Monthly Archives: October 2016

Taunting Fear

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“The enemy is fear.  We think it is hate; but, it is fear.” – Gandhi

I think Halloween is fun.  My wife thinks it is the best day of the year.  I prefer to sit outside munching on fun-size candy bars while families wander by in goofy costumes.  My wife likes to purchase skeletons that frighten the neighborhood children.  That isn’t disturbing at all, right honey?  (Awkward nervous laughter.)

I may not like Halloween as much as my wife, but I do enjoy it.  To promote the candy industry, sure, but more importantly, I like the idea of poking fun at things that scare us.  Not because our fears aren’t real or sufficiently serious—I don’t advocate dismissing fears.  Instead, I vote for conquering them.  My parents have been taken away by that ultimate fear we call death, and I don’t seem to be getting any younger myself, but I have decided that fear and death will not have its way with my life. I fully intend to live a life that isn’t ruled by fear.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”

Don’t be a timid adventurer.

My friend, Danny, says it this way: Fear is a punk.  I’ll be celebrating that tonight with a bowl full of Kit Kats and Mr. Goodbars.

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Forging Pathways

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“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Waze calculates thirty-four miles from Pepperdine University to East Los Angeles College; the Pacific Coast Highway to East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue; the celebrity-populated western side of Los Angeles to Cheech Marin’s East L.A.; Malibu to Monterey Park.  It sure seems longer, even in rush hour traffic.  They are two different worlds.

I serve on the advisory council for the East Los Angeles College (“ELAC”) Pathway to Law School Transfer Program, a coalition of educators and practitioners brought together to destroy obstacles that stand in the way of a young person advancing from high school to community college, from community college to a four-year college, and from a four-year college to law school.  It is an inspiring group, and I am honored to be a part.

It is also personally disconcerting.  I’m not exactly sure how I, a first-generation college student from rural Arkansas, the son of a butcher who dropped out of high school to provide for his family during the Great Depression, am suddenly the picture of white privilege in a room full of impressive human beings, but as a lawyer who drove over from his condo in Malibu, even my expertise in denial simply tossed in the towel and admitted the truth.  I may be the most reluctant privileged person around.

It was dark when the meeting ended, and on the stroll across the ELAC campus to drive back to idyllic Malibu, I noticed several classes in session.  Maybe I was wanting it to be so, but it sure looked like all of the students in those classes were engaged in the instruction and not bored on Facebook.  I’m just sure of it.  I then wandered by the math tutoring center, and it was undeniably a hub of academic activity late on a weekday evening.  All this made me feel particularly hopeful in this perplexing world of ours.

If I must come to terms with privilege, and I just might have to, I must use it to help those inspiring students hungry for knowledge in those hushed classrooms gleaming in the darkness.

See. Respect. Listen. Love.

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When Hurricane Katrina flooded our one-story house in 2005, it claimed treasured and irreplaceable items such as our wedding album and family videos while graciously sparing the crap in the attic that was there because we didn’t want it in the first place.  Gee, thanks.  My revenge came from unwittingly sparing a few boxes of personal mementos in my apparently waterproof office simply because we didn’t have room in the house.  I do my best work by accident.

Included in those mementos, believe it or not, was a college research paper that is now a quarter-century old, presented to Dr. Willard Gatewood at the University of Arkansas in 1991 and titled, “Arkansas Democrats in the Presidential Election of 1928.”  That paper was painstakingly typed on an actual typewriter (yes, boys and girls, a typewriter) and placed in a transparent plastic sleeve with a white binder with my social security number (ID number at the time!) emblazoned under my name on the cover page.  I kept the paper because I was proud of it and have a tiny problem throwing things away.

I remembered that paper last week and had to go for a trip down memory lane.

I don’t think I’m to blame for watching CNN last Thursday when I saw Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump laugh at each other’s jokes the day after trading verbal sucker punches and refusing to shake hands in their final debate.  Curiosity got the best of me.  It turned out that our nation’s top presidential candidates were at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual event hosted by the Archbishop of New York to raise money for needy children, and traditionally the last time presidential candidates share a stage prior to the election every four years.

