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

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Heading West

By now, you've either heard the news or read it on Twitter or somewhere, but yes, the NFL's Rams are heading back west from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

Twenty-one years in St. Louis. Including a Super Bowl win in 1999. Gone.

I'll tell you this: That's business. Relocation happens in professional sports. The almighty dollar is king in professional sports. If you're expecting owners like the Rams' Stan Kroenke to measure up to some standard of idealism, you're living on a planet without oxygen.

But I digress. If you want my fast points on this, here goes.

(1) Stan Kroenke was determined to move the Rams to LA since the day he bought the club. The fact that some people don't realize this befuddles me.

(2) The Rams were bleeding St. Louis dry. This is primarily due to the stadium lease deal of the Edward Jones Dome, in which city money was going into a huge pit, not to mention the maintenance costs had long been an albatross around the neck of St. Louis City.

(3) Revitalization over pigskin: Rather than cry in our Budweisers (for St. Louis natives, that is; I prefer something authentically German), why not use this as an opportunity to spearhead a renewal of downtown St. Louis? Atlanta revitalized its downtown area into something worth going to. Pittsburgh stopped an exodus of people and businesses with a recent urban renewal. Heck, even Louisville, Kentucky and Chattanooga, Tennessee have been models of how to rebirth its city scape and population, be it through reinvestment, technology startups, aquariums, transformation of subsided housing into loft districts, etc. Why in the world can't St. Louis get that ball rolling? We need to attract even more business (Twitter has hunkered down here) and reverse population decline and get a better, more consistent tax base.

(4) Think about what you can do as a sports town: St. Louis has had two NFL teams, losing both, although the football Cardinals jetted in 1988 following abjectly horrific attendance that was worse than the Rams' turnstiles. The circumstances of the Rams leaving are different than the football Cardinals, but losing a second team--while not a fatal wound--might give the NFL pause before giving St. Louis a crack at round three. It's the same reason the NHL won't take a chance on Atlanta again (after losing the Flames in 1980 and the Thrashers a few years back). 

Seriously, consider a place like Kansas City. Two major "Big Four" sports teams in the Royals (baseball) and Chiefs (football). Both have passionate fan support that is solid and consistent for a media market of KC's size, but Kansas City doesn't try to push it past that point. They had an NBA team in the 70s and 80s and lost the Kings to Sacramento. They had an NHL team in the 1970s and the Scouts moved to Colorado (and then to New Jersey). Kansas City has a successful Major League Soccer team (Sporting Kansas City) that plays on the Kansas side of the metroplex and enjoy uber-passionate fan support. That works. St. Louis has to figure out if another professional team can work. If so, what kind? 

(5) But about Kroenke...don't crap all over the city of St. Louis like you've been doing. It's showing what little character you have. I'd rather live in St. Louis than a LOT of other places. And that definitely includes Los Angeles.

(6) One more thing: To my fellow St. Louisans, I'm sure it hurts to lose the Rams, but there are worse things. At least you're not the people of Baltimore in 1984, losing the Colts in a fiasco that makes today's news seem like small potatoes.

Life goes on. As for me, I'll look forward to the day when St. Louis gets an MLS franchise or an aquarium. Because those will be changes I will embrace.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Speechwriter

One of several things that sets us apart from the animals is that we can use--and love--words, and we'd like to trust our fellow humans with their own. It is this underlying pulse that moves through the recently published The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. Although presently working as the Communications Manager of the South Carolina Policy Council, Swaim spent several years as a speechwriter for former Governor Mark Sanford. Although Swaim never mentions the disgraced gubernatorial giant by name in his book, those of us who can sniff out recent history like my mechanic can notice bad wheel bearings know of whom he speaks. He tells this candid remembrance of labor, not to smear Sanford, but to provide insight into how flawed people use language, how we desire people to be better, and how we must make terms with disappointment when others let us down.

Swaim's style engages the reader, neither bogging down nor quickening the pace beyond proper bounds. The book goes a little more than two hundred pages, so no one will look at it and think, "Good heavens, there goes the next four weeks of my life." (I finished it in four days) He expertly shows both the colorful greatness and the deepest flaws of those in the halls of power in the Palmetto State, but he does so to display authentic humanity. There are no character assassinations or forays into the no-man's land of ad hominem attacks. In a culture of kiss-and-tell unauthorized biographies, this is a welcome move.

As Governor Sanford is the central human character of focus, Swaim paints a portrait of the man that slaloms effortlessly between the appreciation for Sanford's tenacity and work ethic on one hand and the harsh, unsavory attitude and moral failings on the other. After performing well on the first speech he wrote for Sanford, Swaim shows genuine vulnerability as he recalls the governor's dismissal of his later writing attempts. He depicts Sanford as a man of determination to see policies through to the end, a soldier devoted to first principles that reflect the vision of limited government. Yet the same focus on seeing desires through takes the governor to pursue other, darker passions that ruin his marriage and bring the phrase "hiking the Appalachian trail" forever into the American vernacular.

Through it all, Swaim restrains from painting politics with a broad brush. He even says we can't automatically declare "politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars than other fields do...Using vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying; it's not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you're saying something instead of nothing." He looks upon this time, as the book's subtitle reveals, as a classic "brief education."

