Bat and Ball Games

For the past two days, I have been listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the England/India cricket matches in England.  I have no idea what is going on, although I gather that England is winning.  There is something very soothing about this commentary; it is not excitable like some football commentary (no GOOOOOL! calls.)  It is definitely not for the beginner, yet I could listen to it all day; it is so soothing.

I have written about my fascination for cricket, and I continue to be fascinated by cricket because it is so inscrutable, aided by a lingo that verges on the ridiculous to the outsider.  Cricket is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, which is why the prominent nations are England and former British colonies (including Australia, New Zealand, a conglomerate of Caribbean countries, nations of the South Asian subcontinent, and former British holdings in Africa.)  Unlike football, which spread beyond the official and unofficial British Empire and continues to grow, cricket seems content to be beloved by the few (granted “few” is well over a billion and a half.)  Cricket deliberately limits outsiders, which smacks of elitism and Empire.  Is there any question why cricket has not spread?

Learning another sport is like learning a language.  You have to get the vocabulary, but you also have to learn the grammar, the nuances, and at least be able to distinguish regional dialects.  For an American (me), football is like Spanish.  It’s something I’ve been aware of since I was a child and learned the odd word.  Like Spanish, football is generally easy to learn.  Baseball in contrast, the prototypical “American” sport, is like English.  Whether you like or dislike baseball, if you are American, you are surrounded by it from birth.  Baseball is part of American national heritage, and its slang has infiltrated American English.  I am no fan of baseball (I always raise an eyebrow when a baseball fan complains that football is boring), yet I can follow a baseball game, which I often have to do when I visit my family.  In contrast, cricket (for an American) is like Latin or ancient Greek, or perhaps Sanskrit.  Every once in a blue moon, you come across a cricket term in American English, but those terms are few, far between, and their origin has been completely obscured.

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Baseball and cricket are very similar, almost cousins.  Both have their origins in English bat and ball folk games, much like football, both rugby codes, Australian Rules Football, Gaelic football, and American football and its derivatives all descend from their own ur-sport.  The similarities between baseball and cricket go well beyond origin though.  Both are slavishly obsessed with statistics and quantification.  Both have a mythic development site; cricket has the Marylebone Cricket Club which established the rules of the game, and baseball has Cooperstown, New York, where according to discredited legend, Abner Doubleday invented the game in a cow pasture (regardless of the veracity of the Doubleday legend, baseball firmly affixed its imprimatur on the story by housing its Hall of Fame in the town.)

Another similarity between baseball and cricket is literature.  Yesterday while I was listening to the BBC’s cricket coverage, one of the commentators mentioned that cricket is a game that spawned wide body of literature, while football has not.  At least in English–I cannot speak to other languages–there is some truth to this; cricket lends itself to literature (of variable quality) whereas football literature is not quite of the same breadth.  Some of England’s greatest writers have written about cricket.  Baseball, like cricket, lends itself to a literary culture although for different reasons.  There is some remarkably literary fiction and non-fiction written about baseball or using baseball as a theme, metaphor, or launching pad for a larger idea.  One of the great essays that I have read is Gay Talese’s famous Esquire piece about Joe DiMaggio “The Silent Season of a Hero.” (Talese also wrote an essay about women’s football, specifically about Liu Ying, the Chinese player whose penalty kick was saved in the 1999 World Cup final.)

Despite what BBC cricket commentator believe, it is not true that football lacks a body of literature, but one cannot deny that a football’s literary culture is not of the same caliber as either cricket or baseball–at least in English; I cannot speak to other languages.  Much of the great football literature is either memoir, history, journalistic, or originated in fan culture or on the Internet.  There are some famous standouts, Eduardo Galeano’s romantic history Football in Sun and Shadow (in Spanish), and Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch are two of the most famous.  (In fiction, football is woefully lacking.  I have not read The Damned United, which seems to be the only work of football fiction in English, but I did see the movie.)  Football literature probably does not have the same influence and import that cricket and baseball-related literature do.

(This paragraph is all theory, I have no research to back it up, so please feel free to agree, disagree, and present alternative theories.)  If I had to wager a guess, the reason for baseball’s popularity among the literati is because, unlike in Britain, there is not a strong social class distinction in American society.  I would also guess that the reason there is more literature about cricket than football is because the elite of British society, which preferred cricket, tended to be the educated class, and Britain’s literary output came from that educated class.  Football, being the game of the masses, was until recent times left out in the cold.  In contrast,  baseball was enjoyed across the American social and geographic spectra while sport associated with either the British Empire and/or the elite fell into a niche or petered out (today’s American national cricket team has but one actual American player.)  Because baseball was seen as so quintessentially American, immigrants and their children became fanatically devoted to the sport.  Some of those children became writers (Bernard Malamud, Talese, etc.) and baseball inspired them in some way.

