My semi-annual appraisal

There are two times a year I evaluate the direction of my life: New Year’s and my birthday.

New Year’s resolutions are somewhat cliché, but the start of a new calendar year is a natural time to take stock of your life, look at your goals and determine course corrections. My birthday falls nearly eight months later on July 30. That’s plenty of time to see how things are working.

This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I'm another year older and it's time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe at third thing: They think I'm great.
This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I’m another year older and it’s time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe a third thing: They think I’m great.

This week, as I turn 43 and look at my life, there are four words that stand out: writing, running, family and rest. Let’s take them in order:

Writing

Friends and regular readers of New South Essays know this has been a year of transition for me. Taking a new job and moving things around in my schedule to accommodate a new commute has caused me to tinker with things a little. It cost me a few weeks of inconsistent posting back in the spring before I finally determined that I needed to dedicate two mornings a week to New South Essays.

It was impossible to do anything of quality by getting up on Saturday morning, opening up a vein and bleeding into WordPress. I now take Wednesday mornings to work up the first draft of the week’s post, allowing time for my editor, Carla, to take a whack at it. I have three days to get my photo or art arranged and Saturday morning to edit, rewrite, post and share.

This seems to be working well. I am maintaining my creative outlet and fulfilling my compulsion to write while traffic to New South Essays has never been higher. Thanks for your response and your continued reading.

What I’d like to figure out now is how to get back to the re-write on my novel, which has been lying dormant for more than a year now. That goal may just have to wait.

Running

I had the delusional goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon when I turned 40 three years ago. Somehow I thought I could get 10 years older AND 13 minutes faster. It didn’t happen. I finished the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachicola, Fla., in October 2010 in 4:04, well off the qualifying pace.

After evaluating what went wrong, I decided I needed to train harder. I registered for the Nashville Marathon in April of 2011 and began a more rigorous training regimen. The result? A bad case of plantar fasciitis which caused me to miss the race. I now have a $100 T-shirt to show for it.

I’m back to running three days a week, working out with weights two and resting two. I’m no closer to Boston, but I’m also not injured. Sometimes, you just have to set your goals a little lower. I may make another attempt at a marathon in the future, but I’m letting go of that dream for now.

Family

Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that being in my family’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m with them. I was naïve to think my children didn’t notice when my mind was elsewhere. I used to believe that as long as I was physically involved in our family activity my frame of mind didn’t matter.

I was wrong. In order for me to be the husband and father my family needs me to be, I have to lay aside the unfinished work of the day, build time into my schedule for just hanging out and engage in each outing with gusto. Only then can I strengthen the bonds with my wife and children and create lasting memories.

And that’s just the people who live in my house. I still have a need to stay connected with my parents in Florida and my brothers in Alabama and Texas. These are challenges I never dreamed would be so difficult when we all lived under the same roof.

My goal is depth. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to connect with members of my family in deep and meaningful ways. Life is too short for pleasantries or issue avoidance.

Rest

Simply put, I need more sleep. This is the steady refrain I hear from Carla on a weekly basis. I aim for 7 hours a night, but generally get somewhere around six or less, even on the weekends. I used to brag about this schedule, laughing it off when people said I was crazy.

I’m beginning to think people are right.

If I nod off in an afternoon meeting at work, it undermines my effectiveness. If I get behind the wheel of my car on my afternoon commute feeling drowsy, I could end up on the sky copter traffic report. Caffeine can only take me so far. I need to find a way to get more sleep.

But the early morning is when I do the things I enjoy: running, writing, praying. I am fed by these activities. This is one of my constant and biggest challenges. Plus, guess when I do all the work for my volunteer commitments? That’s right, before sunrise.

Going forward I’m altering my schedule. We’ll see how I do putting a priority on sleep.

Despite these challenges, I conclude this summer evaluation with a sense of optimism. My life isn’t quite up to par in all areas, but it is good. The love and affection showered on me on my birthday was heart-warming. It reminded me that I am richly blessed with all the good gifts of life that matter.

I can’t help but try to make things just a little better. We’ll see how I’m doing come New Year’s.

When do you evaluate your life? Do you follow a structure or do you think about life when prompted by your circumstances? Maybe you take stock once a week or once a month. What are the words that come to mind when you evaluate your current state? Share how, when and what your measure yourself by in a comment below. In fact, make it a goal to make more comments on New South Essays!

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!

A new page

Did you miss me?

For the first time since I started New South Essays in March 2011 I have hit a wall. Failing to post an essay three out of the last four weeks, I’ve succumbed to inertia, and it threatens my blogging endeavor.

