Pick up a pen, start writing


My heroes are writers. I’ve come to realize this in recent years, probably in some small part because of my experiences with this blog. It will be five years next month that I took the plunge and started collecting my thoughts and stories in one place. And I wish I had started it earlier than I did. But it has taught me a couple of things.

The first thing is that it takes a willingness to open up with yourself. Finding an idea to explore is not hard, but turning it over and spinning it around takes some time and some extra thought. The time is something I don’t always have, and that’s the main barrier to writing more often. But going beyond surface-level thought isn’t easy, either. And writing that which deserves to be read, as Pliny the Elder once called it, requires this step to occur.

The second thing I’ve learned is that inspiration is a funny thing. It strikes at odd hours, and it doesn’t linger for too long. It’s essential to capture a thought and preserve it in the moment, because going back to it an hour later doesn’t work. The thought, whatever it is, won’t wait until you decide to address it. Like a deer staring at you from a distance, once it takes off you won’t be seeing it anymore.

The other day I had occasion to meet a fellow left-hander who enjoys writing. I told her I find writing to be therapeutic, and she indicated that it’s cathartic for her. These ideas both come from the notion that writing is beneficial. As the Beastie Boys and Nas once counseled, if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out. My experience is this is reason enough for writing a blog, or anything else.

When I suggested that writers are my heroes, I was asked for examples. I mentioned Lincoln’s name, along with Alexander Hamilton’s. The amazing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me to pick up an old copy of the Federalist Papers, and his writing is exquisite. But there are many more that I wish I had also mentioned, and here are a few: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and Rachel Carson. There are hundreds more, and in three hours I would come up with a list of different names than the ones here. That’s the nature of writing, after all.

I’m not far from the library at Nothwestern where I worked when I was in college. “Library” in an abstract sense for me is pretty much what the old Deering library looks like. But it’s a repository for the work of thousands, if not millions, of writers who managed to create something that endures. I used to handle books written on vellum in the Middle Ages, as well as comic books from the 20th century. The creators of these books, and all the others, committed their ideas to paper, and created something that endures after they’re gone. That’s what writers do. And for five years of my life, I’ve been doing that in this new electronic medium of a blog. It’s been an enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic experience, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

Feelin’ Weasley

I recently got back from a few days at Universal Studios in Orlando. The main attraction at Universal is the Harry Potter section of the Islands of Adventure park. The park opened at 9 AM when we were there, but since we were staying on the property, we were able to get in an hour early. Nearly all of the people who availed themselves of this option made a beeline for the Potter section of the park. And with good reason, since it does a very credible job of bringing J.K. Rowling’s work to life. The people who put this together really did it right.

I bring this up as a background for something that occurred to me today. I’ve read the Harry Potter books, and seen maybe half of the movies, so I’m generally aware of the characters and their stories. One of the primary characters, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley, came to my mind as I was putting up some pictures of old Chicago Cubs players at work today.

Rowling’s world of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and all the rest works so well because it was invented out of thin air. Like Baum’s OZ, and Tolkien’s middle-earth, it draws you in and makes you want to believe it exists, even when you know that it doesn’t. A world of muggles, or munchkins, or hobbits seems much more interesting than the world that we actually inhabit, and so reading these books is a way–the only way, really–of spending some time there.

A major element of Harry Potter’s world is the invented game of Quidditch. Harry’s friend Ron is a big fan of the worst Quidditch team of all, the Chudley Cannons. They’re a terrible team that never wins anything, but Ron Weasley supports them, anyway. It’s a bit like Charlie Brown and his favorite baseball player, the inept (yet fictional) Joe Shlabotnik. Players like Shlabotnik, and teams like the Cannons, somehow have a following in the worlds they inhabit, even though they’ve given their fans nothing to get very excited about. And so it is with the Chicago Cubs and their long-suffering, yet still very real, fans.

