Monthly Archives: June 2015

Starting With Me

“All my life, I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.” – Lily Tomlin

Of all its strong selling points, my initial attraction to Pepperdine University School of Law was its Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. I recently had the opportunity to be a student again and enroll in the Straus Institute’s twenty-eighth annual Professional Skills Program. It is always good to spend time around peacemakers.

It takes two thoughts to explain my passion in life: peace, and justice. If I just said peace, it might imply a desire to get along at the expense of addressing the injustice around us, but if I just said justice, it might imply that we make things “right” with no attention to reconciliation. The subtitle of my blog—inspiring positive change—imagines positive change as peace and justice working in concert.

This is why I love where I work. Pepperdine Law pursues justice, and its Straus Institute reminds us to simultaneously pursue peace.

This may also explain why I have no hair. How does one simultaneously pursue these two lofty goals that often seem diametrically opposed to one another?

The answer I believe lies in Gandhi’s observation, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him . . . . We need not wait to see what others do.” Or, if you prefer a negative framing, Tolstoy said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

If I want the world to love and respect each other while making real progress—and I do—then instead of primarily focusing my energies on changing people who I may never influence, I should change myself toward this noble dream.

Soren Kierkegaard reportedly once told a parable about ducks. The ducks waddled to a duck church where they sat in duck pews, sang duck songs, prayed duck prayers, and heard a duck preacher say: “Ducks! You have wings, and with wings you can fly.  Fly, ducks fly!” The ducks all quacked, “Amen!” and then got up and waddled home.

For all our blustery talk about the state of the world, things begin to look up when I change me.

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One More Day to Discover

Today, I share my favorite poem of all time, “At Least” by Raymond Carver. It is a poem filled with life, thankfulness, and anticipation.

At Least – by Raymond Carver
I want to get up early one more morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses.
I want to see the waves break
on this rocky beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the Straits from every
seafaring country in the world –
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.
I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat that plies
the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them take a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy – I have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.

Examine the End

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French sociologist, Jacques Ellul, published “The Technological Society” in 1954, a book that predicted that although technology will be presented as a servant of humanity, it will overrun the world and become its master. My iPhone constantly reminds me that he was on to something (in the 1950s!). In the foreword to Ellul’s book, famed American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, wrote: “Ours is . . . a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends.”

I read that phrase years ago and cannot get it out of my mind. We are obsessed with bigger and faster and more—but for what purpose?

NBC News presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, spoke in March at the national meeting of the American Council on Education about the increased pressure on the president to respond quickly to national issues due to the social media phenomenon. As a stark example, he referred to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and said that if President Kennedy had been forced to respond in the same timeframe that current presidents are expected to respond, he would have chosen to unleash heavy military action. It is estimated that forty million lives would have been lost. Forty million. Thankfully, there was time to reflect, and a different decision.

Charleston has dominated the news of late and rightfully so. It is an unspeakable tragedy—although there has been a lot of speaking anyway. I get it. Today, you have to speak quickly on important issues or you will miss the chance when the next story arrives.

I, too, have very strong feelings about the recognition of persistent racism in America and access to guns and gun control and the Confederate battle flag and am “committed to the quest for continually improved means” such as these (and more), but I would like some time and space for a deep and difficult examination of the true “ends” so that we might have shockingly productive conversations on how to get there.

My premise today is simple. For things to look up—and things can always look up—we need deep, measured, thoughtful conversations until we agree on where we are going, but it has grown more difficult to have such conversations because of our obsession with immediate actions.

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* Click HERE if you are interested in an essay published in Pepperdine’s Dispute Resolution Law Journal a couple of years ago where I reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It concludes with an attempt to identify Dr. King’s “end” given his language.

Still Looking Up to Dad

Me and DadMe & Dad (June 1972)

It has been over twenty years since I had a father to call on Father’s Day weekend. Some of you can relate; others cannot. Sadly, some don’t have much of a father to call in the first place; others do (or did).

A few years ago I ran across this song by country music legend, Chet Atkins. On some level I think everyone can appreciate it. I especially do this weekend.

[Click HERE if the video doesn’t come through for email subscribers.]

