Words, Words, Words

December 22, 2015

I first encountered Rich Moran in early May 2010. I sat behind him in the freshman section of the bleachers of SLUH’s old gym for the annual senior award ceremony. I’d seen him and his distinctive white hair—balding yet unkempt, long on the sides and combed over the top—pacing the halls, generally with his head down and seldom smiling. But none of these passings qualified as encounters the way watching him give my classmate a demerit for a trivial thing did. The details escape me, although my memory hints that the student was laughing rather than applauding. To me, a freshman terrified of demerits and the JUG (“Justice Under God,” Jesuit for “detention”) that came from too many, this encounter primed me to react hesitantly when I saw “Moran, Rich” next to English II on my sophomore schedule.

I made this judgment before I ever knew Rich and his story. Which, as I learned in his class that year and senior year, is a crucial error in understanding anybody. For stories carry with them the power to reveal the parts of a person that they might never say explicitly.

Rich’s class redirected me to reading and writing again. In grade school, I spent my free time at home reading a new book every day or writing various stories, filled with unnecessary words but packed with detail. In middle school, though, I lost interest (mainly because, like most middle schoolers, I was a shit who thought I was too cool for everything my friends didn’t love as well). But in Rich’s class I learned to show and not to tell, to distinguish between important scenes and broad summaries. I read Macbeth and Things Fall Apart and Plainsong and A Call To Arms and The Lords of Discipline and fell back in love with an author’s ability to create an entire world with ink and imagination. Rich described Shakespeare’s ability to accurately depict the Macduff family dynamic in a mere five lines as something as wondrous as an artist’s ability to create a profile in a breeze of five paint strokes. Suddenly I had the strongest desire to become so skilled in my own writing, a desire that lives on and an accomplishment I am yet hundreds of miles from.

But the stories extend beyond the materials on the syllabus (a syllabus that made reference to Matt Holliday’s inability to field left field properly and shitty sequels to Snakes on a Plane nixed before Samuel L. Jackson could barter for another purple lightsaber). They shine most clearly in the times I interrupted the lesson to express my discontent with the Cardinals’ failure to win the division, the day Rich pulled me aside before class to tell me not to worry about the C he’d just given me on an essay about “The Last Duchess” because he could tell I was dealing with something bigger than school, the nights he visited the Prep News office and we talked for 30 minutes in the middle of the J Wing.

In Rich’s Reading and Writing Fiction class, I spilled the deepest parts of my life onto the assignments for Rich to read. In so doing he learned my story. So when he first spoke so passionately about his obsession with stories and the power they carry, I attached myself to his sentiment. Stories had always been important to me, from the mornings when I was eight years old and awoke at 5 am to read alone for two hours. But Rich’s testimony shed a brand new light on the importance of stories to life itself. We all come with a multitude of stories that have molded us. These are the stories that we share with friends we’ve just met in order to sculpt an image of ourselves for them. They’re the crux of existing friendships that share the same stories with different points of view that come together to create a new dimension. Without stories, our lives become repetitive. No substance remains; rust pervades.

***

Tonight I saw Wicked for the first time. I’ve heard the soundtrack dozens of times, and “Defying Gravity” has long been a favorite song of mine. Throughout the production, I obsessed over the power of stories and the words that makes stories possible. I couldn’t stop thinking about the magic of words and how desperately I needed to write. Write tonight and in the future (which will hopefully work out as I pray it will). When the cast performed “Defying Gravity,” I was overcome with amazement for these words that I speak of now, for the story that dives into the essential question of whether anyone is truly born wicked or if they have wickedness thrust upon them. My obsession with words reached full desperation to one day create something so powerful and moving as Wicked was tonight.

It is extremely difficult to accurately describe this feeling I felt tonight, but descriptions are the very reason that such a diverse vocabulary pervades the English language. Thus, I feel an obligation to describe this feeling as accurately as possible, and if I fail, then I have a great way to improve my writing. Here it goes.

