Showing posts with label Ron. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ron. Show all posts

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Post Labor Day Thoughts



My good friend and ex colleague, Ron, emailed to wish me “Happy Labor Day” even though we’re out in the pasture with the herd of the retired.  We proudly earned our branded hides: workers.

As my older son Chris proclaims, life is work.  We’re always trying to find a balance but when your job is enjoyable, and you find it meaningful, life and work negotiate a successful merger.  During my career I was tempted to bring it to the next level in a major publishing organization.  It would have meant leaving the company I was joyfully building and moving overseas to London, a city we love.  But the thought of engaging in corporate politics, vs. the hands-on experience of running a stand-alone publishing company made me hesitate and I’m glad I did.

My favorite section of the Sunday New York Times is their Sunday Review, mostly thoughtful, opinion pieces.  This past week’s had two relating to the above, “Friends at Work? Not So Much” (by Adam Grant) and “Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work” (by Arthur C. Brooks).   The former cites factors such as the disappearance of a job for life, flextime, and the rise of the “virtual office” that has potentially impacted the loss of meaningful relationships for life.  I always considered colleagues friends as well as fellow workers.  There is much to be said about the virtual office but it is a steep price to pay for true collaboration and trust that develops through personal interaction.

The second article also speaks directly to my working years.  As the article asks, “Why don’t people just keep the jobs they like?”  The answer is we are sort of hard-wired to achieve success by climbing the next wrung in the ladder, and then next, etc.  I climbed to the extent that I found a place in the working world that made me happy.  Why go any further, indeed? Simply for more money?  Bad reason I thought.

I always felt that I was responsible not only to my employer, but to my employees, our vendors, authors, as well, everyone who makes up a publishing company.  As the article concludes: “In our interconnected world and global economy, our work transforms the lives of countless others.  Sometimes the impact is obvious: Managers and executives directly inflect their employees’ happiness and career success.  But everyone, in every industry, affects the lives of co-workers, supervisors, customers, suppliers, donors or investors.”  If we all realize this in our working lives, perhaps work would not be a dirty four letter word.

Speaking of the latter, the prior week’s Sunday Review (August 30) carried still another meaningful article on work, “We Need to Rethink How We Work,” accurately reflecting on what motivates people.   As Barry Schwartz, the author of the article points out, it was Adam Smith’s view that people just dislike work, writing in his enormously influential The Wealth of Nations, that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”  Schwartz thinks that his notion has clouded the science of management ever since, viewing workers as beasts of burden which a whipping stick, or at least a carrot and a stick might be the best motivators.  Hence, employees are being constantly monitored, as the wickedly funny movie Office Space satires as the “TPS Reports.”


Employees thrive on a measure of independence and fair compensation should be the natural result of people working at jobs they find meaningful.  “When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things….[We] should not lose sight of the aspiration to make work the kind of activity people embrace, rather than the kind they shun…..Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good.  But so is work that is worth doing.  Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.”

I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity (thus far, brilliant!).  More on that book in a later entry, but early on in the novel there is a techno-utopian view of work expressed by participants in a Wiki-leaks-like cult movement:

Their theory was that the technology driven gains in productivity and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs would inevitably result in better wealth distribution, including generous payments to most of the population for doing nothing, when Capital realized that it could not afford to pauperize the consumers who bought its robot-made products. Unemployed consumers would acquire an economic value equivalent to their lost value as actual laborers, and could join forces with the people still working in the service industry, thereby creating a new coalition of labor and the permanently unemployed, whose overwhelming size would compel social change.

At this point there is a discussion as to why a person changing bedpans in a nursing home for a $40,000 salary wouldn’t want, instead, to be a paid as a consumer at the same remuneration.  One of the participants in the discussion comes to the conclusion: "The way you'd have to do it is make labor compulsory but then keep lowering the retirement age, so you'd always have full employment for everybody under thirty-two, or thirty-five, or whatever, and full unemployment for everybody over that age."

