dedication services for each of our boys, reaffirming our determination to raise them “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” That has meant showing up, even when we didn’t feel like it or when we had other commitments calling us away. It has meant praying with our boys each night before bed. It has meant participating with them in church-related activities and programs like the “God and Family” curriculum in Cub Scouts. It has meant having family worship time with scripture, music and a sermon when we’re on vacation. It meant during the COVID-19 pandemic, we worshipped in our pajamas in the living room with the service on our TV screen. We want faith to be real and to be important to our boys.

Attend preschool. Carla has made a number of sacrifices beyond the physical toll of giving birth three times. Those sacrifices include pausing her career at several points to be home with the boys. Even when she was at home, we wanted them to begin to learn how to navigate the structure of a classroom, respect the authority of teachers and engage in creative learning. We believed preschool would help them succeed at school and socialize with peers and adults. Smoke Rise Baptist Weekday School accomplished all of that and more, and we are grateful for the opportunities our boys had while attending there.

Make traditions. We believe family traditions form the glue that holds a family together, especially in difficult times. We built our Christmas holiday traditions with intentionality, making it a priority to be with family, attend Christmas Eve services, wait until Christmas morning to open presents, limit Santa’s gifts to three a piece, make time to eat out and look at lights, watch “A Christmas Story” on Christmas Eve, and to start the season, eat a big breakfast out the Saturday after Thanksgiving before going to Lowe’s to pick out our Christmas tree. Over time we developed other traditions: vacationing at Santa Rosa Beach, Florida; having an egg hunt at the house on Easter with the prized “Poppy egg” stuffed with a $10 bill in honor and memory of their grandfather; watching movies together as a family on Friday nights we’re not with the marching band at a football game; and having game nights. These traditions are cherished by us and our children, and I hope we can continue them long enough to see our boys pass them down to their families.

Support interests. Our boys have shown interest in a variety of activities over the years, and we’ve given them space to try them out. We’ve done sports: T-ball, basketball, soccer, Tae Kwon Do, tennis and swimming. We’ve done music: guitar, piano, trumpet, trombone, clarinet and chorus. We’ve done Scouts. We’ve done cooking classes and turned our kitchen into a test kitchen for experimentation and bake sales. We’ve done school extra curriculars: Readers Rally, Science Fair, morning announcement team, Student Leadership Team, marching band, jazz band, concert band, drama, Mock Trial, Model United Nations, drama, voice and dance. We have taken time off work to attend performances, breakfasts and lunches, and read to classes. We have chaperoned field trips and attended competitions, recitals, rehearsals and productions. We’ve bought T-shirts and hats emblazoned with their favorite bands, cartoon characters, slogans, NASCAR drivers and sports teams. We have tried to listen with patience as they explain the intricacies of video games, obscure historical events, marching band formations, Mock Trial closing arguments, leadership techniques and the plots of musicals. Support is a broad term, but for us it has meant chauffeuring, showing up and listening. It is about giving our boys our time and attention.

Know your grandparents. Carla and I both grew up with the opportunity to spend time with both sets of grandparents, and both of us were fortunate enough to have grandparents live in our homes for a portion of our lives. We wanted our boys to know their grandparents. That has been easier for Nanny and Poppy than for Granny and Paw Paw because of the difference in proximity, but it has remained important for us to give them time on both sides of the family. It’s important for our boys to know where they come from and what kind of environment produced their parents. There are lessons only grandparents can teach, and the love and affection of a grandparent is unmatched by any other relationship in life. It will continue to be a priority until they all have passed, hopefully many years from now. But if losing Carla’s daddy too soon has taught us anything, it taught us to treat the time we have with the grandparents as precious and never take it for granted.

We are far from perfect parents, and a number of our best laid plans have evaporated when parenting punched us in the mouth. But we have found that we hit the target closer to the bullseye when we aim with intentionality.

