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.


As I write today’s entry, a life hangs in the balance.

This is not our car, but it's the same model. I don't think I ever parked it on the beach.
This is not our car, but it’s the same model. I don’t think I ever parked it on the beach.

Our 11-year-old Volvo V70 station wagon sits in the parking lot of a transmission repair shop awaiting its fate.

Those of you who are regular readers of New South Essays will remember that number 19 on my 30 days of Thanksgiving list was “functioning vehicles.” Apparently I didn’t knock on enough wood to stave off a jinx, but the Volvo has been tough. We’ve had near-death experiences before.

Almost five years ago, what was then Carla’s car received the terminal diagnosis of imminent transmission failure. The only treatment option, the dealer told us, was total replacement at a price tag exceeding $5,000.

That was nearly 100,000 miles ago. We elected not to pursue the replacement, and instead, Carla got a minivan and I started driving the grocery getter to work. Yes, we had to tolerate a certain level of “rough shifting,” but it’s amazing how much rough shifting you can live with for $5,000.

All has been well until I changed jobs at the end of August and started commuting to Midtown Atlanta. After a couple of months and several instances of the car just shutting off on me, Carla and I elected to switch vehicles. While I traded up in the reliability department, I made a lateral move in the coolness department.

For several months our boys, particularly our eldest, teased me that I was driving “an old lady car” when behind the wheel of our station wagon. When I started driving the Honda Odyssey, he said I was now driving a “Mommy Mobile.”

I would love nothing more than to have the Volvo put out of service and be able to buy a brand spanking new pick-up truck. But financial realities being what they are, a truck is not in my immediate future. We really need to be able to either A.) keep driving the Volvo or B.) trade it in for some value toward another vehicle. A truck would be about the least practical purchase for my daily commute.

It may be a stereotype, but the Clampett's car might be the most recognized Southern automobile this side of John Deere or NASCAR.
It may be a stereotype, but the Clampett’s car might be the most recognized Southern automobile this side of John Deere or NASCAR.

All this has me contemplating vehicles in the New South. If a pickup truck is a Southern icon (remember the opening ceremonies of the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta with the synchronized pickup routine?), has it been replaced? What is the iconic vehicle of the New South? Is it Mercedes Benz, manufactured in Vance, Ala.? Is it a BMW, made in Spartanburg, S.C.?

Or could it be the Kia or Hyundai models, manufactured in Georgia? Porsche is about to build a new headquarters in Atlanta at the site of the old Ford plant near the airport. Could a Porsche be the signature vehicle of the New South?

I don’t really know. It may be a minivan, for all I know. Every time we leave church or a scout meeting, the parking lot looks like a used car lot specializing in the Honda Odyssey.

This week’s post is interactive. Your vote counts, so participate and encourage others to answer today’s poll question: What is the quintessential vehicle of the New South? If we can answer this question definitively today, we could give car dealers something new to advertise during the holiday glut of red bow-topped cars.

Make your nomination by leaving a comment below. Results will be published with next week’s essay.

A month’s worth of thankfulness in one serving

November brings with it a number of seasonal peculiarities: falling leaves, premature Christmas decorations, cooler temperatures and now, in the New South, daily thanksgiving posts on Facebook.

It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy
Being thankful is a lifestyle, not a state of mind.

I’m not sure when the trend started, but taking the month of November to post “What I am thankful for today” status updates has caught on. Yes, there is the expected reaction of satire and mockery, but overall what fills my Facebook newsfeed these days is more genuine than humorous.

My wife started the November Thanksgiving Facebook status updates last year and has continued the tradition this year. She reports that it’s more difficult to come up with something on harder days, but she always manages to post. So far she hasn’t been guilty of that prayer practice of small children who merely recite their thanksgivings to God by looking around the room and mentioning everything they see: “Thank you, God, for my socks and for Lego and for puzzles and for squirrels and for Thomas the Tank Engine…”

One of the most difficult disciplines is regulating your attitude apart from your circumstances. If we surrender control of our mood to the randomness of life, say a bad commute home from work or a vomiting child, then we will most likely be miserable most of the time.

gratitude is the memory of the heartHowever, if we approach each day with the reminder of all that’s good in our lives, we can ride the waves of life rather than be drowned by them.

I haven’t participated in this new Thanksgiving tradition simply because I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know that I could come up with 30 days of thankfulness in the moment each morning, so to send you into Thanksgiving week, I’m offering a month’s worth of thanksgivings all at once (in no particular order):

