Tag Archives: arkansas

Running in Circles

Heritage-High-School-Wake-Forest-Latex-Track-New-Construction-2A recent morning run triggered memories of high school track meets in the 1980s.  I ran the distance races for the mighty Falcons, and we barely had time to get off the bus in those days before the 3200 meters race began.  Nothing like racing eight laps around the track to get your afternoon going.

Our first meets of the season often took place in a tiny town called Corning, Arkansas, whose population sign answered, Yes, please.  (Just kidding, more like three thousand.)  Corning’s track sat in the middle of, well, nothing but empty space that provided no break from the strong March winds that seemed to be ever-present.

So it was always cold on those eight laps around the track.  Coach Watson insisted that we remove our sweats and wear only our track uniform when we raced despite the weather conditions.  Our uniform consisted of tiny maroon shorts that as best I recall were made out of cheap construction paper and a white mesh tank top with a maroon stripe.  We provided our own goosebumps.

I remember Corning in particular and those killer eight laps because a quarter of the time was spent running directly into that terrible wind.  Another quarter involved flying down the track with the wind at our back unable to breathe because all available oxygen had been snatched from our desperate gasps.  The corners in between were the best shot of relief, although there the wind tended to blow you into the lanes you had not intended to run in.

So it was a good memory.

Well, it was good in the sense that it occurred to me that those races are pretty indicative of life in general.  There are times when the wind is so at your back that you can hardly breathe.  There are others when the wind is so in your face that you can hardly move.  And there are still others when the wind blows you off course despite your best efforts.  Life leaves you longing for some gentle rhythm yet wondering if you are accomplishing anything beyond running in circles.

My best advice is to move to Southern California where the weather is far more hospitable for running.  But that doesn’t speak to the reality of life.  For that, all I have learned is that you can expect all of the above and more.  And that bracing for each shift in the winds is preferable to being surprised at each turn.

 

The Hard Work of Democracy

12bMy wife and I attended the opening night of Twelve Angry Americans at Malibu High School last Thursday.  Nobody does high school theater quite like Malibu High.  It was our first time back since our youngest daughter exited high school stage right a couple of years ago, and it was no surprise to discover that Jodi Plaia is still delivering terrific shows.  The entire cast was fantastic, and we particularly enjoyed seeing two of our talented high school friends–Dominic (Juror 1) and Taylor (Juror 3)–in starring roles.

Twelve Angry Americans is Twelve Angry Men adjusted for gender equity, and if you are unfamiliar with the story, it is a moving drama of jury deliberations in the murder trial of an inner-city teen that carried a mandatory execution sentence. The play was written and set in the 1950s in the age of McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement and portrayed the fragile nature of democracy in a powerful way.  Twelve Angry Men hit the big screen starring Henry Fonda before the decade ended in what is now considered an all-time classic film.  

It was sobering to realize that around the time the play ended on Thursday evening my home state of Arkansas executed its fourth person in eight days after twelve years with zero executions.  A law school classmate of mine represented the first to be killed and had shared a poignant description of the final hours just days before.  Arkansas tried to execute eight people in eleven days because a drug it uses for executions that has been involved in several botched executions is now difficult to obtain and expires today.  It is awful to believe that is true, but apparently that was the motivation behind the rush. 

I have definite opinions about the death penalty and am bright enough to realize that not everyone agrees with me — or has to.  But I would hope that we would engage in deeper conversations on such a grave issue that would at least prevent situations where a state government races the clock to kill citizens because its controversial prescription is running out.

The real message of Twelve Angry Americans is that we must overcome our individual desires, passions, and prejudices to work together for the good of all.  As the play so powerfully shows, that is painful, difficult, courageous, and time-consuming work.  It feels like the world is less and less interested in putting in that sort of effort.

I am grateful to the young actors and actresses for the important invitation.

Save the Critical Thinkers!

UAFMy new office is in the heart of Seaver College on the Pepperdine University campus, and after close to a decade in a law school setting it is interesting to be around undergraduate students on a daily basis.  This has led me down memory lane.

I earned my undergraduate degree a full quarter century ago at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.  My specific bachelor’s degree was in secondary education, but I took more history classes than any other subject, and my favorite was an upper-division course titled “History of the American Indian” with Dr. Elliott West.  I never carried on a personal conversation with Dr. West but have often declared him as my favorite professor of all time.  As proof, I recall showing up to class one day to discover a sign on the door informing us that class had been canceled — and feeling disappointment.  Even then I realized that any professor who was good enough to cause a college student to be disappointed when class was canceled was something special.

