Monthly Archives: August 2015

Resurrection

My faith leads me to believe in resurrection, not just as a one-time event but as a truth that can provide hope to any circumstance. This entire blog—Starting to Look Up—is a direct reflection of that idea.

Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which received varying levels of attention throughout the country.  Some of you know that my family experienced Katrina firsthand and have heard more than enough about it from me; however, many of our new friends in California had no idea and have kindly expressed interest.  To the latter, you may be interested to know that I wrote a little journal that described our experiences in the months that followed the storm, and recently, although a bit embarrassed, I published the journal through a print-on-demand outlet–embarrassed in part from not appreciating my grammatical deficiencies until law school made them apparent, but also because I did not clean it up at all, i.e., no editing, no page numbers, etc. But that may be appropriate since the entire Katrina experience was a tad messy.

For a flavor, here is an entry from the book that was published as a letter to the editor in the Sun Herald newspaper for Christmas 2005. Now, in retrospect a decade later, I believe even more strongly in resurrection and ever-present hope.

I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

In August 1943, over six decades before Hurricane Katrina, Kim Gannon and Walter Kent copyrighted a song titled, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” That same year Bing Crosby recorded their brand new song, and it became an instant holiday classic. For its first Christmas, it comforted thousands of American homes ripped apart at the hands of the Second World War, but this was only its big beginning. It has comforted many more every Christmas season since.

There is something both mournful and peaceful about the tune and lyrics:

I’ll be home for Christmas / You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe / and presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me / Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams

It plays well in Mississippi this 2005 holiday season, too.

Long ago, I was taught the difference between a house and a home. A house (I learned) has a roof and walls, while a home consists of people. It was a clear distinction. Using these handy definitions of course, the tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents facing the Christmas season displaced from their “houses” should just toughen up and be downright holiday-happy that they can be “home” for Christmas in a tent, or in a trailer courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or even several states away from where their mailbox stood in August.

But I don’t like the definition. Not anymore.

I, for one, think ornaments lovingly handcrafted by sticky three-year-old hands from years gone by are an important part of a home. And I think pictures of Christmases past, with fresh looks of surprise at the sight of a newly-opened presents, are just a downright vital part of a home, too. You can disagree all you want. And I think rarely-seen homemade videos of the last Christmas together before the kids took off for college, and cookbooks with that special recipe for fudge, and that Bing Crosby CD we always listened to on Christmas morning, are all very important ingredients in this wonderful word called “home.”

And this Christmas, thousands upon thousands of these precious ingredients are piled in a landfill somewhere. This is why I think a lot of things about this particular Christmas season sucks. Pardon my French.

Oh, but we’ll make the best of it. There will be downright cute attempts at making a FEMA trailer (of all things) festive. There will be Christmas dinners in hotel rooms and readings of “The Night Before Christmas” with more family members in residence than normal, and important explanations that Santa Claus not only comes down chimneys, but he also comes right through the flap on the tent.

We’ll do our best. And Christmas, believe it or not, will still help us. After all, it revolves around the story of a displaced family living in a barn. And how that story is the birth of hope for the whole world. We need to hear that story most desperately this year.

But in spite of it all – even while considering the very source of hope – we will sing that old Bing Crosby song with extra meaning this year.

Yes, we residents of the Gulf Coast will be home for Christmas, but this year, it will only be in our dreams.

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The Hard Work of Reconciliation

I live in a perpetual dilemma because reconciliation is possibly my most cherished value and it seems the whole world prefers to choose sides. And in the good news department, a recent study revealed that “unconscious biases are now at least as strong across political parties as they are across races.”¹ Oh goody. And just in time for a presidential race.

There is some comfort at my place of employment where we are emphasizing the celebration and engagement of diversity. Our entering class is the most racially diverse in school history, and we have great plans for the year ahead, including a celebration of the twenty-plus nationalities represented in the school, increased interfaith dialogue, and regular engagement of the most controversial national headlines.

It seems that some place should begin the difficult work of societal reconciliation, and the legal profession is as good a place as any. We have surely played a significant role in the fractures.

Before you unleash your lawyer jokes, consider the friendship of two lawyers-turned-Supreme-Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Read this L.A. Times article and tell me why the rest of us cannot get along if these two can be fast friends. There is even an opera that celebrates this unlikely friendship, and a recent review closed with the following line: “Could we please make it a constitutional requirement that no one can be sworn into office in the White House or Congress without having first seen ‘Scalia/Ginsburg’ [the opera]?”

