Category Archives: Original Essays

‘Tis the Season

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I love this time of year but am also the sort of person who sees the glass as half empty and half full all at the same time—a realist, if you will. So I realize that this time of year is all mixed up with positives and negatives. Merry Christmas to all, with some Bah, Humbug, too.

I love the giving. We share gifts at this time of year with family and friends, colleagues and strangers, even faceless people whose names we learn from angel trees.  We give a lot, and as we do we celebrate words like Believe. Hope. Joy. Peace.

And then we go and buy more and more stuff like it’s going out of style, which it is, but we can’t seem to help ourselves. I hate that part. The commercialism, the consumerism, and lots of other –isms that are better described as Greed. We crave More and can’t find Enough.

All that jumbled together in one season.

And then there are the people. Those merrily singing that it’s the hap-happiest time of the year, and those mired in depression. Those lavishly decorating cozy houses, and those sleeping outside in the dark and cold.

This entire semester, one of our amazing students planned an event she called, Sleep in the Square, that occurred this past weekend. The entire point was to raise awareness regarding homelessness in our local community. As she so eloquently put it, “A night for friends and strangers alike to gather and hear stories of those who have experienced homelessness, attempt to sleep while exposed to the elements of the outdoors, and encounter an evening filled with transparent cross-cultural conversations.”

We did all of that—we gathered, heard, attempted, and encountered. I was amazed by our students and their friends who slept out in the cold (pictured above the next morning), although I went home and slept in a warm bed for a few hours before returning for the closing liturgy of repentance and joy (there’s that dichotomy again!). The experience left me mixed-up just like the season, filled with love and hope, right alongside a sobering realization of my undeserved privileges and weakness.

Sometimes I feel that I should apologize for pointing out the dueling natures at this time of year—until I remember that the Christ-ian story underlying Christ-mas is exactly that kind of story.

‘Tis a mixed up season, one that reminds us that It’s a Wonderful-but-Messy Life.

Father and Daughters

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A lifetime ago now, when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, I took her to the theater to see The Wild Thornberrys Movie. I don’t remember much about the movie, which is too bad since I now realize that the movie was set in Kenya, a place on the other side of the planet that that daughter and I would later visit together. But I know that we were at the movie because it featured an original song by Paul Simon that stole my heart. That song was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, and it should have won all the awards if you ask me.

Simon wrote the song, Father and Daughter, for his daughter, Lulu, who was seven at the time. There’s a decent chance he doesn’t know that he wrote it for me, too.

Seventeen years later we just completed our first family Thanksgiving in Nashville, and both of my sweet daughters, adults now, flew in to spend several precious days with us. I am beyond proud of them, and my love and admiration for those two young women knows no bounds.

As a dad you wish you could find a few words to express your heart to your sweet daughters—what you wish for them, what you believe about them, what you would do for them, and your very best advice. But there aren’t really words for those achings of your heart.

Mr. Simon gave it a really nice shot, though, and I am grateful.

If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream
And for a fraction of a second, you can’t remember where you are
Just open your window and follow your memory upstream
To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star

I believe the light that shines on you will shine on you forever
And though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed
I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever
And never leave ‘til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Who loved his daughter more than I love you

Trust your intuition
It’s just like goin’ fishin’
You cast your line and hope you get a bite
But you don’t need to waste your time
Worryin’ about the marketplace
Try to help the human race
Struggling to survive its harshest night

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Who loved his daughter more than I love you

 

Gimme a Break

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Although every week is a work week for my department, today marks the beginning of what feels like a much-needed, and much-anticipated, break. Classes are canceled, calendars are less cluttered, and the roller coaster offers an opportunity to breathe.

I love the academic calendar. For someone who simultaneously craves routine and can’t stand monotony, the academic calendar provides the perfect blend of predictability and variety. I love the summer of planning and anticipation, the flurry of the fall semester, the joy of the holiday breaks, and the spring semester sprint toward the finish line of commencement.

But I especially need a break right now.

One year ago, while the power was out in Malibu post-fire, I set aside the breathing mask and trusted my laptop battery in the dark of my office for a job interview. Life has not slowed down for a minute since.

