Homeschooling Offers Families a Great Option. (My column in today’s Greenville News.)

I have, in my house, a rising Tiger. Our second-born, Seth, begins his college career at Clemson this fall. He has always been, and remains, an amazing young man. He is filled with both passion and compassion, he loves learning, reads voraciously, is strong as a bear and is an outstanding musician. He makes our parental hearts swell with love and pride. Oh, and for the record, he looks like me and is thus incredibly handsome. What? His mother tells us that all the time so it has to be true!

Like a growing number of college students, Seth comes to the university from the home-school world. From the time he was in 4th grade, he was educated by his awesome mother (with a little help from me), and over time by wonderful teachers in several co-op groups, culminating in a few semesters at Tri-County Tech, receiving college credit as a ‘dual-enrollment’ student.

It appears to have been a good experience for him. His college acceptance letters came without a glitch, giving him several choices for his university education. And despite the constant protests to the contrary (by those outside the home-school world), Seth does just fine in the mystical ‘socialization’ arena.

I have always said that education can be accomplished with great success in any of several ways. Public school, private school and home-school all work just fine. But they only succeed to the extent that parents care and are involved in the educational process. All can fail miserably if parents are dismissive and believe ‘that’s someone else’s job,’ and particularly if moms and dads suggest that learning is drudgery, unnecessary, boring or somehow a form of oppression.

However, for anyone considering home-schooling, I would say that it is a fantastic way to spend time with, and really know, your children. Jan and I have emphasized learning from the beginning. But home-schooling allowed us to tailor the learning to the child. More than that, it allowed us that precious, ever dwindling commodity, time.

You see, our schedule was our own. Yes, the state mandates 180 days of school per year. But we could accomplish that in any way we desired. If we had a schedule conflict, learning could take place in the afternoon and evening. If we had the opportunity to take a trip during the ‘school year,’ we took it and learned in the car, in the hotel or at the National Monument. If I was working evenings, we could play and visit during the day and they could finish up later; or I could help with school during the day while Jan took a welcome break for lunch with friends.

Furthermore, we could design curricula for the interests of the children, whether it was learning Biblical Greek or taking bagpipe lessons. BB-gun team was a credit towards PE. Jan once applied for, and received, a grant of beautiful copies of art from the National Endowment for the Arts. The entire process was, in a word, flexible.

The reason this matters to me, as a parent, is that the world grabs our kids so quickly these days. They have school, of course, but culture tells us that if we want our kids to succeed, they have to engage in a vast array of activities. Beyond academics, clubs, teams and the ubiquitous Internet conspire with parental work and home responsibilities and seem to drive us ever further apart.

This endless motion sometimes robs us of the simple joy of being together; of eating and laughing, telling stories and just sitting quietly, basking in the presence of those we love most. My schedule has always been pretty malleable. But I feel deeply for the loving mothers and fathers who work second and third shift, and for whom any time with their children is rare and precious. For them, in particular, online or home-schooling could offer unimagined opportunities to enjoy their children while they can.

I wouldn’t trade a day of it. And Jan and I would do it all over again; and hopefully do it even better. But as Seth goes off to Clemson, and my remaining two children likely transition to public school this fall, I just hope that parents keep their options open. Even a year or two of home-schooling, strategically placed, can offer opportunities, memories, and bonding that they’ll never regret.

And never forget.


Sweet Tea: A Delicious Force For Unity

(By the way, I didn’t write the newspaper title for this piece.  I find it a little confusing given the context of the column.)

I have traveled all over America for the past year and a half. I have worked in hospitals large and small, in areas urban, rural and utterly remote. I have flown through so many airports that I have an internal list of my favorite concourses in which to be trapped by weather, and how to run through them when late for a flight.

Because travel for work is a lonely business, and when I’m lonely I eat, I have also accumulated quite a selection of favorite restaurants and fast-food places in the assorted towns where I have traveled and plied my trade. I find the Denver International Airport to be a place of delightfully varied gastronomic opportunity. I know that in Jasper, Indiana, nothing compares to the Schnitzelbank if it’s genuine German food you crave. The Double Barrel Saloon, in Craig, Colorado, has wonderful lamb stew, from locally grown livestock. That’s just scratching the surface.

However, as a wandering Southerner, it’s a lot harder to find proper sweet tea. This fact, dear reader, is just below ‘leaving wife and children behind’ as a source of deep pain and angst for this particular aficionado.