There is a provocative article in the current issue of The Atlantic on the role of higher education in preparing students for life in this world. Form your own conclusions, but there is a passage near the end of the article that I love: “Teaching students to avoid giving unintentional offense is a worthy goal, especially when the students come from many different cultural backgrounds. But students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses.”

That should keep us busy for a little while.

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¹ Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, THE ATLANTIC, Sept. 2015, at 45.

Job Satisfaction

Although today is technically our first full day of classes, last Monday felt the part since we make such a big deal out of welcoming new students. On that day, I arrived at work at 6:34am and noticed that I was the ninth car in the parking lot. How early do I have to be to be the first one here? When I got out of the car and donned a suit jacket, I noticed Professor Baker running around (literally running, and literally around) the law school complex. I yelled a morning greeting, and he responded, “I’m on a prayer run!”

(If you are unfamiliar, a prayer run (or walk) involves circling a place and praying for the big things that may occur there later on—as opposed to my version of a prayer run, which is praying while I run that I won’t end up in the hospital from said run.)

I then walked into the building and saw Abby and Connie at the front desk, already prepared to welcome our new students. Sure, it was possibly 6:37am by this point, but still. Music was playing over the speakers, and I looked down into the atrium to see our events manager, Suzanne, actually dancing. It may have been 6:38am by this point, so of course everyone should be dancing by then.

I write this to say that my colleagues have diagnosable problems and need professional help.

Well, not really. Instead, I was struck by the privilege to work with such amazing people.

Larry Krieger is a Clinical Professor at the Florida State University College of Law and is well known in legal education for his scholarship on “law student and lawyer health and satisfaction.” I had the honor of hosting a panel that featured Professor Krieger last January where he discussed his brand new article on lawyer happiness, but many law schools have featured his booklets on stress and career choices for years.

In his booklet on career choices, Professor Krieger argued that two things can lead to job satisfaction: (i) actually enjoying what you do; and/or (ii) work that is meaningful to you. If just one of those is true, you can be happy at work. If neither is true, no amount of money, perks, or benefits can produce job satisfaction.

If you have both, you are blessed.

I am blessed.

I recognize that much of the world lives (and much of world history lived) in conditions where “career choice” is oxymoronic, but if you live in a land and time where it is not, choose your target wisely.

Courage

Fear is humanity’s fountainhead of trouble. Courage is a virtue that celebrates triumph over fear. From personal experience, I believe that showing up for law school is in itself an act of courage. Today, as we come to end of the first week with our new students, I offer for all of us Anne Sexton’s fine poem appropriately titled, “Courage,” that describes our lifelong quest to find it.

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Time to Learn

I have a recurring dream where I am in a school hallway searching for my locker. Everyone else is safely scurrying into the proper classroom, and the air is thick with anticipation for the tardy bell, but I cannot find my locker. My mind is racing to remember the number while my eyes fly back and forth across the expanse of puke green metal rectangles as if watching a world-class table tennis match, hoping that something will trigger which one is my locker, but all hope is apparently lost. I suddenly remember that there was a locker assignment list posted on a bulletin board on the first day of classes, so I race to the wrong bulletin board a time or two or five or at least to one where the anxious search through names and numbers reveals no clues as to the location of the lost locker. The tardy bell is simply taunting me now, threatening to pierce the silence of the hallway at any moment and ruin me.

It is a terrible dream.

Sometimes I find my locker, or maybe I do. At least I am at a locker, fumbling with a combination, clearly not remembering anything helpful. Or maybe God likes me after all and I both find and open my locker but then cannot remember my class schedule and/or which books to take to class and/or if I even have the right books and/or what day it is in the first place.

Welcome back to school, boys and girls. May it haunt you for as long as it has haunted me.

Ha!

Other than the occasional traumatic nightmare, I am generally a happy person who likes school so much that it is now my place of employment. If you count about a decade when my first day of school role was simply as dad, I have now participated in a first day of school since 1975; in fact, I cannot remember a year without one, and there is no end in sight. At my place of work, today is the 2015 version of that tradition. It is going to be awesome.

We call it Launch Week now, and we are going to blow the minds of these students and not just because we will assign them lockers today. They are in for a life-changing week (and year), and I could not be more excited.

That recurring nightmare reminds me on a semi-regular basis that formal education has the potential to be a teensy bit psychologically disturbing what with teaching us how it feels to be last or late or lost. But, my oh my, the potential upside is so fantastic that even if I could find the words I’d be afraid to write them because their intense goodness might just explode and leave an awful mess.

Welcome back to school everyone, and in particular welcome to the Pepperdine University School of Law you budding lawyers. Together, we will laugh and cry and question and dream and love and argue and struggle and hope and disagree and grow and encounter new people and ideas and friends and challenges and be better from the experience.

