At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Writing Prompt 1: Choices or Circumstances?

This year in my Ethics class, I've begun a system of--every other week--having my students write in response to a prompt. They have composition books for the occasion, and so I'll put the prompt on the board, give them fifteen minutes of nonstop, quiet writing time, and then collect the books. I read each one for a completion grade, finding some fascinating details in the way they think.

Because I don't require my students do something I wouldn't do myself, I write along with them and share my thoughts afterward. Thus, I thought, why not do the same here on my blog. So the first question of the year from back in August went as follows:

Which do you believe has had more impact on your life, the situations you find yourself in, or the choices you make? Why do you say that?

My response? Here goes...

Of course, I would like to say choices. That might betray an insane sense of control-freak nature, but there it is. What impacts me? I can say I chose to date and love and marry my wife. I chose the college and grad school I attended. I chose jobs that were offered to me. It seems like a slam dunk. Then again, don't choices arise from the situations we find ourselves in? Do my attitudes about finances, faith, friendship, family, education, sexuality and a host of other items on that pile and beyond--don't they trace back to the fact that I was born in a small northeast Kansas town, that I have moved around the country with some regularity in a white, generally middle-class family headed by a Presbyterian pastor, and that I'm the oldest of three boys? What if I was raised in inner-city Detroit wanting a good life, wanting wealth and upward mobility, but discovering that a poorer family and different schools might have difficulty giving that push? What then? What if I was raised in Communist East Germany from birth through my first nineteen years (when the Berlin Wall would've fallen)? I'd likely have markedly different ideas about faith (maybe atheist), finances (the economy would be regulated and there'd be fewer opportunities for wealth creation) and so on. Maybe a better question is "What is the relation between our choices and the situations we find ourselves in?" I know that Dumbledore told Harry Potter that we are defined by our choices--that makes for a great movie quote. And it's not that those choices are insignificant; it'd be terrible if they weren't. But the flowers of our decisions--my decisions--bloom in a meadow that we don't plant but where we live nonetheless. Maybe the best we can hope for is to enjoy our choices and be bold enough to change the situations we're in that we can make impact in ways we never imagined. You go to school, you learn botany, you plant a tree in your two-acre yard based on that knowledge, and it's an apple tree. And one night during a blustery storm, a pregnant stray dog takes shelter under that tree and apples fallen from that tree sustain her until you discover her the next day. And she gives birth to a litter of puppies which your family can't imagine being without. Something like that. And...ahhhh, fifteen minutes are up!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

No Little People

I used to coach football...assistant coach at a school in Louisiana. I mentored the offensive linemen. If there's ever a group in a garden-variety football game that gets overlooked, it tends to be offensive linemen. They don't get on the stat sheet. They block for the running backs, protect the quarterback when passing, and...that's about it.

That doesn't mean they're unimportant. They'd better not be, because in my playing days in high school, I was an offensive lineman. [By the way, our football team plays University City in the state quarterfinals this Saturday, and our offensive line is about to show U-City what a significant five-some they really are!]

But that goes beyond the point.

This past Saturday, there was an absolute thriller of a football game in Oxford, Mississippi, as Arkansas toppled Ole Miss, 53-52, in overtime on national TV. It wasn't just the score, or the fact the two teams racked up nearly 1200 yards of offense together. It was the miraculous way Arkansas won.

Ole Miss had scored first in the overtime period, and now Arkansas struggled to move the ball, going in reverse to where they had a fourth-down-and-25 yards to go for the first down. Quarterback Brandon Allen dropped back for the Razorbacks' final desperation play and heaved the ball cross-field to wide receiver Hunter Henry, who gathered in the ball at the Rebels' 25-yard line, well short of the first down. Henry was creamed by the Rebels' defensive back and was going down for the game's clinching tackle and an Ole Miss victory when he heaved the ball backwards in desperation, hoping against hope this was not it when...

Now here I should interrupt things and let you know that something happened on September 20, 1994, which was a major event in the process of Ole Miss losing this game.

Dan Skipper was born.

Despite the fact I've titled this post "No Little People", that is meant to communicate there are no insignificant people.

Dan Skipper is not little. He is 6'10" tall and weighs 331 pounds. But he is an offensive lineman, and that means the eyes of a football crowd are not always on him.

But on September 20, 1994, Dan Skipper was born, setting in motion a chain of events which led to him playing football, which led to getting a scholarship to play football for Arkansas, which led to a starting position at right tackle...

...which led to Dan Skipper playing right tackle in overtime at the time Hunter Henry sent his Bon-Jovi-style-living-on-a-prayer lateral skyward back toward the 41-yard line, where two Ole Miss players could have plucked it out of the air...

Except that Dan Skipper reached out with his paw and barely slapped the ball aside, causing it to bounce sideways off the turf and into the waiting arms of Alex Collins, who found daylight and scampered to the 11-yard line and a first down and new life for Arkansas.

Don't believe me? Watch the replay:

A few plays later, the Razorbacks scored a touchdown. They went for the winning two-point conversion which failed, but a Rebel face-mask penalty gave them new life yet again, and then the winning convert was scored by Brandon Allen.

53-52 was the score. Allen scored the winner. Collins got the yards on the fourth down scamper.

