A life-changing trip from a life-stealing catastrophe

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami 18 years ago this week led to one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean creating a tsunami that killed 227,898 people in 14 countries. The epicenter was just off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a remote area without much connection to the outside world. At the time, I worked as director of communications for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a faith-based non-profit headquartered in Atlanta with about 200 field personnel all over the world, working alongside the most neglected people groups in some of the most difficult and hard-to-reach locations.

Indonesia was among the countries in which CBF field personnel lived and served, and though there weren’t any in Banda Aceh, CBF was well positioned to respond on the island of Sumatra in a number of locations that were not in the news and not receiving help.

Mount Seulawah Agam looms in the background with a sunset overlooking a rice field with a person walking in the foreground.
Mount Seulawah Agam was the backdrop of my trip to Sumatra in 2005.

I had been on staff for a couple of years by that point but had not traveled outside North America for work. The Asia Team lobbied CBF leadership for me to come to their summer team meeting in Thailand and visit the relief work in Aceh. The idea was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. Carla and I were expecting our second child in late April, and I had never been to Asia. The language and cultural barriers intimidated me, and I thought the trip could be too difficult to attempt.

Anita and Jack Snell who were the associate coordinators for mission teams in Asia at the time, convinced me otherwise. They assured me the trip could be structured so that I would spend time with Asia Team members in Chiang Mai, Thailand, first. That would help me get acclimated before traveling to Sumatra and the tsunami-affected area. They promised I would have CBF field personnel with me at all times, helping me navigate the language barrier and travel logistics. I would only be unaccompanied on the flights from the U.S. and back. I accepted the challenge, and as I went through the regimen of inoculations and medications to visit a disaster area in the tropics, I began to gain confidence that I could do it.

Harris arrived a couple of days late, on May 2, the eve of our eighth wedding anniversary. We adjusted to having a second child in the house, and Carla’s parents were a big help during the transition, particularly with Barron, who was then 4. Carla was less than thrilled about me being overseas for 10 days, but she knew how important the trip was to me, to the field personnel who needed their story told and to CBF, which had received millions in relief donations and needed to show supporters how their funds were being spent. These were the days before ubiquitous cell phones and not everyone had an international calling plan. Contact would be infrequent. That would prove to be one of the most difficult challenges of the trip.

I took a small carry-on suitcase with three changes of clothes and a backpack for my camera and toiletries. I had to check a box of curriculum for a field personnel family’s homeschooling, but otherwise I traveled light. My itinerary was a little convoluted: I flew U.S. Airways from Atlanta to Chicago and Chicago to Tokyo and Tokyo to Bangkok where I arrived late the next night.

I was supposed to spend the night in the transiting hotel in the Bangkok airport, but I missed the posted signs, and, after going through customs with my checked box, I ended up exiting the airport at the international terminal. Rather than take a taxi to a local hotel for a few hours of sleep, I decided to trek over to the domestic terminal and tough it out before catching the Thai Air flight to Chiang Mai. I navigated a confusing labyrinth of sidewalks and hallways, following the signs to the domestic terminal. After about 15 minutes, I emerged into a plain, empty terminal with orange, molded, hard plastic seats bolted onto metal frames as the only places to sit. I found a payphone and used the calling card I had been issued to call Carla and assure I had arrived safely and was alright, though I was not convinced of the latter at that exact moment. I then picked a seat and tried my best to get a couple hours of sleep in an unforgiving chair.

The Thai Air ticket counter opened about 6 a.m. and I was first in line to change to the first flight of the day, scheduled for 7 a.m. I checked my box of books, and to my great surprise and relief, the agent looked me up and down and said I needed an emergency row seat. I didn’t have to ask nor was I charged an extra fee. The flight was only half full and lasted about an hour. The flight attendants barely had enough time to serve breakfast and reclaim the service items before we landed.

I took a cab out to the resort compound. The drive up the mountain from the airport to the resort was a mix of simple huts, beautiful, tree-covered mountains, clear skies, and incessant beeping by the driver to clear dogs out of the roadway. For the first time since I had left the U.S. 24 hours earlier, I felt like I was in another world.

When I arrived at the hotel, the Asia Team meeting was already underway, and I walked in a few minutes before my turn on the agenda. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I said something to the effect of “I’m from the main office, and I’m here to help.”

That was not a completely welcomed message. Field personnel were passionate about their work, but administrators from headquarters were not always helpful to them. Nestled into the forested hills of northeastern Thailand, the conference center was a beautiful setting with amazing flowers and decorative landscaping. The buildings were wood and had all the markings of Thai architecture with the unmistakably Asian curves and flourishes. Clearly a tourist destination, the facilities were equipped with western toilets. My experience with a much anticipated “squatty potty” would have to wait until I reached Indonesia.

On my second night, a group of CBF field personnel and their families were going to the night market in Chiang Mai and asked me to tag along. They showed me all the diverse finds at an Asian night market, including an array of fried insects to enjoy. I did not partake in the delicacies, but with their help I was able to negotiate prices and make a few purchases. I wasn’t accustomed to and didn’t like haggling.

