Monthly Archives: November 2015

Freedom Road

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Random Glitter Beard Guy (Not Me. Yet.)

My inaugural participation in No Shave November would have ended today were it not for (a) my wife’s shocking declaration that she likes the beard; and (b) an entrepreneurial law student convincing me to wear a “glitter beard” for a full day if he raised a thousand dollars for the law school’s public interest student organization. He created a GoFundMe page for this effort, and as disturbing as a glitter beard on my face is to consider, last I checked he had raised ten bucks. You could change that, of course, with your donations (click HERE), but this is a classic win-win situation for me.

Glitter beard aside, my life is actually one long story of self-consciousness about physical appearance, but there has been great progress over the decades, and my path to baldness is particularly instructive.

My hair embarrassed me from the moment I realized people judged your appearance. I don’t know exactly how to describe my hair, other than terrible. It was thin, light brown, oily, and curled in all the wrong places with length, with a cowlick smack in the middle of my forehead. I hated it. I tried, without talent mind you, to make it look okay, hoping not to draw attention to it—ever—and in that effort spent more time than I care to know in front of a mirror. In effect, I was a butcher with a comb attempting brain surgery.

Worse, any time the wind blew or rain fell it somehow got worse, and both happened in my hometown on a regular basis. Wearing a hat was okay if it was stapled to my head and never came off in public. I wore out untold back pockets on blue jeans because I carried a comb everywhere I went. Everywhere. I guess I was vain in reverse, not consumed with looking good, just desperate not to be the object of laughter.

This went on for a few decades or so, give or take, and then I started going bald on top, too, as if being pale/skinny/freckly with bad hair wasn’t enough self-esteem for an American male.

And then one glorious day I was reading lovely Anne Lamott talk about her lifelong obsession with bad hair (although her particular malady was frizzy-ness). She mentioned that as an adult a friend with dreadlocks encouraged her to follow suit, but the idea of a middle-aged white woman in dreadlocks took some time to consider. Then, one day, while watching the climactic scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne tunnels through sewage to escape from prison and stands in the pouring rain with his arms to the sky in glorious freedom, Lamott thought, “I could never do that. My hair would look terrible.” At that moment Lamott decided to go with dreadlocks. You laugh, but I had to catch my breath. It was me. In effect, it was that story that led me to shave my head.

Here is the kicker: It was so difficult to actually follow through with it because my entire life had been one long attempt to avoid calling attention to my personal appearance. (And let me tell you, shaving your head is one surefire way to draw attention to your personal appearance.) But I did it. Our friend, Devon, did the honors, and as expected, everyone had to comment. (My favorite was when meeting those who hadn’t seen me for some time. They were oddly quiet, and I am sure that my bald/pale/skinny self had them wondering if it was cancer or AIDS. I just let them wonder.) After some time, the comments went away, and all these years later, I could not be happier.

What I learned is that the path to freedom requires the courage to face your greatest fears. And that the freedom is worth it.

It is still difficult to say, but—look at me. I’m up to sporting a glitter beard now if the price is right.

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Thankful

PICT0001.12[Note: I took the picture above and wrote the essay below nine years ago on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It is worth sharing again this Thanksgiving season.]

I discreetly pulled out my camera after climbing in my car, turned off the flash, and snapped a picture of Carolyn as she went back to her daily work without her knowing. I did not want her to think she was some sort of display, but after our conversation, I also did not want to forget.

I go to Biloxi every couple of weeks to visit my friend, Hezekiah, in the nursing home. Hezekiah is a disabled man in his late 60s – disabled both mentally and physically – and Hezekiah is a hoot. He spends his days coloring in magazines and listening to his radio, with occasional interruptions for his harmonica and smoking breaks. He generally cheers me up when I visit, and today was no exception. We talked about Christmas approaching, and he renewed his constant desire for a “jew harp.” I have no idea what he is talking about. Oh, I know what a “Jew’s harp” is – actually bought one once upon a time for Hezekiah, but when he saw it he didn’t have a clue what I had given him. So who knows… In addition, he’s interested in a football this year, too. One he could kick. The nurses will love that…

I also visited with Mr. Flowers on the way in and on the way out. He cheers me up, too. He also sits in a wheelchair, but he has a lot more going on upstairs than Hezekiah. He always wants me to say a prayer for him, something I’m glad to do. Today was no exception.