  1. A faith that is strong enough to endure challenges but flexible enough to grow when confronted with truth.
  2. Carla. Simply stated, the best wife I could have ever been fortunate enough to marry.
  3. My parents. They instilled in me early on the right priorities and have offered encouragement and guidance when I needed it most.
  4. Barron. A dad couldn’t ask for a better oldest son. Responsible, creative and funny.
  5. Harris. Like the crème filling of an Oreo, he makes the middle the best part. I particularly enjoy our talks.
  6. Carlton. Resourceful and self-reliant, his zest for life re-energizes.
  7. My in-laws. Gracious, generous and always delightful to be around, they make visits to their home a respite.
  8. My brother, Lee, and his family. I have the utmost respect for his ministry and know he has more integrity than just about anyone I know.
  9. My brother, Lyle, and his family.  I don’t get to see them enough, so each visit is a treasure, and I know he is preparing for a life-long ministry that will touch many, many lives.
  10. Our home. Not only do we have enough bedrooms for everybody, we have space to open our home to friends and family on a regular basis, and we are always the better for it.
  11. Good friends. You know who you are. No matter what segment of my life they enter through, my closest friends enrich my life with laughter, challenging ideas and support. I could have listed each of you as a separate item, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just lump you all into one entry.
  12. My neighbors. You never want to take for granted having considerate and friendly neighbors. Even just a smile and a wave add something to my life.
  13. My job. Working at Georgia Tech doesn’t just pay the bills. It stretches and challenges me while giving me the opportunity to form new relationships with quality people.
  14. Parkway Baptist Church. A place where I can serve, learn and enjoy the company of fellow travelers on the road.
  15. My daily bread. Haven’t missed a meal, and I don’t take that for granted knowing there is real poverty in the world.
  16. Good health. Despite a nagging shoulder/back strain right now, I enjoy exercise and nothing makes me feel more alive than a good run.
  17. Down time. It may be infrequent, but when it happens I cherish it.
  18. Lilburn. A great community filled with a diverse population who are involved and care about their children and is not so far outside the perimeter.
  19. Functioning vehicles. This may be a “knock-on-wood” entry, but for now, all systems are “go” on the station wagon and minivan. Never dreamed I would ever be thankful for a station wagon and minivan.
  20. Google search. Everything is knowable. No more struggling to remember which actor played in which movie or what the lyrics are to a song stuck in your head. It really has become our brain supplement.
  21. Fantasy football. A diversion I allow myself. It’s fun whether I win or lose.
  22. Summer vacation. We always go to Santa Rosa Beach, and it’s one of the highlights of the year for our family.
  23. Sunday afternoon naps. Forced to take them as a child, naps are now the most-anticipated event of the week.
  24. Scouts. The experience has given me so many opportunities to spend quality time with my boys that no matter what rank they achieve, I know it has been a worthy investment of time.
  25. Saturday morning pancakes. I contribute so little to meal preparation in my household that it’s nice when I get to prepare our weekly pancake breakfast. Even I can’t mess up pancakes.
  26. Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s millions of dollars of profit notwithstanding, this has been a great way to keep in touch and reconnect with friends from all over the world.
  27. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Not only was it a fantastic place to work for 10 years, it’s a worthwhile ministry doing amazing things worthy of support.
  28. Christmas vacation. Always includes a trip to Florida and time with both sets of grandparents. Beautiful weather, rest and great memories.
  29. Writing. Even though I don’t get to do it enough, I am enriched by each opportunity to express my thoughts. My book will get finished someday.
  30. Blog readers. You put up with a lot of lackluster writing, but you have hung with me for nearly 20 months now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Share what you are thankful for by leaving a comment below, then share this post with others!

In search of Black Friday

I hate shopping.

I don’t even really like Internet shopping.

There is absolutely nothing appealing about Black Friday to me. I don’t believe in its philosophical underpinnings. I don’t understand its attraction. I don’t acknowledge its existence.

But like someone chasing a ghost or questing for grainy 8 millimeter footage of Big Foot, I set out Thanksgiving night in search of a genuine Black Friday experience.

I didn’t have to go far.

Target on Thanksgiving
The line outside Target at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night stretches on into the darkness.

Hearing and reading about the controversy this year of Target opening at midnight on Thanksgiving, I started my epic journey outside the Minneapolis-based retailer’s Snellville location. At 10 p.m., the line stretched 100 yards, and all seemed calm.

I met Gabriel Ortiz, 20, and his brother, who had been at the front of the line since 1:40 p.m., eagerly anticipating the purchase of a 46-inch Westinghouse high-definition television for $298 instead of the usual $600.

Gabriel Ortiz
Line-camper Gabriel Ortiz of Snellville stakes out his spot at the front of the line at Target with dreams of a high definition television.

He told me this was his first time to ever shop on Black Friday, and as a relative brought him some food, he shared what he had learned. He started at Best Buy, but at 1 p.m., the line, containing several tents, was already wrapped around the building. The Target scene was more his speed, and depending how his experience went, he would consider doing this again.  I determined for certain at that very moment that I would never consider doing it.  Ever.

Like Andrew Zimmern in search of exotic cuisine, I continued in my pursuit of the Black Friday experience, and Black Friday, I hear, is not Black Friday until you’ve been to the world’s largest retailer, Walmart.

I knew I was in trouble as I drove up Highway 124 and saw the line of traffic just turn into the parking lot. It was 10:32 p.m., and the parking lot was chaos. In about five minutes I managed to snag a spot at a bank in the out parcel. The walk wasn’t bad, and it gave me time to steel my nerves against what I was about to experience.

