We 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.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, cemetery, children, comfort, death, family, fear, home, hometown, life, marriage, memories, parents, peace, time, winter
“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” – Maya Angelou
At week’s end I intend to be two thousand miles away from home to attend the homecoming basketball game of my high school alma mater. Pretty weird, huh, to leave home to come home? My life has turned out like that.
I am at home in California, and I have a driver’s license and mailing address and license plates to prove it. California is where everything I own in this world is located. It is where I live and work and go to sleep at night. California is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my hand and love it here. Home is where you hang your hat, and my hat hangs in California.
But Arkansas has always been my home. It is the land of my birth. Born, and raised. Arkansas is where I fell in love and became both a husband and a father, and it is where both of my sweet parents were laid to rest. Arkansas is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my other hand, and I love it there. You can never really leave home, so I never really left Arkansas.
Arkansas and California could not be more different if they tried. And I’m pretty sure that they do. But they are both dear to me.
It promises to be a strange week. I haven’t lived in Arkansas in twenty years and only visit on rare occasions, and I could not tell you the last time I watched the Falcons play a homecoming basketball game despite having participated in so many of them in years that are now long gone. But I will feel at home there, because that is where I will be. Home.
Pliny the Elder famously said that home is where the heart is. Well, my heart has two homes.
I will leave my love for Mississippi for another day.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, basketball, california, cra, crowley's ridge academy, falcons, heart, home, homecoming, love, maya angelou, paragould, pliny the elder
A 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.
My 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.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, courage, death penalty, democracy, effort, executions, henry fonda, jodi plaia, malibu high, theater, twelve angry americans, twelve angry men
My 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.
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.
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?
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, captain picard, classical music, close encounters of the third kind, dvorak, future, happiness, imagination, jeff van gundy, la phil, los angeles, orchestra, paragould, star trek, stephen king, tetzlaff, walt disney concert hall
Basketball 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.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, barnhill arena, basketball, commitment, crowley's ridge academy, dr. j, hoosiers, kurtis blow, letting go, love, march madness, paragould, pepperdine, pointer sisters, rap, razorbacks
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.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged 1994 ice storm, arkansas, california, disasters, jonesboro, love, mother nature, opportunity, phoenix, socal, steak 'n shake, the weather channel
My 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.”
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, bing crosby, birthdays, christmas, death, family, holidays, home, love, memories, paragould, parents, pearl harbor day, smiles, world war two