From our seat in Jackson Square
Somewhere in Texas on a flat and lonely stretch of interstate my wife broke the silence to share, “I started to say that we are a long way from home, but I’m not sure where home is right now.” This wasn’t a sad statement, just a true one.
#1: We are forever from Arkansas, and before our trip ended we spent quality time there. Family. Farmland. Razorback license plates. Home.
#2: But we lived a decade of our married life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a special place we also visited on our cross-country journey. Live oaks. Shrimp boats. Humidity. Also home.
#3: Our trip originated in California where we lived together the longest. Palm trees. Mountains. Crashing waves. Yet another home.
#4: But we eventually arrived in Nashville, Tennessee. Music. Rolling hills. Hot chicken. Our new home.
So where should we say is home? It is a question far deeper than our uniquely mixed-up situation. “Home” may generate thoughts of a specific residential structure or a group of people or a city/region/state/country, but I think home is more of a sensation. It is a place of belonging. From personal experience it seems to me that there can be more than one, and today, as I start my new job, we are excited to add a new one to our list.
But then again I’m not certain we human beings ever really locate home on this life journey. Our talk of “something more” than this life leads me to wonder if we are all simply on an epic odyssey to find home. As Sojourner Truth once declared, “I am not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.” Maybe we are all headed home?
We took a break in the middle of our cross-country move to enjoy New Orleans, one of our very favorite places. We were sitting in the warm sunshine in Jackson Square, soaking in the day, when my wife raised the question again, “If someone asks us where we are from, what do we say?” I admit that I was stumped. But later, upon reflection, I think I just might say, “’We’re from everywhere, but ultimately we are headed toward home.”
PC: Kristi May
Time is a sneaky son of a gun.
I recently traveled to my hometown to pull off two reunions in a single day: eight first cousins for a mini-family reunion over an extra-long lunch followed by eight high school classmates for a thirty-year reunion over an extra-long dinner. It was a great day from start to finish.
I am the youngest of fourteen first cousins on my mother’s side of the family, so I missed out on the creation of many of the great memories that were shared over lunch. I do, however, remember assembling on a designated Sunday each summer in tiny towns in the hills of Arkansas for a family reunion that served to bind us together. Jeff brought an old DVD from the reunion the summer I graduated from college way back in 1992. My parents and grandparents were alive then, and the DVD brought them back from the grave and threw my heart for a loop.
I also happened to be the youngest of nineteen members of the Class of ’88 at Crowley’s Ridge Academy due to a late September birthday, but I was most definitely there for all the wonderful memories that we recalled with great laughter over dinner. In fact, I attended that tiny school for twelve years—it is as much a part of me as anything. Joe brought several yearbooks, and those old black-and-white photographs resurrected memories that did their own number on my heart.
It occurred to me at some point that some of the high school teachers we once considered ancient were younger then than we are now. I’m not exactly sure how to describe how that all settled in the old heart, but I wouldn’t use any version of the word comfort.
Steve Miller wrote and released the song Fly Like an Eagle (and immortalized the line that time keeps on slipping into the future) around the time I started making all those memories at home and school. The lyrics seem to say that Miller wanted to spend his time helping the poor and soar to a place of freedom for everyone—but time keeps on slipping away.
Yes, it does. Hashtag agreed and all that.
Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what I would tell myself thirty years ago, or forty, or whatever—and to be honest, I’m not particularly interested since that ship has apparently sailed. What I would rather determine is what I would tell myself right now. I gave that question quite a bit of thought after this little peek in the time capsule, and do you know what I concluded?
I am sure that I, too, want to help the poor and soar to a place of freedom for everyone. But time apparently has a habit of going viral.
I elbowed my way through afternoon L.A. traffic to begin a four-hour mountain drive that ended in a surprising thunderstorm and finally some peace and quiet. Early the next morning I drove the few remaining miles to my destination: Manzanar.
I forget exactly when I learned about Manzanar, but it should have been sooner.
Asian-Americans endured prejudicial treatment prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941 but that terrible attack brought specific ethnic hostility to those of Japanese ancestry. In early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” from the West Coast and ultimately over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps simply because of their ethnicity. Ten thousand of those Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in California at Manzanar.
My interest in visiting Manzanar intensified a few years ago when I learned that two of the ten wartime camps were located in Arkansas—I grew up in Arkansas and taught history in Arkansas and had never been told that Arkansas incarcerated 17,000 people of Japanese descent from California, half at Camp Jerome and half at Camp Rohwer. I knew then that I needed to visit Manzanar to feel the pain of a camp and ponder this terrible connection between my two “home” states—and my native country.
Manzanar is easy to visit on one hand: It is free, uncrowded, and only takes an hour or two to see everything there is to see. But it is difficult to visit as well. For what it represents, and what it proclaims.
Out of the 110,000+ imprisoned out of fear of espionage or sabotage, exactly zero were convicted of espionage or sabotage. That unwarranted fear destroyed many lives and families and even flirted with destroying a culture. In Hawaii where 158,000 Japanese-Americans faced less prejudice and enjoyed more freedom than those on the mainland, they were still discouraged from speaking the Japanese language and practicing the Buddhist religion. Hawaii’s military governor explained why: “We must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”
And what, pray tell, did this chapter of American history communicate about the American Way?
The barbed wire at Manzanar stands as a reminder of how fear and power work together. But Manzanar also reminds us of the potential resilience of oppressed people and that even when fear and power lace up on the same team that victims can band together and rise above their circumstances. Possibly my favorite poster in the visitor’s center hung outside the theater and featured a quote from Hank Umemoto: “We were screwed, but then we made the most out of it and we turned Manzanar into a community.”
