Category Archives: Original Essays

I Believe She Can Fly

Trapeze PicJewelry. A spa package. Something for the house. A lovely dinner. One might have guessed such an answer to my innocent question: What do you want for your birthday? But my wife said: Trapeze School. That was her immediate response. Like it wasn’t crazy at all.

She must have already attended Comedy School because she also asked if I wanted to join her on the flying trapeze. I thought that was hilarious, especially the way she acted like it was a serious question.

We drove to the Santa Monica Pier over the weekend so that my wife could celebrate her life by flirting with death in front of large numbers of lazy people who stopped to watch while stuffing their faces with nachos and funnel cakes. Me, I went with churros.

It was awesome. But then again, I really like churros.

But my wife was awesome, too. Jody spent a large chunk of our twenty-four years together avoiding physical activity and especially avoiding drawing attention to herself, but the last few years have witnessed a remarkable turn of events. She has claimed her spot in this life, and I was mesmerized last Saturday on that iconic boardwalk watching the woman I love sail across the bright blue sky like a boss in front of a cheering world.

Jody has many people who admire her, and cheer for her, and love her. But out of all those people, I was reminded on Saturday that I am the one lucky enough to have been chosen to live life as her partner. What an honor to stand on such solid ground and look up to watch her soar.

I don’t dare to imagine what she will want for her birthday next year. Apparently, the sky is not the limit.

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Imagining the Unimaginable

MedeaListen. This is a story that has to be told.

That was the opening line of the classic Greek tragedy, Medea, that my wife and I attended at Pepperdine over the weekend. If you are familiar with the play, it is a story that you probably wish had never been told. But we continue to show up for resurrections of Euripides’ terrible tale century after century—so maybe it is true that the story is unavoidable.

I try to attend anything produced by the Fine Arts Division Theatre Program at Pepperdine because every production is always fantastic, and given that our friend, Brad, was the director of and that our friend, Lincoln, composed original electronic music for this particular performance, we marked our calendars for Medea months ago.  But wow, what a heart-wrenching story.

I remember the name, Euripides, from some high school textbook mostly because I thought it sounded funny.  (“Euripides pants and you’re in big trouble, mister!”)  But wow, how unhinged must this classic playwright have been to write such a horrible tale of cold-blooded, unthinkable revenge? What demented mind could imagine Medea, the character?

Obviously the mind of one of the more important playwrights in world history.

Maybe there was method to such madness.  Maybe Euripides wrote such a messed-up story to shine a light in the ugliest places of our world so that we might sheepishly walk out of a dark theater committed to building a world that is brighter?

I read that Euripides is known as someone whose work sympathized with society’s outcasts. In Medea we encounter someone so powerless that she resorts to maniacal actions to scream at a world in which she had heretofore been silenced. It is only through unimaginable actions that she is heard.

But I hope we do more than hear her screams. I hope that we listen. I hope that we listen because this is a story that has to be told. If not, we may find ourselves destroyed by the last resorts of the voiceless should their predictable actions not be prevented by the only safeguard remaining — the goodness of their own hearts.

Beauty from Chaos

IMG_0422It was a crazy idea, but I am generally a fan of crazy ideas.

Avery is a retired art professor and an incredible artist, and I approached him just before Christmas with the vision of creating an original painting for Easter Sunday that was inspired by his thoughts of Mary Magdalene from John 20. I could not believe that he said yes. His paintings sell for thousands and thousands of dollars, and I asked him to produce an original work of art for free. And he said yes. How crazy is that!

So the approach to Easter was extra exciting this year. Periodically I would get an update from the artist himself, which only heightened my anticipation. Avery let me know that it was the running of Mary, Peter, and John that struck him in his meditations on the text, so that provided the direction of the painting. He showed me pictures of his work in stages—and as an abstract, contemporary artist also shared his concerns about painting people and working with a looming deadline!

But then it was finished.  Fleet Feet at the Dawn of Redemption.  Even the title of the painting is awesome.