We’re learning parenting doesn’t end when our children go off to college. In many ways it’s just beginning. Regardless of the twists and turns, I’m grateful for this wild and wonderful journey of parenthood, and I’m thankful for the children entrusted to us to raise.

What are some of the principles you have applied in your childrearing? What did your parents do in raising you? Share your thoughts!

Sorry-Not sorry

We live in a sorry culture.

I recently “had an opportunity to apologize,” and I’ve been reflecting on apologies. It’s not a mind-blowing revelation to suggest we apologize too much, and in the case of the notoriously polite Brits or Canadians, it’s even a stereotype. But based on recent personal events, I’ve come to the conclusion that we say “sorry” too much and not enough.

I'm Sorry in white lettering on a gray wooden background
You know when you mean it.

Why is “sorry” so hard to get right?

We have a tendency to apologize for the wrong things. My wise friend Mark told me last year that he had given up apologizing. That conversation has been life changing for me. It has prompted me to stop saying “I’m sorry” all the time, particularly in emails and conversations at work.

I’ve shifted, instead, to thanking people more and showing gratitude for their patience and flexibility.

This is what it looks like in practice: “I’m sorry I’m just now responding to your email. It’s been a busy week with a major event coming up, and I’m behind on my email…” has been replaced with “Thank you for your patience while I catch up on responding to email…”

Before, there was so much I was apologizing for that no one should feel badly about. There was no reason for it. I should not be apologizing for being sick, busy or affected by circumstances beyond my control.

I was most guilty of over apologizing when I was late. I hate being late. I respect other people’s time, and I do not want to communicate that I think my time is more important than their’s. If I really am at fault for being tardy, I will still apologize for lateness, but more often, it’s another meeting that runs long or the predictably unpredictable Atlanta traffic or other members of my party that have a looser cultural relationship with time that have caused me to be late. It’s not good form to blame someone else, and most of the time, the person I’m meeting is either late themselves or they don’t care I’ve been a few minutes late. It’s not a thing. I shouldn’t make it a thing.

What I’m doing a lot more of in those instances is thanking people for understanding and being flexible. It’s less self-deprecating, more positive and has the added benefit of being true. I am thankful.

The other side of the apology problem is under apologizing. This is also an easy problem to spot. If your apology has the word “if” in it, it’s not a good apology. “If I’ve offended you…” or “I’m sorry if you felt bad when I said…” are not good apologies. Just take responsibility for what happened, commit to addressing the harm and plan not to repeat it.

I may be making progress on over-apologizing, but my real struggle is with delayed apologizing. I always get around to saying “I’m sorry,” but sometimes it takes so long for me to get there that my original infraction festers and becomes exponentially worse. This was my chief sin toward my family that has been the source of my recent rumination.

I believe the sooner I get to “I’m sorry” the better. One of my all-time favorite moments from the marriage instruction manual known as “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a line of dialogue in which Ray immediately begins apologizing to Debra for the words he is saying as they come out of his mouth. I believe it went something like this:

“So I should go to work and raise the kids, right? It should be all me. And what do you do all day?… I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”

I typically know that I’ve messed up just that quickly. As soon as I say it, or sometimes even before I say it, warning bells go off in my brain. I don’t believe preemptive apologies are sincere. If I’m about to start a sentence with “I’m sorry, but…” then I just need to not say that thought.

When I have done or said something wrong, hurtful or thoughtless, then the quicker I apologize the less of an impact my mistake has on the people around me. The kryptonite that keeps me from excelling at this relationship-preserving skill is defensiveness. Stubbornly clinging to my initial defensive reaction prevents me from getting to “I’m sorry” more quickly. I could prevent a lot of misery if I would not react defensively to my own failing.

As we head into Valentine’s Day and relationships, romantic or otherwise, are on your mind, I’d take a few moments to take stock of the state of your sorriness. Apologize less for what you didn’t cause and more for what you did. Mastering this skill will be appreciated much more than chocolates, roses and cards.

