Category Archives: Original Essays

Front Porch Memories

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Early 1970s

There was a cardboard box next to the exposed hot water heater on what we called the back porch in the tiny house I grew up in on West Mueller Street. That is where I kept my baseballs and glove, along with any other sports equipment I could get my hands on. I played outside a lot as a kid, and every day, multiple times a day when possible, I would grab something from the box on my way out the back door.

Most of the time I played alone, not that I was a loner per se, but we lived in a neighborhood without other children, so there simply weren’t other options. There is this embarrassingly adorable picture of me as a little boy stage propped on our front porch between a couple of older neighborhood boys, Butch and Joe, who paid attention to me and made me feel important. I dreamed of being a big kid someday and was over the moon excited to have their attention. But by the time I was a big kid, they were long gone.

So I spent untold hours in the backyard, complemented by untold hours shooting hoops on our narrow driveway, but for some reason my mind drifted recently to the many afternoons spent in our tiny front yard as a change of pace. There wasn’t much room to maneuver there, but plenty of free time and childhood imagination could make do.

When it came to baseball, my dad taught me important skills like curving a bill on a baseball cap and breaking in a baseball glove, so I would suit up, and with that intoxicating smell of leather in the air, slip on that Rawlings baseball glove and arch my index finger out the opening and transform into my hero, Ozzie Smith. I would crouch in position and imagine the pitch, then fire a worn-out baseball against the concrete porch at an angle that would make me/Ozzie range from side to side while the crowd held its breath.  I would scoop up the ground ball and whirl to fire to first. Playing alone, however, firing to first meant another delivery toward the front porch angled to hit the grass just before thumping the hard concrete resulting in a line drive back to me where I was suddenly a first-baseman stretching to beat the runner as the crowd went berserk.

It was pretty spectacular stuff, and I did this over and over and over again, all the live long day, sweating and basking in imaginary baseball glory.

Every once in a while I would misfire, and the baseball would sail just above the front porch and slam into the siding outside my bedroom window. I would wince knowing that my dad winced when he heard the errant throw, but I never broke the window, and he mercifully never stopped my treasured ritual.

I don’t know what made me think of those countless afternoons in the front yard pounding baseballs against that concrete front porch. There is nothing particularly redeeming about the memory, but for some reason I discovered that I missed it—the innocence of a little boy playing heroic baseball in an imaginary world.

I would like to visit that innocent place again. Maybe that is heaven.

Coming to Terms

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“You’re likely to get the coronavirus.”

That was the headline of an article in The Atlantic that caught my eye way back in February before the world entered into an impressive barrel roll. The author, a physician who lectures at Yale School of Public Health, quoted a Harvard epidemiology professor who said, “I think the likely outcome is that it [COVID-19] will ultimately not be containable.” The Harvard prof guessed that “40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Sobering, to say the least. But then there was this:

The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.”

I haven’t been able to shake that early prediction.

Of course a couple of weeks later we all learned phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” and then there was Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic and now a few months later American Idol is broadcasting from living rooms while ESPN featured the 46th Annual Cherry Pit Spitting Championship. So we’re all a little dizzy.

But I keep thinking back to that article from February and wonder if we should consider that COVID-19 might be here to stay.

Another headline recently caught my attention: “Scientists fear the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine will fail and we will all have to live with the ‘constant threat’ of COVID-19.” Consistent with my nagging thoughts, David Nabarro, a professor of global health at Imperial College in London, was quoted as saying, “…for the foreseeable future, we are going to have to find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat.”

So, how is your day going so far?

I may be unconvincing when I say this, but I’m not writing to depress anyone. Quite the opposite. Instead, I deeply believe that the greatest psychological danger is to ignore reality and that coming to terms with the journey ahead is the healthy approach to life.

In my humble opinion, while continuing to focus unprecedented attention on protecting the vulnerable, we must also determine how to rearrange our lives to carry on with COVID-19 in the neighborhood because, like the common cold, it is possible that it is not going away anytime soon.

Still Giving

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Last Picture with Mom

It was great fun celebrating Mother’s Day with the mother of my children yesterday and recognize what an incredible person she is as well as note our own good fortune. Today, the day after Mother’s Day, my thoughts shift to my own incredible mother and how much we miss her.

