Category Archives: Original Essays

All Madden

With MaddenI flew to Oakland and back last Tuesday to facilitate a half-day session on conflict resolution for a group of pastors. The Uber driver from the airport to the conference did not stop talking for the entire trip, and on the flip side the driver that took me back said exactly two words–Which terminal?–in the full forty-five minutes. In between all that was an unexpected and cool experience.

The meeting was held at a quiet hotel in Pleasanton. Pleasanton, as you might expect, appeared to be a pleasant little town, and I was told that the lovely hotel was one of several owned by hall-of-fame football coach/broadcaster and video game legend, John Madden. That was cool enough, but what soon became way cooler was that John Madden himself was sitting in the lobby and someone, somehow, had arranged for our group to have our picture made with him! I nearly ran down the stairs to get there.

My first television football memory is Coach Madden on the shoulders of his victorious team after the Raiders defeated the Vikings in Super Bowl XI, and I can’t even guess how many games that followed where I enjoyed having Madden explain and entertain. Like, “There’s a lot of letters in Ladanian Tomlinson.” And, “If your hair covers your name, I guarantee you you’re going to get clipped.” Classic Madden.  “Boom!”

He is 82 years young now and as nice a guy as I had always imagined. Same wide smile. Same great voice. Same wit and sense of humor.

Through the magic of television the voice of John Madden is one of the narrators of my life journey, and honestly, one of my favorites. Likable, funny, non-pretentious, honest, and approachable. He was always just himself — and one of us. The best part of his famous fear of flying that had him criss-crossing the nation on a bus was that he didn’t fly over anyone. He was down to earth quite literally.

On meeting him, I was surprised that I was surprised that all this was true in person. More specifically, I suppose that I was more relieved not to be disappointed. I admire real, down-to-earth people. Thanks for that, Coach.

Keep Climbing

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On a trail last Thursday morning in a neighboring canyon I found myself running alone. I had started with others but when I faced a steep, narrow trail straight up an imposing mountain, unplanned, there seemed to be no one in the whole world but me and the trail to the heavens.

I attacked the hill with every ounce of my strength, arms pumping, calves burning, lungs fighting, and heart firing to conquer the challenge in front of me. I was strong—for a while—and then it was too much. I had to walk, but I refused to give up entirely and kept climbing the mountain step by step. In a few moments it seemed that I could sort of breathe again, so I challenged my legs to run the rest of the way. I thought I could do it, and I did.

At the top, seemingly on cue, I looked out at the crazy view across the morning sky and just at that moment the sun exploded over the mountains and above the clouds that lay across the hills like a cotton blanket. It was spectacular. The picture above is okay but doesn’t do it justice.

I’m not sure I want to run that hill again, and in retrospect, not sure that I really wanted to run it in the first place. But there was a feeling in my soul when I made it to the top and the sun broke through that felt like it was a special gift just for me, just for running, just for not stopping and finishing the climb. Pardon me, but it felt like a holy moment, and I was thankful. I felt a deep gratitude standing there on top of that mountain. The warmth of the sun. The beauty from above. The fullness in my lungs. The unplanned smile on my face.

I have friends on steep mountains today. I will have others. And it will be me again, too. My hope is that we all keep climbing, keep trusting, and keep believing that at the top of the mountain we will discover a spectacular gift. And smile.

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
Wendell Berry

Pic 2

JuneBaby

Junebaby1We signed our youngest daughter up for TIME magazine her senior year of high school when she indicated an interest in international affairs, but when she took off to Seattle for college I became the beneficiary of knowing what’s up in the world. As time flies and all that, that daughter is about to begin her senior year of college, and I thought I would sneak up to see her for a couple of days last week before the entire college experience slips away. As fate would have it I was reading TIME just before the trip and stumbled across the magazine’s inaugural run at identifying the “World’s Greatest Places.” The list contained one-hundred places from forty-eight countries on six continents and was chosen using factors such as “quality, originality, innovation, sustainability, and influence.” One of those one-hundred places is in Seattle, a restaurant featuring Southern food named JuneBaby.

Well, we are from Arkansas and were in Seattle, so we just had to go. We arrived when the doors opened and noticed an expected line out the door, but the wait wasn’t long. We enjoyed a delicious meal—gumbo for Hillary and catfish for me with wheat buns and honey butter to share. It was awesome.

But I don’t think it was the Southern food or even the ambience that landed this little restaurant on a list of the one-hundred greatest places on the planet. I suspect such a prestigious designation came from the beautiful idea behind the place.

