Golf's Spatial and Spiritual Dimensions

Athletes often feel a connection with the ball, but in golf the connection reaches such heights that it amounts to a mystical union. This is presumably what novelist John Updike had in mind when he wrote, “To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, contemplated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small” (Golf Dreams, 1997, p. 147).

Mystical union, vastness, the soul—there's a lot going on here, so it's worth expanding on Updike's tantalizing remarks.
Flickr Andreas Krappweis

The Set-Up

The union with the ball begins with the set-up stance, in which the golfer stares down at the ball, head bowed, as if in prayer. Few other sports require such single-minded focus on a stationary ball. In sports like baseball, basketball, and football, the ball moves too fast for anyone to get a lock on it; in golf, every play begins with a mini-meditation on the ball.

 Flickr Rennett Stowe 

Watching the Shot

In the switch from the stationary set-up position to the swing and then the ball’s soaring flight, the golfer undergoes a sudden, radical shift in perspective—from head bowed to head raised, from a focus on earth to sky, low to high, abjection to transcendence. Having started off like a prayerful hunchback, the golfer soars like a bird.                         
Flickr Russ Glasson

Flickr North Central College Long Shot

I say "the golfer soars like a bird" because the golfer is now intimately connected with the ball, as if it were his or her spirit double. The ball traveling through the air mimics the golfer's mind and body so precisely that its flight path reveals microscopic, hidden tics in the swing that even the golfer often can't consciously recognize. Once golfers see the ball going astray, they often apply "body English," contorting their bodies up and down, to the right, left, and sideways, as if the ball, sensing the golfer's desperate movements behind them, will feel obliged to change course, to please its human twin. Even golfers who suppress these spontaneous movements often still talk to their ball, whispering, begging, yelling, and otherwise imploring in such sincere tones that they almost seem to genuinely believe the ball can hear them. Whether mystical or maddening, it's hard to deny the felt union between ball and player.

A pro putting body English on a hook shot (
Even President Obama needs body English sometimes (Flickr Madu Babu Pandi)

Of course, you sometimes see body English applied in other sports as well, and that's for good reason: the same magical principle of "like produces like" appears around the world and throughout human history. This is what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic,” a long-standing, common type of magic found in everything from a love potion made with red flowers to induce a red heart, to bowlers who spontaneously jump to the left or right when they see their ball heading for the gutter. By slowing down the game and putting the focus on the ball's flight path, golf makes such sympathetic magic a central part of the sport's experience.

Searching for the Ball

Once the ball lands, the player assumes yet a different relationship with it. The ball is now a tiny white dot in the distance, whether nestled far off in the grass, or, worse, out of sight in the woods, water, or sand. Searching for the ball forces more mindful concentration on it and the natural surroundings. Moreover, the player again experiences what Updike calls the intoxicating relativity of golf, i.e., the constant changes in scale and spatial relations as the golfer and his or her ball move through the game. Updike writes, “As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity—huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of other players.”

FlickR Erik Anestad
Although Updike is referring here to the tininess of the golfer’s body in relation to the course, his point also applies to the golfer’s spirit double, the ball itself, which is even tinier in relation to the course terrain, hence Updike's initial point about the 8-iron shot over the maple trees that joins “one’s soul with the vastness…that makes one feel small." In other words, the ball induces a sense of the golfer's place in nature and the universe—connected yet humbled, as in certain religious experiences.

If talk of the universe and religion still sounds like romantic hyperbole, remember that sheer scale can fundamentally change a person's emotional experience, as anyone can attest who has ever felt awe and wonder at the grand sweep of the ocean, mountains, or stars, a beautiful cathedral or large-canvass painting. Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf, seemed to be getting at the same point when he said, "we also experience what we see, so perhaps our mind is as big as our field of vision. What if I asked you to imagine the farthest star in the galaxy? Now how big is your mind?" (2002, p. 15).

Let's put it this way: Moby-Dick wouldn't be the same if it were about a goldfish instead of a white whale, and golf wouldn't be the same without its little white ball and vast landscapes, its spatial contrasts and mind-ball connections.

