Jun. 25, 2013


by John Updike

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop's wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball's
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It's easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody's right,
beginning with baseball.

"Baseball" by John Updike, from Endpoint. © Knopf, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist George Orwell (books by this author), born Eric Blair in Motihari, India, in 1903. He won a scholarship to Eton and didn't fit in because he was poor. Instead of going to a university, he escaped England to join the Imperial Police in Burma, but he quit after five years because, he said, "I could not go on any longer serving an imperialism which I had come to regard as very largely a racket."

He decided he would become a writer. He lived as a tramp for four years, wearing ragged clothes and living with laborers and beggars in the slums of London and Paris. He worked in the hopfields in Kent and as a dishwasher in a French hotel, and wrote about it in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) under the pen name George Orwell, after the River Orwell in East Anglia. He published his first novel, Burmese Days (1934), the next year.

Animal Farm (1945) is a political fable about a group of barnyard animals that chase off their human masters and set up their own society. But then the smartest animals, the pigs, take control and turn out to be even more ruthless than the humans. He wrote, "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." At first, Orwell couldn't find a publisher for Animal Farm. But when it came out, it was an instant success and for the first time Orwell had some money in his pocket. Orwell used the royalties to buy a remote house on the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland. He had tuberculosis, and when he wasn't too sick to type, he smoked black shag tobacco and wrote his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), a novel set in a future where the world is controlled by totalitarian police states. The book gave us words and phrases such as "Big Brother is watching you," "Thought Police," and "doublethink."

On this day in 1857, the novelist Gustave Flaubert (books by this author) went on trial in Paris for publishing a morally offensive work about a woman who has multiple affairs to stave off the boredom of her existence — Madame Bovary. He was acquitted, and the publicity from the trial made the book a best-seller when it was published that year.

On this day in 1950, the Korean War began when the North Korean People's Army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. More than 3 million people lost their lives in that war, and many years later, an American veteran named Harold Richards wrote: "I was not brave, nor was I a hero in any way. I was just as scared as anyone else under fire ... I took part in five major battles and two invasions. I suffered the cold of North Korea along with every GI during the northern campaign. There were so many unsung heroes of that war, only men there could understand."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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