Category Archives: Original Essays

Lou

On Thursday, July 19, 1979, future major-leaguer Rick Ankiel was born, and the Cincinnati Reds arrived in St. Louis following the all-star break where 27,228 fans settled in at Busch Memorial Stadium to watch the two all-star-laden teams resume the second half of the season. I was there with my dad for my first major league baseball game.

It was the summer after third grade, and I was eight years old. I now knew my multiplication tables and how to write in cursive, but no educational environment could have prepared me for what going to a major league stadium with my dad would do to my soul. It was the highlight of my life at the time, and forty-one years later, it remains pretty close to the top.

My dad never missed work at the meat-packing plant, but he did that summer day. We didn’t have enough money for a hotel, so we boarded a Great Southern Coaches bus in the early morning darkness for a twenty-four-hour adventure, rode the two-hundred miles north, and spent the afternoon using public buses to check out the zoo and marvel at the majesty of the Gateway Arch. But that evening, cliché notwithstanding, I walked through the left-field tunnel into the open air of the stadium and felt as if I had entered heaven.

Lou Brock had turned forty a month before and was in the final season of a remarkable career. He still hit over .300 that season, and in a stroke of good luck, our seats were right behind him. Two months later, the Redbirds would go ahead and retire his #20 jersey, making him only the fourth Cardinal at the time to receive such an honor—joining legends Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, and Stan Musial. The speedy Brock finished his career in the 3,000 hit club and as the all-time leader in stolen bases (and decades later he has only slid into second place).

Lou went 3-5 that night, knocking in three runs along the way. He also caught a couple of fly balls that evening under my eager eye, and somewhere along the way, little eight-year-old me held the family camera and snapped a fuzzy picture of the future hall-of-famer as he patrolled left field.

Lou Brock died yesterday at the age of eighty-one. One of his famous legs was amputated five years ago, and he battled blood cancer for the past several. His storied life is over now, which makes me sad. But it also makes me remember.

My wife bought me a couple of stadium seats from that old version of Busch Stadium a few years ago now, and they sit on our back patio. Sitting in those seats reminds me of July 19, 1979, when I was eight years old and sitting with my dad in a veritable heaven watching Lou Brock play baseball.  I’m glad to imagine Lou suiting up on the other side of life now, and I like to imagine that my dad is saving me a seat.

Premonition

As summer transitions to fall and then an ultimate winter, the days shorten, and as a result my early morning runs now begin in darkness. It is a bit harder to get out the door, but to be candid, the stress of leading through this pandemic confounds my sleep so that it really isn’t that hard to get up and moving anymore.

Recently, I stretched and took off, aging joints creaking as they now do, and jogged down the one-way exit road of our condominium complex toward the freedom of the unlit neighborhood streets. As I did, in that strange sensation when you are arguably awake and seem to be the only one, I had an oddball thought: What if a vehicle turned down this one-way road my direction in the early morning darkness?

Two seconds later, a small pickup truck turned down the one-way road my direction in the early morning darkness.

Hand to heart, stack of bibles, and all that.

I moved over easily, so it wasn’t the danger of the moment, but for the duration of the three-mile run in the shadowy stillness I kept thinking: Did that just happen? Am I awake? And the craziest thought: Did my mind just create that pickup truck?

I concluded that just might be my luck, that maybe we all get one moment in life when our thoughts create something out of thin air, and I wasted mine on a cheap pickup truck turning down a one-way road in the dark.

My favorite musician, John Fogerty, recorded a live album the year my youngest daughter was born that he titled, Premonition. In the title track he sang:

I got a feelin’ way down inside
I can’t shake it, no matter how I try
You can’t touch it, you just know
The earth is gonna shake and the wind is gonna blow
Well that’s all right
This premonition is killin’ me
But that’s all right
I must be crazy, I must be seein’ things

I don’t know if anyone saw this year coming, but every part of it has left us all a little jumpy about what will come next. All I have to say is that as we run ahead in such darkness, watch out for pickup trucks.

Office of Student Life, Reporting for Duty

Professional headshots of 44 team members above (6 more team members not pictured) plus pictures of 12 new hires this summer below (still searching for 3 open positions)

image046

This afternoon feels part finish line, part starting line, and all sorts of consequential.

