Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Antidote to Pornification Nation

In his excellent TED Talk, author Michael Pollan makes a case for plants. He asks us to consider the possibility that we are not in charge of anything in this world. He asks us to consider the possibility that we are only players in a larger scheme, acting in some cases, being acted upon in others. Among his examples is corn (which, by the way, is the largest member of the grass family, the same grass that you mow and feed). I won’t go into a summary of this talk (and you can watch it below), but it got me thinking about a couple of things: baseball and the 2016 presidential election.

There is no need for me to elaborate on the 2016 presidential election. Mark Twain said that the truth was stranger than fiction because fiction is required to stick to the possibilities, and the truth isn’t. Trying to unpack that sentiment in the shadow of this year’s election cycle is like trying to convince a monkey that a black hole can fix a flat tire. Fiction writers must create believability in order to validate the suspension of disbelief, a paradox that the truth is free from. The truth simply is.

We like to think that we live in a participatory democracy, and that we can control the outcome. But are we simply dupes in the political process in the same way that Michael Pollan argues that we are dupes to the grasses? How do we know what we know? Are we doing what we have been told to do and “listening to our consciences”? If so, where does the voice of that conscience come from? Of course: it comes from us, meaning that it will tell us whatever we want to hear. Talk about an unreliable narrator.

And really, shouldn’t we be thinking about baseball now?

Baseball endures. And this year, baseball offers an antidote to the pornification of our world. Pornification is a the gross and grotesque exaggeration of everything, the silicone-injected ballooning of everything from breasts to B-movies, the “bigger and shinier is better” ends-justifies-the-means philosophy that has trapped us in a Salvador Dali painting come to life. And having gone through its own pornification with the rise of the Steroid Era, baseball seems poised to return to its pastoral strength of character. With that in mind, here are a few ways baseball can help us bridge what is sure to be a divisive, sensational, and regrettable summer (but only if we allow it):

·      Pace. Baseball has a pace and nobody knows what it is because it can’t be measured. Despite the introduction in the last couple of years of rules designed to speed up the pace of play, baseball resists this, asserting its own notion of time. The time it takes to play a game is only known after the game is complete, which reflects life itself. Play unfolds according to a million variations on a note, the bounce of a ball one inch either way, nothing knowable. The languid spaces between plays are pregnant with potential, deserving of our attention, demanding that we unplug and allow our minds to swell with the emptiness of the world between proton and electron, between center field and left field, between generations.

·      Technology. “This is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” Or so says the manager of the Durham Bulls, Joe Riggins, in Bull Durham. All the advances in baseball have come around it, not necessarily in it. The game is still played with leather and ash wood, on dirt and grass. It doesn’t need electricity, and it doesn’t need lines of code. For this reason it is accessible to little children and old folks alike. Not only does baseball not need technology, it offers a respite from it. All you have to do is watch the players throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball.

·      Individuality. The American landscape resembles a colony of seal pups in 2016, each bleating desperately to be heard: Look at me, I’m on Facebook and everything is fantabulous!; I’m right about everything, just ask me!; I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to! But baseball offers true individuality, not the contrived kind held together by electrical impulses. Each player occupies a unique position, distinct from the rest; and each player is unique inside the baseball uniform. Baseball thrives on individual personalities, and an ensemble cast that doesn’t appear to work together. Yet their actions become a concert, their effect a symphony.

·      Peace. Our world is under assault from noise. The soundbites of the election, the racket from popup ads, the cries of the anguished and the upset and the vaguely pissed off fill our ears. The cacophony is crippling. Contrast that to a baseball game. Even in a crowded stadium, the burble of the crowd is low-frequency; the crack of the bat is still audible, the thumping of feet beating down the first base line is clear, and the smack of the ball into the leather mitt snaps across the diamond.

·      Community. Baseball brings individuals together to create the most important denominator of our lives: community. The players gather as individuals, and become a team, a unit. The team draws the individuals who surround and support it, creating a community. It is a game that allows conversation, and conversation creates community. The community is a dynamic thing, swelling one day, ebbing the next. Its constant is baseball because baseball offers breath, and in breath there is life.

·      The Meaning of Life. In Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” (from the film The Meaning of Life), there’s a line that could describe our situation aptly:

     Is life just a game where we make up the rules?
     While we're searching for something to say
     Or are we just simply spiraling coils
     Of self-replicating DNA?

Baseball feels like the rules are made up as the game goes, but it’s regulated by experience and history. This year feels like there are no rules left. It’s tempting to throw in with the mayhem, to jump on the pornification bandwagon and go down swinging. Instead, go watch some baseball and rediscover another kind of swinging, the kind that floats in over the AM radio, the kind that smells like popcorn and grass, the kind the reflects who we really are, not who we think we need to be.