For Leaders and Followers

ant_leadership

“I really knew I wanted to be Adam, because Adam was the first man. Ant I chose because, if there’s a nuclear explosion, the ants will survive.” – Adam Ant

It is my great honor to hang out with Pepperdine’s men’s and women’s cross country teams once a week and share a short spiritual message at one of their early morning practices.  Go Waves!  The team boasts impressive athletes, students, and people, and as college students listening to me at half past six in the a.m., they are also generous in not telling me to take a hike.

This year I am generally sharing some message from the Book of Proverbs, which is straight out cheating since I am teaching Proverbs to a class of graduate students in our condo each Sunday morning.  I think even Proverbs would applaud my resourcefulness.  Proverbs often uses observations from the natural world to encourage wisdom, and this week I used its lessons learned from watching ants.  Not the DreamWorks movie.  Actual ants.

Brief interlude for an ant joke: What do you call an ant from overseas?  (Pause for effect…)

Important.

Ha!  That’s okay, college students don’t think I am funny either.

So Proverbs chapter six uses the ant to teach initiative, i.e., it looks like no one is telling an ant to get to work, but it gets to work anyway.  (Translation to athletes: Do what is right without waiting for your coach to tell you what to do.)  And Proverbs chapter six uses the ant to teach against procrastination, i.e., an ant collects food in the summer so that it has something to eat in the winter.  (Translation to athletes: Don’t wait until race day to train!)

But in the spirit of Proverbs, I kept observing the ant to see what other lessons might be hiding there.  Well, actually I googled “lessons from ants” and let someone else do the heavy lifting for me.  Again, resourcefulness!

Researchers at the University of Bristol observed that when an ant discovered a new food source it went back to the colony to show everyone the way.  As it led the others back, there was a predictable gap between leader and follower, but when the leader was too far in front of the pack, the leader ant would slow down to make sure the follower stayed engaged.  And when the gap closed completely, the follower ant would metaphorically give the leader a kick in the butt to widen the gap again.

I think this is important for everyone.  For those times in your life when you are the leader, don’t get so far in front that you lose touch with those coming along behind.  Your job is to bring others along with you, not set a land speed record.  And for those times in your life when you are the follower, encourage your leader to stay out in front.  Your job is not just to follow—your responsibility also includes spurring the leader on toward the destination.

Either way, leading or following, you have good work to do.

A Dream On My Mind

“Blues was my first love.  It was the first thing where I said, ‘Oh man, this is the stuff.’  It just sounded so raw and honest, gut-bucket honest.” – Carlos Santana

As American society is forced to observe its ongoing failure to achieve racial equality, and as the nation chugs Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle in anticipation of tonight’s first presidential debate, I find myself listening to the blues.  Part depression, but admittedly, part I like listening to the blues.  

The names of the blues artists are the best: Muddy Waters; Howlin’ Wolf; T-Bone Walker; Blind Lemon Jefferson; and Big Mama Thornton.  (I read a great suggestion for how to create your own blues name using Blind Lemon Jefferson as exemplar.  Start with a physical infirmity, add a fruit, and finish with the last name of a president.  I’m going with One-Eyed Apple Carter.)

And the titles/lyrics of the songs themselves are fantastic: My Starter Won’t Start This Morning.  Call Me Anything, But Call Me.  Cornbread Peas and Black Molasses.  My favorite line from B.B. King: “Nobody loves me but my mother.  And she could be jivin’ too.”  Or, this great section from Lonnie Mack’s Oreo Cookie Blues:

I hide ’em in a cabinet, I keep ’em in a jar
For emergencies you know I keep ’em in the
Glove compartment of my car.
And I can’t live without ’em
They git’ me higher than I can get on booze
I got them Oreo creme sandwich
Chocolate-covered crème-filled cookie blues.

But seriously, despite this troubled world of ours, what business does a pasty-white bozo living in Malibu with a blog about optimistic attitudes like me have listening to the blues?  Well, it could be that someone who feels the need to create a blog about optimistic attitudes may have an underlying issue or two.  And it could be that Santana was on to something and that I’m drawn to something raw and honest, which may be better stated by Wynton Marsalis who said, “Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle.  Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”

That works for me.  The blues confronts the brutal facts of life elegantly.  On some level, personal, or societal, or whatever, we all have some brutal facts that need confronting, and I would like to do so with elegance, rhythm, and style.

Back in 1939, Big Bill Broonzy sang about dreams he had on his mind that just weren’t true when he woke up in the morning.  Dr. King spoke of such unrealized dreams a few decades later, too.  Today, as we continue to sing the blues, may we not stop dreaming.

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.    