It was late when we got back to the resort, and insect and frog song filled the night. Just a few feet from the door to my room, a large, dark brown, spotted rock caught my eye. It was about four inches long and appeared to be moving. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a horned beetle. It was beautiful and I’m sure harmless, but I admired it from a safe distance as it slowly crawled along the walkway.

The days in Chiang Mai passed quickly, and I acclimated to the time difference and the humidity, which reminded me of living in Florida. When the team meeting ended, a group of us traveled a couple hours’ drive from Chiang Mai to Fang where CBF field personnel Ellen and Rick Burnette operated the Upland Holistic Development Project. The UHDP helped people sustain themselves from agro-forestry, growing food on small garden plots, raising pigs and even farming catfish in water tanks. The area where the Palaung and Kachin people, hilltribes displaced from Myanmar, were given to settle by the government was mountainous and tree-covered, a difficult place to grow sustainable crops. I saw the impact of the Burnette’s work firsthand and met the local people who were training to run the facility and sharing their knowledge of crops and agricultural techniques that worked well in the region. I spent the night in the UHDP’s Resource Center visitor accommodations, which were spartan but clean and comfortable, only slightly disconcerted by the sounds of insects hitting the screen on my door. I had nightmares of the beetle from Chiang Mai attacking.

The next day I covered my neck, wrists and ankles with 100 percent DEET insect repellent, probably ensuring I will one day develop cancer, and went with the team to a Palaung village out in the jungle. I had tea in a gracious and welcoming family’s home as Rick translated how they had fled their native Myanmar and were now making do without legal status in Thailand. After a few hours in the village, we trekked back to Fang to pile back into the small van for the drive back to Chiang Mai. I suddenly became very aware of the time and worried that I would miss my flight to Bangkok.

A few hours later, we arrived at the hotel where the rest of our party was staying in the heart of Chiang Mai. With the help of the field personnel, I flagged down a motorcycle taxi called a tuk-tuk and sped off to the airport. No amusement park ride could compare to that adventure. I clung to the rail with one hand and my suitcase with the other. It was close, but I did make it to the airport in time to make the flight, though my boots were covered in jungle mud, and I reeked of jungle sweat and DEET.

After we touched down and I emerged from the familiar domestic terminal, I cabbed from the airport to the Bangkok Christian Guest House where I was to meet Anita Snell, my guide for the next leg of my journey. The Asian Baptist Graduate Seminary board was meeting, and after a quick shower, I had the opportunity to do interviews and take photos. Though I was exhausted and ready for sleep, several of the board members insisted we go to the night market, so I could see the real Bangkok.

My guide was Graham Walker, associate dean of Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, with whom I had worked before joining the staff at CBF. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he grew up in Asia as a missionary kid. He knew the area and could speak the language. At first, the night market seemed to be the same as in Chiang Mai. The area was more developed and modern, but the booths with fried grasshoppers and other insects was the same. We turned a corner and Graham pointed down the street. Through the dim lighting, I could make out young girls, no older than 14 or 15, all sitting on what looked like stoops outside of apartment buildings. We were approached by a man who tried to direct us to a particular building, but Graham, usually outgoing and friendly, became cold and direct. He informed the man we were not interested in what he was selling. I took me a minute to realize what was going on, but when the man said in English “Girl, boy or girl boy?” I felt sick as I began to understand what I was seeing. While I know human trafficking takes place in my home city of Atlanta, seeing it up close and out in the open gave me a new compassion for how miserable the lives of those poor children must be. Graham told me that many of them were from the rural parts of Asia, either sold or kidnapped into this life. We were only on the street a couple of minutes, but the experience was burned into my memory.

The next morning, I left for Singapore, which stood in stark contrast to Thailand. Thoroughly modern and pristine, Singapore had patrols of armed soldiers in the airport. Mindful of the story from the 1990s of the American teenager who had committed some minor crime and had been beaten with a cane for his punishment, I was sure to be as respectful as possible, following all instructions as I passed through customs. That night, Anita took me to a very western-style shopping and restaurant area where we ate Mexican food, Singapore-style, and we went to visit a friend of hers in a nearby apartment building. Everywhere we went was clean and landscaped to perfection. With the exception of the ever-present military, it seemed like utopia.

The next day I connected with the Uzzles, a family who had been leading the relief effort in Aceh. Former field personnel who were living in Kentucky at the time of the tsunami, they were called back into service to help channel the emergency aid and help the people there get back on their feet. They were friendly and gracious, and even their children welcomed me into their family with open arms. They had all the qualities necessary to succeed in that environment: openness, kindness, the ability to speak the language, and patience to explain everything I didn’t understand. We flew from Singapore to Medan and changed planes in Medan before heading to Banda Aceh.

The airport in Banda had not received outside flights for years before the relief workers began pouring in after the tsunami. The area was embroiled in a simmering civil conflict with a group of armed rebels seeking to withdraw from the Indonesia government’s authority. There were armed guards at periodic checkpoints around Aceh, but otherwise, there were no signs of conflict. The military presence wasn’t nearly as noticeable as in Singapore.