It was the reference to Al Smith that led me to turn a closet upside down to find that old research paper.

Governor Al Smith of New York was the first Catholic to lead a major party ticket in a presidential election when nominated by the Democratic Party in 1928.  Smith chose Senator Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas as his running mate, the first southerner for a major party in that role since the Civil War, and Arkansas faced a dilemma: The heavily Democratic state had one of its own on the ticket, but Smith’s Catholicism was wildly unpopular across the state.  As a result, Protestant ministers in particular led anti-Smith campaigns that allowed the small contingent of Arkansas Republicans to pull up an easy chair while the Democrats worked both sides of the campaign.

In the end, the Smith-Robinson ticket still carried Arkansas and a handful of other states in the Solid South, but Herbert Hoover won the election in a landslide.  And then the stock market crashed, followed by a great depression and second world war and so on and so forth until I wrote a research paper that I can’t seem to throw away.

Today, it is hard to imagine passionate opposition to a presidential candidate simply because s/he is Catholic.  But it happened.  I wonder what research papers will be written by twenty-year-old students about the Election of 2016 decades down the road?

As Hillary Clinton closed her speech at the Al Smith Dinner, she reflected:

And when I think about what Al Smith went through it’s important to just reflect how groundbreaking it was for him, a Catholic, to be my party’s nominee for president.  Don’t forget – school boards sent home letters with children saying that if Al Smith is elected president you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.  Voters were told that he would annul Protestant marriages.  And I saw a story recently that said people even claimed the Holland Tunnel was a secret passageway to connect Rome and America, to help the Pope rule our country. Those appeals, appeals to fear and division, can cause us to treat each other as the Other.  Rhetoric like that makes it harder for us to see each other, to respect each other, to listen to each other. And certainly a lot harder to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

Transcendent Experiences

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Famed journalist, David Brooks, was the featured speaker at a recent conference at Pepperdine, and much of the conversation focused on an op-ed he wrote a year ago in The New York Times titled, “The Big University.”  The thought behind the article is summed up in a single sentence/paragraph:

In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.

Brooks applauded this development and prescribed four tasks for colleges and universities:

  1. Reveal moral options.
  2. Foster transcendent experiences.
  3. Investigate current loves and teach new things to love.
  4. Apply the humanities.

While all four are worthy of reflective conversation, I am particularly drawn to the call to foster transcendent experiences.  Brooks wrote:

If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty—with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain—there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.

Yeah, I dig it.

Last week, I was thousands of miles from home in Akron, Ohio, with a couple of unexpected hours and zero plans and somehow ended up hiking through a beautiful park amid the blazing colors of autumn.  The very next day, even farther from home in the heart of Manhattan in New York City, I had more unexpected time to spend while awaiting a meeting in a Fifth Avenue skyscraper and wandered into iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral to experience an early afternoon Mass in that stunning venue.

A peaceful forest.  A majestic cathedral.  Two good choices.  And why did I have to travel so far to make such choices?

Brooks’s encouragement may have simply been intended for college students, but seeing that I feel a little thirsty for transcendence myself, my choices in those two moments make me wonder what might happen if I altered my routines to create “regular and concentrated contact with beauty.”

I just might do it.  And if nothing else, fostering transcendent experiences in my own life might make me more effective in fostering such moments for others.

Reality Check

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Virtual reality is all the rage, and an interesting phenomenon for sure, but reality itself is weird enough for me.  Last week’s business trip provided plenty of proof.

For instance, while watching baseball in a New York City hotel I saw a commercial hawking Chia Clinton and Chia Trump for twenty bucks a pop (Trump is winning that race 79% to 21% at present).  This was immediately followed by a commercial promoting an online dating service just for overweight people.  I’d say you can’t make this stuff up, but the point is that people do.  A few days earlier, I visited the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which is crazy enough, but also had the chance to hold Brett Favre’s Hall of Fame ring before it was presented to him at Lambeau Field yesterday.  Who needs virtual reality?

