Saturday, June 15, 2013
We've made it through all the difficult estate planning issues the day before, when I was pleased to find Dad's comprehension pretty intact. He asks perceptive, sharp questions, even though he occasionally forgets some of the things we've talked about just a few minutes earlier. The new oxygen dispensing pump doesn't have the annoying click of the old one, and now that we're done with the issues I've been dreading, the visit is relaxed. I find myself considering the oddities of the rural Midwest culture as we comfortably watch the birds outside.
We're also watching the series of half-hour morning programs on television as we drink coffee and watch the birds. We're only a couple hundred miles west of Minneapolis, a relatively modern little city that lies at the top of the Mississippi bluff country valleys, but the feeling of this area is light years different. South Dakota is literally visible from the house, and we're in the dead center of the massive wheat and corn belt that runs all the way from Texas to Canada. Some of these farms are more like ranches, with spreads of 1,000 or 2,000 acres. Agriculture and fundamental ethics are the heart of the region. In this part of the world, the half hour Sunday TV programs alternate: a evangelical Christian program for 30 minutes, then a half hour of farming information for the owners of the big grain farms in the area, then back to the Bible-banging.
In the first Christian program, viewers call in to ask trivia questions regarding the Bible. "So what are exactly are the demons that come to visit people in the old testament?" asks one viewer the host, a fellow with carefully slicked-back hair and a suit of the style we used to call a "leisure."
Now, with my more or less broad education, I have come to view the Bible and other religious texts as folk literature that offer allegories articulating some aspect of the human experience. For example, I see the idea of "demons" as symbolic of some human mental disturbance. Such a story of demons is an ancient fable, in other words, that refers to what we would now call depression or pyschosis.
But the host of the 7:00 am program corrects my misunderstanding. "Some people think that demons are visitors from the land of the dead," he said on high-definition, big screen TV from a signal beamed thousands of miles, bouncing off a satellite positioned in space. "This is not true, however. Demons are not visitors from the land of the dead," he says, as though imparting a thrilling secret. " The demons the Bible speaks of are actually simply fallen angels....thank you for your question, Denise."
The next program is for farmers, in which incredibly sophisticated soil chemistry is discussed by soil scientists. Today's farmers in this region are remarkably well educated, and the most demanded master's degree programs at South Dakota State university are in agriculture. It can also be among the most lucrative of careers, as successful farmers out here can be quite wealthy indeed. With this farm land now assessed at $7,000 per acre, you can imagine what 1,000 tillable acres is worth. Here, though, that gap between the haves and have-nots is enormous. These counties of Minnesota and South Dakota are among the very poorest, per capita, of any in these states. A lot of the family farms have collapsed because the sheer cost of running the places is so prohibitive. But a few people of great wealth thrive, provided they are landholders of substance.
After the TV show announces that the "weed of the week" is leafy spurge, a new Christian program starts, this one a ventiloquist who uses a hideous stuffed doll to tell Bible stories to kids. Quite horrifying, but it seems quite ordinary in this culture.
My Dad nods off to sleep now and then, and finally I shut of the TV and simply enjoy the sunny day outside the picture window. There are literally hundreds of birds at the feeder, meadowlarks, and
Baltimore orioles, and new bird I've not seen before—an orchard oriole. Some things never change: when I was a child, my dad was a dedicated bird-watcher, and in his declining years, it's the one pastime that he can still enjoy in comfort. His other passions were golf and gardening, but both are long since impossible.
In the distance, big electricity-generating wind turbines peek over the prairie horizon. These
On the way out here from Minneapolis, I drove right through one forest of these towers. At the end of the driveway, the farmer owning this high-tech grove of carbon fiber monsters had posted a bill-board with 10 directions for living. The top bullet point says, in letters 2 feet high: "I am the Lord your God. Ye shall have no other gods before me."
This kind of collision of primitive and modern in Rural American is so common that there's not even any sense of irony when you see it.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
On mornings when I exit the 4F bus near my office shortly after dawn, they rise ghost- like from the freight track canyon that runs into the east side of downtown from the north and south. Sometimes it is literally up from the mists they rise, one, two or sometimes three purposeful, mysterious human figures. Where these wanderers are going is unclear, though logical destinations might be the either the downtown bus depot or perhaps the industrial area that blankets the gritty midway zone between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The midway district is where other freight train highways come in and out of the metro area.