What’s in a name, part 3

(This is the final installment of a three-part series on why we gave each of our boys their name. Barron’s birthday is Feb. 6, so today’s post is timed to coincide with that wonderful, life-changing event. Happy 22nd, Barron!)

What’s in a name? For us, it’s family.

Our three boys are roughly four years apart in age. We wanted each to have a strong, distinctive name. Carla and I always thought names had more meaning when they came from beloved and respected ancestors. Passing on their names extends the memory of those who have gone before and gives our children a differentiator in a world where so many boys their age bear trendy names.

Naming was the opposite of parenting. It became harder as we had more children. With each child we learned how to be better parents, but with each male child, we had a more difficult time selecting a name we liked with a meaningful family connection.

Collage of photos of in a frame of Barron Wallace as an infant with his mother, Carla Wallace.
Carla and her first baby, Barron Elliott, 22 almost 22 years ago.

Our first born is Barron Elliott Wallace. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say we decided what our oldest son would be called about six minutes after we got engaged. As soon as we started talking seriously about our future, we settled on family names like “Ruth” and “Helen” for a girl and “Barron,” Carla’s maiden name, for a boy.

Continuing Carla’s family name is a lot for Barron to carry, but since she was an only child, we both felt the urge to give her family name to our firstborn. “Elliott,” his middle name, originated with my grandmother. Her maiden name is both my and my father’s middle name. It rolls off the tongue in combination with “Barron,” and it pays tribute to my father’s mother’s family.

Barron likes the distinctiveness of his name. He appreciates his connection to his roots. As his college studies focus on furnishings and interiors with an emphasis on historic preservation, he lives into his name. He is pursuing a career restoring objects and structures from the past.

Barron Wallace grinning from ear to ear in his Redcoat marching band uniform at the 2023 college football National Championship game at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
Don’t he look like a Barron?

Whenever anyone brings up the youngest child of former president Donald Trump, our Barron is quick to point out, “I had the name first.” He’s soon to be 22 years old, and I cannot imagine Barron having any other name.

How we decided to have kids (and how many)

It’s hard to remember what life was like before children.

Raising our three boys has taken so much attention and energy that it sometimes feels like Carla and I did not exist as a couple before they came along. The truth is, we dated for eight months before getting engaged, married four months later, and had Barron four years later. We had five whole years together before kids.

Although I honestly cannot remember a monumental conversation in which we concocted our plan for a family, Carla does and recounted it to me in detail. We sat in the driveway of first house after a dinner out and discussed taking the plunge. I do remember quite clearly that our plans after marriage included graduate school and having multiple kids. We had one summer of adjusting to life as husband and wife before starting our plan.

Barron and Harris lie in an upright hospital bed with newborn Carlton wrapped in a blanket between them.
Barron, baby Carlton and Harris hang out in Carla’s hospital bed just before we are free take Carlton home. We thought our family was complete, but little did we know the adventure was just beginning.

In the late summer of 1997, Carla began traveling from Macon to Lawrenceville two nights a week to attend the University of Georgia’s part-time Master of Social Work degree program. She was working at the Bibb County Department of Family and Children’s Services and knew a master’s degree was the best way to improve her skills and advance her career.

At the time I worked as a reporter at The Macon Telegraph, moving from general assignment features to news in the fall of 1996. I covered business and local government, which meant I frequently attended council meetings and committee hearings at night, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays when Carla was in school. It was a difficult schedule for both of us, and it was made more difficult by the stress of Carla’s two-hour school commute, one way.

About two years into Carla’s degree program, I transitioned to The Telegraph’s bureau in Warner Robins and began covering Robins Air Force Base. I no longer had meetings to cover at night, but I was driving 30 minutes south to Warner Robins while Carla was still commuting to Lawrenceville for classes. Within a year, I was back at the main office, promoted to assistant metro editor and working longer hours, including weekends.

