Monthly Archives: March 2017

A Night at the Orchestra

17267869_230418650696729_6304749396227522560_n(1)Last week, my oldest daughter and I attended a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or as we sophisticated people call it, the LA Phil.  The specific concert was titled, “Tetzlaff Plays Dvorak,” which as it turned out, was not a tennis match after all.  

You may be surprised to learn that I did not attend orchestral performances growing up in Paragould, Arkansas.  We had our share of drama, sure, but not much orchestra.  The closest I came was purchasing the soundtrack to Close Encounters of the Third Kind on vinyl.  

But who knew, if you purchase a ticket and have a beautiful date, “LA Phil” will apparently let pretty much anyone into the crazy cool Walt Disney Concert Hall.

I really did enjoy (most of) the performance, but my cultural unsophistication did allow my mind to wander to less-than-cultured places from time to time.  Like whether the guest conductor also played Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  And how one particularly animated violinist looked like a marionette under the influence of a tipsy puppeteer.  And how two gentlemen with a remarkable resemblance to Stephen King and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy were playing an unidentifiable instrument that made them look as if they were smoking fancy grenade launchers.

But the best part of the evening came shortly after intermission when a woman in our general vicinity began to painfully unwrap a piece of candy, which in that hall of hushed reverence sounded like she had trapped a squirrel in a bag of potato chips.  The surrounding patrons were silently livid, which my daughter and I discovered to be the funniest kind of livid to watch.

Much more seriously, as we sat side by side listening to classical music in Walt Disney Concert Hall, it occurred to me how far Erica and I have come in our precious years together.  I did not feel smug in this thought–as this essay shows, I remain far too ignorant to feel arrogant.  And yet I did not feel out of place either, even though that was obviously the case.  Instead, I just felt happy .  Happy at the honor of allowing such beautiful music to wash across my soul in that spectacular venue in this magical city with such a lovely young lady that I have been privileged to walk alongside for all these years.

I never imagined an evening like that one.  I wonder what other evenings I have yet to imagine?

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One Big Family

wbcDodger Stadium hosted the World Baseball Classic championship game last week, and I was honored to be in attendance as the United States claimed the title with an 8-0 win over Puerto Rico.  Like the Olympic Games, the WBC takes the field every four years, and it seemed appropriate that the USA finally won a title in its fourth try seeing as how we invited the sport and all.

My youngest daughter was home for spring break and agreed to hang out with old dad for the evening, and we knew it would be fun before we made it through the gate as the Puerto Rican fans made themselves known honking and cheering their way into the parking lot.  It just got better throughout the evening as fans of both nations/teams made their patriotism clear.  Our personal favorite was a gentleman who never stopped banging on a wok with a ladle throughout the marathon four-hour game.

At one point, the national cheers even melded into an antiphonal chant that resembled the cadence of the goofy (and potentially culturally-insensitive) Three Wandering Jews song from my childhood Vacation Bible School days.  “Puerto Rico!” “U.S.A.!”  “Puerto Rico!” “U.S.A.”

The game was sort of terrible.  United States’ pitcher, Marcus Stroman, mystified the Puerto Rican bats while the American hitters scored early and often.  There was some excitement when Stroman carried a no-no into the seventh inning, but Angel Pagan’s base hit took away that fun and the victorious American squad anticlimactically went on to complete the blowout.

Most headed for the exits after the fireworks and confetti declared the world champions, but we stuck around for the trophy presentation.  So did the Puerto Rican team.  At one point, probably predetermined, after the victors paraded around the stadium and the runners-up watched in silence, the two teams met and hugged that from our vantage point beyond the left field foul pole looked like two sets of interlocking fingers.

And there was applause.  

After hours of two competitors cheering, chanting, and heckling one another out of love of country, the two sides came together, and this apparently made everyone happy.

There is much contempt in this old world.  But the applause at Dodger Stadium last Wednesday evening reminded me that respect still has a chance.

Head Out Anyway

Blog Run PicI crawled out of bed at half past five on Tuesday morning and stumbled downstairs to snag my running shoes.  That’s when I heard the light rain.  Fifty percent chance of rain, they said, and it appeared that the morning glass would be half empty.

And it was really dark.  Daylight Savings Time makes for great evenings, but for now it guarantees that my morning run occurs in the dark from start to finish with no hint of the glorious Malibu sunrise.  No sympathy from most of the world, but I felt sorry for myself anyway.

And I didn’t sleep very well the night before, as if I needed more reason to consider whether running was a good idea.  And I forgot to charge my phone, which I took as a bad sign, too.

But I laced up, drove to my typical parking spot, and took off on foot down the Pacific Coast Highway in the morning darkness.

