Friday, December 21, 2007

The Magic Glute

From: "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, December 2, 2004
(don't know why I didn't post this pretty good column to the blog earlier)
In the November 18, 2004 issue of Nature, Dennis M. Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman wrote that distance running, not bipedal walking, was what made Homo erectus look like you and me...well, like you, anyway. I recognize myself more clearly in the authors' description of the diffident Australopithecus: short legs, long forearms, and high, bookwormishly shrugged shoulders. Our nearer ancestor, Homo erectus, had shorter arms, longer legs, a skinnier ribcage and pelvis and - key to the further evolution of the species - buns.

Like chimpanzees today, proto-humans had narrow pelvises that could not support the robust gluteus maximus for which Homo sapiens is known (and you thought he was differentiated by his brain!). Identifying 25 other traits besides strong buttocks that made Homo sapiens born to run, the authors also noted the development of a nuchal ligament at the back of the neck. As with other mammals capable of high-speed or long-distance running, this connective tissue permits a runner to keep his noggin still, unlike the pigs that Bramble and Lieberman set to racing on treadmills as bobble-head surrogates for Olivia Newton-John.

In summing up the duo's findings for the New York Times, John Noble Wilford wrote: "Endurance running, unique to humans among primates and uncommon in all mammals other than dogs, horses and hyenas, apparently evolved at least two million years ago and probably let human ancestors hunt and scavenge over great distances. That was probably decisive in the pursuit of high-protein food for development of large brains."

While I was pleased thus to have confirmed my own notion that the ass figured large in human development, I was disquieted by its connection with running after food or anything else, except perhaps other asses. My friend Larry McCray, who had sent me Wilford's report, commented, "I note in passing that both sexes have developed the runner's backside, so I guess it wasn't deeply true that the men always hunted and the women always gathered." I found other holes in the story.

As I have long used my own gluteus maximus to connect the otherwise lonely armrests of my favorite chair, and to act as a counterbalance when I might otherwise be falling down drunk, the authors of this Nature study did not convince me that the ability to run long distances is crucial to the survival of the species, or ever was. If anything, their article made me wonder why our early ancestors were (a) so hungry that they would consider running long distances after food yet (b) so unimpaired by starvation that they could muster the energy to race across the veldt and into adjoining counties. Running just a little bit - I could see that as a useful evolutionary accretion. The laws of natural selection would tend to favor the effective hunters (and maybe even mobile female gatherers), who could sprint after game or away from those who would make game of them. This Darwinian trend would lead and breed to ever more muscular if not more ample glutes; the latter awaited the invention of television and fast food.

Scientists will tend to assign human progress to evidence of increasing strength, power, speed, and problem-solving skills, such as the making of tools. Artists will see the ascent of man in his rise up the great chain of being, from the bogs of the lowliest invertebrates to the spiritual realm of the angels. I believe the posterior is anterior to progress of both kinds - whether it is the bounteously insured booty of J. Lo or the bag of pudding hanging from Karl Rove. Not only does the gluteal region propel fight or flight or pursuit, as the Nature study suggests, it is also the seat of wisdom, weighing against the impulse to rush off and do something, anything, to scratch an itch.

Whether you call it an ass or an arse, a butt or a bottom, the troika of gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus form the muscles upon which we sit as we await inspiration or contemplate action, and many things are better engaged in the contemplation, from homicide to exercise. By the grace of the three glutes we may have been born to run, but it is by enabling us to sit comfortably that these magical muscles have aided Newton, Einstein, and Alistair Cooke in the formulation of their greatest ideas. If these brainy men and others like them had sat less and run more, they might have captured a scampering bunny or two but the rest of us would have descended into a race of intellectual girlymen.

Which is where we're headed, anyway. The liberal arts are suspected of undermining Americans' drive to a service economy. Book lovers are regarded as sentimental castrati. Deconstructionists and semioticians create a mock aestheticism around hiphop music and slasher films, and the fans roll in and snuffle the nonsense as if they were cats and it catnip. Once the unexamined life was deemed not worth living; now it is worth forensic examination.

The focus of American men's lust has lately been reported to have shifted from breasts to bottoms, bringing our sexual politics, if not our foreign policy, into alignment with the rest of the world. Plastic surgeons are said to be doing more butt reshaping than either breast enhancements or facial reconstructions, excepting possibly eyelifts. Unwilling to accept the river of life that makes all of us more similar than not, we regard life as an extended masquerade ball in which we may appear younger than we are, thinner than our heredity would demand, more appealing in the bedroom. In our pharmatopia no shortcoming, real or imagined, must be endured. Endorphins, pheromones, ecstatic transport are but a mouse-click away.