I think it’s important that we hold tightly to sweet tea as an integral part of our common bond as Southerners. So as we enter Spring and Summer, truly ‘tea time,’ it’s a good time to be reminded of what tea, proper iced, sweet tea, is and isn’t. Let me start with the negative. God did not intend tea to be sold in a large metal container under pressure, then poured through plastic tubes to a spout right next to the Coke, Pepsi, Sprite or Mountain Dew. It may say tea, but it isn’t. It’s heresy.

Next, tea shouldn’t be put into the ‘freshly brewed’ dispenser from a large plastic bag of tea, sent from some far away place where it was not made by loving Southern hands. That is trickery, mockery, disdain for all things holy and pure. When I recently discovered this travesty at a favorite establishment, I was out of sorts for days. ‘I can’t believe they, well, it’s…wrong!’ My daughter is tired of hearing about it. ‘That upset you didn’t it?’ Eyes rolling. These are not bags of tea in my opinion. They are bags of syrup, unpleasant at best.

Likewise, sweet tea isn’t just unsweetened tea with wretched little sugar packets poured into the cold, unrelenting water to collect on the bottom like dead sea-monkeys. How many times, dear Southerners, have we been in some northern clime and asked for sweet tea, only to be told by an unenlightened individual, ‘we have sugar.’ Ghastly.

Furthermore, as with fine wine, beer or bourbon, the tea lover can tell in a glance if things are right. In one Mid-Western restaurant, I was served a glass of iced tea that looked very much like red-clay from my yard, stirred and left suspended in dirty water. It appeared as if it had been made the year before and left in the back of the fridge for the next time some yokel asked for sweet tea. I took a picture to remember the horror.

There’s no single way to make sweet tea. Hot water in a pot, iced-tea maker, sun tea and others. We all probably have our own techniques and preferences. And to avoid contention and alarm, I won’t recommend any particular way of making the delightful nectar of Southern life.

In the end it is a medium amber color, sweetened with sugar and mixed with a little extra water to balance the flavor. It smells like hot days and cool evenings, like the beach and Thanksgiving. And when mixed with ice, it is truly the drink of the gods; ambrosia below the Mason Dixon Line.

It is one of our many gifts to the world, like shrimp and grits, barbecue, shag and camouflage lingerie. We drink it with our meals, by the pool, in the car, at work. We drink it at parties and picnics and it is, unlike Bourbon or beer (of similar color palate) fully acceptable and expected at church dinners. ‘Y’all, weren’t the Leaps supposed to bring tea? We should pray for them. Something must be wrong.’

God help us, we’re entering a Presidential election cycle. We are divided on many issues. But at least in the South, we should be united by one thing across all lines of race, sexuality, gender, religion and party alliance.

And that thing is sweet iced tea.

Flying cross-country in ‘steerage’

Flying Steerage

Flying Steerage

I can still remember when flying, even in coach, was relatively comfortable. I once flew to Japan on a Korean Airlines jumbo jet. Between the amazing food, the gracious attendants and the vast seats, it was practically a religious experience. Flying was also fun!  On a flight from Alaska to South Carolina, while sitting at the very front of coach, I asked a stewardess this question: ‘If I moved forward about six feet, into first class, it would cost $5000. Why is that?’

She looked around, leaned close and said, ‘We dance naked…’

Alas, that was then. I just flew from Denver to Cincinnati for business. I trudged onto the ‘regional jet,’ which would fly me across the amber waves of grain of the Midwest, sat down, stuffed my backpack under the seat in front of me and managed to wedge my feet beside it. Between the immovable placement of my lower extremities, the width of my seat and the (admittedly) unfortunate width of my body, a seat-belt was purely superfluous. Any crash that could have dislodged me would have been, by default, unsurvivable.

Fortunately, my stewardess was devoted to my safety, and asked that I remove my empty drink bottle from my seat-pouch. You don’t even want to know what can happen when a jet airplane hits the ground at 450mph and there’s a plastic bottle in front of you! It’s horrible…almost as bad as not sitting in the upright position.

Adding to the delights of our regional jet, there was a very large man seated next to me. Now, I don’t mean obese. This man was big. For all the world, he had the appearance of a Grizzly bear, drugged, captured and stuffed into a pet carrier designed for house-cats. His eyes were wild with confinement.