We were greeted warmly at the airport by a local man who served as the team’s driver. The Uzzles had clearly developed a close relationship with him, and they laughed together as they embraced. Before heading out to the town of Sigli, about a two and a half hours east of Banda where CBF’s work in Aceh was based, they took me to the hardest hit areas of Banda, including a sprawling coastal area where all but a few buildings were flattened to the ground. It took my breath away just how awful the moment the wave hit must have been. They explained that most of the debris had been cleaned up, but the government had not yet allowed rebuilding to begin. The survivors were displaced, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives without loved ones, and in many cases, without the possibility of earning a living.

On the drive up and around Mount Seulawah Agam, we stopped to shoo monkeys off the road, the first time I was able to see monkeys up close during my trip. The winding road was often not much more than a path of crumbling asphalt, but our driver expertly navigated the twisting paths dodging ox carts, bicycles and wildlife.

The Uzzles were staying in a comfortable rented home in Sigli, and Scott spent the evening on the front porch catching up with the locals. They laughed, and he paused to translate the jokes for me. It was genuinely warm companionship in any language. As I settled in for the night, the call to prayer at one of the nearby mosques started up over a public address system. It was Friday, and because Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, there were mosques within walking distance of everyone in the town.

I learned to navigate the intricacies of Asian toilets, which was essentially a hole in the ground with a small platform built around it. You have to squat over the hole and then use water from a pot or small reservoir called a bak to clean yourself and flush away the waste. There’s definitely a trick to it, and Americans are notoriously bad at both aim and clean up. Not every home had running water to a bak. Many families in the area went to large baks at their mosque to draw water for daily use. When we began checking on the redevelopment projects that day, they took me to a mosque where the bak served a large number of families in the community. It was the first project they undertook in Sigli, and CBF personnel built trust and reliability in the community by completing it. I was impressed with how they worked with the locals, observed their customs, spoke their language and work alongside them, not for or instead of them.

We went to the CBF office in Sigli, and Scott showed me a large dry erase board with a chart listing active projects and completed projects. There were more than 13 significant projects that had been completed on CBF’s list.

For three days I met people who fought through tears and struggled through a translator to tell me their stories. Our driver lost his wife and children in the tsunami. For reasons he couldn’t explain or understand, he survived. Everyone in Sigli lost family, and most lost their homes.

They took me out to several small villages outside of town where pumps had been installed to provide clean water not contaminated by the tsunami. Small children came to me and touched my arms and looked at each other and laughed. Scott told me I was only the second white person they had ever seen.

“They want to know if the color comes off,” he said.

We went to one village that had recently been built. There were long row houses built on stilts, about five feet off the ground. Painted bright yellow, they were the Indonesian equivalent of the FEMA trailers given to hurricane victims in the U.S. This particular village was a leper colony that been relocated from the coastline about a mile into the interior. I talked with a man who missing most of his left arm and right foot. He smiled and told me, through Scott’s interpretation, to “Thank America for me, for sending food, water and supplies.”

I nearly broke down in that moment. Despite all he had been through in the tsunami and its aftermath and suffering from a debilitating illness, he expressed gratitude. It was a profound lesson that I try to remember when I face challenges in my relatively luxurious circumstances.

The island of Sumatra is beautiful, defying description. It is unlike any place I had ever been. Volcanic mountains jut up suddenly in the middle of palm tree-lined fields of rice, and golden sand beaches receive the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The people were kind and gracious, and the food was among my favorite from limited international travel. Their coffee was strong and sweet, and I brought some home to share with Carla and enhance the telling of the details of my trip. There were plenty of noodle and rice dishes, some on the spicy side. I had sugar cane juice, fresh squeezed from a roadside stand with a wooden foot-operated mashing device. I ate plenty, avoided non-bottled water, and managed to go the whole trip without getting a stomach ailment.

When it was time for me to return, the journey home was long, not broken up with days in between as it had been on the front end. It started with the 2-and-a-half-hour drive back to Banda where I caught a flight to Medan. At the airport in Medan a man helped me with my bag, before I could refuse, so I tipped him nearly all my remaining Indonesia currency, the equivalent of about a quarter, U.S. He was clearly disappointed. From Medan I went back to Singapore with only about an hour before my flight to Bangkok. This time, I overnighted in the transiting hotel I had missed on my entry to Thailand and boarded an early morning flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. From Tokyo I re-entered the U.S. in Chicago where I went through customs and faced a several-hours delay on my flight back to Atlanta. Having a lengthy delay on the last leg of two days of travel is tough. I just wanted to be home.

I finally made it back to Atlanta in the early evening, and Carla, Barron and baby Harris greeted me at the top of the escalators in the North Terminal. Harris had visibly grown during my 10-day excursion, and Barron seemed shy and a little afraid of me. Maybe it was the two-week beard I was sporting, or maybe he had just missed me and didn’t know how to express it. We hugged and cried a little, and I tried to hit the high points of what the trip had been like. It was impossible to sum up.