In the first four years of marriage, we did not see each other much, and when we weren’t working, Carla was doing schoolwork. Our intention to delay having kids seemed rational and wasn’t hard to follow through on. We did not have time to have kids at that point in our lives. It proved to be a wise choice. As Carla progressed past the half-way point in her degree, we decided  it would be OK to start trying, not knowing how long it would take to get pregnant.

During that stressful time I developed a deep distaste for the phrase “trying to get pregnant,” particularly in polite conversation. Everybody knows what causes pregnancy. Telling anyone “we’re trying to get pregnant” is advertising more about your life than I am comfortable with. Although it took 18 months, Carla and I acknowledge in hindsight that the timing worked out for the best. Her last few months in school were incredibly challenging, and if she had been pregnant on top of juggling work and school, she may have damaged her health and the health of the baby.

Carla finished her master’s degree in May of 2000. By that time, I had transitioned out of journalism to work in public relations for Mercer University. As I submitted my resignation to Telegraph editor Cecil Bentley, he asked if there was anything they could do to keep me or if this was a “lifestyle decision.” I answered truthfully, “It’s a lifestyle decision.”

By the end of the summer of 2000, Carla had earned her master’s degree and was pregnant. Goals 1 and 2, check and check.  That fall, Carla was promoted to a manager at DFACS because of her master’s degree, and I started the MBA program at Mercer, taking one prerequisite during the day and one at night. We were working our plan.

Our family expanded in February 2001 with Barron’s arrival, but by the time Carla’s six weeks of maternity leave ended, she was not ready to resume full-time work. She resigned from Bibb County DFACS where she had been working in foster care in-take, an incredibly draining and challenging job, to take on family assessments on a contract basis for one of DFACS’s contracted providers.

Carla bore the brunt of the stress, trying to adjust to a new baby, making appointments with families, and writing the comprehensive assessments. Meanwhile, I was working all day and taking classes two nights a week. It was difficult by any measure.

By the time Barron was two, I was offered an opportunity to leave Mercer and build a media relations program for the Atlanta-based non-profit, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I had been wrestling with a sense of calling to some form of ministry, and at CBF I would be reunited with my former Mercer boss, Ben McDade. Hesitant to uproot our family from Macon, I commuted to Atlanta four days a week for five months before we succumbed to the reality that we would have to move.

We settled in Lilburn in March 2003, found a church home at Parkway Baptist Church in John’s Creek, and enrolled Barron in the Smoke Rise Baptist Weekday Preschool. We put down roots and settled. I traveled five to 10 nights a month for work, and Carla shifted from contract social work to teaching at Barron’s preschool. I was still finishing my degree, but our schedule seemed more manageable.

Having four years between our first and second child was the right amount of time. I finished my MBA in May 2004, and my travel schedule for CBF abated to only half as many nights a month. Harris joined us in May 2005, and we began the adjustment process all over again.

Through it all, we had lots of help from Carla’s parents and our church family. Through the schools and Cub Scouts, we began to feel a part of the Lilburn community, and we at least had access to babysitters, giving Carla and I a night out occasionally.

As we settled into life with two kids, we reached the crossroads of whether to call our family complete with two boys or try for a third child. Being an only child, Carla liked the idea of a large family with siblings interacting and lots of activities to keep us occupied. I grew up in a house with three boys, so that dynamic felt familiar and actually fulfilled a prophecy – or maybe it was meant as a curse – my dad would pronounce us when my brothers and I acted up: “I hope you have three boys, and they keep every light on in your house all the time.”

When Carlton arrived in the fall of 2008, our family felt complete. We had three healthy children, and it seemed greedy to want more. They were four years apart in school, so each one was in a different phase of childhood, keeping us busy and our lives full. We also thought the spacing would help when it came to paying for college one day. We had conversations about what it would be like to have a girl, but as I often said to Carla in those days, “Trying for a girl is how you end up with four boys.”