Spaghetti, Syrup, and Escalators: Interpreting Culture Shock in "Elf"

The movie Elf wouldn't be so funny if it didn't contain a surprising element of truth. I mean, pouring maple syrup on spaghetti is funny, but is it really that crazy? Americans eat waffles and syrup, sweet and sour pork, and other combinations of sweetness and carbohydrates, so why not syrup and spaghetti?
 OK, I admit it's still gross to imagine putting syrup on spaghetti, so perhaps a better example of the power of social convention—and its relative arbitrariness—is the lesson Buddy (Will Ferrell) gets from his human brother about proper dating etiquette. The brother tells Buddy that he should take his female co-worker on a date by asking her "to eat food," but it has to be "real food, not candy." The movie is again making a joke by pointing out that a custom Americans take for granted seems arbitrary and strange from a kid or elf's perspective—yet that kid/elf perspective contains a kernel of truth, a wisp of plausibility. After all, attraction to sweet tastes is one of the biological universals we humans (raised by humans) share, and Americans consume nothing but candy on other special occasions, such as Valentine's Day. It would actually make sense for Americans to go on dates and just eat sweets.

But there's an even better authority here than mere biological science: Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. In the Harvard bar scene in this movie, after Skylar (Minnie Driver) gives Will (Damon) her phone number, she says, "Maybe we could go out for a cup of coffee sometime?"

"Great," Will says, "Or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels."Skylar is baffled, so Will explains, "When you think about it, it's just as arbitrary as drinking coffee."

Will is making a reasonable anthropological point about American culture's skewed rules for the ritual consumption of food and drink (a point that would apply to other cultures as well).

I'm not trying to convince readers to run out and eat caramels or put syrup on their spaghetti, I'm just saying that Elf exposes the social construction of taken-for-granted American customs, from food habits to escalators. Buddy reminds us that an escalator really is a scary machine with gnashing metal teeth, a modern contraption that is literally and metaphorically "earth-shattering." His escalator ride  creates a perfect body metaphor for the disorientation caused by culture shock throughout this entire movie.


That’s what culture shock does at its best: it moves the ground beneath our feet, it gives us a fresh way to see things, including escalators and advertisements about “world’s best cup of coffee.”

At least that’s the way I see it, and not just because, as an anthropologist, I've dedicated my career to culture shock. The popularity of movies like Elf shows that people all over enjoy culture shock for the sheer joy of surprise and illumination. Even neuroscience research proves comedy and cognition are linked: on fMRI tests, the same parts of research subjects’ brains light up when they solve word puzzles and when they watch videos of stand-up comedy. In the best cases, such as Elf, we're laughing, thinking, and being entertained at the same time.

Now here’s a more personal take on culture and escalators. About 7 years ago, I was flying out of Newark Airport, not far from New York City, where Buddy the Elf had his adventures. I always love airports—the intersection of cultures, the people on the cusp of changes large and small, the liminal betwixt-and-between atmosphere—but the Newark Airport is fairly large and impersonal, and on this particular morning, it was filled with long lines and grumpy people. I overheard one passenger say to a counter attendant, "How friggin' rude."  I myself was low on sleep and rushing to catch a flight back to Oregon, so I tried to keep my head down and not interact with anyone.
Newark Airport, Manhattan in background. Credit Ramriot, Flckr.
When I got to the foot of an escalator, though, a South Asian woman in a sari tapped me on the shoulder, so I stopped. She couldn’t speak English, but she smiled broadly and then started to guide the hand of her small son, about 4 years old, toward me. A couple confusing possibilities raced through my mind. Was this a trick to get money by exploiting my sympathy for a mother and her little kid, who was, in fact, adorable? Did she lose something inside the escalator? Did she not know how to find her gate?

She just kept smiling, offering me the little boy’s hand, and speaking in an incomprehensible foreign language. Then I figured out the problem. She literally had too much to handle: two little boys (her other son was even younger) and a large suitcase. She couldn’t hold onto her two sons' hands and the suitcase while riding the escalator. She was forced to do what no mother should ever have to do: ask a stranger to take her little boy's hand in a crowded public place. Such vulnerability!

