Finally, Baseball!

There’s so much crazy going on in the USA recently that it’s been hard to decide what to write about. Fortunately, we’re just days away from something important, timeless, and (mostly) a-political: opening day for the 2017 Baseball season.

I’ve never been much of a sports fan. I really can’t get into American football (I tried; Spouse is a fanatic, the kids’ first words included “touchdown,” and one of their earliest maths skills was counting by seven). I went to one basketball game, admired the phenomenal athletes with their grace and power but, sorry to say, I quickly found it boring. I also went to one (ice) hockey game and quite liked it but somehow never went again.

But baseball is different — it’s the one sport I’ve ever encountered that I truly enjoy.

My First Game

It all started when I first came to the States and then-Boyfriend (now Spouse) dragged me to a game. He insisted that, without a basic grasp of baseball, I couldn’t truly understand popular American metaphors like “out of left field,” “throwing a curve ball,” and “three strikes.” “It’s quintessentially American,” he said, “you have to at least go to one game.”

This was back in the summer of 1986, when the Philadelphia Phillies played at the old Veterans Stadium (the Vet, a soulless chunk of a stadium dating from the early 1970s). It ended up being a case of love at first sight. To start with, I was mildly shocked that the seating was not divided into sections for ‘home’ and ‘away’ fans — we can just go in any entrance? No-one cares which team colors you’re wearing?? I couldn’t imagine how that would work out, but OK…

Then, I was astonished at the size of the stadium: you emerge from the concourse of fast-food outlets that encircles the stands, maybe hike up a few long ramps to get to a higher level, go down a short tunnel and … wow! It’s like walking out into a whole new world, ranks of fans in the stands, pennants fluttering, and that gleaming diamond of green in the middle. This is the Vet at the last game played there, on September 28, 2003.

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The game started (as do all major events in America) with everyone standing up, facing the flag, and singing the national anthem. It was a surprisingly nice moment of unity. Spouse likes to joke that the anthem really ends “…and the home of the brave. Play ball!” He’s not far wrong.

And as the game got underway I had a moment of revelation: “This is rounders! I understand this!” For those who don’t know, rounders is an old English game, now mostly played by schoolgirls, that is basically the same as baseball but with posts for bases and slightly different rules for outs and innings.

And so my love affair with baseball began. The way Spouse remembers it, I dragged him to at least three more games that summer. The following year, for my birthday in August, a bunch of friends took me to the Vet for a game (against the San Francisco Giants — I still have he ticket stub). Spouse had bought me a birthday package, which meant that between innings a young man suddenly showed up carrying a top hat full of confetti; he made me stand up, tossed confetti over me, and lead the whole section of our seats in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. A friend produced cupcakes for everyone (that’s fairycakes if you’re a Brit) and someone yelled out “beer’s on Vicki!”

Best. Birthday. Ever.

Baseball as Poetry

So, what is it about baseball that got me hooked?

There’s the whole family-oriented atmosphere of (most of) the games: there are lots of kids around; there’s time to wander about between innings (important if you’re there with a restless four-year-old); and there’s less overt fan aggression than at many (American) football games. People work the stands selling hot dogs and beer, cotton candy (that’s candy floss in American), and popcorn. The season runs April through September, summer time here on the east coast, so the weather is usually warm. To really experience baseball, you should catch a few minor league games — the hierarchy of professional teams that rank below major league baseball and serve as farm systems for the big game, played in smaller venues and with a lovely, inclusive atmosphere.

But mostly, there’s an indefinable poetry about the game that is wonderful. It’s something to do with the combination of team dynamics and individual play; the way that a game can totally change with one hit or missed throw; the breathtaking intensity of a pitcher on top form, pitching a perfect game; the sheer athletic brilliance of a double- or triple-play (when the fielding team manages to get out two or three players in one play).

In the ‘90s we lived in Chicago, just a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. It’s still my favorite stadium — relatively small for a major league venue, right in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood, with the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago in the background. On a warm afternoon, with our apartment window open, we could tell whether the Cubs had just hit a single, a double, or a home run, by how loud and how long the crowd would roar.