I interviewed Avery at the beginning of yesterday’s sermon just prior to the unveiling and asked if there was a spiritual connection to his work. He quickly said yes and then described his process of creating chaos and then watching a phoenix rise from the ashes, of witnessing something beautiful emerge out of chaos. He then asked if I understood, and I answered that I so badly wish that I did.

But I guess that I sort of do. In a sense that describes life itself—the attempt to create something beautiful out of the chaos. In that sense we are all artists, using our gifts to create something out of the mess day after day after day.

The artwork that is my life is surely a work in progress and a little bit messy, but that is what Avery finds interesting about art in the first place. He once said, “That’s where the joy is and the struggle is and where the meaning comes.”

Excuse me while I get back to work. I have unfinished art that needs attention.

Accepting Grace

IMG_0384“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” – Anne Lamott

Pepperdine hosted the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball West Regional Final matchup between Florida State and Michigan on Saturday at the STAPLES Center, and I was most grateful to be in attendance to watch Michigan secure a berth in the Final Four.  The fans in maize and blue dominated the arena but not the game and yet the Wolverines held off the scrappy Seminoles down the stretch for the victory and a trip to San Antonio this weekend.

This was not my first NCAA tournament experience, but it had been fifteen years since I sat with my daughter, Erica, in the rafters of the Louisiana Superdome to watch a teenager named Carmelo Anthony lead Syracuse to a thrilling victory over the Kansas Jayhawks in the last game Roy Williams coached for Kansas. This experience was quite different.

Fifteen years ago I won the right to purchase overpriced tickets in a lottery. On Saturday my ticket was the gift of a gracious friend.

Fifteen years ago I needed binoculars just to look down and see the Jumbotron. On Saturday I had to crane my neck and look up to see the big screen from my amazing seat.

Fifteen years ago I prepared for a nosebleed by stuffing napkins in my pocket. On Saturday I prepared for the game by stuffing my face with pizza.

Fifteen years ago I waited for the captain to turn off the seatbelt sign before safely moving about the stadium. On Saturday I leisurely wandered around Pepperdine’s suite prior to the game and sat among friends from upper administration.

Heck, this time my friend, Rmani, sang the national anthem! It was a great night from start to finish.

Truth be told, I still feel that my place and my people both hang out in the rafters, but I confess that it felt awfully nice to sit in prime stadium real estate. Once I got past the feeling that a security guard was going to kick me out that is, I had a really good time.

Grace is pretty cool on the receiving end once you give yourself permission to accept it. It might be what a few young men feel like this weekend when they look up and discover that they are in the Final Four.

 

Birthday Trips

IMG_0199Last night I attended the iHeartRadio Music Awards at The Forum in Inglewood with my oldest daughter, Erica. The celebrity-studded awards show featured mega-stars like Bon Jovi, Eminem, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Maroon 5, Camila Cabello, Charlie Puth, and N.E.R.D. Surprisingly, I had heard of a couple of them prior to last evening. And maybe not surprisingly, me and Jon Bon Jovi aren’t teenagers anymore.

This was my annual birthday trip with Erica. Seventeen years ago I had a bright idea to celebrate Erica’s fourteenth birthday with a surprise father-daughter date instead of purchasing a material gift, which immediately became our annual tradition. That inaugural trip included a trip to the House of Blues in New Orleans for an O-Town concert, a boy band that emerged from the reality show, Making the Band. What would motivate me to take my daughter to a boy band concert and spend the evening in an audience filled with screaming teenage girls? The answer is love. Weird, inexplicable, father-daughter love.

My youngest daughter, Hillary, was a preschooler back then, but it didn’t take her long to ask when I would start taking her on special father-daughter birthday trips. So that tradition started, too. Over the years I have taken my daughters on all sorts of secret adventures in a total of thirteen states that have included road trips, sporting events, fancy dinners, museums, theater performances, celebrity stalking, theme parks, cultural experiences, concerts, television events, and now, even an awards show (see the crazy list below).

I guess I could start buying them gifts instead. But they might not let me. And I wouldn’t let me either. Making a memory together is a far better choice than purchasing a present. Trust me.

