Monthly Archives: January 2016

This Is Life

Flipping through television channels is one of my least favorite things to do, but that is what I was doing Sunday evening when I discovered CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling,” a series that describes itself by saying that Ling “goes on a gritty, breathtaking journey to the far corners of America.” The episode I watched was more grisly than gritty as she journeyed to the L.A. County Coroner’s office (like “This is Death with Lisa Ling”).

The show was creepily captivating—and a little personal since I learned that everyone who dies in L.A. County outside of being in a hospital under physician’s care is taken to the warehouse that Ling toured for the world to see. I live in L.A. County.

I also learned that approximately eleven thousand dead bodies are processed in same warehouse each year, which if you do the math, is a lot. The crazy number is at least understandable since L.A. County is the most populous county in the nation (ten million people!), which is like Arkansas plus Mississippi plus Oklahoma (or, for easy math, the nation of Sweden). But still. That thirty dead people on average show up there every day is just difficult to imagine.

Ling introduced viewers to several employees filling several roles at the Coroner’s, and in so doing, basically walked us through the entire process. In particular, we followed the path of the unidentified dead, from the search for family members to the eventual cremation of those whose families cannot be found.

I mean, it was a fun show. Sort of a new Addams Family!

No, it was heartbreaking. Until, that is…

At the end of the hour, Ling shared that the Coroner’s office periodically hosts a multi-faith service in Evergreen Cemetery to honor the unidentified, which sadly numbered over a thousand at the one featured on our television screen. That part was still heartbreaking. The heart-mending part for me was the point Ling made that although these souls died alone, their ashes are honored in community.

That part—the honoring of all people in community—fits the name of Ling’s show. That is what life is all about if you ask me. Now, if we can just work backward and honor the lonely while they are still alive, we will have arrived at someplace worthwhile.

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A Runner’s Thoughts

I ran thirteen miles Saturday morning (well, 13.2, but you know how I hate to brag). My big race is two weeks away, so running the full half-marathon length in advance seemed like a good idea, although sleeping in followed by a trip to Krispy Kreme sounded good, too. My final choices are often a teensy counter-intuitive.

So I had a lot of time to think. Admittedly, several thoughts were of the “uh-oh, am I getting a rash?” variety, while others centered on the theme of “and why not Krispy Kreme?” More often than not, however, I escaped to a sublime place and experienced ineffable thoughts.

• How do you describe witnessing the early morning dawn give way to a new day, revealing a curious mix of pastels and haze?
• How do you describe the irrepressible smile in your soul when you discern the distinct sound of the beach formed by crashing waves and squawking birds?
• How do you describe the spectacular variety of humanity that greet me on the path, reflecting in clothes and shoes and faces the bright and colorful explosion that is the world?
• How do you describe the runner’s sensation of settling into a pace and listening to your body talk in the clearest language?
• How do you describe the playfulness evident in all things, from the dolphins and surfers bobbing together in the open waters, to the hyperactive dogs and children frolicking in the surf?
• How do you describe running with the ocean waves up the Venice Pier and sensing in your heart, for the first time, how it feels to crash into the spongy shore?
• How do you describe the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the road where labored breathing fades into the quiet harmony of the new day and you consider that you have never felt so alive?

You don’t describe it. You experience it. And when you do, you do not forget, and cannot wait for more.

My to-do list is thankful for cars and the occasional airplane, but in my humble opinion, the world is best explored on foot.

Vision Care

My optometrist is wonderful. Kind. Professional. Gentle. Brilliant. Compassionate. I hate him so much.

The hatred is obviously the It’s-not-you-it’s-me kind because he is great and all. It is simply that I wish never to see him again. That, of course, is the dilemma: that if I never see him again, then I may not see anyone again. It is a harder decision than it sounds when I say it out loud.

My first optometrist visit occurred in the third grade and taught me that I was blind in one eye. I remember quite well that my eyelids were turned inside out as part of the examination, which resulted in a more serious medical condition known as “the heebie jeebies” (self-diagnosis). The heebie jeebies is a terrible malady, and the chief treatment plan is to avoid all visits to an optometrist for as long as humanly possible. Seeing as I am nothing if not committed to a treatment plan, I did not visit another optometrist for thirty-three years (which, I’m just pointing out, Christians believe is the entire human life span of the Son of God, so I think that is a pretty good run).