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The outfield wall at Wrigley is covered in ivy. True story: the first game I saw there, the summer of 1990, I asked the Spouse, “But what if they lose the ball in the ivy?” “Oh I doubt that happens much,” he laughed. Very next play, line drive to the outfield, ball bounced and disappeared in the ivy. Turns out, they deem it a ground rule double (batter gets to go to second base) and play on.

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Embodiment of America

Yes, there’s a lot of sentimental hyperbole about the game that gets annoying, but at the same time I still can’t watch the movie Field of Dreams without tearing up in the closing scenes. Yes, there was some nasty history involving racism (because, well, this is America), but also some moments of exceptional courage — exemplified in the movie 42 about the great Jackie Robinson. Baseball’s a game of fields and wide open spaces; of dusty sandlots (that’s another great baseball movie, The Sandlot!) and lazy summer afternoons. Spouse had it right: you can’t really understand America unless you understand baseball.

There’s also the wacky stats factor. The season is long, 162 games this year, which means a lot of plays and a lot of chances for players to rack up statistics about how they play in certain situations: “player Jon Doe is batting one-for-two against left-handed pitchers on Tuesdays when it rains.” The radio commentary from a good baseball announcer is second only to the cricket guys on BBC radio for inventive chatter.

And then there’s the players. There’s something about the game that attracts real characters. In the early 1990s John Kruk was first baseman for the Phillies. He came out with some memorable quotes during his career, one of which is my all time favorite. During spring training, a pretty overweight Kruk was drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. A female fan criticized him, saying “You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re an athlete.” Kruk famously retorted: “I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a baseball player.”

Somewhere in the past twenty years I’ve fallen out of the habit of regularly watching — or listening to — the games (one of our neighbors can be relied on to spend summer weekend afternoons tinkering in his garage with the game on the radio). For the Phillies, opening day this year is April 3 (in Cincinnati). The regular season ends October 1, followed by the playoffs starting October 3 and culminating in the World Series (the 113th!) beginning October 24.

I think it’s time I started paying attention again. Baseball may be the only thing that helps to keep me sane this year.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Americans love any excuse to play dress-up-and-party, and today’s the day everyone wears green. Yes, it’s St. Patrick’s Day in America, which means everyone claims Irish ancestry, wears silly shamrock hats and ties, and goes around butchering the pronunciation of Éirinn go Brách.

It seemed absurd to me at first — most of these people could barely find Éire on a map — but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Odds are, particularly if you live in a big city, that a good chunk of the people you meet have one or more grand- or great-grandparents who hailed from the Emerald Isle. It’s one of the most common ethnic ancestries of all Americans, just behind German and African. Philadelphia has the second-largest Irish-descended population at 13% of residents (Boston is first at 15.8%). And, for the 34.5 million Americans who claim some Irish ancestry, there’s often a tale of bitter hardship involved, along with overcoming incredible odds, and a sheer determination to succeed. I think that’s a large part of the reason why everyone here seems to embrace St. Patrick’s Day — the story of the Irish is a quintessentially American one.

You could spend the day grumbling that this is an appalling pastiche of a noble people, that the emphasis on booze and hijinks plays into the worst cultural stereotypes, and that St. Patrick himself was probably born in England and anyway would likely be appalled at the commercialization of his name. But that would be churlish. Frankly, it’s just way more fun to give in and enjoy the crazy.

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Most of what passes for beer in the U.S. is pretty disgusting anyway, so why not drink it green?

 

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Is there anything more bizarrely American — the ultimate cultural mishmash — than a green bagel?

 

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Whoever runs the social media for the Philadelphia police department does seem to enjoy his/her job. And in case you’re wondering, the Shamrock shake is a McDonald’s thing, a limited-time offering every year (proceeds go to the Ronald McDonald charity network). They reportedly taste like a mild vanilla milkshake with a hint of mint. Strangely, I’ve never had the desire to try one.