In the middle of March 2019 my wife and I said our tearful goodbyes to California and drove across the country to a new life in Tennessee. One year later, in the middle of March 2020, I was leading an effort to evacuate as many university students as possible from campus as COVID-19 began its terrible reign. And for the last five months, both I and my team have worked harder than I thought possible.

This has been the most challenging season of work that I have faced, including working through multiple historic natural disasters—and in a real sense we are just getting started.

My university is one of many that carefully and prayerfully weighed all the competing forces and decided to welcome large numbers of students back to our classrooms and residence halls for a new academic year, and the preparatory work to do that well has been intense. Although both my housing/residence life team and security team literally never left campus for a single second—and my other teams have worked nonstop remotely as well—early tomorrow morning is when freshmen begin moving in our residence halls in significant numbers. And this week of move-ins and new student orientations build to the first day of fall semester classes one week from tomorrow.

So this afternoon feels like a big deal.

I am confident that we have prepared well and that we will love our community well, but in a COVID-19 world we have all discovered that we cannot predict what happens next. So I cannot say with confidence, nor should I predict, what the next few months will hold. What I do know is this: regardless of what happens, if I grow to be an old man and sit on a porch someday with folks from my team who lived through these past few months, we will look back and remember with pride that we gave our full hearts along with blood, sweat, and tears—most definitely, tears—on behalf of our students. And what might stand out the most is that we learned that our capacity to do extraordinary work was greater than we had ever imagined.

I find great comfort in that today. To be a part of a team like this is an honor. And knowing full well that the days ahead are filled with great challenges, I am proud to face those challenges with these good people.

Here we go.

Special Delivery

Respect-Quotes-7

Needing a break from grading final exams, I wandered downstairs and happened to glance out the window just as a colorful minivan from a local florist whipped into a parking space across the way. A skinny kid in a baseball cap got out with a potted plant, left the van door open, and walked toward a neighbor’s door. I watched as he opened the storm door, carefully wedged the plant in at its base, rang the bell, and turned to leave.

I must have really been bored because I kept watching.

Several steps from the front door he stopped, and with military precision, turned and faced the door. I assumed he would wait for a second and head off to his next assignment, but he just kept waiting. And waiting. I’m sure that is floral delivery protocol, but he stood at attention like a stinking guard at Buckingham Palace, only in drab green shorts, an old t-shirt, and a cheap mask. I was mesmerized by this sign of respect. Eventually, the door slowly opened, and our elderly neighbor, whose husband has been in the hospital, appeared while still putting her own mask on. The two strangers exchanged words that I obviously could not hear as I spied out my front window, but the young boy then turned to leave as our neighbor collected her gift.

The situation in our world is ominous, and as much as I wish there was a rainbow waiting just around the corner, it seems that the storm is far from over. But I felt the slightest glimmer of hope looking out my window yesterday as the colors of the rainbow streaked out of our parking lot in that bright and radiant minivan.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

mask

“It is my task / To wear a mask / Deep in the heart of Texas.” – Me (July 2020)

I have the personality type that keeps me on the burnout watch list, so during this pandemic journey multiple people (predictably including both those who work for me and those I work for) have dropped multiple hints that I should take some time off and recharge. I also have the personality type that can ignore sound advice regarding my personal mental health, but I gave in, and not reluctantly. Our youngest daughter invited my wife and I to help her move, and since that was the only way I would get to see her this summer, it was an easy decision.

And yet, she lives deep in the heart of Texas, so of course as I tied up loose ends to take vacation around a long holiday weekend, Texas became a focal point of this blasted virus right on cue. I spend months going nowhere, and then when I do, I get on an airplane of all things to fly directly into the belly of the beast. It is like spinning the wheel on vacation locations and landing on Hell. Or, Chuck E. Cheese.

Nevertheless, I masked up and headed to Texas late last week.

I always wanted to visit Austin, although sitting in a hotel room was not at all what I envisioned. But I am glad to be here, enjoying the gift of family, resting, reading, relaxing—and washing my hands every thirty seconds.