Our shared condition was made worse by the inconvenient presence of our arms. There was just no place to put them. We flew with our useless upper appendages held across our chests for most of the flight, although occasionally I was able to shift my body a few degrees to the aisle to return sensation to all limbs.

We were in the back row, so our seats could not recline. The seats in front of us were so close that when my fellow-traveler lowered his tray table, it stopped at about 30 degrees from the vertical and rested squarely on his nipples, between which he might reasonably have wedged his complementary drink.

Much like men in public restrooms, our ‘intimacy’ led us to avoid eye contact. Two and a half hours later, we arrived and unfolded from our seats, but both of us would have preferred the spacious confines of, say, a freezer crate.

This wasn’t the first time I had encountered the phenomenon of ever shrinking space in ‘steerage,’ where the masses are packed like so many Kindle-reading sardines. I dropped my water bottle on another flight (on a similar aircraft) and nearly wept. There was simply no way for me to reach it without dislocating my own shoulder or sharing an uncomfortable yoga position with the lady seated next to me.

When even the skinny flight attendant admits that it’s hard for her to walk down the aisles (as ours did), the rest of us are in for nothing but misery and blood clots. Perhaps those of us who fly often might have more room if we would simply lie down in the in the overhead compartments. Or maybe airline executives should fly with the masses more often, in order to enjoy the new seating arrangements first hand.

Despite the cramped quarters, and the fact that I could barely move enough to open my microscopic bag of pretzels, I had to laugh. The experience didn’t change the fact that I enjoy air travel. It’s still a miracle and a wonder; to this day I love watching throngs of humans navigate the intricacies of the process, for work and pleasure alike. Frankly, the spectacle of the public vs TSA is almost worth the price of a ticket.

However, I must confess that for my subsequent trip I rented a car. Sure, it tripled my travel time. But it was worth it to travel in a comfy seat, with a cup-holder and proper snacks; and to feel my legs.

I’ll fly again, but don’t think I won’t have something to say about it. On the other hand, this flight went a lot more smoothly than the time I had five rounds of forgotten .38 ammo in my carry-on. But that’s a story for another day…

If these walls could talk! The power of place in medicine…

Here’s my column in this month’s Emergency Medicine News.  I hope you enjoy it!  And I hope it takes you back to memories of places that shaped you.

A Southerner at heart, I find myself in love with places.  We are forever pining on about our family homes, our small town barbecue restaurant, the sound of some lake where catfish splash in the night, or the woods where our favorite tree-stand sits.  Sometimes our afflictions for place become the stuff of novels; Scarlett O’Hare is always associated with her beloved Tara just as Faulkner is ever infused into Mississippi.

Personally, I will always and forever remember the way daffodils broke through the snow at my paternal grandmother’s house, beneath the enormous maples that lined the property.  We called them jonquils, not daffodils, but that place is deeply ingrained in my memory.  And Summer, for my wife and me, is now inextricably linked with the South Carolina beaches where we vacation with the children.

But in my life, place also has to do with hospitals.  They have character, you know.  And while that character is made up of physicians and nurses, patients and administrators and support staff, it also has to do with the rooms and walls, the hallways and even the location of those places where we work, day in and day out, night after night.

I suppose I first realized this love of hospitals, as places worth wandering, when I was in medical school. The old medical school at West Virginia University, was a place of tiles and institutional paint, with less light than newer places.  Situated on a hill-top (like everything else there), the vistas were lovely when one had time to look.  It has since become a perfectly wonderful office building, but it was the place where I did my first clinical rotations in school and it is embedded in my psyche.  It calls up wonder, and excitement and anxiety to think of the blue and grey colors, and recall the feel of steam-heat on snowy days.  Mid-way through my third year, we moved into Ruby Memorial Hospital, bright and cheery, with larger windows and spacious work-areas, it was wonderful.  But my tastes had already been shaped somewhat.

When I first came to South Carolina to work, Oconee Memorial Hospital was barely visible behind a beautiful pine forest.  In fact, it was so heavily forested that the grounds supported a thriving population of deer and turkey, which could often be seen at night when I drove to work.  Occasionally, a bear made it’s home there, only to be removed by the DNR.  (Considering some of the more difficult clientele, I’d have taken the bear in trade in a heartbeat.)

