Special Delivery

Respect-Quotes-7

Needing a break from grading final exams, I wandered downstairs and happened to glance out the window just as a colorful minivan from a local florist whipped into a parking space across the way. A skinny kid in a baseball cap got out with a potted plant, left the van door open, and walked toward a neighbor’s door. I watched as he opened the storm door, carefully wedged the plant in at its base, rang the bell, and turned to leave.

I must have really been bored because I kept watching.

Several steps from the front door he stopped, and with military precision, turned and faced the door. I assumed he would wait for a second and head off to his next assignment, but he just kept waiting. And waiting. I’m sure that is floral delivery protocol, but he stood at attention like a stinking guard at Buckingham Palace, only in drab green shorts, an old t-shirt, and a cheap mask. I was mesmerized by this sign of respect. Eventually, the door slowly opened, and our elderly neighbor, whose husband has been in the hospital, appeared while still putting her own mask on. The two strangers exchanged words that I obviously could not hear as I spied out my front window, but the young boy then turned to leave as our neighbor collected her gift.

The situation in our world is ominous, and as much as I wish there was a rainbow waiting just around the corner, it seems that the storm is far from over. But I felt the slightest glimmer of hope looking out my window yesterday as the colors of the rainbow streaked out of our parking lot in that bright and radiant minivan.

Social Media Distancing

Social-media-phoneMy recent time away was beneficial, and of the many thoughts that came to mind once I had an opportunity to think again was that I should find some way to disembark the social media train at the next station. It was a relief just to think it.

For years now I have harbored a secret fantasy of going off the grid and living a simple life in relative obscurity, and I’m pretty sure that fantasy is fueled by the complications produced by the time I have invested in social media. I’m not exactly sure what possessed a private person to lead a fairly public life, but I am pretty sure that it was not the smartest idea.

I had already dipped my toe in the water just a tiny bit. When the pandemic hit I upped my social media game and tried to post more content, telling myself that I was encouraging others. But when the deeply important racism conversation erupted—a conversation that I care about very much—I was soon exhausted and, to be candid, frustrated at rhetoric from a wide range of people that I love who vote differently from one another. So I shared less and less, and I wanted to see what others shared less and less, and I cared about social media less and less. So stepping away is no great sacrifice. It is more a move to maintain some measure of sanity.

And I get the irony that I am sharing this post on various forms of social media. Given my history, I felt it was kind to provide some type of notice.

There are positive attributes of social media, of course, which explains its ability to take over the world. But of the downsides, the most troubling may be the invitation to social comparison that has led to what Jonathan Haidt argues as the “decline of wisdom.” (Note: Haidt wrote “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks” in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic—just before this crazy year began.) I kept trying to convince myself that I was aware of and immune to social media dangers, but I now confess that I was wrong.

This will be a work in progress, so the following is subject to change:

  1. I don’t plan to delete my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts (i.e., my three drinks of choice), but I do plan to stop both posting and scrolling. Instead, I will simply use them as some sort of 21st century phone book and respond to messages.
  2. I don’t plan to stop my blog entirely, but I do plan to stop posting on a schedule, and I do plan to stop sharing my blog posts on Facebook and Twitter. I will write and post when the feeling strikes and not worry about who sees what I write (for those who want to read what I write, you can sign up by email to receive the posts when they happen).
  3. Finally, I think I will keep sharing my running information with running friends on Nike Run Club and Strava as a little virtual running club, but if that ever turns into me trying to impress others, I’m out there, too.

That’s the plan for now. It is interesting how just the plan provides genuine stress relief.

“Social distancing” is the phrase of the year, of course, but I am employing “social media distancing.” If that catches on, trends, goes viral, or gets an incredible number of likes or retweets…well, to tell the truth, I don’t need to know.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

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“It is my task / To wear a mask / Deep in the heart of Texas.” – Me (July 2020)

I have the personality type that keeps me on the burnout watch list, so during this pandemic journey multiple people (predictably including both those who work for me and those I work for) have dropped multiple hints that I should take some time off and recharge. I also have the personality type that can ignore sound advice regarding my personal mental health, but I gave in, and not reluctantly. Our youngest daughter invited my wife and I to help her move, and since that was the only way I would get to see her this summer, it was an easy decision.

