Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Place to Let Go (for the November in Your Soul)

The origin of the phrase “blowing off steam” is no mystery, and anyone with firsthand experience of the real thing knows that it is best not be in the neighborhood when it happens. Regardless, we all need an outlet from time to time, and although I am a big fan of the annual vacation, it seems that humanity needs a way and a place to release some pent-up emotions a little more often than once a year.

If you do not have said way and place, make it a priority.

As an encouragement, recall this famed passage from Melville’s classic, Moby Dick:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.¹

Where is your sea?

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¹ Garrison Keillor, Good Poems 284 (2002).

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Better to Give (but Receiving Is Often Pretty Great, Too)

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

I’m not sure what lights Otto’s fire, but if I could bottle it I would sell it—and drink it, too.

The first time I met the dean of our law school, she asked me to locate the best programs in the country at connecting law students to practicing lawyers. Elon Law’s “preceptor program” was one of the best, so as soon as possible, and with permission, we started our own. In the years that followed, what began as a voluntary opportunity for our first-year students has now grown into a required first-year course component that has extended to create mentor matches for interested upper-division students, too. We now have 150+ practicing attorneys and judges giving their time to mentor students with more on the way.

And then there is Otto. Otto was a fill-in preceptor (read: mentor) during the first year of the program. He was named Preceptor of the Year during the second year. For the third year, we named the award after him.

We give Otto a mentee or two each year and then he goes and collects more like baseball cards. I have no idea at this point how many students—and graduates—now consider themselves one of Otto’s “kids.”

Here are the sorts of things students said about Otto in the past:

“From allowing me to use his office space to study for finals, to taking our mentor group out to dinner every couple of weeks, to giving me thoughtful career advice, he has done so much to make my law school experience both enjoyable and comfortable.”

“Most importantly, he represents everything that Pepperdine stands for: a person who overcame the odds and does good things for people on a daily basis. He is truly one of the most unselfish people I know.”

I attended one of Otto’s dinners for his “kids” last weekend, and as expected, there were first-year, second-year, and third-year students in attendance alongside those not even in law school anymore. It was a family gathering: relaxed, lively stories, laughter, and lots of smiles.

Otto would say that it’s a toss-up whether he or the students get more out of these relationships, but it appears to me to be a tie ballgame.

To be candid, I know exactly what lights Otto’s fire and am convinced that it presents itself as a potential source of joy for all of us, and that is pouring oneself out into the lives of others. But on the flip side, being loved is a pretty great thing, too.

Listening

“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”
– Simon Sinek

I typically get a laugh when I say that I do my best work by accident, but as an inveterate planner it is stated more as confession than humor. Regardless, it is true.

The monthly interfaith conversation with law students that we host in our condo is a prime example. I launched the group just over three years ago with distinct goals: (i) make sure our Christian law school really is welcoming to students from all faiths; and (ii) reduce my ignorance that periodically and unwittingly creates difficulty for certain faith groups, e.g., scheduling events during important religious holidays.

I think I also hoped for great conversations but had no idea that this interfaith effort would turn into one of the best things in my life.

October’s rendition was fantastic. The official conversation topic as decided by the student leaders was, “How does your ‘birth religion’ differ or accord with your personal feelings of religious experience (i.e., were you born into your religion, or did some thing or event compel your faith)?” I expected an interesting discussion but did not anticipate such moving and personal stories as were shared from traditions including Atheism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and many flavors of Christianity. It was one of those occasions when you realize that you are honored just to be there. It was a sacred space.

Although less emotional than the rest, I took a turn at answering the question. Although I am still associated with my “birth religion,” a major personal turning point occurred as a young adult when I first interacted with those from religious groups different from my own. This experience launched me on a trajectory that is currently exemplified by the very interfaith conversation that prompted my sharing.

On my best days, what changed in me was the development of intellectual humility. I have (ironically) learned that there is so much that I do not know, and what I do “know” often turns out to be wrong. That would have been a terrifying thought for Growing Up Me, but today I find it to be liberating and a great comfort.