That oxymoronic term "Reality TV" has moved from sleepover to makeover, with reconstruction of homes, physiques, family relationships. The do-over craze has extended to our surroundings, our bodies, our body politic. A swirl of action, like Sally Rand's fan-dance way back when, convinces observers that they have seen something they haven't.

I grant that some things are less easily accomplished on one's butt than with it: war, procreation, windsurfing (did I miss anything?), yet the sedentary pursuit of such active sports is frequently less hazardous to all who might otherwise be involved or affected. The Tao has a useful construct for armchair adventurism: wei wu wei, - literally "do/don't do," but better understood as purposeful inaction, which contrasts nicely with the world's tendency to purposeless action. When we call someone an ass, it is seldom because they failed to get off theirs.

In our heedless rush to renovation - Enlarge your debt! Reduce your penis! (or was it the other way?) - who suggests getting on a spiritual StairMaster? Who says, chisel your knowledge as you would your abs? Who points out that interior decoration endures while exterior changes imply a mannequin within?

We were born not merely to run, but also to fly. Benjamin Franklin's epitaph, the one he wrote in his youth, highlights the one true makeover, against which all others wither:

The Body of
Benjamin Franklin,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.-
Yet the Work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a newAnd more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and amended
BY: The Author.

No workout or makeover is required; ladies and gentlemen, be seated.

--John Thorn

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dueling syringes?

Our Champions

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, December 20, 2007:
It is now one week since the release of the Mitchell Report, culminating a 20-month, $20 million investigation (into secondary sources, largely ... how on earth was so much spent?) in which the former Senator made 20 recommendations after identifying about 90 players who had used steroids or human growth hormone. What has been the fallout? Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said that since the report’s release he has read it twice. Players union chief Don Fehr announced his willingness to meet with Selig to discuss the report’s recommendations. Some players, including Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts, Gary Bennett, and F.P. Santangelo, acknowledged their reported use of performance enhancing drugs. Others, including Roger Clemens and David Justice, vigorously objected to their being listed among the accused.

Even President Bush weighed in. “Steroids have sullied the game,” said the former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, whose locker room in the early 1990s had been regarded as a drug haven. “My hope is that this report is a part of putting the steroid era of baseball behind us.”

If Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are left to cool their heels at the gates to the Hall of Fame for a while, as has been the fate of Mark McGwire, that seems to be all right with most writers and fans. On the other hand, Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I can assure you that Bud Selig will be voted into the Hall of Fame, and he is the commissioner whose name will be linked with the steroid era by first ignoring it, then profiting from it, and finally blaming others for it.”

So who killed Cock Robin? Mitchell’s report held the commissioner, team officials, the union, and the named players responsible for these dark days in baseball, which tainted the on-field product and skewed the historical record. But he gave the fans a pass.

In blogs and chat rooms last week fans registered their dismay, revulsion, bitterness and shock — shock!! — about the report’s revelations. In a flamboyant but illustrative example, one baseball lover wrote to the sports editor of the New York Times: “I’m literally in tears looking at this list. Men that I admired and respected, envied and encouraged, men who ran for me, dived for me, played for me are cheats....”

“Played for me” ... yes, that melodramatic, naive notion is at the heart of the matter. It is precisely what being a fan is about, and it is why the steroid scandal has hurt so many so much. We had pinned our honor to their sleeves and sent them forth to joust on our behalves — we could hardly do battle ourselves, could we? — and they had betrayed our trust. These ballplayers, these superhuman figures who could reach heights unattainable by mere humans, were our surrogates; they were us, and their fall feels like ours. If it were simply theirs — like Britney’s wardrobe malfunctions, or Lindsay’s driving lapses — we would register the amused astonishment that guiltily masks schadenfreude.

But the failure of the steroid era was somehow ours, loath though we are to admit it. We were complicit. We looked the other way just as Selig and Fehr and the clean players and the tolerant umpires and the beat reporters did, with rare exception.

Some wag once said, we elect the politicians we deserve. Let me suggest that we select as our champions—the bearers of our hopes, our dreams, our illusions—the heroes we deserve.
While Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and others labored under suspicion, we cheered their assault upon the home run records of Ruth, Maris, and Aaron. We saw no irony in Rafael Palmeiro appearing between innings of a ball game to endorse Viagra, an apparently unexceptionable enhancer of performance. (Wanna be a slugger like Raffy?) If we watched the evening news programs, we were routinely bombarded with drug manufacturers’ exhortations to ask our doctors about the latest advance in easing once bearable discomforts or newly coined syndromes. The wonders of modern medicine were gloriously available to all, we believed. We might aspire to bodies that heal quickly and stay functional beyond what used to be termed reasonable limits of age. But athletes were members of a priestly class whose place is to inspire us with unaided exploits: they had to play by the rules of the old ball game, the one we think we remember from our childhoods.