But Dan Skipper--who didn't show up on the stat sheet--made the most important contribution of all. If Skipper doesn't bat that ball to the side, it's all for naught. And yet the announcers never mentioned his name.

Dan Skipper made the difference. 

In life, as in football, there are no little people. There are no insignificant souls. Everything we do, say, and try has value, even if no one announces it.

Even you. Especially you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Royal Flush

What a great October.

I am a Cubs fan first and foremost, and it was a sweet year that came out of nowhere. Ninety-seven wins, a whitewashing of the Pirates in the wild-card game, and then curb-stomping the Cardinals in the National League Divisional Series put the Cubs' future trajectory further ahead than I ever imagined. Even a sweep by the Mets in the NLCS couldn't dissolve the joy on the North Side. The heights are so dizzying now, I'm afraid of ESPN jinxing the whole operation with their way-too-early predictions for next year.

But when the dust settled, I had to be proud of the Kansas City Royals. What a team. What a year. And what a city.

I know I run the risk of incurring the wrath of Cardinals fans here in St. Louis, some who still have raw memories of the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. (News flash: GET OVER IT, PEOPLE!) But the Royals entirely deserved the postseason laurels this year.

Interestingly enough, I've been to about seven Royals games in my lifetime. Every time, Kansas City has won. Without exception. Not that they needed me through this postseason.

Our family has had particular interest in the Royals since 2010. We discovered we could go across the state, get a hotel in KC and get four tickets to a Monday night game for a total cost less than going to Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals. So in late June of that year, we took in a 3-1 win over the White Sox on a beautiful night in gorgeous Kaufmann Stadium. The crowd of 13,000 that night loved their team; it was just a shame that they were mired in last place in the American League Central Division at the time. But I was watching the Royals and saw they had a great cache of talent in the minor leagues that was tearing things up. And I thought, If they keep these guys together, there's no telling what can happen.

2014 came and the Royals found themselves in the World Series, where they lost narrowly to the seasoned Giants. That experience paid dividends for this year. In their eleven postseason wins, the Royals came from two runs down seven times. SEVEN TIMES! Plus, that includes ninth-inning rallies in Games One and Five against the Mets. This was the stuff of legend.

It was topped off yesterday by a victory parade and rally that seemed to attract at least a half million folks for the love-in. No fights, no pushiness, no riots. Just a classy service of reciprocal thanks from town to team and vice versa.

It was a celebration that I look forward to happening for the Cubs in a year or so. But this year, Kansas City supremely deserved it. What a team. What a year. What a city. A Blue October it was.

Why Read?

I know that I tend to have all the annoyance of a prophet calling in the wilderness, but I'm going John the Baptist one more time.

Various educational reformers and program-tinkerers come out with the latest fashions and plugs to try this or that idea. This is not to criticize said talking heads; some good ideas some from those voices. Nor is this the forum to criticize initiatives like No Child Left Behind or Common Core standards. Other people with more skin in the game than I do can skirmish on that terrain. Nor is this a technology rant. Others can scream out the pros and cons of iPads and other digital devices.

I feel the need to point out that all initiatives in educational reform will fail unless people take it upon themselves to be diligent readers. This is not spellbinding cutting edge stuff. This is common sense thinking.

Reading is the foundation of the house of the educated person. You may never be a voracious reader, but you can be a consistent reader, and you can learn to love reading.

There are many reasons why you should yearn to be a reader, but in case you were wondering if I had a list of benefits at the ready, here are twenty of them in no particular order:

1. It slows down your day and relaxes you. 
2. It helps you realize there are other worlds and perspectives than your own.
3. It expands your vocabulary and you can have more descriptive conversations.
4. Reading before going to sleep relaxes you and helps you sleep better. Sleeping better leads to higher quality waking hours.
5. It develops your imagination and provokes you to think about alternative paths and endings to your own stories of life.
6. Reading different varieties of books can offer solutions to everyday challenges.
7. It's productive. Read for thirty minutes a day five days a week and you've read 7800 minutes for a year. That translates to 130 hours of time. Imagine how many books you'd get read in 130 hours!
8. You understand other people's emotions as you encounter characters of other stories, and as a result you become more empathetic in a world that is increasingly less so.
9. Reading improves attention span, concentration, memory, and personal discipline.
10. You are able to assess situations and challenges in a hierarchical manner when you read more. This means you have an increasing ability to figure out what problems are important and what issues are less important, and you can prioritize things more naturally that way.
11. Especially with reading fiction, you realize the world consists of exceptions to the rule, and you can be inspired to solve problems rather than accept limitations.
12. It can challenge your own beliefs, help winnow away error, and strengthen the truth you hold.
13. It improves critical thinking, logic, and deduction skills.
14. It improves your ability to see patterns  and to anticipate possibilities.
15. It keeps your mind fresh and rejuvenated.
16. It strengthens your brain.
17. You become a more fluent communicator because you get a better handle not only on what to say but how it sounds.
18. Reading non-fiction can help you grasp practical aspects of life...what to look for in insurance policies, how to build a spice rack, and so forth.
19. It's inexpensive. Did you know you can borrow books for free from the public library?
20. And--from a personal vantage point--reading makes you a better writer and opens up a world where you can love to write. And that means you can create things that others can love to read. And that is a wonderful thought!