Homogeneity is both seductive and intoxicating, but I have discovered that learning to listen to diverse voices has increased my ability to understand and respect and love. This has made me a better person, and my life is fuller.

Measuring Strength

At Riverside

I am loving the opportunity to tag along with Pepperdine’s cross country program this season as the Waves race toward the conference and regional championship meets. For those unfamiliar, although cross country appears on the surface to be an individual sport, a team’s score depends on the finish place of the top five runners on the team.¹ Therefore, a great finish by four runners can be wasted without a solid finish from runner number five.

Hang on to that thought.

I preferred to study alone in law school, but more often than not law students form study groups to help process the complex material encountered in class. The advice I remember (and now deliver) is to be careful when forming a study group because the group will proceed at the pace of the slowest student.

You are following along nicely, aren’t you? An organization is only as strong as its weakest member.

The analogy to any department, team, group, business, class, family, etc. is pretty obvious—as are the choices of what to do with this information. One option is to replace the weak with someone strong,² but often times such drastic measures are not possible, like, oh, say, a family for instance. The other option is not to be so enamored with the superstar strengths in your organization and focus on improving the weakest unit(s). That just makes sense.

What isn’t so obvious is taking this same concept and looking into the mirror, mirror on the wall.

It is hard to consider a more complex organization than an individual human being. Setting aside the astonishingly complex biology and considering only the complex amalgamation of traits, skills, interests, passions, and experiences of each person, it is interesting to consider that we as individuals are also only as strong as our weakest part.

The same lesson and same options remain for a stronger future: If possible, eject the weakness, but more likely than not, focus on making the weakest part stronger.

Locate your fifth runner and pay special attention to its training. It will determine where you finish.

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¹ Wave student-athlete, Trevor Sytsma, explains this well in his excellent blog post at http://www.pepperdinesports.com/blog/2015/10/cross-country-update-trevor-sytsma-1.html.

² Jim Collins says it this way: “[L]eaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where’ but with ‘who.’ They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html

Counter with Creativity

My dad would criticize a baseball umpire by saying: “He’s blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other.” Maybe I should look into umpire work.

I have been legally blind in my left eye since birth. This is my standard fun fact for party games because nothing says fun like eye disease! The formal title for the condition is amblyopia, but the common name is lazy eye.¹ If discovered when a baby, a simple patch over the good eye will kick start the lazy eye into action. When undiscovered, the damage is irreversible. Mine was discovered in the third grade. I may have been a slow child.

But this one-eye blind condition was never a problem. Despite two traumatic injuries to my useful eye (I will spare you the gory details) and ignoring doctor’s advice to wear protective eyewear when playing sports, my “good eye” seemed better by itself than others’ two eyes combined. I was rather smug about this.

Pride comes before a fall, and for me pride came before the combination of law school and my forties, and you guessed it, that “good” eye is now in search of a new adjective.

I do have reading glasses and even wear them sometimes, but for the most part I choose to be adventurous. For example, I now list random numbers on the tip line of the credit card receipt at local restaurants since I cannot see the receipt. As a result, I now have a hot-cold relationship with the wait staff.

I do have a dream, and surprisingly it is not to be able to see once again. Instead, my new goal in life is to own, and become proficient at using, and bring back into style, the monocle. I could use some help purchasing one since I no longer seem to be able to read the Internet, but my new life goal is to join the ranks of childhood heroes such as Colonels Klink and Mustard, The Penguin, and Mr. Peanut.

A monocle is distinguished, sure. It will accent my cheekbone, but of course. More importantly, however, it is both exactly what I need and very weird, and that my friends is a winning combination.

There are several options to consider when life tosses a new challenge your way. I propose countering with something outside the proverbial box. Not every challenge can be turned into something that creates smiles, but for the life of me I cannot come up with a reason not to give it a shot.