Looking back, I have no regrets. We made the best decisions we could at the time, and I love each of our boys for their unique personalities, gifts and challenges. We are a complete family, full of activity, laughter and love. Our plans proved sound, and I wouldn’t trade lives with anyone.

What I learned from my parents

Dad was a preacher and Mom was a teacher, so many of life’s lessons were given to my brothers and me explicitly and directly.

They were not shy about telling us exactly what to do, both in the moment with an assigned task and in the future with big life decisions. I still remember the speeches on saving money, dressing well to earn respect, eating my vegetables, getting enough sleep and brushing my teeth. It was all helpful and sound advice.

Larry and Sharon Wallace
Dad and Mom have aged (only slightly) since this photo was taken, but their wisdom and advice has been timeless.

But what I remember most from my parents came from their example. Here are the most impactful lessons I learned from my parents that have stuck with me to this day:

Cleanliness. I’ve heard my dad tell the story so many times I can recite it from memory. When they brought me home from the hospital, my mom was overly concerned for my hygiene. She bathed me two or three times a day. She disinfected every implement or toy I could touch, and she worked diligently to ensure my environment was as germ free as possible. Throughout my youth, keeping my room clean and assisting with the household chores like emptying the trash, vacuuming the floors and doing the dishes, were all non-negotiable tasks on my agenda. To this day, I remain fastidious about my hygiene and keep a clean house. Carla often accuses me of being unable to sit still and relax because I’m always wiping a surface, sweeping up the crumbs or picking up fallen tree branches and leaves from the yard. I don’t know if it was instilled from infancy, but it’s a lesson I learned well from my parents.

Responsibility. Our first house in Bedford, Texas, had a two-car garage, and we kept at least one side cleaned out for parking. Automatic garage door openers were a luxury back in the 1970s, so when I got big enough to hoist the door open, that was my job. My dad would pull into the driveway, put the car in park and announce, “Garage door opener, ho!” I jumped out, ran to the door, heaved and tugged at the handle until it got to eye level and pushed it over my head in triumph. This was my job, and I learned to do it consistently and without complaint.

It was also an opportunity for a lesson in economics. A few months into the assignment of this new chore, my dad called “Garage door opener, ho!” and I paused.

“Dad, I think I should be paid to open the garage door,” I offered, a little hesitant.

“Sure! Glad to pay you!” was his surprisingly enthusiastic response. “How much do you want? A nickel? A quarter? How about a dollar every time you open the garage door?”

“Yeah, a dollar sounds good,” I replied, a huge grin emerging at my successful negotiation.

As I opened the car door to rush to earn my first dollar, my dad offered one more point.

“One thing, though. Dinner tonight will cost you $3.50.”

I paused, thought about it, and realized I would quickly be in the hole financially.

“I think I’ll just open the garage door for free,” I said and never again demanded higher wages.

In my lifetime I have earned promotions and pay raises, but I have always been more motivated by trust and a sense of responsibility than accolades or money.

Faithfulness. My parents brought me to church just a few weeks after I was born, and I have missed few Sundays since. We never questioned church attendance in my family, even before my dad went into the ministry. Before he joined the staff at our church, he did everything he possibly could as a volunteer – teaching Sunday School, visiting prospects and the sick, assisting with construction projects and cleaning the church. My mother was just as committed, singing in the choir, playing the piano, keeping the nursery, and teaching adult women’s Sunday School. They were unbendingly and unerringly faithful to the church. As my dad used to say, “Jesus loved us so much that he gave His life for us. The least we can do is show up at church a few times a week.”

I am just as serious about my church attendance and involvement today. My family has made it just as habitual as I did growing up. They have learned to expect worship to be a part of our Sundays even when we’re on vacation. That can mean an intimate service with just our family or at the church with the people we are visiting. Love of the church is hardwired into my who I am, and I can’t imagine life without it.