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Birthday trips:

Erica:
#14: House of Blues in New Orleans (O-Town concert)
#15: MLS soccer in Dallas, Texas (stalking Landon Donovan)
#16: Spring training baseball in Orlando, Florida
#17: NBA basketball in New Orleans (to watch LeBron in his rookie year)
#18: French Quarter Haunted Tour in New Orleans
#19: Championship tennis in Miami, Florida (to watch Maria Sharapova)
#20: Dinner at Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi, Mississippi
#21: Dinner at the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi
#22: Wicked at the Pantages in Hollywood
#23: Driving across country on Route 66
#24: Jimmy Kimmel Live in Hollywood
#25: A tourist weekend in San Francisco
#26: Grammy Museum in Downtown Los Angeles
#27: Pepperdine Associates Dinner in Downtown Los Angeles
#28: NHL Anaheim Ducks game
#29: Horse racing at Santa Anita Race Track
#30: LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles
#31: iHeartRadio Music Awards in Inglewood

Hillary:
#6: Lynn Meadows, Marine Life Aquarium, and Chuck E. Cheese in Gulfport, Mississippi
#7: Exploreum in Mobile, Alabama
#8: Jazzland Theme Park in New Orleans
#9: St. Louis Cardinals baseball game at the brand new Busch Stadium
#10: Horse-drawn carriage ride in the French Quarter of New Orleans (followed by a Fantastic 4 movie)
#11: National Civil Rights Museum and a Redbirds game in Memphis, Tennessee
#12: Warner Brothers Tour in Burbank, California
#13: Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? (television screening) in Burbank, California
#14: House of Blues in Anaheim, California (Natasha Bedingfield & Andy Grammer concert)
#15: Hairspray screening in Hollywood Forever Cemetery
#16: A tourist weekend in San Francisco
#17: Pepperdine Associates Dinner in Downtown Los Angeles
#18: Space Needle and more in Seattle, Washington
#19: Seattle Seahawks game
#20: Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles

Running Cold

Running BreckenridgeOn an amazing trip to India a couple of years ago I experienced an unfortunate illness in the magical city of Shimla in the southwestern ranges of the Himalayas. It was awful. Altitude sickness was a potential culprit given the location, timing, and some of the symptoms, but that never was confirmed. Just to be safe I concluded that I should avoid higher elevations for the rest of my life. Such drastic solutions come to mind more often as one ages.

But then our staff planned a retreat to Breckenridge, Colorado. At ten thousand feet elevation. Awesome.

I could have said that the trip was a bad idea, which would have been a lie. I could have simply wimped out, which fits me. I could have created some excuse, but I ran out of time before coming up with a good one. So just over a week ago I found myself in Breckenridge, Colorado, in dazzling scenery and single-digit temperatures with a wind chill double-digits below zero.

Our fearless leader counseled that we start hydrating several days prior to the trip, and as anyone monitoring my trips to the bathroom would confirm, I complied. In addition, my doctor prescribed some meds, which I took as directed, so all in all I did my part and waited to see what happened.

I was great. Zero problems whatsoever. The view was breathtaking, but not even literally. I never felt light-headed or short of breath, nor did I experience any of the harsh and unspeakable things I did in that unfortunate hotel bathroom in India.

I took my running shoes to Colorado just in case. I am a runner that has grown less interested in races and far more attracted to fun runs in fascinating places. I have now been on crazy cool runs on five continents and in bunches of states and am always on the lookout for more, and I had never been in a place like that gorgeous cabin in Breckenridge. So on our last morning I woke up with the rising sun, layered up, stretched, and stepped out into the bitter cold.

My intention was to run a mile up the road from the cabin and then come back down for a second easy mile and declare victory, but it turns out that running uphill at elevation in ridiculously cold weather is not as easy as it sounds. So I labored to make it a half mile uphill without passing out before returning for some quarter mile repeats until I made it to two miles.

I had unnecessarily worried about my footing; my major worry (beyond passing out) turned out to be that I could not feel my hands. Thankfully I was running instead of juggling. But any worries had to take a break because the experience was just so awesome that it defies description. Crunching snow in running shoes on a rave run high in the Rockies is one of the coolest experiences ever. No pun intended, but duly noted.