I thought about this as I was putting up three pictures of Cubs players from the 1977 team at my desk at work today. The three were Jerry Morales, George Mitterwald, and Gene Clines. The 1977 Cubs were in first place halfway through the season, and they led me a younger and more naive version of myself to believe that great things would happen that year. But they fell apart in August and September, and finished far out of the running in their division.

Had this late-season collapse been a sign of things to come in the decades ahead, I might have switched my team allegiances back to the St. Louis Cardinals, who are much the preferred team in the town where I grew up. But the bond had been forged, despite (or maybe even because of?) the team’s losing ways. Unlike the Cardinals, I could watch the Cubs’ games on TV, and I liked hearing the way that Jack Brickhouse called a game on WGN. He talked about Waveland Avenue and Sheffield Avenue as places that, like Hogwarts, I wanted to believe actually existed.

It would be a decade before I went to these places myself, and confirmed their existence on the North side of Chicago. But in the meantime, the Cubs became my version of the Chudley Cannons. They lost all the time, and that’s never an easy thing to cope with, but when you love a team, and the game that they play, their losses somehow strengthen that bond, rather than dissolving it.

Should anything ever happen to chase the ghosts of Jerry Morales and all of the other Cubs from the past away, well, that will be a fine day, indeed. May I live long enough to see it. I sometimes think that Ron Weasley’s Cannons will win a championship before my Cubs will. And if you were to tell me the Cannons don’t really exist, my reply is that’s exactly my point.

A word count milestone

Early in the process of creating and maintaining this blog, I made a decision to keep tabs on how much writing I actually did. I started keeping an Excel file, and every time a new post is added here I record four things: The number of the post, the date it was first published, the title of the post, and the number of words contained in the post. WordPress provides the word count, and I wouldn’t bother with doing this otherwise.

But knowing exactly how much has gone into this space is helpful, on some level. I’m written more than 500 posts in just over a year’s time, which means slightly more than one new post a day. I try to write and post something new here every day, but some days I don’t get my thoughts finished  and have to get some sleep. But 500 posts don’t create themselves, and I’m sure that a large amount of sleep has been sacrificed to create whatever it is I have here. So be it. This is more fun for me than sleeping, anyway.

The word counts for these posts can vary from less than 100 words if I’m posting a picture or a link to something online, to over 1,000 when I’m rambling on about something that interests me. But 500 words seems to be the steady average of the things that I write. And as the posts keep piling up, so does the aggregate word count.

If somebody had ever told me that I’d write a quarter of a million words, and then put them on the internet, where people in all but a handful of the nations around the world would happen upon them some day, I would have thought that person needed some serious help. But that’s just what has happened. The internet is indeed an amazing thing.

As I reached the 100,000 word mark in this space, I began looking at word counts for well-known books and novels. I had passed George Orwell’s 1984 by that point, which I still consider as the most engaging and thought-provoking novel I’ve ever read.

As time went by, and I kept adding more verbiage to this space, I passed other works like Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (109,000 words), Thoreau’s Walden (114,000 words),  and James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (145,000 words).  But the standard, as far as contemporary books go, is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

By the time I had reached 200,000 words, earlier this year, I had surpassed the word counts of all of the books in the Potter series except for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was the fifth of the seven Potter books. At just over 257,000 words, it stands as the longest in a series of hefty books.

This is important to me, since I wanted to get to the point where I could take any of the Harry Potter books off my shelf (and I have them all because I’ve read them all) and say to myself “I’ve written more words than that.” And now, with this post, I can say exactly that.

Quantity does not equal quality, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. Jo Rowling could write 100 words, and I could write 100,000 words, and I’m that sure that hers would be far more compelling than mine. She has a storytelling gift that is beyond dispute, while  I can give you 500 words about going to see Star Wars when I was a kid. There’s really no comparison, other than to say that she writes in English, and I write in English, too.

The sum total of all Harry Potter books is well beyond the million words that I’m aspiring to write, before I die or lose interest in the process. And I won’t even be thinking about approaching this number for at least two more years. But my love and respect for what Rowling has created is hereby acknowledged in this space.