Hard work. From the time I was big enough to push a mower, yard work has been the instrument to teach me the value of hard work. I can still hear my dad’s voice, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” Raking, pulling weeds, digging lines for a sprinkler system, push mowing, picking up tree limbs and Spanish moss, cutting back bushes, pruning trees, and weed whacking on a nearly three acres of Central Florida property taught me to be diligent in gathering facts, conducting interviews, making calls, writing, editing, re-writing, taking pictures, updating web pages, meeting deadlines, responding to emails, drafting speeches, hosting media, creating integrated marketing communications plans, posting to social media, compiling budgets, building presentations, speaking to groups, doing on-camera interviews, managing a staff and much, much more. A good work ethic has been universally helpful to me. Seeing both of my parents work hard taught me that it should not be dreaded or avoided. Hard work should be the norm and the fruits of that work should be enjoyed.

Unselfishness. Both of my parents in different contexts put others first. My dad had a congregation of people for whom he would drop everything and go to the hospital to visit, pray with or counsel. He would show up in suit and tie to my games and performances, never complaining that he was too busy or too tired to watch yet another basketball game. My mom worked all day and prepared us nutritious meals every night, rose early to fix our lunches, and went without a lot of sleep to take care of us. I can also safely say she cared nothing for the hours of sports she endured on television or the hundreds of arcane conversations on the nuances of “Star Wars.” As a result, I rarely think “What do I want to do?” but instead try to anticipate what my family needs or wants, and I work to make that happen. I have learned to give up food on my plate, take the broken chair, pass up the game on TV, and even, on occasion, shop for home furnishings on a fall Saturday. I strive to be unselfish in my decision making and focus on putting others first.

Don’t follow the crowd. I have been taught to “take the road less traveled” since I first heard “broad is the way that leadeth to destruction” from Matthew 7:13 as a child in church. It was always more important to my parents that we do what was right than what was popular. This was true for fashion, music, movies, going to prom or anything that could be detrimental to our Christian witness. It started out for me as avoiding “the appearance of evil,” but I have more universally applied this principle to life decisions requiring a moral choice. I learned to avoid situations where people are behaving inappropriately or illegally. I try to choose what’s right vs. what’s convenient. These lessons have given me a spirit of independence and the ability to think for myself.

Laugh. My dad remembers jokes even when he can’t remember the day of the week. He has always displayed a knack for humor. My mom’s sense of humor can be off beat, but I can still hear the sounds of her laughter when she got together with her sister, Wanda. When my brothers and I were old enough to get away with it, we worked at making my parents laugh when we were around the dinner table. We saw how much joy it gave them. These days I don’t laugh enough, but repeating that scene around my family’s dinner table with my boys is hopefully teaching them how life-giving joy and laughter is.

Have adventures. The year my parents packed our car in secret and took us to Houston and Galveston on Thanksgiving has been forever imprinted on my identity. They taught me that anything can happen when I least expect it and it can be amazing. Dad explained the trip as we got in the car as “We’re going on a drive.” For almost the entire three-and-a-half hour trip we asked “When are we turning around?” to which my father replied, “Do you want to turn around?” I learned that sometimes it’s better not to turn around. It’s better to discover the adventure around the next bend. Having adventures, not knowing what is coming next, building anticipation and injecting surprise into life adds depth and meaning to our existence. It’s essential when life gets too predictable and hum drum. I try to remember to give my family little adventures whenever possible, and I got that from Dad and Mom.

I’ll bet some of these on this list have already filtered their way down to my children. At least, I hope they have. And I hope my boys know where these qualities and habits come from. Their grandparents are remarkable in ways they may not have fully appreciated.

Appreciating my brothers, part 2

In honor of my youngest brother’s birthday yesterday, here is the second part of an appreciation of my brothers. If you missed part one back in March, you can catch up on my thoughts about my middle brother, Lee, here.