I was most assuredly not trying to be irresponsible. Ironically, getting away was my attempt to be responsible. That, and being a dad. But I suspect others can relate to having the very best intentions and then looking up to discover that those intentions ended up as asphalt on the road to you know where.

Texas. Ha! Just kidding, although it is that hot down here.

Miss Pittman

Miss Jane PittmanI read twenty-five books in 2017, another twenty-five in 2018, and another twenty-five in 2019. I share that with the pride that comes from the rarity of setting a long-term goal and sticking to it. My goal was another twenty-five in 2020 to make it an even hundred in four years, but much to my surprise I am already through twenty in just half a year, so the odds are in my favor.

It isn’t that work has even hinted at letting up. Instead, this sudden reading feast appears to be a combination of no evening events to attend, no sports to follow on television, and a persistent need to escape the present circumstances. I am reading constantly.

Book number twenty was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Years ago, while living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, my friend, Bruno, gave me a copy of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, one of those novels that crawls into your heart and builds a nest. Last Christmas, while stocking up on used books at McKays with my family, I couldn’t pass up a copy of Gaines’s Miss Pittman. However, it sat in a stack for the first several months of 2020, but as enduring racism claimed global attention alongside the raging pandemic, it seemed like the time to read this particular story.

The stunning plotline of the novel is the reflection of a 100+ year old woman whose life stretched from the 1860s to the 1960s, from birth into slavery through a life of unrelenting white supremacy and into the pain of the Civil Rights era. Alice Walker described it as “grand, robust, a rich and very big novel,” to which I add a humble Amen.

As I read the frustrating, humiliating, yet strong and courageous journey of the novel’s heroine, given the time in which I was reading I thought of decade after decade of so many thinking that the American Civil War ended something that it did not. And one does not even have to try very hard to connect the dots and recognize that the American Civil Rights Movement was not a finish line either.

It is shameful that we had to argue over such an innocuous phrase, Black Lives Matter. I guess that shows how deep-seated racism actually is.

Miss Jane Pittman is technically a fictional character, but of course she was oh so real. It occurred to me that many more Miss Pittmans were born in the 1960s and are now over halfway through another century’s journey. I wish their story was less painful than it is, but I have seen them on the television mourning the loss of their children, too.

I am thankful to Mr. Gaines for introducing me to Miss Pittman and teaching me that even being shown and told that one does not fully matter for over a hundred years is impotent compared to the capacity of the human spirit. May such extraordinary fortitude be rewarded in the lives of real people.

Little Al, That’s Me Again

IMG_3014

Mom wanted to name me Clint, but she “made the mistake” (her words) of saying, “I guess we could name him Al the third,” and as the story goes, the look on Dad’s face made it clear that she would lose the naming battle. Albert Andrew Sturgeon, III, it was—and is.

When I was born, Dad was my age now, three months’ shy of his 50th birthday, but despite the age gap he was my picture of strength. He had been an impressive high school athlete in the 1930s, and when I came into the picture in the ’70s and ’80s he showed no evidence of slowing down. He was a combination of war veteran, butcher in a meatpacking plant, and heavy smoker (Camels, unfiltered) that created a stereotypical picture at the time of someone who is “tough.” They called him Big Al and me Little Al, and I was proud of that arrangement. I was a scrawny kid, but I had a strong dad.

At some point, as life tends to do, everything changed. The Big Al and Little Al irony jokes commenced when I had an inexplicable growth spurt in high school and ended up 6’3 to Dad’s 5’8, and then when I was in college his health began to fail. When I returned to my hometown after college, it became obvious that he was dying.

The picture above is beguiling. By that time Dad spent much of his time on the couch, trying to rest, nibbling on crackers, negotiating with Death. He does not seem pleased that Mom wanted a picture of the two of us in his weakened state. I look so much bigger than him, which is such a perplexing role reversal that I keep staring at the picture as if it might right itself if I stare long enough. But it never does.