Be Patient

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When my family watched reruns of Adventures of Superman in my childhood years, I never dreamed that I would one day be walking the halls of The Daily Planet (Los Angeles City Hall) looking all Lex Luthory, but thanks to the gracious invitation of a Pepperdine alum on the staff of the Los Angeles City Attorney, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel discussing “servant leadership” at City Hall last Thursday.

Given the topic, representing Pepperdine on the panel made sense, but when the two other panelists were introduced it was apparent that on a personal level I was in line for the bronze medal. I went first and did not say or do anything particularly embarrassing. Then, Faye Washington, L.A. legend and President and CEO of YWCA Greater Los Angeles was spectacular. Finally, and last by request, Managing Assistant City Attorney, Anne Haley, spoke and took my breath away.

Anne spoke only of her father, George Haley, who passed away only a month ago at the age of 89. It was the first time since his passing that Anne spoke publicly of her father’s remarkable life.

George Haley was born in Tennessee but raised in my home state of Arkansas. He served in World War II and then attended Morehouse College alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Although he could have attended Harvard Law School after college, he chose to be one of the first African-American students to attend the University of Arkansas when he enrolled at the law school in 1949. His experience was terrible.

Haley was required to study alone in a basement office that became popularly known as the “noose room” after classmates left a noose hanging for Haley one memorable afternoon. In spite of the cruel treatment, Haley went on to excel academically and in so doing changed the attitudes of many in the law school.

Haley moved to Kansas following law school where he worked on the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case with Thurgood Marshall. He worked in politics at the state and national level, including roles under five U.S. presidents that culminated in his service as the U.S. Ambassador to The Gambia in West Africa.

You must understand the significance, for you see George’s older brother was Alex Haley, who famously won a Pulitzer Prize for Roots, the story of a slave brought to Colonial America from the very nation to which George Haley traveled to serve as the official representative of the United States.

After the panel, Ms. Haley gave me her card, and I pledged to move heaven and earth to provide an opportunity to tell her father’s story to our law students. She also gave me a copy of an article that her Uncle Alex published in Reader’s Digest in March 1963 titled, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit,” about her father’s experience as a law student in Arkansas, published just months before Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C. (I am thankful to say that the article is available online HERE.) When I arrived home that evening, I read the article in full to my wife and youngest daughter and her best friend, Katie. I was moved beyond words.

This experience and story struck close to home both literally and figuratively and stirred many thoughts and emotions inside me. I still see so many hateful divisions in the world and yet am inspired by a young man’s decision sixty-six years ago to willingly put his life and future on the line to heal such deep hatred—and who didn’t let the hatred win.

At a key point in the story, Haley’s father advised him, “Be patient with them.” That is what motivated George Haley to be The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit. That is a lesson I need to hear over and over again.

Active Participation

This is an important message for all teachers and all students at any stage in life. So, this is an important message for everyone.

I have a book of short stories by famed science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, simply because his last name is Sturgeon. This is the extent of my science fiction knowledge (and my juvenile approach to leisure reading). However, at a recent conference, I learned of Samuel R. Delany, another legend in the science fiction field. Delany is a prolific author and in my opinion a dead ringer for Santa Claus. He is also a literary critic and a professor, and it is his work as a professor that led me to bug you today.

Cathy Davidson shared the following description of a touching interview with Delany:

Whenever the great science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany teaches or is in a situation talking formally with others, he asks questions and has one requirement: everyone has to raise a hand. Everyone. Whether one knows the answer, doesn’t know, or doesn’t understand the question, he insists that every hand go up and he calls on someone to answer at random. They can then either offer an answer, articulate something about the question they don’t understand, or say they don’t know the answer and that they want to hear what Person X has to say about it. In any case, they represent themselves as present, as a participant, by that boldly raised hand (even if the answer is unknown) that says: I. Am. Here.

In the interview, Mr. Delany weeps as he talks about the deep, self-degrading personal toll of not raising a hand, of being indifferent or ashamed of not knowing, of being in a group and yet willing oneself not to participate (he sees it as a practice of self-erasure). Mr. Delany notes that every time one skulks behind indifference, one trains oneself not to know, not to be, not to be seen; one trains oneself into believing that not knowing the answer means you do not have a right to be heard.

