The All-American Game

April 17th, 2014


I grew up with All-American images of clean-cut baseball heroes — Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and the like. Despite later revelations of alcohol problems, their images as wholesome, talented sportsmen resonated across the 1950s and contributed to the backdrop of conformist cultural forms against which a great number of us rebelled in the following decade.

Watching baseball today, I wonder what message America’s youth will take with them into their young lives, and how it will emerge in later life. Today’s baseball players, for all the millions many are paid, appear anything but wholesome. In fact, if I were to describe in general terms the crew of man-boys taking the field I’d have to resort to references about scary-looking tattooed biker-dudes and unshaven mohawk-headed spitting experts. Such is the look of our all-American game.

In one sense today’s baseball reflects the reality of America. What once was an all-white, working-class sport has taken on the image of a global diversity of cultural forms, and the sports fan seems to be just fine with it. Take Giants player Pablo Sandoval, affectionately known as the “Panda.” Towards the end of this season, he was sporting a Mohawk tinged with blonde highlights, but the most interesting thing about him, aside from his bulk and athletic ability, was his fetishistic rituals. A native Venezuelan, Panda’s obsession with ritual included using the small end of the bat to draw a six-pointed star with a dot in the center into the dirt next to home plate upon coming to bat. At one game I attended, as he approached the dugout he removed his cap and spoke into it, drawing figures with his index finger.

At another point in the spectrum is pitcher Brian Wilson. Wilson, a former Giant but now a Dodger, sports a black-dyed full beard tied at the bottom with a blue “stretchy” and shaved head Mohawk. I haven’t seen any ritualistic practices, just the straight-out intimidation of a “closer.” Between these two extremes is a wide range of colors, languages, ages, styles and talents. Teams have translators on staff who accompany the pitching coach to the mound for pep-talks in Korean, Japanese, and Spanish.

Truth is, baseball’s common language is spit. Nowhere else in American life does spitting seem to play such an important and visible role. Time was, male spit fueled an industry of spittoon makers, and spittoons were a regular feature in bars and joints patronized by men. On the ball field, in the dugout, on the mound, behind the plate; the cascade of spit stretches all nine innings.

The end of the spittoon arrived when women were allowed in bars, and I expect that if women sat as coaches in the dugout or stood behind the plate as umpires, the great ballpark spitting contest would quickly come to an end.

With its team names, chants, cheers, colors and symbols, baseball is inherently tribal. Fans and players come together in celebratory mock warfare, basking in both the unity of play and the energetic uncertainty of outcomes. This tribal character mirrors an emerging global tribalism, an interconnectedness of mass gatherings, social media and communications technology. What we used to think of as the all-American sport now portrays the international, multicultural, web-based reality of the 21st century.

“Purei Boru! Jueguen Bola! Nol-i Gong! Play ball!”

Regarding the Infinite

April 11th, 2014

h03_hs201013The human power of abstraction, our ability to imagine something and then build upon that imaginary idea distinguishes us from lower animals. Brain physiologists might say such abilities reside within our frontal lobes, that area of the brain held responsible for higher thought, but whatever the dynamics of the physical brain, it is this capacity that allows us to regard the infinite.

Infinity, of course, taxes the mind. While we can accept infinity on a conceptual level, the actual experience of infinity is beyond conception. Accordingly, we constantly impose limits on our experience and the objects we encounter, treating moments as discreet units of time, objects as isolated, independently existing entities, and even objectifying ourselves into “individuals.” We can and do operate fairly successfully under this delusion, though it takes a monumental effort to maintain “control” over such a reality. The essential, underlying truth of the infinite constantly permeates everything, and from time to time entirely shatters our illusions of separateness and control.

The infinite can be equated with totality, the actuality that everything is connected in a seamless fabric. If indeed existence originated in a Big Bang, the notion of totality is simply nothing more than the truth of all things having once been an infinitely small singularity containing what we now perceive as space, time and matter. Having once been an undivided unity, it’s not illogical to imagine that after the Big Bang a connection between all the parts remains.

Fourteen-plus billion years have passed since the Big Bang, and in that time complexity has thoroughly increased and continues to increase in every moment. The trajectory of existence of each and every fundamental particle, from the electron up to the most massive celestial galaxy, traces a path through time. Imagine a visible thread denoting every particle’s historical path and one can quickly visualize the infinitely dense totality in which we reside; existence instantly regains it singular form.