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And the biggest and brashest St. Patrick’s day stunt of all? My vote goes to Chicago, which really does dye the river green every year, on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.

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It started in 1962 when some stunt-inclined pollution-control workers, who habitually used chemical dyes to trace illegal sewage discharges, thought it would be fun to dump 100 pounds of dye into the river. The river stayed green for a week. But everyone agreed this was great fun, and it’s been done ever since — except now they use more environmentally friendly powdered, vegetable-based dye that only makes the river green for a few hours.

So, I’ll drink the god-awful beer, laugh at the variety of green foods and clothes, and thoroughly enjoy living in such a gloriously diverse country.

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Teenage Language

Parents and teenagers speak different languages. ’Twas ever thus; but when your teenager is growing up in a different country from your own background, it can add another layer of mutual incomprehension.

Usually, it’s the parents who have no idea what their children are saying, but in our household it’s just as likely to go the other way around. There’s the obvious language difference, when I confuse my sons with words like “anticlockwise” or “the car boot” (see Divided By a Common Language). And then there’s also the history difference, too. I remember my sons being baffled by the opening scenes of the Chronicles of Narnia movie a few years ago — a mother and children racing to get to the air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden, followed by the trauma of the children being sent on a train to live with a stranger far away. They’d never heard of the blitz or the mass evacuation of children from London.

Getting back to the teenage-language thing. More interesting (at least, to me) are the phrases and slang of the young, that pop up in everyday use. I have no idea if these words are specific to American youth or are more-or-less universal. A couple of years ago there was “squad goals” and before that calling stuff “dope” (nothing to do with drugs per se). Which brings me to two recent examples.

The first came a couple of weeks ago, when I asked the resident teenager, “What does it mean to say a person or thing is ‘woke’?” He laughed so long and hard that it was a full two minutes before he was able, breathlessly, to attempt an answer: apparently, it means aware, fully clued in on the latest issues of our day, and “not falling for any bullshit.”

Did anyone catch this photo that went viral after the women’s marches in January? #wokebaby

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A quick google search shows a strong case for “woke” being derived from African American vernacular, giving the term an overlay of awareness of social injustice.

A few days later I asked the same teenager about the word ‘fleek.’ More riotous laughter. “Mom, it’s ON fleek.” “OK, but I still don’t know what it means.” “Like, on point, styled just right, sharp.” (Again, Google hints at an African-American origin for the phrase.)

Got it. So now I’m curious: does anyone know if these two expressions are U.S.-specific? Given the ubiquity of American pop culture, I’m guessing they’re heard by baffled parents in other countries, too?

I like to think that my English accent gives me a bit of a pass with my sons and their friends — so when I say something ‘old’ it comes across as ‘quaint’ rather than ‘hopeless’. But maybe I’m deluding myself.

Either way, for an interesting take on memes, on fleek, and race (because this is America and, yes, many many things boil down to race) check out this Wired article from a few days ago: Want to Profit Off Your Meme? Good Luck if You Aren’t White

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/on-fleek-meme-monetization-gap/

 

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College Mail Deluge

While the weather continues to be absurdly changeable, there is one constant in our life at the moment: the deluge of mail coming into the house every day from colleges all over the USA.

Our youngest is a junior in high school (one more year until he graduates). This means that he will be applying to college in a few months’ time — bearing in mind that when Americans say “college,” or sometimes even “school,” they mean university, not the last two years of  high school-level education.

With undergraduate tuition running at anywhere from $10,000 a year for a state-run institution, to $50,000+ for the elite private universities (and yes, that’s just tuition, not including minor details like a roof over their heads, food, books, etc.), college is seriously big business over here. No wonder, then, that the various institutions start targeting students months before the autumn application round starts.