Lyle Elrod Wallace joined our family January 13, 1981, disrupting the roles and responsibilities each of us understood. Lee went from being the baby to the middle son, and I went from carefree older brother to frequent caregiver and babysitter. His birth came with complications, but not long after, he was thriving and playing his part as the baby absorbing all of the attention.

three brothers on the porch. Lyle Wallace. Lance Wallace. Lee Wallace.
Can you guess who’s oldest? Lyle, Lance and Lee, slightly out of age order.

Dad often resorted to a rhyme when introducing us for the first time, particularly to older people, who visited the church — “We’ve got Lance with the ants, Lee with the fleas and Lyle with the smile.” Maw Maw, my mother’s mother, frequently told people without apology, “Lyle is the best behaved and best looking of the bunch.” The baby of the family always comes out on top in familial comparisons.

By the time he became aware of social hierarchies, Lyle understood that our household was divided into two classes: royalty and the serfs. He, of course, was royalty, and Lee and I were the serving class known as “the brothers.” When chores were handed out, he just assumed they were meant for “the brothers” and did not apply to him. He calculated, correctly, that if he just waited, the compulsion that had become ingrained in Lee and me to accomplish assigned tasks would take over, and we would do the chores without him lifting a finger.

This may have caused resentment at the time, but it didn’t last. Maybe it was that smile. Or maybe it was his low-key, cool personality. Whatever tools and tricks he employed, I liked that he rolled with punches and took life as it came to him. He didn’t seem to get worked up about anything.

Lyle Wallace in a cap and gown holds his master's degree diploma in a blue leather folder with his mother, Sharon Wallace, in front of a light brown brick wall.
Maw Maw always said he was the smartest, best behaved and best looking of the three of us. He earned his master’s of divinity a few years back and is now working on a Ph.D.

One day when he was in elementary school and I was off at college, Dad rushed out of the house, late for some commitment for the church. He forgot to take Lyle to school. When Lyle came downstairs and realized he had been left at home alone, he didn’t panic or go into hysterics. He just settled in for an unscheduled holiday.

When Dad came home for lunch he was shocked to find Lyle on the couch watching TV.

“What are you doing here?” Dad asked in amazement.

“Eating a popsicle,” Lyle casually responded, TV remote in hand.

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“You left me.”

Neither Lee nor I would have had the courage to confront the truth of that circumstance or sit by so calmly when an obvious catastrophe befell us. Lyle took it all in stride.

I also admire Lyle’s pursuit of education and adventure. After high school, he took a year to work and study at Word of Life Bible Institute in Schroon Lake, N.Y. Born in Texas but Central Florida-bred, Lyle had barely seen snow in his life. Word of Life afforded him the opportunity to run games at “Snow Camp” for churches and youth groups. Lyle confessed it was the coldest year of his life, but I respected the boldness required to immerse himself in such a contrasting climate to his upbringing.

He went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Arlington Baptist College and started working in churches immediately, starting with the church I grew up in, First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas. When he finished college, he married and took on the pastorate of a small church in Junction, Texas. A couple of years later, he was back in the Metroplex getting his master of divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary. When that project was completed, he started his Ph.D. studies and accepted the call to pastor Talty Baptist Church southeast of Dallas.

Talking with him now, I get the clear sense that he’s a deep thinker. He’s open to new ideas but understands what he believes and why. He doesn’t pick fights over theology or politics, but always seeks to learn and teach. I don’t think it’s just his type “B” personality. He’s driven to know more and comprehend better, a trait we could use more of in today’s polarized world.

Lyle isn’t just a career student, though. Like Lee, he, too, learned — eventually — the value of hard work. To support his family and pay for graduate school, he worked nights as a janitor at the Birdville School District. Humbling and grueling, Lyle listened to class notes on his headphones while scrubbing toilets, sweeping gyms, and polishing floors. He no longer believed he was immune to dirty work. He stuck it out when many people would have given up. When the boy commits to a goal, he sees it through.

