Thursday, May 29, 2014

Onward, Ever Upward

Football, hockey, soccer, basketball….pigskin, puck, and bouncy-balls. Team A versus team B…. all played against team C……the clock. Winning often comes down to managing the little hand. The final seconds could take minutes that seem like hours with a barrage of commercials.

Baseball, alone, is a counter-clockwise board game defying time. An inning might be a decade; a game simulating a lifetime. (Games are longer now than ever before as stadium seating inches onto the playing field to sell more premium tickets. As a consequence what was formerly catchable is now just a foul ball).  A few of us even go into extra innings. Each season is long enough to streak, slump and streak again, just like life.

Back in the day when I knew everything life seemed measurable and linear, at least on the sports pages. Stats ruled. Records were set. Some seemed insurmountable and still are. Others were illusive but attainable. Nobody has hit .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. No one had run a four-minute mile until 1954. A year before that Edmund Hilary of New Zealand, along with Tenzing Norgay, climbed Mt. Everest…because it was there. Even if the British Empire was no longer.

Milers came within a second or two of that magic number but couldn’t quite break the barrier. An Oxford medical student named Roger Bannister rose to the challenge by clocking in under four minutes by 0.3 of a second. Three months later he bettered that mark by a full 2 seconds plus. Since then over 1300 others routinely run under four minutes and over 3,000 have climbed Everest.  Progress confirmed.

Too bad social progress hasn’t followed the same narrative. Older, and less knowing, I have come, more and more, to expect less and less. Our high court is dismantling voting rights achieved 50 years ago. Congress has become irrelevant. Xenophobia is sweeping Europe and threatens the great promise of the European Union. The Russian Bear is growling after its brief hibernation. Science is under attack from the Bible thumpers. At this rate we will soon wonder if the mile can ever be run under five minutes.... running downhill on the Himalayas.

Why the gap between physical achievement and our (d)evolution as custodians of the planet? The former seems progressive and the latter either cyclic or glacially slow. Whether we are witnessing the final gasp of the 19th century warrior/privilege mentality here in the 21st or an irreversible great leap backward, is hard to discern. There are days when it seems we are climbing, not Everest, but into our own abyss.

Which is why I take refuge in the alternative universe of the sports section. More drama. Less murky. The players have evolved faster, taller, stronger and certainly richer. At the same time they seem more fragile, arrogant and not a bit smarter. When an alien civilization discovers our planet a few light years from now they may reconstruct our society from out of the debris on the baseball diamond. In among the bones will be sticks of wood, a few pillows (bases) and mitts which will puzzle our visitors. They may conclude we had slept on grass and clubbed each other to death with our oversize hands. It may help to explain how we bulldozed our forests even as oceans rose and all that’s left of Everest is a pitching mound.

On a more positive note it seems that athletic performances are a function of technology with leaps evident due to advances in equipment and training. They are less evident in team sports because the defensive improvements blur offensive ones. In terms of societal gains there will always be push-back as the power elite increases exponentially. However world wars have been averted through the threat of mutually assured destruction. Literacy and health are vastly improved in the developing world. We are a work-in-progress. I shall cling on to that word, Progress.   

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