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Strange Attractors

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Mr. Tiger

Mr. Tiger

It is 1966 and I am 9 years old, standing in a field watching clouds. It is a hot summer day in Michigan and the clouds are puffy and thick. They must each contain thousands of tons of water and yet they don’t look like rain clouds, they look like giant ships, sailing on an ocean of air, white sails harnessing the power of the wind, their cargo of rain meant for distant lands east of the Detroit River. There are sounds too. Children playing a game in the distance, crickets creaking quietly in the grass, the sound of cars passing on Farmington Road, lawn mowers growling, the children shouting louder, the sound of a clunk and then a ball rolling in the grass.

The ball rolls past and the shouts grow louder. I lower my gaze from the clouds and see my friend, Tom, running toward me, pointing and shouting for me to get the ball. He barrels past, grabs the ball, turns and throws it back to the infield as a boy rounds second base on his way to an easy in-field triple. Tom smacks me on the back of the head with his mitt as he jogs back toward first base. I am red with embarassment and everyone glares at me before the ball is tossed back to Jan, our pitcher, and the next player steps up to bat.

The clouds move on, but they’re followed by another line of clouds, this one full of horses, galloping after the sailing ships on their endless passage toward the exotic shores of Ontario.

At 9 years old I was standing firm on my baseball record of always being picked last, a record that also, almost always, included being on the field in the traditional position of the last-picked player: Right field.

In pickup baseball, right field is where you go if you want to play with the other kids, but you won’t take the time to practice any of the basic skills, like catching or throwing, or just paying attention to where the ball is, even when it’s flying toward you (I mean, c’mon, that was not supposed to happen); in other words, any of the skills that make you a valuable asset or at least not a detriment, to your friends and your team.

In pickup baseball, the rest of the team calls out to the right fielder at the end of each inning to return to the bench, because they all know that the kid in right field won’t know that the last out just happened. I was that kid. I needed my friends to call me in to bat.

I was comfortable in right field. Right field and me, we were made for each other.

There’s a lot I don’t know about baseball, but I’d make the argument that right field is what mathematicians call an attractor, which is a set of values toward which a dynamical system will tend to evolve. So considering the dynamical system of how to position really bad baseball players, there is an inexorable draw toward Baseball Siberia, the Field Nobody Hits To, The Position of Least Damage… Right Field. You can argue about the relative importance of other positions, but nobody, nobody, would argue that the position that comes in 9th place is anything other than right field. If you had a group of kids like me wandering around a field – whether or not baseball was happening – we’d find ourselve inexorably drawn, for reasons that are hard to see, but which I would argue have deep mathematical underpinnings, to Right Field.

This is me in 1966. It’s September 8th. I’m walking home alone with a mitt and a ball. Baseball has happened but I’ve pretty much forgotten about it, and the embarrassment, and the ridicule. I’m thinking about where the clouds are right now.

Somebody told me that weather systems move at an average of 30mph, so I’m trying to figure out where the clouds are that I saw while on the baseball field (I won’t toy with your intelligence with the over-statement “while I was playing baseball”). Not as far as you’d think: The clouds are maybe 120 miles away. I eat dinner, head, literally, still in the clouds. School has just begun, but there’s no homework yet. So television is allowed, what television there is anyway – three broadcast channels and a scratchy Canadian thing we can sometimes pick up late at night.

But for once, it’s enough.

Becaues, in an instant, it’s not 1966.

It’s Stardate 1513.1 – some sort of decimal day system, and the first person I see in this new universe might not be a person at all – he has pointy ears and is wearing a stretchy leotard. A voice tells me that his name is Spock and that he is temporarily in command of the Starship Enterprise while the Captain and others head down to investigate a planet. A PLANTET. Some other planet than Earth, which is both strange and foreign and also, somehow, just like Earth. The Captain and his planet-side crew shimmer into existence – they are beamed down without the usual space-breathing aparatus, speaking normally, and joking about how the Doctor is about to meet an old girlfriend.

Beaming down makes immediate and perfect sense to me. Why are we not doing this already? I want to beam somewhere else right now.

These space travelers are like me and also not like me. They have burst the surly bonds of Earth, and yet they get teased about old girlfriends. They wear weird clothes, they are good at math and science; they know stuff, but they also have laser-like guns, they get beamed down to strange planets. They are geeks, but also masters of space and time. They are The Right Fielders Who Made Good.

It’s September 9th, 1966, and I’m standing in a field. Baseball is happening, but I am wondering what the Star Date is. Here on Earth, the last minutes of summer tick away, school has begun, and an afternoon baseball game is underway. But somewhere in the universe time is not ticking away in Earth seconds and Earth days. Star Dates are fractional and mysterious and tick to the beat of some universal truth, some Greater Clock. I’m attracted to space travel and the strange differences of being off planet the way I can only dimly imagine my friends actually want to play Second Base, and will argue for it. The Infield is probably a mathematical attractor for another type of 9-year-old, one who cares about baseball heroics and the speedy rather than contemplative part of baseball.

As a kid, my dad used to take us to Detroit Tigers games, and it turned out he was a big fan of Al Kaline, who played right field for the Tigers. We always got cheap seats, so we usually had a great view of Al Kaline’s backside. Kaline played his entire career in Detroit and is still alive today, working the front office for the Tigers. “Mr. Tiger” he was called. It’s even possible I was named Alan because of Al Kaline. I’m cool with that. I played right field too, so it felt right. And I always wondered what Al Kaline was like in real life. I wondered what television shows he liked to watch and I wondered if he ever spent any time out there in right field, watching the clouds go by, wishing he could beam down up to a starship and blow out of this dusty corner of the universe, maybe go shoot some bad guys with his laser, or hold on tight while his ship went into warp drive, instead of being a grown up person on Earth who, after all these years, was still picked last.

Written by Alan

September 16th, 2016 at 12:04 am

Posted in Writing