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¹ Before you feel too sorry for me, I join the ranks of fellow beautiful people: Melissa Joan Hart, Paris Hilton, Taylor Lautner, and Russell Crowe.

A Human Playlist

It is scandalous that one of the pressing issues of our time has not received an ounce of attention in presidential politics and that is the issue of whether or not to listen to music while running. There is a raging national debate on this topic, and by raging I mean an article in Runner’s World just over a year ago with the clever title, “Should You Listen to Music While Running?” It is possible you may have missed it.

There is the Purist camp that says to leave the music at home when you hit the road, arguing (a) safety, i.e., that Death Cab for Cutie should not become an appropriate title for the final chapter in your posthumously-written biography; and (b) that it is better to listen to your heart (h/t Roxette) than your tunes.

I am a Purist.

Then, there is the Overwhelming Majority camp that thinks we Purists are silly. The countervailing argument is motivation, both music-spurs-me-on motivation, and what-person-in-their-right-mind-runs-and-music-is-the-only-way-I-can-do-this motivation. These are obvious and compelling arguments.

I am obviously not compelled.

My Purist rationale goes beyond safety and becoming one with your body, but it is not that I am an Originalist, claiming that if God had wanted us to listen to music when we run that we would have been born with wires hanging out of our ears. Instead, I dream of a world where we at least occasionally say hello. Our mobile phones are terrible enough. I simply wish that at least we runners would look up and notice each other.

Once, I was running in Santa Monica and met a young woman rounding the corner running in the opposite direction. She had on an Arkansas Razorbacks t-shirt, my alma mater, which brought a huge smile to my face and an instinctive cheer of Go Hogs! So, first off, without context, this is a rather offensive thing to shout at a young female early on a Saturday morning. Further, since she was not a Purist, all she knew was that a tall/pale/skinny/bald/excited/middle-aged man raised his fist and shouted at her. My recollection is that her reaction resembled a terrified deer leaping over a fence.

I felt sort of terrible but concluded that if God wanted her to listen to music while she ran that she would have been born with wires hanging out of her ears.

I am pretty sure that we don’t look up and notice the stars enough. I am also pretty sure that we don’t reach down and touch the actual earth enough. But I know that more and more we are looking at or listening to a device instead of a fellow human being, and I think that is terrible.

Maybe the title of this blog is prophetic and we really will start to look up.

Can You Imagine?

Graham Greene’s classic novel, The Power and the Glory, is set in an historical period when Christianity was outlawed in Mexico, and the main character, an alcoholic priest, lands in an inhuman, overcrowded jail as a result of his addiction. It is there, surrounded by hopelessness, that the priest reveals his identity only to be ridiculed by a fellow inmate for being a bad priest.

Greene writes:

He couldn’t see her in the darkness, but there were plenty of faces he could remember from the old days which fitted the voice. When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity… that was a quality God’s image carried with it… when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

That line: Hate was just a failure of imagination.

I would like to aim higher in life, and if I could be so bold, to learn even to love, but maybe the prerequisite is first to learn not to hate. And today, in our (politically and otherwise) polarized society, conquering hate would be refreshing progress.

I am convinced that the inner child in each of us recalls how to imagine. If true, then the crucial step is to notice hate, demonization, and condescension as these harmful sensations seek to harden into the dismissal of another as less than human and choose to replace the hate with a sincere desire to understand. For any progress to occur, we must understand one another, especially those we have a predisposition to despise.

I imagine this is possible.

Breaking Curses

The baseball playoffs arrive this week with a potential Cardinals-Cubs matchup. I will now reveal my important Steve Bartman theory even though it is not in my self-interest.

First, let me say that an objective fan would not place a bet on my much-beloved Redbirds this postseason. Although the Cardinals own the best record in the major leagues, the team limps into the playoffs both physically and in baseball play down the stretch. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily bet against the Cardinals for reasons that go straight to my Bartman theory.

