Monthly Archives: July 2016

Back from the Future

A couple of years ago I took StrengthsFinder 2.0 with our new law students as a part of their orientation.  StrengthsFinder is a test that reveals your greatest strengths, and the idea was to make sure that the new law students knew that they had strong points before law school did its thing and made them question whether they had any value at all.  I enjoyed the test and found it quite useful, but embarrassingly, messed up a bit at the first of the test, which kicked “brainiac” out of contention for one of my top five strengths.  Still, my top three—Discipline, Strategic, and Achiever—seemed spot on.

Recently, I retook the test alongside the entire law school staff and was careful to get it right from the start.  This time, my top three strengths from the first go-around came in as #1, #3, and #5—but #2 and #4 were new and spot on, too!  My second greatest strength, MIA the last time, is Futuristic according to StrengthsFinder.  “People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be.”  Oh yeah.  That’s me.

I have long believed that not only can our greatest strengths be our greatest weaknesses, but in fact they are our greatest weaknesses.  I don’t have to look hard at Futuristic to see how this is true with me—I can be so busy dreaming of the future that I miss out on the present.

A Wendell Berry poem in Given punches me in the gut on this particular point:

The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this, though they
foretell inevitably a worse.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.

I do think that looking ahead is important, and I value it as a strength, but looking ahead is important so that we see clearly how to act today.  If that element is missing, this supposed strength renders me nothing more than, to quote Berry, “a ‘futuristic’ twit.”

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

[Note: This is a repeat from last year, but purposely so.]

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.

To Race or Not to Race: That Is the Question

I am competitive.  It’s not like I hip check small children to get ahead of them in line or anything.  I prefer creating distractions so they don’t notice.

On one hand, I treasure my competitive nature.  It motivates me to get out bed each day and leads to achievements otherwise beyond imagination.  But on the other hand, it drives me a little wackadoodle.  Sometimes, staying in bed would be a nice change of pace.

My ongoing affair with running is a prime example.  After a twenty-plus year break, I started running again in 2010 and in the past six years have completed four half-marathons and a variety of shorter races—and it has been awesome.  I love the thrill of the big race where all sorts of humanity gather on a weekend morning for a good cause, and I love the battle within myself to see if the long hours of training can produce a new PR (“personal record”).

But training for those races tends to make me a little nutty.  I do, mostly, enjoy those training runs, watching my times, seeing improvement, envisioning the big race, and counting down the days, but it has a tendency to become an obsession, which is a nicer way of saying that I become a little like Yosemite Sam but only in a bad mood.  And that’s no fun.

Recently, I have enjoyed running with friends all over the map—from Paul in Kenya to Dodie and Rusty in Arkansas to all sorts of friends in California.  With no race on the calendar, I simply enjoyed the company and stories and scenery without worrying about times or mileage or anything.  And yet, signing up for a race calls me like a siren.

I’ll do it.  I know I will.  And on certain days I will regret it, most notably on race day when my lungs are burning and I open up negotiations with God.  But when it’s over, and I inhale that intoxicating sensation of accomplishment, I will be glad.

This Old House

I realize that “old” is a state of mind and not a specific age.  I also realize that old is often my state of mind.  Some circumstances are less than helpful.  My parents are gone.  My sisters are grandparents.  My children are adults.  My hair color is Caucasian, and my beard is gray.  I am blind in one eye and increasingly cannot see out of the other.  I thought Pokemon GO was a statement granting a Jamaican proctologist permission to proceed.

But contrary to popular opinion, old isn’t necessarily bad.

If all went as planned, this post will publish as I fly back to California after a family visit in Arkansas.  It had been a couple of years since I visited, and it was good to go “home” for a few days, even though Arkansas has not really been home for nearly two decades.  On these increasingly sporadic trips, I always make a point to see the little place on West Mueller Street that I called home for the first couple of decades of my life.  My parents rented the tiny house for sixty dollars a month until I was in high school, and I still remember the day that the landlord increased the rent to ninety and my dad went apoplectic.  He took it as a personal insult given the thoughtful care he donated to the place.