There are other ways to regard infinity and it’s unique qualities. For example, we associate content with size, but infinity betrays common sense. Try this: mentally draw a line of two inches, and place a dot at each point on the line 1/16th of an inch apart. Then place a dot at each 1/32nd of an inch, 1/64th, and so on. As one can see, there will be an unlimited number, an infinite number of dots possible. Draw a four-inch line, twice as long, and proceed to place dots in the same manner. It is quickly obvious that despite being twice as long, the infinity of points on the four-inch line is no greater than the infinity of points on the two-inch line. The mathematical quality of infinity is such that it is equally contained within all lines regardless of length.

The esoteric Sufi faith regards unity, and thus infinity, as containing the mystical formula of enlightened mind. Accordingly, the deliberate use of geometric designs within Islamic mosques is not simply decoration, but intentionally explicates in physical form the truth of the infinite. So too the Hindu and Buddhist mandala is a two-dimensional representation of unity and the infinite multiplicity within unity, which is why the mandala is used as a contemplative tool.

Our western mind of separation tries to divvy-up the unfathomable reality of existence, but when it comes to infinity, there is no escape.

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Poppin’ counterfeit pills

April 7th, 2014

pillsI recently refilled a prescription for a beta-blocker I’ve been taking daily for twenty-some odd years. The electrical system of my heart becomes unstable every once in a while, and Atenolol settles it down to a nice normal rhythm.

Atenolol was first produced by pharmaceutical maker AstraZeneca under the brand name Tenormin, but its patent expired a number of years ago and Atenolol began to appear in a number of generic versions. Once the generics appeared, my health insurance would not cover the expense of the more costly Tenormin brand, and I found myself co-paying for one the generics.

Given that keeping my heart in proper rhythm is something favorable, keeping up with my prescription has always been something important. I had some hesitation about moving from the brand name to a generic; purportedly the same, generics vary in composition, fillers, and binders and although supposedly identical, their effects can vary. When it comes to the heart, small variances can mean big events. But the transition went fine, and I left the brand name behind.

A while later when I refilled a prescription I noticed it was made by yet another generic manufacturer. Upon inquiry I was told that the insurance company would not pay the pharmacy enough for the previous generic so they had found something cheaper. It is not reassuring to be told you are being given a prescription drug because it’s cheaper. I switched pharmacies so that I could continue to get the same formulation.

Then recently that newer pharmacy switched generics to Atenolol made by yet another company. I decided to do some additional research. The one I had been taking, it turns out, was manufactured in India, like many of the generics now consumed in America. The disturbing news, however, was not its country of origin, but the history of its manufacturer. Turns out the FDA has determined that some of the facilities used for generic manufacture by Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals are unacceptable, and the generics produced at those locations have been blocked for sale in the U.S.

This led to additional research about generics, and the number of counterfeit pharmaceuticals on the market. Turns out “pill machines” are relatively easy to get, and printing phony packaging and labels is easier and more profitable than making phony $20 bills. In our era of profit-based medical care it is not reassuring to know that the likelihood of dosing myself with compressed milk powder bound with moistened rice flour, or far worse, is increasing. The push by pharmacies and insurance companies to lower costs has fueled a mini-boom in counterfeit drugs.

There is little the consumer can do to verify what’s being ingested is legit. One option is to send a sample pill to a testing lab to find out what it’s made of, but that’s an expensive option and not viable, obviously. Another is to research the history of each manufacturer and request generics that only come from reputable companies, but if the pharmacy won’t profit, they won’t sell it. We are at the mercy of our health care system and the regulatory apparatus which oversees it.

Life has always lacked certainty and if it’s not phony drugs that get us, it might be the truck barreling its way through the intersection. Sadly, every time a prescription is filled, it’s a gamble.

Is my wife a witch?

March 28th, 2014

salem signNo, this is not the first line of a Henny Youngman joke (if you don’t know who he was, Google him, the King of the one-liners), it’s an honest question. You see my wife is descended on both sides of her family from Puritans, one of whom came on the Mayflower. She’s traveled even farther back in time, and viewed the homes and histories of her English ancestors, their portraits, fame and fortune.

Anyway, she’s recently discovered that her eighth great grandmother (on her mother’s side) Rebecca Nurse was accused of witchcraft and put to trial while living in Salem, Massachusetts. She was at first exonerated. Then, under pressure from her accusers, the judge ordered a “reexamination” and, at the age of 70, she was hung by the neck. Rebecca Nurse’s real exoneration came in “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch trials.

It’s hard for us today to imagine accusing a 70-year-old woman of witchcraft, let alone threatening to hang her or burn at the stake, but in Salem of 1692 there was lot of this going around. A trial would be held, witnesses brought and testimony given, the legal mumbo-jumbo of the time would be used and charges of witchcraft either proven or dis-proven.