I’m trying to develop my writing skills, and this blog has become my vehicle for doing so. Hopefully, my writing now is more engaging than something I would have written a year ago.  Doing anything over and over again, for more than a year, should have that effect. And so for sheer persistence, if nothing else, this is a milestone that I’m happy to put behind me.

Understanding Cranbrook through the lens of Harry Potter

By now, everyone knows the story of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s tales of the young wizard and his years at Hogwarts became runaway successes, the likes of which we might not see ever again. A generation of kids have grown up knowing about muggles and horcruxes and he-who-must-not-be-named. Writing these tales certainly changed Ms. Rowling’s life, but it can fairly be said that it changed many of our lives, as well.

The story of Mitt Romney and what happened at Cranbrook back in 1965 has parallels to the story that Rowling told. I’ve never seen Cranbrook School myself, but it conjures up (no pun intended) the same kind of images that Hogwarts School does in the Potter books: otherworldly architecture, a romanticized setting, something unlike the schools that most of us attended. We might have gone to a school like Central High School or George Washington Elementary, but nobody much wants to read about that, do they?

The players in the 1965 assault on John Lauber also come right out of Rowling’s books:

  • Neville Longbottom is Lauber himself, humiliated for nothing worse than being different;
  • Crabbe and Goyle, the contemptible sidekicks who gladly partake in Neville’s humiliation, are the ones who spoke to the reporter about their regrets all these years later;
  • Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, and all of the other fringe characters are the majority of students at Cranbrook, such as Philip Maxwell, who don’t like the bullying, but know that they cannot put a stop to it; and
  • Draco Malfoy is Mitt Romney, who knows that he will be protected by the wealth and standing of his parents, no matter what he does.

Nobody who reads Rowling’s books, or watches the movie adaptations of them, identifies with Malfoy, since he is the little jerk who assumes–correctly–that he can do as he wants to, and nobody can put a stop to it. We identify with Harry and his friends, or possibly even with Neville, knowing all too well what being on the receiving end of physical and mental abuse can feel like. We can’t very well identify with Crabbe and Goyle, because they’re Malfoy’s enablers.

We all hate Malfoy because we should, so long as we live in a decent society. And Mitt Romney perfectly fits the bill as Draco Malfoy, in the events of 1965 at Cranbrook School. If Romney can’t acknowledge his Malfoyish ways back then, and throw himself at the mercy of Neville Longbottom (who, regrettably, isn’t with us to tell his side of the story) and everyone else for having behaved the way that he did, then how could we choose such a man to run the country that we all love? I can’t imagine how we would ever do that.

An old poem made new again

April 26, 2012 was National Poem in Your Pocket day. I wasn’t aware of this until I saw something on Facebook about it. After all, that’s what grabs our attention anymore, isn’t it?

I’m not always a follower of this kind of thing, but I wanted to participate in this. It was probably the poetry angle that drew me in. As my first thoughts often lead me to baseball, I wanted to have a copy of Edward L. Thayer’s Casey at the Bat at the ready, to share with whoever I might encounter.

Thayer’s poem has endured since it was first published, under a pseudonym, in 1888. Its fame was spread by an actor named DeWolf Hopper, who basically made his living by reciting this poem in town after town on the live theater circuit. Every time he would perform, people clamored to hear the poem performed dramatically. Having performed it live once myself, I can tell you there’s a lot of fun that can be had with it. Here’s James Earl Jones’ version of it.

Casey tells a great story of optimism and confidence and ultimate letdown. It wouldn’t be the same if Casey had hit the home run to win the game. I think it appeals to us because even the mighty, almost superhuman  Casey is still prone to failure, even with the game on the line and the home crowd on his side. Casey is Goliath, after all, and human nature often pulls us toward David, instead.

