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.

An unexpected journey

When Barron and Harris piled into the back of the new Hyundai, eager to ride with Daddy after another great meal at Los Hermanos, they had no idea we weren’t following Carla home.

Bilbo Baggins runs to catch up with the party of dwarves headed off on an unexpected journey.
Bilbo Baggins heads off on his unexpected journey.

We had already had a pretty good day. It was one of those rare days when Carla and Carlton still had preschool, but the older boys were already out for Christmas vacation. They hadn’t seen my office since I changed jobs, so other than having to get up earlier than they would have liked on their first day off from school, they didn’t mind coming downtown with me for a few hours and checking out my new digs.

It really was fun having them around. Even the rain-soaked commute, which lasted an hour longer than usual, was bearable with the two of them making up dialogue between the commuters they spied around us in the seven-lane-wide traffic jam on I-85.

They spent the morning playing Stratego and watching “Batman Begins” on the TV and DVD player in my office with the always cautious Barron keeping the volume low to avoid disturbing the almost empty hall. My co-worker, Robert, did get a little jealous when he came by to ask me about a story he was working on only to discover that Batman was on.

I treated them to lunch at The Varsity where they ate like it was their last meal. Barron scarfed down a double bacon cheeseburger while Harris had, in Varsity parlance, a “naked dog” and cheeseburger. They finished it off with a mountain of fries and frosted oranges. I drove them back to my building by way of the central campus, showing them the academic buildings, the football stadium, Tech tower and various residence halls, which they said reminded them of Hogwarts.

“The magic we do here at Tech is called ‘engineering,’” I said.

Carla was soon picking them up, and I was off to my 3 o’clock meeting. Before shutting down for the day, I checked out movie times at the theaters near us in Lilburn. Carla and I conferred with a quick phone call to confirm our plans, and I clicked a purchase of two children’s tickets and one adult ticket for the 7:30 showing of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

We both arrived at Los Hermanos at almost the same instant, and I winked at Carla, who returned a knowing smile. Our meal was delicious, and the boys continued to chatter away about their day at daddy’s office.

“Who wants to ride with me?” I asked nonchalantly as we headed for the parking lot. Of course Carlton wanted to but couldn’t. He was due for an early bedtime as indicated by his lack of composure at supper.

The boys climbed into the back of my car, Harris’s booster seat still in position from the morning commute. We followed the minivan to the neighborhood, but when Carla turned in and we kept going, the boys began to get suspicious.

“Hey, Daddy, you missed your turn.”

“I did? Oh, well, do you want me turn around?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Well, do you?”

“I don’t know. Where are we going?

“Where does it look like we’re going?”

And thus the conversation went for the 12 minute ride to Snellville Oaks cinema.

Gandalf beckons Bilbo to join in an unexepected journey.
It doesn’t take a wise wizard to see the benefits of making a regular night out with your sons an adventure.

About three miles from the theater, still completely in the dark about our destination, the moment happened that will stay with me from this day long after the details of Bilbo’s adventure grow fuzzy in my memory.

“This is like something Paw Paw would do,” Barron said.

“What? Kidnap you?” I responded mischievously.

“No… you know, act like he missed a turn then take you some place fun.”

Barron got it. He connected this whole plan for me in a way that I hadn’t even understood myself. It wasn’t the joy of tricking or even surprising my children that gave me so much pleasure. It was that I was able to do for my kids what my dad had done for us.

You see, Barron was right. My dad frequently would take us somewhere without telling us the destination. Sometimes it would be amazing, and other times pedestrian, but every time became more exciting because of the unexpected.

“Dad, where are we going? You didn’t turn,” we would say in protest.

“To the moon,” he would answer.

My brother, Lee, and I will never forget the Thanksgiving night when he suggested we go for a ride. Four hours later we ended up in Houston for a great family weekend at Galveston and San Jacinto and other Texas landmarks.

With a simple trip to the movies, I had lived into the best of the Wallace family tradition. Just like my dad, I was able to turn a mundane car trip through the suburbs into an adventure.

