Monthly Archives: July 2015

Be the Best You Can

blog pic

Stephanie Brown is the type of person who gives you a gift for her graduation. She did some great cyber-sleuthing and discovered a blog that I had for many years titled, “Minutes to Memories,” from one of my all-time favorite songs and gave me the beautiful artwork pictured above with the lyrics from the chorus.  This is now the first thing people see when they enter our home.

Minutes to Memories was not one of John Mellencamp’s greatest hits, so I considered it a long shot this week when I attended my first Mellencamp concert. But the universe smiled my direction, and the third song in the set was Minutes to Memories, the song that for nearly three decades has pulled me out of many a pity party.

Mellencamp is a terrific artist and storyteller, and this song in particular draws me into a world where I can imagine having a talk with my dad. Having missed that opportunity for over two decades now, I love the song even more.

Here are the lyrics. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Minutes to Memories (John Mellencamp)

On a Greyhound thirty miles beyond Jamestown
He saw the sun set on the Tennessee line
Looked at the young man who was riding beside him
He said I’m old, kind of worn out inside

I worked my whole life in the steel mills near Gary
My father before me, I helped build this land
Now I’m seventy-seven and with God as my witness
I earned every dollar that passed through my hands

My family and friends are the best things I’ve known
Through the eye of the needle I’ll carry them home

Rain hit the old dog in the twilight’s last gleaming
He said, “Son it sounds like rattling old bones”
This highway is long but I know some that are longer
By sun up tomorrow I guess I’ll be home

Through the hills of Kentucky across the Ohio River
The old man kept talking ’bout his life and his times
He fell asleep with his head against the window
He said an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind

This world offers riches and riches grow wings
I don’t take stock in those unsettled things

Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams we have planned
You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out, and be the best you can

The old man had a vision, it was hard for me to follow
I do things my way, and I pay a high price
When I think back now on the old man and the bus ride
Now that I’m older I can see he was right

Another hot one out on highway eleven
This is my life, it’s what I chose to do
There’s no free rides. No one said it’d be easy
The old man told me this my son I’m telling it to you

Days turn to minutes and minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams we have planned
You are young and you are the future
So suck it up and tough it out, and be the best you can.

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Bar Eve. Or, Don’t Shrink from a Challenge.

We always opened presents on Christmas Eve. I like Christmas Eve. New Year’s Eve ends with confetti-drenched smooching, and who can argue with that? But Bar Eve—the night before the bar exam—is more of a pain in the hind quarters.

I was abnormally slow to matriculate to law school so the bar exam remains a somewhat fresh wound. I sat for the California version, statistically the hardest in the country, an eighteen-hour torture device spread out over three days that begins tomorrow for many of my good friends.

Truth be told, the exam is the easy part. It is the anticipation, the fear-filled, guilt-infested, never-ending dread that drives a person to inquire about openings with the circus. So Bar Eve is significant, the pinnacle of the real challenge. When the exam begins tomorrow morning, life will actually begin to improve. And when the exam ends on Thursday afternoon, delirious excitement abounds, although the emphasis is on delirious.

To riff the old Tony Campolo sermon, it’s Bar Eve, but Thursday’s a-comin’.

Accounting for the delirium, I prize two important memories from that Thursday afternoon when I emerged from the Pasadena Convention Center (sidebar: we pronounce it PASS-adena for the good vibes; thankfully, we didn’t sit for the exam in FAIL-adelphia).

Memory #1: I sincerely thought there should have been a parade for us. I mean it. It was a strong feeling that, regardless of how we did on the exam, the simple fact that we endured that hell of a summer and survived the three-day exam called for a parade. We were heroes.

Memory #2: Driving home, stuck in traffic on the 101 and not caring about traffic for the first time ever, I knew what I wanted to say when I arrived home. My youngest daughter was in eighth grade at the time and had declared to my hearty approval while observing the bar summer that she would never go to law school. But on the drive home, I knew what I had to tell her. When I made it, after the hugs and kisses, I mustered all the seriousness in me to communicate what I hoped she would receive as one of those few life lessons that you just cannot miss: Never run away from a challenge simply because it looks daunting.

