Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Work

The distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate is 60 feet, six inches. An average major league pitcher who throws an average major league fastball, one clocked at somewhere between 87-90 miles an hour, can get the ball to the catcher in less than one second from the point of release. And that's regardless of whether you're pitching in Denver at Coors Field, where the speed with which thrown and battled balls travel slightly exceeds the speed-of-sound, or a cool, muggy night in Boston at Fenway Park, where the ball moves a bit more slowly, although still quite fast.

At least 153 times per game, a major league catcher catches the pitch, stands up, and throws the ball back to the pitcher. No one really thinks about this in an era of micro-analyzing pitch counts, but the catcher handles the ball more than any other player on the field. In Greg Maddux's prime, he might have thrown a 90 pitch complete game. Add seven warm tosses before each inning. At that point the pitcher and catcher are tied for most throws in the game. But the catcher makes one more throw per inning -- the traditional throw down to second base after the pitcher has thrown his last warm-up pitch. A catcher who endures a 150-65 pitch slug fest mostly likely has caught three to four different pitchers, so the number of throws the catcher makes during a game like that night is far more than anyone else. Now throw in the repetitive squatting through out the game, the occasional jog to the pitcher's mound to confer with the pitcher, running down the foul-line on ground balls hit with no one on to back up the throw . . . add 90 degree days with humidity to match (particularly if you play for a team on the Eastern Seaboard or the interior Midwest or the Southeast) and you're talking about someone who deserves to put his feet up at the end of the day or blow-off making dinner in favor of ordering out.

You know who else works really, really hard? Pre-school teachers and roofers, especially in the summertime. Men and, occasionally, the women who work in rock quarries have one tough job. I spent sometime at a rock quarry this summer, about the equivalent of two full days, loading and hauling small gravel into the pick-up truck I borrowed from a friend, and then drove back to my house, where I dumped it into a corner of my yard. From there, a friend of mine who I hadn't seen in 20 years and I took wheelbarrow loads at a time to another area of my yard that he -- who, naturally, is not Jewish -- insisted we needed to regrade. We did this about 15 times over the span of two days. About a week or so later, I made about two or three more trips to the quarry, this time with my son, who, after the first trip, told me he now "understood" why we "harrass" him so much about school.

"I don't want to end up doing this," he said, pointing to the men -- there were no women -- who spent eight or nine hours a day working in rock quarries. "It's too hard."

"You're pretty perceptive," I said. "Imagine how much more perceptive you would be if you finished at the top of your class, instead of . . ."

"I GET IT, I GET IT, I GET IT!" he said, sounding not unlike Tony Soprano towards the end of Season Six, Part 2, after he stood up, powered by peyote, and yelled from a mountain overlooking somewhere in the Southern California Valley, "I GET IT, I GET IT, I GET IT!"

I've watched the episode many, many times, and I still don't know what it was that Tony "got," since he never really came to grips with his life and the consequences it had on the people around him. But I know what it was that my son "got": he didn't want to have to grow up and work that hard. And I know why I "got" what my son "got": At his age, I didn't want to work that hard either.

And I still don't.

* * * * * * * * * *

To the extent I have ever been good at anything in my life, it hasn't been work. I like to talk -- never let it be said that I don't reveal my inner-most secrets -- and I am pretty good, I think, at communicating my ideas to other people or engaging them in conversation. Since the first time that Ms. Fountain, in the 1st grade, read one of my "stories" out loud in class, I have always enjoyed writing. It didn't hurt that Teri Merlin, who I spent the better part of my elementary school years trying to impress when I wasn't staring at her, kissed me on the ear after that class. Teri pulled me aside in the back of the classroom, near the sink where we washed our hands after our art projects -- yes, I went to school so long ago that we were permitted to learn about and actually do art, physical education, music and so on -- and told me she had a secret to tell me. Then she leaned in and kissed my ear. Wow!