There is no glorious ending to this story, nor should you expect a tale of woe.  Instead, I noticed more than usual the heavy traffic at six in the morning and suspected that few of the travelers were overly excited by their morning commute.  I ran by a homeless individual sleeping on a bus stop bench, covered with a tarp and two strategically-placed umbrellas for protection from the morning rain.  Construction crews were starting their days.  I heard the ocean waves but could only see darkness.

It was just another day as I ran along, listening to my breathing pattern, feeling my heart beat, watching my steps, and participating in the world.  It was a good run, but nothing special.

I took a random picture of the dark trees in the parking lot and shared it on social media along with the stats of my run and added the commentary: “50% chance of rain.  100% chance of running.”  Which wasn’t even true.  But it is my aspiration, and on that particular day, it was my reality.

Some days do not arrive with great promise.  Some days actually campaign to keep you down.  Get up, and hit the ground running on those days in particular.

Seasons of Life

Baker
(Photo credit: Jeff Baker)

Spring starts today.  Blues, greens, and yellows.  Sunshine.  Seeds.  Awakening.  Renewal.  Fragrant flowers.  Planting.  Warm breezes.  Imagination.  

Unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, of course, where autumn starts today.  Browns, oranges, and yellows.  Moonlight.  Abundance.  Rest.  Crunchy leaves.  Earthy haystacks.  Harvest.  Crisp air.  Reflection.  

We share the same planet and yet find ourselves at very different stages.

I once read of a particular culture, possibly a group of Eskimos, who believed that you died every cold, dark night when you succumbed to sleep and that each morning you awakened to a miraculous new life.  What a concept: spring every morning and autumn every evening!

Instead, our world is, to put it precisely, polarized.

We share the same planet and yet find ourselves at very different stages.  It will be the same with those you encounter today.  Be sure to notice.

Madness

17126701_1108437092601567_4197244785582407680_nBasketball used to be my thing.  I thought about it all day, every day, and dreamed about it at night–and sometimes still do.  Hour after hour alone in the driveway getting sunburned, soaked in rainstorms, and frozen in the snow and ice.  Dreaming I was Dr. J.  Dreaming I was an Arkansas Razorback.  Dreaming I was the hero of a state championship game for the C.R.A. Falcons.  Alone in my dreams.

Basketball became my community.  Countless practices.  Pickup games anywhere there were players and some version of a ball and goal.  My very best friends and mortal enemies.  Jammed fingers.  Shirts and skins.  Dunk goals.  Make-it, take-it.  We got next.  Cut-off t-shirts and short shorts.  High tops and two pairs of socks, pushed down to be cool.  Arguments and hurt feelings.  High fives and heroics.

Popular culture fueled my obsession.  “Hoosiers” hit the big screen when I was in high school, the peak of my love affair with the sport.  Rap music became a thing, and I wore out a cassette learning every word of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball.”  Thanks to an NBA commercial, the Pointer Sisters’ “Let’s Get Excited” became my warm-up song–even though I don’t think that’s what they were talking about.

I was valedictorian of my high school class and had options, I suppose, but all I cared about was basketball.  Since I wasn’t talented enough to play at the college level, my attention shifted to coaching.  I made every home game at Barnhill Arena during my college years.  Rollin’ with Nolan.  Dreaming that I would some day coach in the madness of March.

I remember the exact day my basketball dreams began a rapid disintegration.  It is hard to forget since it was one week before my wedding.  Appropriately, I was playing basketball in a outdoor three-on-three tournament at a local festival when a nasty fall shattered my right leg in three places.  Emergency surgery led to a four night hospital stay, released in enough time to make it to my wedding in a wheelchair.  In sickness and in health, right?  

In 1994, I began a love that has grown stronger year after year, and maybe not ironically, began to lose my feelings for basketball.  With my broken leg, after the lengthy recovery, I learned that I just couldn’t play all out anymore, and that stole all the fun.  I really don’t follow basketball much anymore.  Sure, I root for my Pepperdine Waves, and sure, I fill out an annual bracket and will be rooting for the old alma mater today as they take on Seton Hall (Go Hogs!), but it is no longer the center of my life.

I’m not sad about this.  I follow other sports as a spectator and am now somewhat obsessed with running.  But what I learned is that it is possible to walk away from something that was once important to you without regrets.  What is not okay, at least in my book, is pretending something is important and then doing it halfway.

A Story Worth Telling

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Everyone has a story.

Early Friday, I finished Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, who described his own memoir as “somewhat absurd” since he had not done anything extraordinary: “I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.”  I understand the distinction.  That it topped the New York Times Bestseller List is a strong clue that it is an interesting story.

Same day, I had a conversation with a gentleman who lost his mother that week at the age of ninety-six.  His sweet mother had been married for fifty-seven years before her husband passed away — thirteen years ago!  His parents were founding members of our church, and we spoke of hosting a memorial service to celebrate his mother’s special story.