I share this primarily because I work at a law school. Law school is an environment where “being called on” is a constant fear and avoidance is a survival technique. Professor Delany would cry puddles.

It is okay not to know an answer. In life, it is okay not to know an answer.

It is NOT okay to avoid participating in life because you do not know an answer.

Teachers, create an environment where everyone’s voice is both welcomed and heard. Students (i.e., the rest of us), join the conversation.

Mr. Shakespeare was all over it when he had Prince Hamlet identify the question as: To be, or not to be. For things to start to look up, raise your hand and choose “to be.”

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The video featuring Delany can be seen HERE.

Believe in Love

[I beg your pardon for one more trip down Nostalgia Lane. This is more fun than inspirational, written in February 2003.]

“Know you what it is to be a child? . . . It is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into liftiness, and nothing into everything, for each child has its fairy godmother in its soul.” – Francis Thompson Shelley (1859-1927)

Yesterday was one of those days when being a dad is tough.

It started on the way home after I had picked up both girls from school. Thankfully, there were no problems with my teenager. There was a disciplinary issue with my five-year-old, though. When we got home, we had a rare session where I had to be tough, and she had to be in trouble. She cried a lot. I sentenced her to thirty minutes in her bed with no toys, no television—no nothing. When I checked on her at the end of her prison stay, she was asleep. Overall, I thought things went well.

Then, it happened.

My teenage daughter informed me that the goldfish appeared to be dead. She was right. My little girl’s first pet, lovingly named Goldia, received for her fifth birthday, had gone on to that great aquarium in the sky.

Hillary begged for a pet long before Goldia. We are not pet people. We barely take care of ourselves, much less animals. However, we succumbed to the sweet little pleas and settled on a goldfish. Hillary learned to be content with that. And now, Goldia had passed on.

When Hillary woke up from an emotional afternoon of getting in trouble, her tear ducts prepared to let loose once more. I told her the bad news, and it did not take long for her emotions to get the best of her again.

In the midst of her shivering sobs and huge tears, she let out sweet words like, “I think I might cry all night long.” And, “I miss her so much.” And, “She was the best fish I ever had.”

She was the only fish Hillary ever had, but that in no way lessened the sincerity of her remarks.

She requested a call to my mom, ripping her heart to pieces, too.

I, of course, had the job of finding the words of comfort. I have sat with lots of people given my profession, finding those types of words. My experience helped little, but I tried nonetheless. As I tried, I found myself using words that I could not believe I heard myself saying.

“Goldia was a very good fish.” In fact, Goldia spent all of her time begging for food and then dirtying the water. She obviously took after me, but a good fish? Oh well, I was trying.

I even ventured into the, “Do goldfish go to Heaven?” waters (no pun intended). Hey, when you are desperate, you will say pretty much anything. Besides, God let down a sheet full of animals for Peter to see. Who knows what he has up there?

My best statement of the afternoon, though, was, “Goldia sure was a lucky fish.” A good friend and I had a discussion on the word “luck” recently. Bear with me, it would have sounded even worse to say she was a “blessed” fish. You see, Goldia swam constantly in a little tank with nothing in it, begging for food. She was a lucky fish? What was I saying?

I explained the bliss of Goldia’s life this way: She was lucky to have an owner like you who loved her so much.

You know, in the midst of my desperation, I think I said something right. She was lucky after all.

I explained that of all the fish in the world, Goldia was one of the few that had someone special that cared for her very much. That is worth something, isn’t it? When I attend a funeral and see many tears, I don’t know how to phrase it properly to the family, but I consider it such a compliment to see such sadness at someone’s passing. What better thing could we have than that—someone who loves us that much?

I did the proper thing. No swirling funeral for Goldia. We said a prayer. I took her outside and gave her a proper burial. I have to buy flowers this afternoon.

Hillary got over it fairly quickly last night. At bedtime, I discovered that Goldia had not gone far from her mind. She said a sweet prayer for Goldia, thanking God for the good times, declaring her sadness that she was gone, and requesting happiness for her up in Heaven. This morning, on the way to school, Hillary declared that she wanted four fish this time—just as her kindergarten teacher did after her fish died.