"Wow!" is right, because that was about it for me with the ladies until about 6th grade, when the bottle spun on me at "Spin-the-Bottle" parties, yielding a, "Do I have to?" from the girl unlucky enough to have spun the bottle -- on me. From that point on . . . oh, hell, do I really want to go into this and risk wasting the thousands of dollars I've spent trying to come to grips with who I am?

No.

* * * * * * * * * *

Having no real interest in work isn't the same thing as being lazy. I have always been willing to put the time into something I want to do, and, hopefully, do well. If not well, then good enough not to embarrass myself. I had no illusions from the 3rd grade forward, when I was first introduced to the "new math," that I had a future in anything requiring any sort of mathematical skill. Ditto for the hard sciences. Unless misusing Bunsen burners to light cheerleader's uniforms on fire or making stink bombs with sulfur was considered outstanding work in the public school curriculum -- and, based on my report cards, it wasn't -- I had to think about something else. I never thought about doing something solely because I could make a lot money -- no one enters this profession for that reason. Growing up, we always had what we needed and many things that we wanted, and I knew plenty of people who didn't have either, so my aspirations were fairly modest when it came time for me to think about earning my place in the world. My parents never judged anybody based on how much money they made or how they made it, provided it was fairly legal. An asshole was an asshole, and a nice person was a nice person. The whole point was to do the best you could with what you had. Where it took you was less important than how you got there.

I certainly have put a great deal of time into my academic career. I've written four books, co-edited two others and have another one in progress. I've written all sorts of short pieces, some formal and "professional," others for more general audiences and still others for people somewhere in between. I put a great deal of time into my teaching over the years, developing five different courses since coming to American University 20 years ago, and continually trying to come up with new ways to teach the material I find so interesting. This semester, I am teaching two courses I don't normally teach, one a new topics course and the other a introductory political theory course I teach about once every five years. Some of my colleagues think I'm crazy for taking on new courses. Frankly, that's a position I don't understand. Teaching is the most important thing college professors do. Wanting to do more of it and change it up now and then is pure oxygen. In fairness, teaching is so de-valued now that many professors take the attitude that it's something necessary to do so that we can do our research, which is more valued for purposes of promotion, retention and "professional reputation" than rigorous undergraduate instruction. After twenty years of teaching at the college level, I've found that most academics are looking for some research accomplishment -- a book, some professional articles, service as the treasurer in a professional association -- as their claim to fame rather than just the satisfaction of teaching and, occasionally, one hopes, inspiring someone really smart to use their talents the right way. I suppose that explains why I am considered a "below average" scholar by my university -- because I'm not pumping out a book every year or two or contributing "research" articles to journals that almost no one reads. In academia, it's not what you say; it's how often you say it.

And yet I don't feel that anything I've done is work in the sense that driving a forklift in a rock quarry, repairing roads in the dead of summer, working construction in 10 degree weather or processing insurance claims is work. For those of us lucky enough to get good academic jobs -- and for all my criticism of how universities work and the distorted priorities in higher education, I am well aware of how fortunate I am -- we are lucky to go to "work," that is, an office where the environment is civilized, where no one is watching over our shoulder, where we have substantial intellectual control over what we teach and write about, where the "crises" we confront are magnified to a degree inverse to their actual significance, where we don't have to punch a clock or negotiate for time-off to take our children to the doctor. I think a good many academics try to embellish just how hard they "work" to fit into our workaholic culture. But we shouldn't confuse time devoted to our craft with the time it takes for someone, far less lucky than, us to wake up early every single day, rush to get the kids ready, stand at a bus stop to begin an hour and a half commute, spend eight hours, minimum, doing something you can't wait to finish, taking 30 minutes to shovel down some lunch (off the clock) then waiting for the bus, taking an hour and half to get home, throw something together for dinner, get your kids cleaned up and put to bed, only to collapse and do it all over again day after day for 40 years. That's work. That's what my son understood this summer and what I learned many years ago.

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