If athletes are magicians or culture priests, who perform the superhuman when summoned to do so, why shouldn’t they have elixirs and potions and magic wands? Even though part of their appeal is that they are truly just like us only a bit different — we could hit a Roger Clemens splitter, we could blow one by Barry Bonds — in truth they are not like us. We may wonder how a magician brings off his trick but we don’t expect him to share his secrets with us in the audience ... we just want a good show. We might not be flattered if we learned that at the core of his magic were the credulity and distractibility of the audience.

Marion Jones’s tearful admission of her use of illegal supplements caused us barely a moment’s shared pain, and not a twinge of remorse for having waved the flag in victory along with her. NBA referee Tim Donaghy’s admission of colluding with gamblers was yesterday’s news in an instant. NHL goonery was tacitly a part of the game; why get excited about that? The Michael Vick canine abuse matter was larger, of course, and repellent for reasons discussed in this column previously. But the fans “owned” none of the dogfighters’ collateral guilt. Baseball’s scandal was different.

Baseball fans love a trick, a ruse, a sly swindle, as long as it is played out between the white lines. Scarred baseballs, pine tarred pitching hands, corked bats, even the hidden ball trick ... all are countenanced gladly as part of the game, if a guy can get away with it. Mechanically aided schemes like the one that may have tilted the 1951 pennant race — a telescope at a window of the center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, linked to an electrical buzzer to the bullpen, with signals thence flowing to the batter to signal the oncoming pitch — seem beyond the pale, yet even in that instance the players in the know kept their silence for half a century. In baseball as in real life, we may admire those who abide by the law but we will love those who successfully evade it.

Despite many amateurish attempts to correlate the use of performance enhancing drugs with enhanced performance (the latest such appearing in the Milwaukee Sentinel of December 16), no scientific study has yet determined or even indicated that the drugs in question make a pitcher throw a ball with more speed or cunning, or make a batter deposit his hits in locations more distant or artful. As David Kaplan of the University of Wisconsin has demonstrated, baseball has long exhibited statistical “outliers” like those whose homers per at bat were more than three standard deviations from the mean. These have included not only Barry Bonds in 2001-04 and Mark McGwire in 1998-2000 but also McGwire in 1992 and Bonds in 1993 ... as well as Hank Aaron in 1973, Willie Mays in 1965, and Ted Williams in 1960. None of these and many other “freakish” long-ball feats have had any impact on the long-term (half-century) trend to more home runs and fewer triples.

Is it possible that HGH, the new bugaboo of those who would restore the game’s virginity, is (as many have argued about steroids) a placebo, boosting performance for those who believed it could? Yup. Dr. George Griffing, Professor of Medicine at St. Louis University, writing this week for WebMD’s eMedicine service, reports:

In people with normal GH levels, HGH does not improve athletic performance in terms of muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance. In fact, several placebo-controlled studies have been negative. A four-week, double-blind Swedish study using two doses of HGH and placebo found no differences in subjects exercising on a bicycle in terms of power output and oxygen uptake. In another study, a single injection of HGH increased plasma lactate and reduced exercise performance.... It turns out that, like Paul Bunyan, the athletic benefit of HGH is a myth.

Facts be damned. Fans say that they want the game cleaned up and the miscreants punished. They want their baseball back. The cruel thing is that while fans praise tricksters and connivers, this time the joke’s on them, maybe even a double or triple joke. They thought they were watching one sort of game while in fact they were watching another. The steroid scandal has trashed their memories—their places in their own family albums—and it has held up to them, mockingly, their own gullibility.

More than any other sport, perhaps more than any other American institution, baseball is the game of memory, individual and collective, real and imagined. What has been “sullied,” to use the President’s term, is not merely the game but our individual and collective past. Because baseball took advantage of our innocence, we seem inauthentic to ourselves ... even though scientific evidence of an actual massive assault on the integrity of the game and its records, rather than simply a widespread intent to commit one, is lacking.

Major League Baseball and its fans will get back together, as they did after 1994, aided by the glamour of home run records. But it will be a bit sad, as all reconciled couples are.

--John Thorn