The little house went downhill after the Sturgeon family moved out sometime around 1990, and it always made me sad to see its deteriorating condition.  An overgrown yard.  Broken down cars.  Peeling siding.  In particular, I would always look to see if the basketball goal my dad mounted on the roof of the garage was still there, and amazingly, year after year, it held on.  A couple of years ago, it appeared to be holding on by a thread, dangling from the plywood backboard looking more like a lone gymnastic ring than a basketball goal, but it was still there.

I won many dramatic NCAA and NBA championships on that goal, and I couldn’t tell you how many beautiful cheerleaders fell in love with me in my imagination given my astounding heroic feats on that cracked, cement driveway.  My dad often sat on the porch silently just watching me play.

Well, it finally happened.  The goal is gone now after a good run of forty years or so.  And it made me feel a little older.

But you know, in a sense, even without that old basketball hoop, I still feel like my dad is sitting on the porch watching me, and that provides great comfort.  And, in another sense, I get to take his place on the porch and watch my children live out their dreams in this life, and since he was my first hero, taking his seat is a pretty great thing to do.

Yes, contrary to popular opinion, old isn’t necessarily bad.

Everyday People

I have often wondered what it would have been like to be an adult in the 1960s, what with the crazy headlines of war, protests, riots, assassinations, and struggles for civil rights.  Half a century later, my imagination doesn’t have to work very hard.

In 1968, Sly and the Family Stone released the song “Everyday People” as a call for peace.  Recently, the great organization, Playing for Change, released a timely rendition of the classic song featuring celebrities and school children.

Today, I share it with hope, and for hope.  Hope that I somehow correctly embedded the video so that it shows up on the blog and in the automatic emails, but more importantly, hope that we might learn to live together.  “And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo.”

 

A Third Way

It was a disturbing week in these United States.  After celebrating her birthday, America apparently went batpoo crazy.  Thankfully, many people (sadly, not all) posted good statements that condemned all of the violence that destroyed lives in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, so I should just keep my mouth shut, but since I am obviously on a quest to lose all of my friends, here goes.

To begin, although this is admittedly judgmental, I don’t believe people in general and Americans specifically are intellectually honest when condemning violence.  I think we are conditioned to celebrate and rely on violence albeit with sincere opinions on who-what-when-where-why and how much.  Watch a movie (Free State of Jones) or television show (Game of Thrones) or sporting event (UFC) and tell me we don’t appreciate a good guy’s use of violence to take down a bad guy.

Further, the United States makes up 4% of the world’s population and yet shells out 39% of the world’s military expenditures, and of approximately two-hundred nations in the world, twenty-one use capital punishment–and the United States is one of the top five in actually using it.  We hold a strong belief that there is a proper time-place-reason for violence.  Theologian, Walter Wink, called this the myth of redemptive violence—“the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right . . .” It is what we turn to when all else fails.

So when I heard the tragic news about Mr. Sterling, Mr, Castile, and the five Dallas police officers last week, I was deeply saddened but not surprised.  “When all else fails, turn to violence”—that thinking seemed to fuel a lot of the things we now lament happening in schools, nightclubs, police stops, and downtown Dallas, Texas.  Let’s be honest.  We are not outraged by violence per se.  Our outrage concerns who-what-when-where-why and how much.¹

Walter Wink, on the other hand, argues that the very idea of redemptive violence is problematic and that we need a different way.  He suggests creative, nonviolent resistance as the alternative.  Buy his book because I’m not smart enough to explain it well.  What I’ll simply say today is that such a way is based on love.  If you love someone too much to kill them and too much to let them carry on their madness, then creative, nonviolent² resistance is a third alternative.  That was the choice made by Gandhi and King—a true rejection of violence based on a true love of others.

And underneath all three of last week’s major news stories was an absence of love.