In ministry, many of the pastors I’ve known were always looking for the next, bigger church that could pay them more. When opportunities arose, they followed their ego and blamed the “call to a new ministry.” Lyle sticks to his word. He stayed at the small church in the middle of the Hill Country of Texas much longer than anyone else would have, making way less than anyone else would have, to make an impact no one else could have. Now, he’s building a church at Talty, patiently helping his congregation to grow in faithfulness and in size. Now that the world has emerged from the lockdown phases of the pandemic, Talty Baptist is poised for explosive growth. I believe God is blessing that church through and because of Lyle’s dedication to them.

Always able to express himself through photography, music, drawing, graphic art, and well-constructed sermons, Lyle is excellent at gift giving. I love to see the joy on my boys’ faces when they open a special graduation, Christmas or birthday gift that is obviously a hand-crafted item that speaks to their interests and passions. I am grateful Lyle cares enough to create gifts that connect with people, and I envy his creativity and craftyness.

Lyle Wallace holds a sand bass
Lyle with a sand bass on Cedar Creek Reservoir.

As the years and miles between us pile up, I find I am drawn to reconnect with my brothers and rediscover the bonds we forged growing up as preacher’s kids. I look forward to creating new memories and taking the opportunity to let them know just how special they are. Happy birthday, Lyle!

My favorite joke

When I was a cub reporter at The Macon Telegraph back in the early 1990s, copy editor Randy Waters once gave me a backhanded compliment that has stuck with me:

“Lance, you’re the funniest guy I know who can’t tell a joke.”

Randy was right. I’ve never been good at remembering jokes, but as a middle-aged father of three, I am gaining proficiency in the stock-and-trade of dads everywhere… the dreaded Dad Joke.

To help me in this pursuit, my own father gave me three joke books for Christmas, which I have already begun to study intently, much to my family’s chagrin.

A doctor joke book, lawyer joke book and dad joke book lined up next to each other on a glass table top.
I’ve started memorizing the contents of these Christmas gifts from my Dad. Nothing can stop my rise to comedic stardom now!

Growing up in church gave me an appreciation for emotional storytelling and the use of humor.

Good preachers have a knack for remembering and telling jokes, both from the pulpit and in social settings. One of the first jokes I ever remember my childhood pastor, Bro. Billy Mauldin, telling went something like this:

A man goes to prison, and the first night while he’s laying in bed contemplating his situation, he hears someone yell out, “44!” Uproarious laughter erupts from the other prisoners.

He thought that was pretty odd. Then he heard someone else yell out, “72!” That was followed by even more laughter.

“What’s going on?” he asked his cellmate.

“Well, we’ve all heard every joke so many times, we’ve given them each a number to make it easier.”

“Oh,” the new prisoner said. “Can I try?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

So he yells out “102!” and the place is dead quiet, save for a few groans. Confused, he looks at his cellmate who is just shaking his head.

“Hey, what happened?”

“Well, some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.”

I puzzled over that joke for a while. Like most kids, I was a literal thinker. I thought it was funny because what made the prisoners laugh was the way the joke teller pronounced the numbers. I didn’t get it until I was in my teens, much older than I should have been to understand a joke as basic as this one.

I don’t remember jokes very well, but this one has stayed with me. It’s both a meta joke — a joke about a joke — a proverb. The truth is, some people can’t tell jokes. Spend two minutes with a comedian you’ve never heard before on YouTube, and you will see what I mean.

Humor is something I’ve always appreciated and tried to bring to my conversations. I hope this year to prove Randy wrong… not by being unfunny but by adding joke-telling to my humor repertoire.

But then again, some people can tell a joke, and some people can’t.

What’s your favorite joke? Leave a comment below to share. You can credit the source or rely on the old adage that originality is the ability to forget where you heard it. Clean jokes only, please. This is a family blog.