Dr. West was a brilliant scholar who knew his stuff, but he was also an engaging and entertaining lecturer who kept us on the edge of our seats eager to hear what he had to say.  One of his unique approaches was to flat out lie.  That’s right, lie.  Dr. West would intersperse his lectures with outlandish statements that sometimes took us a second to realize were outlandish statements, which had the beautiful effect of keeping our slippery attention.

He told us that he had formerly used that technique with freshmen but abandoned it after one occasion when he was explaining how President Lincoln used to wander around Washington wearing a negligee when a freshman finally raised his hand at the back of the room.  Relieved, Dr. West called on the student who then asked, “How do you spell negligee?”

Given today’s never-ending avalanche of information via social media and news outlets more interested in viewers than objectivity, it makes my brain hurt to wonder how many lies we believe each day without batting an eye.

Critical thinking is an endangered species.  I may not have time to verify everything I hear in this Information Age, but I can sure commit to not believing everything.  I learned that in college.  

A Passing Truck

17933944_1332678760146276_5840434144147931136_n(1)It was just a truck.

I was pumping gas at the Shell station next to the lively Pacific Coast Highway last Friday when I just happened to see a white pickup truck pass by sporting a black bed cover. It was nothing special, but it produced a memory from over a quarter century ago.

At the time I was in college a good five-hour drive away from home, and my meager possessions did not all fit in a regular truck cabin. A bed cover just made sense given the space challenge and the unpredictable Arkansas weather. We couldn’t afford anything fancy, so my dad bought some wood and some black, weather-resistant astroturf, made careful measurements and some posts to fit the corners, and before long my truck bed was in the dry.

It was just a passing truck, but it reminded me.

I loved that old truck: A maroon, stepside, 1989 GMC Sierra 1500 with a short wheelbase and a big ol’ 350 engine that made it fun to pass cars and tractors and chicken-hauling trailers on those long drives across the Arkansas hills. It wasn’t my first vehicle, but it was the first one that I was proud to call my own, and although it was out of my family’s price range, I’m pretty sure my dad wanted me to have it. He sacrificed a lot for me.

I know it was just a truck, but it was where I first kissed Jody and later (but not much) where I asked her to marry me. When we decided to buy our first house, we sold that truck to afford the down payment, not long before that sweet dad of mine died.

It was just a passing truck, I guess, but it caused me to remember another truck that represents home and the love that shapes your life, so it made me smile.

A Night at the Orchestra

17267869_230418650696729_6304749396227522560_n(1)Last week, my oldest daughter and I attended a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or as we sophisticated people call it, the LA Phil.  The specific concert was titled, “Tetzlaff Plays Dvorak,” which as it turned out, was not a tennis match after all.  

You may be surprised to learn that I did not attend orchestral performances growing up in Paragould, Arkansas.  We had our share of drama, sure, but not much orchestra.  The closest I came was purchasing the soundtrack to Close Encounters of the Third Kind on vinyl.  

But who knew, if you purchase a ticket and have a beautiful date, “LA Phil” will apparently let pretty much anyone into the crazy cool Walt Disney Concert Hall.

I really did enjoy (most of) the performance, but my cultural unsophistication did allow my mind to wander to less-than-cultured places from time to time.  Like whether the guest conductor also played Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  And how one particularly animated violinist looked like a marionette under the influence of a tipsy puppeteer.  And how two gentlemen with a remarkable resemblance to Stephen King and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy were playing an unidentifiable instrument that made them look as if they were smoking fancy grenade launchers.

But the best part of the evening came shortly after intermission when a woman in our general vicinity began to painfully unwrap a piece of candy, which in that hall of hushed reverence sounded like she had trapped a squirrel in a bag of potato chips.  The surrounding patrons were silently livid, which my daughter and I discovered to be the funniest kind of livid to watch.

Much more seriously, as we sat side by side listening to classical music in Walt Disney Concert Hall, it occurred to me how far Erica and I have come in our precious years together.  I did not feel smug in this thought–as this essay shows, I remain far too ignorant to feel arrogant.  And yet I did not feel out of place either, even though that was obviously the case.  Instead, I just felt happy .  Happy at the honor of allowing such beautiful music to wash across my soul in that spectacular venue in this magical city with such a lovely young lady that I have been privileged to walk alongside for all these years.

