Religious Issues

Thanksgiving is at its core a religious holiday. Since I grew up in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, it is also a deeply held tradition in my family, even for family members whose beliefs differ greatly from my own. This has led me to ruminate heavily on the nature of religious differences in general, and Massachusetts religion in particular.
pilgrim-soxComputer geeks have a somewhat different perspective on “religion” than other people, I suspect.  For me, a topic is “religious” if involves a deeply held belief on which rational, well-meaning people may disagree.  This doesn’t imply that everyone is “correct” in their beliefs (which would be a logical contradiction), but instead a difference of emotional responses cause us to disagree.

Consider, for example, the choice of a UNIX line editor.  I use vi (actually vim, since I’m on Linux most of the time these days).  Many people, especially those who went to MIT, favor Emacs or one of its many variants.  I could give any number of reasons why I fell vi is the better choice:

  • Emacs has an embedded LISP interpreter in it.  I despise LISP.
  • Emacs is big, and uses more resources than vi.  I like my software lean.
  • Emacs tries to do everything, but vi is an editor and nothing more.  I prefer single-purpose apps.
  • Older Unix systems had vi built-in, so I didn’t have to load additional programs before I could use it.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I learned vi in an age when Sun and IBM were still battling over where to put the Control key on their keyboards, but the Escape key was reliably located in the top-left corner on all computer systems.[1] Working in Emacs was uncomfortable to me, so I never got past the fundamentals (and have forgotten most of those).  I have friends who are dedicated emacs users, and I think they’re wrong, but I don’t tell them they can’t use it.

As a resident of upstate New York, I also list “major league baseball” as a religious issues.  I have many friends who are Yankee fans.  Unlike far too many fans in Boston or New York City proper, none of us has verbally (or physically) abused a member of the other fandom.   Regarding all things Sox and Yankees, I hold the same line as I do for the captain himself, Derek Jeter.

Jeter will someday join the Hall of Fame, and deservedly so, but not for his prowess at shortstop.  His many Golden Glove awards are a function of his presence in the biggest media market in the world, and the affection millions of New York fans hold for him.  If you call Jeter a great defensive ballplayer, I will say that you are wrong.  I will also uphold your right to hold that opinion, if you think that “good hands” is more important than “gets to the ball”.

The vast majority of the Turner clan are Unitarian, and do not believe that Jesus Christ is God.  This has caused some conflict at Thanksgiving dinners past, when I chose to pray the way I do, in Jesus’ name. My earthly father, though himself a Unitarian, supports my right to pray the way I do, because it’s what I believe.  He understands that I can state my case, and he can his, and neither one of us can browbeat the other to conform.

He understands that it’s a religious issue.

[1] Digital Equipment Corp didn’t put an Escape key on their VT terminals, but there was a configuration setting that allowed you to make the backquote key transmit that character.  Since I touch type, that was sufficient.


Into the Wind

From a scientific pespective, sailing is one of the most peculiar modes of transportation ever invented. Powered entirely by the wind, a sailing ship is able to move in a direction contrary to the one in which that very wind is headed. It derives from a balance of forces, some of which you can’t even see.[1]Sloop Reliance on a close reach
Consider the case where a captain wishes to take his ship to a harbor in the west, but the wind is blowing towards the east.[2]  If he were facing directly into the wind, it would blow him backwards, away from his goal. By facing to the southwest, however, he places his sail at a diagonal to the wind. The wind pressing on this sail tries to push it east, but is opposed by the keel underneath, pressing on the water through which it flows. The only way that ship can move is in the direction it is facing, and so it does.

After a while, however, you find that the ship is headed south of the target, and your southwest progress isn’t getting you any closer to the goal. At this point (or sooner, if you run out of open water), the captain turns to the northwest.  Each stretch of diagonal sailing is called a “tack”.  No single tack can carry the ship to its intended goal, but taken in sum, she will eventually reach port.

The same principle is true in a well-drafted scene. As an author, we want to bring our protagonist from point A to point B. The antagonist opposes this goal, and introduces conflict. Through the twists and turns of your plot, you tack, carrying the reader ever closer to the end of the tale. And the ever-changing view is what makes your story interesting.

This may, in fact, be the one time when it’s a good idea for your story to be tacky.

