#HornsUp

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I have been a Falcon and a Ram, a Bison and a Razorback, a Greyhound and a Shark, a Golden Eagle and a Redhawk, a Wave and now a Bison again—all the while rooting for Cardinals and Cowboys, and once upon a time, a patriotic team called the 76ers.

Sports mascots are weird. There, I said it. Weird, but obviously a big deal. Can grown human beings wearing ridiculous costumes really be considered serious business?  Well, an $18 million Mascot Hall of Fame opened earlier this year in Whiting, Indiana. Let that one sink in.

Weird, yes, but it isn’t that I don’t feel a close kinship to mascots, with my closet as my witness. In fact, at the Greene County Quiz Bowl competition during my senior year of high school, I wowed the crowd with a remarkable depth of sports mascot knowledge (while my teammate, Trevor, answered all the academic questions). I do love me some mascots. But they’re weird.

So now I am a Bison. Thanks to the National Bison Legacy Act signed into law by President Obama in 2016, the American Bison is now our “national mammal.” Because it is specifically mine now at Lipscomb University, I am suddenly more interested in this lumbering beast. The American bison is described as “broad and muscular with shaggy coats of long hair.” This is going to be a stretch for me. However, “Bison temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason.” That sounds much more interesting!

My friend, Tom, shared a link recently of four bison being released back into Badlands National Park. As a new and proud Bison, this actually touched my heart. I’m not sure you will care if you are an Anteater or Banana Slug or Horned Frog. But I suddenly do.

Mascots are surely weird, but maybe even mascots can teach us how to care for something beyond our individual selves. If so, may their kind increase.

On This Veterans Day

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Dad (21 years old)

In 1975 nobody learned to read in kindergarten. Reading was a first-grade subject then, and kindergarten was for learning how to make friends and drink milk out of cardboard cartons. But somehow I could read before starting kindergarten. I remember sitting on my sister’s lap at age four and reading a Cookie Monster book from start to finish. Sandy tossed me off her lap and ran away yelling, “Mom! Al just read a book!” My earliest memory is being described as smart.

I was a hit in kindergarten. We would watch Sesame Street in the classroom, and when the part of the show arrived where a word would magically come together my classmates would sit breathlessly until I proclaimed it aloud as if royalty making a grand decree. “The word is…CHICKEN!” And the class would cheer. Heady stuff for a five-year-old kid.

My “smarts” had an obvious genetic component since both mom and dad were intelligent, although dad had some special Rainman-like quality when it came to mathematics, something I apparently inherited to a lesser but notable degree. Dad was also a high school dropout.

Dad studied Latin in high school in Missouri in the 1930s and hoped to be a physician. Without his knowledge, his principal worked to secure him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy sometime around 1937, but Dad turned it down since it was the Great Depression and he was the oldest child. He then dropped out of high school to work.

Pearl Harbor was bombed the day after Dad’s twenty-first birthday. He had heard horror stories of trench warfare from old men in the “Great War” and was enamored with the Navy anyway, so he chose to enlist. Dad took a train from Union Station in St. Louis to Chicago for processing and did so well on a particular test that the Navy wanted him in an electrician school that was starting right away in San Francisco, so he boarded another train and left for war. He was gone for four years, but thankfully for many of us, he was among those who did come home.

Dad served on a variety of battleships and carriers in the Pacific Theater, and I regret never recording which ones since I believe his records were among 16-18 million files destroyed in a tragic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in July 1973 (although I haven’t given up hope yet). What I do remember is that he served in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and the subject of current feature film at the box office—a movie I obviously have to see.

Today is Veterans Day. And if you can’t tell, I am thinking about Dad. I suspect many of you have someone to think about, too.

LIFE in Prison

5c5d1067e460c.previewIn January, while I prepared for a job interview in Nashville, then Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made national news by commuting the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown. In the ensuing media frenzy I learned that Ms. Brown graduated from Lipscomb University while in prison through Lipscomb’s unique LIFE Program. That basically describes everything I knew about the LIFE Program until last week.

However, I arrived at Lipscomb enamored with Dr. Richard Goode, having no idea that he founded the LIFE Program back in 2007. All I knew was that Dr. Goode had the good fortune of spending time with iconoclast, Reverend Will D. Campbell, and had written a couple of my all-time favorite books with and about Campbell. I simply wanted to meet Dr. Goode, so you can imagine my surprise when he emailed one day asking to drop by and get my advice about a course he was teaching. My advice? Ridiculous, but I could not resist the chance for a one-on-one with Dr. Goode.

