Sunday, April 6, 2014

Broken-down dreams




When I was a kid, I had a very specific and vivid daydream … of growing up to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.

There was only one problem, as far as I could tell:  The Cardinals were owned by Anheuser-Busch, a beer-making company, and the Cardinal players were sometimes pictured drinking beer—or pouring foamy bottles of it over each other’s heads.

That was sort of an issue for me because my family was against drinking any type of alcohol, or wearing t-shirts with beer logos, or even kidding around about that kind of stuff.

And beer tasted terrible, from what I’d heard.

But that was the only problem I could foresee.  Otherwise, I was pretty sure I could make it to the big leagues (and that my friends Gregg and Scott could make it in the NFL and PGA, respectively).

So, setting the drinking issue aside, I decided to practice as much as possible.  Because, if you practiced hard enough, you could achieve anything you wanted.

So I’d stand in my front yard for hours, Rawlings glove on one hand and tennis ball in the other.  Sun beating down on me until my palms were thick with sweat.  I’d take a full wind up from the sidewalk and aim my pitch at the stairs on our front porch.  If I hit the riser—the tall forward-facing part of the step—the ball would come back at me lightning-quick as a ground ball.  If I nailed the tread—the part you actually stepped on—the ball would fly through the air as a popup.  Wherever the tennis ball ricocheted, I’d chase it down and fire it over to “first base”.

I was going to be the next Ken Reitz.

First base, by the way, was a metal vent at the base of our porch.  If I threw the ball accurately, it would make a sweet-sounding “plink” and the imaginary runner would be “out”.

(Over the course of several “games” the vent started to become flat and smooth, resembling an aluminum cookie sheet.  When my father discovered the vent transformation—how shall I put this?—he was none too pleased.)

While I played these games, college students would pass by my house on their way to the Old Married Students Apartments.  They’d see me whipping the tennis ball around, and they’d nod and smile and say “Hello.”  They could tell that I was something special, that I was going to make it big someday.

And so I kept after it.  Full windup and then the pitch:

Whoosh
Pow!
Whoosh
Plink!

I’d lose myself in the rhythm of it.

And, of course, there was a lot of real baseball stuff too … like playing catch with my brother or dad.  We’d exchange ground balls and popups and—the most difficult thing of all—short-hops.  Oh how I hated those short-hops.

And, as if that weren’t enough … I played endless games of Wiffle® Ball in the neighborhood.  I played on summer baseball teams.  I wore ball caps all the time.  I constantly watched baseball on TV.  I listened to Jack Buck broadcast Cardinal games on the radio.  I drew pictures of baseball players with captions like “Hot shot at the hot corner”.  I even made plans to go to David Lipscomb University, a school that I’d heard had a terrific baseball program.

I did everything I knew to do to become a pro player.  And then, one day, I realized I probably wasn’t going to make it.

Searcy Little League had just announced 2 all-star teams for the end of the summer.  As I looked over the rosters and talked to other players, I realized that I had made the “B” squad … that I wasn’t quite as good as a thought I was … that I’d probably never play for the Cards.

And I took that broken-down dream and slowly pushed it to the side of the road.

***

And now—a good many years later—I look in my mind’s rearview mirror and see a number of those rusting hulks of dreams.  Some of them are antiques by now.  And honestly, it can make me feel a little sad.  Or to use one of my mom’s occasional words:  “melancholy”.

And yet on a good day, I can wake up with my head full of gray hair and a pair of bifocals on my face and think that maybe I spent too much time dreaming about the wrong things.  That maybe my life was influenced too much by Joe Garagiola and Star Wars and Magnum P.I.  That maybe there were better dreams to be dreamed ...

Like finding myself … 

In the midst of a loving family
Surrounded by good neighbors
Working a job that I (mostly) enjoy
With a handful of really good old friends
And
A God who cares for me unconditionally.

That maybe these were the things I should have been dreaming about.

That a good number of my dreams really did come true.

Photo from a 1970s Arkansas Travelers' scorecard.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ed's TED talk



I didn’t really know Ed Madden in college.  He was a senior and I was a freshman.  We ran in different social circles.  I’m not sure we ever had a conversation.

What a shame.

Luckily, through the power of Facebook, I’ve had another chance to get acquainted with Ed (an associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina).  He strikes me as someone who’s open and honest … just the kind of person I like.

Recently, Ed shared with me a link to a TEDx talk he gave in Columbia, SC.  It’s the story of a son taking care of his terminally ill father.  It’s about second chances … and much more.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

A tale of 2 reluctant readers



I was a reluctant reader.

I don’t remember learning to read a single word, besides my name, until first grade.  It seemed like kindergarten (back then) was more about playing and art and singing, but in first grade we got down to business.

We learned T-o-m and started reading all about his life.

If I’m being honest, Tom was kind of a boring guy.  As I recall, he spent most of his time pulling a red wagon up and down the street.

Then, in second grade, the reading stuff became more intense.  Our teacher, Mrs. Alston, even asked us to do some of our reading outside of the classroom.  Was she serious?

I hated reading.  It was a complete waste of time.

One of the books I took home was all about bees.  Queens and drones and honey-making.  When I had that book in my hands, I wished I was anywhere else doing anything else.  Bees!  Who cares about stupid bees?!

Then, sometime late in my second grade year, I stayed home from church on a Sunday night.  (I must have really been sick, because—at that point—I was too young to fake anything that would keep me out of church.)  On that evening, I was super-bored and lying on the couch in the den, so I decided to crack open a book.  And, for the first time, I completely lost myself in it.