But I caved several years back and that is when I met Dr. Wonderful, whom I hate if that was somehow left unclear. Oh, it is an irrational hatred. There were no eyelids turned inside out in the examination, so no heebie jeebies. The visit mostly consisted of rational adult conversation and semi-successful attempts to read tiny letters. I graduated to reading glasses, which wasn’t all that terrible either. There was only one negative . . . .

I have never been known for physical strength. That is probably because I have very little physical strength. But I’m telling you the truth, and you can ask my doctor, try to drop something into one of my eyes, and my eye muscles can lift a Buick—or at least a grown man wearing a miner’s hat holding a dropper.

(Why are all my superhero gifts so lame? Adding lists of numbers quickly, Olympic-strength eye muscles, 1980s-era NBA trivia, number of freckles…)

So, seeing as how dropping liquids into my eyes turns me into The Incredible Hulk, I took another few years between optometrist visits just out of respect for peace in the community, but last week in a moment of weakness I returned once more to the scene of the crime. It went as expected: I tossed Dr. Nice Guy around the examination room with my eye muscles like a professional wrestler and now have some new glasses on the way.

In sum, I guess it is clear that I avoid the very resource that helps me see the world more clearly because it creates a brief moment of discomfort. That doesn’t make a lick of sense for the eyes of my heart any more than it does for the eyes in my skull, and if clarity of vision means anything at all, I had just better learn to get over it.

Brothers and Sisters

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“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)

Three years ago, I wrote an essay for the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal titled, “From Integration to Multiculturalism: Dr. King’s Dream Fifty Years Later.” The essay questioned whether the changes in race relations in the United States in half a century signified actual progress toward Dr. King’s dream. The skepticism I expressed in the essay has not improved while watching the news over the ensuing three years.

And what exactly was the Dream? Although the terms equality and freedom and justice, words with a legal flavor, were prominently featured in Dr. King’s speeches, it is the family metaphor of brotherhood (with apologies for the non-gender inclusive language of the time) that stands out in the speeches as a better characterization of the Dream. As King famously stated, “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”

Check out the epigraph to this essay that closed out the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to see what I mean. Check it out again and tell me that we are in shouting distance of such a dream. I think not.

So has this all been a waste of time? Are we simply left with a new holiday? Of course not, but although there has been much good, it is naïve to think that we are anywhere near a world where we see one another as brothers and sisters across the various social lines that divide us. Watch the news. Heck, join me in taking a good look at our own hearts.

So what now? Well, I say that we keep dreaming. And keep hoping. And keep working. For equality and freedom and justice, sure, but climb up on the mountaintop and see beyond those lofty words to an even loftier ideal where we all live together as brothers and sisters.

That is some dream, and it is worth remembering today.

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You Can’t Control the Weather

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A Malibu winter is, well, two mismatched words, yet visitors throughout the year often find the weather cooler than expected in this famous little town. I mostly blame the Beach Boys for misrepresentation. Still, the weather is pretty great, and in January you have to get past the general sunshine and spectacular sunsets just to imagine cold and dreary.

But we saw a lot of snow on our cross-country flight last weekend, and when we hit the Rocky Mountains (metaphorically, thank God), the aerial view was breathtaking and demanded an iPhone picture attempt through a dirty window at however many thousand feet. Thankfully, iPhones apparently know everything and mine let me know that I took the picture (above) in Fort Garland, Colorado. This thriving metropolis has a population of four hundred (or eight hundred for about fifteen seconds when our plane passed overhead).

Winter can be spectacular, but I remember enough from past lives to know that winter can also be a pain, and the bitter and numbing kind. Life is like that, too: spectacular at moments, and bitter at others.

Emily Dickinson presumably looked out her window once and wrote:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

That Emily Dickinson sure had a way with words. Nature has its glorious days, but it has its bad days, too, complete with mean clouds and complaining winds. As do we.

Today may be one of your glorious days, but then again, odds are that it could just as well be a day when you misplaced your diadem (editorial note: not a dirty reference if diadem is new to you, but it sort of sounds like it, doesn’t it?).

Good days come and go, just like the weather, and much of that is out of our control.