I have spoken at many funerals, including services for both of my parents, and only once have I blubbered like a baby throughout a eulogy—Mom’s.  I titled it simply, Mom, and began by saying:

15,319: That is the number of days in my life where I knew without a doubt that somewhere on this planet, my mother was cheering for me.  It has been three days without that gift, but who can complain in light of such grace? 

I updated the math, and it has now been 2,815 days without, but I still cannot bring myself to complain. I was a very lucky boy/man.

I’m not sure what to think today. Random thoughts drift in and out. That eight years pass quickly (as did the first forty-two). That lessons and memories persist. That faith is worth having.

I went back to that eulogy to see what I tried to communicate through the fog, and I was pleased to remember that it referred to the classic Shel Silverstein book, The Giving Tree, and how selfless giving characterized Mom’s life. It also brought a smile to notice that my wish for her remains the same years later.

Amid uncontrollable tears then, I concluded:

At the end of “The Giving Tree,” the little boy, now an old man, returns to the Tree.  The Tree is sad because she is now simply an old stump and has nothing left to give – she had nothing left to give because she had given it all away.  The old man replied that this was okay because he was too tired now and only needed to rest.  Then, the tree offered all she had left – her stump – for the little-boy-turned-old-man to sit and rest.  He sat, and the Tree was happy.

It was not fun to see our sweet, kind, and gentle Mom’s body deteriorate until there was no more life in it.  It was not easy for her – a giver – to be forced to be waited on by others: in her thinking, to be a bother.  In the end, however, she did have something left to give, and it was exactly what my sisters and I needed.

In the end, Mom left us deep roots and a place to rest.  I hope she knows that, and that this makes her happy.

 

Fly Away

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I work too much. Classic humblebrag and the most annoying answer ever to the what-is-your-greatest-weakness interview question. Can it be true anyway? Asking for a friend.

I avoided the Enneagram for a long time but succumbed recently in a moment of weakness and think I may have broken it. Supposedly a 3, but possibly a 1. The official article differentiating the two types made it perfectly clear that I am a 3 (sometimes) and a 1 (sometimes). Thanks a lot, Enneagram.

But one common trait stuck out to me: Both tend to work too much.

3s are told: “Take breaks. You can drive yourself and others to exhaustion with your relentless pursuit of your goals. Ambition and self-development are good qualities, but temper them with rest periods in which you reconnect more deeply with yourself.”

And 1s are told: “Learn to relax. Take some time for yourself, without feeling that everything is up to you or that what you do not accomplish will result in chaos and disaster. Mercifully, the salvation of the world does not depend on you alone, even though you may sometimes feel it does.”

Alright I get it. But I’m a little confused on what to do about it right now.

This is a weird way to observe that it is supposedly summer at work following graduations on Saturday. Summer is typically a time to reflect on a busy academic year, make adjustments and plan for the year to come, and even take a week or two to get away from it all and breathe. That last part doesn’t come easy for me, and I’m struggling to remember when that has truly happened in the past couple of years. Work conferences, family events, officiating weddings and funerals—sure, I remember going places, but we even scheduled our 25th wedding anniversary trip over a holiday weekend because there was work to do.

Don’t hear this as complaint or a plea for sympathy or an attempt to impress (although that blasted Enneagram might argue otherwise!). No, I think I am just processing my own brand of mental illness. Temperatures are in the 80s, the calendar is less cluttered, and I hear Lenny Kravitz singing in my head about wanting to get away, but alas, there is nowhere to go. Plus, there really is so much critical work to be done to plan for a thousand possible scenarios.

What to do? Well, Enneagram 3s are told, “For our real development, it is essential to be truthful. Be honest with yourself and others about your genuine feelings and needs.”

It’s a start, I guess. Talk to me, Lenny…

I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high
Just like a dragonfly

I’d fly above the trees
Over the seas in all degrees
To anywhere I please

Oh I want to get away
I want to fly away
Yeah yeah yeah

Closure One Way or Another

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Hillary’s Bedroom, Ocean Springs, Mississippi (2005)

I turn in my grades this week, and graduation is scheduled for Saturday—a “virtual” ceremony, of course. We plan to have as many graduates as possible return here in December for the in-person version, but it made sense to do something now to commemorate the occasion since these wonderful students have completed the requirements and are college graduates. Many faculty and staff have given their best to make the virtual ceremony meaningful. Our hurt for our graduates’ loss is only exceeded by their own pain. But we sure are trying our best.

