Friday, June 4, 2010


I don't know if Bud Selig should unilaterally change the outcome of Wednesday's imperfect game. I don't know if he will.

I do know, however, that we learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. And in this case we learned a lot more from imperfection than perfection. We learned who Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga are.

And I don't mean that now we know their names, or that one missed a call, or that one lost a perfect game.

In imperfection, they revealed about themselves the stuff that counts much more than any line in a record book.

We know that Jim Joyce has humility and a capacity, it seems, to feel even worse about the outcome than the pitcher who was robbed. We know he has enough self-esteem and little enough self-regard to freely admit his mistake. No excuses, no bluster.

And we know that Armando Galarraga, a player most of us had never heard of before Wednesday, is a professional in the best sense of the word. We also know that he has an immense pool of decency and empathy, enough to understand the suffering of someone who caused him such disappointment.

Perfect isn't everything. And twenty-seven outs, no base-runners, isn't the only perfect thing. For both Joyce and Galarraga, knowing you did all you could -- going forward, knowing you can't go back -- may have to be enough.

And if you think about what we learned, things we'd never know if Jason Donald had been the 27th out, it might be more than enough.

Baseball really is just a game. Life is being able to look at yourself in the mirror every morning and then get on with it.

(Just a note: I wonder whether Joyce and Galarraga might have been a bit surprised by their responses too. Perhaps each even learned something new and edifying about himself.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Fenway

Reflections on a close to perfect day, a game that had a little of everything. Warning: This is probably only interesting to someone who was at the game!

  • Fan Photo Day! Arrive 1 1/2 hours early, and you can go down to the warning track and meet the Red Sox. Seriously, the whole team strolled around park, stopping to shake hands and have pictures taken with fans. For the very short fans, the young ones, lots of stooping down to get right on their level. It's enough to make you fall in love with the Red Sox (or any other team whose players spend an hour before the game greeting fans).
  • Baseball fans. They've got them in Boston. They know the game, they follow the play, they teach their kids. I made new friends: Canadians taking in a game, a guy who gave me his seat when the very tall man sat in front of me.
  • Plays at the plate! I love plays at the plate, especially when I am sitting less than 20 rows up right behind home. Two runners out at the plate on throws from the outfield; one runner out when he ran on contact (you could almost see the "whoops!" when he was three fourths of the way down the line and saw the catcher with the ball).
  • Home runs. I'm not a big fan, but in Fenway the suspense just kills you. Is it a foul, a ground rule double, a big bounce off the Green Monster, a home run? There were at least four today (OK, I lost count!). One, hit by Dustin Pedroia, was upheld on review. Even Pedroia seemed surprised. He literally stopped at second, hung out for a few seconds, and then continued on his way when the umpire waved him home.
  • Concussion in right field! Ryan Sweeney took a knee to the head in an outfield collision. Yikes.
  • Rules. Turns out you can bring outside food into Fenway. I stopped at Trader Joe's and got a half pint of raspberries. No reason why I should gain five pounds every time I go to a game.
  • Ball park food. That doesn't mean I can't also have an italian sausage.
  • The rare six-out save. Closers almost never go more than an inning these days. But, in honor of my visit (I'm sure), Andrew Bailey entered the game in the eighth, two on and no outs. He got Adrian Beltre and Kevin Youklis to fly out, and David Ortiz struck out. In the ninth, he gave up a solo home run but nonetheless closed things out.
  • Youklis's batting stance. What's up with that? In any case, it works for him.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


As I countdown to my departure, I'm already anticipating what I'll miss about Providence:

  • Walking up and down hills in my beautiful neighborhood.
  • Seeing familiar faces on my route: An older man bundled up in a yellow rain coat, a smiling woman with swinging arms who walks fast, a whole bunch of dogs.
  • All the unstructured time, with no appointments and no outside demands.
  • Indian, Thai and -- most especially -- Vietnamese food.
  • Starbucks, I'm a little embarrassed to admit.
  • Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
  • The view of the State House from the top of College Hill.
  • The literature section in the Brown Bookstore.
  • Feeling smart and relaxed and competent.
  • Doing laundry at the laundry mat (seriously).
  • Being able to walk everywhere (oops, I can do that at home!).
  • Having my favorite colleague down the hall and his family just down the street.
  • Being a train ride away from my family and major league baseball.
  • The New York Times, daily, on paper.
  • Baked goods in Providence (sublime! divine! added inches to my hips!).
  • Sleeping soundly at night, knowing all the noises I hear are for someone else to fix.

What I won't miss: humidity, insects, washing dishes by hand and passive-aggressive garbage collectors.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

As you may know, I follow baseball. This weekend, television and radio announcers marked Memorial day by chatting about major leaguers who served in the US military -- Ted Williams and such.