Of course I agreed, and when the boy put his small hand in mine, the harsh atmosphere melted away and I felt it—a pure human connection.

Riding up the escalator, the little boy held my hand and looked back and forth between me, the moving stairs, and his mother, who was right behind him whispering words of assurance. Near the top, as the stairs disappeared into thin air, he showed no signs of stepping off, so I picked him up high in the air and set him back down on solid ground, as if this were a fun game. Undoubtedly, when the boy got a couple years older, he'd easily master the escalator and treat it like a joyride, but for now he just seemed confused. I wanted to make sure they made it to their gate safely, wishing I could find out all about them and their travels, but the mother just mumbled a thank you, took her boy’s hand, and sped off in the opposite direction. I never saw that family again, but I've thought about them many times.

In every part of the world where I’ve travelled and lived, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, I’ve been overwhelmed by people's generosity and hospitality. I’ve also been reduced to a child-like state of helplessness, sometimes unable to speak the language and often perplexed by unfamiliar customs. I’ve surely looked sillier than Buddy straddling the escalator stairs or putting syrup on his spaghetti. But I keep going back for the thrill of more culture.

Maybe Christmas should be filled with more experiences like my escalator ride with that little boy, if not Buddy’s doing a split eagle: surprising little moments that move the ground beneath our feet.

In the meantime, I’m glad we’ve got movies like Elf to renew our sense of awe and transcendence.

Related materials:
Peter Wogan, “What’s So Funny about First Contact?” Visual Anthropology Review 22:14-33, 2006. (In this journal article, I analyze a documentary about first contact in the 1930s between Australian goldminers and aboriginal peoples in Papua New Guinea. I analyze Westerners’ fascination with technology as a ritual of supremacy, but also as a source of “wonder,” and I place the discussion within the Obeyesekere-Sahlins debate over rationality.)

The Terminal (Great comedy movie about a Russian passenger (Tom Hanks) who lives in JFK Airport for weeks.)

Occupy North Pole Video (Makes sense.)

What would George Carlin say about Basketball vs. Baseball?

Here's what comedian George Carlin might have said...

                                BASEBALL vs. BASKETBALL

The baseball uniform looks like a formal outfit, something you wear to church. 
The basketball uniform looks like a bathing suit, something you wear to the pool.

Baseball looks like a battlefield, with a few soldiers trying to pass through enemy territory. 
Basketball looks like a dance floor, with couples trying to decide who they should dance with next.

Baseball is played on green grass.
Basketball is played on a beige hardwood floor.

In short, baseball comes out of 19th-century pastoral America. Basketball comes out of 20th-century office culture: fast-paced, lots of teamwork and immediate, visible rewards, all played out under florescent lights and clean indoor spaces.


P.S. More Carlin-Inspired Stuff
Carlin Wrong about Baseball:
I actually don't buy Carlin's depiction of baseball as wimpy. Baseball's central drama of pitcher-and-batter is just as war-like as football; it's just a different kind of warfare. As former Commissioner Giamatti once said, baseball consists of a man standing on a hill throwing a rock at a man below him holding a club.

Lately I'm even thinking that baseball might have gained popularity in the late 1800s due to its emotional resonance with both the pistol duels and line warfare of the American Civil War. Like a batter standing there while someone throws a hard object at him at 90mph, the central challenge of duels and the Civil War was to have the courage to stand there while someone shot at you from close range. All these things have the same combat structure and sense of honor.

Regardless of historical origins, baseball clearly has violence at its core, but the violence has been ritualized and made into artlike a movie fight scene with gentle, ethereal music in the background that makes you feel something beautiful is transpiring, despite the violence. And one that ends with someone saying, as Carlin did, "I just want to go home! I hope I'll be safe at home!"

Related posts:

What Do the "Jaws" Movie and WWII Have in Common?