I never imagined an evening like that one.  I wonder what other evenings I have yet to imagine?

Madness

17126701_1108437092601567_4197244785582407680_nBasketball used to be my thing.  I thought about it all day, every day, and dreamed about it at night–and sometimes still do.  Hour after hour alone in the driveway getting sunburned, soaked in rainstorms, and frozen in the snow and ice.  Dreaming I was Dr. J.  Dreaming I was an Arkansas Razorback.  Dreaming I was the hero of a state championship game for the C.R.A. Falcons.  Alone in my dreams.

Basketball became my community.  Countless practices.  Pickup games anywhere there were players and some version of a ball and goal.  My very best friends and mortal enemies.  Jammed fingers.  Shirts and skins.  Dunk goals.  Make-it, take-it.  We got next.  Cut-off t-shirts and short shorts.  High tops and two pairs of socks, pushed down to be cool.  Arguments and hurt feelings.  High fives and heroics.

Popular culture fueled my obsession.  “Hoosiers” hit the big screen when I was in high school, the peak of my love affair with the sport.  Rap music became a thing, and I wore out a cassette learning every word of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball.”  Thanks to an NBA commercial, the Pointer Sisters’ “Let’s Get Excited” became my warm-up song–even though I don’t think that’s what they were talking about.

I was valedictorian of my high school class and had options, I suppose, but all I cared about was basketball.  Since I wasn’t talented enough to play at the college level, my attention shifted to coaching.  I made every home game at Barnhill Arena during my college years.  Rollin’ with Nolan.  Dreaming that I would some day coach in the madness of March.

I remember the exact day my basketball dreams began a rapid disintegration.  It is hard to forget since it was one week before my wedding.  Appropriately, I was playing basketball in a outdoor three-on-three tournament at a local festival when a nasty fall shattered my right leg in three places.  Emergency surgery led to a four night hospital stay, released in enough time to make it to my wedding in a wheelchair.  In sickness and in health, right?  

In 1994, I began a love that has grown stronger year after year, and maybe not ironically, began to lose my feelings for basketball.  With my broken leg, after the lengthy recovery, I learned that I just couldn’t play all out anymore, and that stole all the fun.  I really don’t follow basketball much anymore.  Sure, I root for my Pepperdine Waves, and sure, I fill out an annual bracket and will be rooting for the old alma mater today as they take on Seton Hall (Go Hogs!), but it is no longer the center of my life.

I’m not sad about this.  I follow other sports as a spectator and am now somewhat obsessed with running.  But what I learned is that it is possible to walk away from something that was once important to you without regrets.  What is not okay, at least in my book, is pretending something is important and then doing it halfway.

Rising From the Ashes (Waters, Rubble, Ice, or Whatever)

al-jody

Mother Nature cleared her throat this week and shut down several roads leading to our life here in sunny (once again) Malibu.  My wife and I apparently collect natural disasters, starting with Arkansas tornadoes and ice storms, continuing with Gulf Coast floods and hurricanes, and now that we’ve hit the jackpot, California drought, earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides.  We just need a blizzard, tsunami, and volcano to complete the set.  Stockpiling seashells sounds significantly safer (sweet sentence!), but since an ice storm played a major role in the early days of our relationship, I guess the disaster collection is appropriate.

Jody and I met on New Year’s Day 1994 at a high school basketball tournament in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  I was there as a high school basketball coach, and she was there, according to her own rendition, in part to meet me.  You can picture me there at a guardrail in the arena, standing by myself, watching basketball, unsuspecting, when this beautiful young woman innocently (ha!) walks up to introduce herself.  I never knew what hit me that night, but it turned out to be love.

I didn’t have much of a chance according to the Vegas oddsmakers given my dating record yet somehow didn’t mess things up right away.  We talked through several basketball games that night, followed by a trip to Steak ‘n Shake since we weren’t particularly ready to stop the conversation.  We subsequently went on a date or two in January and could sense that something special was in the works.  And then came the infamous ice storm of 1994, a disaster that The Weather Channel ranked as #2 in their list of the “Nation’s Worst Ice Storms.”

Best.  Disaster.  Ever.

Classes at my school were canceled for what seemed like forever.  Jody’s work was not canceled, but since she lived about a forty-five minute drive away on super treacherous roads, she stayed close by at a friend’s apartment throughout the ice storm.  Over the course of that week or two we had the equivalent of a year or so of dating.  At least that’s what we tell ourselves since we were engaged a month later and married by May.