Closure is important, and when the typical ways are impossible, we need to create some version anyway.

When my youngest daughter was eight years old, we lost our house to a hurricane. We gutted the house and sold it at a significant loss, and that little girl asked me to take her to visit the house one final time in early December to say good-bye. That seemed like a harmless thing to do.

It was cold that afternoon [note: the picture above was months earlier], and looking back, I guess it was sort of fitting. The wind cut straight through you, foreboding. We didn’t need a key to get in. Or even hands now that I think of it. All of our doors and most of our windows had not been on the house for the past quarter of the year, so when Hillary and I walked in the house, there really wasn’t much to see. But it felt different.

Hillary took over as tour guide and led me from room to room. At times she was less tour guide and more tourist, asking me for some clarification in each place. “Daddy, was this where the couch was?” “Daddy, wasn’t this where we had the television?” From time to time, the tour guide would pop up with a few declarations: “This is where the big red chair was.” “Here is where I would play with my bouncy-balls every once in a while.” “Here was my bed!”

I didn’t recognize what was happening because I am a moron. Hillary was studying. It was cramming for finals time. She did not want to forget.

I started to see that little “I wanna cry” face a few times, but I told myself I was wrong. It’s probably just the wind whipping through the house, making her cold. I didn’t take any chances, however, so I asked Hillary if she wanted us to pray and thank God for all the good times in this house. She did. So we held hands in that cold and drafty gutted-out mess of a house, that house where Hillary left for her first day of school, the place where magical creatures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny brought wonder to that child’s imagination, the site of bed-snuggles and family nights and fevers and boo-boos and birthday parties and loose teeth and special suppers and homemade cookies and every single one of Hillary’s memories that defined “home”—and we prayed. And God saw it. And it was good.

Then, like a march to an execution we began our last trip out of that house of memories, though an eight-year-old seemed to skip playfully more than shuffle in shackles even if the journey was final and difficult. She made the declaration on her way out that this would be the last time she stepped foot in that house. She didn’t say it in such a sad voice, but she said it from a sad heart. The house had to have been sad, too.

The bone-chilling wind was just a bit colder on the outside of the house, and I was ready for some heat in the car, but Hillary wanted one more treasure-hunting trip to the front ditch where we had tossed our belongings for debris removal months earlier. Like a good father, I said, “Okay, don’t step on a nail. I’ll be in the car.”

This was another in my long line of parental mistakes.

The good news is that she didn’t step on a nail. The bad news is that she saw her prize-winning science fair display ground into the front ditch. That was not good at all.

She made it into the car without crying. She bravely mentioned that she had spotted something very important to her in the front ditch, then went on to share what it was. She had the face-thing going full strength now, doing her best not to cry. We told the house good-bye, made one last drive-by of the front ditch, and we made it part of the way down the road before she lost it. As always, Hillary had my full permission to do just that.

Fifteen years later I still remember the lesson that little girl taught me: Closure matters. Even if it is a weak substitute for normal methods, it matters.

It is hard to explain and even harder to fathom, but we think back on those hurricane stories with some odd type of fondness now. It turned out to be a special and unforgettable time in our lives.

It is my prayer that our graduates can do that someday, too. But for now, and this weekend in particular, let’s make up some kind of moment to close the door on a special time. And it is more than okay if it brings a tear.

Brave New World

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via Pinterest

The jury is out on whether we are living into a dystopian or utopian novel, but it seems apparent that the future will necessarily be different than the past. The “how” remains TBD.

Like many, I watched the Bill Gates TED Talk on pandemics five years after the fact and was simultaneously fascinated by its prophetic nature and wistful that we as a collective society did not insist that such preparations be a major topic in the 2016 election and since. Had we all been so forward-thinking this great loss of life and livelihood could have been greatly mitigated.

But since we can’t go back, what now? How should we be forward-thinking today? Those of us who live in the American Midwest and American South are familiar with storm shelters, and I am toying with that concept as a public policy metaphor for the future.