We met and discussed his History & Politics of Reconciliation course, and when I mentioned a particular documentary that was new to him, he asked if I would come to the Tennessee Prison for Women (“TPW”) to show the documentary and lead a discussion.

Um, yes.

Life. Changed.

Despite the recent national attention, the LIFE Program is the best-kept secret at Lipscomb. Get this: traditional Lipscomb students (“outside students”) can drive to TPW and take some of their classes inside the prison alongside “inside students.” It is brilliant and beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen.

Last Wednesday I rode with Dr. Goode to TPW, the primary correctional facility for women in Tennessee that houses over seven hundred women, including any inmate on death row. Some parts of the evening were simultaneously expected and unforgettable: the glistening razor wire; the careful pat down; the explosive sound of the door locks; the expanse of the prison yard; the heartbreaking and inspiring stories of the inside students; the fascinating conversation with Dr. Goode.

But what I did not expect—and what in my opinion is the breathtaking genius of the LIFE Program—is the relationships between the inside and outside students. I was astonished to witness the authentic and comfortable friendships that had developed in that classroom.

I am scheduled to attend the Lipscomb graduation for inside students just over a month from now. One of the anticipated graduates is a student in the class I taught last Wednesday, and I learned that she was recently granted parole. After so many years behind bars she had one request. Can you guess? She wants to stay in prison long enough to get to walk in graduation.

This all gives “LIFE in prison” an entirely new meaning.

[For more information (including videos) on Lipscomb’s LIFE Program, click HERE.]

This Colorful Life

IMG_1203I pledged never to complain about Malibu weather and kept that promise. To complain in a land where sunshine, blue skies, and seventy-degree temperatures abound seemed outright ungrateful. But truth be told I did miss one thing: the breathtaking colors of autumn.

As luck would have it, our arrival in Nashville somehow triggered uncharacteristically warm weather, delaying and to some extent blunting the colorful explosion. But I’m still not complaining. The late arrivals of reds, oranges, purples, and yellows only served to increase the anticipation and joy.

I went for an early morning run at beautiful Radnor Lake yesterday morning, and although the heavy rains had officially ended, the sun remained missing as I cut through the fog and the thick morning mist. The lake itself was quiet, as were the homes on the residential portion of the run. A lazy guard dog registered my presence with a lone, halfhearted yelp, and a family of deer silently grazed in someone’s backyard. On the far side of the park I marveled at the cacophony of a massive family reunion of birds high in the treetops and on my return noticed that the only sound was the squish-squash of the wet, crunchy leaves underneath my feet. It was a peaceful, soul-cleansing run.

I read that rainy, overcast days increase the intensity of the brilliant colors, and I believe it. I stopped frequently to take disappointing pictures, disappointing only because they are incapable of capturing the beauty.

For some reason the irony of it all dawned on me as I ran along the path soaking in the scene. The spectacular beauty of the autumn transformation occurs because the leaves are dying. Winter is approaching, and the cycle of life is actually taking a downward turn.

I was not raised to think that aging and dying involved beauty, but that seems like something worth considering.

Remembering Josh Gibson

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I arrived early at Nationals Park for Game 4 of the NLCS and did a lap around the stadium to see the sights. I discovered three statues near the home plate entrance, and as a student of baseball history anticipated two of the honorees—Frank Howard and Walter Johnson. But I confess that the Josh Gibson statue was a most pleasant surprise.

Not that Gibson, the greatest home run hitter in baseball history, does not deserve a statue. Quite the opposite. Gibson hit more home runs than anyone, including the longest home run in the history of Yankee Stadium. Some called him “the black Babe Ruth,” while others preferred to refer to Ruth as “the white Josh Gibson.” No, I was surprised to see the statue since Gibson, simply because of the color of his skin, was never allowed to play a Major League Baseball game.

Sadly, Gibson died of a stroke at age thirty-five. Three months later Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.

In certain ways there has been undeniable progress in race relations in this country, thanks in part to baseball and the heroism of players like Jackie Robinson. When the team from our nation’s capital takes the field tomorrow night in their first ever trip to the World Series, their roster will feature players from Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela—and the United States. And from the United States, alongside white, European-Americans you will find African-Americans, a Japanese-American, and a Mexican-American. It is a beautiful thing to witness.

But do not be deceived. Progress is simply signage on the road to somewhere, and the destination most assuredly remains on the farthest horizon.

Josh Gibson’s statue outside a Major League Baseball stadium in our nation’s capital honors one of the greatest baseball players of all time. At the same time, it reminds us that he was never allowed on the team. Both deserve remembering.

