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  • Linguistic Variation and Change (Edinburgh Sociolinguistics)
    Linguistic Variation and Change (Edinburgh Sociolinguistics)
    by Scott F. Kiesling
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Let's have a catch

One of things that really gets to me about the world is the idea that there is a simple cause for big, complex problems. Journalists really like to do this, and of course politicians, but then again so do researchers in lots of fields including mine. Usually this manifests when someone claims that there is one big theme driving events (the end of men, for example, a recent meme that is especially annoying) or that there is one thing we can do that will magically make our society perfect (this happens on both right and left, for example, just cut taxes or just have single payer health care).

In short, I find myself saying (usually to myself), several times a day: "It's not that simple!" OK, so focusing on one thing is a good idea sometimes, but I think most people move quickly from just thinking about this simplicity for argument's sake to thinking that pulling one tiny thread will undo a Gordian knot of hawsers.

Although there are single-cause tendencies in linguistics and sociolinguistics, for the most part linguists realize language is amazingly complex and their specialty is only a little part of what is involved in human language. Maybe that's one reason I like the field. I'll get to some of that in later posts I hope. But I want to start with something a little closer to home: "Having a catch" or "playing catch."

This is the process whereby I throw a ball to you, and you throw it back. Repeat. A lot. Pretty simple, huh? Even dogs (and some cats) can do it, although then it's usually called fetch. Some of you may even think it sounds boring. But you know what, the times that I have gone out to the field with my son are some of the happiest, most contented moments of my life. It's that observation that got me thinking about this topic and even the theme of this journal. How could something so simple produce such contentment? Well, of course, it's not really that simple.

First, let's talk about the mechanics involved. Throwing a ball, even a round one (as opposed to an American football), and even without catching it with a baseball glove, is really a pretty amazing skill. These MIT guys built a robot arm to do it, and it wasn't easy (even for these really smart engineers):

So the mechanics of just throwing and catching a ball with your hand is not easy. But then you can add other problems, like throwing a footbal so that it is a spiral. And we don't even throw with just our arms (just watch a baseball pitcher for an good example of using your body, and I can't resist adding the throwing in this double play). Catching is pretty amazing too, especially when you do it with a baseball glove, like these high schoolers:

So one reason that throwing the ball back and forth is fun is that it's not really that easy -- when you do it, you actually feel like you accomplished something. If you play catch with a baseball, every time you catch the ball you get this very satisfying thunk in your glove, too. It's like a little tiny reward. You have to pay attention, though (keep you eye on the ball!). I think your brain gets a little dopamine shot with every successful throw or catch. This makes it surprisingly hard to stop playing catch. It even sounds like an addiction sometimes: "Really, we will stop after five more throws!" sounds a lot like "I'll stop after I finish this pack!" You also get this sense of "flow," which some people argue makes us happy. Of course, we tend not to go throw the baseball when it's bad weather, so that helps.

So going out and throwing the ball to each other back and forth isn't so boring. (On the other hand, watching people play catch is really boring. If you don't think so, you can test it.)

OK, father and son playing catch on a nice summer day. Likely this will bring to mind, for many Americans of my generation at least, the film Field of Dreams. It's a weird movie really but at the heart of it is playing catch. Playing catch structures much of the narrative, which is about redemption and rebellion. During the movie the protagonist Ray Kinsella (the guy building the baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield) says:

By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was 14, I started to refuse. Could you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.

Then a bunch of stuff happens, and at the end he meets his father (in a younger form) on his field. And then...well, see for yourself:

This scene chokes a lot of people up. Including me. As much as I fight it with my rational brain, the music and the scene gets me. I can imagine for lots (most?) people, this will all seem very very silly. It even really pisses some people off. But I think most people get it. Those of us who get it the most, of course, are those of us who played catch with our dads when we were kids. There it is -- playing catch is not just an activity, it is something American fathers do with there sons (more about gender in a moment). It is, as we say in the trade, a cultural practice. It's as if (in Field of Dreams fashion) every time I catch the ball from Charlie (my son), the thwack of the glove reverberates back to my dad, and his Dad (and maybe further but baseball only really goes a few generations back, and I think my great grandfather might have been German). I can remember the places in the backyard of the house I grew up in where I would throw the ball with my Dad, who died in 2000. I can see the yard, feel the glove, hear the little sound my Dad would make when he had to stretch to get a not-so-good throw, and the way he would swing his glove hand around when he snagged the bad throw as if to say "Ha! I got it anyway!". And when I put the glove on to go out to play catch with Charlie, all that comes back, in every throw. Maybe that will help you skeptics understand why an otherwise stoic grown man cries at one of the most over-the-top sappy scenes in film, when other sappy scenes in film make him want to vomit. These guys seems to agree.

Playing catch is also something that requires two people to work intensely together. You have to pay attention (especially if you like to switch up the throws). In another descent into jargon, it is a joint activity that requires an intense negotiation of intersubjectivity. In short, father and son must focus on each other, and work together. In lots of cases, it's also something the father teaches the son (catching a baseball with a glove takes some getting used to). But it gets mastered pretty easily, and then there you are, working together as equals. Every throw reminds you of the mastery you have gained (as the son) or taught (as the Father).

There's more, because it's baseball. Baseball is an (the?) iconic American sport, even if more people watch football. It is used as a metanym to symbolize America ("as American as baseball and apple pie", or as used in this Chevy commercial, the jingle to which I will never forget, despite last hearing it like 30 years ago, and which many American readers will now be singing to themselves). I don't know how it got this status, especially since Americans aren't always known for liking slow-moving cerebral pasttimes. I think it has to do with the way the tension builds up and then gets released in fast bursts, giving the game a nice rhythm. And in those slow parts in between you can have a conversation, so the ballpark is a great place to go and hang out with friends, especially on a beautiful day in summer. Whatever the reason, when you go play catch in the US, you practice being American.

American men anyway. Playing catch is a father and son thing. So we're practicing being men, and learning how. I'm only exaggerating a little when I say it's a universal American father and son practice, and I think it has a lot to do with American masculinity, something I've read and written a little about. Chris Bellamy has a Father's Day essay that says it well. Men often like to do things while they talk, or even do things together that don't require talking. Playing catch is perfect. You usually don't stand so far away from each other that you can't talk (if you do, you are probably a major league outfielder), especially when one of you is a nine-year-old boy. So you can have a conversation that doesn't count as one, so it's pretty low risk. And if instruction is involved, you solidify your roles as father and son, with the father as the authoritative, knowledgeable one and the son a willing learner (and praise is almost self-made -- there's that thunk every time someone makes a catch).

I'm sure there's more (like the physics of the ball, and the place you play). But I imagine the point is made. Playing catch is about physics, mechanics, flow, America, masculinity, and mostly the relationship between me and Dad, or me and Charlie. It's not simple at all.