For those unfamiliar with storm shelters, in parts of the country where the terror of tornadoes is a constant threat, many homeowners install a storm shelter, an underground safe room for retreat when tornadoes suddenly appear (see the picture from Pinterest above). When the haunting tornado siren cries out, the family (and often neighbors) rush in, secure the door, let the storm pass, and emerge to survey the damage—and if all is well, get back to life as normal.

We may need to consider a similar idea for the entire planet. Let me explain.

It may be a couple of years before a vaccine for this particular coronavirus is confirmed, but regardless, there will be others, and as a result there will inevitably be more opportunities to practice social distancing for weeks at a time. It seems wise that governments, businesses, schools, churches, and families are much more prepared for those times. Like a proverbial storm shelter, we could build plans and budgets so that we can quickly pivot when we face the next biological storm.

I avoid talking politics publicly anymore for a thousand reasons, but I do wish we could understand and agree that our economic system is neither pure command nor pure market. Experience has taught us that both extremes are dangerous and there are times when it is in the best interest of everyone to ensure that certain basic things are provided to everyone—things like electricity, water, and roads, just to name a few. So for example, this brave new world might lead us to consider modifying the list to include things like WiFi and computer access for those occasions when the world needs to shelter in place. (And, despite your political party of choice, surely the pandemic can help us see the need for a better conversation about health care in general.)

I’m not trying to engage a debate. Instead, I am simply trying to imagine the future in the hopes that we are better prepared next time. For there will be a next time.

It is one thing to build a shelter to jump in when a storm rushes through. It is quite another project to consider how the entire world might do that for weeks at a time—but that might be worth considering.

Unlucky Thirteen

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My wife enjoys telling the story of her missing thirteenth birthday.

As the story goes, as Jody began to open a gift at her twelfth birthday party, she exclaimed for some unknown reason, “If this is Charlie powder, I will just die.” (Stay with me boys and girls: “Charlie powder” was some sort of Revlon beauty product once upon a time.)  Jody doesn’t understand why she said such a thing, but she did, and the present turned out to be Charlie powder—a gift from her mother. Her mother was rather upset. Not insulted, but upset. As the story continues, her mother scolded her by saying, “What if that gift was from one of your guests?”

The punishment? No thirteenth birthday party. Oh, but that’s not all. In fact, no recognition of a thirteenth birth-DAY.  As the story concludes, that is exactly what happened one year later. No song, no cake, no balloons, no happy wishes—it was as if it never happened.

It became clear to me over time that at some point in the future Jody wanted a thirteenth birthday party. And hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine that my wife had a major life milestone birthday coming up sometime around, let’s say, now. Then hypothetically speaking (of course), as someone who tries really hard to be a good husband, one would think that such a time would be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the milestone birthday and the missing thirteenth birthday—all at once. Two parties in one, if you will. And while we are in Imaginary World, if our daughters would have flown in from across the country, that would have been a nice touch. And getting her friends and family together for a surprise party would have earned some major brownie points, too.

Darn you, COVID-19.

Well, we had a party anyway, just the two of us in person, and thanks to Google Hangouts, our daughters and many other family and friends popped in to surprise her and share sweet words from afar.

My wife is the most amazing person that I know and the love of my life. And after all these years there is one thing that I know now more than ever:

That unlucky thirteenth birthday surely is cursed.

The Stockdale Paradox

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“A key psychology for leading from good to great is the Stockdale Paradox: Retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – Jim Collins. Good to Great. Random House, 2001, p. 88.

Anyone stuck listening to me talk about leadership in the last several years has suffered through many references to Jim Collins’s famous book, Good to Great.

Welcome back.

I shared this short three-minute video with my student life team last week prior to our all-staff (virtual) meeting of Collins himself describing one of his key findings. Feel free to tune in, too, but I’m going to talk about it either way.

In the video Collins describes his interactions with Admiral James Stockdale, an American hero who was held and tortured as a POW in Vietnam for over seven years (and if the name sounds familiar, he was later Ross Perot’s running mate and subject of a Phil Hartman parody on SNL). Collins uses Stockdale’s horrific experiences as a POW to ask how one approaches a situation when you aren’t sure if it will ever end, and even if it will, you cannot know when.

This is how Collins describes his memory of Stockdale’s response: “You have to realize I never got depressed because I never ever wavered in my faith that not only I would get out, but I would turn being out of the camp into the defining event of my life, that in retrospect I would not trade.”