First Grade for Grown-ups

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I am one of sixty-four students from around the world here in Alexandria, Virginia, at the 2019 NASPA Institute for New Vice Presidents for Student Affairs. Each of us is the most senior student affairs officer on our respective campuses and in our first two years on the job. That so many of us are here is an interesting statement about both higher education and student affairs.

We were told that this is an institute and not a conference to make it clear that we will not pick and choose among class offerings. No, we will all partake of the same intensive cohort experience, including sharing meals together. Tuesday evening is our only break, and as luck would have it, I get to attend Game Four of the NLCS with my buddies, Steve and Rachel (Go Cards!).

I jumped at the opportunity to be here. When I served as Dean of Students at Pepperdine Law, I did my best to attend the national AALS conference each year because I learned a lot, sure, but more importantly, because of the relationships I formed with people who truly understood what I did each day. I still miss my law school student affairs buddies, but that is what excites me about being here today—the opportunity to connect with more amazing people from diverse places who share the common bond of loving students from the same seat as mine.

I love, love, love diversity. It is simultaneously a challenge to navigate and a gift to embrace. But for those like me who are drawn toward diversity instead of resistant to it, it is worth remembering that we also need those who truly “get” us. What I love about national organizations is that it provides the opportunity for both.

There is just one me, and for that we can all be thankful. But there are sixty-three other people here that have a job like mine, and what a comfort it is to know that and to know them.

Away from Home

Freshman Year (Sturgeon)

It has been a long time since I was a college freshman, which my present work constantly reminds me. I barely remember it now and often wonder if that is a gracious gift of aging.

Although I did very well in high school and should have considered many options, I never went on a college visit and simply remember struggling with one question—do I “go away to college” at Harding University, or do I “stay home” to play basketball at Crowley’s Ridge College? I don’t remember the details of why, but I chose the former and traveled the daunting one-hundred miles to study physical education in Searcy, Arkansas.

It was a good year overall. Harding reminded me of my high school in many ways, which was positive. I knew several students already there and roomed with Christopher, a friend from high school and a track star.

When I try to remember those long ago days, an odd collection of scenes comes to mind: An unsuccessful attempt to walk on the basketball team. The terror of speech class. Daily chapel. Pledging a social club. Navigating a laundry room. Unlimited food in the cafeteria. New friends.

Although it was a fine year, it was only a year, and I transferred to the University of Arkansas for the rest of my undergraduate education. At this point of life my solitary year in Searcy seems like a blip on the radar screen, almost causing me to question if it even happened.

Today, I am back in Searcy for the first time in close to thirty years for a student affairs conference, and I am reminded that it did. In fact, that year and that place represents an extremely formative moment in my life—my first experience in actually being “away from home.”

I have subsequently lived in multiple zip codes and discovered quite a bit about the world and about myself. That all began with a mysterious decision to go away to college. That decision is not for everyone, but all in all, it was right for me.

1982

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“Baseball has been good to me since I quit trying to play it.” – Whitey Herzog

The year was 1982, and I was adjusting to life in junior high school. I doubt I knew the word hazing, but I sure was nervous about going to the locker room, which was unfortunate since sports were my very favorite things.

But God smiled on me as a young baseball fan.

The combination of my dad and Paragould, Arkansas, made me a St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan, and 1982 was simply our year. Dale Murphy tore up the National League, and Robin Yount the American League, but destiny was with the Redbirds.

The previous winter the Cardinals added Joaquin Andujar and Lonnie Smith—and more importantly, Ozzie Smith—and during the season they called up young Willie McGee. In the summer they would draft future stars, Vince Coleman and Terry Pendleton, but it was Keith Hernandez and Bruce Sutter who were the beasts on the field in 1982. They led Whitey Herzog’s team into the playoffs for the first time since 1968 where they faced the Atlanta Braves.

It is a special memory. The Cardinals were my team, and I knew them so well from listening to Jack Buck on the radio. But Ted Turner’s young television “superstation” helped me know the Braves, too, and for a twelve-year-old boy enamored by all things sports, it was just special. That my team swept the series was icing on the cake.

It is disturbing how quickly thirty-seven years can pass, but here we are again. Times have changed, including baseball, and along the way I have watched the Redbirds go to the postseason fifteen more times, including six World Series appearances, but today I am remembering that first innocent memory: The Cardinals versus the Braves in the playoffs.

The Braves are loaded this year, and I would be surprised if my Redbirds survived the challenge. Honestly, I don’t really care that much anymore. Now, I simply like to watch and imagine Bob Forsch firing a fastball in to Darrell Porter on a fuzzy console television. Those two players aren’t with us anymore, at least in person, but they have never left my sweet childhood memories.

