A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, November 2, 2013


And the cool kids are… [wait for it… wait for it…]
…the people in the caps with a “B”! 
A picture of a pair of socks will also do.  But not, for heaven’s sake, a picture of a bird. After all, as everybody knows, the world is divided into “Us” and “Them” – and these distinctions are as immutable as the bad hotdogs at ballparks.
I grew up watching baseball, and loving every ponderous inning of spitting, swinging, and scratching.  Even though my interest waned with adolescence and distance from Shea Stadium, every time I see a ramped-up Facebook post about how Our Team is clobbering, trouncing, or flattening Their Team, I want to grin, kick back, and second-hand-enjoy the illogical bliss of these die-hard fans.  I want to -- but I stumble. Sometimes sports-hoopla seems like a too-potent reminder of the Hatfields-and-McCoys or Montagues-and-Capulets side of human nature. 
In elementary school, my compatriots and I enjoyed one day each spring known as Field Day.  Field Day was a competition featuring useful skills such as Everyone Gets Crushed by the Bigger Kids During Tug-o-War.  Somehow, our gym teachers persuaded us that this was a Really Big Deal.  We practiced for the event for several weeks, during which time every child in the school became increasingly rabid about who was Red and who was Blue. 
This was huge.  It put friendships on hold.  It put everything on hold.  By the eve of the Big Event, instead of actually running around and playing at recess, kids faced off against each other for screaming matches.  “Extra, extra, read all about it, Blue’s gonna win, and there’s no doubt about it!”  I have no idea why we all thought we were Depression-era newsboys, but we had good lungs.  REALLY good lungs.  Honestly, it’s surprising that the playground aides weren’t either homicidal or suicidal – although the one we all referred to as “Prune Face” may have required heavy medication.
Even at the time – as I participated in the screeching, and hunted through my third-grade wardrobe to make sure I wore clothes of the right color, and ONLY the right color – part of me knew that the whole thing was weird, trumped-up, and perhaps even a bit disturbing.  Sure, we didn’t metamorphose into the Crips and the Bloods, but some kids did get mean.  Why was I yelling at my own sister?  Well, ok, yelling at my sister was kind of normal.  But why was I antagonistic toward my best friend?  Why did this antipathy feel as it was somehow beyond my conscious control?
You say that folks all over Boston are partying in the streets because people whom they don’t even know are pretty good at whacking a little white ball with a stick?  Uh-huh. Yup.  I’ve delved a bit into psychology literature that elucidates just how shallow and war-mongering Homo sapiens can be, if given the chance to put on different-colored hats and shriek imprecations at one another. It ain’t pretty.
Of course, at some level, the feud of the Reds versus the Blues was merely competition.  Even as a kid I was plenty familiar with the idea that most games had winners and losers.  Sometimes the losers were bummed enough to sweep the whole Candyland board off the table and stalk away in a huff.  I wasn’t one of those kids; as the younger sibling, I had to be relatively ok with losing.  I lost at Facts in Five, I lost at chess, and I lost at bridge.  In fact, I was amused by the fact that bridge scores were officially – officially! – noted as “We” and “They”.  I always kind of wanted to be on the “We” team, but I knew it didn’t really make a difference.  It wasn’t forever.  It wasn’t real.  It was a label, but it didn’t define me.
That, of course, is the crux of the matter.  Competition is not intrinsically bad.  Differences are not bad.  Temporary labels aren’t bad.  Unchecked divisiveness, however, can fester. “We” and “They” or “Red” and “Blue” are not really the problem, so long as the alliances are fluid.  At the end of a bridge match (ok, fine, a “bridge rubber” – because, yes, it’s called a “rubber”), the teams dissolve.  At the end of Field Day, the Blues and the Reds melded together into mauve happiness.  In the Real World, however, the divisions run deeper.  The Reds and the Blues keep the battlements up.  In the real world, there are too many ways in which our “We and They” mentality can take deeper root. 
This frequently occurs – to pick an example, oh, totally at random -- in Congress.
Back when the entire US government ground to a globally embarrassing halt a few weeks back, I struggled to explain the phenomenon to the kids.  “The people we elected to run the country can’t agree about how much money to spend on what.  And… they aren’t playing nicely.  They aren’t listening.  They aren’t being reasonable.” I then proceeded to explain my own position on the issues at hand – which, given the other folks with whom we eat dinner in our liberal-intellectual no-it’s-not-a-commune community, represented not merely my opinion, but Our Opinion.  Yes, kids, this is what the Good Team thinks!  Um… yeah.  I found myself wondering, a bit uncomfortably, how well I would do, if tasked with “playing nicely” with the other team, a.k.a. Them.
Don’t get me wrong -- I realize that in politics, the divisions are not arbitrary, as they are in grade-school sporting events (or grownup sporting events – admit it, you hat-wearing people).  The differences are ideological.  They are tremendously important. We don’t need to – and indeed shouldn’t -- water down our opinions or our moral choices.  But we do need to alter the mentality with which they are examined and discussed.