[1]Photograph of Sloop Reliance from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID det.4a15401 via Wikimedia Commons.
[2]This is a bit of an oversimplification.  Depending on the wind, nearby coastal obstructions, and the need for speed, the captain may choose anywhere from a close hauled point of sail (as close as you can go to facing into the wind without stalling out) and a beam reach (which gains you no progress upwind, but may give you lateral room for another tack), but in general one will select a close reach, which is somewhere in between. As a metaphor, however, I find it sufficient.

A Curse Re-Moved

Josh was a curse to every sports team he had ever liked. Not that he was much of a sports fan. At first, he was the exact opposite. They never would have known he was a curse if he hadn’t been such a geek for math and science.

The first hint of his curse came when Josh was eleven, and his father signed him up for little league. He was assigned to the Tigers. They gave him a shirt and hat with the team logo on it. Mr. Bryant, their coach, called the team together before their first game.

“Boys,” he said, “we’re here to learn baseball and to have a good time. We want everyone to learn and have a good time, so everybody plays on this team.”

Josh had a strong arm, so Mr. Bryant let him play third base. In the first inning, a ball bounced off his glove towards the mound. Nick Wilson, who was pitching, stepped on it and twisted his ankle. He couldn’t play again for three weeks. The Tigers lost, 4-3.Fenway Park At-Bat

“Winning would have been more fun,” said Mr. Bryant’s son, Tommy.

“You can learn a lot from losing, too,” said Mr. Bryant.

The day before their second game, Mr. Bryant worked on batting with them.

“You’re all good batters,” he said. “Let’s see if we can have everyone get a hit tomorrow night.”

In that game, the Tigers were shut out. Josh got on base when he was hit by a pitch, but the batter behind him hit into a double play. They lost, 7-0.

“Even the best hitters get out most of the time,” said Mr. Bryant.

Before the third game, Mr. Bryant said, “Every one of you get out there and do your best.”

Vinnie Cepeda and Tommy Bryant were both doing their best when they ran into each other while chasing down a fly ball. Tommy broke his glasses, and the batter got an inside-the-park home run. The Tigers lost, 4-1.

On the day of their fourth game, the sky was dark with clouds.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” said Mr. Bryant.

It didn’t rain. In the bottom of the first inning, the Tigers scored three runs, taking a two-run lead. All the boys were excited, and then it started to hail. The hailstones were big, and they dented the cars in the parking lot. Josh was batting at the time, and a hailstone cracked his batting helmet.  They called off the game.

“I hope they can get the dents out of my car,” said Mr. Bryant.

The rest of the season was just as bad. Every boy on the team had talent, and everyone played hard, but they just couldn’t seem to win. Sometimes the wind would change direction just when an outfielder was trying to track a fly ball, and he would miss it. Routine ground balls would take a funny hop and skip through a player’s legs. Star second baseman Ted Archer threw past the outstretched glove of the first baseman, twice, in a single inning. It was unreal.

The curse wasn’t limited to his own team, either. When Josh was there, opposing-team batters who didn’t have a hit all season would suddenly go 3-for-4 with two doubles, and their fielders would make spectacular diving catches all over the park. Once, with the bases loaded and no one out, the Padres’ shortstop turned a sure-thing base hit into an unassisted triple play. The Tigers lost that game, 5-4.

The next year, Josh proved that he didn’t need to be playing the game to curse a team he loved. Five lost games into the season, Josh sprained his ankle in a skateboarding accident, and had to stay home. The Tigers won their next three games. The streak ended when Josh came to watch from the stands. Ace pitcher Jimmy Cronin took a line drive in the shoulder in that game, and was done for the season. The Tigers lost, naturally. When the season ended, Josh quit playing baseball.  He decided to watch sports, instead.

The next fall, his big brother Jeremy moved up to the varsity football squad. Josh was excited to see his brother play for the Wildcats, who had won the state championship the year before. With Josh in the stands, though, they lost nine games that year. Their one victory was in November, when Josh had a bad case of strep throat and had to stay home. Jeremy caught two touchdowns in that game. He came home and told his little brother about it.

“Why can’t you play like that when I’m there to see it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Jeremy replied. “Maybe you’re cursed.”

Jeremy had only meant it as a joke, but it set Josh to thinking. He decided to test it with an experiment.
Always more of a reader than an athlete, Josh surprised everyone in the family by becoming a sports fan. Lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, even golf – Josh would watch them all. Wherever he went, the person or team he was cheering for would lose. Josh kept careful notes of every game in a notebook he carried with him.

Jeremy, who didn’t really believe that his brother was cursed, was helped by his brother’s busy schedule. Playing with just his parents in the stands, he became a star. Three years later, he earned a football scholarship and went to Springfield College to study sports medicine.