Here is its self-description:

Southern food’s humble beginnings embarked when West Africans were taken from their home and were forced across the middle passage to North America. The term soul food originated during American slavery to not only describe a type of cuisine but also a period of time of oppression and overcoming hardships. It is traditionally cooked and eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States and merges influences from West Africa, Western Europe, and North America. As a result, America’s culinary history was built on cornrice, peas, and the hog; many of the ingredients associated with Southern food. Southern cuisine has always had and continues to have stereotypical connotations. Seen through the eyes of most Americans as inferior, unsophisticated, and unhealthy, Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful. It is a cuisine to be respected and celebrated.

Yep, that’s why I am suddenly in love with JuneBaby. It bears repeating: “Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful. It is a cuisine to be respected and celebrated.”

Beauty can and often does rise from ashes. And when it does, it should be respected and celebrated in all of its various forms, including fried catfish and gumbo.

Junebaby2

Pay Attention

Writing Books
“He could go anyplace he wanted with a sense of purpose. One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches and tramps around. Writing taught my father to pay attention…”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I avoided writing whenever possible in high school and celebrated upon testing out of both required English composition courses in college. And now I love to write. For whatever reason I cannot seem to pick up the curveball in this game called life.

When my dad died in 1994 I experienced a strong urge to write—the first time I wanted to write an essay—and the urge returned not long afterward when the moms and dads of my elementary school daughter’s local soccer team acted completely insane and nearly drove me bonkers.  Around then it occurred to me that I should not have prayed so fervently to test out of English composition.  On both occasions writing was my way of processing the confusion of life.

And then, on the eighth day, God created a host of things like home computers and Microsoft Word, grammar check and spell check, print-on-demand publishing and blogs.  I became a writer in spite of poor life decisions.  Sort of like how Donald Trump became the president.

Somewhere along the way I purchased and devoured two wonderful books on the craft of writing: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King.  Both are chock full of hilarious, practical, and straight-shooting advice on this creative outlet that I now adore.  It was Lamott, however, who zeroed in on what I love the most: Writing teaches me to pay attention.

I shouldn’t need anything to make me pay attention to life, but then again, maybe I do.  Maybe my cousin, Amy, is right when she claims that we all have a creative side that needs exercising, and maybe it is that need to create that leads us to lean into this thing called life, to have a reason to head out into it, to use all of our senses, to take notes on everything that is there.

Maybe.  That’s all I’m saying.  I just know that writing is now a part of who I am—and that I am thankful.

Time Keeps on Slipping

Reunion 1

PC: Kristi May

Time is a sneaky son of a gun.

I recently traveled to my hometown to pull off two reunions in a single day: eight first cousins for a mini-family reunion over an extra-long lunch followed by eight high school classmates for a thirty-year reunion over an extra-long dinner. It was a great day from start to finish.

I am the youngest of fourteen first cousins on my mother’s side of the family, so I missed out on the creation of many of the great memories that were shared over lunch. I do, however, remember assembling on a designated Sunday each summer in tiny towns in the hills of Arkansas for a family reunion that served to bind us together. Jeff brought an old DVD from the reunion the summer I graduated from college way back in 1992. My parents and grandparents were alive then, and the DVD brought them back from the grave and threw my heart for a loop.

I also happened to be the youngest of nineteen members of the Class of ’88 at Crowley’s Ridge Academy due to a late September birthday, but I was most definitely there for all the wonderful memories that we recalled with great laughter over dinner. In fact, I attended that tiny school for twelve years—it is as much a part of me as anything. Joe brought several yearbooks, and those old black-and-white photographs resurrected memories that did their own number on my heart.

It occurred to me at some point that some of the high school teachers we once considered ancient were younger then than we are now. I’m not exactly sure how to describe how that all settled in the old heart, but I wouldn’t use any version of the word comfort.

Steve Miller wrote and released the song Fly Like an Eagle (and immortalized the line that time keeps on slipping into the future) around the time I started making all those memories at home and school. The lyrics seem to say that Miller wanted to spend his time helping the poor and soar to a place of freedom for everyone—but time keeps on slipping away.

Yes, it does. Hashtag agreed and all that.

Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what I would tell myself thirty years ago, or forty, or whatever—and to be honest, I’m not particularly interested since that ship has apparently sailed. What I would rather determine is what I would tell myself right now. I gave that question quite a bit of thought after this little peek in the time capsule, and do you know what I concluded?

Me neither.

I am sure that I, too, want to help the poor and soar to a place of freedom for everyone. But time apparently has a habit of going viral.