If you’ve ever had a feeling of passion, excitement, potential, and a bit of terror, then you might know where I’m headed. It’s a combination that can come only from a certainty that you have discovered what you love and pine to excel at such an endeavor. A baseball player likely feels hit when he hits .400 for a month and reaches base more than half of the time. A teacher might stumble upon this drive when she breaks through to a struggling student and watches him work independently and successfully to present in front of the class for the first time. As a writer I feel it when, like tonight, words are organized in such a way that all I want is to create something so beautiful and moving. Something that stirs a passion to bring to life the stories that Rich so deeply loves. The simplest stories of love and friendship and betrayal and pain and even boredom that we all know so well. These are the stories that I crave to construct from nothing. They are the reason I refuse to go to bed until more words are adequate.

Words are our most inexhaustible form of magic, Dumbledore told Harry. For this reason I cherish words, especially those of the written variety, the ones that paper binds to eternity. Stories, the binding elements of our lives, would be impossible without words. Like Dumbledore said, they’re magical.

***

Today, Rich and I email nearly every day. When I visit SLUH, I visit his desk without regard for a clock. Three years after graduating, I cannot stop obsessing over words and stories. The implications of their power can only be marveled at, not quite understood. Rich taught me the true power of stories and words, and there is no way to possibly repay him in full for that gift. All I can do is continue to craft my own words on this screen and on paper, creating my own story, starring Rich Moran.

***

Defying Gravity – Wicked

“I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn.” – Glinda – Wicked

Patch the Walls

December 11, 2015

I convinced myself all week that Jason Heyward would be in a Cardinal uniform for the next decade. Really, I prophesied that image since last November, when he came to the Cardinals to fill the hole in right field for the late Oscar Taveras.

I became infatuated when Heyward hit two doubles in his Cardinals debut against the Cubs, a 3-0 win at Wrigley Field. I turned skeptical, like many Cards fans, when he hit .217/.261/.349 (for non-baseball fans, that stat line would never warrant the $185 million contract he got from the Cubs. It probably wouldn’t warrant a $5 million contract) in April. But come May, things started to turn around. I fell in love with Heyward on May 27 during my second trip to Busch Stadium this season when he launched a solo shot over the right field wall to tie the game in the 9th inning of what became a 4-3 win against Arizona (where Shelby Miller, the pitcher the Cardinals traded to receive Heyward, will now call home). As he continued improving throughout the year to finish with a .293/.359/.439 stat line, I screamed foe the Cardinals to sign him immediately and for as much as he asked for. When the Cubs signed Ben Zobrist and dumped Starlin Castro, I pleaded with the baseball gods to push Heyward back to Busch, not toward Wrigley.

Looking at it all now, I don’t think we ever stood a chance at retaining Heyward. He allegedly turned down a larger offer from the Cardinals to join the Cubs, and while that’s my nightmare, I find it impossible to blame him. The Cardinals have a richer history and offered what was likely relatively marginally more money, and as a diehard Cards fan it kills me to say this, but the Cubs are a more desirable team in every other aspect. Damn it, it hurts to type that statement.

If I were 26 years old and about to sign a nearly $200 million contract, would I rather live in Chicago or St. Louis? Sorry to my fellow St. Louisans, but Chicago has much more to offer than St. Louis; it’s a perk of being a metropolis with a booming downtown. And, if you help bring the first World Series to Wrigley Field in its 100+ year history, you’ll be immortalized forever. Not only that, but the Cubs have one of the youngest and fun-loving clubhouses in baseball, something that is part of the fabric of Joe Maddon’s clubhouses. Oh, Joe Maddon. Him, too. No offense to Mike Matheny, but there’s no better manager in baseball. The hard, shitty truth is that the Cubs are just more desirable now than the Cardinals.

I hate everything about that idea. The Cubs have always been the cute, harmless little brother in this rivalry. Then, all of a sudden, puberty hit them like a Kyle Schwarber home run onto their scoreboard and they became so much hotter than their older brother Cardinals. Everything the Cardinals had to work for since 2000 started gravitating naturally toward the Cubs. Yes, they put in great work to develop Schwarber, Bryant, Russell, Soler, and others, but their organic allure is a great asset in free agency, a trait the Cardinals lost as soon as we became the know-it-all braggart, unsatisfied with 16 years (and still counting) of National League dominance.