Now in my wife’s family’s case things got a little weird. As I said, she comes from several lines of Puritans. On her mother’s side she is the eighth great grandchild of John Proctor, also accused of witchcraft and hung. On her father’s side, her seventh great grandmother was Alice Booth, one of Rebecca Nurse’s original 14-year-old accusers. Imagine the odds of that happening. On the other hand, it’s true there were not all that many Puritans in Salem in 1692.

Neither her mother nor her father, both now deceased, knew of this odd and one might even say cosmic connection. No doubt they both would have been amused. My wife’s father was a history professor and her mother was particularly pleased with her Puritan heritage of “temperance and moderation.”

My wife, with the aid of genealogy websites, has fleshed out so many of her relatives she generously looked into mine. Unfortunately, the record of my family line stops just four generations back, around 1890 when the first of us came to America from Russia. She did find a Mordechai, Hershel and Sadie I’d never heard of, which was kind of nice. No accused witches, though my late father described one of his grandmothers as a witch (or perhaps it was a word that rhymes).

The growth of genealogy websites is ironically, I’ve been told, fueled by interest in genealogy by the Mormons, one of the world’s more recent religions. The story I’ve been told is that if a Mormon discovers a previously unknown ancestor, that ancestor can be posthumously “baptized” into the Mormon Church as a member. If true, this might explain why it is called a fast-growing faith, but then it might not be true. Nonetheless, more historical records are being digitized every day. Census data, ship manifests, draft board files, old phone books. One never knows where the search will lead.

Anyway, I’ve lately been looking at my wife a little differently, watching what she does and how she does it. Just because her Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandma was exonerated of witchcraft doesn’t mean she wasn’t guilty.

In the bubble of time

March 28th, 2014

timeA cosmic self-referential paradox, our reckoning of time can be used to prove that it’s an illusion. Is this testament to our enduring capacity for self delusion or an example of humanity’s uncanny knack for cracking the underlying code of existence, or both?

What allows all this mental reckoning is mathematics, alongside its companion literate civilization. As Marshall McLuhan, the visionary professor who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” noted some 50 years ago, the development of the medium of literacy transformed western society and thought into it’s own image.

Specifically, McLuhan’s premise pertains to the way the medium of a phonetic alphabet adaptable to any language imparts structure and character to thought and changes the nature of culture that emerges from that thought. Written language extends this structure and through the technological medium of moveable type and the printing press its duplication, regularity and linearity deeply influenced our way of thinking, problem-solving and actions. This in turn transformed human society, which for almost all of its lengthy history lacked literacy and relied instead on an oral tradition for the transmission of culture and survival.

In the oral tradition, language was used as a magical, sacred tool of mystical character. Vowels, those phonetic elements which impart the essence of word-content, were a closely guarded secret. Thus in written Hebrew, vowel sounds are hidden and must be learned through hearing. Ancient Celts used elaborate cyphers to disguise vowels through which it was believed the name of God could be revealed. Thus the illiterate individual was tightly bound to society and clan, the only available source of wisdom.

With the printing press knowledge of the word became available to the masses, and contemporary forms of social individualism emerged in tandem. With books, one no longer required whispered wisdom to gain knowledge; the structure of society was radically altered by printing technology and our notions of time were similarly altered. The repeatable, regular and linear quality of the printed page became incorporated into and propelled acceptance of the technology of time, which also become regular and linear. Seconds, minutes and hours, when universally embraced, replaced a flowing timelessness marked only by seasonal, tidal and reproductive patterns.

Once discovered, numbers originally held a sacredness akin to that of vowels. Within numbers and geometry, the Pythagoreans believed essential truth could be found. They stumbled upon what they felt were symbols of perfection which, through their manipulation, revealed the otherwise invisible workings of the divine. As mathematics progressed in concert with the written word and eventually printed books, it indeed became possessed of essential truth, either native or imbued; Einstein and the subsequent calculations of quantum physics seem to accurately describe the otherwise unfathomable workings of space and time.

This brings us back to time’s paradox. Without literate culture’s habitual acceptance of time being repeatable, regular and linear, time’s duration would be fabulously subjective, and largely a matter of simply designating “now” or “then.” Past, present and future (and neither past nor future exist in the present) depend on the establishment of tense, a product of the medium of language. Some non-literate cultures exist without such distinctions, all and everything regarded as the present. We too each exist in our own subjective bubble of “now” despite our modern widespread reliance on the powerfully seductive medium of the clock.