But the best part of the crazy business trip was connecting with Jon Wood, an old college roommate, who seems a little unreal in the one-of-a-kind sense but appears to have us all beat on what it actually means to be real.

Jon never meets a stranger.  No, you have no idea, Jon never meets a stranger.  He talks to anyone.  And everyone.  I’m sorry, but I can tell that you don’t get it.  He talks to EV-ER-Y-ONE.  No exceptions.  In the less than twenty-four hours I spent with Jon last week, I met multiple members of a country club, the entire staff at Diamond Deli, work colleagues at Bridgestone Americas, his elderly barber (no haircut, just stopped in to say hello), a friend that staffs a parking lot in downtown Cleveland, the bartender where we stopped for dinner, and every staff member at a Cleveland Cavaliers preseason game (who got a fist bump from Jon whether they wanted it or not).  Half of the people met Jon for the first time, while the other half met him with a massive smile as if he was their very best friend.  I know Jon, so none of this surprised me, but each time I am fascinated by his approach to this precious life we all get a chance to play.

Jon is a successful attorney with a wonderful family and much to admire from any vantage point, but what I admire the most is that to Jon every human being he encounters is someone with boundless dignity and worth getting to know regardless of appearance, age, income, race, education, or any other category that normal folks use to decide whether someone is worthy of interaction.

Who knows, I might end up the biggest fan of virtual reality, but as I sit here today and see pictures of people wearing goofy googles the size of car batteries reaching out for something that isn’t there, I vote for Jon’s approach of experiencing reality by actually seeing everyone he meets with eyes (and heart) wide open.

What Is Your Potential, and How Do You Get There?

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My second post comes early this week because my friend, Tim, died, and I am heartbroken.  His sweet wife, Peggy, called with the tragic news this morning.  It is such a sad day.

Tim and I were close and shared many deep conversations.  For me, this made him special, but from Tim’s perspective, it made me one of hundreds if not thousands of people who felt close to him.  Tim had a way of creating space for deep, meaningful conversations, and all who responded to his invitation to “pull up a chair” helplessly found themselves baring their souls to this kind, sweet man.

Tim’s favorite part of his job was counseling people, mostly students, and I was privileged to be his office neighbor for the past four months.  Today, several grieving souls made a pilgrimage to the place where they shared their deepest fears and greatest dreams to a man full of wisdom and love.

Last week, Tim popped his head in my office with a new idea.  He shared that his typical approach to counseling students had always been to ask about their goals and dreams, which led to all sorts of meaningful moments.  But he had a new idea.  He asked what I thought about a new approach that asks students about their potential instead of their dreams.  He thought that just might be the better approach.

I’m not sure what I loved more, the idea itself, or the fact that this counseling maestro never stopped refining his craft.  Well, what I loved more was him.

Today, after absorbing the shocking phone call and then sharing the news with his loving colleagues, I walked into Tim’s office just to feel his presence.  I breathed in the spirit of the room and silently took in the sights of the pictures and books and stacks of work waiting for him this Monday morning.  And in that moment I noticed a little sticky note on the side of his computer monitor with the following notes: Reaching your potential – What is it?  How to get there?

I am sad that Tim won’t be able to work this new approach like a street magician, but from this day forward I will use these questions with students to tap into the magic that was Tim Pownall.  I am honored that he left me this final gift to use for good before moving on.

 

Future Friends

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hk4I fiercely disagree with Donald Trump’s assertion that the firestorm surrounding his 2005 remarks “is nothing more than a distraction” and strongly believe that the resulting conversations on misogyny and sexual assault (not to mention presidential choices) are significant and important.

Same time, somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand people are dead in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, and as a survivor/veteran/victim of Hurricane Katrina who was a beneficiary of intense public attention and the resulting flood of love and support, my thoughts are especially with those grieving families and all who have suffered from the storm.