I’ve not made any other trips in my life like the one to Southeast Asia, and I doubt I ever will again. The 18 intervening years has softened some of the sharper edges of my experience. My memories may not include what were key details at the time. I do remember my impressions, though, and what real beauty, hospitality and recovery look like.

It’s all downhill

These were two journeys I didn’t want to take.

I was less than thrilled to be “voluntold” by my wife back before Christmas that I was chaperoning our son’s first snow skiing adventure in January with the youth from church. This attitude was mirrored in my less-than-enthusiastic embrace of said son reaching the adolescent milestone of turning 13 last week.

Barron and Lance on top of Beech Mountain
Barron and I have a literal mountain-top experience before heading down the slopes at the end of his first ski trip.

Why not? What’s there to be afraid of? Plenty.

I have reached the age when the number one question I ask myself before undertaking physical activity is “What are my chances of getting injured?” I am also at the comfortable parenting place where my children are all still responsive to my direction and shower me with attention and affection. Having the oldest transition to the teen years and threaten my sense of control feels like an activity in which I could get injured.

The last time I had been on Beech Mountain near Boone, N.C., was 18 years ago. I had to be sledded down the slope in that body basket thing, trailing behind a member of ski patrol. I had fallen head first over my skis on a patch of ice up on the mountain and twisted my knee. Even though I didn’t do any major damage to my knee and a few days of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) was all that was required to recover, I had this in the back of my mind as I journeyed in a 15 passenger van the five hours to the High Country of North Carolina.

This step of parenting a teenager is unprecedented for me. I have no prior experience with it. I have certainly heard the horror stories. I myself was a teenager once. Failing at this parental skill doesn’t just twist body parts, it breaks hearts. It’s been hard to really look forward to this milestone.

Barron snow skiing on the bunny slope
Barron and Johnny ready to tackle something more challenging than the bunny slope.

But Carla was right. The first time our son put on a pair of skis to go hurdling down a mountainside, I needed to be there. Probably. The parenting challenge of skiing with my son was this: help him learn how to ski without holding him back or undermining his confidence. Oh, and that thing about not getting injured myself. To make matters more complicated, I stumbled onto this parenting article from Forbes magazine that several of my Facebook friends recently posted: “7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors that Keep Children from Growing into Leaders.” I spent the ski weekend constantly evaluating myself on these criteria while trying not getting maimed.

This is exactly why the teen years are so important. Rationally, I know that you have to give your kids opportunities to fail, even ones that feel dangerous, so that they can learn from their failures and gain confidence from their successes. Emotionally, it’s very difficult to allow your child to experience pain, disappointment and regret. It’s hard to let go.

Like everything he does, Barron tackled the challenge of learning to ski methodically. While his more experienced friends dashed off to the green and blue slopes, he and I spent the first full day on the bunny slope, taking lessons and practicing the basics. By the end of the first day, he had built up enough courage to tackle a little hill that ran from the resort down to the bunny slope.

Barron opens presents on his 13th birthday
Barron is thrilled to get “Captain Phillips” on Blu-ray. What he may not understand is that his becoming a teenager is a big deal for his younger brothers, too.

On the second day of our ski trip, his goal was to tackle the green slope. And he did great. Of course he fell, but he was able to get back on his feet and continue down the hill without my help. It wasn’t long before he was able to join his friends.

That’s what I’m talking about:  that abandonment. It’s that moment when they are confronted with the choice of hanging out with you, the parent, or their friends. That can be very frightening, particularly if you have questions about your teenager’s friends. I know that teenagers need some separation from their parents so they can differentiate themselves, become their own person and continue growing toward independence.

Anyone who has been skiing before knows that one of the trickiest maneuvers for beginners is dismounting the lift. This proved to be the biggest challenge for Barron as well, but I have to admit, I was proud of how he handled it. He and Johnny fell the first time, but then, they started dismounting cleanly. One of his biggest spills coming off the lift occurred, though, when he and I went up the lift together. A couple of tall and gangly guys, all knees, skis and poles, got tangled as we stood up and the chair dispassionately deposited us in a heap.

When parents get too involved in their teen’s lives, it trips up both the teen and the parents. The result is more than bumps and bruises and embarrassment. The child’s maturity is stunted, his self-reliance undermined and the specter of self-doubt looms in every of decision. The parent is emotionally crippled, his or her life becomes vicarious and borrowed from their child and he or she loses all sense of perspective.

I’ve been told that parenting a teenager is not for the faint of heart. Flipping on the Olympics and watching Bode Miller on a downhill run will show you that skiing is not for the faint of heart. But as this trip down the slope we call life picks up speed and our equilibrium is threatened, we can experience exhilaration and euphoria.

I had a great time on the ski trip. Barron loved skiing and can’t wait to go back. I really enjoyed our family’s celebration of Barron reaching this momentous milestone. Barron seems to be taking it all in stride.