I found a copy of Thayer’s Casey in the pages of A.G. Spalding’s America’s National Game. The book was first published in 1911, but I found a 1992 reprint of it in a bookstore many years ago, and have kept it at my desk ever since. It tells of the earliest days of the game’s history through the eyes of a baseball lifer, one whose name appeared on all major league baseballs until the mid-1970s. Rawlings has made the official major league ball since then.

But before I could take the book to the copier, I began perusing some of the other baseball poetry that appears in Spalding’s book. And I found a great poem that I knew I had to carry with me instead of Casey at the Bat.

I Googled the name of the poet–S.D. Richardson–and nothing came up. No Wikipedia entry, or anything else that might identify who he or she was. The initials made me think of J.K. Rowling, and the story of how her initials were used to mask her identity as a woman when the book first came out. The “S.D.” could mean “Stephen Daniel” or “Stephanie Danielle” or a hundred other things. But in the absence of any evidence, all I can do is wonder about the meaning of these initials.

Not only could I not learn anything of the poet’s identity, but I couldn’t find the poem online, either. It seems that when the world started moving onto the internet, shortly after this 1992 reprint of Spalding’s book appeared, Richardson’s poem didn’t make the leap.

And so, the history geek and the baseball nerd that I am is proud to present what might be the first digital rendering of S.D. Richardson’s “Base Ball.”

Base Ball

by S.D. Richardson

‘Tis a glorious game, with a well-earned fame,

A diamond in royal setting;

And its beautiful rays light up our days

From the field with an emerald fretting.

So day after day I am watching the play,

Absorbed in the outings and innings;

Though I risk not a dime, I’m gainer each time,

And the joy that it gives is my winnings.

But sometimes on a day my mind is away

From the game with an idle perusing,

And I think of another so much like the other

That I blend them together in musing:

‘Tis the old game of life, with its conquest and strife,

With its wonderful outings and innings;

Where the umpire of fate forever doth wait

Giving gladness and sorrow for winnings.

There’s the man at the bat, he’s a king on that plat,

And he watches the ball that is fleeting

Till his blow meets the same, and it soars o’er the game

And receives from the people a greeting.

‘Tis the man who doth wait while fortune that’s great,

Changing hands like the shuttle in weaving.

Comes and touches his mace, and he runs every base,

While the people shout “Luck is retrieving!”

See the pitcher, whose aim is surely not tame,

While his curvings are often perplexing;

And the poise of his fist, with the twist of his wrist,

To those running the bases is vexing.

‘Tis the man who in fame hits the mark all the same,

Though he throws a curved ball there to do it;

And the one who would steal a base on his field,

Will have cause to remember and rue it.

And the catcher with nerve that all good might deserve,

And a visor drawn low for the danger;

With a smile by that base that’s as cruel to face

As the blow of a spiteful sky-ranger–

‘Tis the man of strong nerve, whom no terror can swerve,

And who laughs where the peril is thickest;

And he guards the home base ‘gainst the strong in the race,

And outs them with hand that is quickest.

There’s the guard at each base who, alert in his place,

Knows the work and performs it with pleasure;

And the fielders that stand with the game well in hand

And consider high balls but a treasure.

‘Tis the men of each age, who on history’s page

Have written their names with their actions;

Catching fame on the fly, though it comes from the sky,

And ne’er bothered with foolish attractions.

So the old game of life, with its conquest and strife,

Ever moves, with no pause or delaying.

The wise and the great and the foolish with fate

on the field of the great world are playing.

And the games will ne’er close ’till the books shall disclose

All the wonderful outings and innings,

With the sun ‘neath the West and the players at rest,

And the blest with their bountiful winnings.

This poem made the connection between baseball and life, long before any t-shirts ever did. It’s a bit hard to follow in parts, but the first half of the final stanza is just great. I read that part to some colleagues today and they were impressed by it.

National Poem in Your Pocket day was certainly a big success, for myself and for S.D. Richardson. I’m certainly no DeWolf Hopper or James Earl Jones, but if I’m the one to bring this poem into the digital age, then I’ll humbly accept that role. Thanks for reading, as always.