And yet, she lives deep in the heart of Texas, so of course as I tied up loose ends to take vacation around a long holiday weekend, Texas became a focal point of this blasted virus right on cue. I spend months going nowhere, and then when I do, I get on an airplane of all things to fly directly into the belly of the beast. It is like spinning the wheel on vacation locations and landing on Hell. Or, Chuck E. Cheese.

Nevertheless, I masked up and headed to Texas late last week.

I always wanted to visit Austin, although sitting in a hotel room was not at all what I envisioned. But I am glad to be here, enjoying the gift of family, resting, reading, relaxing—and washing my hands every thirty seconds.

I was most assuredly not trying to be irresponsible. Ironically, getting away was my attempt to be responsible. That, and being a dad. But I suspect others can relate to having the very best intentions and then looking up to discover that those intentions ended up as asphalt on the road to you know where.

Texas. Ha! Just kidding, although it is that hot down here.

Miss Pittman

Miss Jane PittmanI read twenty-five books in 2017, another twenty-five in 2018, and another twenty-five in 2019. I share that with the pride that comes from the rarity of setting a long-term goal and sticking to it. My goal was another twenty-five in 2020 to make it an even hundred in four years, but much to my surprise I am already through twenty in just half a year, so the odds are in my favor.

It isn’t that work has even hinted at letting up. Instead, this sudden reading feast appears to be a combination of no evening events to attend, no sports to follow on television, and a persistent need to escape the present circumstances. I am reading constantly.

Book number twenty was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Years ago, while living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, my friend, Bruno, gave me a copy of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, one of those novels that crawls into your heart and builds a nest. Last Christmas, while stocking up on used books at McKays with my family, I couldn’t pass up a copy of Gaines’s Miss Pittman. However, it sat in a stack for the first several months of 2020, but as enduring racism claimed global attention alongside the raging pandemic, it seemed like the time to read this particular story.

The stunning plotline of the novel is the reflection of a 100+ year old woman whose life stretched from the 1860s to the 1960s, from birth into slavery through a life of unrelenting white supremacy and into the pain of the Civil Rights era. Alice Walker described it as “grand, robust, a rich and very big novel,” to which I add a humble Amen.

As I read the frustrating, humiliating, yet strong and courageous journey of the novel’s heroine, given the time in which I was reading I thought of decade after decade of so many thinking that the American Civil War ended something that it did not. And one does not even have to try very hard to connect the dots and recognize that the American Civil Rights Movement was not a finish line either.

It is shameful that we had to argue over such an innocuous phrase, Black Lives Matter. I guess that shows how deep-seated racism actually is.

Miss Jane Pittman is technically a fictional character, but of course she was oh so real. It occurred to me that many more Miss Pittmans were born in the 1960s and are now over halfway through another century’s journey. I wish their story was less painful than it is, but I have seen them on the television mourning the loss of their children, too.

I am thankful to Mr. Gaines for introducing me to Miss Pittman and teaching me that even being shown and told that one does not fully matter for over a hundred years is impotent compared to the capacity of the human spirit. May such extraordinary fortitude be rewarded in the lives of real people.

Little Al, That’s Me Again

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Mom wanted to name me Clint, but she “made the mistake” (her words) of saying, “I guess we could name him Al the third,” and as the story goes, the look on Dad’s face made it clear that she would lose the naming battle. Albert Andrew Sturgeon, III, it was—and is.

When I was born, Dad was my age now, three months’ shy of his 50th birthday, but despite the age gap he was my picture of strength. He had been an impressive high school athlete in the 1930s, and when I came into the picture in the ’70s and ’80s he showed no evidence of slowing down. He was a combination of war veteran, butcher in a meatpacking plant, and heavy smoker (Camels, unfiltered) that created a stereotypical picture at the time of someone who is “tough.” They called him Big Al and me Little Al, and I was proud of that arrangement. I was a scrawny kid, but I had a strong dad.

At some point, as life tends to do, everything changed. The Big Al and Little Al irony jokes commenced when I had an inexplicable growth spurt in high school and ended up 6’3 to Dad’s 5’8, and then when I was in college his health began to fail. When I returned to my hometown after college, it became obvious that he was dying.