Jody and I have seen a natural disaster or two along the way, and living in California we can count on encountering more.  But we’ve also seen some pretty amazing things emerge “naturally” from both natural and unnatural disasters, and the past twenty-three years of my life is the best evidence of all.

Special Memories

familyMy parents’ birthdays are two days apart in early December.  Well, technically, sixteen years and two days apart.  My dad turned down an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in the late 1930s but enlisted alongside thousands of other Americans when Pearl Harbor was attacked the day after his twenty-first birthday.  Meanwhile, my mom celebrated her fifth birthday in the Arkansas hills the day after the attack.  While my dad headed off to the Pacific Theater to defend America’s freedom, my mom was a little girl having her freedom defended.

This week, were they both living, my dad would celebrate his ninety-sixth birthday and my mom would celebrate her eightieth.  Ninety-six and eighty are just numbers, but they are hard-to-believe numbers.  Where does the time go?

The last time I saw my dad alive he was in a hospital bed facing a wall in the fetal position and fighting the pain.  The last time I saw my mom alive she was weak and yellow and exhausted sitting in a lift chair in my sister’s living room.  When you go to check out of this life, the checkout counter is just awful.

But that’s not what I remember on special days like birthdays.  What comes to mind are happy and healthy times—and smiles.  Like the only time I remember being angry at my dad when he couldn’t suppress laughter after a bird pooped on my head.  Or my mom’s beaming face when she had the opportunities to spend time with my sweet daughters.  That’s what I will remember this week.  The smiling people who gave me an enjoyable life.

These milestone days come and go, which must explain the shocking numbers.  My sisters and I will text each other in sacred commemoration on December 6 and December 8.  I may or may not mention either day out loud to my wife or others.  But I always notice, and always remember, and never know exactly what else to do.

I do have an idea this year.  This year, I think I’ll plug in the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas CD that I kept from my mother’s things and close my eyes and be transported to another world.  I’ll picture being a kid again in that tiny house on West Mueller Street.  Mom and Dad are both there in the living room with me.  The stove is glowing orange because it is cold and snowing outside.  I can see it out the picture window when I squeeze around the Christmas tree.

I’m going to listen to that Bing Crosby sing about Christmas and travel away to that special world of memories.  And in particular I will smile when his distinctive baritone voice delivers the signature lines from that old World War Two classic, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Love Down in Early Trading

11I’m not sure that I met the height requirement for this American roller coaster, but I am apparently strapped in and here we go.

Let me just say that I believe love wins in the end.  But right now love is getting clobbered.  It’s like love is the Cleveland Browns.

The unique American experiment used the language of equality at its inception, which was absurdly false.  With time, various social justice movements emerged that brought differing measures of hope and progress to those beaten down or discredited due to their skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.  Such progress occurred through acts of love by courageous advocates who put their lives on the line for their brothers and sisters.  However, one category was rarely on the list of people to love, and that was a love for the people doing the beating or discrediting (i.e., “the enemy”).

But who in their right mind would propose loving an enemy when it is undeserved, especially when hate, resentment, and rage all feel so darn good?  Well, there was Dr. King, but he was a rare bird.  My Christian faith calls for a love of enemies, but it seems that Harriet Beecher Stowe summed it up in this little exchange in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?”

“Oh, the Bible!  To be sure, it says a great many such things; but then, nobody ever thinks of doing them…”

Regardless, we have spiraled into an awful mess.  “I don’t love you because you are a certain category.”  “Then I don’t love you because you are a terrible person because you don’t love people because they are in a certain category.”  “Well, now I don’t love you either because you say I am a terrible person.”  “Well then…”

It is a spiral leading nowhere good.  Specifically, it led to this presidential election, and from what I see, there is no sign of this train slowing down on either side.

It is telling that this presidential campaign produced two “anyone but” movements (i.e., “anyone but Trump” and “anyone but Hillary”).  Both meant exactly what they said.  Both emerged because our (un)civil war led the two sides to offer candidates representing the ultimate middle finger to their sworn enemy: “We propose the worst person you can imagine to be the most powerful person on the planet.”

One side won.  The other is apoplectic.  It was inevitable either way.