I saw a screen cap on Twitter today from The Revenge of the Sith of Obi-Wan looking at Anakin and shouting, “You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the sith, not join them!” The tweet came from a Cardinals fan in reference to Heyward as Anakin and the Cubs as the sith. And while it’s so tempting to view today in that light, in truth, the Cardinals have been the Evil Empire for some time now. To the rest of the world, Jason Heyward is trying doing what Anakin never could: abandon and destroy the sith. I highly doubt that there is any actual ill will between Heyward and the Cardinals, but the metaphor stands: the Cardinals are universally disliked, and the prospect of a fresh team, a fun team, a rival team infiltrating them to bring them down is a wonderful story. A tragic story for myself, but a wonderful one nonetheless.

The main damage done today was not Heyward’s departure up I-55. Rather, it was the confirmation that from an unbiased view, the Cubs are legitimately more appealing to play for than the Cardinals. Now, the Cardinals must make some major moves to fend off the fall of a dynasty. I seriously wonder whether we need a brand new approach in free agency as we look toward Alex Gordon, or maybe Yoenis Cespedes, or any of the other free agents left to fill this enormous gap that Heyward could only plug for a year. Every once in a while, a castle’s walls start to crumble. At first, temporary fixes provide adequate patchwork, but once they wear down or jumps ship, the castle is left a bit weaker than before. Especially when your greatest enemy, thirsty for the glory you’ve sustained, thieves that temporary fix. The Cardinals dynasty of the 2000s isn’t over, but I wonder whether it’s time to finally nail down a permanent renovation to maintain the NL Central throne.

***

“NOOOO! GOD! No, God, please no! No! No! NOOO!” – Michael Scott – The Office Season 5, Episode 8: Frame Toby

 

Time’s Up. Go Play.

December 8, 2015

All of a sudden, this semester has one week of finals remaining. Of course, it’s the same week as the MLB winter meetings, and that means my six hours spent at the library today really consisted of two hours of studying and four hours of sifting through rumors about Jason Heyward. Pretty much, if the Cubs nab Heyward from the Cardinals, I won’t be able to function for about a week. My finals won’t go ideally and the Cardinals will have chosen to regress and conceded the division to the Cubs for the next five years. But this stress isn’t my main concern right now (although I’ll certainly have plenty of words here soon no matter where Heyward signs). Nor are my finals.

In our final class of Marriage and Christian Vocation yesterday, Dr. Finucane presented his “final word” on the key to a successful marriage: Play. It’s a concept that seems so simple, yet as we discussed the nature of play, I realized how much harder it becomes to play for most of us as we age. What do kids need to play, Dr. Finucane asked. Our responses harkened back to my days in the Gauvains’ basement building forts every summer day out of blankets and benches, the late nights at Bently’s house when the 3 B’s would stay up until sunrise writing stories involving nearly all of our 45 classmates at Clark Elementary, soccer and baseball tournaments and their accompanying hotel hijinks, chasing Webster Groves’s mythical Wolfbane around my neighborhood with Spencer. More than material objects, kids simply need a good imagination to play and, often, a friend or a few to help accompany their adventure. Rugrats earned its classic status and syndication at 2 am on Nickelodeon because it captured this loose structure with such powerful nostalgia and grace; Nostalgia because we can’t go back to the age and adventures of Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, and Lil. Grace because it so effectively blended reality with the gang’s imaginations.

At some point, our imaginations unfortunately trail off in favor of reality. Dark basements are no longer caves, and open pastures are no longer all The Field of Dreams. The lava in our homes cools to become a boring and stained carpet, and tall fences are no longer automatically called “The Green Monster” to make an impromptu home run derby feel more authentic. Tommy Pickle accepts that he’s at a Renaissance Fair with his grandfather, not the son of a European knight centuries ago.

Alongside imagination, maybe even in conjunction with it, our idea of what to do with free time becomes increasingly impaired. Well, at least, that’s how it’s become for me.

In my first week back home from Ireland, I reflected with Jack McAtee on the part of studying abroad that no one tells you about: copious, even uncomfortable, amounts of free time. Coming from somewhere like SLU where it’s difficult NOT to be busy 16 hours a day, a scenario in which my only obligation was eight hours of class for 12 of the 18 weeks I was there drove me so far out of my comfort zone. I’m the kind of person who thrives on pressure, deadlines, and being perpetually busy. When time is given freely to me, I regrettably spend it far less productively than when it is restricted.