“I guess it’s kind of appropriate,” Barron said.

“What is?” I asked.

“You took us on an unexpected journey to see the unexpected journey movie.”

The older I get, the more I believe the best parts of our journey are unexpected. I believe we all could use a little more adventure in our lives. I guarantee you’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.

What unexpected journeys have you taken? Did your parents ever surprise you with an unexpected trip or gift? Have you been able to surprise your kids? Leave your story in a comment below and share your tale with us.

Playing catch up

I’ve spent the better part of the last week in Fort Worth, Texas, working long hours, enduring incredible heat and spending time with my youngest brother and his family.

The 8-day odyssey to the place of my birth felt more like two trips in one.  The first four days I was engaged in the annual meeting of the organization for which I work. The second four days, I was treated to a laid back schedule and the rare gift of time with my brother, whom I had not laid eyes on in two and a half years.

Lyle and his bass
See the family resemblance? With the guy in the hat, not the bass.

The oldest of three boys, I have found it difficult to keep in touch with my brothers as our lives have gone in divergent directions. My family and I ended up in Atlanta, my middle brother and his family live in Lake Wales, Fla., and my youngest brother and his family are back in Fort Worth after a two-year stint in Junction, Texas. I do okay keeping in touch with my parents, who serve as connectors for the three of us, but there is no substitute for spending time one-on-one.

Lyle is 10-and-a-half years my junior. He was entering second grade when I went off to college, and for the next 24 years, we’ve only had stolen moments to spend together: spring breaks, Christmas holidays, occasional shared family vacations and rare business trips that took me to his neck of the woods. And because of his family’s transitions the last few years, we haven’t even been able to get together at Christmas.

This lack of a relationship with my brother affects me in ways I don’t like to think about. While Lee – the middle brother – and I catch up at Christmas as the grounding point for our relationship, Lyle and I have missed out on that altogether. And unlike my weekly routine of calling my parents, with Lyle there is no consistent time that our schedules converge to allow meaningful conversation.

So we rely on Facebook to keep up with the daily events of each other’s lives, a weak substitute for an actual relationship.

This week went a long way toward helping to bridge the gap between us. As we toured the Fort Worth Stockyards, worshipped together, visited the national scouting museum, took in the giant Cabela’s store, swam with our kids and beat the 100-plus-degree heat with a dollar movie, our conversation was easy, genuine and full of the respect and affection brothers often feel but rarely express.

Typically, brothers express their emotions with a slug and an insult. Lyle and I simply don’t have time for that. When we’re together, we have to connect in meaningful ways or else we could completely lose touch.

Lyle and Haydn at Cabela's
Lyle and his 7-year-old son, Haydn, try out reels at Cabela’s on Tuesday.

That’s what struck me so much about our time together this past week. I was able to relate to Lyle, not as my little brother, but as a minister-in-training, parent, tour guide and friend. Yes, we spent some time around the table telling stories on each other, and on Uncle Lee, much to our children’s delight, but the inadvertently weakened bonds of our brotherhood were strengthened just at the time they needed it most.

I can’t remember a time that Lyle and I have been at odds, but that’s because we’ve been so distant we haven’t had a chance. I don’t want to pick fights with anyone, least of all my brothers, but I would trade a few disagreements for a closer relationship.

So as my summer heads into a middle stretch between trips, I’m back in my comfortable routine. I’m just going to commit one more time to find a way to not lose touch with both my brothers as life unfolds.

There’s simply too much to be gained to let go.

How do you keep up with your siblings? Have you recently been able to share in some quality time with your brother or sister? Leave a comment below and share your secret to staying connected to your siblings.

Fierce landscapes

What a difference a week makes.

Last week I was in the Chattahoochee National Forest connecting with my middle son and enjoying the beauty of the Appalachian foothills.

Vista from Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park
One of the many vistas from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park.

This week I visited Big Bend National Park in Texas, connecting with pastors and enjoying the beauty of the mountains and desert of southwest Texas. Call it a perk of my day job, I was covering and participating in a post-Easter retreat for ministers in Marathon, Texas, called “Call of the Wilderness.”