I wish I could remember the name of that book.  I’d like to walk up to the author and shake his or her hand.  Maybe even give a bear hug.  Because from that moment on—I was hooked on reading.

It was just a matter of finding the right book.

***

Throughout my late elementary and early junior high years, a genre of books that I loved was “sports fiction,” and one of my favorite authors was Joe Archibald.  It was there I learned some important lessons, like it was okay to use a behind-the-back pass in basketball, but only if you absolutely had to … otherwise you’d just be “showboating.”  I also noted that if I grew up to play pro football, well … then I’d be able to go out with friends for hamburgers and milkshakes just about any time I wanted to.

***

With these things in mind, I was excited to hear that my old college friend—Rick Butler—had published a series of sports fiction books with reluctant readers in mind.  If you’d like to know a little more about the story behind Rick’s books, then keep on reading …

Rick and Mike ... back in the day.

***

From C.E. Butler

When I think about my academic progression, and specifically about reading, I think about Gary.

Gary was a third-grade classmate, though my friends and I quickly realized he was at least two years older than everyone else in our grade. Each school day in that year our teacher, the wonderful Belle Durham, sent us into groups to read aloud to each other. There was the advanced reading group, the not-so-advanced group and then there was Gary. He would sit all alone, struggling with a book that had a title he couldn't read, full of pages filled with words that might as well have been written in French.

Though I was the academic equal of any of my classmates in most subjects - and, as I recall, the absolute best in math - I fell into the second reading group. The members of our group would sit and stare at each other, daring one another to be the first to read. No one wanted to because each of us knew we were in that group for a reason - we didn't read very well.

Granted, this was nearly 40 years ago and I remember Mrs. Durham as a fair lady and a wonderful teacher. What I really remember, though, is that I felt labeled as one of the slow readers in the class, definitely in the bottom one-third. I rarely remember reading on my own at that age. Then, by some fluke that I don't exactly remember, I was introduced to sports fiction.

Back to Gary, though.

As soon as I found the sports fiction genre, something clicked. I read in the mornings, afternoons and at night before bed. I'd finally found something to read that interested me! My reading improved rapidly and within weeks, I was promoted to the highest reading group.

My reading improved so much in such a short period, that Mrs. Durham assigned me to work one-on-one with Gary. For nearly an hour each morning, Gary and I would sit together in a corner of that classroom and sound out the simplest of words to each other. We enjoyed it and became friends.

I'd love to say here that Gary flourished because of my tutoring in third grade. That's not what happened. The next years saw Gary pretty much back where he'd been before, sitting in a corner trying to figure out things on his own.

For a few months, though, we made some progress.


I'm fairly certain I owe whatever academic success I've ever had to reading sports fiction as an eight-year-old. When I realized that a long time ago, I decided that one day, I'd write something - anything - that might help another struggling young reader.

Hopefully, The Will Stover Sports Series does more than that. Hopefully, the books in the series are written on a level that can be enjoyed by both boys and girls of any age. The main purpose, though, is to provide reading material for someone who is struggling the way I struggled.

Available on Amazon.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Something BIG



One Sunday, a good while back, we had a guest speaker roll into our church.

I don’t remember his name or exactly where he came from, so let’s just say he was a middle-aged guy from Texas.  If you need a physical description, let’s go with he looked like golfer Greg Norman.  In fact, we’ll just call him “Greg.”

Greg took the stage by force.  He claimed it.  Like Christopher Columbus stepping foot onto the New World, Greg strode out from behind the curtains and firmly planted himself behind the pulpit.

“Here we go,” I thought … and off we went. 
 
Greg ran us through some scriptures and then points 1, 2, and 3 (and maybe a few more).  And he told stories.  His sermon was chock-full of them.  Some of them so transparent that they were painful to take in.  But we kept listening; Greg had our full attention.

Did I mention that he was a hyper-guy?  He constantly moved in spurts and jerks, like an 8mm film that had been slightly sped up.  And his words came out a little bit faster than I was expecting.

And after it was all over, when Cheryl and I had made it out of the building and into our car, we began working through what Greg had said.  We weren’t quite sure what to think about that morning’s message.

But now that we’ve had a good deal of time to reflect on it, we’re convinced that it was exactly what we needed to hear.

What did Greg talk about?  Why do we remember it all these years later?

Well, he spoke about successes and failures … about the normal ups and downs of life.  And, at that moment, he just happened to be in a down time.  He was not at the top of his game; he freely admitted it.  He shared these things in a very personal way.

And then he said the thing that we’ve never forgotten.  A sentence that made its way into our stock of family phrases.

Greg said, “Everybody’s got something big going on.”

That was it.  And he made us repeat it a couple of times so we’d remember.  And then he said it again.  And he stressed the part about “everybody.”

Everybody’s got something big going on.”

An addiction.
A health challenge.
A broken marriage.
A financial crisis.
An aging parent.
An angry boss.

If we thought about it, we could probably fill dozens more lines with big things. 
 
Because when we get to know someone very well—when we get to know him or her at a “real” level—we see that it's true.  We’re all a little bit broken.  We’ve all got something BIG going on in our lives.

It’s kind of depressing to think about.

But it’s also kind of encouraging … because we are all in this together.  We all have our issues.

The big things teach us how much we need each other.

They teach us how much we need God.