¹ I’m not writing any of this to shame anyone for believing that violence can be redemptive.  But don’t be surprised when someone determines that they need to start shooting people because they see no better alternative—that is based on the belief that violence can be redemptive.

² For the obvious questions about police, military force, et cetera, I make an important decision between “force” (the minimum amount of physical strength needed to stop a behavior) and “violence” (anything above the minimum).

 

Kenya Believe It?

IMG_2941

I woke up in the East African village of Kamulu under a mosquito net listening to a rooster that apparently got something stuck in his throat while learning to yodel; in other words, not in Malibu.  Appropriately, a man named Moses led our team’s exodus from the Nairobi airport the night before, but when the morning light replaced the darkness, I was surprised by my surroundings despite multiple reports from previous church trips, including my own family.  It was simultaneously more primitive and wonderful than I had anticipated.

Why did I travel to Kenya?  It isn’t wrong to say that my wife insisted but probably more accurate to say that I needed to see for myself what had stolen her heart. Well, mission accomplished.

Because so many friends have been to Made in the Streets (“MITS”) before me, it would be silly to recount the same observations, like the yummy-ness of chapati, the joy-filled singing of liberated street children, the endless skies on the Maasai Mara, and the beautiful kids jumping streams of raw sewage in the Mathare Valley slums.  Instead, I’ll just share a few personally unforgettable moments:

  1. Meeting Vincent, an impressive seventeen-year-old young man, covered with mud, living in the mud, high as a kite to stave off hunger and cold and yet still able to carry on an intelligent, respectful conversation. I liked him immediately yet left him in such terrible circumstances with a fist bump and will never see him again in person.  But he will never leave my mind.
  2. A sunrise run through Kamulu on a crisp morning with Paul (pictured above), a MITS graduate who has become a part of our family since my wife practically adopted him, and for a moment, matching him stride for stride while imagining what it is like to “run like a Kenyan”—and then watching him effortlessly leave me in the dust down the home stretch.
  3. Traveling with Jackton and Millie to meet four MITS graduates now working in Nairobi: (i) listening to reggae music and enjoying a vanilla milkshake at the American-themed Java House with George; (ii) eating scrumptious mandazi prepared by Chef Brian in his apartment; and (iii) sharing in an impromptu Bible study with the two Marys. Four glowing successes.
  4. Standing with my wife in the darkness outside our safari tent and looking up at the African sky to discover more stars than I had ever imagined one sky could hold.
  5. Sitting under the ceiling fans at church in Kamulu and listening to rescued street kids sing Amazing Grace, particularly the verse that proclaims: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

If I’m honest, I think I went to Kenya to check it off my list.  Instead, it did a number on my heart, too.  Kenya believe it?

 

Born in the U.S.A.

Bombeck

On this American birthday I salute jazz music, barbecue, college sports, the Internet, equal rights, airplanes, Coca-Cola, national parks, interstate highways, blue jeans, bacon cheeseburgers, free speech, pickup trucks, iced beverages, and after a couple of unhappy moments on recent international trips, let us also raise our glass of Pepto Bismol in honor of plentiful supplies of toilet paper.  Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing!

There is a flip side to the U.S. of A., too, including massive waste, mass incarceration, persistent racism, indebtedness, overconsumption, and reality television, but c’mon, it’s her birthday.

My particular faith evolution has apparently left me less patriotic than many of my fellow Americans.  I choose to live reconciled to all people regardless of national identity and have a particular aversion to any version of an us versus them mentality, which most definitely includes the ugly definition of American exceptionalism.

But this is inescapably my country.  It is where I was born, and it has shaped me in unmistakable ways.  Today, I pause to celebrate the good in it and recommit to fight against the bad in it.

Happy Fourth of July.

 

Pictures. Or, How Instagram Might Unwittingly Save Our Collective Soul.