While the natural beauty of both locales was undeniable, this week’s destination refreshed me in unexpected ways.

Mountainous desert with an assortment of scrub trees, cacti and clumps of yellow grass isn’t my first thought of a beautiful terrain. But the stark landscape combined with the thought-provoking presentations by retreat leader Belden Lane prompted me to contemplate all of the physical and metaphorical wildernesses I’ve experienced in my life.

Physically, the visual beauty of the mountains and desert of Big Bend reminded me of a 1994 trip to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Metaphorically, the stark barrenness felt similar to a period of isolation and loneliness I experienced in the mid-1990s.

I didn’t get home until late last night, so I am still processing the week and what it means. This post is part of my attempt to extract meaning from the experience.

Neighboring peak in the Chisos Mountains
A nearby peak, shot from the top of the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos basin.

On Tuesday I hiked the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Basin, climbing about 1,100 feet in elevation over two-and-a-half miles up the mountain. It wasn’t a difficult climb. We kept a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to catch our breath, snap photos and sip from our water bottles. As the sun warmed us, the breeze cooled us. During the lapses in our conversation, I was able to notice lizards, buzzards and a colorful scrub jay.

I’m not an overly mystical person, but I kept hoping throughout the hike to hear a word from God. I was seeking answers to life’s big questions that occupied my mind. The only consistent voice was that of the crunch of the stones underfoot. I guess the rocks can really cry out their praise to their creator.

Boquillas Canyon
The Rio Grande River flows into Boquillas Canyon at the Mexican border.

On Wednesday, I made my way down to Boquillas Canyon on the Mexican border. The cave-pocked cliffs pierced by the gently flowing Rio Grande River presented an altogether different beauty than the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures were warmer. Breezes were rarer.

I stood on a large, beige rock overlooking the Rio Grande and caught sight of a couple of vaqueros on the other side in the shade, their horses drinking from the gray water. The small village of Boquillas, Mexico, was off to their right, a couple of dozen houses filling the gaps between the trees in the green valley.

At my feet were an array of hand-made trinkets and hand-painted crafts with an ink-on-cardboard sign indicating the prices tucked under a plastic jug. A few feet beyond this low-rent retail space was a sign in official U.S. brown stating that purchases from Mexican nationals was a crime.

As I scrambled down the rock and toward the river, I could hear the familiar strains of the chorus “Aye, aye, aye-aye.” Another jug with a handwritten sign was nearby. Victor, the Mexican crooner, made his living taking requests a few feet onto U.S. soil, a short swim/wade from his homeland.

From there we progressed to the hot springs and the ruins of an old resort. Bubbling from the corner of a cement tank just a few feet from the Rio Grande, the spring was more warm than hot. The algae floating on the surface made me question its restorative powers. A couple of tourists soaked their feet, and I repressed a shiver at the thought of taking a sip.

Still, I heard no voice, discerned no wisdom. The desert was indifferent to my presence and made no attempt to reveal any secrets. I was not tempted by Satan or fed by ravens, though Biblical analogies came to mind quickly. I conjured no visions, received no epiphanies.

Maybe the time in this fierce landscape wasn’t about answers. Maybe it was just about seeking and listening.

After back-to-back weeks of silence, night skies filled with stars and breathable air, I am reticent to return to the normal. Another trip into the wilderness is already being planned. Maybe I’ll get a little bit closer to the answers next time.

Does the wilderness inspire you? Where do you like to go in nature when you are in need of answers? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

I Gotta Go … listen to Robert Earl Keen

I’m a writer, not a musician. That’s the best way to explain my fascination with country music – specifically, alternative country and the work of singer-songwriters. I’m not much of a fan of that over-produced, impure sound coming out of Nashville the last 10-20 years.

Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen

A few years ago, my native-Texan friend, Bob, introduced me to the music of Robert Earl Keen. Texas-born and Texas-bred, Keen’s knack for storytelling outstrips his singing ability, so naturally, I immediately took to his music.