I could not say such a thing until that Thursday afternoon, but I never felt any life lesson more strongly than I did at that moment. On this Bar Eve, I hope my hero friends will finish strong and experience that same sense of accomplishment.

Go Big or Go Home

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood . . . . Make big plans, aim high in hope and work . . . .” – Daniel Burnham

As luck would have it, I needed a big hairy audacious goal in life and learned that that’s a thing at a higher education conference in Phoenix.

The weather was scorching hot in Phoenix, but since it was a dry heat, I believe it was technically chilly. I may be a bit fuzzy on the science. The conference was held at the swanky Arizona Biltmore where the Reagans honeymooned, Marilyn Monroe lounged by the pool, and Irving Berlin dreamed of a white Christmas, but at times I felt surrounded by my kind of people (who were taking care of the lawn). The Biltmore is also where John McCain conceded that Sarah Palin would not be the new Vice President of the United States, and that is an historic event regardless of your leanings.

Hands down, the most stimulating plenary at the conference was delivered by Jim Collins, the famed business consultant and author of classic books such as Built to Last and Good to Great. His lecture was worth even more than the two nights at the Biltmore.

Instead of recounting the twelve points of his great lecture, I will simply mention that Collins coined the acronym BHAG (bee-hag), which stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. True story. There is actually a Wikipedia entry for this concept that will save me the trouble—it lists examples such as Microsoft’s “A computer on every desk and in every home,” and Google’s “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

It is a goal that is huge and bold and captivating but not impossible.

I need one of those. I seem to have lost all of mine sometime back.

Seven years ago, I started having chest pains. Scary. Instead of sudden death, I got a new diet, a daily purple pill, and an epiphany, which is not a bad deal given the choices. The epiphany was that if my life had ended in my late thirties—halftime from the perspective of an odds maker—there was no reason to complain. It had been a good run and anything more would just be bonus.

That was a nice thought for a while, but it is mathematically ridiculous and I am just now figuring that out. You see, the odds makers would now have my life a good chunk of the way into the third quarter. Are you following me here sports fans? So I had a great first half, but either the game ended at halftime or it didn’t, and looking at the rest of my life as the bonus round is goofy math. And it is no way to play.

I have a tendency to be either the tiniest bit existentially-angsty or maybe a whole lot. When Collins made it to point number ten or so in Phoenix and declared that a BHAG was a cure for existential angst, he had my attention.

I need a big hairy audacious goal to propel me forward because coasting is, well, anticlimactic, and to risk sounding whiny, increasingly boring. And if I’m being candid and I am so there, coasting has almost proven to be depressing.

No more, I declare. The game isn’t over. I am officially back in the game, and the second half is instantly better.

Things are really starting to look up.

Seek Extraordinary

“If you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.” – Jim Whittaker

Reincarnation is a cool concept, but I can only locate the receipt for this one particular life so I would like to get some good use of it since it is all I’ve got and already pretty stained up and, presumably, nonreturnable.

It is not my style to tell people how to use theirs. I hate to appear presumptuous. Best I can tell, it is your prerogative to be extraordinary or ordinary or wasteful or a downright jerk with “your one wild and precious life” to borrow Mary Oliver’s poetic phrase. I can still make suggestions.

I suggest taking aim at extraordinary.

I live and work on a university campus. Admittedly, this particular campus is disgustingly awesome, but I think all college campuses are pretty fantastic because they are places where big dreamers and big ideas fall in love and produce miracles.

This is on my mind because we just returned from “Summer in Seattle” at Seattle University, a pre-orientation program for new freshmen and their families, including mine. In the closing session, a vice president shared the quote used as the epigraph for this little essay from an alum of Seattle U who also happened to be the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. It is a great bumper sticker quote that I loved at first, hated at second, didn’t know what to do with at third, but by the time it reached home I liked it pretty much a whole lot. Hence, my presumptuous suggestion for your life’s consideration:

You can’t be extraordinary playing it safe all the time.¹

I am a fan of safe. I’m a lawyer after all. But playing it safe is only useful if it keeps you safe for something, not just from something.