Because literary culture is not what it used to be,* there may never be the great literary football fiction.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing; football has gotten along fine without it, and the history and development of the game is just as fascinating.  The sport which boasts the finest literary (and cinematic and artistic) body or work is boxing, which proves that just because the artistic output is great it does not mean the sport is.

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This weekend I briefly watched the World Cup of Softball on ESPN.  If you are like me, you didn’t know there was a World Cup of Softball.  There is also apparently a Softball World Championship.  Apparently these are run by different organizations.  I must admit I am not all that interested in the intricacies of world softball governance.

Softball is an odd sport.  Taken at face value, softball is like baseball for people who aren’t good enough to play baseball, and do not have the necessary training.  It also requires much less space.  This explains why softball is a more popular sport to play.  From 1996-2008 softball was an Olympic sport, but then I never realized it existed.  In that time, softball was dominated by the US team, which is one of the reasons it is no longer an Olympic sport.  Today, only a handful of nations play softball seriously (it’s The Onion, you can laugh.)  Ironically (bitterly so), at the last softball match in the Olympics, the US lost its title to Japan.

Even though I don’t particularly enjoy baseball, I do understand it, which is why I can say that watching even a little bit of the World Cup of Softball was like watching a train wreck; it was excruciating to see but impossible to turn away from.

Although both men and women play softball across the country, the sport is inextricable from gender politics.  Baseball is for men and softball is for women.  When the Olympics eliminated softball, baseball too was eliminated.  There was not a big push to keep baseball, but softball became something of a cause célèbre.  Baseball does not need the Olympics to sustain itself and increase its audience (or marketing potential), but softball has no other major venue despite having two world championships.  Thanks to the Olympics, softball was in the vision (peripheral perhaps but vision nonetheless) of the American public.  Softball even produced a legitimate media star in Jennie Finch, although she was noted as much for her beauty as for her copious athletic ability.**

I want to support softball, at least in theory.  Under this theory I support women’s basketball and I know the names of some players even though I find basketball to be almost as painful to watch as baseball.  The difference though is that unlike women’s football and women’s basketball, softball is not women’s baseball, it’s a watered-down version of a sport that women once played, and still do.  Softball was basically forced onto women because baseball was a closed shop.  Title IX, which usually made things better for women, only added to the problem.  Baseball and softball were deemed to be equivalent, and if the school offered softball, it could keep women out of baseball (women’s baseball has a long and tortured history.)  As a result, generations of women were forced into an ersatz baseball.

I don’t want to come down too hard on softball, because I don’t want to belittle the players.  They are great athletes who train very hard.  Furthermore, the national softball league (National Pro Fastpitch) is not exactly setting the nation aflame.  There are fewer teams there than in the WPS.  On the other hand, according to NPR, women who play for the National Baseball Team get even less respect.  Did you know there was a World Cup for Women’s Baseball or before that a Women’s World Series (both of which having teams from countries other than just the US and Canada)?  Me neither.

I have not seen a women’s baseball match, so I cannot speak to the skill level involved.  I am not sure what kind of market, if any, there is for women’s baseball or softball, but I imagine that the divide hurts both, particularly women’s baseball.  Women’s baseball is decades behind in growth and I imagine that, like me, most people do not realize it exists.  In the NPR article that I linked to, I found this very poignant quote:

“Despite what they achieved, they never got the recognition they deserved,” says Nicholas A. Lopardo, general manager of the 2004 USA Baseball Women’s National Team. “We’re still scratching our heads to figure out why.”

This phenomenon is not unique to women’s baseball.  Just ask any member of the 1991 USWNT who won the first football World Cup in China.  The good news is that it can get better if the stars align.  Perhaps it is time to stop pretending that softball is a legitimate alternative and that women can and should play baseball.  Just like the men.