An Opinion That Matters

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 18: Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus accepts Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for ‘Veep’ onstage during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

We watched the Emmy Awards last Sunday evening only later to learn that it experienced the worst ratings ever for the show.  This demonstrates my personal sense of timing.  Watching the star-studded event also confirmed my complete ignorance of popular television shows.  For instance, I didn’t know that O.J. Simpson had a new reality show that pits everyone against him, and apparently there is a popular game show all about thrones.  I have a lot of catching up to do.

At the Emmys, Jimmy Kimmel was funny what with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich distribution shtick, and Henry Winkler did a fine job hosting the touching annual tradition of the in memoriam video.  But to me, the most poignant moment of the evening came when Julia Louis-Dreyfus accepted the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series (for Veep—it turns out that is a television show, too).

The legendary actress’s speech was funny and to be honest pretty typical until the very end when she broke down in tears and said, “I’d like to dedicate this to my father, William Louis-Dreyfus, who passed away on Friday.  I’m so glad he liked Veep because his opinion was the one that really mattered.”

Louis-Dreyfus’s speech apparently struck a chord with an awful lot of people despite the record-low number of viewers.  Her speech led many to tweet expressions of sadness to famed actor, Richard Dreyfuss, wrongly assuming that he was Julia’s father, which is actually sort of funny.  Almost as funny as tweeting someone you think died two days earlier.

But her sweet statement begs a sincere question: Whose opinion really matters to you?  I suspect that the true answer to that question involves a really small number of folks, but I also suspect that we live as if that number is massive.  We are more than a little screwy.

If I can be so bold, I suggest taking some time to consider the real answer to that question—and live accordingly.

Spinning Plates

spinning-plates

“Have patience.  All things are difficult before they become easy.” – Saadi

Some days when life is particularly challenging I search Monster.com for openings with the circus, but since scooping elephant poop is less attractive than pretty much anything, I rarely finish the cover letter.  There is one circus art directly in my wheelhouse—plate spinning.  However, it is the constant challenge of keeping plates spinning that makes me consider the circus in the first place.

Life has been particularly full recently, which is one way to describe a plate count.  This isn’t the first time, nor do I anticipate it being (or even want it to be) the last, but it does feel different, and that difference eventually came clear: Not only are there many plates spinning, but various life developments have created plate spinning performances in multiple rooms for multiple audiences.  It isn’t the plate spinning act that is challenging: It is the running back and forth between acts that is difficult.

You may not believe me when I say that this is neither complaint nor cry for help.  But this is neither a complaint nor a cry for help.  It really is okay, more than okay, and I find the challenge exhilarating despite some periodic exhaustion.  I’m just adjusting to a new understanding that I am a plate spinning artist who is working on a new act and that people will pay good money for a ticket and some cotton candy to enjoy the show.  I’m just honored to be on stage.

New circumstances often come with a bonus gift of questioning whether it is worth the effort.  As a general rule, it is at least worth the effort to practice patience to see where the new circumstances lead.

I am certain there is no need to join the circus.  My life is already a bizarre, traveling show!

On This Date: 09/16/16

happy-national-guacamole-day-todayshow

First, and importantly, Happy National Guacamole Day!

On this date in 1620 the Mayflower set sail from England with Captain Christopher Jones and crew and their 102 passengers.  About half lived long enough to step foot on land again.

On this date in 1810 a Roman Catholic priest rang the church bells in Dolores, Mexico, and urged the people to revolt and launched the war that led to Mexico’s independence from Spain.

On this date in 1908, at age forty-six, William C. Durant invested $500,000 to create General Motors.  Durant went bankrupt during the Great Depression and reportedly ended up managing a bowling alley in Flint, Michigan, in his eighties.

On this date in 1959 Xerox introduced the first copy machine to the world on live television.  The 914 model featured “scorch eliminators” since they periodically burst into flames and marketers thought that the word “fire” in fire extinguisher was a bad idea.¹

On this date in 1970 yours truly was born in Arkansas, completing the little Sturgeon family.  Little me snagged the same birthday as legends like Lauren Bacall, B.B. King, Elgin Baylor, David Copperfield, and exactly one year later, Amy Poehler.

I find all of this interesting, particularly the part involving my birth.  But to be honest, I’m more interested in what will happen on this date.  Today.  September 16, 2016.

What will you do with this gift of a day?  Maybe you’ll do something to make the history books, but my hope is that you do something world-changing that won’t.  The greatest moments in life are those quiet treasures like investing time in the life of a child, getting to know someone different from you, sharing with someone who is living without, and lending your friendship to someone who is lonely.

We will all do something on this date, but once this day is in the books, will anyone care to remember?

—————————————————————————————

¹ Hemmungs Wirtén, Eva (2004). No Trespassing: Authorship, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Boundaries of Globalization. University of Toronto Press. p. 61.