It's not exactly fair to think of them as hobos or tramps, because they look a little more like modern cowboys, with their jeans and boots and stetson hats. But it's clear they carry all their worldly belongings in expensive but well-worn backpacks as they drift across the countryside. They are indeed homeless, but homeless in a much different way than the unfortunate, often mentally-ill beggers you see more frequently on city streets everywhere.
It seems unfair to even think of them as drifters, as there is nothing shiftless about the purposeful pace with which they march across the city in the early mornings. I always imagine that they are migrating across the land following seasonal work patterns, but I don't know for sure. Some may be headed for work up for that recent mecca—the new oil-field bonanza in North Dakota. By 7:00 am, they will have vanished; like rare birds, they are visible only in the early hours.
One morning as I turn the corner for the final leg up First Avenue to my office in the Wyman Building, one of these fellows tips his Stetson in greeting as he passes me on the street. "'Ello there, friend," he says to me in a slightly sing-song voice . "Isn't it just a fine morning, then?" There is no trace of irony. He's indeed simply pleased to be roaming on foot on a fine early June morning, happy to be just about as free as is humanly possible.
It's the Scottish brogue that causes me to pause a few steps later and look back at him as he pauses at
In my mind's ear, I've been giving them all the drawl of the American Southwest. But the fact that all along I've been imagining this incorrectly makes the world seem all the richer, somehow. Fiction just isn't nearly as fine as a full experience of the here and now.
Friday, May 31, 2013
Contemporary culture offers many reasons for the discerning geezer to be concerned: politics is toxic, the national deficit is monstrous, and,of course, there’s global warming. We geezers must resist the impulse to play Chicken Little and declare that the sky is at risk. We’ve been around for awhile now, and it behooves us to project a certain calm stoicism. Which is all fine until news comes along to confirm what we’ve been suspecting but denying all along:
Children are not playing baseball anymore.
More precisely, they are playing the game in ever-decreasing numbers relative to other organized games. Over the last ten years, participation in organized baseball by children is down 31%. During that same time period, children participating in soccer have increased over 15%. In community after community, official and unofficial “little league” programs are shrinking or folding. Summer camps are converting their baseball/softball fields to soccer fields.
|The Professor has learned his lessons well|
OK, you might say,,but is this a crisis? The basic, careful and rational response to this question is…..yes, of course it is!!! Baseball is losing popularity precisely for those same qualities which make it such a virtue to the process of growing up. Baseball teaches a young person many lessons, but—like most valuable lessons—they are tough ones. And let’s face it— tough lessons are not exactly in vogue these days. Now, it must be admitted that in our geezer youth we were often guilty of trying to avoid hard lessons in life, but in those distant days, our parents were usually somewhere about to insist that we learn such lessons. Our parents were tough, and they did us a great service by passing that toughness on to us.
But the impulse of many parents today is to exempt their children from the tough lessons of life, for fear that a little self-esteem might be eroded. (Just the New Testament for us, please; don’t bother with that pesky Old Testament with all of its demands and judgements. )
Among the many things we learned through playing baseball, here are a few of the most useful:
THINGS TAKE AS LONG AS THEY TAKE. One of the qualities of baseball that children and parents alike now seem to struggle with is that it takes time—sometimes a lot of time. (Sometimes it takes very little time, of course; it all depends.) But generally you need to plan to invest a good amount of time, and then hope for the best. If people took the same approach with their driving plans, road rage would be reduced by at least 50% . Harried drivers expect traffic to behave in predictable ways, but of course it doesn’t. It’s unpredictable—just like baseball. The right attitude toward this unpredictability can be the difference between life and death on the road.
Or take the notorious DMV. We all deal with bureaucracy, and it drives us crazy. But we know going in that it might take a ridiculous amount of time to renew our driver’s license….but we’re just not sure. Geezers who have grown up with baseball find it much easier to accommodate both the predictable two hour wait in line and the once-in-a-blue-moon occasion in which the person “helping” us actually helps us. Baseball players are at peace with the fact that many things in life take as long as they take.
|...though in his very young years, he threw like a girl.|
On the other hand, another little league phenomenon to observe (and address, if a coach) is the kid who just wants to “get on with it.” This kid just can’t wait to bat again; just can’t wait for the ball to come to him/her in the field. These kids certainly pay attention, but they are impatient with their teammates , they are restless on the bench, will ask fifteen times each game if they can be the pitcher. They want action, they want their action steady, and they want to be the center of that action. This is the youngster who need to learn about waiting. As much as it drives themselves and everyone else around them nuts, it’s good that they’re playing baseball. It slowly, patiently teaches them how to wait.