On or off the slopes, Barron is the kind of offspring that makes you look like a good parent. He’s level headed, sets goals, works hard, has a keen wit, displays creativity and helps out around the house without being asked. He is everything anyone would want in a son. I don’t want that to change.

Maybe by putting this in a blog, I’ll remember it when doubts arise and fears dismay. There are some journeys in life that are unavoidable and incredibly rewarding.

People say unsolicited advice is worth what you pay for it. I’m now soliciting your parenting advice. What words of wisdom do you have or have you found that you could share on how to parent a teen in the New South? Leaving a comment is definitely not scary at all.

A trip to Georgia’s oldest city to feel new again

I’ve kicked around Georgia now for more than 21 years, almost half my life. In all that time, I had only been to Savannah twice.

The third time was definitely a charm last weekend as Carla and I were able to parlay a work event Friday night into an excuse to leave the boys with Carla’s parents and have a weekend away.

It was just what the doctor ordered for us in the early stages of a rat-race school year overly filled with scouts, band, work and other volunteer responsibilities that prevent such basic relationship necessities as uninterrupted conversations and rest.

You can't beat the Westin Savannah Harbor for a weekend getaway. It's across the river from downtown, but worth the extra distance.
You can’t beat the Westin Savannah Harbor for a weekend getaway. It’s across the river from downtown, but worth the extra driving distance.

We stayed at the Westin Savannah Harbor overlooking the Savannah River, and were treated to a great, 11th floor view of the channel and its bustling activity: freighters laden with containers, tugboats trailing or pulling the container ships, ferries running tourists back and forth to River Street and even the occasional personal watercraft piloted by those who don’t think the last weekend in September is too late in the year to be in the water.

We purposefully did not fill our schedule, although we had contemplated everything from a historic trolley tour to a ghost tour.  Instead, we just went with our impulses. Sleeping late, brunch, enjoying a breezy walk down River Street and ultimately up into the historic downtown. Inadvertently accomplishing a major Christmas shopping milestone and sampling the goods at Byrd’s Cookie Company was as ambitious as our day got.

We left plenty of time for napping poolside and a stack of Southern Livings and Garden & Guns.

The Olde Pink House is supposedly haunted and is one the Savannah Ghost Tour. The food is hauntingly good.
The Olde Pink House is supposedly haunted and is on the Savannah Ghost Tour. The food is hauntingly good.

As much as we enjoyed each other’s company, the highlight of the trip was dinner Saturday night at The Olde Pink House, a Savannah landmark and memorable culinary and cultural experience. Our good friends from Macon, Dusty and Tonya, have survived several vacation outings with us, including a cruise, and are the kind of good friends every couple should have.

They invite you to be yourself in a sincere way, laugh at your jokes, empathize with your child rearing challenges because of their own three kids, and know enough of the same people to gossip but have enough new in their lives to keep conversation interesting. And since they moved to Savannah two years ago, they have an intimate knowledge of the city they now call home.

Interestingly enough, though we spent the better part of six hours together, our conversation tended to break into gender-specific cliques. They talked home decorating while we talked football and Georgia Tech, Dusty’s alma mater and my employer.

Not one to have to be the life of the party, Dusty gave us an unexpected treat when The Olde Pink House’s roving improvisational singer came by the table. His premeditated, and perhaps rehearsed, harmonizing with the vocalist on Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” including the whistling part, gave our friendship yet another lifelong memory and the room full of diners something to giggle and whisper about. What can I say, that’s just Dusty.

The Savannah City Hall is a landmark that may be impossible to take a bad picture of. It's one of many beautiful historic landmarks in the city filled with parks and squares.
The Savannah City Hall is a landmark that may be impossible to take a bad picture of. It’s one of many beautiful historic buildings in a city filled with parks and squares.

Here’s what I learned from the weekend: you appreciate a time out from your regular routine more when it’s infrequent. You need time away from your children in order to appreciate them more. You should never fail to appreciate good friends because you never know when circumstances may separate you. And, finally, you can appreciate your spouse more if you have time to actually talk to him or her.

Anyone within a few hundred miles should plan a trip to the oldest city in Georgia – just don’t do it during Spring Break. That’s when we’re planning a return. This time we’ll bring the boys along and have a different kind of memorable weekend that will help the entire family bond.

What do you like or dislike about Savannah? Have you ever been? What are must-dos and must-eats in this historic city? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

Flip flops and running shoes

What you pack for vacation says a lot about you.

Vacation is that time of year when you are released from the bonds of work long enough for your true personality to emerge. Maybe it’s the only time all year you have real choices about how to spend your time. Maybe it’s when you discover there is such a thing as leisure time.

What you choose to take with you is a portrait of what makes you tick.

My wife always stocks up on reading material. She brings a stack of magazines that have piled up over the last few months, including New South essentials Southern Living and Garden & Gun. And she scrolls through the bestseller list to pull the most intriguing in “chick lit” and anything by Atlantan Emily Giffin.

The boys bring their bicycles and a giant tub of beach and pool toys. They usually load an entire suitcase with nothing but board and card games. Having recently taught the boys to play chess, I think I’m in for a lot of that classic game this year, with a few marathon sessions of Skip-Bo thrown in.