When I made it back to my car today, there was a lady working hard in the nursing home yard, picking up trash, and piling up pinecones. As is normal for me, I said something to catch her attention – “You’ve got a never-ending job, don’t you?” I said as I began to step into my car. She responded as I put one foot in, and this unleashed a 20-minute conversation in that position.

I learned a lot about Carolyn while I stood there, and I’m glad I did. She walks around with her body a bit hunched and noticeably leaning to one side. This was explained when she informed me that her ex-husband had taken out a lot of life insurance on her and then threw her out of a moving pickup truck. She lost one of her ears on the fall.

But she thanks God that she’s alive today.

Carolyn has five children, all adults now. They come and visit her every now and then at the nursing home, and she loves them dearly. If she could have one wish, she told me she’d live somewhere where she could see them every day.

But she thanks God that she was able to raise them.

Carolyn spends her days picking up trash and pinecones from the front yard of the nursing home. It is a never-ending job, but it is one she takes pride in. Her bedroom window faces this yard, and though Atkinson Road is a popular road for litter it seems, and although the trees continually shed themselves in this yard, it makes her feel so good to be able to clean it up enough to look out each morning and see it looking clean.

She thanks God that her health is such that she can spend her day picking up the trash.

And what was it again that I have to complain about?

I told Carolyn not to work too hard, and she told me she wouldn’t. She was about to take a break for a while, but when I left she took her bucket and went after a few more pieces of trash before sitting for a spell.

Carolyn is quite the metaphor for life I believe. All of us damaged creatures get up to face the world as seen through our bedroom window every morning. And if we could just have the blessing of being able to pick up the trash we see cluttering up our part of the world, and if we could just have enough breath and life to make it through that day, and if we have been able to touch a few lives along the way…

Then we have a lot to be thankful for.

Not Yet

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill

The State Bar of California released its July 2015 bar exam results over the weekend, which impacted the lives of a large number of people that I know and love. California is famously the last state to release results and the one with the lowest passing statistics (and this year’s was the lowest July pass rate in three decades). This combination produces enhanced euphoria for some and a particularly hard punch in the gut to others. It is a weekend of tremendous highs and tremendous lows, and with friends in both places, I never know exactly how to feel. It is easy to celebrate the good news, but it is those who are hurting who maintain center stage in my mind.

I try to do all the right things: Give time, then reach out, then wait patiently, and then, when engaged, try to be helpful. As a former pastor, grief counseling is familiar territory.

Truth be told, the answer in the end is simple and involves climbing back on to the bicycle or horse or whatever metaphor you prefer to have fallen from and go at it again. “If at once you don’t succeed…” is technical truth, but it takes time to hear it without punching someone.

There is more. Success after failure is even sweeter. I recall an old article that identified resilience as a key characteristic of the most spectacular figures in history who overcame great challenges and failures on their unforgettable journeys. Of course failure can destroy a person, too. But it doesn’t have to.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University tells of a high school in Chicago that gives the grade Not Yet as opposed to Fail. I know this makes some people scream, “Kids need to learn how to fail!” Exactly, and then they need to learn how to get back up again. That is the genius of Dr. Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset when facing failure, which she describes as having a “growth” mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset.

How do you respond to failure? Those with a fixed mindset typically take it personally (e.g., “I’m a failure.”) or blame some external factor (e.g., “It’s your fault that I failed.”). Those with a growth mindset respond with “Not Yet” and determine how to improve to reach the goal.

Finish Strong

My childhood included an unhealthy obsession with sports and since my high school offered only two sports for male students it went without saying that I would participate in both. High school basketball ruled our corner of Arkansas, not unlike the movie Hoosiers, so my standard year consisted of ten months basketball and two months track and field.