In those first years, before rennovation, it was clear to me that I was a late-comer to an old facility that had seen much.  The hall-ways and patient rooms had the sort of tiles that spoke of earlier times.  And along the hallways, there were photos of the venerable doctors who had built the place over the decades.  Professional and grey-headed, their lined eyes had seen much in those old hallways; life and death, hope and despair. It was in older labor and delivery rooms that my first two children were born; how many children had entered the world there I couldn’t imagine.  And it was in the old ER that I was first baptized by fire after residency, a young physician adding my story to a place that was so much older than me.  I loved walking those halls, to codes, to medical records, to the cafeteria and just because I could; they felt haunted, but not in a frightening way.  (Southerners often see the world as haunted by spirits, by the way.)  Finally, it was there, and in the newer version, that I realized after our fourth and final child, that those would probably be the last very happy visits we would make to any hospital.  Time proved me right on many levels.

I’ve wandered the halls of others. For instance, in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Winchester, IN, there were inspirational words and art-work.  I loved the quiet of that tiny place, night or day, and the way that crucifixes appeared everywhere. For me, it is a great comfort to see that reminder of my sustaining faith interwoven with my profession.

While working at the Memorial Hospital and Medical Center, in Jasper, IN, I loved other things.  The way the cafeteria had a corner with a fireplace, which I did not have time to use, but which spoke of home and comfort.  And there was the way that I worked my first cardiac arrest, an unsuccessful effort, after which there was (on the code-cart) a prayer to be read at the death of the patient.  The room then seemed warmer to me, less hopeless.  A place should have some hope, even in darkness.  It’s the essence of a hospital, it seems.

Weather can also affect a hospital. I’ve worked as the snow falls, and particularly in the smaller facilities, I’ve enjoyed the chance to walk the halls at night as the snow blows past lights outside; landing on statues of saints or merely on cars.  At the Memorial Hospital in Craig, CO, the sky is vast and from the safety of the hospital, and yet another fireplace in a long hallway, I can see the storms move across the mountains, ripe with snow.  That weather makes more poingant the photos of settlers and pioneers that can be found on the walls here and there. A reminder that even a small hospital is a huge advance over the days of old, when brave men and women suffered with little to no care.

I lately came full-circle.  I worked in North Greenville Hospital, two counties over from my home. Essentially a free-standing hospital, it is old.  The rooms small, and oddly arranged.  However, it’s wonderfully snug and functional; and delight of delights, two of the patient rooms are former surgery suites, with the ancient tile walls and floors of my medical school days.  The place has character, and is frequented by characters.  But it’s essential to that little community, and I find it a delight.

I suppose I am what I am. I am ever in love with the idea of place.  I anchor myself to geography and to the layout of the places where I work.  I try my best to remember, from place to place, town to town, where everything is.  I don’t play computer games much, nor do puzzles. But this endless fascination with locale exercises my mind well enough.

And ultimately, it adds my presence, my memory, my ghost if you will, to the many rooms and hallways where I have worked and wandered.  That’s a great gift to a romantic like me.

I hope that you, whereever you are, can find love for the places and buildings your work takes you. Because every place, like every patient, is an endless encyclopedia of stories waiting to be uncovered, or made-up.  Waiting for you to insert yourself.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, in Ulysses, says, ‘I am a part of all that I have met…’  And no place is it more true than in our hospitals.





When leading is following; my latest EM News column.

Here is my latest column in Emergency Medicine News.  I hope you enjoy it!

My wife just built a pergola in our yard.  Mind you, a pergola is a thing I never knew existed until it was pointed out to me by my darling.  If I had been asked, ‘what do you think of her pergola,’ I might have thought, ‘well, it certainly fills out that dress nicely,’ or perhaps, ‘I remember that from pathology.  It incubates for four weeks, causes fever and weeping skin sores and is common in the Pacific islands.’

Turns out it’s that structure you see in elegant yards, or in the sacred pages of our Dixie Holy Book, Southern Living.  A pergola is the wooden framed structure that ladies of taste have in their yards, and on which assorted vines grow for shade, and beneath which said ladies and their charming children have cakes and lemonade in oppressive summer heat.  Incidentally, I have explained to my wife that Southern Living is merely house porn…images of things that one desires but which do not actually appear in nature and which are not actually available to mere mortals.  I now stand corrected, though our pergola may have wild animal carcasses dragged beneath it, unlike those in Southern Living.