Manzanar

ManzanarI elbowed my way through afternoon L.A. traffic to begin a four-hour mountain drive that ended in a surprising thunderstorm and finally some peace and quiet. Early the next morning I drove the few remaining miles to my destination: Manzanar.

I forget exactly when I learned about Manzanar, but it should have been sooner.

Asian-Americans endured prejudicial treatment prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941 but that terrible attack brought specific ethnic hostility to those of Japanese ancestry. In early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” from the West Coast and ultimately over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps simply because of their ethnicity. Ten thousand of those Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in California at Manzanar.

My interest in visiting Manzanar intensified a few years ago when I learned that two of the ten wartime camps were located in Arkansas—I grew up in Arkansas and taught history in Arkansas and had never been told that Arkansas incarcerated 17,000 people of Japanese descent from California, half at Camp Jerome and half at Camp Rohwer. I knew then that I needed to visit Manzanar to feel the pain of a camp and ponder this terrible connection between my two “home” states—and my native country.

Manzanar is easy to visit on one hand: It is free, uncrowded, and only takes an hour or two to see everything there is to see. But it is difficult to visit as well. For what it represents, and what it proclaims.

Out of the 110,000+ imprisoned out of fear of espionage or sabotage, exactly zero were convicted of espionage or sabotage. That unwarranted fear destroyed many lives and families and even flirted with destroying a culture. In Hawaii where 158,000 Japanese-Americans faced less prejudice and enjoyed more freedom than those on the mainland, they were still discouraged from speaking the Japanese language and practicing the Buddhist religion. Hawaii’s military governor explained why: “We must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”

And what, pray tell, did this chapter of American history communicate about the American Way?

The barbed wire at Manzanar stands as a reminder of how fear and power work together. But Manzanar also reminds us of the potential resilience of oppressed people and that even when fear and power lace up on the same team that victims can band together and rise above their circumstances. Possibly my favorite poster in the visitor’s center hung outside the theater and featured a quote from Hank Umemoto: “We were screwed, but then we made the most out of it and we turned Manzanar into a community.”

May there be no more Manzanars. But in the meanwhile, may all such peoples find that kind of courage and hope.

A Hostel Environment

Hostel 2I spent the night in a hostel in Lone Pine, California, last Thursday. Lone Pine sits on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas and is interesting in its own right, but let’s focus on the first thought: I spent the night in a hostel.

It was my first. I texted my youngest daughter/world traveler in advance for any advice for an old man, and she replied, “Don’t be one of those weird old men who just stays in the hostel all day.” Quality feedback. So I chose to be one of those weird old men who does not stay in the hostel all day. She asked why I was staying in a hostel, and I answered truthfully: Because I am cheap. It is surprising that this personal trait had not led to previous visits. That could be because I am also an introvert, and the prospect of zero privacy may have overcome my cheapskatedness prior to last Thursday.

Well, I arrived at 7pm and was assigned to Bed #4; thankfully, a bottom bunk in the small room outfitted for ten occupants. There were several men there when I arrived, engaged in a natural hiking/climbing conversation given the mountain location of this particular hostel. I, the Introvert, used our one bathroom and then immediately left for dinner.

When I returned a couple hours later, it was a different story: still several men, but zero conversation. I dropped my backpack, laid down, and got my bearings. Six of my new roomies were around—one tall, Danish-looking young man out on the balcony, and five others in their respective beds with the lights on either reading, snoozing, or on cell phones. Two were older than me (although I’m not sure if either spent the day hanging around the hostel!). The room stank, which is unsurprising when several men, most of whom had spent the day backpacking, take off their boots. There was a mini-fridge and a microwave and a television—none of which were in use. The two older men soon fell fast asleep. One immediately started snoring. Great. Otherwise, there was a lot of awkward silence.

There was one very brief conversation that included yours truly. A young man of Asian descent in Bed #1 dropped his metal water bottle with a loud clatter, and I crawled under Bed #2 to retrieve it. He said several things in a language I did not understand until he said clearly and carefully, “Thank you a lot.” Not a problem, my new friend.

Eventually Mr. Great Dane came in and turned off the lights for the seven of us, and the night that followed was eventfully uneventful. One of the older men had a coughing fit that seemed to last for an hour. There was a bit of a snore fest to which I may or may not have contributed. At one point I noticed a stealth Roomie #8 arrive for the night and when morning dawned I was surprised to notice that at some point apparently a Roomie #9 had claimed one of the two remaining top bunks. And with morning this band of hostel brothers arose one at a time and left in silence. Upon reflection I decided that maybe hostels are actually designed for introverts. I was number seven of nine to hit the road, thirty-one bucks poorer and one experience richer.