Down But Not Out

communicatorsinset

“We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able
to maneuver.” Spock to Captain Kirk.
– Raymond Carver¹

I didn’t get all the cool toys growing up as a relatively poor kid in the 1970s, but I was the proud owner of a set of Star Trek Communicators (pictured above).  Those handy-dandy devices possessed a walkie-talkie feature that kids loved along with a piercing distress siren that brought special joy to the parents.  I credit these walkie-talkies with my natural coolness during the Flip Phone Craze at the end of the twentieth century.

The primary challenge with my Star Trek Communicators was that I had no childhood friends living nearby since we lived on a block primarily populated by widows, and lack of friends tends to lower the value of walkie-talkies.  I mean, there is a certain measure of fun in speaking into a device held in your right hand and hearing your crackly voice come out of a separate device held in your left hand, but to be honest, that level of fun is actually pretty low.

So despite my parents’ financial sacrifice and super cool gift, I am not a Trekkie.

But I think Mr. Spock’s statement to Captain Kirk that Ray Carver thought worth writing down on a scrap piece of paper and sticking in his bathrobe pocket is possibly one of the best life quotes ever: “We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able to maneuver.”

The last few weeks have been rough for many people I know with death and disease landing severe body blows in this championship bout called life, not to mention an entire nation already a little punch-drunk pausing to remember the awful attacks by al-Qaeda fifteen years ago.  That we have sustained damage is sometimes more obvious than others.  But are we still able to maneuver?

Life is a teensy bit unpredictable, but the potential for damage is not, so the outstanding question is what to do afterward.  I suggest hiring a pointy-eared, human-Vulcan first officer to do a little once-over to determine what is still functional and then carry on your captivating adventure into the great unknown.  To live long and prosper, as best you can.

Or, if you want, give me a shout on the walkie-talkie.

————————————————————————–

¹ Excerpted from His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes by Raymond Carver, in A New Path to the Waterfall (1989).

Great Big Beautiful World

1

Photo Credit, Jeff Baker

In this great big beautiful world of ours, I come from a place called Paragould, a small city in the northeastern corner of Arkansas right next to the Missouri border.  We called it The Friendly City, and maybe that is still its nickname.  Paragould is primarily a factory town sitting on a geographic anomaly called Crowley’s Ridge just east of “the hills” and just north of Mississippi Delta farmland.  It experiences all four seasons each year, from the searing heat of summer to the crisp fall air to bitter winter weather to the liveliness of spring—sometimes all in the same week—and is home to mosquitoes large enough to pull a truck out of the mud should they ever decide to be helpful.

In Paragould, I have fond memories of loving family and friends, listening to Cardinal Baseball on the radio, cruising Kingshighway as a teenager, eating “baby burgers” at Dairy Queen, and high school basketball straight out of the Hoosiers movie set.  In Paragould, I am not glad to remember a sordid past in race relations and am amazed that an almost unbelievable lack of racial diversity persists even to today.  But all of this, the good and the not good, is part of my hometown.  It’s where I come from.

This week is Diversity Week at Pepperdine Law, my California home for the past eight years, and it kicked off with the second annual Global Village Day, a day that celebrates the national, regional, and ethnic cultures found within the Pepperdine Law community.  It has become my favorite day of the entire year.  I suspect I enjoy it so much because of my insular experience growing up in Paragould.  To wander around a single law school atrium and experience cultures including Armenia, China, East Africa, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Korea, Moldova, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scandinavia, Spain, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam—and regions of the United States including California, New England, and Texas—is just too cool to describe.  But from a somewhat less selfish perspective, it is even more fun watching students (and faculty and staff) take such pride in sharing their culture with others.  We are all from somewhere, and all of those somewheres are worth sharing.

So on Global Village Day I joined my friends Jeff, Margaret, Brittany, and Sarah for a pretty awesome table that shared the American South with the law school community.  I wore my Arkansas Razorback necktie and poured gallons (four!) of my wife’s sweet tea to those who wandered by, and Jeff shared his amazing (ten-hour!) playlist of Southern music alongside his homemade biscuits and pimento cheese, and Margaret, Brittany, and Sarah shared scrumptious cheese grits, macaroni and cheese, and Butterfinger cake, respectively.  We were a hit, but we were a hit in a room full of hits.

We are all from somewhere.  I have no intention of forgetting that.  But I sure love learning more about this great big beautiful world of ours.

Work Ethic

Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies.  Not all of them
were great.  But there were 104 of them.
– Raymond Carver¹

Americans have a reputation for being workaholics.  This makes me feel patriotic.  It is Labor Day, presumably a day off from work in honor of work, yet I am eager to get some work completed today free from meetings and the steady onslaught of email.  I may have a problem.