And I am not a fan of stereotypical thrill-seeking. Those thrills are cheap. But you should seek something that will ultimately be thrilling—just don’t settle for cheap.

I suggest that you seek an extraordinary life. But you get to choose. I hate to appear presumptuous.

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¹ See the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30).

Scene (or, Seen) at a Stoplight

Favela

He couldn’t have been more than ten years old. It was our last night in Rio, and we had just begun one final terrifying taxi ride to Santa Teresa when I saw him. We were stopped at a light just off Copacabana Beach with the typical zillion cars zigged and zagged together in automotive contortion and this young boy weaved in between to wash windshields. He wielded a spray bottle and a brush and used his shirt for a towel—a typical Friday night it seemed for this ten-year-old. He took pride in his work with great attention to detail, finished and collected the change from the disembodied arm of the driver and glided with a swagger between the bumpers to the shoulder of the road exactly on cue as the light turned from Flamengo red to Brazilian green.

He made a strong impression on me, although I suspect the dirty little kid from the favela would prefer R$5 than an essay from an American about an impression he made in the span of a traffic signal.

I am officially a lawyer and live in a land and work at a school that celebrates and promotes the rule of law. I am not ashamed of this in the least. And I do not prefer to live in a world where ten-year-old boys have to work in the middle of a dangerous road in a dangerous city for loose change on a Friday night for God knows what purpose. Hopefully it was for his personal needs, although that alone would be tragic.

And yet . . .

That ten-year-old boy appeared in that brief scene to be more of a man than I am right now what with my petty fears and complaints and indulgences. I cannot say that I wanted to exchange places with him in that instant, but I did consider that I might hope to be like him when I grow up.

Fearless.
Industrious.
Skilled.
Swagger.
No excuses and no complaints.

I hope people will look through those spotless windshields and see that incredible kid.

The Path to Rejuvenation

Family at Sugarloaf

“I have become convinced that the best gift I can give my clients and the community that I serve is for me to be alert and energetic, thoughtful and ready to take on the day’s work. For me, failure to recharge and step away from the difficulties of my practice results in a burnout that dances dangerously on the border of malpractice.” – Brittany Stringfellow Otey

Given my socioeconomic roots, it feels pretentious to say that my family just returned from a week’s vacation in Rio. But we did. Yep, that felt pretentious.

We counted, and in our eighteen years as a family of four, this was only our fourth true family vacation. It was also intentionally our last. My wife and I love our daughters very much, but the oven timer just went off when our youngest turned eighteen, and we are done. People tell us we are wrong, but we stick our fingers in our ears and sing la-la-la-la-la at an annoyingly loud volume and refuse to listen. We are prepared to party.

We chose Rio for our farewell celebration and made the right choice. Brazil—and Rio in particular—is spectacular.

“Breathtaking” is a lousy attempt to describe the views in Rio. Words cannot describe what you see from Pedra Bonita high in the Tijuca rainforest; or at Grumari facing the roaring ocean; or at the Christ statue atop Corcovado; or at sunset as the city lights flicker on after riding a cable car to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain.

And the beautiful people! Holy cow, Brazilians are beautiful. Pull up a beach chair at Ipanema’s “Posto 9” and prepare to feel inadequate about multiple characteristics of your own body.

And the colors! Brazil is not shy with bright colors. The ubiquitous green and yellow of the national flag shine at every turn; the flashy ceramic-tiled stairs of Escadaria Selaron sparkle like a neon rainbow; and the majestic, gaudy costumes of Carnaval at the Plataforma overload the senses entirely.

And the energy! The Samba show in Lapa supplied a beat that is the rhythm of Rio. The amazing athletes on Copacabana Beach never stopped playing Rio’s special brand of volleyball (played without hands). We stood and cheered for Flamengo, Rio’s favorite soccer team, with the raucous crowd at Maracana Stadium where the drums, songs, and massive waving flags never lost their infectious spirit. Rio exudes endless energy.

