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.

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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.

The Homeless Count

FB_Shared_1I set my alarm at 4:15am last Thursday and predictably objected on multiple counts when the time arrived to rise and shine. But it wasn’t just the oppressive hour. My head pounded and my body ached after a terrible night of sleep, and the day ahead was scheduled to end seventeen work hours later. That I should stay in bed was obvious, but I slowly eased up and out of bed anyway and arrived at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church by 5am per my commitment.

I wasn’t alone. There were 25-30 volunteers there, including my friends David, Reese, and Steve from church, along with an impressive spread of coffee and pastries. I don’t do coffee, and I should not do pastries according to gastrointestinal feedback, so I declined the goodies, which surprisingly included the option of chocolate pie for breakfast. Or whatever the 5am meal is called.

After registration and a training video and a couple of speeches from law enforcement personnel, we were divided into groups and sent out into the morning darkness to conduct our portion of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. We church buddies found our way into a group all our own and armed with a flashlight, clipboard, map, tally sheet, and bottled water we drove to Point Dume and Zuma Beach to do our part to provide accurate numbers so that much-needed services may be distributed appropriately.

David drove, Steve navigated, Reese tallied, and I contributed insightful and entertaining conversation (or at least that’s what I told myself). We noted some homeless individuals, automotive “homes,” and located one encampment in our designated area. We were four of over eight thousand volunteers that turned out across Los Angeles to serve in this capacity this year.

I wish I could say that I got out of bed on Thursday out of the goodness of my heart, but it was undoubtedly an awful lot of guilt instead. How do you really convince yourself that you can’t get out of your warm bed in your spacious house to count homeless individuals because you feel sick and had a rough night’s sleep? I couldn’t figure it out on short notice at least.

And I wish I could say that this small bout of volunteerism revitalized my health and produced a day full of rainbows and cotton candy, but I felt pretty terrible all day long. Seventeen hours later I made it home and went straight to bed. And as I crawled into bed feeling achy and chilled and generally crappy, my first thought was of those folks who were homeless again that night. And how they probably felt.

So I’m writing a blog about it for no particular good reason.  A blog entry surely doesn’t make a difference. It would take a national commitment to collectively end homelessness, and don’t hold your breath. There is no national conversation, much less commitment; instead, there are mostly local conversations across the nation as to how to push homelessness into the next community.

But there are individuals who are engaged and trying anyway. I am impressed by those doing something to make a real difference one person at a time despite the odds. Maybe someday, I, too, will have that sort of courage that reflects the counsel of Mother Teresa who said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

Do Things Right

Marv-Dunphy-960x500“Do things right.” – Marv Dunphy (as reported by former player and assistant coach, J.D. Schleppenbach)

I have a strong aversion to being a groupie that is fueled by an unhealthy personal pride that at least keeps me from forcing myself on impressive people who surely don’t need another person attempting to feel important by association. Now don’t get me wrong: I would love to be close to certain famous people. I’m just too proud to act on it.

So living in Malibu is obviously weird for me.

Pepperdine is interesting in its own right. Sometimes Pepperdine intersects with the world famous through its connections and/or location, but in some instances Pepperdine has its own preeminent personalities. Like Marv Dunphy.

Marv Dunphy is a living legend and is to volleyball what John Wooden was to basketball. He coached his alma mater, Pepperdine, to four NCAA national championships in his storied career before retiring in 2017 but has also served his country by coaching the United States in seven Olympic Games and was the head coach of the gold medal team in 1988.

There are more accolades and statistics for sure, but it didn’t take me long living around here to learn that Coach Dunphy is a Pepperdine legend for more than numbers and championships. I listened to countless stories from friends ranging from former athletes and friends to the faculty member primarily responsible for Marv’s career at Pepperdine about his character, humility, personal integrity, leadership, and the way that he demanded that his student athletes be good human beings above all.

I have had the pleasure of shaking Coach Dunphy’s hand a time or two through mutual friends but have never had an actual conversation with the man. At first that was due to my weird anti-groupie approach to life but is now due to a deep respect for him as a human being. He surely doesn’t need to talk to me, and I no longer feel the need to extract words of wisdom from him. He has already taught me enough lessons about life just from the legendary stories and from watching him work to keep me busy implementing what it means to do things right.