May there be no more Manzanars. But in the meanwhile, may all such peoples find that kind of courage and hope.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged america, american way, arkansas, california, camp jerome, camp rohwer, community, executive orders, fdr, fear, hank umemoto, hawaii, hope, japan, japanese-american, manzanar, power, resilience, united states
The United States of America is 242 years old today. It seems to be in a bit of a cranky stage but those of us who love her hope she will grow out of it someday (soon). It is a spectacular country in about every way you define spectacular. I have now traveled to five continents and have a better frame of reference—enough to recognize that the land of my birth is unique in its global influence.
And I have now spent time in thirty-six of these United States and hope to complete the set someday. I already have remarkable memories.
I stood outside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama and threw snowballs on the Fourth of July in Alaska. I stood at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and called the Hogs in Arkansas. I watched the sunset in California and ran in the snow in Colorado. I saw a rocket launch in Florida and ate peach cobbler in Georgia. I ran along the Snake River in Idaho and sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field in Illinois. I shot hoops at Larry Bird’s restaurant in Indiana and drove by corn fields in Iowa.
I saw the wide open horizon in Kansas and watched horses run behind white fences in Kentucky. I ate beignets in Louisiana and crab cakes in Maryland. I toured the Ford Museum in Michigan and the Mall of America in Minnesota. I saw a hurricane in Mississippi and the Gateway Arch in Missouri. I sang in the capitol rotunda in Nebraska and walked the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada. I drove Route 66 across New Mexico and ran Central Park in New York.
I ate banana pudding in North Carolina and had a VIP tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio. I dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and crossed breathtaking rivers in Pennsylvania. I saw Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee. I witnessed Monday Night Football in Texas and the Golden Spike National Monument in Utah. I crossed the Potomac in Virginia and ascended the Space Needle in Washington. I drove up a winding mountain in West Virginia and ate cheese curds in a bar in Wisconsin.
I am ready for more.
This is an incredible country, and I choose to celebrate these United States today. And I choose to do my part in making it better tomorrow.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged alabama, alaska, arizona, arkansas, california, colorado, florida, georgia, idaho, illinois, indiana, iowa, july 4, kansas, kentucky, louisiana, maryland, michigan, minnesota, mississippi, missouri, nebraska, nevada, new mexico, new york, north carolina, ohio, oklahoma, pennsylvania, south carolina, tennessee, texas, united states, usa, utah, virginia, washington, west virginia, wisconsin
I was born and raised in Arkansas. I love Arkansas. Now I live in California. And I love California. But recently I was reminded that a significant part of my heart remains in Mississippi.
We lived in Mississippi for about ten years and then moved to California about ten years ago. When we moved I expected to visit Mississippi from time to time, but somehow that had not happened in nine years until an unexpected invitation to officiate a funeral for a sweet friend arrived a couple of weeks ago. After a crazy couple of days of rearranging plans, I woke up to discover that I had been blasted into the past. I was unprepared.
I often say that nostalgia is just not my jam. For better or worse, my brain is oriented toward what is ahead, so life’s rearview mirror is relatively unused in my world. Well, it got used a bunch on this return to Mississippi.
Upon landing in Gulfport, I rented a car and drove down Highway 49 to the Gulf Coast and then along the beach that had been ravaged by Katrina thirteen years ago and, as the kids say, I started to feel all the feels. I saw familiar landmarks such as Beauvoir, the Biloxi Lighthouse, and Mary Mahoney’s. I saw the Coast Coliseum where my oldest daughter graduated high school and Point Cadet where my youngest had her first dance recital. There was the familiar Sharkhead’s souvenir shop and Jaws-inspired entrance but with a post-Katrina transformation that turned the entire first floor into a shaded parking lot. The Treasure Bay casino pirate ship is simply gone forever, and although I had never stepped foot inside, that made me want to cry. I had misplaced certain memories like the unique combination of bright white sands and murky waters and wondered what else I had forgotten over the years. It appeared that my GPS had sent me unwittingly down Memory Lane.
Our old hometown of Ocean Springs really threw me for a loop. I drove downtown past Lovelace Drugs and the Walter Anderson Museum and had to get out on Front Beach just to breathe. I stopped for a heavenly Tato-Nut donut and drove to our old Katrina-flooded house and discovered that it now looks like it did that fateful day when we evacuated for the storm. I wasn’t sure what to think about that sort of resurrection.
But seeing old friends nearly made my heart explode with love. Jim and Dimple. Gene and Eileen. All the Fains. Bruno and Linda. Angie and Carol. Todd and Robin. Samantha and Shelly. Tandy and Peggy. Bernice and Cathy. Frances and Mark. Tim and Katie. Connor and Amanda. Debbie and Brynlee. There is so much love in my heart for Ocean Springs and the Mississippi Gulf Coast—especially for our friends. I knew that in my brain and held it in my heart, but this trip resurrected the feeling from deep in my soul. Nostalgia hit me like a wave and left me dizzy. Like that old storm surge.
I texted my wife to say that we have to go back and visit together sometime. She said that she had wanted to do that for a long time now.
I know that I should learn to stop and smell the roses. But I am learning that I should also stop, turn around, and head back to Mississippi to smell the magnolias from time to time.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged arkansas, beauvior, california, gulf coast, hurricane katrina, lovelace drugs, mary mahoney's, memories, mississippi, nostalgia, ocean springs, sharkhead's, tatonut, treasure bay, walter anderson
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.