The term “work ethic” implies that there is some moral element to work, a right and a wrong if you will, and I’m not exactly sure who has cornered the market on figuring that out.  I’m pretty sure that it isn’t me.

A couple years back Pepperdine Law hosted a lunchtime presentation featuring Lieutenant General Flora D. Darpino, the thirty-ninth Judge Advocate General (“JAG”) of the United States Army, and the first female to hold that prestigious post.  From her impressive presentation, what stuck with me most was her dislike for the phrase “work-life balance”—an implication that (a) work and life are mutually exclusive; and (b) navigating the two involves walking a precarious tightrope.  Lt. Gen. Darpino argued that we just have “life” and that work is simply one of its many components.  I liked that a lot.

I like work.  So much that I do too much of it sometimes.  The idea of retirement, with no disrespect for those who enjoy it nor to those who long for it, never has appealed to me.  I want to keep contributing to this old world as long as possible.  To be productive.  To create.

I’ll write about the need to rest on some other day, but today, in honor of Labor Day, I celebrate work.  May those of us blessed to have it do it well.


¹ Excerpted from His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes by Raymond Carver, in A New Path to the Waterfall (1989).

This Could Be Our Year

After some time apart, which we both agreed was a good idea, Football Season has come back into my life.  We are both excited.

My team of choice hails from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is known as the Razorbacks, or more colloquially, “the Hogs.”  Well, team of “choice” is probably wrong: the Razorbacks are mine as my alma mater and as a natural born citizen of the State of Arkansas.  I bleed Razorback red.  (Sure, everyone bleeds that color; I’m just proud of it.)

This could be our year.  Okay, we all know that it’s not going to be our year.  We are (generously) picked in the middle of the pack in just our half of the conference.  Five of our twelve games are against preseason ranked teams—and we are unranked.  And I should admit that it has never been our year, at least not since 1964, which was the year the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty.

But watch out Louisiana Tech!  Razorback Stadium will be rocking on Saturday afternoon, decked out in blazing red and calling the Hogs, and Razorback Nation including fans from Fayetteville to transplants in of all places Malibu, California, will tune in and dream that somehow, against all odds, this turns out to be our year.  Knowing that it won’t.

So what exact flavor of stupidity is this sport?  It seems to be an annual recipe for national depression redeemed only in part by a shared hatred of Alabama.  Oh, but it is not.  Most definitely not.  No, in the pursuit of the lofty prize that only one (darn Alabama) will receive, we will experience the most amazing moments.  Guaranteed.  Every year.  I have never experienced a Razorback national championship football season, but I was there for the Miracle on Markham in 2002.  I was there in 2007 when we took down top-ranked LSU in Death Valley in multiple overtimes.  What memories!

There is one lesson that I tried to instill in my daughters using my very best fatherly-advice voice: Have a goal in life and go for it, but don’t get too caught up in the destination.  Wonderful things happen on the journey toward our crazy dreams.

#WPS

Make Them Know

“Make them know.”

In Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, Skeetah, a poor Mississippi teenage boy whispered that phrase to his treasured pit bull, China, before sending her into battle against her nemesis, Kilo.  I found it to be the most gripping line in a terrific book.

Salvage the Bones is a fierce story of a poor family as told through the eyes of a teenage girl, motherless, surrounded by men and boys, secretly pregnant, and trying to understand life as Hurricane Katrina warms up, bears down, and then inundates their world.  Among many compelling topics the novel explores is the idea of invisibility, which is where the phrase “make them know” leapt off the page and demanded my attention.  Unnoticed, overlooked, neglected—those are not good words, and undeniably not a good feeling.

My little family of four lost our home eleven years ago today in Hurricane Katrina, and although we surprisingly have fond memories of that great national tragedy due to a heightened sense of community and the opportunity to meet great-hearted strangers full of love, the raging waters surely had some of our tears sprinkled in.  And, to be honest, from time to time, a little bit of spit in it projected in anger toward institutions including but not limited to governments and insurance companies, pardon the legalese.

And I’ll tell you, if you ever want to get punched by someone from Mississippi (and who doesn’t?), then say that you thought Hurricane Katrina was just in New Orleans.  Please know that it wasn’t.

Make them know.

When you mix marginalization and anger and leave it in the microwave too long, you start to hear those words building in your heart.  And more often than not, they emerge violently.

So why does my family have fond memories of a tragedy in our lives?  Despite the infuriating institutions that failed us?  Despite the relatively speaking inordinate attention our New Orleans neighbors received?  It is because we were loved.  We were known.

In this tragic world of ours, where the recipe for violence is constantly prepared in the kitchen, the best advice I can offer is to be about the work of making others known.  Expecting others to do it themselves is not healthy for anyone.