How we choose to respond is not.

Helping Hands

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It felt important to visit the 9/11 Museum while in New York City last week. My wife and I successfully navigated the famous subway system and arrived mid-morning, allowing a couple of hours for a visit based on the website’s recommendation, but it took us three, and honestly, we were so overwhelmed by the emotion (and sheer size) of the place that we could have stayed all day. It was breathtaking in multiple ways.

It would take an entire book to describe the visit, so I will simply share one surprising thing that stood out to me over and over while looking at countless images of those looking on in horror that fateful day: Hands.

We are taught as children to use our hands to cover our mouths when we cough. We are taught in baseball and golf and tennis, for example, how to hold a bat/club/racket. We are taught as university employees during mandatory sexual harassment training where we can and cannot place our hands on colleagues and students. But we aren’t taught what to do with our hands when unspeakable tragedy occurs, and yet we must have all received the same memo from what I observed in those haunting photographs from September 11, 2001, like the one above.

Hands over mouth. Hands on head. Hands covering eyes. Hands reaching empty toward the sky. Over and over and over I kept noticing hands doing the exact same things. One exhibit featured the shirt of a Navy SEAL who served on the team that killed Osama bin Laden, and just above the shirt there was a picture of President Obama and his team watching intently from D.C. while the raid occurred. President Obama literally sat on the edge of his seat with a terribly serious expression on his face, but nearby sat then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her hands over her mouth.

I’m writing with zero research so I suspect there are sophisticated studies that explain this phenomenon, but I’m shooting from the hip here and guess that this natural physiological response is a primitive biological/evolutionary attempt at self-defense. When faced with trauma, the hands unconsciously respond to stifle a scream or protect oneself or punch someone else’s self like the fun little game where the doctor hits the bulls-eye on the knee with that little rubber hammer.

This observation and a tiny bit of reflection led me to consider the role of hands in the moments and days and years after that immediate instinctive reaction. I also saw pictures where hands shared hugs with the grief-stricken. I saw touching handwritten letters. I saw and heard and read many accounts of the hands that rescued life and cleared away the rubble. I saw works of art produced to honor the victims—in fact, I was spending time in and now writing about a spectacular museum and memorial for remembrance and healing that was designed and built by many hands.

There is the corresponding dark side, of course, in that hands brought the death and destruction that led to the need for all of this in the first place, but I left the museum thinking about how hands can bring life—and how they seem to want to bring life in the face of death.

Won’t you lend a hand for life?

A Master’s Degree

If my ten years as a preacher count, and I vote that they should, education has been my day-to-day life for as long as I can remember. But education is familiar to us all, and I suspect that most of us have a similar picture when we hear words like “student” and “teacher” and “classroom”—and that picture is of learners arranged in neat little rows poised to have their brains filled by a knowledgeable instructor standing at the front of the room. Am I right?

When I was a preacher, I became particularly interested in the word “disciple” since the Christian Bible seemed to use it an awful lot. When I learned that the original word basically meant “student,” I thought I had a pretty good handle on that thought (see above), but it turns out that teacher/student/classroom in the Middle East a couple of thousand years ago didn’t look exactly like an American high school.

To grasp that picture, think “apprentice.” Instead of multiple teachers individually sharing various areas of expertise with a learner, picture a relationship where the student wants to become the teacher—to know what the teacher knows, to think like the teacher thinks, and see the world like the teacher sees.

Well, that’s a different show altogether.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking to my friends and colleagues in the Student Services Section of the Association of American Law Schools at our national meeting in New York City. My topic was mentoring, and I shared the following quote from poet, Ruth Whitman:

“In every art beginners must start with models of those who have practiced the same art before them. And it is not only a matter of looking at the drawings, paintings, musical compositions, and poems that have been and are being created; it is a matter of being drawn into the individual work of art, of realizing that it has been made by a real human being, and trying to discover the secret of its creation.”

A mentor brings great value to someone who hopes to be an artist, or lawyer, or preacher, or teacher, or butcher or baker or candlestick maker—just about anyone. A mentor provides the opportunity for a learner to be drawn into the mind and heart of a person to discover the secret of what makes that person do what she does.