I am so excited that our daughters are visiting our new Nashville home this week, and you’ll surely hear more about that later. But this morning, I am headed to the office with a smile. I don’t need a break to rest. Instead, I simply need time away from the frenzy of meetings and events, with time and space to think, to process, to clear the old mind so that I can dream again.

I give thanks for that today, three days ahead of schedule.

#HornsUp

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I have been a Falcon and a Ram, a Bison and a Razorback, a Greyhound and a Shark, a Golden Eagle and a Redhawk, a Wave and now a Bison again—all the while rooting for Cardinals and Cowboys, and once upon a time, a patriotic team called the 76ers.

Sports mascots are weird. There, I said it. Weird, but obviously a big deal. Can grown human beings wearing ridiculous costumes really be considered serious business?  Well, an $18 million Mascot Hall of Fame opened earlier this year in Whiting, Indiana. Let that one sink in.

Weird, yes, but it isn’t that I don’t feel a close kinship to mascots, with my closet as my witness. In fact, at the Greene County Quiz Bowl competition during my senior year of high school, I wowed the crowd with a remarkable depth of sports mascot knowledge (while my teammate, Trevor, answered all the academic questions). I do love me some mascots. But they’re weird.

So now I am a Bison. Thanks to the National Bison Legacy Act signed into law by President Obama in 2016, the American Bison is now our “national mammal.” Because it is specifically mine now at Lipscomb University, I am suddenly more interested in this lumbering beast. The American bison is described as “broad and muscular with shaggy coats of long hair.” This is going to be a stretch for me. However, “Bison temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason.” That sounds much more interesting!

My friend, Tom, shared a link recently of four bison being released back into Badlands National Park. As a new and proud Bison, this actually touched my heart. I’m not sure you will care if you are an Anteater or Banana Slug or Horned Frog. But I suddenly do.

Mascots are surely weird, but maybe even mascots can teach us how to care for something beyond our individual selves. If so, may their kind increase.

On This Veterans Day

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Dad (21 years old)

In 1975 nobody learned to read in kindergarten. Reading was a first-grade subject then, and kindergarten was for learning how to make friends and drink milk out of cardboard cartons. But somehow I could read before starting kindergarten. I remember sitting on my sister’s lap at age four and reading a Cookie Monster book from start to finish. Sandy tossed me off her lap and ran away yelling, “Mom! Al just read a book!” My earliest memory is being described as smart.

I was a hit in kindergarten. We would watch Sesame Street in the classroom, and when the part of the show arrived where a word would magically come together my classmates would sit breathlessly until I proclaimed it aloud as if royalty making a grand decree. “The word is…CHICKEN!” And the class would cheer. Heady stuff for a five-year-old kid.

My “smarts” had an obvious genetic component since both mom and dad were intelligent, although dad had some special Rainman-like quality when it came to mathematics, something I apparently inherited to a lesser but notable degree. Dad was also a high school dropout.

Dad studied Latin in high school in Missouri in the 1930s and hoped to be a physician. Without his knowledge, his principal worked to secure him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy sometime around 1937, but Dad turned it down since it was the Great Depression and he was the oldest child. He then dropped out of high school to work.

Pearl Harbor was bombed the day after Dad’s twenty-first birthday. He had heard horror stories of trench warfare from old men in the “Great War” and was enamored with the Navy anyway, so he chose to enlist. Dad took a train from Union Station in St. Louis to Chicago for processing and did so well on a particular test that the Navy wanted him in an electrician school that was starting right away in San Francisco, so he boarded another train and left for war. He was gone for four years, but thankfully for many of us, he was among those who did come home.

Dad served on a variety of battleships and carriers in the Pacific Theater, and I regret never recording which ones since I believe his records were among 16-18 million files destroyed in a tragic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in July 1973 (although I haven’t given up hope yet). What I do remember is that he served in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and the subject of current feature film at the box office—a movie I obviously have to see.

Today is Veterans Day. And if you can’t tell, I am thinking about Dad. I suspect many of you have someone to think about, too.