For me, it’s my flip flops and running shoes. I don’t wear flip flops nearly enough. I think my last pair lasted longer than our van’s tires. I’ve got a new pair for Father’s Day, and they need some breaking in.

OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.
OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.

As my wife frequently reminds me, I’m terrible at unwinding. At least for this week, I will try not to wear regular shoes or socks, unless it’s my running shoes, of course.

I have written about my passion for running in this space before, so I’ll spare you another ode to my running shoes. I will say that when I run on vacation, it’s a totally different experience. My mind isn’t processing what’s on tap for the day, major decisions or problems to be solved. My mind wanders in all kinds of directions.

I notice things during my vacation runs that I don’t seem to pick up very often: the different bird calls, sea breezes, turtles perched on a log in a lake. Knowing that when I finish my run I don’t have anything to do but sit by the pool, go to the beach and build sand castles or ride the waves with the boys or play board games is incredibly freeing.

Here’s one probably not-so-surprising confession: I bring a laptop, but it’s not for the reason you might guess. OK, yes, I do check work emails while I’m away. I limit it to once a day, but it’s just a necessity these days. My real use for the laptop is writing. You may remember that I both started and completed my still-being-edited-and-rewritten novel while at the beach.

I’m planning this trip to spend some time working on New South Essays, you’ll be happy to know, to prevent any more lapses in quality content or consistent publishing. I’ve got to flesh out all the ideas you have been so gracious to send me.

So watch Facebook or Twitter for the now-cliché photo of my feet from the beach. I’ll be wearing either flip flops or running shoes … maybe one of each.

What are your must-haves for vacation? Share your packing list in a comment below and join the spirit of vacation season. See you at the beach!

Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.


Apple released the iPhone 5 on Sept. 21, and unleashed mayhem on America’s roadways in the process.

Warning: If the car in front of you suddenly stops in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, do not blame the driver. They are simply doing what Siri has told them to do. They have, according to Siri, arrived at their destination.

I know this from firsthand experience.

Screen shot of new Apple maps
Which one is better, new Apple maps or old Google maps? The new one talks to you. That’s not necessarily a plus.

You see, I recently uploaded the new operating system to my now antiquated iPhone 4S. Last Friday I was meeting a colleague for breakfast at an establishment that was previously unfamiliar to me. As an iPhone neophyte, I decided to give Siri a try. After I input the CORRECT address, Siri guided me to the Atlanta waterworks, where there was no sign of eggs, bacon, biscuits or grits. In fact, Siri emphatically told me I had arrived right in the middle of the road.

What happened? Well, a few days later I learned that corporate competition has caused Apple to abandon Google maps in favor of its own maps application. This is not a helpful development for the directionally challenged.

You see, Google maps has been around a while, and the database upon which its maps program is based has had more time to be updated and carefully tended to avoid causing you to, as Michael Scott once famously said in an episode of “The Office,” “Drive your car into a lake.”

It’s a simple proof of the time-tested principle of databases: “Garbage in, garbage out.” Over time, Apple maps will improve because the data will be updated and corrected, but in the meantime, beware.

All of this points to a more disturbing trend in the New South: Smart phones make dumb people.

Way back when I had both a Palm Pilot and a separate cell phone (yes, the Dark Ages, I know), I used to refer to my Palm as my “hand-held brain supplement.” At some point in the development of these devices, they went from being a brain “supplement” to a brain “replacement.”

We think these devices will enhance our functionality. They help us look up the answers to important questions we need immediate answers to, like what actor played what role with Kevin Bacon in a movie in 1986. But, if we are walking down the street while looking up the answer to this brain teaser, we are likely to step in front of a bus or fall down an open manhole.

Car in the Pacific Ocean
“Siri, can you give me directions to the Pacific Ocean?”

I am one month into a new job on the campus of Georgia Tech, and I have already nearly killed 14 pedestrians. Not because I’m not paying attention, mind you. It’s smart phones. Students, with their heads buried in their devices, will literally walk into your car, like a rodent on a neighborhood street that dives under your car’s tires.

In the South, we were once caricatured for our imprecise directions: “Go down to the Wal-Marts and turn left, then go ‘til you see the stand of pines. Veer right through the holler and when you come out the other side, you’ll make a left-hand turn past the third hill. When you reach the Ford on blocks in the front yard, it’s just four and a half mailboxes down.”

Still, we knew how to get around. And if we didn’t, we asked people.  In my last job, I did a fair amount of traveling to all the places where there are a lot of Baptists, primarily the South. At first, I would print out turn-by-turn directions from Mapquest. By the end, I would let my smartphone tell me where to go.

I developed this little game where I wouldn’t use the smart phone directions unless I got lost. Guess what? It never happened. By navigating through such visual clues as SIGNS, and a well-honed sense of likely church locations, I managed to find my way every time.

So don’t let the Apple maps debacle get you down. Look up. Look around you. See the sights. Get lost. Talk to people. Ask for directions. And, please, by all means, do not trust Siri.

