Tuesday, May 3, 2011


You won’t see many sports anecdotes here, because I don’t really know any. And yet, here’s one:
My father’s favorite baseball player is Ted Williams, which is the only reason I've ever heard of him--the baseball player, not my dad (stupid antecedents). Ted Williams distinguished himself as “The greatest hitter that ever lived" which would make people assume that he hit the most home runs. It turns out he did it through a much more nuanced (i.e. nerdy) path: batting average—that voodoo concoction of statistics that reflects the overall success/failure of a player's times at bat.
It’s not that Ted Williams didn’t also hit home runs--he hit 521 of them--but that wasn't his overarching goal. Choosing to take a little off his swing at times meant fewer home runs, but allowed him to place the ball with intent, and achieve a record-setting on-base percentage. By hitting quite a few home runs as well, he ensured that fielders never quite knew what he was going to do, and pitchers had to think twice about what to throw him.
I guess. Honestly, reading enough sports writing to put together these little paragraphs is almost more than I can bear. Who knew that people other than Frank Deford knew so much about sports?
Anyway, the point: The lifetime batting average for “The greatest hitter that ever lived"? .344
His best year? .406
Let’s curve those grades, because hitting a round ball with a round bat is, I’m told, the most difficult thing to do in sport. In fact, let’s not just curve them, let’s double them. That still gives him a “C” lifetime and a career high of a “B.”
They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. This is, pretty much, a lie.
In music, a field where I’m much comfortable slinging it, you can’t usually get by with a B-. Try to sing the National Anthem with 80% accuracy, and see how that plays out. Even in music, though, we have a thing called equal temperament. Simply put, we need a compromise that allows keyboard instruments to play all of the notes, in all of the keys, in reasonably acceptable tune. Perfect in one situation is going to be unacceptable in others, so we compromise. This doesn’t mean that piano tuning isn’t a difficult and exacting job, it just means that even when done correctly it’s not perfect. Not really.
An old joke:
Q: “What do you call the guy who graduated at the bottom of his class in medical school?”
A: “Doctor.”
I wouldn’t want to fly on a plane that had a pilot who earned a “C-“ in landings, but I’m sure someone has.
Now a story about cars--trust me, this is going somewhere.
When I finally had a job that I felt that I could depend on, my wife and I did two things (not necessarily in this order, but in reasonable succession). We bought a two-year old Honda for $11,000—the most we have ever spent on a car and, considering the percentage of our income at the time, probably the most we ever will. Also, we took a trip cross-country in our ’79 Ford van.
Similar to a few other things I’ve done in my life, the cross-country trip was a long-term dream that was realized a bit past its use-by date. It turns out I waited until I was a bit too accustomed to the comforts of adult life—things like going to the bathroom in the middle of the night without putting shoes on first—to do something that should probably be done by younger people. See also: Crossmen, but not today.
Our trip was a success, at least in that we managed to reach both coasts (even if the last few miles--and a few others in there--were on the back of a tow-truck). Still, here’s a list some of things that were wrong with the van along the way:
- The alternator failed—we used a second battery to jump start it from itself and charging it overnight a campgrounds and even at a rest stop or two.
- The brakes burned up over the Rockies, and were replaced somewhere in Northern California.
- The parking brake didn’t work; especially problematic in San Francisco.
- The clutch linkage broke, forcing us to speed-shift from Santa Barbara, California to Rifle, Colorado. The clutch pedal was always freakishly heavy in this van, which led to lots of broken clutch parts, and a noticeably over-sized left thigh for its driver.
- The steering wheel was turned at a 45-degree angle, even when driving straight.
- The floor was rusted through in spots where the road was visible from inside.
- There was a closet with a door that intermittently popped open. Sometimes you’d look in the review mirror and see the back of your own head in the full-length mirror.
- The sliding door required a well-timed hip bump to close completely.
- The back doors needed to be lifted a little before they’d close. Ditto the driver’s side door.
- The cruise-control was broken.
- The choke never really worked, so you needed to pump the accelerator pedal thirty or forty times before it would start.
Meanwhile, one day the cup holder in the Civic broke. We were nearly as upset by this as by the entire list of the van’s faults above.
Well; I was.
In other words, the van succeeded in one very important way: meeting the low expectations made of it. When I went to junk yards to get parts for the van, I’d often see its distant relatives that were arguably in better shape, at least in some aspects. Being on the road at all was something of an accomplishment.
B- is good. B- works. B- is the point at which you stop counting the things that go wrong, and start delighting in the things that go right. One of the reason that slackers do well on standardized tests is that we don’t expect to know everything, and we don’t get bogged down in the questions that we don’t know the answer to. We don't just go on to the remaining questions--SAT prep people coach everyone to do that. We manage not to apply any additional energy or suffering to the skipped questions. Not while we’re doing the following question. Not that night, waking up in a cold sweat at 3:00 AM. Not when the scores come. It’s over, go on.
John Green explores the concept of aging prodigies (among other things) in “An Abundance of Katherines”. One of the things he explores is how high expectations can be, in their own way, stifling. It's hard to be a “wunderkind” when you’re no longer a “kind.” Since a slacker’s entire scholastic career is a study in failing to meet expectations, we are not so burdened. Knowing that trying something that won’t turn out perfectly is better than never trying in the first place. Besides, it reduces the arrogance needed to try something you’re not remotely qualified for if you only expect to succeed 80% or so.
Final note: the goal, unfortunately, needs to be at least B-. There needs to be some cushion above failure. This is not a way of sneaking a failure-is-not-an-option thing in here, it’s just that failure reduces opportunity and choice. Failure could result in a requirement to repeat something, which is especially bad for us. We have no tolerance for the tedium of certain disciplines, courses, and teachers the first time around. We certainly won’t deal any better a second time. B- is far enough out of the danger zone where we could be asked to do something again. Even missing by ten percentage points or so, we’re still okay.
Sometimes close does count, and “okay” will do just fine.

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