The picture above is beguiling. By that time Dad spent much of his time on the couch, trying to rest, nibbling on crackers, negotiating with Death. He does not seem pleased that Mom wanted a picture of the two of us in his weakened state. I look so much bigger than him, which is such a perplexing role reversal that I keep staring at the picture as if it might right itself if I stare long enough. But it never does.

Dad has been gone for over twenty-five years now, and it dawned on me yesterday on Father’s Day that yet another type of role reversal is underway. My two daughters are now grown women, and although I have always been proud of them, there is a new kind of proud this year. Erica recently completed the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Credential Program at California Lutheran University and now teaches elementary-aged children in the Los Angeles Unified School District who have extra challenges in life. And Hillary has accepted a position as Shelter Operations Coordinator at Casa Marianella in Austin, Texas, a place that “welcomes displaced immigrants and promotes self-sufficiency by providing shelter and support services.”

My physical health is good as far as I know, and unless something very strange occurs, I will at least always be taller than those two daughters of mine. But when I think of what each of them has chosen to do with their precious lives in this crazy world, I shrink next to their tremendous strength. I find myself recovering that long lost “Little Al” and look up in admiration to my daughters as they show me what real strength looks like.

Do you want to know what I got for Father’s Day yesterday? I’ll tell you: I got two amazing daughters.

Erica & Hillary

Loss

Savannah

Savannah

Following a heavy week in a heavy world, Saturday began with a pleasant early morning run and a beautiful phone call with my sisters before shifting to a pile of work that will not relent. And then the day turned tragic.

My chief of security sent an emergency text that someone apparently experienced a heart attack on university tennis courts and that emergency personnel had arrived on the scene. He soon confirmed that it was Coach Lynn Griffith, a well-known professor and coach for forty years in our community. The prognosis was not good. Later, it was confirmed that he did not survive.

I met Lynn not long after we arrived in Nashville at an open house when Jody and I were house shopping, and I had the opportunity to visit with him from time to time and experience his kindness. But I had nowhere near the relationship and memories that so many in the Lipscomb community treasured. His passing is a major loss.

And then the tragedy compounded.

I have written before of how I absolutely adore our IDEAL program, an incredible gift to our campus that serves students with extra intellectual and developmental challenges. Last summer, we attended a celebration at the end of the IDEAL program’s residential summer camp. Truly, every single camper/student was our favorite, but Jody and I agreed that Savannah Miller had some sort of special sauce. Lots of “s” words work for Savannah—sweet, spunky, sassy, smiles, spirited. Savannah was a Lipscomb student this past year, and she was a presence on campus! I tried not to be a groupie and dampen her coolness factor, but I was secretly ecstatic when my office had the opportunity to welcome Savannah as a student worker. What a gift.

We had been praying hard for Savannah recently. Following surgeries, Savannah was in critical condition in Vanderbilt ICU and unable to have visitors due to COVID restrictions. And yesterday, just a few hours after the notice of Coach Griffith’s passing, we received the heartbreaking news that we lost Savannah, too.

I am oriented toward constant progress, but this has been a year of significant pain and loss. And just when you think that we must be at some sort of sinister limit so that we might regroup and move forward, there is more loss.

I’m not trying to fix or explain it today. Someday soon we must rise to fight again, but some days all there is room for is sadness.

Innate Potential for Joy

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One of the many programs that I love at Lipscomb is the LIFE Program (a program that received global attention in the story of Cyntoia Brown Long). The LIFE Program holds classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and I shared before how the opportunity to lead a class session in the LIFE Program impacted me, not to mention the soul-cleansing experience of a graduation ceremony that came later on.

Statistics of incarceration in the United States are troubling. Our country has 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the overall population. You may be surprised to learn that women represent the fastest-growing demographic going to prison in the United States. The mass incarceration of Black men is particularly egregious—statistically, Black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes compared to White boys whose chances are 1 in 17. I am glad to be a part of a university program that has at least engaged and invested in shifting such troubling narratives.

Unable to hold in-person classes due to COVID-19 or allowed to communicate with its “inside” students by phone, the LIFE Program deftly shifted to writing letters. If not for COVID-19, I would have had my first opportunity to teach a class session at Riverbend this week, the facility that holds most of Tennessee’s fifty-one death row residents (of which over 50% are Black, compared to 17% of Tennessee’s population). This summer, Dr. Kate Watkins has initiated a “common read” to connect with the residents. I was honored to be invited to read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and exchange letters with three men at Riverbend.