On Tuesday, Keen released his latest album, “Ready for Confetti,” with the pre-released  single “I Gotta Go.”

This album has a different feel than Keen’s previous work. The imagery-rich ballads such as the evocative “Black Baldy Stallion” and “I Gotta Go” are still there, but overall, the pace was slower and the mood more subdued. It’s as if Keen, 55, is slowing down after 30 years in the music business, and he thinks the world needs to slow down, too.

The title cut, “Ready for Confetti,” has a Latin flair, and if I knew the steps to one, I might be tempted to do a Latin dance. “I Gotta Go” reminds me the most of his other work. The story of an orphan who steals and gambles his way right into more and more trouble, “I Gotta Go” is a toe-tapping tragedy that will lift your spirits even as the lyrics depress. But who among us hasn’t felt upbeat even when faced with certain death?

I can’t help but think the line “I’m wasting time standing here, I gotta go” is also Keen’s not-so-veiled smirk at our over-caffeinated, texting-addicted, hurried society. This is particularly evident when juxtaposed with the next song on the album, the mellow “Lay Down My Brother.” With a little bit slower tempo, this song seems to be encouraging us to “take it easy, take it slow,” an admonition that might help us all live longer.  “Lay Down My Brother” has nice harmonies, which is frankly when Keen sounds the best.

“The Road Goes On and On” is a satisfying insult song that harkens back to one of Keen’s best loved songs “The Road Goes on Forever.” We’ve all encountered phonies who are so full of themselves that we just wanted to cuss. Keen captures the feeling well with such hurtful criticisms as “you’re malicious and downright cruel, superstitious, so uncool,” “you’re a regular jack-in-the-box in your clown suit and your goldilocks” and the coup de gras, “all duded up in your cowboy crocs.” Wow, now that’s a cowboy insult if I ever heard
one.

Ready for Confetti
Ready for Confetti album cover

I’m convinced that “Top Down” is best listened to live. The studio isn’t kind to Keen’s ability to hold pitch, but I admire the fact that it doesn’t sound artificial and over-modulated. Like “The Road Goes On and On,” this jazzy song seems to be poking at the stars who drive around with the “top down” and believe that “everbody’s clapping and it’s all about you.”

If “Top Down” makes you doubt, Keen returns to a familiar sound in “Play a Train Song.” From the opening guitar licks and harmonica strains, you know REK is back on his turf. Anyone familiar with his discography will immediately recognize his nod to the genre of train songs that Keen himself has helped populate over the years with such songs as “Number 9 Coal” and “Whenever Kindness Fails.”

Way back when I worked at The Macon Telegraph, page designer and copy editor Randy Waters and I played a word game we liked to call “Who da’ man?” We would ask each other that question back and forth until those around us demanded we shut up. Well, in “Who Da Man,” Keen turns the question into an adjective as the song proclaims the advantages of being a “Who Da Man,” who is able to evade law enforcement and other life consequences as he somehow sneaks through life.

A Bigger Piece of Sky
A Bigger Piece of Sky album cover

“Paint the Town Beige” is a rerun from 1993’s “A Bigger Piece of Sky” album. I think Keen repeats the song on this album to tell us that he really has slowed down. Keen seems to be saying with this even more laid back version that he craves the quiet life, and he’s put crazy antics behind him.

The final song, “Soul of Man” evokes images of a men’s quartet in a country church on a dusty central Texas farm-to-market road complete with funeral home fans, men in boots and starched white shirts and women in bonnets. “Soul of Man” is Keen’s take on the hymn, “Where the Soul Never Dies,” which has been recorded by a variety of artists, including the Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs and even Hank Williams Sr. My fondness for traditional hymns makes this a fitting ending to the album in my mind.

Overall, it’s one of Keen’s most understated works, but enjoyable and meaningful if you find yourself feeling wrung out emotionally and stressed from the busyness of life. In the New South, we could all use a little more time to “lay down” and less “I Gotta Go” urgency.

REK may be an acquired taste for those who like good singing, but for the storytellers of the world, enjoy.