LIFE in Prison

5c5d1067e460c.previewIn January, while I prepared for a job interview in Nashville, then Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made national news by commuting the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown. In the ensuing media frenzy I learned that Ms. Brown graduated from Lipscomb University while in prison through Lipscomb’s unique LIFE Program. That basically describes everything I knew about the LIFE Program until last week.

However, I arrived at Lipscomb enamored with Dr. Richard Goode, having no idea that he founded the LIFE Program back in 2007. All I knew was that Dr. Goode had the good fortune of spending time with iconoclast, Reverend Will D. Campbell, and had written a couple of my all-time favorite books with and about Campbell. I simply wanted to meet Dr. Goode, so you can imagine my surprise when he emailed one day asking to drop by and get my advice about a course he was teaching. My advice? Ridiculous, but I could not resist the chance for a one-on-one with Dr. Goode.

We met and discussed his History & Politics of Reconciliation course, and when I mentioned a particular documentary that was new to him, he asked if I would come to the Tennessee Prison for Women (“TPW”) to show the documentary and lead a discussion.

Um, yes.

Life. Changed.

Despite the recent national attention, the LIFE Program is the best-kept secret at Lipscomb. Get this: traditional Lipscomb students (“outside students”) can drive to TPW and take some of their classes inside the prison alongside “inside students.” It is brilliant and beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen.

Last Wednesday I rode with Dr. Goode to TPW, the primary correctional facility for women in Tennessee that houses over seven hundred women, including any inmate on death row. Some parts of the evening were simultaneously expected and unforgettable: the glistening razor wire; the careful pat down; the explosive sound of the door locks; the expanse of the prison yard; the heartbreaking and inspiring stories of the inside students; the fascinating conversation with Dr. Goode.

But what I did not expect—and what in my opinion is the breathtaking genius of the LIFE Program—is the relationships between the inside and outside students. I was astonished to witness the authentic and comfortable friendships that had developed in that classroom.

I am scheduled to attend the Lipscomb graduation for inside students just over a month from now. One of the anticipated graduates is a student in the class I taught last Wednesday, and I learned that she was recently granted parole. After so many years behind bars she had one request. Can you guess? She wants to stay in prison long enough to get to walk in graduation.

This all gives “LIFE in prison” an entirely new meaning.

[For more information (including videos) on Lipscomb’s LIFE Program, click HERE.]

This Colorful Life

IMG_1203I pledged never to complain about Malibu weather and kept that promise. To complain in a land where sunshine, blue skies, and seventy-degree temperatures abound seemed outright ungrateful. But truth be told I did miss one thing: the breathtaking colors of autumn.

As luck would have it, our arrival in Nashville somehow triggered uncharacteristically warm weather, delaying and to some extent blunting the colorful explosion. But I’m still not complaining. The late arrivals of reds, oranges, purples, and yellows only served to increase the anticipation and joy.

I went for an early morning run at beautiful Radnor Lake yesterday morning, and although the heavy rains had officially ended, the sun remained missing as I cut through the fog and the thick morning mist. The lake itself was quiet, as were the homes on the residential portion of the run. A lazy guard dog registered my presence with a lone, halfhearted yelp, and a family of deer silently grazed in someone’s backyard. On the far side of the park I marveled at the cacophony of a massive family reunion of birds high in the treetops and on my return noticed that the only sound was the squish-squash of the wet, crunchy leaves underneath my feet. It was a peaceful, soul-cleansing run.

I read that rainy, overcast days increase the intensity of the brilliant colors, and I believe it. I stopped frequently to take disappointing pictures, disappointing only because they are incapable of capturing the beauty.

For some reason the irony of it all dawned on me as I ran along the path soaking in the scene. The spectacular beauty of the autumn transformation occurs because the leaves are dying. Winter is approaching, and the cycle of life is actually taking a downward turn.

I was not raised to think that aging and dying involved beauty, but that seems like something worth considering.

Remembering Josh Gibson

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I arrived early at Nationals Park for Game 4 of the NLCS and did a lap around the stadium to see the sights. I discovered three statues near the home plate entrance, and as a student of baseball history anticipated two of the honorees—Frank Howard and Walter Johnson. But I confess that the Josh Gibson statue was a most pleasant surprise.