Or put differently, what does the Jaws shark symbolize?

This question is worth asking because Jaws taps into troubling questions about stereotypes, war, and intercultural understanding.

The obvious place to start is the scene where Quint, the fisherman, describes the shark attacks that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine.

Quint says, "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin' back from the island of Tinian Delady. Just delivered the bombthe Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."

For anyone who knows WWII history, it's obvious that Quint' is referring to real events, the actual sinking of the Indianapolis after it delivered the atomic bomb. It's less obvious that Quint is creating an unconscious equation between sharks and Japanese soldiers. What Quint says about a shark"he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ‘ya, doesn't seem to be livin'"he could just as well have been describing the WWII American stereotype of the "inscrutable" Japanese soldier with lifeless eyes. Furthermore, through such stereotypes, both the shark and the Japanese soldier were made out to be an enemy that suddenly attacks the nation on its own soil (the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, like Amityville being attacked on the 4th of July), and, more specifically, a relentless enemy that hides in the water (a Japanese submarine, the shark attacking Amityville).

Japanese Submarine. Credit: Flickr, Marion Doss.

Shark fin. Credit: Flickr, Anita363.

Part of the power of Jaws, then, is that it allows Americans to explore their complicated feelings about war and cultural stereotypes. If the film had been explicitly about WWII, it probably wouldn't have reached as many people.. But as a movie about sharks, viewers--at least the ones who unconsciously resonate with such symbolism--are allowed to reflect on some of the most terrible, confusing aspects of "the Good War." In particular, when the shark gets blown to pieces at the end of the movie, viewers are encouraged to feel that such destruction was necessary—while in real life polls show that Americans have felt increasingly conflicted and regretful about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians.
Hiroshima bomb cloud.

Jaws ending.

Recognizing the Shark
It gets even more complicated when you consider American attitudes toward German soldiers in WWII. For example, here's what one American soldier remembered about a battle on the front lines near Cologne, Germany:

"We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. These were no longer the Germans of the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us. ...Once the helmet is off, you're looking at a teenager, another kid." Robert Rasmus, interview reprinted in Studs Terkel's book The Good War: An Oral History of WWII.

This soldier's story sounds like Quint's points about the shark's eyeshow they seem "lifeless," or as this soldier put it, like "an abstraction." German soldiers with helmets that hide their eyes also fit Quint's image of the shark, which is the underlying stereotype of all enemies in modern Western warfare: lifeless, inhuman, animalistic.

U.S. wartime poster, 1942, Office of Emergency Management..

But as noted by the American soldier, all this changes when the enemy helmet comes off, when you get up close and see that the supposed monsters are just teenage boys like you. Quint notes this same type of sudden switch in perspective when he says, "Until he [the shark] bites 'ya and those black eyes roll over white..."

In other words, Jaws and WWII both create strange oscillations between media stereotypes and individual personalities, abstract concepts and real beings. The shark seems dead but then you realize how alive he is...just before he kills you; WWII enemy soldiers seem like abstractions, but then you realize they're humans...just before you kill them.

Hope for Humanity?

I find it comforting to hear the American soldier (Rasmus) say he eventually recognized the humanity of the German soldiers, and I gather other WWII soldiers did the same thing. For example, you can listen here to a strangely beautiful, 2-minute Story Corps interview with an American talking about his deep feelings for a German soldier.

American helping wounded German soldier, 1944. Army Surgeon General, National Archives and Records Administration.
It's telling and sad that such recognition of common humanity happened less often between American and Japanese soldiers, apparently due to racial biases, but I would hope that such biases and stereotypes are being left behind by now.

Anyone want to suggest other stories of soldiers who have transcended stereotypes and recognized the enemy's humanity in a sudden, dramatic moment? I like those stories.

Further Reading:
My post about USS Indianapolis Survivors and Their Tears

Does the Jaws shark have the eyes of God?

Robert Willson Jump Cut journal article, where he explores the resonance between Jaws and submarine movies.

