Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Space and Welcome to It

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, May 17, 2007:
I have begun to notice lately the proliferation of queasily friendly automated intrusions into one’s personal space. MySpace is perhaps the best known of the many social networking sites (Facebook, Orkut, Friendster, et al.) mimicking intimacy and exclusivity while exposing one to a barrage of unwelcome guests and commercial blandishments. I confess to having signed up, one day recently when I was feeling curious and maybe a bit lonesome, with a geezer social-networking site for alumni of my college called MyBeloit. (Why the sudden urge to reconnect with classmates of 40 years ago? Dunno.) These sites aim to provide a club experience, designed to be exclusive, at least in its implied promise to exclude dweebs.

Many mock-personalized sites approach the information pipeline from the other side: YouTube (“Broadcast Yourself”) encourages young Spielbergs to put their camerawork out there and maybe enough idlers will take a peek that select videomongers may win a measure of folkloric fame. The impulse is similar to that behind self-publishing and self-promotion, about which I have written before in this space (“Blogs, Zines, and other Graffiti,” April 7, 2005).

And then there are the information filtering sites, also appropriating that seductively basic English word — customized feeds including,, ... and ersatz-social (i.e., shopping) sites that beckon with “my.” The illusion of considered decision is presented to he who must run as he reads; will you have AP or Reuters with your morning coffee? Some choice. Google News, a content aggregator though presenting as a filter, does a better job of masking the fact that you have consented to replace your own selection process with an algorithm. As to RSS feeds, I’ll leave that to our Geekology columnist.

So if my space is not to be found online, I ask at age 60, what and where may it be? The reflexive answer is to fall back on Freud’s: love and work. That neat formulation will serve to encompass friends, family, mate, and a long, rewarding career in the business and pleasure of words and sports. But that is the here and now, my so-called real world; I have another. It is a dream life of the past, in which I walk surefooted in a way I seldom do in the present moment. It is a life of reading and ruminating rather than action, yet in its imaginative journeys I find not only satisfaction but also, often enough, genuine excitement. It is not unusual for me to resent the demands of the day because they keep me from a book. I guess that makes me a dweeb.

For many years now I have been delving into the origins and earliest instances of baseball, a search that increasingly has driven me to speculation and study of the nature of other field games, board and table games, and the phenomenon of play itself. Some part of each day is spent reading about earlier times, notably the middle ages. While I have not yet faded off into Mitty-esque imaginings of myself in shining armor at Agincourt, the period seems very real to me. In much the same way, the 1950s in New York City has been a daily presence these past two years, while I have been occupied with a forthcoming exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. (Blatant plug: “The Glory Days: New York Baseball 1947 -1957” opens June 27; the companion book of that name, published by Collins, hits the bookstores and the online sellers this week.)

As a sports researcher with interests in the distant past, this exhibition has provided an unsettling opportunity to examine with historical distance a period, a locale, and events which I experienced personally — though as a child, for whom the golden age of anything may be said to coincide with the wide-eyed years before puberty. To what extent should I separate myself from my personal knowledge of those thrilling years, capped by the poignant if not downright crushing departure of the Dodgers and Giants for the Golden West? Should a professional historian remark upon how, while imitating Duke Snider’s cocked-elbow stance and wide-arcing swing in the living room of his family’s apartment, he miscalculated and smashed the Admiral television set?

Memoir is the literary form of our egocentric age—we narcissistically observe ourselves and obsessively monitor others, especially celebrities. This is a predictable turn in the age of contrivance, in which our hunger for the genuine is so raw that we will gobble up even the disremembrances of a James Frey. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin wrote 45 years ago that Americans “will not so supinely allow themselves to be deprived of the last vestiges of spontaneous reality. By a new residual effect, then, we become doubly interested in any happenings which somehow seem to offer us an oasis of the uncontrived. One example is the American passion for news about crime and sports. This is not simply an effect of the degradation of public tastes to the trivial and unserious. More significantly, it is one expression of our desperate hunger for the spontaneous, for the non-pseudo-event.... Sports is a last refuge of the authentic, uncorrupted spontaneous event....”

And that’s why this era still grips us: baseball mattered then in a way that it has never quite mattered since and can never do so again. In the 1950s New York was the capital of the world in more than finance. Heroes walked among us, in East Flatbush or Bay Ridge, on the Upper West Side or the Concourse Plaza. The period presents a wonderful opportunity to depict history through autobiography, as Tocqueville and Emerson and Whitman each indicated was destined to be the American narrative gift. Neither New York nor baseball, nor any of us who recall the period, can turn back the clock. But we can recall those bygone days with more than the treacly veneer of nostalgia—they were not unmitigatedly grand, but they were glorious.

What was it like, to be alive then? That’s the question for the historian, whose mission is to go beyond a mere accuracy of fact to an accuracy of feeling, to deliver on the aesthetic promise of history. To do that, he must be alert to the ghostly emanations from the present landscape, have a psychic connection with the past, whether lived in or not. Walking about in the present but dreaming in the past, this is my space.

--John Thorn