Sunday, November 10, 2013

My coda to Tony's coda to the Spirit & World Series conversation

Aloha Tony--

As I begin to write my coda to our Spirit & Series dialogue, it feels as if the statue of limitations has run out. Or, perhaps not: my life's time-line includes many years that I don't remember well (at least not as themselves), but those years during which the Cardinals won or lost the World Series seem better punctuated than most. The punctuation I'm now most deeply immersed in, as a teacher of English composition, is the semi-colon, but there's also the exclamation point (the one I'm reminded was a single quote, backspace, period on a manual typewriter). The Cards were in the series twice in the late 60s, when I was a child, three times in the 1980s, when I was in graduate school, then four times again since I've lived in Hawai`i. These Series gather other memories together, like snowballs (though where I live there's a snowball's chance in hell that there are snowballs), fleshing out my various lives, re-casting me in places where I watched games, re-joining me to friends from each era. I'm reminded of the ways in which my emotional lives have changed; the intensity of the losses and the wins is lesser now than it was, though I do confess to losing a couple of days to this most recent loss, catching up on needed sleep while luxuriating in my grump. Insofar as there are real continuities to our emotional lives, I've carried these emotions, attached to this team, to every place I've lived since I was an 8 year old in Virginia. When the emotions revive I'm in a restaurant in Charlottesville watching one of those old projection televisions, or I'm in my car asking my son to call the game for me, or I'm in the living room sharing the joy and sadness with my family.

While the Series was going on, I was teaching a unit in my Honors class on the Khmer Rouge. We read Chanrithy Him's memoir, When Broken Glass Floats, and had a guest speaker, Hongly Khuy, come talk to us about his own experiences during the genocide of the 1970s in Cambodia. One of my students in that class is also a Cardinals fan--by way of his grandfather--and we would attend to the grim task of talking about genocide until class ended. Then, in ritual fashion, I (sans smart phone) would ask him quickly what the score was. After the Series ended, we talked briefly about how odd it was to move between these two subjects, their relative weights so utterly different in our minds. He noted that part of the reason he got over the loss so quickly was the comparison he made between these two events.

Something moves me to look up a poem I remember reading, though the content escapes my memory. It's William Carlos Williams's "At the Ballgame." Written in the late 1930s, this poem directly addresses the conflict between game and genocide. But Williams doesn't address it as opposition, rather as part and parcel of the same phenomenon, that of the crowd.  His poem can be found here, but I'll quote some of it now. After describing the baseball crowd, its "spirit of uselessness," its attention to detail, its excitement, Williams makes a horrifying turn:

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

He warns against the very beauty he sees before him, not as he sees it, but as it reminds him of 
another crowd.

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying— 

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them

Like the Adrienne Rich poem we read in class on Friday, "Eastern War Time," Williams juxtaposes two scenes, the one in the United States (where a girl goes to school, a crowd to the ball game), with one of genocide, holocaust. He isn't interested in evil--the evil our guest Hongly said was in all of us--but  in spectatorship as a lack of thought:

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought 

The ballgame might take an afternoon, but the crowd is permanent. Just as our emotional lives are permanent in their own ways, the human tendency to look on, even to look for beauty (what is purity
but a perfect totalitarian desire), to look on as others suffer and die.

This is getting far more grim than I'd intended. So let me, for now, suggest that while Williams noticed a permanence across the continuum from sporting event to totalitarianism, we can also imagine a disjunction between them. We are discontinuous, as well as consistent, characters. If we know, or can imagine, the differences between these polar similarities, we can create lives for ourselves that combine joy with ethical fitness. In whatever small way, our discussion of the Series has struck me as an extended reading of this poem I'm ending with. We choose the beauty, even the 
grief, of the Series, but we also aim to refuse the apparent beauty of ideological purity. Baseball is not an ideological sport, but one that depends on chance events, on knowing that identities are not bound up in your last action on the field, that a loss can be as good for you as a win, no matter how awful that feels.

 I'm now back to watching the off-season news.  What can the Cards do about the shortstop position?  Will Matt Carpenter play third, while Kolten Wong plays second? Does that mean that 2011's hero, David Freese, will be moving elsewhere? What pitcher can we do without? Which must we hold onto? These are not rhetorical questions; they're real ones that members of my Cardinals hui are mulling over, just as we once thought hard about the Albert Pujols question.

So, Tony, good luck to your Sox next year, but watch out for the Cardinals!  Young pitching, lots of talent in the field, and we might just have another contender. 

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