Has your smart phone made you stupid? What’s your worst experience with bad directions from a smart phone? Leave a comment below and share your story. We won’t laugh… much.

What’s up with SUP?

Kneeling on the stand-up paddle boarding
Just like babies have to crawl before they can walk, you have to kneel before you can stand on a SUP.

For the last several years during my beach vacation I’ve been seeing people standing on surf boards with big paddles.

Curious but too timid to tackle this sport on my own, I finally got a taste of stand-up paddle boarding (or SUP as it’s commonly known) this week during a work retreat at Chickamauga Lake in Chattanooga, Tenn.

As I suspected, balance plays a part in your enjoyment of this sport.

I was able to get upright my first time, and managed to stay up for about 90 seconds before wiping out and losing my sunglasses – a small price to pay for a new experience and laughter by onlookers.

Standing unsteadily on a stand-up paddle board
I’ve often been accused of being unbalanced. Here’s photographic evidence.

At 6-foot-four, I was also somewhat of sail, being “blown about by the wind and tossed,” to quote Scripture. My colleagues took to it a little bit easier, but I won’t let my physique be an excuse.

After a couple of days of SUP, I did a little research and found out stand-up paddle boarding is taking the New South by storm.

Like all forms of surfing, the sport has its origins as a form of transportation among the islands of the Pacific. It made a resurgence in Hawaii in the 1960s before surfers exported it to California where it experienced something of a renaissance in the mid-1990s.

Now it’s migrating to the East Coast where you can see stand-up paddle boarders in rivers, lakes and the ocean from Florida to Maine. The Yolo board company calls Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., just outside of Destin, its home. That just so happens to be where my family vacations. No wonder we’ve been seeing stand-up paddle boarders!

Proficient at stand-up paddle boarding
After only one day, I’m a pro.

My colleague and talented photo blogger Patricia Heys tried paddle boarding during a recent vacation to Venice Beach, Calif. Patricia has a symbiotic relationship with the sun and enjoys water sports, so naturally she took to the sport with addictive fervor. When she returned to Atlanta, she found a used paddle board online and equipped her family’s lake house with the newfangled watercraft.

“I just like to be on the water,” she said. “It’s calming… and it’s a good workout, particularly for your core.”

And the more you fall, the more cardio is involved. It seems every time I took a plunge, I fell backwards, sending the board shooting off 20 or 30 yards away. The paddle doesn’t float, so swimming one-armed to the board was enough to burn a few hundred calories in about 15 minutes.

Sweet victory
The thrill of victory…

And everything I observed and read is that women are better at it than men.

I need more practice to master this sport, but never having surfed, I think this is a realistic alternative for me. And it doesn’t require waves or even saltwater. Perfect for the backyard pond or lake, I can see stand-up paddle boarding taking hold in the New South in a big way.

There are only a few more weeks of summer, so if you’re going to try it, better hurry.

Paddle on, friends.

Have you tried stand-up paddle boarding? What was your experience? Leave a comment below and share your story.

When all the world was young

This June marked the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Troy University, and after spending this week with 140 college students at a conference in Alabama, I can’t help but reflect on how students are different in the New South.

Discussions in small groups at the SELAHvie conference in Alabama.
That’s me, the old guy on the left, leading a small group discussion at the SELAHvie conference for college students at Shocco Springs Conference Center in Alabama this week. Photo by Meggie Dant.

As a small group leader who did double duty as an interviewer and reporter covering the event, I spent the four-day conference studying these young adults, hearing their stories and processing my own journey along with them. Here are five characteristics of today’s students I observed from the week:

First, New South collegians are well travelled. I never left the confines of the United States until I was 29. Today’s college students most likely have several stamps in their passports before they reach graduation. They have shrunk the world as they experience new cultures and visit what would have been considered exotic and remote locales back in my day.

They are not only experienced travelers, they have a global worldview. They see how we are connected and how the actions of one country impact others. They understand intuitively that we are connected and cannot live in isolation. They have relationships with people in other countries and can personalize another cultural perspective.

Second, students today don’t expect much from the economy. Yes, they have career aspirations and a strong sense of calling, but because they have been matriculating during a global economic downturn, they don’t take good jobs for granted.

They also don’t base their identity on their careers. Of course, many of them are still sorting all that out, but in general, they don’t think of themselves as accountants, engineers, ministers, lawyers or physicians. They think of themselves as individuals first and people who have or need jobs second. They don’t define themselves by or invest too much ego in their future careers.

Third, their closets are much less crowded with shoes. In fact, a single pair of flip flops can accessorize any outfit in their wardrobes. There is no occasion that is not appropriate for flip flops. I understand that this conference was in August, but I think they would acknowledge that their flip flop habit extends well beyond summer.

When I was in college, the only flip flops I owned I wore in the community showers in the dorm. Now, students in the New South wear them everywhere.

Students at the SELAHvie conference
Students built community while at the SELAHvie conference. Photo by Meggie Dant.