It is funny how we avoid our deepest fears. Sometimes, at least, facing those fears leads to a place so beautiful that you could not have imagined it even if you tried.

Out There

barkley 1My body apparently dropped a note in the old Life Suggestion Box requesting that I explore alternative activities to running. The suggestion is under consideration given recurring and depressing minor injuries, but I haven’t thrown in the proverbial towel just yet. Distance runners are notoriously bad at giving something up. And I like to run.

I am still allowed to say that I am a runner.  Four half-marathons in the past several years with a PR of 1:37 plus a 10k in just over forty-two minutes and a 5k under twenty is competitive for someone my age.  But running is a humbling sport, and I am constantly in awe of the truly crazy runners whose performances defy imagination.  Like Kilian Jornet who once ran the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run with 33,000 feet of climb in under twenty-four hours.  Or Yiannis Kouros who once ran a thousand miles in just over ten days. Pure craziness.

But of all the daunting races on the planet, the Barkley Marathons is probably the toughest of them all. I first watched the wildly entertaining documentary about the Barkley several years ago, and if you have Netflix and ninety minutes, you might enjoy watching the insanity, too. Five consecutive marathons with over 50,000 feet of total climb and descent in a sixty-hour time limit in the unforgiving terrain of the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee with less-than-ideal weather conditions under the oversight of a sadistic and taunting race director: That’s the basics of the Barkley. The race that eats its young.

It was once believed that nobody could complete the five loops of the Barkley, but fifteen human beings have now proven it is possible in the thirty-plus years of the race. But just fifteen. The race proudly stands at the limits of human endurance.

At Christmas, my wife gave me a book about the Barkley written by Frozen Ed Furtaw, one of its long-time competitors. Frozen Ed titled it, “Tales from Out There,” with “out there” serving as a consistent phrase to describe the nature of the race. The Barkley is “out there” as a race for sure, but more significantly the firsthand accounts claim that the real challenge of the Barkley is the actual experience of being “out there” all alone in a battle with your body, mind, soul, and spirit.

Sometimes in life being “out there” in the wild is forced upon us but more often than not we have ways to avoid such challenges. You won’t see me entering the Barkley, but I do hope you find me with the courage to sign up to go “out there” in other ways in this old life. You never know what will happen out there. But there is really only one way to find out.

A Package Deal

23 and me

Like many other sane individuals, I paid a company $79 for the privilege of spitting in a tube to await an email with secrets about my heritage. Well, the results are in, and I was surprised to learn that I am, in fact, white.

Yet another sound financial decision on my part.

Well, it didn’t say that I was white, but the analysis did conclude that I am 99.4% European (and over 95% Northwestern European). Zero surprise there. My freckles and love for potatoes betrayed me years ago. But the mysterious remaining 0.6%, which isn’t much from a statistical perspective, was interesting in that 0.5% was identified as Native American and the remaining 0.1% West African. That surely hasn’t shown up in the mirror before.

The explanation shared that I most likely have a great (unknown number of great) grandparent born in the 18th century that was 100% Native American and another possibly even farther removed that was 100% West African. This explanation combined with a little reflection led me to suspect that such relationships may not have been consensual. Who knows, maybe theirs was a beautiful story of forbidden love, but the odds argue for something more sinister. This was not a happy thought.

I understand the basic logic behind the refusal to accept responsibility for the sordid history of one’s family, ethnicity, nation, gender, religion, or any other identity, but I simply cannot accept an arrangement where one can take pride in the past accomplishments of one’s particular heritage without owning the bad parts, too. It seems to me to be a package deal.

I didn’t have to pay good money to spit in a tube to be reminded that I think such a thing.  But I did. And I do.

 

VaLENTine’s Day

a85ca8954783df5e6278101ff626bdde--valentines-dayFor those keeping score at home, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day arrive simultaneously in just a couple of days, thus providing the rare opportunity to dump a boyfriend or girlfriend for Lent. Bad idea, of course, but it’s on the table.

