Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Baseball Field and a River... Those can't be Similar

Patrick Wallace

Feelings, they are the darnedest thing. The instant sight or possibility of emotion leaves girls fluttering and guys left feeling awkward and confused with the, “Wanna get away” advertisement lingering in their thoughts. Feelings and emotions are individual to every human being—sequential to events in a certain person’s life—yet nevertheless people research and attempt to break down our individual thoughts.

The literary world chooses to do the same in looking at our feelings and emotions towards certain places as opposed to others. Phil Hubbard suggests places provide a sense of belonging citing humanistic perspectives that propose a relationship between the specific places and cultural identities of those inhabiting them (43). On the other hand, in looking at space, “Materialist perspectives propose that cultural battles create explicit inequalities in the way that space is occupied and used by members of different groups” (43). Looking at Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain and specifically at the section “My Neighbor’s Field,” Native Americans can relate to that concept in how they view the land nostalgically as beauty and a home—whereas the landowners simply viewed the land for profit and worth. More modern than that, my feelings toward a baseball field will differ from someone with little interest in baseball, and someone’s love for nature will oppose my lackluster attitude towards the beauty of nature. However, aside from the clear idealization that one person’s value of a landscape or a field can differ, how can an individuals feelings be given a definition? Yet, writers opt to do just that in defining what a place or space “should be.” Citing Tuan (1977) and then following to cite Taylor (1999) in his Space/Place essay, Hubbard states: “Place is often equated with security and enclosure, whereas space is associated with freedom and mobility. Taken to its logical conclusion, it seems one can have on, but not both: space are not places, but neither can places be spaces” (43). By definition I understand one cannot claim their place, for instance my place a baseball field, to also be a space. However, how can someone decide if I feel a certain way about a place than it must be a “place” or a “space?” When I look at myself standing on a baseball field, I most certainly feel security, confidence, a nostalgic sense, however I also feel a sense of freedom. Not to mention, one must account for feelings to change—and at that point—a place could certainly turn into just a space. My feelings for a baseball field may change if I had to work on a baseball field, similarly Mark Twain’s feelings about the Mississippi River did in fact change while working as a steamboat pilot as written in his novel Life on the Mississippi.

Samuel Clemens, more famously known as the American author Mark Twain, and I have a few things in common and obviously a few differences. We each grew up in Missouri, although nearly 150 years apart. We each love writing, granted I would have to say Mr. Twain has me beat in that one as well. Besides age and success, Twain enjoyed nature and had a desire to work on the Mississippi River as a steamboat pilot. I—while having hardly any clue about the actual job description of a steamboat pilot and very little interest in nature or rivers—desire to work in baseball (different from when I once had dreams of playing baseball through college). Once again, dreams and feelings can change over time. Aside from baseball, my only real interest in nature had to do with the unpredictable weather in the Midwest and how soon winter could end so spring, summer and fall could bring baseball season.

Summer, Fall. Winter and Spring. Heat and humidity. Wind and rain. Slippery roads and dry colds. Showers and flowers. 30 degrees one day and 70 the next. Every region, in a calendar sense, has all 4 seasons—perhaps the Midwest and Missouri more prominently than others like Florida that never has much of a winter—but never the less we have seasons, not 12 months with days and hours. Months are measurements for homework and assignments, seasons are experiences to live, love, hate, and restart. How one starts to describe a natural year in the Midwest could tell their entire life story. Do they start with the awful humidity of summer months, or the blistering dry chills of a January winter? Which season is their natural starting point? But, how one chooses to experience a season may determine if something as simple as a baseball field or the Mississippi River is a place or a space in that individuals mind—not how Tuan defines the terms.

Born and raised in the Midwest, I always begin with the heat and humidity, the dirt and grass, the summer. I have this feeling—there’s that word again—that life’s a journey, and the best two word combination to describe such journey: love/hate. The summer months are very love/hate. Some days we love, some days we hate. Some days we wish we could just hit the restart button. But some days, some days we just live. We figure, “Well, I woke up still breathing, I guess I’ll make the most of it.” When we don’t know why exactly, but we just go through life’s motions and see what happens, and those are the days. The days we feel like we are drifting through air.

On a baseball field in the summer, that’s a season for living. The days I drift through air not worried about a purpose. When the wind softly blows and feels like heaven, the sun reflecting off the bright green grass and the dirt feels soft beneath my feet. It’s a feeling without words, a scenery that can’t help but mesmerize, a place without worry. Time stands still as I drift through the motions of life.

Those who choose to attempt at defining our emotions and feelings as one or the other, mention a person’s “place” as something of the past in many ways, something with tradition. It should give that person a nostalgic sense of emotion and warm feelings. Essentially, places invoke emotion, as opposed to a “space” which inspires freedom and openness. If that’s how people want to define place and space, a baseball field for most people would be a space, and me the same as I do see it as a place of freedom and openness from life’s stressful reality. There’s no emotional attachment, one baseball field is the same as any other, grass surrounding a pile of dirt, white chalk and people (players), half of which are more into themselves than beauty pageant wannabes. While it may not matter which field, major leagues or a little league field, and I may not have an emotional attachment, when I’m on that diamond shaped field, it is my one and only place.

