Saturday, August 15, 2009

Subjects I Meant to Write About Two Weeks Ago But am Only Getting Around to Now

They're really important too.

I am craving grapefruit at the moment. This is not one of the things I had mean to write about, but I have neither had nor craved grapefruit in many years, and suddenly a sensation of the taste of it just rose up in my memory.

There was a passage in this New Yorker article about Laura Ingalls Wilder that perturbed me. Wilder, who politically seems to have been something of a libertarian, stated during the 1930s, comparing the policies of the New Deal to her own upbringing, that "what we accomplished was without help of any kind, from anyone", on which the author of the article (whose name is Judith Thurman) commented with the following:

"The Wilders had, in fact, received unacknowledged help from their families, and the Ingallses, like all pioneers, were dependent, to some degree, on the railroads; on taxpayer-financed schools (Mary's tuition at a college for the blind, Hill points out, was paid for by the Dakota Territory); on credit--which is to say, the savings of their fellow citizens; on 'boughten' supplies they couldn't make or grow, and, most of all, on the federal government, which had cleared their land of its previous owners."

I thought this was a most unfair, misleading, politically motivated, and all around foolish critique. The evident purpose of writing it is to delegitimize the mythology of the self-reliance of the old pioneers as well as, with the clearing the lands reference, the very origins of the nation, or at least that part of it which regards this period of settlement and expansion as one of the heroic and formative episodes in our history. Whether this end is as desirable as many people appear to think it is, and most importantly, is grounded in a truth any more accurate overall than that which it would overthrow, is a question to which I am not at all confident that the answer is really aye, but in any event this is getting into psychic territory that would have been completely foreign to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and which would have availed her little in her life on the frontier if it had not been. Whatever one thinks of the quality or veracity of the Little House books, I think it is reasonable to surmise that anyone living in South Dakota in the 1870s and 80s was by contemporary standards pretty darn self-reliant where the basic material necessities of life were concerned. Whatever assistance the organization of the society of the time afforded to ordinary people, reaping the benefits of it were still almost wholly dependent on the recipient's own effort and work. It is insulting for a writer at a prestigious magazine in 2009, who I think we can be pretty sure leads an existence defined by comfort, plenty, leisure and educational opportunities of such as which Laura Ingalls Wilder, who even if she did not write the stories attributed to her was by all appearances more worthy of such rewards, if they be awards, than most of the people currently enjoying them, would have known nothing, to infer that the Ingallses were freeloading off the state and the machinery of private enterprise in any practical way comparable to what nearly everyone could be said to do now.

That is probably enough on that subject, but I want to do a few quick bullet points as well:

1. The building of the railroads across the country, which used anyway to be celebrated as one of the great achievements of this nation's history, presented many opportunities for enterprising people, but they were not built, nor conceived, as an entitlement for the common people as a great but unavoidable drain on the public purse, but as a spur to the wealth of private interests.

2. The local schools which are presented in the books are about as do-it-yourself affairs as it is possible to conceive. If the people of the village hadn't cared earnestly about having them, they would not have existed. When there was a discipline problem they didn't call in the district's behavioral psychologists and conflict resolution specialists to handle the problem. A couple of respected local men came in from the fields, gave everyone in the room a stern look and reminded everyone what was expected of them, with very clear implications as to what would happen if those standards were not met. The teachers were not infrequently teenagers who could pass a qualifying exam--Laura was one herself when she was about fifteen. These schools would not be considered as much academically, but they had an incredible sense of themselves as footholds of civilization in these remote and isolated frontier communities, and as such performing a function of the highest seriousness. Would that some of our modern schools had such a intense conviction of their mission.

3. The scholarship for the blind that Mary got from the state is another opportunity that the family took advantage of because it existed and they qualified for it; I doubt that they would have viewed it as an entitlement regardless of merit or the interests and needs of the state, which I take to be the point under discussion here. Being self-reliant doesn't require one to turn down opportunities or assistance that is freely offered, especially when it is clearly being offered for the perceived mutual good of both parties. The problem, as Laura Ingalls Wilder would see it, is in having the expectation that one is owed such favors, especially without having to undertake any kind of arduous effort to demonstrate one's worthiness to receive them.

4. Invoking the availability of credit as an argument against self-reliance is simply odd. I'm quite sure anybody who took out a loan was expected to pay it back in full. Indeed, the burden of paying back these debts is a constant theme throughout the series.

5. With regard to the government clearing out the Indians, experience in New England and other of the early settlements indicates the pioneers, or mercenaries of the railroad companies, probably could have accomplished that job themselves too without the aid of the U.S. Army if they had really wanted to...cheekiness aside however, this goes back to the question many people seem to puzzle over of whether the origins of the American nation are really legitimate because of what happened to the Indians. Here is the secret: peoples and states only gain legitimacy of the sort under discussion here by so constantly and insistently asserting that they are so, so as to make themselves--their language, customs, racial line--appear as inseparable from the place they occupy as those people who inconveniently preceded them. Americans, or their intellectual class, used to embrace this mission with somewhat more gusto than they do now, where many of them give off an air of diffidence about identifying too strongly with any totem of greater nationhood, let alone arguing for the historical legitimacy of the United States as traditionally conceived. This is not to suggest that what happened to the Indians was not appalling, especially at the time; however as it cannot practically be undone, and we all return to our pre-1492, or even pre-1700 conditions, I do not see any good which can come from wholly delegitimizing what followed, namely the development and rise of the United States as probably the most dynamic society on the planet for much of the last 150 years at least. Be conscious of the history and the atrocities, attempt to atone for them in a manly fashion, but do not wallow in them and suck all manner of positive vitality out of yourself and the society around you.