Our pergola is almost finished. Thanks to the skill and vision of my Jan (who probably should have been an engineer), and thanks to the strength and agility of my children, the tools and experience of my various in-laws, it has risen from the ground behind our house.  Its posts are set in concrete, its beams securely nailed.  It’s tall posts and well-measured intervals caused me to ask Jan if it were aligned with the summer and winter solstice, and if we’d be dancing naked beneath it.  She smiled and said, ‘maybe!’

Pergola entered my vocabulary because it was something my wife desired; something of interest to her.  I’ve learned other things from that girl.  I’ve learned about leadership skills, which she used to teach to college students and still teaches to our church youth.  I’ve learned about volunteerism, and historical romance.  About Japanese words and her love of Ireland, land of her ancestors.  I’ve even learned things I can’t discuss here.

But she isn’t my only teacher; not at all.  From my children I learned many things as well.  If not for my son Seth, I wouldn’t have my deep love of the bag-pipe.  Many years ago, when he was small, we heard the band Albanach play a show.  They are a group of Scots who play pipes and drums the way Ted Nugent plays the guitar.  Watching their show, one understands why the English viewed Highland combat with a certain reluctance.  But they inspired my son.  And he has played the pipes, better and better, for years.  It was also Seth who led us down the path of learning the ancient art of blacksmithing.  A smithy sits in our yard, and we fire it up whenever we need to shape metal and feel the heat, see the sparks and ‘get our iron on.’

My daughter Elysa taught me the fine art of playing dolls, and endlessly teaches me about fashion and contemporary culture.  She makes me dance in the dining room, and asks me questions about my past, and her mothers.  She shows me how to make movies on an i-Pad and how to do all of the things on my computer I should understand, but don’t.  She also teaches me to see inside the hearts of others, for she is a born healer, all compassion.

Elijah, my 13-year-old, forces me to learn.  I am always behind his vocabulary, and interests, as he quizzes me on German words (I don’t know any, I try to explain), relativity (zoology degree, not physics), Norse Mythology and ancient combat.  (OK, I know a little.)  But his passion for knowing forces me to read, to learn and to never stop loving the act.

And my oldest, Sam, teaches me that there’s always a reason to laugh, always a new ‘Meme’ online that I need to see, always a new idea on BBC news or somewhere else that we need to discuss.  He introduced me to the band Muse, and is my guide to the modern music scene.  In fact, his enthusiasm for his favorite band led his mother and I to drive family and friends to see the band in Indianapolis in the summer of 2011.

What’s my point here, you may be asking?  Not to catalog my family hobbies, certainly.  My point is this.  We physicians can be a focused bunch.  We work, we study, we write or do research, we speak.  For so long, we’ve listened to our own interests and followed our own requirements.  We get lost in education, then in continuing education and in the vagaries of practice.  So lost, in fact, that we lose touch with the very interests and tendencies of the people we love.  And we forget that love is more than an emotion.  Love involves engagement in the lives of others, and sacrifice of some our time, some of ourselves, for their good.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a husband and parent, and not always done well, it’s that we have to open our eyes, ears and hearts to the passions of the people we love. I could have devoted my entire life, and all of my time, to me.  But what a loss.  I have learned so much more by being led by my dear family!  Lead on walks, lead to play X-Box, lead to imagine, lead to dance, lead to build a coal smithy and make things, lead to play airsoft, to listen to concerts, to read widely and always embrace life in its wonders.

In the process of following, of letting go of my own agenda, I was lead deeper into the hearts of my wife and kids.  I am safely ensconced there now, and their interests and joys have been welded to my own.  I couldn’t undo it if I wanted. But I don’t.

Because in the process, we have had laughter and love, games and trips, learning and adventure.  I have become so much more than a physician, so much wider in scope, wiser in life, richer in knowledge and skills.

And we have a pergola, for crying out loud!  How cool is that?  And I for one can’t wait to sip lemonade beneath it.


Bagpipes and anvils and music from alt bands

German and physics and myths out of Iceland,

Pergolas, dancing and daughters with bling,

these are a few of my favorite things!