Let me be specific.  First, I am from Arkansas.  Second, I voted for Secretary Clinton.  It stings to hear what some friends say about “anyone who would vote for Hillary.”  It is hard to imagine that someone can say such things and love me at the same time.  Simultaneously, it stings to hear what some friends say about “anyone who would vote for Trump”—e.g., when entire swaths of my friends and family are referred to as uneducated, ignorant, redneck, and so on.  It is hard to imagine that someone can say such things and love those I love at the same time.

Love is just getting trounced.  Who knows, maybe it is game over, and if so, hopefully someone will learn a lesson from us someday after we are finished annihilating ourselves.  But I choose love anyway.  Even when it seems impossible, I continue to believe that love wins in the end.

To my friends on both sides who are understandably afraid, I humbly suggest that your fear may be misplaced.  Instead of being afraid of those you believe look down on you or those you love—and maybe they really do look down on you or those you love—I suggest (to quote a president) that the true enemy is fear itself.  And the antidote is love.  Learning to love an enemy is incredibly difficult, but I believe it is the hope of the world.

So how might one attempt to do such a radical thing as love someone you have good reasons to hate?  Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers this: “To love our enemy is impossible.  The moment we understand our enemy we feel compassion towards him or her, and he or she is no longer our enemy.”

I say it is worth a shot.  Categorically dismissing others is getting uglier all the time.

See. Respect. Listen. Love.

2

When Hurricane Katrina flooded our one-story house in 2005, it claimed treasured and irreplaceable items such as our wedding album and family videos while graciously sparing the crap in the attic that was there because we didn’t want it in the first place.  Gee, thanks.  My revenge came from unwittingly sparing a few boxes of personal mementos in my apparently waterproof office simply because we didn’t have room in the house.  I do my best work by accident.

Included in those mementos, believe it or not, was a college research paper that is now a quarter-century old, presented to Dr. Willard Gatewood at the University of Arkansas in 1991 and titled, “Arkansas Democrats in the Presidential Election of 1928.”  That paper was painstakingly typed on an actual typewriter (yes, boys and girls, a typewriter) and placed in a transparent plastic sleeve with a white binder with my social security number (ID number at the time!) emblazoned under my name on the cover page.  I kept the paper because I was proud of it and have a tiny problem throwing things away.

I remembered that paper last week and had to go for a trip down memory lane.

I don’t think I’m to blame for watching CNN last Thursday when I saw Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump laugh at each other’s jokes the day after trading verbal sucker punches and refusing to shake hands in their final debate.  Curiosity got the best of me.  It turned out that our nation’s top presidential candidates were at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual event hosted by the Archbishop of New York to raise money for needy children, and traditionally the last time presidential candidates share a stage prior to the election every four years.

It was the reference to Al Smith that led me to turn a closet upside down to find that old research paper.

Governor Al Smith of New York was the first Catholic to lead a major party ticket in a presidential election when nominated by the Democratic Party in 1928.  Smith chose Senator Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas as his running mate, the first southerner for a major party in that role since the Civil War, and Arkansas faced a dilemma: The heavily Democratic state had one of its own on the ticket, but Smith’s Catholicism was wildly unpopular across the state.  As a result, Protestant ministers in particular led anti-Smith campaigns that allowed the small contingent of Arkansas Republicans to pull up an easy chair while the Democrats worked both sides of the campaign.

In the end, the Smith-Robinson ticket still carried Arkansas and a handful of other states in the Solid South, but Herbert Hoover won the election in a landslide.  And then the stock market crashed, followed by a great depression and second world war and so on and so forth until I wrote a research paper that I can’t seem to throw away.

Today, it is hard to imagine passionate opposition to a presidential candidate simply because s/he is Catholic.  But it happened.  I wonder what research papers will be written by twenty-year-old students about the Election of 2016 decades down the road?

As Hillary Clinton closed her speech at the Al Smith Dinner, she reflected:

And when I think about what Al Smith went through it’s important to just reflect how groundbreaking it was for him, a Catholic, to be my party’s nominee for president.  Don’t forget – school boards sent home letters with children saying that if Al Smith is elected president you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.  Voters were told that he would annul Protestant marriages.  And I saw a story recently that said people even claimed the Holland Tunnel was a secret passageway to connect Rome and America, to help the Pope rule our country. Those appeals, appeals to fear and division, can cause us to treat each other as the Other.  Rhetoric like that makes it harder for us to see each other, to respect each other, to listen to each other. And certainly a lot harder to love our neighbor as ourselves.