Thursday, November 09, 2006


Gloria and I were watching the Tigers-Cards World Series game the other week, not because we particularly cared about the outcome, although we have a sort of sentimental attachment to Tony LaRussa because (1) he used to manage the A's, and (2) he founded the Animal Rescue Foundation, and (3) he and I go back to our salad days in the Tobacco Chewing Club at Yale.

Actually, we were mainly watching the game with a sense of relief that no matter what the outcome was, the A's couldn't lose it.

And it occurred to me, as the TV broadcast crew were discussing switch hitting, that before the year 1860 or so, nobody on the face of the earth knew, or cared, which way another human being swung a bat. I'm not even sure there was such a thing as a bat, unless you're talking about airborne rodents, before 1860. Well, there was cricket, of course. When did cricket start?
Come to think of it, why is there a sport named after an insect?
And for that matter, why is there an item of baseball equipment named after an airborne rodent?
Why am I getting so far off the track?
What makes me think there is a track?

It just struck me that here was a very isolated and specific capability of the human physiology--to swing a club-shaped object on a lateral level with extraordinary speed, power, and pinpoint accuracy--that had virtually no cultural significance or value for most of human existence--unless, perhaps, you were a competition lumberjack--and then overnight, historically speaking, it suddenly did, and still does.

There's something vaguely quirky about that. Although this is probably a phenomenon that dates back to the stone age: the odd and largely useless application of physical ability that suddenly rises from utter pointlessness into highly-valuable status due to technological or cultural demand.

Go back far enough, and it's the ability to rub two sticks together, never previously considered much of a plus around the cave until it became a sudden fast-track to the much-sought-after gift of fire. Fast forward far enough, and it's having the quickest thumbs on the block when it comes to video gaming, a subject I won't even attempt to pretend to be conversant on.

My favorite example, actually, is dialing a phone, an application of human dexterity that existed not at all until Bell's invention in 1876, and which with the imminent domination of cell phones will have become a veritable physical anachronism by 2008 at the latest. Here you have a circular hand motion that rose from irrelevance to the level of almost universal application and even indispensability, and then back again, all in something like 135 years.
That's not a tremendous lifespan. There are people in the Balkans almost that old. It's like the Pony Express of physical dexterity.

Readers of this site are invited to contribute their own favorite Handy But Singularly Specific Physical Skills, such as Putting for Par, Negotiating Men's Briefs in Order to Urinate, and something you're engaged in right now, Manipulating a Mouse.
I've already got dibs on Tying a Necktie.


Blogger ....J.Michael Robertson said...

I seem to recall -- and that's a recipe for misinformation -- that there's such a thing as a "lead eye" and that there's a simple test for which of your eyes wants to lead, damn spawn of privilege that it is. And that once you've figured out what your lead eye is, then that determines which side of the plate you should swing from. And if that explains that Haggard person and his subsequent confusions, so be it. Though let's keep our eye on the ball, i.e., baseball. The DH is many things, but I don't think it's a perversion, even in the worst case.

November 9, 2006 at 4:39 PM  

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