I should say that my admiration for the work of Bryan Stevenson knows no bounds, and I agree with his statement “that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” but I learned too late that it is not the best idea to Google the names of your prison pen pals. And yet, that made the choice of book and the thoughts it had generated in me even more profound.

I confess that The How of Happiness would not have been my natural book choice. I have benefited greatly from several self-help books in my life, but that is not the section of the bookstore that I gravitate toward. However, it has turned out to be exactly the book that I needed to read, and I devoured it. (Thanks, Kate!)

So, consider: The book is based on scientific research, and the underlying premise is that a full half of our happiness is basically genetic—i.e., some of us are simply hard-wired to be and feel more cheerful than others—another 10% is based on our circumstances, and the remaining 40% is within our power to change. As the back book cover describes, we each have an “innate potential for joy.”

So here’s the deal: I am exchanging letters with men who live in a prison that houses not only them but also the State of Tennessee’s electric chair and lethal injection facility. And we are reading a book that argues from science that despite any possible circumstance that we face, we all have within ourselves four times the power to experience (are you ready for this?) happiness.

It is unquestioned that 2020 will be unforgettable, but in the middle of it all I will be checking my mailbox for letters from men who are considering how to find happiness and joy while in prison. Talk about unforgettable. I love that we are providing education for people who are incarcerated, but as is often the case, I suspect that I will be learning from them.

 

 

 

 

 

Livin’ on the Edge

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There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes…

If you can judge a wise man
By the color of his skin
Then mister you’re a better man than I…

Livin’ on the edge…
– Aerosmith (1993, inspired by the L.A. Riots)

Jerry Mitchell visited Nashville to promote his new book shortly before the pandemic swept across the United States, and I dropped by his book signing at Parnassus to pick up an autographed copy. Race Against Time chronicles Mitchell’s work as an investigative journalist to reopen unsolved murder cases from the Civil Rights Era, ultimately resulting in convictions of multiple people decades after their terrible racist crimes. It was later during the global quarantine that I took the time to read the book, and although I am aware of the history and reality of racism, I am somehow still stunned by many of its true stories.

With the book still fresh in mind news emerged from Georgia of the unconscionable killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and I had to wonder if anyone is truly winning this “race against time.” As a runner, I was shaken in a new way, forced to recognize that mindlessly enjoying such a simple hobby is yet another unearned advantage that I possess. Even during an unprecedented era of cultural transformation due to a rampant virus, there is unfortunately one thing that remains—the ubiquitous influence of a centuries-long assumption of white superiority.

More recently, I read another book titled, Nashville 1864, this time a work of historical fiction that recounted the Battle of Nashville in the American Civil War. The novel was frustrating in its romantic approach to the Antebellum South while helpfully portraying the terrible specter of war, and it simply reinforced in my mind the terribly complicated history of this nation. The novel describes the decisive encounter of the battle that occurred at Shy’s Hill, which happens to be one mile from my house. I finished the book on Memorial Day weekend, and early on Memorial Day itself jogged over to and up on Shy’s Hill to consider all the lives lost. It seemed random to see a marker for Minnesota on Shy’s Hill in Nashville, Tennessee—random until I learned that more Union soldiers from Minnesota died in that battle than from any other state.

And then the despicable murder of George Floyd in Minnesota was televised on the evening news.

Friends, it has been 156 years since a significant number of Minnesotans died in my neighborhood fighting a war that presumably put an end to the notion that Black Americans were less than White Americans. But it is all too clear that all the lives lost and all the efforts made and all the progress achieved has not ultimately prevailed.

For multiple reasons I chose years ago to post less about issues on social media instead of more. Among those reasons was a desire to read and listen more (and talk less), and to focus on things that carry the possibility of creating actual structural changes so that the reality 156 years from now is different—things like using my advantages to instigate conversations that lead to changes in education systems, hiring practices, and ultimately, changes in hearts.

But in times like this I question whether I am doing the right things, or things that really matter, or, maybe most of all, whether I am doing enough.