I don't want to give the impression that I am a great lover of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books by the way, although there is an optimistic spirit about them, born no doubt of that general civilizational naivete and which accounts for the charm of so much popular American art, that I admire when I see it. I read a couple of them as a boy. My father, perhaps surprisingly, encouraged me to read them. He thought they had historical value, and, laziness being identified early on as the flaw most likely to hold me back in life, he seemed to think that reading about children, especially girls, whose lives consisted of almost nothing but endless hard work and discipline, which they performed cheerfully and competently and without any complaining, would help alert me to the necessity and value of a healthy work ethic. Unfortunately, this intended effect did not take hold; I found the prospect of a life of such dreary and onerous compulsion horrifying rather than inspiring (My father also thought feminism would have the effect of lighting a fire under the asses of the boys of my generation, whose animal instinct he supposed would not allow able to sit back and just let the girls beat them out for honors, fellowships, prestigious jobs, etc, without putting up some kind of fight. Obviously he was wrong about this too.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder's racial sensitivity was unfortunately not very well developed. The article refers to a passage in one of the books that originally appeared as "There were no people on the prairie. Only Indians lived there" which caused outrage even in the 1930s and resulted in "people" being changed to "settlers" in subsequent editions. I remember another story where Pa, who is for the most part all business all the time and not much given to frivolities, cut loose on one of the holidays by putting on blackface and performing a minstrel show with a group of his friends which I have to say I was not prepared for even as a kid, as indeed I still recall the shock of it now.

Arm Injuries in 12-Year Old Pitchers

There was a story on this in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago. Some of these injuries are so serious as to require the talent of Dr James Andrews himself (he is the big arm surgery specialist for the pros) to try to set them right. As a consequence of this burgeoning epidemic, Little League and all the other amateur baseball organizations now have mandated pitch counts too, as has de facto happened in the professional game for at least the last 10 years, maybe fifteen now. I hate this trend, of course. Organization and parental overinvolvement at young ages are already killing the game in this country, of course. This just makes it that much worse. Why are 12-year old pitchers suddenly ruining their arms in degrees never seen before? Because the adults managing their development are morons, most likely. The injured tend to exclusively come from the ranks of "serious" players, those who are pretty much at the top of their age group, who play on increasingly elite teams which draw talent from and travel to vastly disparate areas of the country. I think this is obviously idiotic, especially as I don't see any evidence that this specialized training is contributing to a noticeable improvement in the quality of play at the professional level. It certainly isn't doing much for developing the arm strength of pitchers, who at age 12 would probably be better served throwing the ball against the barn wall a few hundred thousand times--Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan both followed this training method--it has been proven to work--than flying around the country with an entourage of know it all and aggressive parent and coaches. After all, kids have only been playing baseball, and frequently lots more of it than they do now, since about 1850 without destroying their arms before puberty. But what does that signify? The world is different now.

I used to pitch occasionally in Little League--I wasn't a serious player, it is true, though the pitch count rule seems to apply to serious and non-serious alike. I would almost always pitch a complete game, though the score was usually 18-11 or something (and that was when I won). I don't know how my pitch counts were--I certainly walked or hit a few guys every now and then, and outs were, as anyone who has ever played ordinary Little League knows, not always easy to procure. I don't remember that my arm was ever in any pain however, probably because I was conscious, even as a twelve year old, of not putting any greater strain on it than I felt it could bear. I would have liked to have been able to throw harder, of course, but mainly I was just trying to throw strikes and hope the fielders could catch the ball once in a while. Such a mediocre career as mine is not acceptable to these superparents, I know, but putting your kid in a position to damage his arm before he even gets to high school for the sake of these evil and stupid travel teams and tournaments is delusional and just wrong. In every way.

I got to finish this post. I wanted to go on about how stupid the pitch count system is at the big league level, and how teams really need to find a way for their top pitchers at least to comfortably go 135 pitches or so. I would like to see the return of four man rotations too, or at least four and a half men, where you skip the fifth guy if there is an off day. The difference in quality between the starters and the top relievers and the rest of the staff on most teams is dramatic, yet more and more games hinge on these inferior spot starters and middle relievers. Pitch count information isn't always readily available for games pre-1995 or so, but you can sometimes find it. There were two Steve Carlton games I thought were interesting. The first was the 1969 game where he struck out 19 batters (and lost 4-3). The story on the game in this old book that I have noted that he threw 152 pitches, which I am guessing they noted because it was considered a lot, though it was presented more in the attitude of "he battled tough all afternoon" than in any suggestion that he should have been taken out of the game. He was 24 years old at the time too, which nowadays pitchers under 25 almost uniformly are not allowed to exceed 110 pitches under any circumstances; mainly, as far as I can tell because Mark Prior threw 131 one day when he was 24 and was never the same again (Carlton of course went to throw 200+ innings in each of the next 14 years after the 1969 game and win 4 Cy Young Awards, but that signifies nothing). The other Carlton game was one of the games of the 1980 World Series, which was being replayed on ESPN Classic one night. I tuned in for a few minutes during the eighth inning. A couple of guys got on base for Kansas City, and the announcer observed that Carlton had thrown 159 pitches to that point and "might be tiring" (they did take him out after that inning, which he got out of, so I guess there was some limit even back in the day if a guy appeared to be laboring). There are many more such examples, of guys throwing enormous numbers of pitches and innings and getting hurt no more frequently that people do today, but I have got to put the kibosh on this post.

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