Is that the future of work?  Sounds more dystopian to me. Franzen’s unique social observations have a clarion ring of future verity.  Maybe that’s where we’re heading: let robots do the work, and we’ll lay about consuming streaming video all day.  Thankfully, that is not my future, but we ought to be careful about what we wish for.

Nonetheless, getting back to Labor Day, I’m now many years into retirement and my working life seems more like a dream some stranger went through for those four decades.  I like the way my friend Ron put it:  "I have accepted the fact that we were merely hired ballplayers.  While working we were respected, valued, and even ostensibly loved as long as we could pitch, field, run, and hit.  Once retired, we were just old ex ballplayers.  Now, there is hardly anyone at our companies who remember us or would even recognize our names let alone appreciate what we did.  It is the way of the world, and I have accepted it.”  To that analogy I added, in my response, “I like to think we played it well -- and now don't even get invited to an old timer’s game.  I still think I can reach home plate from the pitcher’s mound though :-)."

OK, no more pitching for me, but we know what we did and we know that our careers led to thousands of publications that might not have seen the light of day, and those went out into an Internet-less world at the time, and affected change and hopefully progress.  And we were part of working communities, dedicated as much to one another as we were to the work itself.  As I said, it was a merger of sorts.  My very first entry in this blog on the subject of work and my first job out of college still resonates.

Monday, July 15, 2013

We Live Too Shallowly in Too Many Places



That is an indirect quote from Wallace Stegner’s masterpiece, Angle of Repose, but more on that later.

I thought of those few words as we headed north on I95 last week, fortified by yet another “book” – actually the 13 hour audio book version of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, a novel that has some things in common with Stegner’s.  I had read Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets on the maiden voyage of the cruise ship Marina, finding a copy in the ship’s pristine library.  It is a very funny but tragic story, reminding me a little of the writing of Joseph Heller and I made a note to read his next work.  Perhaps it was providential that Amazon had a sale on the audio book edition of his most recent novel, Beautiful Ruins, right before we departed Florida for Connecticut.  While it is very professionally narrated, somehow I think the book might be better read than listened to.  I can’t really explain why that might be; perhaps having it read to you makes you focus on plot rather than character, or the interruptions while being on the road forces one to stop listening when rest stops dictate.

The story begins with Pasquale Tursi, who, after his father dies in 1962, returns from his partially completed college education to run the family’s small hotel in the out of the way Italian coastal town of Porto Vergogna There he has a chance meeting with a minor American actress, Dee Moray (she is in Italy to film Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). The story is a CD page turner (making the drive that much easier), moving back and forth from 1962 to the near present, with the introduction of a number of characters (including Richard Burton).  It is like so many good novels the tale of choices and consequences. Walter’s characters interact with one another over time, changing the outcome of each others’ lives, “beautiful ruins” as some of the Italian landscape.  Their stories devolve into their own “angles of repose.” Jess Walter continues his journey as a young ascending American novelist.

As the novel moved around, so did we, first visiting friends Suzanne and George in Savannah, sharing a July 4 dinner with them and then the following night we made a long overdue visit to the relatively new home of our friends Barbara and Ron (and their particularly smart Border Collie, Coco) in Apex, NC.  Ron was a colleague in my publishing days (and Barbara as well, but Ron and I worked at the same firm) and over the years we’ve become close friends in spite of our geographic estrangement.  It was wonderful seeing them after all these years.  Then, back on the road.
 
The drive up I95 is emblematic of living too shallowly in too many places.  As a nation we’ve become anchorless, a nomadic nation addicted to the so called “pleasures” of travel.  Even with gas at $4 plus a gallon the roads were packed, the “rest stops” jammed with those seeking burgers, fries, ice cream, pizza, and sodas. We’ve learned over the years to pack our own food, and to confine our rest room visits to visitors’ centers, usually the first rest stop as you enter the next state.   