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This is just a selection of what’s arrived the past couple of days — many of them places I didn’t even know existed until the brochures arrived. Do you want a small, liberal arts college nestled in the countryside? A large institution with a reputation for serious research, in the heart of a big city? How about a massive campus that’s a world unto itself? The sheer range of options is overwhelming. And they all look wonderful! Every single one seems to tout its diverse student body, range of extracurricular clubs in the sports and the arts, challenging coursework, opportunities for summer programs/travel abroad/internships, etc.

Williams, in Massachusetts (annual tuition $48,000), sent an entire 20-page chapbook, full of glossy pictures extolling its many virtues.

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There is no limit on how many places you can apply to — except the hassle of writing application essays, and the fact that every single one charges an application fee (anywhere from $45 to $90).

Many eons ago, when I was going through this in the UK, the system was simple: you got to choose up to six institutions and courses through UCCA (the University Central Council on Admissions, now called UCAS). You ranked those six in order. Maybe you’d visit a couple of the places beforehand, to make sure they really offered what you wanted, and maybe one or two would want to interview you in person before deciding if they’d offer you a place. That offer of a place was based on your expected A-level results (such as, “we’ll take you if you get two A-grades and one B-grade”). Then, you’d bite your nails waiting for the A-level exam results in late-August that would determine where you ended up.

Doubtless the system in the UK has changed in the decades since then, but I can’t imagine it’s anything like the American version?

So, all of this means that, like many middle-class suburban parents, we’ll be spending a good chunk of the summer on college visits. Something of a right-of-passage road trip for many families, when slightly shell-shocked parents find themselves tramping around endless campuses and sitting through “welcome to xyz!” presentations in halls and meeting rooms, dazedly wondering (a) when the toddler suddenly became a college-bound near-adult, and (b) how the hell they’re going to pay for all this.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a neighborhood with a really “good” school system — and part of this is the extent to which the high school kids are plugged into the world of opportunity beyond the local borders. Their grades, preliminary test results, interests, and ambitions get entered into the online system that the universities tap into, looking for prospective students. Hence, the daily mail deluge.

But, if you’re a poorer student, perhaps in a struggling inner-city or rural school system that doesn’t have access to these kinds of resources? Many of the more expensive universities now make a point of offering all of their financial aid in the form of grants, not loans — so, theoretically, a kid from a poorer family could get a free ride all the way through at, say, Princeton. But, if you’re not already “in the system” in some way, odds are, all those lovely colleges don’t even know you exist.

 

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Spring Already?!

The past few days have been unusually warm here in suburban Philadelphia, and on today’s walk with the dog I saw evidence everywhere of an early spring. img_1584

Snowdrops aren’t a surprise in late February, but lots of other things are also starting to bloom, like the pretty little purple crocus that are scattered across a lot of lawns on our street.

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More worrisome is that the tulips and daffodils are starting to send up shoots, and it’s definitely too early for them.

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Can you spot the buds on our cherry tree in the front garden?

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Even the lovely forsythia is getting in on the act — I think of these shrubs as the true harbinger of spring, their long graceful branches bursting into bright yellow leaves as the weather warms. February is at least a month too early for these buds to be showing.

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But proper Englishwoman that I am, it’s the roses I’m most worried about. Over the years I’ve planted a number of David Austin Old English shrubs and climbers, and this morning I spotted these buds on the climber that rambles all over the back of the house.

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Anyone know a spell to get the roses to go back to sleep?!

 

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Dates, Floors, and Toilet Doors

When you first make the leap to a new life in another country, you expect a lot of things to be different — language (or at least dialect), driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, different architecture and street landscapes. But there were three aspects to life in America that I didn’t expect and that totally flummoxed me when I first came here; and frankly, still do. I’m talking about dates, floors, and toilet doors.

Dates

In the UK, dates very sensibly go Day, Month, Year. So, today being 13th February, 2017 would be listed in numeric form as 13/2/17. It’s a logical progression, from smallest measure to largest. Simple. Imagine the surprise, then, when you’re told that the classes for the new year at graduate school start on 9/3. What? The 9th of March? How can that be?? No, someone explains, that means September 9 — and they give you the “what planet are you from?” look.