Staying on the ground is a blessing (My Greenville News column for today)


Here’s my column in today’s Greenville News, on the blessings of not flying this Thanksgiving.|newswell|text|Opinion|p

As I contemplate the Thanksgiving just past, I am thankful that friends and family traveled to my home. In part because I’m blessed with family, blessed with house and job, food and health.  But I’m thankful for another reason.  The location of my various family members does not require me to set foot on an airplane.

I recently took a whirlwind trip to San Diego, California for a speaking engagement.  How amazing flight is!  We can cross mountains and oceans, continents and hemispheres. We can make meetings hundreds of miles away and be home for dinner with the family.  And all of it while watching the news as if we were in our living room (except eating what we want), in a climate controlled,  ever-so-slightly reclining chair.

And yet.  Among the many activities of modern life, I doubt if any are as demeaning to the human spirit as commercial air travel.  For instance, on my recent flight from GSP, I checked in a few minutes past my 60 minute window.  I know, there has to be a cut-off.  But it required me to go home (to Oconee County) and wait 12 hours for my next opportunity to fly.  (It was a blessing, as I had church and lunch with family.  And mind you, it’s rather serene passing through Seneca, Clemson, Easley and Powdersville at 4:30 and 5:30 am.)

I returned and wound my way through security.  Ah, security.  When I travel with my wife, she says to me (as I begin to take my shoes off and grumble), ‘be polite…you don’t want to go to jail.’  I find our current system of airline security…’less than optimal,’ as it were.  ‘Take off your belt. Put your laptop on the conveyor belt.  Take off your shoes.  Move it along people.  Come on. Step through.’  Since Jan wasn’t there, I was reminded by the sign that said, in essence, inappropriate joking might result in arrest.  So I kept my raging thoughts to myself and smiled.

I ultimately made my flight, checking my bag to the tune of a soul-sucking $25, then wedging myself into a small seat on a small aircraft on the way to Houston as non-checked bags, possibly containing bodies, were forced into various compartments by people still in possession of their $25.  In Houston, I snacked quickly, boarded, then wedged myself between two individuals whose dimensions made it more comfortable to merely hold my hands above my head all the way from Texas to San Diego, as if being robbed.  Not to mention that my ‘row-mate’ to the left made odd grunting noises over and over, while awake, and while both playing on his iPad and watching the pay television mounted in front of him.  ( I wondered if he were contemplating eating me…grunts can sound rather like ‘yum’ in a dark cabin.)  I remained vigilant and survived, arriving in San Diego late at night but safe and sound.

When I  returned from San Diego back to Houston and Greenville,  I did something I had never done before. I road the  golf-cart/shuttle in the airport.  When I told the driver where I was headed, a little proud of my ability to walk quickly, he said, ‘you better get on.’  It turns out I had arrived at Concourse C but had to find my way to Concourse Z, subsection 15, sub-subsection alpha, orange, gate square root of 6.

You see, when one goes to Greenville, SC from larger cities, one often has to leave from remotely located, obscure parts of large airports.  After riding on the transport, riding on the train, running some more and finding my way to what I thought was the tiniest concourse in Houston, I was directed down another hallway, and another, and yet another until I came to a small door with a sliding panel and had to knock three times then whistle. A man slid it back and asked if we were there for the flight or the poker game.  Outside our biplane was ready and waiting.

I’m not blaming anyone.  Lots of people, lots of planes, lots of destinations.  It’s difficult to keep flight affordable, safe and (relatively) on time.  I understand.  And I felt for the dejected, overworked clerks, flight attendants and pilots I saw, for whom the glory of flight had long since passed, as evidenced by their mussed hair and desperate sprints for the exit doors.  God bless them all.

I’m just saying, ‘thank you Lord for keeping me on the ground for Thanksgiving.’

Our families provide us with love and learning

beach house

Our families provide us with love and learning

(This is my column in today’s Greenville News)

I am currently relaxing on the South Carolina coast with a few family members. I think the total number only comes to 24. But sometimes we lose track of the children, so it could be 22 or 23. The women in the family have been pretty darn fertile, so we aren’t always sure. But the chaos of a multitude of children, well that’s the way we like it.

A family vacation is always a learning experience. I grew up in a smaller family unit. Collective vacations with cousins were not very common. We were more the ‘family reunion’ types. You know, get together, eat some chicken, visit a grave or two, sweat, eat some pie, go home.

But this clan I married into, they get together. In fact, I’m very proud of my wife who has missed one, that’s one, vacation with her family in all her…few years. (Almost slipped up there!)

