Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fantasy baseball in the 1950s to blogs today: coming full circle, and walking through all the social issues


I remember well a private incident one early evening in September of 1955, when I had turned 12. I had been sitting in the living room, and walked over to the bedroom where I had piled a stack of handwritten “news stories” which might be the logical equivalent of today’s blog entries. I heaved them. I don’t know why I felt the urge to do that. Maybe the “demands” of seventh grade. In those days, junior high school started then (not in sixth as with middle school today). I felt that it was time to “give up childish things” perhaps.

What I printed up on those sheets was a “season” of fantasy baseball. I, and a couple of friends, had invented a fantasy league by playing fungo in back yards (arranging the position of home plate in the yard to more or less simulate major league parks in the 50s) We also simulated baseball with a pencil (as a bat) and a ping pong ball on the open floor of the recreation room. We had other fantasy sports, like tennis, by throwing the ping pong ball against a wall and batting it in a way a bit like racquetball.

That was a change in interest from third grade, when I was confronted (by a particularly hostile teacher, I thought) as to how “different” I was. (Curiously, that's when I started piano lessons.) I was always the last picked on the team. Yet, I caught on to what baseball “means” and got interested in “meta-baseball.” I don’t think mlb.com minds. I think at the time that the Orioles and Cardinals were winning respective pennants, and about 100 games had been played by each time (many of them by drawing numbers out of a hat). In fantasy, the Washington Senators did about as well as they did in real life (in 1955 they finished 53-101). I wish I still had the hardcopy sheets today, as they would at least make for a good blog photo. I came to understand the psychological meaning of “home field advantage” in life in general.

Seventh grade started out reasonably well. We had science (which of course I liked) the first “semester” and industrial arts (the nice word for “shop”) the second, which I hated. Another split course was business, music and art. English and social studies were combined as “general education” (to get us to adjust to different classes) and that was the first I heard about “Brown v. Board of Education”.

But seventh grade was my first exposure to gym as it is usually taught, and I found the whole experience humiliating, inducing shame. The taunts (“chicken!”) started. I would be challenged to hit back, and a couple of times fought back with my fingernails, literally, inflicting wounds. Surprisingly, teachers looked the other way. I became modest about my own body, afraid to wear a slort-sleeved shirt until June. (In shop class you roll up your sleeves.) I was in a school operetta (“The Sunbonnet Girl”) but was sensitive about makeup being put on my body. I may chuckle now as I contemplate what actors go through for every movie or soap opera that I enjoy (or for any movie that could be contemplated from my books.)

It got better in eighth grade, but in ninth grade (we didn’t start algebra or foreign languages until ninth grade, still part of junior high school, then) I had some similar problems. In June 1958, I participated in spreading speculative rumors about and made an inappropriate remark in gym class to another student with a particular disability, more apparent than mine, perhaps. I heard about it, but got called in by the school nurse, not the principal! (I remember how the confrontation started: “I want this stopped!.... I was called the “bully.”) I could attribute this to the “teen brain” (I was 14 then) but the incident still rings in my mind.

High school was much better, particularly my senior year, which I have already written about a lot on the blogs. I came to perceive how I could live my life as a “different” person. The grown occurred in steps, and led to incidents (like William and Mary and later NIH and military service) that would shape my life later.

Still, certain principles come into play, and lead to some existential confrontations (even Giuliani mentions them in debates), at least within “the spirit”, whatever one’s religious background (my is Baptist). I learned, particularly in junior high school, that for boys life is to be viewed as a competitive struggle for station in life. It’s your duty as a man to prove you can not only provide for a wife and children but also protect them. If that’s true, some people will be better at this than others. What happens to the people in “the second division” (by analogy to baseball then)? The implication seemed to be that they have a lower “moral station in life.” This is all just following through to logical consequences, "going to the root" as I used to argue with my father as a teen, in a world suddenly trying to attribute more rights and responsibilities to every individual. That was the world of the 50s: a meritocracy based on perceived position in life, that was vulnerable and could be taken away by the outside world, especially Communism. These were the days of waning McCarthyism and segregation, and a defensive attitude toward social privilege. We had just fought the Korean War, and had just won WWII a decade before (supposedly to defeat an ideology based on “master race” notions). I wondered even then if we weren’t contradicting ourselves. And teachers were just starting to talk about the possibility of integration, but it seemed far off then.

Boys like me were in a precarious position. In my case, same-sex attraction (even if biologically immutable) grew out of "upward affiliation" that logically admits that society's "competitive values" imposed on young men really should be viewed as having moral significance. That point came out in my NIH stay in 1962 after my college expulsion in 1961. A good understanding of the pressures that I perceived can be gleaned from the infamous book (probably still available in larger public libraries) by Peter Wyden, “Growing Up Straight”, published by Stein and Day as late as 1968, with its pre-occupation of making everyone conform to being “sexually normal” and with its ruminations over the “pre-homosexual child” (or “sissy boy” or potential “parasite” on others – that is how I was sometimes made to feel, in a world that still drafted young men to fight others’ battles) and its pandering to physical stereotypes. It (or at least, the social norms that led to the book) left someone like me with the impression that the world might have no place for me. Fortunately, I seemed to pull out of that in high school, with some intellectual ability as to how to construct a “different life.” But I would need the freedom to do so, and that itself would become controversial to others, dependent on socialization and reinforcement of (and elimination of cultural distractions from) their marital commitments to even keep them.. Today, things are much better generally, but it still depends very much on the community one lives in.

Society had taught me the importance of personal competition, but it had presented a certain paradox. Someone like me could, if I expressed myself too visibly, make others who were more “marginal” less comfortable with themselves and potentially less able to function in marriages as parents themselves. As my William and Mary incident showed, a “different” person, however artistically creative and expressive, could become a real distraction to others. Once someone like me reached young adulthood, it seemed, society had a reason to back away from this hyper-competitiveness, and try to make everyone comfortable as a potential marital partner and parent, while still having to fit in “as a family” in a social hierarchy defined by others. Of course, much of the activism of the 60s and 70s fought this “unfair” hierarchy, and in general gay rights, civil rights for African Americans, and redistributing wealth resulting from economic unfairness (partly as a heritage from past slavery and segregation) came together, not because of ideology but more just because of social confluence. Later, hyper-individualism would level the playing field across families by making the world more like a "meritocracy" where everyone answered for his or her own accomplishments and "moral hazard" (and associated hidden consumption) while weakening bonds of interdependence that used to make families stable and protect individuals within the extended family unit. Still, some relatively closed cultures (such as the “world” subsumed by the LDS church) have been able to work relatively well by trying to accommodate and socialize everyone into the “family” by de-emphasizing personal competitiveness with religious teaching and cooperative activities. Such subcultures create some genuine social stability and sustainability, at a cost to personal individual freedom and self-expression.

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