Today is one of my happiest days. May you, too, regardless of your station in life this fine day, seek the opportunity to learn in community.

A Call to Leadership

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I trust my friend, Mikey, for all things writing-related and recalled his deep admiration for David Foster Wallace when “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” was sitting by a trash receptacle when Pepperdine students moved out in May. So I snagged it. Mikey was right, of course. Wallace was a genius.¹

(Note: If you accidentally left your copy of “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays” by David Foster Wallace by a trash receptacle last May, I lacked the requisite intent to be charged with larceny.)²

For instance of said genius, check out this magnificent description of a New York Times journalist Wallace penned from the McCain 2000 presidential campaign trail in “Up Simba” (an article he wrote for Rolling Stone): “…a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted, and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification.”

I read that last phrase a hundred times it is so awesome.

So, I was called on to fill-in preach at church this past Sunday morning, which I am reluctant to do anymore but did for some reason this time, and that afternoon I was finishing “Up Simba” when I stumbled across a paragraph that perfectly illustrated the point of my entire sermon. The sermon offered the distinction between self-interest and true love of others as the language of my faith, but Wallace described the same dichotomy as salesmanship versus leadership. So, you take your pick today—politics, religion, or leadership—and reach your own conclusions. Here is Wallace:

Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest—if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be) – still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself. And this awareness is painful . . . although admittedly it’s a tiny pain, more like a twinge, and often unconscious. But if you’re subjected to great salesmen and sales pitches and marketing concepts for long enough—like from your earliest Saturday-morning cartoons, let’s say—it’s only a matter of time before you start believing deep down that everything is sales and marketing, and that whenever somebody seems like they care about you or about some noble idea or cause, that person is a salesman and really ultimately doesn’t give a sh*t about you or some cause but really just wants something for himself.

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¹ I happily discovered when about two-thirds of the way through the book that there is a movie out about Wallace right now called “End of the Tour.” So I had to see that, too. It is a touching film about this talented, fascinating, tragic life that I highly recommend.

² Wallace used lots of footnotes.  I am so easily influenced.

Rest in Peace

Shawn

Shawn was so easy to like, which makes the news of his tragic death especially painful. He had an enormous smile, an infectious spirit, and a cruel demon that he didn’t hide from those who loved him, which was a lot of people in a lot of places.

Shawn was officially a member of our church family with his name and number nestled comfortably in the membership directory between two sets of Bairds. He had an interesting spot in the family: Reverend James Forbes once said that nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from someone who is living without, and for many in our congregation Shawn was the first person known well enough to approach for a recommendation.

Shawn’s struggles left him without a home, something he openly shared on stage via microphone, but he destroyed the homeless stereotype. He didn’t look/smell/act/speak like anything in the brochures.¹ Shawn hugged us, swapped stories with us, handed us bulletins at the front door, shared his life with us, and knew and remembered us by name.

The news of Shawn’s death took some wind out of me. I have experienced the loss of many people and as a former professional minister had a front row seat to the terrible specter of death on far too many occasions, but to me there is something different about losing Shawn. The loss is not inexplicable or particularly unusual, but it is its own special kind of sad.

In one way, the sadness is reminiscent of the world losing a John Belushi or Robin Williams, who brought such joy and laughter to the world that the exchange felt a little lopsided given their personal demons. Similarly, Shawn’s charm was a great gift to many, but I wish we could have returned the favor in the ways that he needed most.

Shawn will be remembered in good and right ways of course, and his spirit will live on and make us better. My hope is that we will honor him by continuing the quest for ways to help one another as we struggle through life together.² My religious conviction is to follow after Jesus of Nazareth who was known as a healer, but I have yet to get the hang of it.

My prayer for Shawn today is that he receives the mercy that he believed in and a nice warm bed so that he can finally rest in peace. And when I get to the other side, I hope he is handing out the bulletins at the door.

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¹ In case you didn’t know, the brochures are all wrong.

² The timing is particularly ominous.  We came to know Shawn in Malibu through the S.O.S. (Standing on Stone) ministry, the Artifac Tree thrift store, and the Malibu Community Labor Exchange–the first two organizations are now homeless themselves, and the third just received its own eviction notice.  It is sadly becoming easier to envision a scenario where we would never have met Shawn.

Some Things Are Never Easy

Hell and hill are remarkably similar words, or at least that is my recurring thought as I run what I call “the hill” two mornings a week. To call it a hill is an insult to Drescher Mountain. It is a monster.

