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.

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.

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.

In search of the moment

As temperatures rose into the upper 80s, I packed the minivan for a three-night campout at Black Rock Mountain State Park just north of Clayton. With sweat running down my forehead and my patience waning, Carlton and Harris sat in their seats too eager to get underway to heed my repeated instructions to stay out of the van.

We all received anxious hugs and kisses from Carla, and soon we were headed north, the strains of a “Harry Potter” movie on the DVD player.

Carlton and Harris roasting marshmallows.
Roasted marshmallows for breakfast.

Last year on Memorial Day weekend I discovered two truths: don’t ever try tent camping in South Georgia in late May and, more importantly, there is no activity that helps you spend uninterrupted time with your children like camping.

My deal with Carlton, 3, since last year was that he could go camping as soon as he learned to go in the potty. He finally crossed that hurdle a few months ago, so his time had arrived.

He was so excited to be going on his first camping trip that he asked me every day for a week “Is dis da day we go camping?”

Dis was da day.

The boys fishing at Black Rock Lake
Drowning worms

In two hours we were winding our way up Black Rock Mountain, carefully maneuvering the switchbacks. I was thankful I wasn’t towing a camper. The campground was nearly full, but we found a perfect spot with a shaded picnic table a short distance from the “comfort station.”

The echoes of children’s laughter, the crackling of wood in fire pits and the whirring of bike tires gave evidence that family camping is alive and well in the New South. As we set up camp and started the charcoal for supper, I could feel the tension ease in my neck and shoulders. Even with Carlton getting into everything and asking a zillion questions (“What does dis ting do?”) I began to notice small subtle details about my children that I haven’t been able to see in the rush of our everyday, hectic existence.

I hadn’t really thought about what I was after by planning this trip. I enjoy camping, even though I need an air mattress these days, and the boys enjoy it, too. Camping always brings back memories of the camping vacations I took with my family at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City, Fla.

Barron checks out a scenic overlook with binoculars
Scanning the horizon

Conversation came easily as we ate our meals of hot dogs, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, pancakes, bacon, eggs, sandwiches – the menu wasn’t nearly as important as the time at the table. Yes, there was the usual inane rehashing of TV show or movie plots that drives me insane, but there was also deeper reflection.

Harris, in particular, has a habit of saying “I love you, Daddy” when he’s in a good mood. The “I love you, Daddys” were flowing as well as the victory dances when he won six games of Skip-Bo in a row.

We fished, we played at the playground, we took pictures at the scenic overlooks. We even toured the Foxfire Appalachian heritage museum. The trip had just enough structure and activity to keep us from getting bored, but most of the time we built fires, played cards, laughed and talked.

Carlton asleep
Camping takes it out of you.

Carlton did fine with camping. He fell asleep the last night a little after six, roused only long enough to eat a S’more (which he called “snores”) before succumbing to sleep again. He was joined in his early bedtime by Harris who couldn’t even wake up enough to join us for a S’more.

So Barron and I passed the dusk into early nighttime with Uno, the old standby of camp entertainment. When the bugs descended, we moved into his small, two person tent and played by flashlight. We talked and laughed. It was unforced and natural, a bonding that I try too hard to make happen at times and then miss altogether at other times.

Yes, my boys are growing up, Barron will enter middle school next year. Harris will be in second grade, and Carlton is rapidly leaving the toddler stage. I can’t always treasure the moments like I should. But when you get out in the woods, you notice everything. And if my boys are anything like me, they’ll remember a lot of it, too.

The four Wallace men
Happy campers

I had my moments with each of the boys, moments when I saw something behind their eyes, something more than just their outward appearance. I recognized myself and Carla in them. I saw glimpses of their spirit, flashes of their souls. A few times, I even thought I saw their future selves.

It’s amazing what we see when we slow down and set aside all distractions.

Camping isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. What’s a few bugs in your tent if you are building stronger relationships with your children?

Do you like camping? What do you remember about the campouts of your youth? What do you like to do on camping trips? Where is your favorite destination? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

No more pencils, no more books

School’s out for the summer. Now what?

One thing is for sure: sitting around doing nothing is not an option.

Carlton at the park
Summer is play time.

It seems that in the New South, everyone has somewhere to go … all the time. Our schedules don’t allow for plain ol’ downtime. You remember that, right? Get-up-at-11-stay-in-your-pajamas-watch-TV-barely-move-off-the-sofa-all-day-kind-of-lazy?

Those days are gone. The way we “relax” these days is to go and do.