Dad has been gone for over twenty-five years now, and it dawned on me yesterday on Father’s Day that yet another type of role reversal is underway. My two daughters are now grown women, and although I have always been proud of them, there is a new kind of proud this year. Erica recently completed the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Credential Program at California Lutheran University and now teaches elementary-aged children in the Los Angeles Unified School District who have extra challenges in life. And Hillary has accepted a position as Shelter Operations Coordinator at Casa Marianella in Austin, Texas, a place that “welcomes displaced immigrants and promotes self-sufficiency by providing shelter and support services.”

My physical health is good as far as I know, and unless something very strange occurs, I will at least always be taller than those two daughters of mine. But when I think of what each of them has chosen to do with their precious lives in this crazy world, I shrink next to their tremendous strength. I find myself recovering that long lost “Little Al” and look up in admiration to my daughters as they show me what real strength looks like.

Do you want to know what I got for Father’s Day yesterday? I’ll tell you: I got two amazing daughters.

Erica & Hillary

Loss

Savannah

Savannah

Following a heavy week in a heavy world, Saturday began with a pleasant early morning run and a beautiful phone call with my sisters before shifting to a pile of work that will not relent. And then the day turned tragic.

My chief of security sent an emergency text that someone apparently experienced a heart attack on university tennis courts and that emergency personnel had arrived on the scene. He soon confirmed that it was Coach Lynn Griffith, a well-known professor and coach for forty years in our community. The prognosis was not good. Later, it was confirmed that he did not survive.

I met Lynn not long after we arrived in Nashville at an open house when Jody and I were house shopping, and I had the opportunity to visit with him from time to time and experience his kindness. But I had nowhere near the relationship and memories that so many in the Lipscomb community treasured. His passing is a major loss.

And then the tragedy compounded.

I have written before of how I absolutely adore our IDEAL program, an incredible gift to our campus that serves students with extra intellectual and developmental challenges. Last summer, we attended a celebration at the end of the IDEAL program’s residential summer camp. Truly, every single camper/student was our favorite, but Jody and I agreed that Savannah Miller had some sort of special sauce. Lots of “s” words work for Savannah—sweet, spunky, sassy, smiles, spirited. Savannah was a Lipscomb student this past year, and she was a presence on campus! I tried not to be a groupie and dampen her coolness factor, but I was secretly ecstatic when my office had the opportunity to welcome Savannah as a student worker. What a gift.

We had been praying hard for Savannah recently. Following surgeries, Savannah was in critical condition in Vanderbilt ICU and unable to have visitors due to COVID restrictions. And yesterday, just a few hours after the notice of Coach Griffith’s passing, we received the heartbreaking news that we lost Savannah, too.

I am oriented toward constant progress, but this has been a year of significant pain and loss. And just when you think that we must be at some sort of sinister limit so that we might regroup and move forward, there is more loss.

I’m not trying to fix or explain it today. Someday soon we must rise to fight again, but some days all there is room for is sadness.

Innate Potential for Joy

51h1dg-BS5L

One of the many programs that I love at Lipscomb is the LIFE Program (a program that received global attention in the story of Cyntoia Brown Long). The LIFE Program holds classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and I shared before how the opportunity to lead a class session in the LIFE Program impacted me, not to mention the soul-cleansing experience of a graduation ceremony that came later on.

Statistics of incarceration in the United States are troubling. Our country has 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the overall population. You may be surprised to learn that women represent the fastest-growing demographic going to prison in the United States. The mass incarceration of Black men is particularly egregious—statistically, Black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes compared to White boys whose chances are 1 in 17. I am glad to be a part of a university program that has at least engaged and invested in shifting such troubling narratives.

Unable to hold in-person classes due to COVID-19 or allowed to communicate with its “inside” students by phone, the LIFE Program deftly shifted to writing letters. If not for COVID-19, I would have had my first opportunity to teach a class session at Riverbend this week, the facility that holds most of Tennessee’s fifty-one death row residents (of which over 50% are Black, compared to 17% of Tennessee’s population). This summer, Dr. Kate Watkins has initiated a “common read” to connect with the residents. I was honored to be invited to read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and exchange letters with three men at Riverbend.

I should say that my admiration for the work of Bryan Stevenson knows no bounds, and I agree with his statement “that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” but I learned too late that it is not the best idea to Google the names of your prison pen pals. And yet, that made the choice of book and the thoughts it had generated in me even more profound.