The first time I went on a vacation with my wife’s family, we were 19-years-old and dating. We went (prophetically it seems) to Myrtle Beach. I was assigned a sleeping space in a closet. It’s a family joke that goes on to this day, these 27 years since we met. Fortunately, I’ve graduated to my own bed, fully equipped with wife; legal and all!. This week, my daughter slept in the closet, but only because she thought it was cool.

The annual trip is something we look forward to with great anticipation. When we arrive, we dispense rooms, stock the house with food and make plans. Over the years, the trip has certainly evolved. When we were younger and childless, we could stay up at all hours watching movies, playing cards and laughing ourselves silly. Morning had little meaning.

Now, one is apt to find an adult at any time of the day tumbled across a couch, snoring and drooling in a valiant attempt to make up for a year or so of lost sleep. Further, some of the family (not us) have small children. The smallest is four-months-old, our newest member, and she still cries. Her big brother still gets fussy when tired. His nearest cousins, only a bit older, are also wee ones, and subject to the normal, delightful characteristics of childhood like all the rest. So our family activities have to account for meal times, nap times, snack times and bedtimes. Not to mention allergies, childhood personalities, adult proclivities and all the rest.

For one glorious week, we mix it up, with laughter and chaos. We roll around in the ocean, eat ridiculous amounts of junk food, cook meals in the kitchen (each family unit gets their own night) and sometimes eat out. For that one week we are a commune…except that nobody is doing any serious work and the food is probably better.

We also take trips. I should say, rather, migrations. Today for instance, we drove to Savannah. Coordinating the needs, interests, desires, schedules, dietary habits and attention spans of so large a contingent of Appalachians is no small feat. My wife’s dual degrees, one in recreation and one in counseling, make things easier. But even in the madness of communicating, planning, meeting and moving as a herd, it’s never dull. And we always manage to make it a joy.

Family is like that. Family serves many functions. It is where we find comfort and encouragement. It is where we find (theoretically at least) unconditional love. With family we can fall asleep mid-sentence, and wake with a blanket over our legs. With family we can make dinner of leftover hot-dogs, a sushi roll and fudge-stripe cookies and no one will bat an eye.

Because it is a place of love, family is a place where character is molded. Family is where we learn (or should learn) genuine tolerance and love. It’s where we learn to see through, see past, the idiosyncrasies, the weirdness and difficulty of the people connected to us by marriage and genetics. And in time, learn to love them not in spite of crazy, but because of crazy! Family is where we learn to be grateful that they love us too, regardless of our own assorted personality disorders and innate strangeness.

Psalm 68:6 says, in part, ‘God sets the lonely in families.’ I know that I’d be lonely if not for the sprawling, wild family that came as a bonus prize with my wife. And I would be poorer if I hadn’t received the rich gifts of family vacation.

The end of summer

Hi dear readers!  Here’s my farewell to summer column; it’s in today’s Greenville News.


Well, the blackberries are tiny, hard balls on the bushes.  The dogs never come out from under the porch, except at night.  The pool is now the temperature of a very large hot-tub and the wind has all but ceased to blow here.  School supplies have been purchased and  both children and parents are ready to get back to the work of education.  Summer is nearing its end

            It feels for all the world as if I stepped in some kind of time-machine on Memorial Day, and was hurled forward to August.  But fast as it was, I do remember some things that are worth passing on to you, my sweltering, exhausted friends.

            First of all, a few thoughts on camping.  We only camped once this summer.  It was a wonderful reminder that our pioneer ancestors may have enjoyed the intimacy of the campfire and the peace of a world free of cell-phones.  But they did it while covered in sweat and grime, and while lying on rocky ground, as rain dribbled through tents and temporary shelters, being eaten by mosquitos and dreaming vaguely of some fast-food alternative to freshly clubbed rabbits, fried corn-meal or old jerky.  In all likelihood, they would have looked at our camps and asked why we left the house.

            Of course,  while camping I also learned that my daughter is fearless about baiting a hook, and that my boys could probably survive with only a cane-pole and a cup of worms.  And by way of advice, when you pitch your tent on a slight incline, all of the children roll downhill onto your body in the night.