Our schedule this summer includes weekend getaways, swimming lessons, camps, Vacation Bible School, business travel with the family and, of course, our annual beach vacation. The dreaded “I’m bored” should not cross the lips of my children all summer. They will be busier than I ever was during my elementary school years. But maybe that’s the problem.

There’s simply too much to do these days. We have too many options.

In the push for giving our children new experiences, keeping them occupied and expanding their horizons, we fill every possible minute of their lives leaving them no time for creative play, true discovery or even just relaxation.

During the school year we go from school to homework to scouts to music lessons to church to bed. When our first two children were preschoolers, we swore we would not be that family. Now, with three kids, two of them in school, we have come to expect this kind of schedule.

But what’s more insidious is the way our summers have become just as over-programmed and jam-packed. We don’t know how to slow down or let our kids have any time to recover. We forget that less is more.

Don’t get me started on television. Television is the enemy. I get that.  I don’t want my children spending their summer in front of Sponge Bob re-runs or Phineas and Ferb any more than the next parent.  I also don’t want to be filling their time so that they miss out on the experience of having to come up with something to do. Some of the best play my brothers and I had growing up occurred when we had an unscheduled afternoon or even day, and we had to decide how to fill it.

To that end, I was glad to hear Carla tell the children yesterday that there will be no screen time during the day this summer.  She even instituted a policy for herself. She got up early, finished her computer time before the kids came down, and didn’t look at a screen again all day. After a morning of playtime and five hours at the pool, she felt justified in letting the kids veg in front of Disney channel while she cooked dinner. At the end of the day, she called it a success.

Nothing on your to-do-list
This is an acceptable summer day agenda.

Forgive me for lecturing, but if you have children and have already mapped out an activity for every day this summer, go back and revise your plan just slightly to work in a few pajama days. And for those vacations to the beach, don’t fill every hour with extreme sports and touristy excursions.

Let your children experience something that may be one of the most important life skills you can offer them: give them some space and let them figure out how to fill the time.

And if that degenerates into Wrestlemania XXIX, time out in their rooms accomplishes the same thing.

Happy summer and y’all be safe.

How are you spending your summer? How did you spend your summer breaks from school as a child? Leave a comment below and share your plans or your strategies to balance engagement and relaxation.

Happy trails (mostly)

Harris at the beginning of the hike next to the sign.
Spirits were high at the start. Harris had no idea what 4.8 miles felt like.

This week Harris and I embarked on a 4.8 mile journey that has come to represent more than just a hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest.

This rite of passage for my boys began five years ago when Barron was six. We made a similar journey from Amicalola Falls State Park to the Len Foote Hike Inn, and it was Harris’ turn. A middle son not heard often enough and in need of his daddy’s undivided, unplugged attention, Harris had been anticipating the trip since Christmas when I first brought it up with him.

After a quick picnic lunch, we descended 425 steps from the top of the falls to get a better view of one of Georgia’s most impressive sites. That’s when the math lessons started as Harris began calculating how many steps we would take going down and back up.

Half way back up the falls, my mobile phone rang. It was my dad.

“Lance, they’ve taken Lee to the hospital in Winter Haven. He’s having chest pains and numbness in his left arm. You need to pray for your brother.”

Lance and Harris at the base of Amicalola Falls
After 425 steps down, we had to pose with Amicalola Falls as our backdrop.

About to embark on an important journey with my middle son, I went numb as I said a prayer for my middle brother. Overwhelmed with confusion and worry, I couldn’t help but enumerate the connections between Lee and Harris: middle sons, lefthanders, witty and clever humorists.

Already winded from the steps and questioning my fitness, we quickly found sturdy walking sticks among the fallen limbs and headed into the woods, pausing long enough to snap a few photos.

As we started, I pointed out the bright green rectangles of paint on the tree trunks, marking our trail. I covered the basic rule of hiking: “Don’t step on anything you can step around or over.” The last thing I needed to do was carry a backpack and a 50-pound boy up and down a rocky and root-covered trail.

It wasn’t long before Harris needed a break.

“Daddy, how long is it to the Hike Inn?” he asked, taking a long sip from our water bottle.

Harris at a scenic overlook
Harris takes one of his frequent breaks at one of the scenic overlooks from the trail.

I looked at my watch. The hiking equivalent of the car trip refrain “Are we there yet?” came three minutes in. It felt like déjà vu. I couldn’t help but remember taking the trip with Barron and how impatient I had been with Barron’s slowness and fatigue and griping and all the things 6-year-olds find to complain about on their first hike. But this time, it was different.

“Oh, we’ve got about three-and-a-half hours,” I answered calmly.