I’m not going to give a rundown on all my core beliefs, economic frustrations, and ideas about governance in this blog post.  I’d like a few readers to stay awake, and I have so many years of potential blog post ahead of me (aren’t you EXCITED!?).  However, I’ll assert that I’ve thought these ideas and beliefs through pretty carefully.  I’m a scientist, so I try not to swallow statistics without understanding them, or spout facts without checking them.  Nonetheless, I can’t pretend that there is no emotional component involved, when it comes to choosing sides in our politically polarized nation.  I can’t pretend that I don’t listen a trace more carefully when my friends are sharing their thoughts, as opposed to when Fox News is blaring in the background at an airport terminal.  And I’ve noticed that if my team occasionally makes a factual or strategic error, I write it off as just that – an error.  Fix it, apologize, and move on.  But I tend to perceive the errors perpetrated by Them as somehow more intentional and more malevolent.  “They” are not just wrong; “They” are conniving, disingenuous, manipulative, evil
“Blue’s gonna win, and there’s no doubt about it!”
The weird thing is, this kind of thinking is hard to recover from, even in the face of direct evidence to the contrary.  I can meet individuals with social, political, or religious ideologies very different from my own, and I can LIKE these people.  I can recognize that, as individuals, they do not actually want children to go hungry, old ladies to go without their arthritis medication, or school roofs to cave in – even if they do not support the programs that I feel would alleviate these problems.  In the same vein, I’m pretty sure that such individuals recognize that I (as a human-type-person whom they know) don’t actually support the US being destroyed by terrorists or overtaken by a totalitarian regime, even if I don’t always agree with the way in which our nation attempts to avoid such dreadfulness.  So far, so good, on an individual basis.  But collectively, we view each other with suspicion, at best – and, at worse, with vituperative animosity. We draw the lines, and we don’t cross them.  Us.  Them.
I’m both fascinated and appalled by how we self-assort, at every level of life, and according to varied metrics.  Gender, race, sexual orientation, region or nation of origin, level of education, voting habits, reading habits, employment, breakfast beverage, baseball cap design – which cues and clues am I using, I wonder?  And which (oh, horrors) are my kids using?
Kids think in pure terms.  Good. Bad.  No middle ground.  If they know that alcohol is Bad and that bike helmets are Good, they will stare in horror at an adult who is sipping a glass of wine or briefly rolling helmetless in his own driveway.  They may even abjectly embarrass their parents by pointing and loudly decrying these naughty, naughty grownups.  We adults do a lot of preaching about Right and Wrong, but we need to work on our Shades of Gray speech, too.  While we’re at it, we could work on our Us and Them speech, too.  Our Winners and Losers speech.  Our Red and Blue speech.  Field Day was fun, wasn’t it, kids?  Now how about some dull lecturing!
Nobody tried for that sort of thrilling follow-through after Field Day 1979.  But it now strikes me that this may be an area in which we actually are making progress, for all that our electoral maps scream otherwise.  That is, I hear a lot of grousing about how our kids aren’t being trained to be competitive enough.  This probably means we’re doing a fantastic job, collectively, of ensuring fewer government shutdowns in the year 2048.  Not competitive enough?  Sure, Field Day would not have been as much fun, if we hadn’t cared – obsessively – about who won.  But it might have been even better, if (perhaps after the last kid had been rescued, gasping, from the tug-o-war melee) our teachers had talked to us a bit about teamwork, and competition, and cooperation, and the whole fuzzy mess that lies between the extremes.  
These days, teachers and coaches are doing just that.  They are letting kids know that sometimes the Reds need to listen to the Blues, and vice versa. Sometimes one team will win.  Sometimes, everyone wins.  So maybe what we need now is a little upward mobility in this lesson.   Listen up, grownups!  Sometimes the team with the “B” on their caps will win.  Sometimes one view will be proven correct -- but the process needn’t involve rancor, bloodshed, National Park Service websites with bleak “we are closed” messages, or the cancellation of an entire season of federally-funded Antarctic research.  Sometimes, after all the civil, reasonable words have been spoken, everyone will end up a little less Red, a little less Blue, and a little more mauve. 
All of Boston is partying in the streets because a bunch of tight-white-trousered guys they don’t know won a game?  Well… ok.  I would never dump the cash necessary to attend a World Series game – or even to buy the hat – but were I in Boston, I’d probably be cheering just a little bit, too.  After all, Boston (once, long ago) was MY town.  Baseball (once, even longer ago, in shining childhood Shea Stadium hours I shared with my dad) was MY game.  True, sometimes the stakes in Real Life are too high for us to assort ourselves by the lettering on our caps.  But at other times – so long as we can admit that it makes no sense, and so long as nothing is too irredeemably serious -- there can be joy in a little game of Us and Them. 
We just need to know the difference.
Play ball, America.  Play ball.

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