            Next, a lesson for fathers and daughters. My wife and sons went with our church on a mission trip to Louisiana.  I cannot speak for them; though I hear tales of alligators on the church step and of (to repeat a theme) mosquitos the size of humming-birds.  And while they built and taught, my daughter Elysa and I stayed home and taught one another, building our bond even stronger.  We laughed, played, watched movies, went on a dress-up date and simply talked about everything.  I learned what I already knew; the bond of father and daughter is sacred and priceless.  And it involves occasional (terrifying) dancing.

            I also learned some truths at church camp:  If the temperature is any indication, Columbia and surrounding areas are paradoxically near the equator.  Getting lost in the middle of SC is like being lost in the desert, with no discerning landmarks.  And my sons are spiritually profound, but are also red-blooded males who are old enough to ignore me in favor of the fairer sex. 

            There, I also discovered that a dorm room filled with men and boys emits an odor much like an animal den.  And that it is repulsive to passing women, who suddenly recoil, cover their faces and ask, ‘what’s that smell?’  It was at church camp, in the wake of the World Cup, that I realized that the buzzing noise of the World Cup is made by an instrument called a vuvuzela.  And that it is entirely possible to threaten teenage boys so that they don’t play it at night, if you look crazy enough when you say ‘I mean it, Jesus loves you but I’ll kill you.’

            Regarding water-parks and theme-parks.  It’s embarrassing to be kicked off of a slide with your children because you’re too big.  I mean old.  I mean tall.  Shoot, you know what  I mean.  And there should be a law about swim-wear.  I won’t say anymore than that.  As for roller-coasters, they used to be such fun!  Now, days after riding several of them, I feel as if I have been assaulted with a golf-club.  The children laughed and screamed, and all I could wonder was if I’d be decapitated in the tunnel, if my eyes could actually pop out, and if my kidneys had been broken in half.  That was before my near-cardiac arrest on the first hill of one of the world’s largest coasters.

            I suppose I’m ready to move on.  I do long for some cool evenings. But the most important lesson of summer is to never, ever wish it away.  Mosquitos, campsites, stinging insects, church-camps and water-slides alike, I’d do it all over again.  Because summer, like childhood, just goes by too quickly to take it all in the first time around.

            But I’d leave out the vuvuzela.  And I mean it.

Dear Arizona, a suggestion…

Dear Arizona,

Let me first say, as a disclaimer, that I would prefer the company of a hard-working illegal alien to that of a shiftless, disability-craving, Percocet abusing redneck any day of the week.  But I’m confident you feel the same way.

Nevertheless, the law is the law.  No other country in the world throws its borders open, and leaves them unguarded, in the way the United States has along its border with Mexico.

Illegal immigration is illegal.  And your state is awash in crime perpetrated by persons that Mexico is more than happy to see headed north to your fair cities.  (And by others who they are happy to have send money home, while they pay no income tax).

I am stunned by the fact that our government has the vapors over the wording of your law, but is cruelly indifferent to your budget crisis, and the kidnappings, drug crimes and murders that occur in your most excellent state.

I am amused by the empty-headed inability to process reality by which progressives say, ‘we don’t want to be a country where police officers ask for your papers!’  Seems to me, whenever I get a loan, I need to present papers.  When I buy a house or car?   Papers.  If I need a passport?  Papers.  If pulled over by the police?  Papers.  Purchase or carry a firearm?  Papers.  Fly in an airplane?  Papers.  Leave or re-enter the country?  Papers.  Modern society is awash in papers.  I feel no remorse for someone asked to present papers.  Try to cash a check or use a credit card without ID.  Good luck.

So here’s a suggestion that may save you some cash.  Whenever illegal aliens are apprehended, give them a five- day meal voucher and a one way bus ticket to Washington, DC,  or New York City.  Many of those who are most flustered over your law are located in those burgs.

I suspect the bus fees and meals will, in the end, cost less than the law enforcement and medical care required by the invasion of illegal aliens in Arizona.

If the left really wants you to be ‘fair,’ whatever that means, then let the left see murders, drug cartels, torture and kidnapping in their strongholds.  For now, they’re happy for you to endure it.  Turn the tables.

And keep the faith!  Like you, I love my Hispanic neighbors, friends and co-workers.  But the law must be honored, the federal government must take responsibility, the budget has to be managed, national security has to be guarded and dangerous criminals must be apprehended.  And securing the border is a solid step in the right direction.

Until then, send the problem north.