Footnotes:

* I cannot say for sure why literary culture has basically vanished from the US, but I suspect there is blame on all sides.  We have a television-driven media that shuns any indication that the lowest common denominator is neither low nor common.  In other words, the media believes that we are all imbeciles and treats as us such.  There are exceptions, but the exceptions are few and far between.  The literati are also to blame for this.  Tolstoy and Dickens serialized their novels in literary and popular magazines.  Today, the universities have monopolized and gentrified high culture.  To be a “great” writer (as opposed to a popular one), one needs to (1)  get an MFA from a prestigious program; (2) craft sentences like Nabokov or Joyce only more incomprehensible; (3) ensure that only a select few (mainly university professors) will read, care about, and understand your fiction; (4) write about topics that the plebs (the general reading populace) cannot relate to; (5) focus heavily on the inner lives of “flawed” (i.e. shallow) central characters; (6) win prestigious awards that a publisher can put on a dust jacket; and (7) shun and belittle all attempts to attract a larger public.  Also, you need to degrade both anything the larger reading public likes and that public itself for liking it.

** Finch also had the advantage of being a beautiful heterosexual player in a sport that, unfairly, has been stereotyped as a lesbian sport in the same way that men’s figure skating has been unfairly stereotyped as a gay men’s sport.  While both softball and figure skating are perhaps more welcoming to gay and lesbian competitors and fans, it does a great disservice to both those sports and their competitors.  It also harms their numbers.  Coincidentally, neither women’s football nor women’s basketball are perceived as lesbian sports in the United States, and are therefore okay.  Nigeria is a different situation.

Harry Potter And The Meditation On Aging

This past Friday I saw the final Harry Potter movie.  As a general rule, I don’t go to movies on opening weekend, especially summer movies.  Ever since I saw Mr. Holland’s Opus in a packed theater and suffered a bout of claustrophobia, I’ve tried to avoid movie crowds.  Generally I accomplish that by not going to the movies.  The last few movies that I have seen in the theater are Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the last three Harry Potter movies.  That’s it.  Otherwise, I watch movies at home.  I cannot imagine there is any other movie I will ever want to see in the movie theater again.  Too expensive, too loud, and it’s just not as much fun as it used to be.

There were two types of exceptions that I made to my “no opening weekend rule” however, the three Lord of the Rings movies and the eight Harry Potter movies.  I really wanted to see those movies, and I wanted to see them as soon as I could (I even went to a midnight showing or two.)  I read Lord of the Rings a year or two before the movies came out, and I went from refusing to see the movie (“They’ll ruin it!”), to seeing the trailer and wanting to watch, to loving the movies more than the books (sorry, but it’s true, and the absence of Tom Bombadil makes them all the better.  Please direct all hate mail to Solitary Muser c/o Antarctica.)

Unlike Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter movies are uneven and none are as good as the books on which they are based.  Two of them (Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets) don’t stand up to repeat viewing, and I couldn’t stomach Half-Blood Prince the first time around.  On the other hand Prisoner of Azkaban and the two Deathly Hallows movies, particularly the second one, were very enjoyable and moving.

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From Goblet of Fire on, whenever the newest book in the series was published, I would reread the entire series.  What struck me at around Book 5 is how the tone of both book and writing matured as the characters did.  Read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone again.  It is very light even a little twee.  J.K. Rowling’s targeted audience was about the same age as Harry in the book (11).  She did not talk down to her audience exactly, but the first few books are more child-centered than what would come.  Rowling may be the first children’s literature author who did not target a specific age group, but rather a specific generation, and her style matured with her initial audience.

In contrast to the lightness of the first two books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is dark, brooding, and harrowing.  Harry Potter is treated as an adult even if he is only 17.  The writing is not light and breezy.  Harry, now fully integrated into the wizard world, does not have a sense of wonder anymore.  There are no clever inventions like a Pensieve or Quidditch.  Rather, Rowling introduces her audience to the Deathly Hallows, three objects which, according to legend, were created by Death itself.  Moreover, Harry has to come to understand an important truth about his hero and mentor Dumbledore, a bitter truth that we eventually all learn about our heroes, they are dreadfully, shatteringly, and completely human.

A good children’s book is like a perfectly shaped jewel.  Like the finest adult novels, it can be a microcosm of the world, the means of conveying complex moral struggles in a way that enlightens.  In some ways, it is even harder to do that in a children’s book because the complexities have to be made simple for not fully developed minds (no child cannot truly understand War and Peace or Don Quixote.  Most adults cannot either.)  Perhaps the master, at least in children’s fantasy, is Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Earthsea series is remarkably complex–morally, politically, ethically, and emotionally.  Rowling has not reached Le Guin’s level (few have), but her elegance and humor, as well as the books’ increasing darkness, set the Harry Potter novels apart.