They overlooked the service of Negro League players, however.

Leon Day was born in Alexandria, VA on October 30, 1916. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, "he spent two years pitching on integrated Army teams during WWII and on his first game back with the Eagles on 1946, tossed a no hitter against the Philadelphia Stars."

His plaque at Cooperstown reads: "“Used deceptive no wind up short arm delivery to compile impressive single season and career statistics during ten years in Negro Leagues. Also played ball in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada. Set Negro National League record in 1942 with 18 K’s in a game. Hurled no hitter on opening day 1946 for Newark Eagles vs. Philadephia Stars. Pitched in a record 7 Negro League All-Star Games."

As with almost all of the Negro League players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, no statistics are reported for Leon Day. Negro Leagues baseball was less regularized than major league ball, but as integration ultimately demonstrated, Negro League players were no less talented than white players.

Jackie Robinson also served in the military during World War II. He did not serve overseas, however, because at the time his unit was deployed he was in the midst of being court martialled by the Army. His offense? Challenging the military police officers who questioned and arrested him when he refused to move to the back of a bus. He was acquitted by an all-white jury of nine officers.

True story.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Field Trip Day!

Day game in Baltimore. Hoards of kids -- we nicknamed it "field trip day" only to discover -- a bit later -- that it really was field trip day! About 25 schools sent kids. They were everywhere, and I wouldn't be surprised if the adult to kid ratio in the park was something less than 1:3.

As I waited in line for hot dogs, a ten-year old girl slipped in front of me. I let it go. A few minutes later (it was a long line), another girl popped in. I rolled my eyes. Then another, and I asked loudly but to no one in particular: "Why do people keep cutting in front me?" The girl sputtered and then said: "I'm with her." "Well," I said, "she cut in front of me too."

Then their teacher intervened, sending them all to the back of the line. I laughed with her as I left with my dogs: I don't think it occurs to kids that not everyone is in their "group"!

As for the game: Grand slam in the bottom of the eighth! Throw from the left-fielder to make the last out at home in the top of the ninth! Home team wins, snatching victory (6-5) from the jaws of defeat (down by four in the bottom of the eighth)!

Friday, May 7, 2010

The four stages of my sabbatical

No, not denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance.

First, WOO-HOO! What to do with all the free time?

Second, buying lottery tickets in the dim hope that free time could be my long-term future.

Third, a tiny bit of bored and lonely, which led smoothly to...

Fourth, working like a fiend and, for the first time in years, it doesn't even feel like work.

I think the sabbatical worked.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why? Part II

When I wrote the post below, I was remembering Gene Weingarten's phenomenal in-depth story of parents who accidentally leave their kids in the car (and the kid dies), and how we tend to think only a monster would do that. (Because if we thought we were capable of that, then holy cow! We refuse to go there. It can't be just an accident. The cosmic order isn't so cruel.)

Well, his story won a Pulitzer Prize. It's amazing. Read it. With a box of tissues or a bottle of scotch. Whatever it takes.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Pat Robertson’s comments on Haiti’s supposed “pact to the devil” have, not surprisingly, elicited sharp criticism. I will not defend him: His comments were smug, condescending, self-satisfied and delusional. I suspect they made God cry.

But they illustrate well how desperately we seek explanations for why things happen. We discuss this at length in our forthcoming book Religion Matters: What Sociology Teaches Us About Religion in our World:

Peter Berger (1967), a sociologist and a Lutheran theologian, … argues that religion is “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant” (28). Berger argues that humans are fundamentally meaning-seeking creatures: It is our very nature to impose order upon our experiences and seek meaning in day-to-day events. In so doing, we reject chaos and the possibility that events are random in nature.

We see much anecdotal evidence that Berger is right about this. A child dies, and through their grief parents vow that the child’s death will “mean something”: they may start a foundation or lobby for passage of a law or speak publicly about a larger issue related to their child’s death. The child’s death is transformed from an isolated random event that happens with some degree of tragic regularity – diseases strike, drunk drivers kill, accidents happen – to an event with meaning and larger purpose, an event connected to the larger social order. Similarly, an elderly woman wins the lottery and believes she is being repaid for a lifetime of financial struggles and generous acts. It is entirely unsatisfying to think that picking the right lottery numbers might be just dumb luck and unrelated to the moral fiber of the lucky winner, to conceive that a selfish and callous person could be so fortunate as to beat the odds.