There are some benefits to being the second born. Harris was the beneficiary of my patience and deep understanding that this journey would be over all too soon. Instead of rushing it, I was savoring it.

Conditions were perfect, and while the sun warmed, the breezes cooled. Up and down the trail we went, discussing such truths as “all that glitters is not gold” as we came across pyrite. Harris wisely added only a small piece of Fool’s Gold to his rock collection.

We listened for bird calls and strained to see any signs of wildlife. We discussed Harry Potter, and Harris enlightened me on arcane theories of super hero superiority. We made little progress the first hour, stopping five or six times for brief breaks, but we picked up our pace when Harris felt a different call of nature but was unwilling to answer that call in nature.

The first half of our journey ended all too quickly. We arrived at the Hike Inn without incident, seeing a bee-infested tree, a black salamander and a sprinkling of white-blossomed wild dogwoods in among the budding and the hardwoods with their newly emerged bright green leaves.

Harris headed straight to the restrooms to see the amazing non-flushing, waterless, composting toilets Barron had described.

Standing beside a sign that said “No cell phones, please,” I checked mine. The battery was nearly dead, and service barely registered a faint signal. It was enough to see that Lee was being kept overnight in the hospital, a battery of tests scheduled for the next day. I looked out over the rolling green hills and low fog and offered another silent prayer for my brother.

Harris plays Stratego for the first time
Harris plays Stratego for the first time in the Sunrise Room.

The inn was exactly as I had remembered it, inviting and comfortable without being fancy. We stowed the gear in our bunkroom, toured the facility and gravitated to the Sunrise Room where a number of games and puzzles beckoned. Harris settled on one he had never played – Stratego.

He picked it up quickly, and soon he was giving me a run for my money. I explained how I had grown up playing thousands of games of Stratego with Uncle Lee, becoming an expert in the process. I couldn’t help but make yet another connection between my middle son and my middle brother.

Harris became obsessed with the game. We played three times before supper. He enlisted the help of several of the other kids who were staying at the Hike Inn with their families during their spring break. Anna and Will, a sister-and-brother combo from Cincinnati, Ohio, served as his war advisers, but my supremacy over a 6-year-old held.

The dinner bell rang, and we were summoned to a family-style meal. The rule at the conservation-minded Hike Inn is you must eat what you put on your plate. The goal at every meal is to generate less than 4 ounces of table waste, a policy Barron had briefed Harris on before the trip. We ate family style getting to know the folks at our table, replenishing our energy stores after the hike.

Lance and Harris at the dinner table
Two hungry hikers ready to clean our plates.

As we passed the green beans and pork roast, I could almost hear Lee ask, “Anybody want any more rolls?” This innocent-sounding question has been our family’s “last call” for the food in question since Lee learned to talk.

Soon, we were back in the Sunrise Room where Harris chose to skip the evening’s program on hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Southern terminus of the “AT” was just a few miles from the Hike Inn at Springer Mountain, and the Hike Inn’s manager had completed a thru-hike in 2008.

I explained that a thru-hike was a nonstop hike from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, and that it usually took six months. Harris couldn’t wrap his mind around a six month hike.

After a few more games of Stratego, we showered and settled into our bunks. We read a book and with my battery waning and no electrical outlets in the bunk rooms, I checked my phone one more time. A Facebook message from Mom confirmed that Lee was stable. Harris and I prayed for Uncle Lee one more time and drifted off to sleep.

Awakened by the soft beat of a drum, we were dressed and ready for the day by 7:30. Well-rested and sipping my coffee, I gave in to Harris’ plea for another game of Stratego before breakfast. We ate another hearty meal, and we were soon packing to leave.

Harris bought a Hike Inn T-shirt, adorned with a trail map on the back, at check-out, and by 9:30 we and our new friends from Cincinnati were headed back to Amicalola Falls. As Kevin and Shelly and I conversed easily about all the things parents talk about, our kids bonded along the trail, buoyed by each other’s presence. Then, when we least expected it, Harris fell.

Harris receives first aid on the trail
Will looks on as Shelly provides first aid. Harris made a full recovery.

Tripped by a root that looped out of the ground, his left foot caught and his right knee came down hard on another root. His left elbow and right hand were a little scraped up, but from the wailing, nearby hikers may have thought someone had a fatal injury.

Shelly tended to his superficial wounds with a mother’s tenderness, distracting him from his injuries by asking him to read the instructions on an ice pack from her first aid kit. I was grateful she was there. Again I was reminded of my trip with Barron. He, too, had fallen on the way out, scraping up his knee and tearing a hole in his pants.

Sometimes, our children fail to heed our warnings and the examples of their siblings. Some falls just have to be repeated.