Mentor possibilities are endless (and potentially affordable, too!). You could choose a specific living, breathing person with oodles of time for you. Um, then again, that might prove impossible. You could choose someone who moved on from this life and learn from that mentor through her writings, biography, or documentary. You could choose a combination of folks for various reasons, a “personal board of directors” as I’ve heard it called.

I am not proposing a complete overhaul of the American educational system. My thought is that we shouldn’t limit our education to simply extracting information from people we call teachers. People do that from hostages! Crawl deeper into the day-to-day mind and heart of someone who lived (or is living) this life well. And learn.

Decide, Then Do

“Workouts are like brushing my teeth. I don’t think about them. I just do them. The decision has already been made.” – Patti Sue Plumer

I love resolutions and make them at any time of year, so yes, I have a new set for 2016. Three of them involve running:

#1: Set a half-marathon PR (under 1:37:10). I will go for it on Super Bowl Sunday alongside seventeen thousand new friends on a reportedly flat and spectacular course at Surf City in Huntington Beach.

#2: Enter the lottery for a chance to run the New York City Marathon. I have never entered a marathon, and if it is going to happen, it might as well be in the world’s largest marathon (fifty thousand runners!). (Running Resolution 2b: If I actually get in, complete the NYC Marathon without a corresponding hospital stay.)

#3: Run in Kenya with Kenyans. This is so incredibly awesome. My wife and I are part of a team headed to Kenya in June to work alongside a beautiful ministry that rescues children from the slums, and the chance to run with Kenyans in Kenya will be the highlight of the year. And if we are chased by a lion, then my ultimate fantasy of actually outrunning a Kenyan will also come true.

Resolutions are famously easy to make—and even keep for the first three days of the year give or take. Resolutions are famously difficult to keep past January, which is why this essay’s epigraph from Olympic distance runner, Patti Sue Plumer, is so curious in its simplicity. You simply decide and then just do? If it was only that easy . . .

What if it is that easy?

We give ourselves far too little credit. Listen closely: You (yes, you) and I (yes, me, too) possess the power to have true resolve. We really do. That resolutions are standing jokes is scandalous.

Marianne Williamson (often mis-attributed to Nelson Mandela, but I know it better from the movie, Coach Carter) famously wrote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Do not miscalculate your strength: You are stronger than you think. Do not be afraid of failure: Your battle is the fear, not the failure.

Decide.

Then, do. Simply because the decision has already been made.

End of discussion.

Take a Look at Yourself

In November, my youngest daughter gave me a little book titled, “Experience Passport: 45 Ways to Broaden Your Horizons” because, in her words, it is my “kind of thing,” which is true. The back cover reads: “Where will today take you? This passport grants you access to life-enriching experiences. Break out of your routine, learn something new, and discover the world of inspiration around you.” Woo hoo! Let’s go!

It was a bumpy start. I asked my daughter to pick a number between one and forty-five to get me going, and she went with thirty-two, which read, “Draw a self-portrait every day for thirty consecutive days. At the end of that time, describe how your portraits evolved.”

Well, I completed that task yesterday, and let’s just say that I discovered the answer to a longstanding question of mine as to whether I could be any uglier. It turns out: Yes.

Most of the self-portraits were tight-lipped because the few times I tried drawing teeth looked like I was conducting electrical experiments inside of my mouth. One night, while watching the local news, an artist rendering of a robbery suspect made me question my whereabouts on December 6, at least according to that day’s self-portrait. My Christmas Day attempt at drawing a Santa hat on my bald head looked a little too much like the Grinch.

So what is so “life-enriching” about drawing terrible pictures of myself for thirty days? Is it that my nose improved (the drawing, that is; the real one remains pretty massive)? Is it that in a mere thirty days my self-portraits are slightly less terrible?

Not too inspiring, eh?

On reflection, however, I think that the exercise is worthwhile simply for the metaphor: Spend thirty days closely scrutinizing yourself, blemishes and all, and if you can handle it, you can more accurately determine how to be a better version of you. You know, Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror, and all that.

The end of one calendar year and the beginning of a new one is apparently a great time for self-reflection, so I encourage you to take a long, hard look at yourself, warts and all, and set out to produce the very best rendition of you. I just spent thirty days trying to do it with a #2 pencil and a sketch pad.

IMG_2325My Best Attempt