Not that Gibson, the greatest home run hitter in baseball history, does not deserve a statue. Quite the opposite. Gibson hit more home runs than anyone, including the longest home run in the history of Yankee Stadium. Some called him “the black Babe Ruth,” while others preferred to refer to Ruth as “the white Josh Gibson.” No, I was surprised to see the statue since Gibson, simply because of the color of his skin, was never allowed to play a Major League Baseball game.

Sadly, Gibson died of a stroke at age thirty-five. Three months later Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.

In certain ways there has been undeniable progress in race relations in this country, thanks in part to baseball and the heroism of players like Jackie Robinson. When the team from our nation’s capital takes the field tomorrow night in their first ever trip to the World Series, their roster will feature players from Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela—and the United States. And from the United States, alongside white, European-Americans you will find African-Americans, a Japanese-American, and a Mexican-American. It is a beautiful thing to witness.

But do not be deceived. Progress is simply signage on the road to somewhere, and the destination most assuredly remains on the farthest horizon.

Josh Gibson’s statue outside a Major League Baseball stadium in our nation’s capital honors one of the greatest baseball players of all time. At the same time, it reminds us that he was never allowed on the team. Both deserve remembering.

First Grade for Grown-ups

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I am one of sixty-four students from around the world here in Alexandria, Virginia, at the 2019 NASPA Institute for New Vice Presidents for Student Affairs. Each of us is the most senior student affairs officer on our respective campuses and in our first two years on the job. That so many of us are here is an interesting statement about both higher education and student affairs.

We were told that this is an institute and not a conference to make it clear that we will not pick and choose among class offerings. No, we will all partake of the same intensive cohort experience, including sharing meals together. Tuesday evening is our only break, and as luck would have it, I get to attend Game Four of the NLCS with my buddies, Steve and Rachel (Go Cards!).

I jumped at the opportunity to be here. When I served as Dean of Students at Pepperdine Law, I did my best to attend the national AALS conference each year because I learned a lot, sure, but more importantly, because of the relationships I formed with people who truly understood what I did each day. I still miss my law school student affairs buddies, but that is what excites me about being here today—the opportunity to connect with more amazing people from diverse places who share the common bond of loving students from the same seat as mine.

I love, love, love diversity. It is simultaneously a challenge to navigate and a gift to embrace. But for those like me who are drawn toward diversity instead of resistant to it, it is worth remembering that we also need those who truly “get” us. What I love about national organizations is that it provides the opportunity for both.

There is just one me, and for that we can all be thankful. But there are sixty-three other people here that have a job like mine, and what a comfort it is to know that and to know them.

Away from Home

Freshman Year (Sturgeon)

It has been a long time since I was a college freshman, which my present work constantly reminds me. I barely remember it now and often wonder if that is a gracious gift of aging.

Although I did very well in high school and should have considered many options, I never went on a college visit and simply remember struggling with one question—do I “go away to college” at Harding University, or do I “stay home” to play basketball at Crowley’s Ridge College? I don’t remember the details of why, but I chose the former and traveled the daunting one-hundred miles to study physical education in Searcy, Arkansas.

It was a good year overall. Harding reminded me of my high school in many ways, which was positive. I knew several students already there and roomed with Christopher, a friend from high school and a track star.

When I try to remember those long ago days, an odd collection of scenes comes to mind: An unsuccessful attempt to walk on the basketball team. The terror of speech class. Daily chapel. Pledging a social club. Navigating a laundry room. Unlimited food in the cafeteria. New friends.

Although it was a fine year, it was only a year, and I transferred to the University of Arkansas for the rest of my undergraduate education. At this point of life my solitary year in Searcy seems like a blip on the radar screen, almost causing me to question if it even happened.

Today, I am back in Searcy for the first time in close to thirty years for a student affairs conference, and I am reminded that it did. In fact, that year and that place represents an extremely formative moment in my life—my first experience in actually being “away from home.”

I have subsequently lived in multiple zip codes and discovered quite a bit about the world and about myself. That all began with a mysterious decision to go away to college. That decision is not for everyone, but all in all, it was right for me.