What's the Cultural Meaning of the Slide in Baseball? (Peter Wogan)

Sports are like religious rituals: they reflect and instill cultural beliefs and practices. For example, the 24-second shot clock in basketball clearly reflects the fast pace of our era. So what about the slide in baseball? How does it resonate with contemporary American culture?

I think sliding reflects American ambivalence about social authority. Baseball players dress up in formal clothes, as if they're going to church or courtand then they throw themselves in the dirt.

That's the tension at the heart of both baseball and American society: respect vs. disdain for authority. Respect the rules, but kill the ump. Get dressed up, but throw yourself in the mud. Sliding is controlled social rebellion.

This social symbolism becomes more obvious when you think about the formality of the baseball uniform: white pants, a belt, a shirt with buttons all the way up the front. The impracticality of this uniform, and its extreme formality by comparison with most other sports uniforms, throws into relief baseball's social meaning.  
Flickr, Ewen and Donabel.

Most other sports won't even permit you to wear a belt (draw strings hold up pants just fine, actually better than most belts), yet baseball requires a belt. And as Paul Lukas noted on ESPN, "Once you stop and think about it...a button-front format doesn't make much sense for a sports uniform. For starters, a button-up shirt is more awkward to move around in, plus it's more formal, less sporty. That's why you wear a button-front shirt to work and some sort of pullover (T-shirt, sweatshirt, tank top, whatever) at home and on the weekend." Lukas also notes that button-up designs lead to weird problems like billowing and unaligned lettering on the front of jerseys, yet despite these problems and the viability of good alternatives, such as pull-overs, zippers, or laces, the major leagues have almost always used buttoned jerseys since the 19th century.

I would add that the persistence of formal uniforms and sliding in baseball can't be due to mere tradition. Over the years, baseball has made plenty of innovations, from the advent of batting helmets and night games to adjusting the pitcher's mound height and so on; yet the baseball uniform never lost its basic formality, and players never stopped sliding. If getting dirty in nice clothes hadn't felt rightif it hadn't continued to resonate with American ambivalence about authoritysliding probably would have been phased out a long time ago. 

Instead, sliding in a uniform still feels so right that it's hard to imagine baseball without it. As Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics once said, "If my uniform doesn't get dirty, I haven't done anything in the baseball game" (quoted in Diamonds Forever, W.P. Kinsella editor, p. 121).
In fact, the slide was a novelty when first introduced in the mid-1800s and many people opposed it, arguing that players should be allowed to overrun every base rather than sliding. This is how the crowd reacted to one of the first recorded slides, during an 1859 game in Portland, Maine: "the feat fairly astonished the natives, who at first roared with laughter, but Chandler scored the run, and they then woke up to the fact that a large, new and valuable 'wrinkle' had been handed out to them" (quoted in Peter Morris's excellent book, A Game of Inches: The Stories That Shaped Baseball, p. 265).

This early phase in baseball history reminds us that there are alternative ways to reach the bases without sliding, just as basketball could be played without a shot clock. Not every sports rule or practice has social significance, but it seems fair to say sliding does.

Related Posts about Baseball:
All posts about baseball, including posts on the foul ballthe catch and sharingfeeling good in crowds, and basketball vs. baseball.

All posts about Field of Dreams (and baseball), including posts on ALS, moonlight, and Jackie Robinson.

10-Second Video of a Little League Player Stealing 2nd Base While the Pitcher's Not Looking:


Why is Catching a Foul Ball So Exciting?

Credit: Flickr, SethSquatch.
 I think the excitement is related to the crowd. When you catch a foul ball, suddenly you rise out of the anonymous masses. Out of thousands of fans and against all the odds, you get chosen. The universe loves you, and you have the gift to prove it.

Credit: Flickr, Dizzy-eyed. (Check out the arms reaching upward, to the heavens.)

Of course, there are other, less mystical reasons why catching a foul ball is so exciting: the indirect contact with famous players, the thrill of an athletic achievement, the danger. But being loved by the universe—that has to count for something.

Credit: Flickr, Malingering.