Josh, for his own part, had learned a lot from his experiments. For one thing, he learned that his curse didn’t work over television. If he watched the game from home, sometimes the team he cheered for would win, and sometimes not. If he was there in person, though, they lost every time.

He also learned that it really was the team he cheered for, not the team he came to see. One year, he started attending football games for their rival, Brockton High, just to cheer for the team they were playing against that week. Brockton went undefeated that season. Things didn’t change much at college, either. His favorite teams changed, but they kept on losing. And then, in 2008, it happened.

Jeremy, who was working that year as an assistant trainer for the New England Patriots, managed to buy two tickets to the Super Bowl, and gave them to his father. Josh didn’t think it was a good idea, but hey, it was the Super Bowl, and the Patriots were undefeated. They flew out to Phoenix, prepared to see history being made.

Well, you know what happened. Patriots’ cornerback Asante Samuel missed an interception that would have won the game. Giants’ wide receiver David Tyree made that spectacular catch off his helmet to keep going after fourth and long, and then Plaxico Burress caught the winning touchdown pass. They sure saw history, just not the history they had expected.

Later that year, Josh came over to his brother’s apartment to apologize. His sister, Jennifer, was there, too.

“I’m sorry I made the Patriot’s lose,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” asked Jeremy.

“I’m cursed, just like you said I was.”

“You told him he was cursed?” asked Jennifer.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jeremy. “There’s no such thing as a curse, and if there was, it wouldn’t be Josh.”

“I can prove it,” said Josh, and he pulled out his little notebook. He had been to more than 200 different games, every one a loss for the team he supported. Nobody could argue with evidence like that.

“That’s bad,” said Jeremy.

“Maybe you should stop watching sports,” said Jennifer.

“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” asked Josh. “Once I convinced myself that there really was a curse, I wanted to stop, but life is just so boring if I can’t go to a game now and then.”

“Can’t you watch from home?” she asked.

“It’s just not the same.”

Jeremy had to agree with his brother about that, but he wanted to know how bad it really was.

“Josh, you remember what happened to the Red Sox last summer?”

“How can I forget it?” he replied. “We had more players on the disabled list than most teams had players.”

“Did you go to any of those games?”

“Only about twenty, why?”

Jeremy groaned. If he didn’t do something, they wouldn’t see another sports championship, ever.

“Little brother,” he said, “we need to move you to a different city.”

“Do you think I can find a job somewhere else?”

“With your math skills, no problem,” said Jennifer.

“The big question,” said Jeremy, “is which team is going to get cursed. Do you have a favorite sport these days?”

“I like them all, but baseball is really my favorite.”

“How about moving to New York?” said Jennifer. “Maybe you could become a Mets’ fan.”

“After what they did to us in the ’86 World Series, I guess they deserve it,” said Jeremy.

“It’s too risky,” said Josh.

“What do you mean?”

“I might be tempted to go to a Yankees’ game.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“The team I cheer for always loses.”

Jennifer opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again. Curse or no curse, there was no way she would ever ask her brother to become a Yankees’ fan.

“Then it’s agreed,” said Jeremy. “Josh can’t move to New York. But I think you had a good idea, Jenny. We need to send Josh some place that has a National League team, so he won’t be as tempted to cheer for the Sox.”

“We also need to find a home team that he’d be willing to cheer for,” Jennifer added. “Do you really like baseball best, even after all those tragic games in little league?”

“Definitely,” said Josh. “It’s the math. You know, batting averages, ERA, all that stuff. Still, if I’m going to move, I want to cheer for a quality team, one with history.”

Jeremy’s eyes went wide. “I have just the place for you,” he said.

Two weeks later, Jeremy and Jennifer moved their brother to Chicago. He got a job doing math for one of the big insurance companies, and he really likes it. To top it off, Chicago is heaven for anyone who loves sports.

Sometimes, Josh goes to see the Bulls, or the Bears, or even the Blackhawks. He loves them all, and baseball more than any of them. Every year, Jeremy and Jennifer get together to buy him a block of baseball tickets for his birthday – eight different home games in July and August. They even fly out to join him when they can.

Wrigley field is still the most beautiful field in baseball, and the fans there are some of the best in sports. Josh has such a great time, he doesn’t even seem to mind that the Cubs lose every game he goes to see.

Maybe that’s why none of the other fans have noticed, either.