I have not formed a strong opinion on the hostel experience. My daughter/hostel fan calls it “an underdeveloped industry in the U.S.” and I suspect that is true. At least I now know what to expect. And if I learned anything, maybe it is that I am not yet too old to try something new.

These United States

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The United States of America is 242 years old today. It seems to be in a bit of a cranky stage but those of us who love her hope she will grow out of it someday (soon). It is a spectacular country in about every way you define spectacular. I have now traveled to five continents and have a better frame of reference—enough to recognize that the land of my birth is unique in its global influence.

And I have now spent time in thirty-six of these United States and hope to complete the set someday. I already have remarkable memories.

I stood outside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama and threw snowballs on the Fourth of July in Alaska. I stood at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and called the Hogs in Arkansas. I watched the sunset in California and ran in the snow in Colorado. I saw a rocket launch in Florida and ate peach cobbler in Georgia. I ran along the Snake River in Idaho and sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field in Illinois. I shot hoops at Larry Bird’s restaurant in Indiana and drove by corn fields in Iowa.

I saw the wide open horizon in Kansas and watched horses run behind white fences in Kentucky. I ate beignets in Louisiana and crab cakes in Maryland. I toured the Ford Museum in Michigan and the Mall of America in Minnesota. I saw a hurricane in Mississippi and the Gateway Arch in Missouri. I sang in the capitol rotunda in Nebraska and walked the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada. I drove Route 66 across New Mexico and ran Central Park in New York.

I ate banana pudding in North Carolina and had a VIP tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio. I dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and crossed breathtaking rivers in Pennsylvania. I saw Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee. I witnessed Monday Night Football in Texas and the Golden Spike National Monument in Utah. I crossed the Potomac in Virginia and ascended the Space Needle in Washington. I drove up a winding mountain in West Virginia and ate cheese curds in a bar in Wisconsin.

I am ready for more.

This is an incredible country, and I choose to celebrate these United States today. And I choose to do my part in making it better tomorrow.

Chama Chama

 

Our eight-person team from the University Church of Christ in Malibu recently spent two weeks in Kenya on a mission trip and experienced the full spectrum of emotions, which most definitely included gut-busting laughter. One of the chief causes of hilarity was a popular Swahili song titled, Chama Chama (translated, Party, Party). It is unbelievably long (fourteen minutes) and the cheesiest kind of romantic, which is even funnier when the sultry voice transitions from Swahili to broken English, e.g., “I can’t get off my eyes from your photos.”

One day we were touring Mathare Valley, a famed slum in Nairobi, and were crammed into a tiny shanty when surprisingly Chama Chama blasted across a neighbor’s radio. Our host was confused by our initial reaction and then burst into laughter when we burst into song.

I took pictures and video clips from our trip and assembled a video to chronicle our trip—the sessions with the graduates, the home and work visits, the safari, and the friendships, both old and new. Of course the video is fourteen minutes long, and of course Chama Chama is the soundtrack. I doubt anyone beyond the eight of us who were there really want to watch, but it might be worth it just to join the Chama Chama phenomenon that is now sweeping Southern California.

Sunset on the Mara

Mara PicMy great privilege occurred to me as we raced along the bumpy roads of the Maasai Mara. The tans, browns, and yellows of the passing landscape waved our direction and the unspoiled breeze blasted our faces as we stood and braced for the ride of a lifetime. There are many in the world whose primary dream is an African safari, and in a moment it occurred to me that I have now been twice. What a humbling thought.

The hunt for rare sightings was exhilarating, and the sensation of racing through the Kenyan wonderland defies description, but the animals themselves are the superstars. Of course I snapped pictures. The lioness and her cubs. The curious giraffe. The lumbering elephant. The lazy leopard. The stalking cheetah. The ridiculous ostrich. The enormous hippopotamus. But every so often I remembered to put the camera away and simply be present in the wild with the magnificent creatures. It was in those moments that I discovered an unforced smile and a childlike sense of joy and wonder.

The sun set on the Mara at the end of our first game drive, and our driver stopped so we could behold the glory. From our vantage point the flaming ball of fire descended through an iconic acacia tree as we furiously snapped pictures as if we could ever forget. Yes, the animals are the stars of the safari, but the sunset stole the show.

Nature. That’s the word we use to describe the indescribable reality of that which is beyond human production. We create platforms to simply to stand as humble spectators and observe the magnificent world that we did nothing to create. Such primal beauty is difficult to see and even more difficult to comprehend immersed in what we call civilization. But I was privileged to catch a glimpse as the sun set on the Mara.