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I was not exactly late to the Harry Potter phenomenon, but I did not come in at the beginning either.  By the time I realized those books existed, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had either just come out or was about to.  I deliberately stayed away from the books, not for any anti-Potter reasons, but because I heard there would be seven books in all, and I wanted to read the complete series rather than wait one book at a time.  In retrospect, I am glad I did not wait.  Each time a new book was released it was an absolute thrill to wake up, find a package on my doorstep, and read it non-stop until the end.  I am also glad I read the books when I did because I could see each movie in the theater without spoiling the books (and better understood the movies.)  As much as I dislike movie theaters, there was something magical about seeing even the more banal of those episodes on the big screen.

Around the time that I read the Harry Potter books, there was a hue and cry from some of the more ridiculous elements out there who, needing a platform to get into the media limelight, declared that the books were Satanic.  (The Onion, in one of its finest moments, perfectly parodied this phenomenon to the extent that life imitated art in a scary yet hilarious way.)  This is what first cracked my resolve against reading an incomplete the Harry Potter series.

The main reason I eventually read Harry Potter is because I was friendly with a graduate student at my university, and I would watch her two sons from time to time.  There were times this became extremely difficult (this student’s family was falling apart, and the emotional toll for all involved was massive), but the two boys were very sweet.  The Harry Potter books were an escape for the younger of the two, and one night he asked me read to him from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I got through about two or three chapters, and I was hooked.  This boy’s mother lent me the book and the next one, and I finished them both by the next day.  I bought my own copies and also The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Ironically, this was the at the same time I was reading The Lord of the Rings (for a class), and once I started reading the Harry Potter books, I had some trouble switching back to Tolkien.  It was somehow less fun.

Over the years, I have often wondered what happened to those two children.  I wonder though if they still like Harry Potter or if they grew out of it.

Personally, I am glad that I read the Harry Potter books as an adult; as a result I will never grow out of them.  Perhaps not coincidentally most of my favorite children’s books I discovered either as a small child or as an adult.

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My grandfather and I had a disagreement in the early 2000’s about the lasting legacy of Harry Potter.  He thought it was a flash in the pan that would eventually burn out, and I thought it would be enduring.  Time will tell which one of us is right, but I suspect it is me.  Harry Potter is not a series of books, movies, and a theme park tie in.  It is a worldwide, unifying, cultural phenomenon.  It is quite possible to imagine that right now in every country in the world, in every language (including some dead languages), there is some child reading a Harry Potter book.  In terms of popular culture, only a few musicians have had this kind of worldwide appeal: the Beatles of course, and Michael Jackson in the early 80’s.  Beyond that I am hard pressed to think of another.  It is more common for movies to have that appeal, but most movies do not stand the test of time.  In literature this kind of popularity is practically unheard of.  Perhaps only Lord of the Rings.

My grandfather had no sense of magic.  Not so much the spells and hexes cast by the wizards in the Harry Potter books, but rather a general sense of wonder and whimsy.  It’s this magic that allows a sports fan to recognize and appreciate the truly amazing feats of a supremely gifted athlete.  It’s the same magic that performers like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, or Karen Carpenter cast through the power of their voice.  The real magic of the Harry Potter franchise is not the money it has made, but Rowling’s ability to hypnotize her readers with a unique retelling of an age-old tale.

My grandfather, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up during the Great Depression.  He graduated high school, but not college.  He was drafted into the army but because of injury he was honorably discharged without ever seeing combat.  He married my grandmother, started a business, and raised a family.  He liked golf, cards, and the Philadelphia Phillies whom he followed for about seventy largely unsuccessful years.

My grandfather did not understand the Harry Potter phenomenon, because he saw it through the pragmatic lens which he viewed life.  Children like it, children are flighty, children move on.  What he did not understand is that Harry Potter tapped into a deep cultural yearning that went far beyond children.  In Britain, where the series was first published, each book has two covers: one for children and for adults (so they could read it in public without embarrassment.)  Harry Potter is not the media creation that my grandfather saw.  Rather the media attention is recognition of a genuine phenomenon.  Yes, there are those who hate Harry Potter or look down on the books (most famously the boorish scholar and self-proclaimed cultural critic Harold Bloom), there are more complex storytellers, and there are better writers.  What separates Rowling and Harry Potter, and what Rowling’s true gift is, is balance.  The books are just original enough, just well-written enough, just funny enough, just intelligent enough, just accessible enough, just emotional enough, just lovable enough to make them beloved by the largest audience possible.  Had Rowling gone too much in any one of those directions, she could have wrecked the balance, and the series would not have the same appeal.  That is why Harry Potter is a singular phenomenon that has yet to be replicated.