My friend, Brittany Stringfellow Otey, is a public interest lawyer extraordinaire who serves on L.A.’s Skid Row and writes with expertise on self-care and burnout. While my family vacationed in Rio, she published a blog post on “vacation as a matter of professionalism.” Brittany argued persuasively that time away benefits you, your family, and the people you serve.

Her timing was impeccable.

We went away, and with the deft assist of incredible hosts, embraced Rio de Janeiro as best we could. According to Lonely Planet, we found a way to see, smell, hear, taste, touch—and feel—something from each of the top ten things Rio has to offer. And so much more. We mangled Portuguese. We saw abject poverty, colorful ingenuity, and lovely smiles in the slums called favelas. And I for one prayed more in the crazy yellow taxis that infest the city than at Christ the Redeemer. We truly escaped our lives, inboxes, and routines and immersed ourselves in another world.

Now we are back, and I am magically ready to embrace life once again. Brittany is right: The signs for the path to rejuvenation point directly away from the office. ¹

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¹ For example, we are purchasing chairs and umbrellas to go with our new Frescobol beach game from Rio. It took a twelve-thousand mile round trip for us to realize that Malibu has darn good beaches to use!

Let’s Play Two!

“The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.” – Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”

“It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame… Let’s play two!” – Ernie Banks

[Note: If all goes as planned, I will be making memories on an exciting family vacation when this publishes on Monday, so pardon my lack of originality today. I wrote the following seven years ago just before we moved to California, and I probably enjoyed writing it as much as I have ever enjoyed writing anything. It is humbling to realize how much I could add to it from these past seven years, but today I simply offer it to you as it was written in August 2008.]

I am 37 years old, and according to the oddsmakers in Vegas, about halfway through the typical life of an American male. At this age, people like me tend to compose lists titled, 100 Things To Do Before I Die. I know I did. But all this got me to thinking . . .

I’ve watched the sun rise and set on the Gulf of Mexico and gazed with wonder across the expanse of the Great Lakes, and both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I have hiked to the top of a mountain and gone spelunking beneath the surface of the earth. I have witnessed up close the majesty of Niagara Falls, the grace of a school of dolphins at play, and the power of a mighty hurricane. I have collected seashells on a beach, picked fruit in a citrus grove, gone fishing in the deep blue sea, ridden a horse that didn’t like me AT ALL, and slept under the stars. I have planted a tree and watched it grow.

I have fully loved just one woman, witnessed the birth of a child, and felt heart flutters taking a child to kindergarten, seeing a daughter graduate high school, and then leaving her at college. I have stood up for friends at their weddings, counseled them through messy divorces, and carried caskets of others to the cemetery. I have eulogized my own dad and officiated a wedding for a couple dressed up like Superman’s parents. True story. I have bought houses and cars and then lost everything and been homeless. I have moved far away from home.

I have been on a star’s tour bus and had backstage passes for concerts. I have listened to the blues in Memphis and jazz in New Orleans. I have dressed up for the theater and stood under a blazing sun with the Parrotheads at a Jimmy Buffett concert.

I have built Habitat for Humanity houses and organizations, worked in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving Day, and made regular friends in a nursing home. I have been a court appointed special advocate for children and spent three years living in a children’s home. I have been a Special Olympics coach. I have donated my blood.

I have seen LeBron James dunk a basketball, Landon Donovan kick a soccer ball, Maria Sharapova serve a tennis ball, Emmitt Smith run a football, and Johnny Bench catch a baseball. I have been in the Superdome for Carmelo Anthony’s Final Four and for LSU’s BCS National Championship Game. I watched juiced-up Barry Bonds play in old-school Wrigley Field. I have worn the colors of the opposing team at an SEC football game, and I’ve seen a top-ranked team upset on their home field – both on the same day. I have attended Monday Night Football, Spring Training, and all levels of minor league baseball. I have seen Bear Bryant worshiped in Tuscaloosa on a Saturday afternoon.