To be comfortable with waiting, but not so comfortable that when your opportunity is presented you miss it—that is the timeless body/mind wisdom that playing baseball imparts.
LEARN TO ACCEPT HUMILIATION WITHOUT QUITTING THE “GAME.” When you talk to
people who have played baseball while disliking it, again and again you hear about the trauma of getting up to the plate all alone, and having everyone look at you as you face a kid pitcher who for some reason is 4 inches taller than you and has the start of a ten-year-old version of a beard who throws a pitch impressive in both its speed and in its unpredictability of flight path. One stands there—risking life and limb—and inevitably is paid back for this gallant stand by hearing those immortal words (always shouted with what seemed like glee by the umpire) "Stee-rike three...You're Out!"
|....soon, he found his natural position in the field.|
It might seem like a bit of an overstatement to describe this ever-repeating moment as “humiliation,” but that is exactly what it is. That’s why baseball is such a good teacher. It is essentially a series of one-on-one encounters with the ball, each one offering an opportunity to make a mistake. (Does this sound familiar…It sounds a lot like life as I’ve encountered it.) The pitcher can’t get the ball over the plate; if he DOES get it over the plate, the batter can’t hit it. If by some miracle the ball is thrown over the plate and the batter hits it, the fielder will likely miss the ball (or not even realize the ball had been hit—see above.) If the fielder DOES field the ball, they inevitably throw over the head of the first baseman. If the throw DOES reach target, the first baseman will drop the ball (if, in fact, he even realizes that ball is coming toward him.) Is there any other 5-second event in life that offers more opportunity for failure and humiliation?
You get the idea. Unlike a sport like soccer—where you can hide within a gaggle of twenty two manic kids kicking a ball up and down an enormous field (with few—parents or children included—knowing the rules), in baseball you are out there on your own, and everyone knows that three strikes and you're out is how it works. You do your best and you take your lumps; a tough but important lesson.
|The Professor was always envious of |
Dr. Golf's natural skill.
YOGI WAS RIGHT—IT REALLY ISN’T OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER. It’s such a cliché, but really—there just isn’t that much of a point in giving up in life before the game is up. But, alas for the poor souls who have only played basketball or football, that is exactly what is taught by those games (wonderful as they might be in other respects.) There comes a time in every game played under the strict autocracy of the clock when there simply isn’t any chance…the only thing to be gained from further intense effort is an injury.
Not baseball. There is always a chance. This assertion is often greeted with a condescending smile by those who don’t know the game well. Their smile says: “oh, sure TECHNICALLY there can be a comeback, but you know it isn’t going to happen.” To them, I tell the tale of The Curious Incident of Dave Winfield in Omaha. In the final game of the College World Series in 1973, future hall of famer (and all-around great guy—he learned the lessons of baseball very well) David Winfield brought a one-hit, fifteen strikeout game into the ninth inning, pitching for the University of Minnesota against the Trojans of Southern Cal. He had a 7-0 lead. 7 runs! A one-hitter going! Suffice to say, it wasn’t over, and the Golden Gophers did not become NCAA champions. We thought it was over. It wasn’t over.
Until it was over.
And finally, of course:
IT’S ONLY A GAME. It’s a bizarre game, with hard-to-fathom rules—a game that is arbitrary, harsh
and many times unfair. We have to cooperate with teammates, some of whom we may not even like. It can drive you crazy. But in the end, baseball ‘s ability to reflect life is best seen in the example of two children—a boy and a girl—from far upstate New York whom I sat behind during a twi-night double
header when the Twins played the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. The first game started at five o-‘clock…the
second a little before nine. In about
the eighth inning of the close second game, one kid turns to the other and
says: “wouldn’t it be great if it went extra innings?” Even at near-midnight
with a long drive ahead, even with jokers like Bud Selig in charge of the
professional game, even with the indignity of being born in New York and having
to root for the Yankees; despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous
fortune that baseball and life bring our way, we still don’t want the game to
|The four Geezers, and some kid |
we eventually shunned.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
—this article comes to you courtesy of our esteemed Professor—
It’s spring, and spring is a time when a geezer’s thoughts turn to….baseball. Even when living over in England, it is very difficult to look out upon the spectre of a beautiful, crisp May afternoon and not think “what a great day to be at the ballpark.” Or even better, “what a great day to be out on the field.”