My junior-year English teacher at SLUH and Prep News moderator Steve Missey supposed that kids are losing their ability to be bored. Three years ago, I scoffed at him. Being bored was the worst part of childhood, I countered. What kind of kid would prefer a puzzle to an iPad? Now, though, having experienced true boredom intermittently over the past year, I understand his argument. Boredom inevitably comes in waves, both throughout the day and over the course of one’s life. When we become overwhelmed with boredom or mindlessly kill time instead of working to embrace it, our failure to deal with being bored becomes clearer. No one likes being bored, but there’s something admirable about facing boredom and being well equipped to counter that boredom by creating something productive with free time. Managing structured time is nothing compared to organizing unstructured time and creating something worthwhile with it.

Which brings me back to children and play. As a young kid, I never had enough unstructured time. I asked 20 times an evening for one extra throw from my dad when we played catch before dinner. I practiced Edgar Renteria’s batting stance until I could replicate perfectly his slight crouch and quick bat twirl, a product of his wrists rolling smoothly as they rested near his back ear, long beyond the time my mom ever set aside and having no regard for her patience. I ran around and cuddled with my dog Buddy on Saturday mornings from the time I awoke at 6 am until my dad emerged from his room at 8 am to take Paul and me to our weekly Saturday morning breakfast. I always needed more time.

Now, I oddly find myself anxious about the three-plus weeks of Christmas break looming. This phenomenon began my freshman year at SLU when I was watching How I Met Your Mother on my bed three days into Christmas break and wanted nothing more than to be back at school. My imagination is unfortunately not as childish as it once was, and opportunities for new experiences are not always easy to come by, especially in St. Louis, and even more so in the winter. In Europe I could travel to a new country on a whim; here, options are far more limited. When time is unlimited, those restrictions become a problem. Ideally I could regain that imagination children posses so much more readily than adults—I still remember John Webb challenging all of us on the Prep News to make the paper more exciting by channeling our inner kindergartener because he’d read a study suggesting that five-year-olds have significantly more active and creative imaginations than eighteen-year-olds. But if imagination is more fleeting, then I at least wish I had more opportunities to travel and explore in my free time. It helps that I’ll be going to Sam’s lake house in Perryville, picking up Devin and visiting friends in Chicago with Connor, and spending a week at Disney World before break ends, but I’m ready to again go places I’ve never been. I want to see the American West, the Canadian Rockies, the Central American jungles.

These wishes will hopefully come true in the future, especially as I prioritize exploring the United States outside of the Midwest in the coming years. Hell, maybe such experiences might even enhance my imagination and creativity. But for now, I have one week left at SLU this semester before break comes.

I don’t know where this semester went; each subsequent one at SLU goes faster than the last. Last week I wondered where October and November had gone, feeling as if September was the last time I’d stopped to gather myself. But while abroad, in those moments that crept along and left me longing to escape my boredom and anxiety, I learned that although I want to prolong time to make the good things last, frozen time is toxic. Instead, it’s better to look down at your phone while out with friends and expect to see 12:32 am on your screen but learn that it’s somehow 2:23 am and you won’t be going to bed for another hour and a half. Living so fully in October and November that your mind blends 61 days into six is far better than waiting in bed for break to end in three weeks.

This break, my goal is to avoid being stagnant, to reconnect with the rugrat somewhere inside me. Yes, I’d so prefer that my friends and I all stay at SLUH for those 27 days of break. But as long as that’s no option, I owe both everyone I’ve ever complained to about being bored and myself to actually do something to see new places and do new things. Time over break can drag if I make it, or it can fly by to be a new kind of stretch away from SLU. Dr. Finucane applied play to a successful marriage, but I think that it can be applied so much more broadly to encompass our overall attitudes. When we play, we might finally free ourselves to enjoy a bit more the free time that we begged for as children. Now that we’ve received it, it’s time to play again.

***

“Circles” by Machineheart feat. Vanic

#SignJasonHeyward

“I mark the hours, every one. Nor have I yet outrun the sun. My use and value, unto you, Are gauged by what you have to do.” – JK Rowling (inscription on Hermione’s time-turner from the Prisoner of Azkaban)

(Seriously, sign Jason Heyward, Cardinals)