But last Saturday evening was “Marv Dunphy Night” at Firestone Fieldhouse, and you know that I was there. I attended a pre-game reception in his honor because I wanted to be close enough just to watch him in action.

Hmm, I guess that makes me a groupie after all.

Telling the Truth in America

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“I think we do need truth and reconciliation in America. But truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first tell the truth.” – Bryan Stevenson

My dad was born and raised in Kennett, Missouri, the largest town in the Missouri Bootheel located just across the Arkansas border and not far from the Mississippi River. He was born in 1920, over four decades before singer-songwriter, Sheryl Crow, Kennett’s most famous native.

I don’t know much about my dad’s childhood years but have never forgotten a haunting story he told of witnessing the lynching of a black man on the courthouse lawn for allegedly raping a white woman. Children were not supposed to be there, but my dad wiggled his way to the front while the crowd was shamefully mesmerized by the spectacle of a human being with a noose around his neck being asked if he had any final words. The man answered, “Well, I didn’t do it, but I know that doesn’t make any difference to you all.” And then he was killed.

I don’t remember my dad telling the story with any particular emotion so I’m not sure why he shared it with his young son over fifty years after the fact, but it was obvious that it had made an impression. And here I am almost another fifty years later telling it again. If you wonder how far we have to go back to find race-motivated lynchings on a courthouse lawn, for me it is one generation.

I think Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable human being and encourage you to read/watch/listen to him in any way that you can. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”) in Montgomery, Alabama, and among many wonderful projects had the idea of telling the truth about lynchings in the United States.  EJI published a report titled, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documented over 4,000 lynchings between 1877-1950—a period of time after, of course, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the other Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. I looked at the map and noted zero lynchings identified in Dunklin County, Missouri, where Kennett is the county seat. I know a man who witnessed one, so I can only imagine how many race-motivated lynchings actually occurred.

Stevenson’s message is that we must tell the truth before we get anywhere on racial reconciliation, so on a day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will use my small platform to say that my personal heritage includes a history and ongoing legacy of things we can be proud of alongside things for which we should be deeply ashamed. We cannot honestly claim one without the other. And among those things that require deep shame is nothing less than domestic terrorism that targeted a particular race of people motivated by white supremacy.

May we tell the truth. May we lay markers so that we never forget. And may we recommit to the pursuit of Dr. King’s not-yet-realized dream.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963)

Eyes on the Prize

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I love me a new year, but I like it better one week in.

The starting gun fires, the race commences, and some yahoos foolishly sprint to the lead for a brief moment until reality reminds them that they are in over their heads and they fade into oblivion. That is when the race really begins. Once the crowd thins and the race gets real, the true competitors search for their pace and ask themselves important questions about their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. That is what happens about one week into a brand new year, and I want to be a true competitor in this race called life.

So here we go.

I want to look deep into my soul this year. Will I avoid the unsettling quiet required to explore the frightening corners of my own heart?

I want to spend myself on others this year. Will I allow fear, pride, and privilege to keep me away from confronting the injustice in my own community?

I want to remember important stories from the past this year. Will I let the sirens pull me mindlessly forward and forget the treasures found in old experiences?

I want to push my boundaries this year so that I grow. Will I permit the deception of comfort and routine lull me into complacency, or will I have the courage required to test uncharted waters?

I know the right answers to all of these questions, but the breathless pace and the long road ahead demand that I maintain focus, avoid distraction, and keep my eyes on the prize.

It is time to settle in and do the work.

This Is a New Year – by Howard Thurman

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This is a New Year. The calendar says so. I note the fact by marking it so when I wish to designate the day and the year as distinguished from some other day and year. It may be that my contract says so. It is indicated clearly in the lease I signed or the agreement I attested. It is curious how much difference can be marked between the two dates — December 31 and January 1.

Yet there are many things that move unchanged, paying no attention to a device like the calendar or arrangements such as contracts or leases. There is the habit pattern of an individual life. Changes in that are not noted by the calendar, even though they may be noted on the calendar. Such changes are noted by events that make for radical shifts in values or the basic rearrangement of purposes. There are desires of the heart or moods of the spirit that may flow continuously for me whatever year the calendar indicates. The lonely heart, the joyful spirit, the churning anxiety may remain unrelieved, though the days come and go without end.