By no means does a baseball field display a sense of aesthetic feeling. Rarely is a person going to say, “Wow, that ball field looks so majestic right now.” It’s not about the appearance or emotional attraction though as Hubbard, Tuan and Taylor choose to exert limits on what a place can illustrate.

There are several aspects involved in a baseball field: Are we talking about the field or the game on the field? Are we talking about an empty field with silence and no one else around, or during a game with the constant buzz of fans surrounding the field? It’s a trick question. It’s everything involved, the sound of the fans and coaches yelling about a bad play, and the silence of walking out on the field after everyone has left. The silence of walking through a park just staring and imagining the game that took place hours or days prior. Envisioning the plays, where the players are standing, the inning, the situation, the score. The field itself, it’s imagined, envisioned in the mind.

Ultimately the baseball field is always silent, and that’s what makes it more than a field or a space in my mind. When I’m on the field, makes no difference if I’m playing, the field is silent. When I’m in my place, I remain focused but calm and crowd noise can’t disturb that. I’m there with the mentality, “I woke up, I guess I’ll make the most of it.” It’s a mental game, using an equal combination of brain and brawn. It’s a place for people who may not be the strongest or have the most natural athletic ability, but may exuberate intelligence about the game of baseball to make up for their athletic disadvantage.

From personal to theoretical, a baseball field represents a time for living, drifting by without worries of a purpose and that is why I say summer first when listing the seasons. Summer brings life. Many may believe spring brings life when the sun begins to shine, chills turn to thrills, flowers begin to grow, and that yellow/brown rug in the yard that they call grass, actually looks green again. Not to mention, those damn insects and bees come back and become more and more apparent and aggravating. I feel spring however, is a time to restart. Restart the baseball season, for it was never truly dead (Offseason, hello?). In reality, the grass in your yard never disappeared the life cycle has just restarted following the cold winters. Now the insects and bees, they might disagree with the idea of “restarting” in the spring but I’ve never been much of a fan of their existence anyways. Seasons change, feelings change—things, simply change—nothings definite and thus one’s feelings for something as a space or place cannot be defined. While my personal feelings for a baseball field have not yet changed, perhaps they may if I at some point work on a baseball field and no longer see the excitement, joy and freedom that the surroundings of a baseball diamond offers. Mark Twain, nevertheless had his ambitions to become a steamboat pilot come true—and for him perhaps—his feelings of the Mississippi River as a “place” did in fact change.

In 1883 Mark Twain published a novel about his life along the Mississippi River and experiences as a steamboat pilot. Before his work on a steamboat, Twain writes how a packet would arrive upward from St. Louis via steamboat once every day. Upon the steamboat’s arrival a film of dark smoke appears above a remote point in the river, Twain states, “The scene changes! The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. . . . the people fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time” (21). Twain continues to say, 10 minutes after the steamboats departure to not come back until the next day, the town is dead again whereas before its arrival the town seems to have hope, “glorious with expectancy” (20).

Perhaps a stretch with my upcoming analogy, but the town’s expectancy of a package seems similar to a young boy’s ambitions for a dream job and their expectancy of what that job might bring. Before explaining how the town awaits the steamboat everyday, Twain explains how his comrades—in the village along the west bank of the Mississippi River around Hannibal, Missouri—and he had ambitions of becoming a steamboatman when they grew up. Not exactly the same ambitions of my generation, however he recalls their other transient ambitions that might better relate to our generation: “When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; . . . now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained” (20). After growing up, Twain had to opportunity to work on the steamboat.

In comparing his chance to work on the steamboat with the town’s glorious expectancy of the steamboat everyday and then dead emotion following its departure, we must account for the possibility of feelings to change in an instant. Before the steamboat arrives, the town is full of optimism and hope perhaps going as far as saying the people pictured the town and steamboat as a place. After it left, what did the town truly have? Hopelessness and despair for they would have to wait another day until the steamboat would arrive again. Mark Twain views the Mississippi River as beautiful and majestic, his ambitions to work on a steamboat gave him hope, excitement, wonder of what that life could be like. Following his work on the river, he gains more knowledge and understanding about the river but the optimistic emotions and feelings about the beauty of the river are lost. The knowledge he gains makes him begin to view the river as work, or a job, and no longer enjoyable. "All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!" (54), and then continues a page later, "No the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness ..." (55) That last line specifically relates to my earlier concept about the Native American’s view of land compared to land owners, and my view of a baseball field in comparison to if I had to work around a baseball field my entire life.

In Twain’s mind, the river no longer had this majestic, beautiful feeling as land has for Native Americans or as a baseball field has for me. Instead, Twain viewed the river for its “usefulness” and, in my interpretation, what the river could help him do, help him earn economically similar to how land owners view land as property and area or space they can sell.

My sole purpose of the argument with Tuan—comparing a baseball field to a river that seems absolutely obscene—no matter the time, whether 1800’s or 2000’s, the dreams of becoming a steamboatman or a ballplayer, or the place (or space), a person’s feelings can change and no one person will ever be able to set a precise definition on when or why that may happen. Twain’s love for the river may have shifted slightly in priorities at times, my love for baseball may change at some point, but for now—the dirt may become harder to slide on and the aluminum bat may sting the hands a little more—but I still love the look of a baseball diamond surrounding me, a season, or a region like the Midwest can not take that feeling from me.

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