I thought—now I get to do this four more times.

Instead, I should think: Four more lucky fish.

Life with an Exclamation Mark

IMG_0572

I took this picture in a little house in South Mississippi thirteen years ago before my daughter Hillary’s first day of kindergarten at Magnolia Park Elementary. Three years later, Katrina did shameful things to that little house, but this picture survives and brings its own flood of memories.

Yesterday, Hillary graduated from Malibu High School, and I am a proud and thankful dad.

You may recognize me from the NA (“Nostalgics Anonymous”) meetings, but I am not a sad nostalgic. Instead of asking What happened to my little girl?, I choose to say Look what happened to my little girl! The punctuation is important. Approaching life with a joyful exclamation mark is preferable to a despondent question mark.

As a nostalgia-holic, I began rummaging through old computer files and stumbled across a journal entry from when Hillary was six years old:

Recently, I was snuggling up with Hillary on the couch, tickling her and playing, her infectious giggle in steady use. I said something about her being my angel, and then I feigned seriousness and asked her, “Are you an angel, or are you just a regular human being?” She giggled her honest response, “I don’t know.” After a moment of playful reflection, she added, “I feel like a regular human being.”

I’m still not convinced but am as proud today as ever.

Whatever the marker in life—from first days to last days and all the big days in between—I side with Viktor Frankl in saying that although Attitude is a required course in life, there are several from which we get to choose. Instead of weeping for days long gone or frustrated longing for days yet to come, I choose to celebrate life’s markers with wide-eyed wonder.

Look what happened to my little girl!

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Comparison Is the Death of Joy

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[If anyone just has to have the shirt, click HERE.]  🙂

“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain

“People watching” is great fun, and a trip to an airport is like working in HR for the circus.

Recently, I was at the gate in LAX awaiting my flight to Phoenix when three ladies sat down beside me in brightly-colored muumuus. They were quite the sight. I think it was a mother and two daughters who could have been grandmothers themselves. The mother looked like Helen Roper as a smoker, and I mean that in the best possible way. From the phone call home, I deduced that they had just returned from a cruise. They told dad/husband that they had a blast but were sure ready for home.

I tried to read my book and not pay attention, but at one point one turned to the others and whispered that “you see all kinds in the airport.” They chuckled condescendingly. I nearly fell off my chair. Airports are awesome.

On my return to Los Angeles, I was a few hours early for the flight and looked for a gate that was not crowded so I could eat my overpriced lunch in peace. There was a perfect row. One young man sat at the end in the lotus position reading a hardcover. He was tall and looked like European Jesus, and with the long hair, beard, black shirt, and blue jeans, I imagined that he had an elective choice in high school and chose Buddhist Meditation over Motorcycle Gangs in a close call and the rest was history.

We sat in peace for a few minutes but were then joined by Frustrated Lady. Of all the open seats in the gate area, she chose to sit directly across from European Jesus. I applauded her choice. She, too, looked like a smoker (what is my deal with smokers?).

Frustrated Lady made several phone calls and made it very clear that she had missed her connecting flight and was not happy with the aviation industry. When she got hold of Alan, who I presume is her husband based on her change to a more unpleasant tone, she told him that the flight tonight to Kansas City would be her last. Next year, when she travels to California, it would either be by car or bus, and I don’t know what Alan said to that, but he was wrong.

Eventually, Frustrated Lady went for some ice cream, which seemed to help. European Jesus seemed happier, too.

I thought about the great sport of people watching and considered something that might be important: When we encounter other human beings, we see ourselves as the norm and consider everyone else the odd ones out.

This thought appeared right after it dawned on me that European Jesus had stories of both Frustrated Lady and Skinny Bald Man when he gathered with his apostles on arrival at his final destination.

So, do with this lesson what you will, but my suggestion is this: Fly Southwest.

Ha!

No, my suggestion is to keep on people watching, and keep on noticing all the crazy differences in humanity, but resist the urge to make it a competitive sport.

Non-European Jesus once told a story about two people praying: one thanked God that he wasn’t like the other person and the other simply asked for grace. The moral of the story was that you get to choose.

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* Click HERE for a good article from Daniela Tempesta on the dangers of comparing ourselves to others.