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As for the movie itself, it was wonderful, probably the best of the series.  Harry has become an adult in every way but actual age.  The movie makes for a more stimulating experience than the book.  Some of the moments that Rowling glosses over (Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort for example) are fleshed out in an exciting, special-effects laden way.  Other moments that were integral to the book (Harry’s discovery of Dumbledore’s failings) have been pushed to the side or eliminated entirely.  The movie is Harry’s story and only his.

This movie is the best of the series because it has successfully married faithfulness to the text with faithfulness to the tone.  Most of the movies are faithful to the former but not the latter.  Perhaps a fear of crazed Potter fans prevented directors from imposing their own vision.  The sole prior exception was Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, a wonderful movie more faithful to tone than text, but also the lowest grossing of all the films.

At the end of this movie, I felt a sorrow that went beyond story.  Although I read the books as an adult, I too grew up with Harry.  Even after I read the final book, the melancholy of finishing was not as pronounced because there were still movies to be made.  I suppose there is Pottermore, but it is not the same.  The final movie is a reminder that I too have aged.

Harry Potter is not Peter Pan.  He grew up, and I did too.

Harry Potter

Yesterday I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I for the first time.  I plan to see it again.  It was good.  I was also a little sad about seeing this movie.  For a little over a decade, Harry Potter has been a part of my life.  When Part II is released, it will be the end of the journey.

I got into Harry Potter as a sort of protest.  It was my senior year of college.  The first three books had already been published, and the fourth was almost ready to be released.  The evangelical Christian fringe decided that Harry Potter promoted witchcraft and began a campaign full of ignorance and deceit to get the books out of the classroom.  The real reason for the hatred was because the books were popular and protesting brought those people attention.  I had already decided to read the books because I didn’t want to be completely excluded from a clear cultural phenomenon.  However, I wanted to wait until all seven books came out first.

The Christian right made me realize that I could not afford to wait, and I found an opportunity to start reading.  I was friendly with a graduate student at the time, and I babysat her two children from when she needed help.  Both children read the books, but the younger one wanted me to read it to him. (I recently discovered his profile on a certain social networking site, and it depresses me how much older he is.  He was such a cute kid.  I’m depressed.)  As I read the first book to him, I became hooked.  I borrowed the first two books (they did not have the third) and read them in a couple hours.  I then went out and bought the first three books for myself and read them over and over.

Every time a new book was released, I barely slept the night before.  When the book arrived, I would lock myself into an empty room and read.  No matter how long the new book was, I finished it within 24 hours of its arrival.  Then I would reread the entire series up to that point.  What struck me as I got into the later books was how much more mature the tone got.  The character grew, and so did the author.

The movies have almost always been disappointments.  Unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, the Harry Potter movies do not stand up to repeat viewings, even the best ones.  (Also unlike the Lord of the Rings movies, the Harry Potter movies are not as good as the source material.  Part of the fun in Harry Potter is the clever writing.  Tolkien’s writing is something of a drag even though the story has no peer.)  None of the Harry Potter scripts have done a good enough job of translating the novels.  To truly understand the movies, one has to have read the books. Otherwise the movies make no sense.

Nevertheless, I saw each one in the theater dutifully, always within a week of the opening.  The only films I have seen in the theater over the past few years are from the Harry Potter series (I have lost faith in the movies, but that is for another post.)  Often I have seen them twice in the theater.  I even saw the last movie twice, and I thought it was terrible

I love Harry Potter, but he is coming to the end of his journey.  Christopher Robin went to school, Wendy Moira Angela Darling got married and had children of her own, Jackie Paper came no more to Honalee, and the children that I once adored are growing up into adulthood.  Now Harry must wait for the next generation to find him.

And I have to grow a little older again.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Stevie Nicks “Rooms on Fire”; Five for Fighting “The Riddle”; The Seekers “Georgy Girl”; Elton John “The Bitch is Back”; The Beatles “Girl”; Arabesque “Midnight Dancer”;  Patricia Klaas “Faites Entrer Les Clowns”; Henryk Górecki “Symphony #3, Op. 36, ‘Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs'” Lento E Largo, Tranquillissimo; John Denver “Dreamland Express”;