I have flipped burgers, and I have interviewed for a CEO position. I have graduated from college, and I have taught high school. I have totally changed careers – more than once. I have opened a business. I have preached the gospel.

I have read War & Peace, and I have written books of my own. I have read the Bible. I have blogged. I have been interviewed on television, radio, and the stage of a mega-church. I have published letters to the editor.

I have been where both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated and where everyone died at the Alamo. I have stood where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as President of the Confederate States of America and been speechless to see Dr. King’s church right next door. I have walked both Beale Street and Bourbon Street. I have dined with Shamu and been “in” Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. I have watched a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral, the Blue Angels fly over Pensacola Beach, and ridden to the top of the Gateway Arch.

I heard Bill Clinton speak as President and Jimmy Carter reflect as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I had my picture made with Pamela Anderson in Malibu, and John Grisham once called ME on the telephone.

I have ridden roller coasters and, like an idiot, once risked my life climbing a water tower illegally. I have been a first responder to a horrible automobile accident. I have taken impromptu trips, and I once took a roundtrip flight from New Orleans to Miami in a single day.

I have utilized my right to vote. I have been an official member of a political party and campaigned for candidates, and I have been a member of a labor union and lobbied lawmakers.

I have won high school state championships. I have coached t-ball. I once ran a 15k, and on one miraculous day broke a hundred in a round of golf. I have been the hero in a game. I have met a childhood sports hero, and I have a handwritten letter from a baseball Hall of Famer written on Hall of Fame stationery.

I have been to DisneyWorld in Florida, and I have seen the Hollywood Sign in California. I have walked on a glass floor 1800 feet above the ground in Toronto, and I have snorkeled in Cozumel. I have toured CNN in Atlanta, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Space Center in Houston, and the Mall of America in Minneapolis. I once tracked down the lake where they filmed the opening scene from The Andy Griffith Show.

And that’s not all. I have had my name officially engraved on a sidewalk, paid a street artist in the French Quarter, grown a beard, shaved my head, built a deck, and been on a diet. I baptized my dad, my daughters, and a good friend in a freezing lake one cold January night.

Best I can figure, I’ve already had a good 100 things in my life. Maybe more. From here on out is just gravy. So since I haven’t died yet, and if no one minds, I think I’ll just go ahead and shoot for two.

Hot Topic Fireworks and the Fourth of July

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” – Mark Twain

That Mark Twain is such a goof.

I have enjoyed the unique opportunity to spend time with a leadership coach over the past few months thanks to a fellowship through Pepperdine University, but our time together is coming to an end. During our penultimate phone conversation, my coach asked if there was anything else that I would like to discuss, and I had to confess that I am now the best leader in world history and have nothing left to learn.

Why the sudden laughter?

You can picture it, I’m sure: a long, deep, fascinating conversation with a wise friend. You are tired and sleepy and have to get up early the next morning, when suddenly an entirely new and wonderful conversation topic emerges and… Well, you just have to call it a night. As much as you would like to go down that conversation road, you simply don’t have the time or energy to invest and have to cut it off before it gets started. Reluctantly.

That is what I offered my coach. Sure, there is much to discuss, but we have neither the time nor the energy to invest and we must simply call it a night. Reluctantly.

This is how I feel in general this Fourth of July. We celebrate the United States of America this holiday weekend, and I am simply unable to imagine opening the door on any of the spectacularly important and touchy conversations that stand before us. Not because I do not care. Not because I do not have thoughts. Not even because I am exhausted by the very prospect, although I am.

Here is why: It takes so much time to love and listen and build the relationship with a single person to simply begin to understand the other well enough to just get started on any of the topics. It is three in the morning, and we have talked all night, and I have to be up at six, and I just have to exercise a teeny bit of self-control.

(This isn’t very inspirational, is it?)

Okay, let me at it this way: Be kind to everyone. Invest in deep relationships with a few. Listen a lot. Speak slowly and carefully with patience and grace. And get some rest because this is going to take some serious time.

And have a great holiday weekend.