It is a tribute to Swaim that he took this education seriously. He has a passion for using words correctly, but he shows a willingness to make them work. He relates his struggles with capturing Sanford's voice for his speeches, finding varied degrees of success until he transcribes many of the governor's letters and noting consistently emphasized common words. He learned how to stretch words and phrases to bulk up paragraphs so that a ten-line note could become a full-page letter that would make its recipient feel like a million bucks. Swaim shows that writing for others is not just limited to knowing one's audience, but also the vision of the communicator.

With consistent genuineness, Swaim shows the admirable depths of humanity. Sanford is easily the flawed soul most often on display, often at the mercy of (or just as often demanding to be limited to) a series of talking points. But he also could speak with candor about what America couldn't do alongside it's potential. Swaim says "the governor's heroism...consisted in his brutal honesty about the limits of what could be done", whether on spending programs or whatever. But Swaim is fair enough to show just how much the job could chip away at his own reserves. He opens up about having to deal with Sanford's acerbic responses to his best writing attempts, the times he'd go to work and feel like vomiting, and the seasons of difficulty his labors would cause for he and his wife Laura. As one who experienced a stretch of wedded choppiness during fifteen months of pastoral ministry, I can appreciate what Swaim shares about swimming those marital seas.

But through the entire book, Swaim's main character is the beauty of language. We have an inborn desire to tell stories, to project an image and ideals we want others to believe. And we want to tell those stories well. There are rules we believe about the way we write and speak, and those rules get bent. Throughout his time serving Governor Sanford, Swaim doggedly tries to discover how to live in that latitude, while believing dearly in a vision for how to tell a story. And he brings his own story to a crescendo with a question: How to we use words for others to communicate a vision for life when those "others" let us down and damage our trust? Swaim leaves us with a thirst to use our own words honestly, but he wisely cautions us against overshooting our landing field and trusting those who "glory in receiving glory."

Here is no potboiler or political epic or world-shattering events. The simple delight and enchantment of this tome comes from the interplay of hope and confession. Swaim confesses that there will always be disappointment of some variety as we deal with those in power and--to degrees--our own selves. But we do have the hope that we can weave our words into a tapestry that acknowledges the beauty and flaws of what Francis Schaeffer called "the mannishness of man." In a real sense, this is a love story about language and the hope that we can still trust the spoken and written word. And at its core, along with the human drama within the covers, that is what makes this story a must-read.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Christian Education: Things to Try (Part 1)

My hands are not on the steering wheel of least in the sense of a school administrator. But over seventeen years of teaching in Christian schools have given me a certain level of mojo to speak about ideas that could be worth trying.

Some of these are scheduling matters, some are academic ones, but I'm going to let things rip with a smile.

(1) Affirm differentiated courses: Begin with the firm realization that even if you're a college-prep Christian school, not everyone is college-prep in every subject. Maybe the possibility exists that students can take Algebra I in eighth grade, Geometry in 9th, and so on. That's robust and seems to be the way winds blow lately. But not everyone is going to learn math well by riding that train all the way to College Algebra. Some kids would flower with a Business Math/Consumer Math course. Not everyone is college prep in math. Some students are the same way in English. Expository writing on literature may be difficult, but technical writing and a course built around business communication might fit the bill.

(2) Get practical: We can teach kids a lot about presidential debates, but little about how to analyze arguments within them. But what if there was an actual debate/logic class to help in that regard? Students can do math but not have a clue about how to set budgets or do taxes. Couldn't we built those matters into our curricula? Oh, and what about some more do-it-yourself moxie that can save $$$ down the road as students become adults? Industrial arts classes like wood shop, metal shop, or electrical and duct work? Auto repair? Tailoring or culinary activity and home economics?

Yeah, I was serious about all of the above.

(3) About homework: I completely get that this is coming from someone who never gives homework except for tests, quizzes, and projects, but what goes into why a lot of teachers assign homework? I know that homework is important for reinforcing things from class, especially in cumulative disciplines like math and world languages. But a teacher should really do their own homework assignments at a serviceable pace; then multiply that time by six and you might have a sense of how long it'll take an average student.

(4) Break the routine: Our students go pillar to post every day in a cauldron of activity and noise. We have GOT to find ways to slow things down for them. Perhaps a 20-minute break during the day for students to snack, socialize, play a quick game of hoops, or so on? Once you're out of elementary school, recess goes out the window. Wouldn't it be great to work that in? Or--to show the value of solitude and quiet--students gather for a Quaker-like fifteen minutes of silence once a week, clearing minds and souls and listening for God?

I know this isn't an exhaustive list, but it's the start of what could be a conversation. Thoughts? Other ideas? I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Wisdom of St. Patrick

The influence of Pat Conroy upon my life is as deep as it is wide. What P.D. James did for crime fiction from the sixties onward, Conroy did for Southern fiction.

Conroy presents a world that is wild and raw, one that captures copious levels of fallenness and brokenness as a field in which the human spirit seeks to rise above such terror. Yes, there is swearing in his books. Yes, there is violence. If you can't fathom an author using that in their work and demand such thematic material consigns like literature to the ash heap of the banned, maybe you're the one with the problem. Of course, there is some "literature" that can never be redeemed and should be ignored (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey and its pathetic sequels), but ignore it if you must. Banning is a separate set of parameters.

Eight years ago, Conroy wrote the following piece in response to a mad rush to ban two of his novels in a West Virginia public school district. As I couldn't say it any better than Conroy would, I simply ask you to link to his statement here.

And if you have any thoughts or responses, let's have a conversation!