But we few are a dying breed, I’m afraid. With each spring comes a renewed—and tedious—discussion of whether baseball deserves it’s moniker of “National Pastime.” The argument generally goes: football is much more popular than baseball, so shouldn’t it now be considered our National Pastime? This argument becomes tedious year after year because it is based on a faulty premise; it equates the idea of “pastime” with popularity—if something is popular, it should be considered a pastime. But being popular does not necessarily make a sport a pastime. In football’s case, how can a sport that is played once a week (and even then, played under strict time restrictions imposed by the “clock”) be considered a pastime?
To examine this, we first need to get a handle on what a pastime is. I contend (and etymologists agree) that a pastime is just that—a way to pass the time. In terms of this definition, baseball was and is superb—unmatched among Americas’ major sports. I learned this as a youngster in two vivid ways. First, you can play baseball it all day long…and I mean all day. Literally, you can pass lots and lots of time. Growing up in a small city just down the street from a disused golf course, our typical summer recreation schedule was: baseball from about 9:30 until lunch at noon; baseball from about one until supper at five or six; baseball from 6:30 until sunset. Five six, or seven days a week. After describing this to my children their question is: “wasn’t it boring?” To which I reply: compared to what? Our families didn’t have the means to take “vacations”; we weren’t allowed to watch TV through the day; and we didn’t have money to go hang out at the mall (in fact, come to think of it, there was no such thing as a “Mall.”)
Thank goodness there was baseball. And what with Archie chasing around brother Ritchie with a baseball bat, constant argument about whether you were “out” or not, and a steady stream of taunting and bragging, the day fairly flew by. And I defy anyone to play 70 hours a week of football, or soccer…or even half-court basketball. You just can’t do it—the physical demands of
the game (even for children, who back then would be horrified to hear
themselves described by parents as “exhausted”) would stop you short. Only baseball, with its
batting/fielding/changing innings creates a kind of summer-friendly sluggish
rhythm that is the sporting equivalent of Mark Twain’s slow, sprawling
Mississippi river. Excellent analogy. If Twain lived today, he’d have season
tickets. Either one is a perfect way to pass the time of summer; growing up
along the upper Mississippi, we had both.
|Young Dr. Golf, about to strike out from another fastball |
delivered by the Professor. Looking on: Mercurious,
the Mathematician, and the kid nobody likes.
At least once every two weeks through the summer, I had to skip the pick-up game of evening baseball, because I was a paperboy and needed to “collect” payment for the newspaper. The best time to do so was in the evening, when most of my customers were home. And this is where I observed the second manifestation of baseball as a pastime. I approached each customer’s house anxiously, hoping to find someone home (and with money handy to pay!) In three out of four houses, my hopes were confirmed before I even arrived at the front door, for I could hear the sounds of Herb Carneal, Merle Harmon and Halsey Hall (Minnesota radio and television personalities) coming out of the
screened porch on the front of each house.
Our beloved Twins were on the radio, and my customer (usually, but not
always, the man of the house) was settled in the coolest place in the house,
passing the evening by listening as Harmon Killebrew either knocked one out of
the park or struck out (these seemed to be the only choices with Harmon.) Most of the people in our neighbourhood were
working people, of limited means. They
didn’t really need “action,” they just needed a calm, restful way to spend the
evening after a day of hard physical work Some played cards, a minority watched
TV; most of them sat on the porch and listened to the Twins.
|"Dammit," muttered Mr. Twain. "Got the porch. |
Got the rocker. Got the cigar. Why the heck won't
somebody invent big-league baseball
and the portable radio?"
We don’t live in that world anymore. If anything, there is too much diversion, and if you ask the typical person how they’re doing,nthe response is “busy,” not “fine” as you once used to hear. People don’t pass the time—they use every minute of it trying to hold it together. And if they do have time to pass… well, first came multi-channel television, and now we have the most immensely effective time-waster (passer?) known to mankind—the Internet. Do we need a quaint, traditional way to pass time? Alas, it seems not. When given the choice, people as a whole seem to prefer a “hot” medium that compels one’s conscious attention rather than more “cool” mediums that gently open up space through which the mind can wander, discovering it’s own path.