I blog, tweet, share, post, connect, friend, update, and everything else related to social media, so my occasional rant about how technology may be destroying the world comes with zero credibility.  If we’re all going down, at least I am on the train with everyone.  It is bad enough that for many of us “work” and “email” are now interchangeable concepts, but my greater concern is that “social media” and “life” might follow suit.

I immediately understood Facebook.  And LinkedIn.  And blogging (via my friend, John Dobbs).  And, with a little effort, Twitter.  But Instagram confounded me.  I found it Instaweird.  But like a sheep with a Smartphone, I signed up, and now, surprisingly, think Instagram might represent hope for the future—simply because it is all about pictures.

My interest in photography came late because, well, we were poor, and listen closely boys and girls, it used to cost actual money both to purchase film AND develop the pictures.  When digital cameras arrived on the scene, I joined the revolution.  After splurging on a clunky camera, sets of rechargeable batteries, and a bag large enough to carry small pets, I was free to take as many pictures as I wanted without the worry of paying for multiple reminders of my terrible skills.

In that glorious freedom, I started venturing to new places—just to take pictures.  There was no rule that said I couldn’t enjoy nature or a park or festival or sunrise without a camera, but there was something about capturing a place or moment in a photograph that led me out into the world on adventures that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

This is why I have Instahope.

At least, given the terrible development of living our lives heads down staring at a screen, Instagram encourages us to venture into the world to see what there is to see.  Sure, after we take a picture, we stare at that silly screen to fret over filters and tags and the like, but at least we are there, occasionally looking up.  And that is something.

Reflections from a Matatu

In Kenya

[Photo credit: Lee Morgan]

Hip hop music blasted from the Kenwood and Pioneer speakers aimed at the passengers’ faces on the matatu (bus) ride from tiny Kamulu to the big city of Nairobi.  Including the three members of my family, there were exactly three mzungus (white people) on the bus, and if we weren’t conspicuous enough, I fell into a lady’s lap as I boarded when the matatu unexpectedly (to me) lurched forward.  It turns out that my ability to make an impression transcends national borders.

Jackton, our friend and guide, warned us that it would be noisy, but I was still unprepared.  As DJ Simple Simon dropped the beats featuring the best in East African hip hop, an even louder horn consistently announced our presence to potential passengers.  Either that, or there was a Kenyan soccer fan on the roof with a turbo-powered vuvuzela, which would not have surprised me.

I learned that the young man dangling off the side of the matatu was the “conductor” who was responsible for picking up and dropping off passengers by yelling and banging on the side of the bus with his free hand.  Our conductor wore black Nike flights, a navy blue trench coat, and a brown flat-billed cap with a bright yellow sticker on the bill.  In California, I would have guessed he was from South Central, but we were most definitely in Kenya.

The matatu was named “The Inspector,” and as the kids like to say, it was dope.  The interior walls surrounding the aforementioned speakers were decorated with PR shots of the popular artists, and the ceiling was royal blue with white stars and had colorful Converse sneakers glued to the ceiling upside down.  The best feature, however, was the countless numbers of passengers that came and went all along the route.  After my graceful entrance, we had seats for the hour or so journey, but at times there were so many people on board that I made it to second base with multiple Kenyans without having to move a muscle.

It was quite a ride.

At one point my wife noticed that DJ Simple Simon offered a remix of a Taylor Swift song, a jarringly strange occurrence, and when we heard that Mr. Simon would appear in a Labor Day showdown at a club in Pomona, California, I no longer knew which planet I was on.  While my first matatu ride powerfully engaged every one of my senses, I particularly sensed that the world is a fascinating place, at times vast beyond imagination, and at times so tiny that our connections are undeniable.

Two of the three mzungus on The Inspector that day are now back in California, but the third, our youngest daughter, remains in Kenya for a summer internship.  Tomorrow is her birthday, and she seems so far away right now.  But I know that in certain and important ways she isn’t far away at all— and that she is with Kenyan friends she considers members of her family.  I hope she has the best birthday ever.