Country

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“The goal in sacred story is always to come back home, after getting the protagonist to leave home in the first place! A contradiction? A paradox? Yes, but now home has a whole new meaning, never imagined before.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (pp. 87-88)

Growing up I associated two things with Nashville: Churches of Christ and country music. The former was familiar, but even as a young person I was drawn toward things that were unfamiliar. And the latter was something my dad listened to in the car (other than a brief Randy Travis stage, I did not choose to listen to a lot of country music). So I never pictured myself in Nashville.

But when our potential move emerged, I was surprised how much I was drawn to the city itself. It felt like I would learn a lot about myself in Nashville, who I am, where I come from, and the meaning of the word “home.”

Still, it was surprising to think that country music had a role to play. Sure, moving to ground zero of Churches of Christ would involve introspection, but country music? Somehow I just knew that would prove important, too. Little did I know that famed filmmaker, Ken Burns, was putting the finishing touches on a new documentary miniseries to help me out.

If you have not been following Country Music on PBS, I suggest you find a way to catch up. Simply learning that the banjo came from African slaves and the fiddle came from European immigrants in Appalachia was worth tuning in. Country music is just that—an amalgam of this complicated country—and learning its history is helpful in understanding America if nothing else.

I had unfortunately never heard of DeFord Bailey, the first performer ever introduced on what became known as the Grand Ole Opry, and a grandson of slaves, and a harmonica genius. In fact, it was after Bailey’s brilliant rendition of a train on the show in 1927 (following a show that ended with the New York Symphony’s version) that announcer George Hay said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” Bailey was unceremoniously fired in 1941 and spent the rest of his life shining shoes to make a living.

And speaking of 1941, I learned that country music was the favorite choice of soldiers during World War II, which provided a stunning realization as to why my dad always tuned in on the radio when I was a child. Country music must have walked my dad and a lot of people through tough times—the Great Depression, and a world at war. I also learned that it was World War II that propelled the Grand Ole Opry past other radio “barn dances” to its worldwide prominence. According to Burns, Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific were heard saying, “To hell with Roosevelt; to hell with Babe Ruth, and to hell with Roy Acuff.”

I’m not sure what I am learning about myself just yet, so if you are expecting me to weave this together in a perfect harmony that just isn’t going to happen today. What I do know, however, is that the banjo and fiddle are apparently providing the music that is serenading me toward home.

Life Between the Hedges

IMG_0931“No wise man ever wished to be younger.” – Jonathan Swift

Monday birthdays seem more appropriate at my age, but in an attempt to beat the system Jody and I took a weekend trip to Georgia and claimed it was birthday-related. It was actually a chance to accept a kind invitation from a friend to do something every sports fan should do—watch a game “between the hedges” at iconic Sanford Stadium. It just so happened that the mighty Georgia Bulldogs were playing the Red Wolves from Arkansas State University, my wife’s alma mater, so it was a cool deal all around.

Did I mention that our gracious hosts once were the President and First Lady of the University of Georgia? It was an honor to stay at their home and sit in their air-conditioned stadium box, and from the sometimes-you-get-more-than-you-ever-dreamed files, we even got to meet Uga—once named the best mascot in the nation—who was hanging out in his SUV in the bowels of the stadium before greeting his adoring fans!

And just after meeting the star of the show, we were allowed on the field during pregame warmups where we were privileged to see those iconic hedges. The hedges were originally planted in 1929 – inspired by rose hedges in Pasadena – and other than a controversial removal/replant surrounding the 1996 Olympics, football games have been held between their carefully-manicured boundaries ever since.

And then the game was terrible. Arkansas State, although a quality football program, was completely outmatched against the #3 team in the nation and lost 55-0.

But there was something very special about this particular blowout. Georgia fans don their red with great pride, but in the approach to this game they were invited to wear pink in honor of Arkansas State’s head coach who recently lost his wife to breast cancer shortly after her 49th birthday. And did they ever. The stadium was filled with pink in what Coach Anderson emotionally described as “one of the classiest moves he has ever seen,” and it was breathtaking.

Today, as I celebrate my own 49th birthday, I am reminded that life is both fleeting and unpredictable. Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, although the Southern take might be a football field, and that we humans are “merely players” on it. As we play our parts “between the hedges”—win, lose, or draw—it is nice to imagine a scene where even the opposition recognizes that something greater than our differences binds us together as one.

That is what I thought about on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in Georgia.