Same day, I attended an event that featured Navajo Grandmothers who have traveled from Arizona to Los Angeles to resist the destruction of their cultural and ancestral homeland.  Guess what they were here to do?  Tell their story.

And after all that, my wife and I showed up at an event for college students where we were asked to–you guessed it–share our stories.  Well, we did our best.  They are, after all, our stories, so no one knows them better, but it did feel a little pretentious on our end following a day filled with such compelling stories.

Everyone has a story.  But some sure seem to grab the old heart more than others.

In Vance’s introduction to Hillbilly Elegy, he wrote: “The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School . . . [b]ut about two hundred people do the same thing every year, and trust me, you don’t want to read about most of their lives.”  Ha!

All this simply got me to thinking: I’m pretty sure that our life’s goal should not be a best-selling autobiography, and given fickle human nature, competing for the coolest story is a rabbit hole not worth going down.  But like it or not, we are creating a story out of the cards we were dealt, and given a choice, it might as well be one worth telling.

It’s About Time

slipping-away_time

If you ever feel like time keeps slipping away from you, avoid Saturday night when Daylight Savings Time snags a full hour without so much as a please or thank you. The big jerk.

I know, I know, it donated a free hour half a year ago, which I celebrated at the time, so this is just time to settle up. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. I try to make good use of all the hours I get in this blessed life, but it is kind of hard to keep up when they just disappear without a trace.

So here is my plan: I’m going to take it back. Ha! Try to mess with me, Mr. Time; you don’t know who you’re messing with. I’ll play along, change my clocks, actually show up to work on time, like everything is cool, but when no one is looking I’m going to take an hour all Harry Potter like, just out of thin air, and do something awesome with it and rub it in Time’s face. The big jerk.

I haven’t decided exactly what I will do with this reclaimed hour, but I have a few ideas. Like a mountain hike. Or people watch. Or count stars. Or play goofy games with children. Or savor an ice cream sundae. Or, just sit and feel the ocean breeze. Whatever it is, it won’t make sense or be productive or check anything off a list. It will be something excellent, and it will drive Time crazy since it seems hell bent on stealing precious hours from me. The big jerk.

If time slips away from me, I think I’ll just take it right back.

What Are You Waiting For?

farewell-partyThe Greek word eulogia means “good speaking” in English and is the source of our word “eulogy”—when we say good things about someone who has died.  (For Bible nerds, eulogia is most often translated as “blessing.”)  Well, last week, the law school hosted the sweetest farewell party for me due to the job switcheroo, and people said the kindest things.  The very best part was that I didn’t have to die to hear them!

My good friend, Jeff Baker, took a moment on stage to take a picture of the event (shared above), and it is hilarious to see my smiling face on the front row of my happy funeral service.  When my real funeral comes around one of these days—and I’m not sure how this works—I intend to find a way to be there again since the first one was so touching.

It has always bothered me that we wait until those we care about die before we share what they mean to us.  There isn’t a law prohibiting the sharing, is there?  There must not be given my experience last week in a law school of all places.

So I say go for it.  Today seems as good a day as any to track down those people who have impacted your life for good and let them know.  I don’t suggest calling it their eulogy.  That would freak them out.  But do it anyway.  It sure did my heart good last week, and for those you appreciate, it is both safe and etymologically accurate to say that it will be a blessing.

Tell Them the Truth

17075864_1838189199788768_4657554125959987200_n1I’m hoping that preaching every Sunday is like riding a bicycle because it has been nine years since I broke the habit.  We’ll find out soon.  Come see for yourself if you are near Malibu starting this weekend (10:15am, Elkins Auditorium, Pepperdine University).

I have known several impressive teachers and scholars who regularly communicate complicated material to large groups of people and yet are totally freaked out by the prospect of delivering a twenty-five minute sermon.  At first I thought they were crazy, but it actually does make some sense.  Preaching is its own animal.

When I moved to Malibu for law school in 2008 after a decade of preaching, I had the pleasure of listening to Ken Durham preach each Sunday.  After my first year here, Ken asked me to fill in for him one Sunday.  I accepted and on that Sunday in the summer of 2009 read a classic selection from Frederick Buechner that is my all-time favorite description of the preaching moment.  As I mentally prepare to climb back on the proverbial horse, here it is once again:

“So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down.  Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick runthrough of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand.  He hikes his black robe up at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up.  His mouth is a little dry.  He has cut himself shaving.  He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor.  If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.  In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker.  A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand.  The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack.  A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her.  A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee . . . . The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler.  The stakes have never been higher.  Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand.  The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it.  Everybody is listening including even himself.  Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?  Let him tell them the truth.”