As I stepped in through the automatic doors, I could not have entered a more alien scene had I been dropped into the Mos Eisley Cantina. Everywhere I turned, there was a long line, emanating from a Mylar balloon with a product printed on it. Remembering that we were out of pull-up diapers, I spent 20 minutes meandering through the store, avoiding the blocked off aisles and walls of people waiting on everything from HD televisions to video game systems to bicycles.

I found the Huggies pull-ups just above the head of a woman sitting in the floor.

“The line for diapers starts back there,” she quipped.

“Seriously?” I said, an obvious Black Friday novice.

“No, it’s for the laptop,” she said, pointing to the balloon. A 15.6-inch Hewlett Packard laptop to be exact.

Out of luck or ignorance, I ended up in the “10-items or less” line. A woman with a Wii and another with a Xbox Kinect chatted brightly in front of me.

“That’s all you’ve got?” the Wii woman said.

“What are you doing here in this mess?” her friend asked.

“You must be a really good husband,” Mrs. Wii said.

“You should’ve just gone to CVS or Kroger. They’re open today, too, you know,” Mrs. Kinect said with just a slight hint of condescension.

The beleaguered clerk rang me up and laughed.

“Is that all?”

“It’s all I need,” I said, and as she handed me my receipt, I offered “Hang in there. I hope you survive.”

Wallmart check out
A sea of humanity tried to check out Thursday night at Walmart in Snellville.

By this time, it was still an hour until Target was to open. Just for laughs, I drove back by Target. Gabriel and his brother were still at the front of the line wearing hopeful smiles, but now the line stretched at least a quarter mile.

When I got home, I put the diapers on the counter, brushed my teeth and climbed into bed. The clock said 11:30. I thought about the Walmart scene and how it was about to be repeated at Target.

For any other skeptics out there, let me assure you, Black Friday is real, and it is dangerous.

Please shop responsibly.

What’s your view? Do you love or avoid shopping on Black Friday? Are you a line camper? What’s your best deal you’ve ever gotten? Help continue my education by sharing your experiences below.

Thanksgiving grace

You’ve probably already planned every detail of your Thanksgiving meal – at least those of you who subscribe to Southern Living – but have you thought about the one act that gives next week’s holiday its name?

At the risk of sounding preachy, Thanksgiving is supposed to be as advertised.

But often, the last thought on anyone’s mind is the source and content of the blessing of the meal. In many Southern households, the matriarch emerges from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron, scans the room of football viewing males and selects someone to offer thanks to God for the entire assemblage’s annual blessings.

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
You can do worse than the first Thanksgiving prayer, which Linus recites for the Peanuts gang in "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."

This is a key moment in the day’s celebration. Pick wrong, and everyone can be squirming during an awkward recitation of a childhood prayer. Or worse, you must endure a rank amateur fumbling his or her way through an indelicate and unintelligible monologue.

No, you need to put as much as thought and preparation into the actual Thanksgiving prayer as you do the menu. Before you get anxious, there are unwritten guidelines for this decision.

The first choice is obvious: anyone who is a minister or otherwise prays professionally. Preachers rate highest on this scale, although a missionary would be a bonus if you actually have one around. Most of the time, though, missionaries are on the other side of the world, having Thanksgiving ostrich or dried fish or rice or something.

The second option is anyone who does religious work other than preaching. Even if you sort the mail in the church office, you could be called upon to offer thanks if the hostess happens to be in a particularly desperate situation.

Third would be to select the most obviously spiritual person in the family. Perhaps this person is a Gideon or carries a large Bible to church or maybe even has a track record for “making a beautiful grace,” as we say down South.

The fourth option is the DP, or “Designated Pray-er.” Some families erase all the suspense by having that one person they go to every year. The prayers may not be fancy, but they are consistent and the family feels good about letting them voice the collective gratitude for the group.

The fifth and final option is the riskiest but can often be the most meaningful: one of the kids. As the oft-quoted W.C. Fields once said, “Never work with children or animals.” It’s unpredictable to turn the family’s annual Thanksgiving blessing over to a child.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want"
Our Thanksgivings aren't always Rockwellian, but we can be thankful that we have "freedom from want."

You can get the literalist prayer in which the child thanks God for literally everything he or she knows or sees. This can take a while. Or perhaps the child starts strong but then gets self-conscious and just quits midway. Then you’re left with a half-blessed meal.

My personal favorite is the sung prayer. All three of our boys have come through Smoke Rise Baptist Church’s preschool where they have learned this little prayer to the tune of “Frère Jacques:”

(Preamble, spoken) Hands in the air, bring them down for prayer.

(Chorus, sung) Thank you Father, Thank you Father, for our food, for our food, and our many blessings, and our many blessings, A-men. A-men.

As you make your Thanksgiving preparations this week, don’t leave out the blessing of the meal. You’ll find that by planning for it, you may actually tap into the true meaning of the day and what may have been a perfunctory moment in your family tradition can become a holy one.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Now it’s your turn: Who says Thanksgiving grace at your celebration? What is your favorite Thanksgiving blessing or the childhood grace you learned to say, musical or otherwise? Leave a comment below, and New South Essays promises to be thankful.