I confess that The How of Happiness would not have been my natural book choice. I have benefited greatly from several self-help books in my life, but that is not the section of the bookstore that I gravitate toward. However, it has turned out to be exactly the book that I needed to read, and I devoured it. (Thanks, Kate!)

So, consider: The book is based on scientific research, and the underlying premise is that a full half of our happiness is basically genetic—i.e., some of us are simply hard-wired to be and feel more cheerful than others—another 10% is based on our circumstances, and the remaining 40% is within our power to change. As the back book cover describes, we each have an “innate potential for joy.”

So here’s the deal: I am exchanging letters with men who live in a prison that houses not only them but also the State of Tennessee’s electric chair and lethal injection facility. And we are reading a book that argues from science that despite any possible circumstance that we face, we all have within ourselves four times the power to experience (are you ready for this?) happiness.

It is unquestioned that 2020 will be unforgettable, but in the middle of it all I will be checking my mailbox for letters from men who are considering how to find happiness and joy while in prison. Talk about unforgettable. I love that we are providing education for people who are incarcerated, but as is often the case, I suspect that I will be learning from them.

 

 

 

 

 

Livin’ on the Edge

IMG_2878

There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes…

If you can judge a wise man
By the color of his skin
Then mister you’re a better man than I…

Livin’ on the edge…
– Aerosmith (1993, inspired by the L.A. Riots)

Jerry Mitchell visited Nashville to promote his new book shortly before the pandemic swept across the United States, and I dropped by his book signing at Parnassus to pick up an autographed copy. Race Against Time chronicles Mitchell’s work as an investigative journalist to reopen unsolved murder cases from the Civil Rights Era, ultimately resulting in convictions of multiple people decades after their terrible racist crimes. It was later during the global quarantine that I took the time to read the book, and although I am aware of the history and reality of racism, I am somehow still stunned by many of its true stories.

With the book still fresh in mind news emerged from Georgia of the unconscionable killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and I had to wonder if anyone is truly winning this “race against time.” As a runner, I was shaken in a new way, forced to recognize that mindlessly enjoying such a simple hobby is yet another unearned advantage that I possess. Even during an unprecedented era of cultural transformation due to a rampant virus, there is unfortunately one thing that remains—the ubiquitous influence of a centuries-long assumption of white superiority.

More recently, I read another book titled, Nashville 1864, this time a work of historical fiction that recounted the Battle of Nashville in the American Civil War. The novel was frustrating in its romantic approach to the Antebellum South while helpfully portraying the terrible specter of war, and it simply reinforced in my mind the terribly complicated history of this nation. The novel describes the decisive encounter of the battle that occurred at Shy’s Hill, which happens to be one mile from my house. I finished the book on Memorial Day weekend, and early on Memorial Day itself jogged over to and up on Shy’s Hill to consider all the lives lost. It seemed random to see a marker for Minnesota on Shy’s Hill in Nashville, Tennessee—random until I learned that more Union soldiers from Minnesota died in that battle than from any other state.

And then the despicable murder of George Floyd in Minnesota was televised on the evening news.

Friends, it has been 156 years since a significant number of Minnesotans died in my neighborhood fighting a war that presumably put an end to the notion that Black Americans were less than White Americans. But it is all too clear that all the lives lost and all the efforts made and all the progress achieved has not ultimately prevailed.

For multiple reasons I chose years ago to post less about issues on social media instead of more. Among those reasons was a desire to read and listen more (and talk less), and to focus on things that carry the possibility of creating actual structural changes so that the reality 156 years from now is different—things like using my advantages to instigate conversations that lead to changes in education systems, hiring practices, and ultimately, changes in hearts.

But in times like this I question whether I am doing the right things, or things that really matter, or, maybe most of all, whether I am doing enough.

So today, for what it is worth, I say aloud that I recognize the deep wrongs screaming at us on the evening news—wrongs that exist in a nation where the two people competing to be its CEO are both White men who have independently and recently managed to offend millions of Black Americans. In such a time and place, I simply say that I stand alongside Black Americans and declare their full beauty and worth as human beings. It matters more whether I live it than whether I say it, but in case it helps or matters, I say it.