I, on the other hand, am forever in love. I have now spent half my life with Jody and am just getting warmed up. My Wednesday plan is to get up crazy early before the traffic gets ridiculous and drive to the Flower District in Downtown Los Angeles to pay jacked up prices for flowers that we will manage to destroy in a matter of days. It is our tradition, and we are hopeless romantics. (Or at least hopeless.)

Oh, I could order flowers, sure. That sounds convenient and makes sense on multiple levels. But love isn’t famous for making tons of sense. It does, however, have a reputation for doing things that seem a little silly. Count me in for the silly.

Now that I think about it, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day make a fantastic combination. True love requires sacrifice. What will you give up for your love? In the spirit of the holidays, and just for starters, I will kick the day off by giving up good sleep and money and logic for another chance to say I love you.

Happy VaLENTine’s Day.

Superhero

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My attachment to the Super Bowl began forty years ago in the same year that I declared my love for the Dallas Cowboys. I was seven, an ideal age for declaring eternal love, and my newfound infatuation was rewarded with a dominant Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos.

Super Bowl XII was played in New Orleans, only a few hundred miles from my house but in a magical alternate universe as far as I could tell. It was the first “primetime” Super Bowl, so since my dad did not go to church with us he kept a close eye on the game until I made it home from church for the second half.

Those awesome late 1970s names take me back. Golden Richards. Too Tall Jones. Hollywood Henderson. Jethro Pugh. Billie Joe DuPree. Tony Dorsett. Haven Moses. Otis Armstrong. Riley Odoms. Lyle Alzado. But my hero, hands down, was Roger Staubach. Roger the Dodger.

It is clear in retrospect how deeply I was influenced by my environment. As a white American church-going boy, of course my hero was Roger Staubach. Clean cut. Patriotic. Captain America. He was a Navy man, just like my dad.  And a quarterback, just like my dad.  #12 was my first sports hero.

Just before the following Christmas, eight-year-old me had the idea to write my hero a letter. With a new knowledge of cursive handwriting, which was easily my worst subject in school, I labored over the perfect letter to express to “Mr.  Staubach” the depths of my love for him—and to request an autographed picture. We somehow tracked down the address to the Dallas Cowboys, so my dad wrote a check for three dollars addressed to Roger Staubach and mailed it and my letter off to the great unknown.

Never in my life will a piece of mail replicate the joy in my heart on the day the manila envelope with the royal blue Dallas Cowboys sticker arrived. I floated by day and slept with the envelope at night and on show-and-tell day became the most popular kid in the third grade. We learned that an 8×10 photograph cost one dollar that year, so I received an autographed picture inscribed, “To Al Sturgeon, Merry Christmas, Roger Staubach,” AND an 8×10 team photo of the 1978 Dallas Cowboys. (We concluded that the other dollar must have been used for shipping and handling.)  This piece of mail was instantly my greatest material possession.  I would like to know how many hours I spent memorizing the names of the players in the team photo.  I would like to know because I still know almost every one forty years later.

Some will remember this, but in the old world of checking accounts all personal checks were returned by mail each month so that you could properly balance your checkbook.  My parents soon realized that Roger Staubach had endorsed my dad’s three-dollar check, so when it arrived at our house I had yet another autograph from my hero!  For free!

I have followed the forty Super Bowls that have occurred since Super Bowl XII.  A sportswriter ranked Super Bowl XII as the worst game of the first fifty.  You will never convince me.  In all honesty, I had zero interest in the Eagles-Patriots matchup yesterday.  I was not allowed to cheerfully support the Eagles as a Cowboys fan, and although I used to root for the Pats in honor of my dear friend, Scott, their recent dominance of the game removed any desire to support them either.  But I followed along because of the memories this annual American tradition brings.  Memories of a little boy and heroes, a dad and a check, and a letter that seemed to appear from heaven.

It’s funny, but I saved that canceled check and surprise autograph for many years, and it was long after my dad died that it dawned on me that it contained another surprise autograph: My dad’s.  Right there on the front.

My sweet wife framed that check for me in a special frame where you can see the signatures on both sides of the check.  I always display it where you can see my dad’s autograph.  It turns out that he was my first and greatest hero all along.