Wow. Read that one again for the full impact.

But Collins, ever the researcher, goes on to ask: “Who didn’t make it out as strong as you?”

Stockdale’s response?  “Easy, it was the optimists.”

Collins was quick to point out that Stockdale’s unwavering faith that this would turn out to be the defining event of his life surely sounded optimistic, to which Stockdale emphatically replied that he was most definitely NOT optimistic. While others were sure they would be out by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas again, ultimately dying, as Collins described, “of a broken heart,” Stockdale never shied away from the reality of his situation.

Are you ready for this?  From Admiral Stockdale, “This is what I learned.  When you are imprisoned by great calamity, by great difficulty, by great uncertainty, you have to on the one hand never confuse the need for unwavering faith that you will find a way to prevail in the end with on the other hand the discipline to confront the most brutal facts we actually face.”

It is a ridiculous stretch to compare most of our situations with a POW camp, but that doesn’t stop the “Stockdale Paradox” from proving most helpful anyway—an unwavering faith that we will ultimately prevail alongside a willingness to face reality.

My boss/friend, Matt, pointed to Scripture to make this even more clear for people who will live by faith:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. – Paul, 2nd Corinthians 4: 8-9; 16-18 (NRSV)

 

(Ab)Normal

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I have experienced more than my fair share of disasters, but someone opened up a big tent for this one to include a whole lot more people. Thinking back to the first time I encountered an upside-down world, I recall a particular phrase that made me crazy when interacting with someone outside the disaster zone: Are things getting back to normal around there?

I strongly oppose throat-punching in general, but the thought did cross my mind.

While recognizing the innocent ignorance of the question, what made it particularly infuriating was the lack of understanding that “normal” is the first fatality in a major disaster. Normal is gone forever. Coming to terms with that is not easy.

Classes resume at Lipscomb University today, online of course, and my “student life” team is reinventing the ways in which we facilitate the special Lipscomb community while physically separated from one another. But there is nothing about today that indicates life returning to “normal.”

A new normal isn’t necessarily bad. Change is inevitable, and change represents an opportunity to let go of negative habits and routines and embrace positive habits and routines. What is bad about situations like this is that we did not get to choose the destruction of normalcy; thus, we did not get the opportunity for closure. We did not choose the new normal—it chose us.

So here we are in this new world, and from past experience I do not recommend devoting a lot of energy longing for things to return to the way they were before. That’s just not going to happen. Now grieving that loss is more than okay. We owe it that.

But once you are finished grieving, work to create a new kind of normal that is somehow better than ever.

Resilient in Adversity

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I realize there are a few people who still think COVID-19 is a hoax because I have a diverse set of acquaintances and a Facebook account, but it is safe to say that the reality of the global pandemic has hit almost everyone. And hit hard. No one needs me to list the unpredictable disappointments and challenges that have combined to produce predictable emotions like anger, frustration, grief, and fear. Nevertheless, here we are.

And as we sit in this universal timeout, we find ourselves considering our individual purposes on this planet. For many, like grocery store workers, housekeeping staff, truck drivers, and healthcare providers, there is no longer a question whether what they do is important or appreciated. But as the rest of us reconsider how we work, we are forced to drill down to remember what our work is. I have surely been thinking about mine.

The student affairs profession in higher education exists to complement the academic work of faculty in educating the leaders of tomorrow. We complement by teaching outside the classroom and focusing on “life” competencies. In my new role and with my new team, we identified nine things we are trying to teach—our “mission”—and it is not difficult to understand how each is valuable during this time of crisis. We want every student to be:

* Spiritually disciplined
* Professionally prepared
* Resilient in adversity
* Intellectually curious
* Socially skilled
* Culturally competent
* Physically fit
* Financially literate
* Environmentally aware

Every single one of those matters now more than ever. But today, I am particularly interested in the one that says—resilient in adversity.

Adversity: A state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.

Resilience: An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Well, here we are. Practice is over, and it is game time for RESILIENCE. Even if ESPN is busy showing reruns.

But if any of us needs a little in-game coaching, I offer once again the famed quote from neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, who said: “Everything can be taken from a [human being] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Resilience begins with the choice of attitude—the one freedom that, regardless of any virus, cannot be taken away.