Blogging with brooding intensity at sunrise
Blogging with brooding intensity at sunrise

In addition to my absence from the blogosphere, I also have to admit that the quality of recent posts is suffering. The greater percentage of posts have been “misses” rather than “hits.” Like all bloggers, I track my statistics compulsively, and unsurprisingly, my readership has waned at about the same time as the quality of my content began to decline. Changing my posting day after 18 months from Friday to Saturday probably didn’t help either.

A little more than two years into New South Essays, I am failing to fulfill the two basic requirements of blogging: quality content and consistent posting. The culprit? Time and energy.

The time I previously spent writing on Saturday mornings is now split between weekly planning for the Cub Scout den I lead and getting in a long run as I vainly attempt to defy aging and fool myself into thinking I can still someday qualify for the Boston Marathon. Something has to give, and lately it’s been the blog.

My energy level is still high, but it is focused in another direction. I started a new job at Georgia Tech back in the fall, and this new challenge has turned my creative energies toward learning a large and complex organization, managing a different staff and strategizing about a unique set of audiences and messages. It has been a fascinating and invigorating journey of discovery.

But when it comes to my blog, I am bereft of what I need in order to produce good content. I am a creature of habit, craving routine to channel my creativity. When my routine breaks down or shifts, it takes me a little time to come up with a new approach to compensate.

I hope you’ll stick with me as I find new footing and a new routine. I also ask that you contribute by letting me know what you are interested in, what you are seeing in the New South or what topics you would like  for me to address.

Remember, this isn’t just one-way communication. Enter the dialogue. You can e-mail me at lanceelliottwallace@gmail.com or just leave a comment below.

You’ve been great to stick with me so far, and I aim to make it worth the trouble.

Method to my madness

Today marks the 52nd weekly post of New South Essays, and it’s high time I let you in on a little secret: I started this blog a year ago to capture your attention, entice you to engage with my writing and whet your appetite for my book.

chapter 1
I'm five and a half years into my first book. Hopefully the others will take less time.

This journey began in 2006. Two years after completing an MBA, I was in need of a new intellectual pursuit, a challenge that provided a creative outlet. I needed a mental exercise that matched the physical exercise of my foolhardy marathon hobby. So I returned to my first love – writing.

My day job in public relations had progressed to the stage in which I spent more time managing budgets than crafting sentences. My need for written expression was going unmet. During our family vacation to Santa Rosa Beach in July 2006, I wrote a chapter a day on the novel I had been kicking around in my head for a few years.

For the next four years I got up early each Saturday and wrote a chapter. My only reader was Carla, who found the book captivating enough to anticipate the next week’s installment with her Saturday morning coffee. A loving but unhesitating editor, she offered instant feedback, telling me when a character was inconsistent, a plot line implausible or dialogue hollow.

By the time I finished the first draft, while on vacation in Santa Rosa Beach exactly four years later, I had generated 146,912 words in 76 chapters. Disjointed and choppy, amateurish and unwieldy, the as-yet-unnamed project was a long way from being finished. I put it aside for six months, dreading the hard work of paring it down to a more reasonable length and a more comprehensible story.

The Saturday after the 2011 blizzard had kept all of Atlanta homebound for a week, I met a friend’s dad for coffee. He is a published author, and I had arranged to talk with him ostensibly about what was involved in the publishing process. Sam gave me all that and more. I came away from our conversation with a renewed commitment to seeing the task through, and picked back up on the rewrite.

I’m now 54 chapters into the first rewrite, splitting my early morning writing time between editing and writing New South Essays. I’ve loved the weekly discipline of writing the blog, and your response and feedback has only encouraged me to continue. For an old newspaper hack like myself, a weekly column is a familiar medium and the consistency of it appeals to my regimented and disciplined side.

My free-spirited side is fed by working on the book. If I’m honest, I’d have to guess that I’m still a year or more away from having a polished manuscript to show prospective agents and publishers. An editor friend and former roommate has the first five chapters, working to help me improve it, one installment at a time.

Macon post card
Before you can leave Macon, you have to go there first.

What I’d describe as contemporary Southern fiction, the book is tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and it chronicles the life of a young junior leaguer who in one tumultuous year discovers her husband is unfaithful, her three-year-old is unruly, her acquired wealth is unfulfilling and her identity unsettled. Through a series of new relationships, including her son’s redneck Tae Kwon Do instructor and an African-American woman restaurateur, she uncovers her true self and finds courage to move forward with her dreams.

Thank you for coming along with me and giving me courage to move forward with my dreams. There’s plenty more to discover and report on in the New South, and I welcome your ideas and participation. Who knows where this will lead.