The extent to which culture has moved away from baseball was brought home to me when I coached my children’s little league baseball teams. Harried parents would drop their children at the field with a quick, anxious question: when will little Jason be finished? On practice days
there was no problem
answering this question, as we tried to keep on a firm schedule. But as the season progressed and we had more
and more game days, I’d have to say (with my best cheerful smile): “well, it’s
baseball, so you can’t say for sure, but…” Though I gave my best estimate, you
could tell by the exasperated reactions that this wasn’t enough for most
parents; baseball—its rhythm, its rules, its very nature—just didn’t (and
doesn’t ) fit with the world in which most Americans now live. Parents don’t need to pass time, they need to manage
|"Seriously, Johnny," said the Professor to|
his young protege. "All the big leaguers do it.
Shut up and swallow your steroids."
So, baseball may no longer be our national pastime—not because it is less popular than some other sport, but rather because we simply don’t recognize our need for pastimes anymore. Does that mean baseball is destined for the competitive scrap heap? By no means. But the nature of those who watch, play and follow baseball is changing. And so are the economics of baseball.
Baseball is no longer woven into the fabric of summer (or the fabric of a community) the way it once was. People will go to a few games a year, as more or less a special occasion. Baseball is played by children who want to become baseball players, not by children of all kinds. In summer camp after summer camp, baseball and softball fields are being converted into soccer fields (?)—a melancholy sight if ever there was one. Baseball is on its way to becoming somewhat of a novelty, a thing appreciated by afficianados, the sporting equivalent of wearing a bow tie.
Perhaps that is all fine. But there is something in me each spring that longs for baseball. Perhaps the longing is not so much for baseball itself, but rather a longing for a vanished world in which an ability to pass the time was necessary and cherished.
COMING SOON: Why Children Should Play Baseball
Monday, April 29, 2013
Minneapolis folks are a little confused today, weatherwise, and it’s easy to understand why. Within the space of 10 days we’ve had a major 12-inch winter storm snow, then some warm days culminated by a two delicious weekend days of 80 degrees. The citizens of the 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis this morning reflected that confusion, with garb ranging from cutoff shorts, tanktop T-shirts and open sandals (the kids heading for DeLaSalle high school on Nicollet island), to gloves and scarves (some of the older professionals heading for the downtown offices).
Danny seems confused in a slightly different way. Probably in his early 60s, he doesn’t fit into any of the standard downtown stereotypes. On the surface, he projects a kind of western cowboy appearance, with a Stetson hat and rust-colored canvas barn coat. It’s not quite consistent, though, as he also wears what appears to be older negative heel shoes (we used to call them Earth shoes, in my day), aviator-style wire-rimmed glasses, and newer JC Penny denim jeans (not Wranglers, not even Levis). His sand-colored hair is longish under the stetson, and his short beard is a mixture of white and buff, like the remnants of a small wood fire that leaves its white ashes mixed among the coarse sands on a beach.
Most unusual is the plastic covering for his Stetson, which fits like some kind of shower-cap, with an elastic band the snugs it up under the brim. Real cowboys, I'm told, will wear such a raincoat for their treasured stetsons on stormy days. But it's bright sun in Minneapolis today, and this covering looks like it is worn permanently on Danny's hat. On the top surface of the hat’s brim, the plastic fits tight and smooth, almost like it’s been glued in place, but on the upper dome of the hat, there is too much plastic and it bunches loosely around the dome of the Stetson: I can’t help but think of the image of an extra-large Trojan condom being worn by a man who really needs the standard size.
It’s very hard to gauge Danny’s story, though he projects the energy of someone a little down on his luck. I find myself wondering if the entire outfit is simply what he was able to find at some second-hand store recently. When the seat next to him gets taken as the bus fills up, Danny looks steadfastly out the window in embarrassed shyness, away from his seat companion, for the rest of the trip. And my hunch that he doesn’t fit the downtown society is right; he gets off the bus on Franklin Avenue well before downtown, a street dominated on this stretch by bars, soup kitchens, day labor offices, check-cashing shops and other businesses serving the edges of society.
It’s too far from my own office and would cause me to be late for work to do so, but I’m tempted to follow Danny to obtain clues to a little bit more of his story. But I think somehow that he has troubles enough, without adding a strange middle-aged guy stalking him on Franklin Avenue at 7:00 am in a monday morning.
As I watch him walk up the street, Danny hobbles just a little, but his steps are quick and he's making good time. As he reaches a gap between two building, full daylight fall upon him, and a beam of sunlight gleams off the plastic covering of his Stetson. Not a real cowboy maybe, but Danny has every right to the same springtime sunshine that favors us all.