According to Berger, humans constantly seek order and meaning in daily events as a way to fight off the alterative – the admission that our lives are full of random unpredictability – that leaves us enmeshed in the terrifying and dark morass of chaos. Chaos, or the absence of order, is terrifying to humans because it suggests a dark abyss into which it is too easy to fall. One common type of order is what Berger refers to as nomos, the imposition of order by humans on everyday events so that events seem more predictable and stable. Schedules and appointments, laws of science, social norms such as driving on the right side of the road, and stereotypes, all take masses of information, actions, and events and place them in a system of humanly constructed and understood order.

But the most robust order is cosmos, a conception of order that links human experience to a transcendental order, providing a sense that our lives are not mere aggregations of random events but instead that our experiences are connected to some larger sacred order. As people often say in both good and bad times, “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Events that otherwise make no sense are explained through their connection a cosmic order. Terrorists crash a plane into a building, and Jerry Falwell, a prominent religious leader, claims that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People For the American Way… created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection…” (CNN, 2001). That event must be connected to some larger and sacred order: Falwell is convinced. It cannot be an accident or a fluke, or a mundane failure of airport security. The universe cannot be so cruel. It must mean something.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people varied greatly in how they evaluated those who stayed behind in New Orleans. Some of the harshest evaluations came from those whose criticisms suggest that they would have done things differently: “I would have hoofed it out of there” said one student who was not the least bit compassionate toward--and indeed seemed disgusted by--the people who remained behind. She even said “They got what they deserved.” This student’s response was perplexing: She was so certain that those who stayed behind were basically flawed human beings and insisted that the suffering was not random but deserved.

Berger’s lens suggests a different underlying thought, something along the lines of: “I cannot believe this was just a random event that happened to random people because that would mean that someday something like this could happen to me. There is order in this world and nothing so awful could ever happen to a deserving person like me.” To admit that such a terrifying and tragic event could befall anyone at anytime is to acknowledge the significant degree of randomness in our day-to-day existence. It is this sense of inherent chaos that, with the help of religion, we fight so hard to fend off. Humans fight the notion that events are random by conceiving that they are meaningful in some larger cosmic order.

There are two kinds of why. There is the “why” that is really a “how” question. The answer to that – with respect to Haiti – is clear. Haiti was built on a fault line, not a metaphorical one, but literally a geological fault line. Over centuries of plate movement, energy built up until the earth shook. Science gives a comprehensive answer to this question. And the social sciences and engineering can help us understand the subsequent devastation: Long-standing poverty led to substandard construction, and substantially more damage when the earth did it was always going to do.

But the other kind of “why” – What does this mean? – is where Pat Robertson so small-ly, meanly and cruelly plunged. We shouldn’t be surprised: Did anyone really think that Pat Robertson would look to science for the answer to his why question?

He offers his listeners a myth about a pact with the devil that assures him and them that they could never experience such misfortune.

Me, I prefer our president’s answer to the big “why” question: “For a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible…”

I prefer not knowing, when the kind of knowing embraced by Pat Robertson embodies cowardice, smugness and false superiority.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Common Sense?

There's a lot of talk these days about "Common Sense" as a political virtue. With apologies to Thomas Paine, here's what I think the people mean today when they invoke "Common Sense":

That which I find so obvious that I need not explain it to you.

That notion of common sense is problematic. First, because it assumes the speaker's obvious superiority over the listener: I know what's right and, if you disagree, it's because you are stupid. Where's your common sense?

But second, and more importantly, because it renders dialogue superfluous: We need not talk, we need not argue, we need not exchange ideas, because the conclusion -- mine, at least -- is self-evident. Don't weary me with your questions, your doubts, your alternative perspectives. It's so tedious. I was done thinking about this the moment my mind first formed this thought. I think it, therefore it is common sense.

It's a convenient cop out, allowing the person claiming "Common Sense" to escape scrutiny and challenge, to avoid thinking, to evade defense of his or her ideas.

The invoking of "Common Sense" is a dangerous trend in a democratic society.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Nelson Mandela and radical forgiveness

I saw Invictus recently and was reminded of Nelson Mandela's radical forgiveness. Twenty-seven years in a prison for dissenting from apartheid and, when freed and elected President of South Africa, he moved himself and his country forward by forgiving and unifying. Radical forgiveness that was hard for anyone to understand but essential to healing.

Nearly three decades as a political prisoner, and look how Nelson Mandela turned out.

I don't think that we are the captains of our fate, but I do think we are the masters of our souls. We don't determine our circumstances or our outcomes. But we do decide how we respond and who we will be. Nelson Mandela chose forgiveness and compassion, despite the horrible circumstances that stole nearly a third of his life.

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, has spent nary a day in prison, more's the pity. Dick Cheney, a man of power and privilege, and look how he turned out. Mean, sour, angry, petty, vengeful...evil. A pathetic remnant of what once might have been a human being.

What's his excuse?