But, for many, this will be a New Year. It may mark the end of relationships of many years’ accumulation. It may mean the first encounter with stark tragedy or radical illness or the first quaffing of the cup of bitterness. It may mean the great discovery of the riches of another human heart and the revelation of the secret beauty of one’s own. It may mean the beginning of a new kind of living because of marriage, of graduation, of one’s first job. It may mean an encounter with God on the lonely road or the hearing of one’s name called by Him, high above the noise and din of the surrounding traffic. And when the call is answered, the life becomes invaded by smiling energies never before released, felt, or experienced. In whatever sense this year is a New Year for you, may the moment find you eager and unafraid, ready to take it by the hand with joy and with gratitude.

  • Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas, 124 (1973).

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Christmas PictureThere is much on my mind this Christmas Day, including the great joy to have my little family together and the deep sorrow for friends experiencing great loss, and my best response is to share three short poems from Howard Thurman’s “The Mood of Christmas” — a unity in trinity:

Christmas Is Yesterday:
The memories of childhood,
The miracle of Santa Claus,
The singing of carols —
The glow of being remembered.

Christmas Is Today:
The presence of absent ones,
The reminder of the generous act,
The need to love —
The need to be loved.

Christmas Is Tomorrow:
The miracle of faith,
The fulfillment of ancient hopes,
The reign of God —
The dying of Death in the land.

Christmas is yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Home Run

25010686_659397667781726_6878480645274730496_nWe crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Memphis in the rental car, ironically a Malibu, and remembered what the Arkansas Delta looks like in early winter. Many of the trees had long ago shed their leaves leaving cold bare branches that reach toward the sky, and those still holding leaves that had only recently been brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges had faded to the color of rust and stood clustered together for warmth next to the brown dirt of the silent farmland. The winter sun was setting, and it looked as if someone had plastic-wrapped the entire pastel sky. It isn’t your typical picture of natural beauty, but I now find it strangely wonderful.

It was good to spend time in my hometown. Seeing family and old friends was special as expected, but there was something special about just being there, too. I don’t miss temperatures in the upper twenties even a little bit, but it was even refreshing to remember what home felt like on my skin once upon a time. I went for a seven-mile run one morning that gave me a good long time to remember.

My wife and I went for a drive one afternoon to remember more. We drove by her first workplace and the places we lived together and even Joel and Alicia’s apartment where we spent many an evening in the early days of our relationship sitting on the couch and talking and falling in love.

And then we drove to the grave sites of my sweet parents. I used to make a point to do this alone on each visit home to talk to them; first, my dad, who died so long ago, and then more recently to both of them, sort of like I would go to their bedroom seeking comfort following a childhood nightmare in the middle of the night—comforting even when I couldn’t see their faces. But this time I went with my beautiful wife. We walked across the crunchy leaves under a cold sun and stood there as a couple — as my parents were a couple once upon a memory. There was nothing really to do other than stare at the flowers and the name plates and silently wonder where the years go and what to think about it. It was good to stand there together, like my parents who also made the choice in life to stand together. And who now Rest In Peace together.

I developed a strong sense that someone has pressed pretty hard on life’s accelerator and that the years are really starting to fly by now. It may sound a little spooky to say such a thing, but strangely enough I find it to be a most peaceful feeling. Life is quite the ride, and fear now seems like such a waste of precious time.

I think my parents are telling me this as I still stand by their bedside in the darkness.

Final(s) Approach

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My office sits in the middle of Seaver College where a few thousand students will take final exams this week. Just up the hill in the world I inhabited for the past nine years are hundreds of law students sitting for final exams this week, too. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter is facing final exams in her study abroad experience six thousand miles away.

But I’m happy as can be. Been there, done that, as cool people used to say (and obviously I still do).

Well, there is the tiniest bit of guilt at the lack of cumulative examinations in my own life. No, my bad, I think that was just a little indigestion. I’m good now.

It has been interesting to compare the way the bulk of undergraduate students and law students cope with the stresses of finals season. One set apparently prefers letting stress go through singing loudly and/or funny Internet videos while the other likes to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I’ll let you guess which is which.

My job is and has been to offer kind smiles in the general direction of the test-takers wherever they happen to be.  It is good work that seems to be appreciated.

I guess this reflects life in general. Sometimes you face testing. Sometimes you are off the hook. When the latter applies, encourage the former. It has been my experience that you will appreciate it when it is your turn to be tested.