From my house, the run begins with a 350’ drop in elevation over a winding two-thirds of a mile, which is a perfectly fine way to begin a 5k run. The kicker, of course, is that it ends with a grueling two-thirds of a mile climb up same mountain.

It was three summers ago when I decided that this hill/mountain/monster must be conquered. I’m not sure why. Temporary insanity leads the polls. But decide I did, and after it I went—slowly. I counted nine fire hydrants along the path, so the strategic plan was to conquer the mountain one fire hydrant at a time.

The first fire hydrant was okay because a person could reach it with a good spit from somewhat level ground. The second wasn’t too bad, but the third made me cry. Four, five, and six required therapy, and I cannot even begin to describe seven and eight—those fire hydrants worship Satan. Fire hydrant number nine and the final stretch run to my house were bad only in the sense that after fire hydrant eight I displayed a remarkable resemblance to a Will Ferrell crying scene.

But I did it. Conquered the mountain.

I’m leaving out an important part of the story. All along, my plan was to do more than conquer the mountain, presuming that continuing to conquer the mountain would lead to some beautiful day when running up that blasted hill would be easy. I thought that was rational.

Rational or not, it was wrong. It has been years since that first glorious victory and it is not even close to easy. It is hard, every single time.

After reflecting on this somewhat depressing reality on yet another morning run, a new thought arrived: Maybe some things aren’t meant to be easy. And maybe that’s okay.

Getting up early for a difficult job, battling a chronic illness, losing loved ones, or even running up a mountain—maybe it would be an insult to the thing itself if it ever became easy.

I’m going to mention my friend, Stephanie, again because she told me about a line in the play Rabbit Hole that compared grief to a brick that you carry around in your pocket: The brick never leaves, but you get to where you don’t notice it so much and, in fact, when you do notice you realize that you don’t want it to go away.

Maybe that is what I am learning today. Some things aren’t meant to be easy, but that’s okay. If they were easy, you might forget to appreciate something worthwhile.

The thought arrived somewhere around infernal fire hydrant eight this week that maybe perseverance is not sticking with something until you conquer it. Maybe perseverance is better understood as sticking with something even when you never conquer it.

There is a famous chapter in the Christian Bible all about people who did that very thing, and they called it “faith.”

Maybe I could rename my morning nemesis Faith Hill, but that would just sound silly.

Personal Humility + Professional Will

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My least impressive resolution for 2015 was to finally read the ESPN history book that had collected dust on my nightstand for longer than I care to guess. Mission accomplished. Once I dove in, the 832 pages didn’t take long to complete.

The story that stuck out to me was that of George Bodenheimer, who started out in the mailroom at ESPN and ended up its president. I had never heard of him. Bodenheimer is the perfect example of what Jim Collins would call a “Level 5” leader (see above). Look no further than his tiny Wikipedia page for example.

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN utilized an interview approach in its historical account of the wildly successful sports television network. Today, I simply want to share my favorite entry that describes Bodenheimer. It is from John Skipper, who came to ESPN after senior roles with companies like Disney and Rolling Stone, and who has since publication of the book succeeded Bodenheimer as ESPN president. Read it, and form your own conclusions.

George defines the culture now. Steve Bornstein [former ESPN president] was respected, admired, followed—and feared. George Bodenheimer is respected, admired, followed—and loved. George has been at his job since 1998. At some point, 1999 or 2000, he created this once-a-year strategy meeting. He gathers the top people, and what does he do? He says we as a group are going to decide our priorities as a company. And we now have this annual thing we do about shared success—it’s team-team-team. By nature, I’m a cynic and even a slight elitist—I moved to New York, I studied satire. That’s what I was studying at Columbia—eighteenth-century satire—so I’m of a sardonic turn, and I can tell you that this culture is not cynical. It’s “team.” It’s complete enthusiasm, Moonie-ism in a positive sense. People believe in it. And that priorities thing, which you can make fun of—it’s a little goofy, a little corny—we go together, we say the following four, five things are our priority. One year our priority is “Make ratings go up.” One year it was “we have to make dot com work.” So the whole company has been told, you might work in event production and operating camera and traveling around the country, but we’re also looking to you to help us figure out how to make ESPN.com work.

You get a little card. We print card with the priorities on them. You carry your card around. On the back is the mission and the company values. Really simple stuff, easy for a smarty-pants cynic who likes living in New York. But you can’t make fun of it, because it works.

There is a cult of George in our company. George would hate that. George is the most influential person in sports; he actually doesn’t care and actually doesn’t like it—he’d be happy if it went away. To the rank and file, George walks on water.