Well, the only country on the planet that does Month, Day, Year is the USA (at least, that’s what it says in Wikipedia so it must be true). A number of countries in Asia go Year, Month, Day. And, the ever-diplomatic Canadians apparently use all three formats: Day, Month, Year; Month, Day, Year; AND Year, Day, Month. Which is very noble of them but must get highly confusing.

When filling out forms of any kind, I’m now so used to the Month/Day/Year format that I have to think twice about what I’m doing with anything international. Not everyone does.

The British press corp was refused entry to the White House for the Trump-May press conference on January 27 because of confusion over dates — the security services apparently couldn’t fathom the birth dates of the listed reporters, which were all written UK style (remember, this is the style used by most countries on the planet, i.e., is the international format).

Floors

As any Brit can tell you, the floor of a building that’s at ground level is called the ground floor. When you go up one level, you’re on the first floor, because it’s the first Floor added, right? So, a building with a ground floor and then four more floors on top is numbered G, 1, 2, 3, 4. And, as far as I remember, that’s pretty much the convention across Europe: the first level you walk in on is called some variation of “ground,” then you start numbering 1, 2, 3 as you go up. Very sensible and straightforward.

Not in America. Here, the first floor is the one at ground level. The second floor is the next one up. This caused me no end of confusion when I first got to the university’s library. The buttons in the elevator (lift) went B, 1, 2, 3. I had no clue where I was at any given level. I spent weeks repeatedly finding myself in the basement instead of on the ground floor.

I’m not sure why such a small change should be so bloody difficult to take on — maybe because it’s such an automatic part of life, something that you just assume is straightforward? Just to add to the confusion, sometimes in elevators here you’ll see numbering that goes G, 2, 3…. where the building owners have decided to be a bit fancy and call the first floor ground; but the next floor up is still 2.

It also caused confusion when we bought our house here in the suburbs, and I told my mum it had two bedrooms on the third floor (to me, this now means up two flights of stairs from the ground). She was staggered that I’d moved into a four-story house. I had to gently explain that no, I meant attic rooms that were up two flights of stairs, so second floor UK, third floor US. She seemed a bit disappointed that I hadn’t actually moved into a mansion.

Toilet Doors

Now, this one is just bizarre. Given how ‘coy’ Americans can be (Americans Can Be So Coy!), why the devil are the doors on public loos so tiny?

In the UK, the doors and partitions on public cubicles go all the way down to the ground and all the way up to the ceiling. And the doors themselves close nice and snug, with no gaps.

But in the US, the cubicles in a “women’s restroom” typically have about two feet of space at the top and bottom of the doors and partitions. And there’s usually a good inch of air space between the door and the frame. To a Brit, this feels like trying to go to the loo in the middle of an open field.

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I have zero explanation for this. Someone once told me, “Oh, it’s for security reasons, so you can see if someone’s in trouble, and easily get them out. And, you can see if someone’s actually hiding in there.” You certainly can. After 32 years in this country, I still long for a proper public loo, where no-one can see my ankles and the door seals all the way around.

I guess it does make it easier to help out a friend in the case of a toilet paper emergency.

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When the Weather Goes Bonkers

We’re suffering from weather whiplash here on the east coast. Yesterday was a beautiful, mild day, full of sunshine and soft breezes. Downright balmy. It was so lovely that in mid-afternoon I actually went and sat outside for a while with a book (and the dog). The temperature topped out at just over 60 degrees Fahrenheit (around 16 celsius).

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That gorgeous blue sky looks oddly incongruous with the bare trees and winter-brown grass.

Fast-forward less than 24 hours and it looks very different.

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This is the view from the back door. Those are the dog’s paw prints bottom left; she was not impressed that “her” garden was suddenly coated in cold, wet stuff this morning.

As I write this, the snow is still coming down and it’s a decidedly-not-balmy 28 degrees (or -2 celsius). The weather forecasts a total of 4-6 inches of snow, accompanied later today by strong gusts of wind. Fingers crossed the power doesn’t go out.

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