Fourth, today’s students appreciate the small gesture. Twenty years ago when we talked of changing the world, we seemed invested in the idea of the big change – world peace, ending hunger, curing cancer. This generation of collegians keeps those larger goals in perspective and understands that big change happens incrementally.

They celebrate small victories and understand that something as minute and basic as a smile is a step toward world peace. This week they shared stories from their summers of how those little moments became powerful examples of larger changes in their lives and in the world around them.

Finally, I observed that today’s college students seek out and build community wherever they go. I don’t even think community was a word 20 years ago. Or at least it wasn’t applied conceptually the way it is today among young people. This sense of community goes beyond fraternities and sororities, athletic teams, music and theater performers, dorm neighbors, social cliques, religious groups or other formal configurations of relationships.

Community is a shared core value. They want to be able to share their lives with each other beyond one-on-one dating relationships, and they embrace shared experiences over rugged individualism. They appear to be less selfish, more giving and more open to living in a way that includes a larger network than we ever imagined 20 years ago.

Why these sociological trends are so is a topic for another day, and I understand that I’m being overly general in this analysis. But as colleges welcome back students all across the South, they are welcoming back a different kind of student than the one who stepped foot on campus 20 years ago.

But what do I know? I’m old school.

New South Essays leaves open the possibility that these observations could be completely wrong! Feel free to share your thoughts by commenting below.

Asocial behavior

Sheets of rain lashed the balcony of our condo, soaking our nearly dry swimsuits and towels. Day six of our week-long family vacation was being washed out, not by a stray afternoon Florida thunderstorm, but by a day-long, soaking tropical rain.

Harris buried in the sand
Harris takes cocooning to a new level.

With the exception of a couple of forays to local restaurants, we had thus far been able to avoid human contact. We alternated hours at the beach and pool with cocooning in our condo unit to play Life, Skip-Bo and Monopoly. There were sibling squabbles and peach ice cream breakfasts. Carla had her escapist beach reads, and I had my sweltering morning runs along scenic highway 30A.

It was the vacation we all wanted and needed, largely devoid of interacting with other people. But the rain changed all that.

As the sniping and whining reached a fever pitch, we turned to an outing to Destin Commons in desperation to save our sanity.

An annual trip to the outdoor-configured mall, home to a Rave movie theater, Bass Pro Shops and the giant money vacuum known as Build-a-Bear Workshop, had been part of our vacation tradition. In past years we had seen such cinematic classics as “Despicable Me” and “Space Chimps” there, and had finally convinced our boys that a matinee of “Brave” would not turn them into princesses.

The problem with the seemingly fail-safe plan? People.

As it turns out, what I have come to value most about my vacation is time away from people. Now before you get all judgmental and mistakenly call me “antisocial” (as my friend Brian likes to say, the word you are looking for is “asocial” unless you want to kill people), you know what I’m talking about.

You see, I’m extraverted. People are my power source. The more time I spend with people, the more energy I have. Like a science fiction contraption, I absorb the interactions of others until I become an unstoppable talking and engaging machine, engulfing everyone in my path with wit, charm, clever sayings and humorous anecdotes.

But every machine has an off switch. Batteries need recharging. Vacation is the time when I put my figurative Wii remotes in the charger and turn off the console. I avoid people for a week and spend time with just those people I list on my tax return.

The realization of this truth hit me as I stood in the twisting queue at the Rave cinema, tangled in a mass of humanity. Like an apocalyptic daycare with children crying over dropped ice cream cones and wet pull-ups as their parents tried to salve their every whim with handfuls of cash, the scene sent me reeling.

Why had I come out of my cave? Why had I voluntarily left the confines of the condo and the serenity of my beach chair for this?

When I reached the kiosk and learned from the swearing parent in front of me that “Brave” was sold out, I texted Carla. She informed me that she was spending quality time with our boys at Build-a-Bear Workshop.

As if the movie line wasn’t enough, I casually flip-flopped over to the Build-a-Bear, still shaking the effects of the people out of my head like so much accumulated pool water in my ears. What I encountered when I strode into that, that place, was so overwhelming that I thought I seriously might faint.

rainbow sherbet
Ice cream at Miss Lucille’s… A vacation tradition.

Dragging myself to the entrance under the auspices of checking e-mail on my smartphone, I gulped in the moist air and began formulating our escape plan. I was relieved when Carla agreed that she’d had enough of the scene, too, and we could return to the condo.

The rain abated, and the traffic east out of Destin was flowing. In no time I was in my soggy swimming trunks, mindlessly splashing around in the pool with the boys, laughing at squishy noises and playing made up games of tapping out the “Andy Griffith Show” theme on the bottom of the pool.

Vacation means a lot of different things at different times. For me, at this stage of my life, vacation means avoiding people. After a week or so, I can re-enter society and continue my socially carnivorous behavior.

Here’s hoping you got the vacation you needed this summer. I know I did.

What’s vacation mean to you? Do you like to totally veg out or do you like to see new things and have new experiences? Do you need a break from people or do you like to hang out with friends? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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.