Track and field created a personal dilemma. First, I was slow. That turned out to be unhelpful in a footrace. Second, I could not jump, which ruled out the high jump, long jump, pole vault, and hurdle races. Third, I was weak. No discus or shot put for me. One option remained for actual participation on the team: running for long periods of time. That was my in. It was convenient that no one with actual athletic ability wanted to do this at the time.

Distance running engaged two personal strengths: physical and mental endurance. A bonus was the ability to tolerate boredom; my years of playing games alone in the backyard proved advantageous. In the end, given the small schools we competed against and the fact that most real athletes played baseball instead, I was pretty good. I won races at several meets and held my own as a general rule.

But all good things must come to an end. My high school athletic career had to come to an end, too. As fate and the calendar would have it, it would not end on a basketball court but at a state track meet shortly before graduation. I qualified to run the mile and quickly realized that all of my blood, sweat, and tears would end with four laps around a track. I pondered this deeply and decided that I would go out leaving everything on the track that day—energy, effort, lunch, whatever else—and that surely there would be a movie made about my gutsy performance. Tom Cruise was probably too short to take the part, but someone equally awesome would.

Here is what actually happened: I ran hard for three and a half of the four laps and was comfortably in sixth place (which would earn a ribbon and one point for my team), and I was hurting. As I approached the final turn, a sneak peek over my shoulder revealed that seventh place was hopelessly behind me and a look ahead revealed that fifth place was unattainable. So, I abandoned my last, gutsy, movie-invoking performance and coasted to the finish line.

It is a disappointing story. Three decades later, I am not sure what happened to my ribbon, but I do remember that I am disappointed in myself for not finishing strong.

There is a time to coast and for everything else under the sun, but the time to coast is not when you have your heart set on finishing strong. Once you set your heart and the race is on, don’t look behind, don’t look ahead, and don’t focus on the difficulty of the task; instead, look in your heart and look to the sky and find the strength to give it your all to the very end.

There may not be a movie, but you will know that there ought to be, and that is enough.

Love Your Neighbor

If the world had a Facebook account, its relationship status would read, “It’s Complicated.” Unfortunately, my contribution to the dizzying conversation will not magically clear things up.

Mourning is the appropriate response to tragedy, but the proud defiance by ISIS in the most recent attacks in Paris does not allow the world to sit beyond a moment of silence before responding to the ongoing threat. I was traveling when the attacks occurred, and best I could tell, the talking heads apparently agree that the real ISIS threat is its ability to recruit homegrown terrorists everywhere. They emphasized everywhere.

Who is attracted to such a thing? It is far too convenient to ascribe the attraction to abstract “evil.” Evil is easy to condemn and easy to hate, but this is no DC comic book. Further, even calling the tragedies “senseless” is far too easy. The acts, unfortunately, make all too much sense to those who carry them out, and any hope of prevention requires us to seek first to understand. I propose that those attracted to ISIS across the world are people who feel deeply marginalized, outside, silenced, and unimportant in their respective communities, and that any hope of removing the threat at the critical grassroots level requires us to love and respect everyone.

I’m a pretty hopeful guy in general, but this one has me less than chipper.

It is a catch-22 at the top. The powers that be must condemn and respond to terrorist attacks and have a specific responsibility to stop those already plotting violence. That response, however, inevitably fuels those who already feel marginalized by those very powers. ISIS thrives on the strong response its actions generate. We should remember that the next time we celebrate a necessary response.

So, surprisingly, the real, long-term hope for the world is in the hands of its regular citizens. If you want to make the world a safe place beyond a temporary Facebook profile picture, the answer lies not in forming camps by religion, race, sexual orientation, age, or God forbid, political party. In fact, I suggest the exact opposite—that the answer lies in breaking down the social walls that divide us in Everyday World and caring for those who live on the other side.