Anna took my pack as I carried Harris on my back for a couple hundred yards, crossing a creek and seeing a water snake. The encounter helped distract Harris from his injury, and soon he was moving under his own power again, and I was able to relieve Anna of my pack.

Still seeking that moment of profound parent-child interaction, I trudged on, trying to relish the experience while being concerned for my brother. About that time, Harris came back from his new friends and joined me at the rear of our little traveling party.

“Daddy, I just want to walk with you for a little bit, OK?”

“Sure, Harris. I’m glad you want to walk with me.”

“Thanks for taking me to the Hike Inn. It was the best, especially that game – what’s it called? Stras-ty-go? Can I get that game for my birthday?”

Harris and Will at the trail head
Success! Harris and his new friend, Will, commemorate their hike with a photo.

Almost 24 hours to the minute from when we had set off, we emerged from the woods into the upper parking lot at the falls. We said goodbye to our new friends, snapped a few, last photos and headed for home.

When my cell signal returned, I paused at an intersection and checked Facebook. Lee was posting, his sense of humor returned. He complained about hospital food and having EKG sensors pull his abundant red chest hair out. Mr. Lee, “the Wolf,” was going to be OK.

The stress of being on a local church staff had evidently caused the episode, and there was no evidence of a heart attack or any damage to his heart.

Relieved, I said a prayer of thanksgiving and told Harris that his Uncle Lee would be OK.

We spent the hour-and-a-half drive home sharing our “favorites” from the trip. Harris decided he wanted to go back to the Hike Inn with the rest of the family.

Whether we can convince Carla to make the trip remains to be seen, but I’d gladly go back into the woods with Harris any time.

Next time, though, Lee better stay out of the hospital. Middle kids always have to do something extraordinary to get some attention.

Time passes one brick at a time

Yesterday we took the boys to the new Legoland Florida theme park. The boys had an amazing day, judging by their smiles, laughter and my over-exuberant uploading of photos to Facebook.

Carla and I couldn’t help but reflect on our two previous visits to that property, each in a very different set of circumstances.

Barron and his cousin, Kalee
Barron and Kalee at Cypress Gardens in 2005

Before it was Legoland, the 150-acre site was Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s first theme parks, built around the natural beauty of Lake Eloise, meticulous and exotic gardening and incredible feats of skill on water skis.

I moved to central Florida at the age of 12, and had been to the park numerous times before Carla and I visited in 1996 while we were still dating. Carla was down to meet my family for the first time and see what many tourists spend thousands of dollars during vacations to experience.

During that trip we visited the Magic Kingdom, which stood in stark contrast to the aging and low-key Cypress Gardens. Leisurely strolling through the gardens hand-in-hand was a welcomed change of pace from the crowds at Disney, but other than dozens of photos of each other in front of various plants, waterfalls and other natural phenomena, there wasn’t much that was memorable from the trip.

The next time we visited, it was about 10 years later. Carla and I were married, and Barron was 4 and Harris was just a baby.  Cypress Gardens had been sold, refurbished, upgraded with new rides and reopened as “Cypress Gardens Adventure Park.” My brother and his family went with us, so Barron had his cousin, Kalee, to go on the kiddie rides with.

There are few pictures of the natural beauty, and almost none of Carla or me. We have dozens of images of Barron and Kalee, looking cherubic in their poses, but I don’t think we spent much time in the gardens.

Our boys at Legoland
Our three boys at Legoland

This time, Cypress Gardens had undergone the biggest transformation of all. Engulfed by the new Legoland identity, the gardens are still there but they are relegated to a corner of the park. We didn’t even go into the gardens during this visit. We were too busy admiring plastic brick creations, shuffling our boys between rides and taking in Lego-themed shows.

Carla and I took turns pushing the stroller, which alternated carrying Carlton and our backpack. As my Facebook friends can attest, we have more than a hundred photos, only one of which has Carla and me together. I don’t think we held hands once the whole day.

Life just isn’t about us anymore. With three kids, we spend our time, money and energy being parents and making memories for our family. It doesn’t even occur to us to think about what we want to see, ride or do during a day at a theme park.

The Wallaces at Legoland
The Wallaces at Legoland on Island in the Sky, Carlton's favorite ride.

In a way, Cypress Gardens and now Legoland is a door frame for us to put pencil marks on, measuring our relationship’s growth.

Who knows when we’ll be back or what life-changing circumstance will have occurred before our next visit. I do know that if the boys have their way, it will be soon.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens/Legoland? What was your experience like? Is there another place that helps you measure your life and growth? Share it with us! Leave a comment a below.