Last week, as Matthew grew in intensity, our good friend, Hung, shared a sweet Facebook post that featured a picture from 2005 of cute kiddos working a lemonade stand at Pepperdine University for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  It touched my heart since the cute kiddos in that picture eventually became friends, classmates, and youth group buddies of our youngest daughter who lost the only house she had ever known in that storm two thousand miles away.  Who could have imagined that years later those same kids would be fast friends?  I am certain that the money collected that day did not specifically rescue us from our homelessness, but as I looked at that picture, in my mind it was as direct a connection as if they had hand-delivered the cash seen sitting in that Tupperware container.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the great needs in this world and the inability to address them all.  As a recovered victim with the luxury of looking back, I can say that the sentiment expressed in both the Quran and the Talmud that whoever saves one life saves them all rings true.  And if we ever need extra motivation to take action, imagining that your pocket change will directly benefit someone you will come to know and love just might do the trick—even more so if you can sense how it will touch the heart of your Future Friend.

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I Have Seen the Enemy, and It Is Email

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I occasionally offer a rant on how email may be destroying the universe, which a few hundred of you appropriately receive by email as encouraged by yours truly.  The word sanctimonious describes me if just to give hypocrite a break.

But, still, I believe that email may be destroying the universe!  And although it would surprise us all, I may be an actual prophet.  A hypocritical, sanctimonious prophet for sure, but a prophet nonetheless.

I shared a Harvard Business Review article in March that proposed the elimination of email.  The latest issue of TIME magazine offered a mini-article titled, “Why we’re addicted to email—and how to fix it.”  The Atlantic shared a video last week that explained “How an Editor Stays at Inbox Zero.”

Though I’m sensing a growing recognition of the problem, I have yet to hear much of a solution.  The TIME article’s conclusion as to how to fix an addiction to email is that “we must learn to say no to some opportunities, in order to say yes to our priorities.”  There you go addicts, problem solved!  And The Atlantic‘s video was all about how to email efficiently (i.e., three sentence emails or fewer; dispense with a salutation, etc.).  Sorry, but increased efficiency simply tells me that I can (must?) handle more volume.

So what to do?

  • Step #1: Recognize the problem. It is growing and powerful.
  • Step #2: Rant about it in appropriate places. I have found that email works well.  (Ha!)
  • Step #3: Adopt all preliminary suggestions you find in magazines. In other words, do your best not to drown while waiting for help to arrive.
  • Step #4: Come up with a miraculous solution. I’m still fleshing out how this step works but feel good about its substance.

Hate to post and run, but I need to go work on a miraculous solution.  First, I should check my email.

Nameless Friends

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For the past six years, “The Strand” has been my Saturday morning running home. It is a gorgeous location, beginning at Will Rogers State Beach on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Temescal Canyon and extending through Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey, and if you are crazy enough, continues on through Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach to its terminus in Torrance—a grand total of twenty miles. It is a spectacular route with its beautiful sunrises, open sand, crashing ocean waves, occasional dolphin sightings, and eclectic collection of locals and tourists out walking, jogging, cycling, and roller blading all day every day. I love it.

But the best thing about it to me is the crew that assembles there. After running solo for a year or two, my friend, Jeff, joined in once he relocated from Alabama to California. That made a good thing even better. With time, we enlarged our little running group to include friends, colleagues, and students, and I lost track of who all has joined in on our early morning adventures.

There are others, too—friends without names—that I know next to nothing about but immediately recognize and greet there on Saturday mornings. These nameless friends reflect the beautiful diversity of Southern California, and I feel a strange connection with each and every one despite such limited interaction. My favorite is a gentleman who rides his bike wearing earbuds and wraparound shades and after months of my unnoticed waving one day looked up and became one of my best buddies. He playfully criticizes me when I have been absent and notices when our little running group has grown or disappeared and points these things out in the two seconds we share in passing. Two seconds on intermittent Saturdays, and I doubt I will never know his name or his story, but he is my friend.

I’m really not sure why this seems special to me, but it does. It may be some deep desire to live in harmony with all of humanity for no other reason than we happen to share this planet. A desire to be connected to everyone in this world, named or not.

Whatever. I’ll be back at The Strand to see all of my friends soon and will be happy to see them.