Related Posts about Baseball:
All posts about baseball, including posts on sliding and rebellionthe catch and sharingfeeling good in crowds, and basketball vs. baseball.

All posts about Field of Dreams (and baseball), including posts on ALS and moonlight.

Vet with One Arm Makes Amazing Foul-Ball Catch (Video) 

I also love this comparative, historical detail: during WWII, foul balls caught in the stands by fans were sent to the troops. See Richard Crepeau, “Baseball and War,” in The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, p. 87.

What Would Seinfeld Say About Potluck Dinners?

I can imagine an entire "Seinfeld" episode focused on potlucks, yet, strangely, the show never addressed this topic, one of the only aspects of American culture it left uncovered. Nonetheless, "Seinfeld" had a lot to say about gift-giving, so it's a perfect resource to help us understand the bizarre American custom known as the potluck dinner.

Jerry Seinfeld, making the mistake of accepting an astronaut pen from his parents' friend ("The Pen," Season 3).

We need Jerry's help because the potluck presents a genuine anthropological riddle. You may be surprised to learn that many newcomers to the United States experience a sudden intimation of American cold-heartedness when they attend their first potluck dinner. That’s right: some people see the potluck as cold-hearted.

This reaction is hard for Americans to understand, since we usually see the potluck as not only harmless, but downright lovely, an example of community at its best. We have to ask ourselves, How could anyone resist a potluck? What would Seinfeld say?

Potluck Dinner, Flckr Mackarus

The answer is found in the way Jerry consistently messes up gift-giving because he doesn't want to get too committed to relationships with other people. For example, when he was dating Elaine, he didn't want to get her anything too "relationshipy" (his word) for her birthday, so he gave her 182 dollars in cash:

Elaine: You got me cash?!
Jerry: Well, this way I figured you can go out and get whatever you want. No good?

Elaine opening birthday box with $182, in "The Deal," Season 2.

Obviously his gift was not good. Shortly afterward, he and Elaine broke up.

Then there was the time Jerry got annoyed because he couldn't get rid of the comedian Kenny, who had given him an Armani suit. Jerry tried to take Kenny out to lunch, to pay off the debt and end the relationship, but Kenny wanted to stay friends, so he would show up at the restaurant, say he wasn't that hungry, just order soup or a sandwich, then say this didn't count as a meal and they should go out again later.  After a couple of these meals that "don't count" (according to Kenny), Jerry gets fed up and says, "You’ve had a sandwich and two bowls of soup. And that's it. Goodbye."

Kenny, in "The Soup" episode, Season 6.
Now here's the connection to the potluck. From non-American cultural perspectives, the potluck seems to say what Jerry said to Kenny: "You’ve had a sandwich and two bowls of soup. And that's it. Goodbye."

In other words, the potluck orchestrates gift giving so that everyone is perfectly paid up at the end of the day, making them free to end the relationship. Everybody has contributed equally, so nobody is left in anybody else’s debt. The ledgers are perfectly balanced and clear. Like Jerry after he gives Kenny the sandwich and two bowls of soup, we’re free agents once the potluck is over.

At least it seems that way when you compare the potluck with food customs, found in many other cultures of the world,  in which I host you for a large meal (even if there are twenty three of “you”), and then you do the same for me many months or years later. The potluck removes this hosting and time dimension in “delayed reciprocity,” thereby reducing the commitment to a long-term relationship. When you’re in someone’s debt, you know you’ll see each other at least once more, when the initial gift gets repaid, and you maintain your relationship in the interim. After a potluck, by contrast, we can all leave without reciprocal obligations holding us together.

Of course this is not the way Americans like to think of the potluck. To the contrary, we see potlucks as a great community event, one designed to enhance social relationships and overcome isolation, yet without letting the burden of all the cooking fall on a single host.

Potluck, anyone?

This is a condensed and revised version of an essay that David Sutton and I wrote a couple years ago,
"Seinfeld, Potluck Dinners, and Problematic Gifts," Popular Anthropology Magazine1(1):8-10, March 2010. That essay can be found here.