So today, for what it is worth, I say aloud that I recognize the deep wrongs screaming at us on the evening news—wrongs that exist in a nation where the two people competing to be its CEO are both White men who have independently and recently managed to offend millions of Black Americans. In such a time and place, I simply say that I stand alongside Black Americans and declare their full beauty and worth as human beings. It matters more whether I live it than whether I say it, but in case it helps or matters, I say it.

Front Porch Memories

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Early 1970s

There was a cardboard box next to the exposed hot water heater on what we called the back porch in the tiny house I grew up in on West Mueller Street. That is where I kept my baseballs and glove, along with any other sports equipment I could get my hands on. I played outside a lot as a kid, and every day, multiple times a day when possible, I would grab something from the box on my way out the back door.

Most of the time I played alone, not that I was a loner per se, but we lived in a neighborhood without other children, so there simply weren’t other options. There is this embarrassingly adorable picture of me as a little boy stage propped on our front porch between a couple of older neighborhood boys, Butch and Joe, who paid attention to me and made me feel important. I dreamed of being a big kid someday and was over the moon excited to have their attention. But by the time I was a big kid, they were long gone.

So I spent untold hours in the backyard, complemented by untold hours shooting hoops on our narrow driveway, but for some reason my mind drifted recently to the many afternoons spent in our tiny front yard as a change of pace. There wasn’t much room to maneuver there, but plenty of free time and childhood imagination could make do.

When it came to baseball, my dad taught me important skills like curving a bill on a baseball cap and breaking in a baseball glove, so I would suit up, and with that intoxicating smell of leather in the air, slip on that Rawlings baseball glove and arch my index finger out the opening and transform into my hero, Ozzie Smith. I would crouch in position and imagine the pitch, then fire a worn-out baseball against the concrete porch at an angle that would make me/Ozzie range from side to side while the crowd held its breath.  I would scoop up the ground ball and whirl to fire to first. Playing alone, however, firing to first meant another delivery toward the front porch angled to hit the grass just before thumping the hard concrete resulting in a line drive back to me where I was suddenly a first-baseman stretching to beat the runner as the crowd went berserk.

It was pretty spectacular stuff, and I did this over and over and over again, all the live long day, sweating and basking in imaginary baseball glory.

Every once in a while I would misfire, and the baseball would sail just above the front porch and slam into the siding outside my bedroom window. I would wince knowing that my dad winced when he heard the errant throw, but I never broke the window, and he mercifully never stopped my treasured ritual.

I don’t know what made me think of those countless afternoons in the front yard pounding baseballs against that concrete front porch. There is nothing particularly redeeming about the memory, but for some reason I discovered that I missed it—the innocence of a little boy playing heroic baseball in an imaginary world.

I would like to visit that innocent place again. Maybe that is heaven.

Coming to Terms

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“You’re likely to get the coronavirus.”

That was the headline of an article in The Atlantic that caught my eye way back in February before the world entered into an impressive barrel roll. The author, a physician who lectures at Yale School of Public Health, quoted a Harvard epidemiology professor who said, “I think the likely outcome is that it [COVID-19] will ultimately not be containable.” The Harvard prof guessed that “40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Sobering, to say the least. But then there was this:

The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.”

I haven’t been able to shake that early prediction.

Of course a couple of weeks later we all learned phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” and then there was Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic and now a few months later American Idol is broadcasting from living rooms while ESPN featured the 46th Annual Cherry Pit Spitting Championship. So we’re all a little dizzy.

But I keep thinking back to that article from February and wonder if we should consider that COVID-19 might be here to stay.

Another headline recently caught my attention: “Scientists fear the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine will fail and we will all have to live with the ‘constant threat’ of COVID-19.” Consistent with my nagging thoughts, David Nabarro, a professor of global health at Imperial College in London, was quoted as saying, “…for the foreseeable future, we are going to have to find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat.”

So, how is your day going so far?

I may be unconvincing when I say this, but I’m not writing to depress anyone. Quite the opposite. Instead, I deeply believe that the greatest psychological danger is to ignore reality and that coming to terms with the journey ahead is the healthy approach to life.

In my humble opinion, while continuing to focus unprecedented attention on protecting the vulnerable, we must also determine how to rearrange our lives to carry on with COVID-19 in the neighborhood because, like the common cold, it is possible that it is not going away anytime soon.