For those who do not know, the Chicago Cubs are cursed. It is sad, but it is true. The Cubbies last won the World Series in 1908 and have not won the National League pennant since they were cursed by a goat in 1945. In 2003, twelve long years ago now (and the last time the Cubs won a playoff game), the Cubs were looking good and just five outs away from breaking the curse and going to the World Series when an unsuspecting fan named Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball and foiled the attempted catch of Cubs left fielder, Moises Alou. Alou threw a veritable fit, the Cubs lost the game (and ultimately the series), and Bartman became the bearer of the curse, sadly making him more (in)famous than that old goat.

So, my theory:

I am convinced that if Moises Alou would have simply smiled and ran back to left field that the Cubs would have gone to the World Series. I am serious. I believe that Alou’s fit fueled the crowd reaction, which led to Prior’s subsequent wild pitch, which led to Alex Gonzales’s error and the downfall of Western civilization.

I may be wrong, but as it stands now, the alternative theory is that a sports franchise was cursed by a goat.

My point is this: Life sure seems to be more cursed the more you believe you are cursed. Conversely, things start to look up the more you expect things will start to look up. Some call it self-fulfilling prophecy, and some call it the power of positive thinking. I just call ‘em as I see ‘em, and I’m calling this one as a strike right down the middle of the plate.

Last week, a Cubs fan started a GoFundMe page to raise money to send Steve Bartman to the wildcard game in Pittsburgh. A Cubs fan, not a Pirates fan. I love it. Bartman turned it down and gave the money to charity, but I love the campaign. It was touted as an act of forgiveness, but I think it was much more: That, my friends, is the way you break a curse.

Human Goodness

October is one of my twelve favorite months, but baseball might earn it top billing. It helps that I am a lifelong St. Louis Cardinal fan.

I missed most of the important Cardinals-Pirates game this past Monday due to my teaching schedule but made it home just in time to witness the scary and violent collision between two Cardinal outfielders, Peter Bourjos and Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty, a phenomenal rookie talent, was knocked out cold on the play. Players were visibly shaken as Piscotty lay motionless on the outfield grass, and players and fans alike prayed in the unusual silence of a pennant race baseball game between division rivals.

Eventually, the medical staff strapped the promising young athlete down and drove him along the warning track on the way to the hospital as the crowd silently watched and ESPN cameras followed. In a memorable moment, Piscotty weakly raised his left hand to wave to the visiting crowd.¹ The crowd erupted in applause as if their hometown hero had just delivered a key base hit.

I was moved simply by the ovation.

I have a master’s degree in cynicism that I’m not particularly proud of, but it allows me to create all sorts of scenarios. Maybe it was Cardinal fans that happened to scream their applause next to ESPN’s audio sensors. Maybe people from Pittsburgh are particularly kind. Maybe the Pirate fans coincidentally tried to start The Wave just as Piscotty gave a wave.

But I don’t think so.

I’m pretty sure there is some level of goodness in all human beings, and that is exactly what moved me. It was a brief moment when people who paid real money in hopes of watching their team destroy the hopes and dreams of the other team raised a hearty cheer for an enemy solider simply because they identified with him as a fellow human being.

A preacher once asked congregants to draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and write all the reasons they had to be happy on one side and all the reasons they had to be sad on the other and then asked which side they chose to live on. I suggest the same exercise but listing the reasons to believe in the goodness of humanity on one side and the reasons to believe otherwise on the opposite: Which side of that exercise will you choose to live on?

There are elements of both goodness and not-goodness in my life (e.g., with Piscotty hurt on the field, I am embarrassed to say that I had the actual thought that I was thankful that Bourjos made the spectacular catch) and am darn near positive that goes for everyone else, too, but what a difference it makes when we see the good in another before we see anything else.

I once read advice to live life as a reverse paranoid, i.e., walk around convinced that everyone is out to help you. That is a definite day-changer!

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¹ Piscotty is okay. Thankfully, he only suffered a head contusion, but it was scary.