Division fuels hatred. Reconciliation generates hope. My advice is to seek out the outsiders in your community, including those who may already be angry, bitter souls. Befriend them. Walk beside them. Listen. Care about their cares. That, my friends, is where you and I can make a real difference in this complicated world.

The Question: To Be (Present), or Not to Be (Present)

[Note: As a speaker, writer, etcetera, it is rare that I simply allow something to speak for itself. I will today.]

The Vacation – by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

If the Horse Is Dead, Dismount

“If the horse is dead, dismount” may be my all-time favorite saying, partly because it is all eat up with cleverness, but mostly because there seems to be a lot of us still attempting to ride dead horses. Author and Pepperdine friend, Bob Goff, famously quits something every Thursday, which may be my favorite thing that he famously does. Many of us apparently need permission to stop doing things, so the encouragement is appreciated.

We come by it naturally. We were all taught that quitting is bad, and as long as we’re talking about finishing out a season in little league or performing acts of physical hygiene, then yes, quitting is bad. But if we are talking about, say, repeatedly slapping one’s head against a brick wall, or name your favorite drug habit, then quitting might not be a terrible idea at all.

Those distinctions are easy, but we apparently get a little confused on the acceptability of quitting somewhere between regular brushing and smoking crack.

Organizations may actually be worse than individuals at dismounting dead horses. Organizations run on established programs and processes that, once established, become prime evidence for the power of inertia. Such programs and processes should not be changed lightly, of course, but if “this is the way we do it”—with emphasis on “the”—becomes an excuse to keep doing something that quit working a long time ago…well, someone should call the horse coroner.

Look around your life and your house and your workplace to see if there just might be some things that you mindlessly keep doing for absolutely no good reason. If so, I grant thee permission to quit. You can wait until Thursday if you want. The horse is over it either way.

Look Up, Down, and Into

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My wife and I fill out a one-sentence couples’ journal each day. This makes us sound either cheesy or wonderful, but the reality is that I once was desperate for a gift when I stumbled across it at Barnes & Noble. And yet we love it. The journal provides a daily prompt, and we simply jot down a brief answer each day. In time, the journal will be a three-year time capsule of “us.”

One of this week’s prompts simply had to be shared on a blog with a name like this one. It asked, What does the sky look like today?

I’m not sure how often I fail to notice, but it would be embarrassing to know.

It might not be a terrible idea to ask three questions at the end of each day:
1. What did I see in the sky today?
2. What did I see in the earth today?
3. And, what did I see in the eyes of a fellow human being?

Facing the Wind

“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point.”
– Joan Didion, “Los Angeles Notebook.”

I am not a fearful person, but there is something ominous about the Santa Ana winds. Lying in the darkness, listening to them howl, trying without success to keep the curtains flailing about the room from disturbing a good night’s sleep. In essence, they are predictable hot and dry winds that blow through each autumn, but they seem to be more. They inspire authors and lyricists.¹ Some call them the devil winds.

In a word, they threaten. They famously threaten to spread a catastrophic wildfire across the parched region, but they also threaten to rearrange your house, deck, yard, and day; fell trees; nudge cars from lane to lane; and even produce a bad hair day or so I’ve been told.

I don’t care for them. I don’t like anything that threatens to disrupt order.

I’m not a big fan of helplessness either, and the Santa Ana winds are rather difficult to punch in the face. Or, easy, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect. The winds are the outlaw bandits blowing into town to wreak havoc on the village, and you are the cowering villagers, hoping behind barricaded doors for a fearless sheriff or The Magnificent Seven.

Okay, a little melodramatic, sure, but in the middle of the night when the winds howl, the apprehension is real.

And yet, even this is good.

I am not a fan of helplessness or disruption (in fact, I have a teensy control problem), and yet in so many ways I am helpless, and disruption is inevitable. The Santa Ana winds remind me of these truths and teach me to trust and stand fast and bend with the breeze and endure.

John Ruskin put it best: “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”

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¹ In between the Star of David and the California moon
The Santa Ana winds blew warm into your room
– Elton John, Mansfield