With the NJ Turnpike, though, one has to do battle with the Burger King crowd and the downtrodden, overused bathrooms.  I have no business wondering the where’s or why’s of this moving mass of humanity, as I am one of the rootless, but, in our case, trying to “go home” again, to where we spent most of our lives in Connecticut.  However, with each passing year, the ties to the past unravel more, and we are more strangers than natives, in spite of our love of the area.  One does not put down roots in Florida to offset this loss it seems, as one’s neighbors are from someplace else, and they are wanderers as are you.  Indeed, we live too shallowly in too many places, bringing me to this great American novel, certainly one of the best of the 20th century, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

The novel was published in 1972.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature that year.  That fact begs the question of where have I been during those many years since its publication, particularly as I consider myself fairly well read when it comes to contemporary American literature.  In my defense, and it’s a weak one, perhaps it was a form of cultural snobbism -- not unlike Susan Burling Ward’s, the main character in the novel -- that is more East coast focused. When Stegner was writing, I was reading Updike, Cheever, Yates and Roth.  Those who wrote about the West, the frontier, did not reach a deep chord in me.  But, now, my own sense of place has become diluted.  It took this blog to lead me to Stegner’s masterpiece.  A few months ago, via the email address listed in the profile, I received the following (this is the truncated version):

Something made me think of you today, so I Googled your name, and Google led me to your blog. I wonder if you'll even remember me. My memories of you are no doubt washed by the passage of time, but how nice that I get to share some of this with you.

In 1969, you hired me as your secretary at Johnson Reprint. I was 20 years old, my typing was pathetic, my shorthand practically non-existent, I had no real secretarial experience, and I had just moved to New York from Meadville, Pennsylvania. Yet for some reason I will never understand you saw potential and offered me the job. It wasn't long after that you left Johnson for greener pastures, and I cut my hair short in protest. Though of course, no one but me cared how long my hair was.

And now, 44 years later, I get to thank you. You were really my first mentor, and you encouraged me to think analytically and take my silly attempts at writing poems to a deeper level. You also taught me a great deal about being a professional--although there was certainly a lot more to learn, you got me over the threshold. And the position itself provided me with skills that served me well throughout my career. A position for which I was completely unqualified. I have always felt that you played a brief but seminal role in my life.

Have you read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose? He talks about a Doppler effect (nothing to do with weather) that I couldn't possibly do justice to, so in brief, it is a sort of predestination view but not really. If you are curious and haven't read it, you will just have to do so! Anyhow, I mention it because it has become more and more of an intriguing concept for me over time. When I think back on 1969 as a fragment of my life, I marvel at where my path was to take me. And that at the time, of course, it was unwritten. …. This probably makes no sense whatsoever to you! But it does to me, and it's beginning to feel like I'm writing this more for myself than you. My apologies if it feels that way to you too!

Well, what I started out wanting to say is thank you. For being who you were at a juncture in my life and providing me with a chance, though you didn't know it any more than I did at the time, to build a springboard for myself to carry me into a fascinating and sweet journey. I am truly happy to know that your own life has been, and continues to be, so full of love and friends and success. You earned all that a long time ago just by being your intuitive and generous self.

Naturally, I was moved by this, responding, “As you didn't type well or take shorthand, I must have hired you for your intelligence which has obviously taken you to an education and a career of many accomplishments.”  I also said, “I haven't read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, but have ordered it from Amazon on your recommendation.  I get to read a lot during the summers when we live on our boat in Norwalk; sounds like an ideal summer read.”  Since then Mary and I have struck up an email relationship, two small characters on the world stage whose lives once intersected and, now, thanks to technology, intersect virtually.

But, there you have it, a bend in time, perhaps the Doppler Effect, leading me to one of the more significant literary works of our time. 

Stegner’s story is multigenerational; a tale told by Lyman Ward, a 58 year-old former history professor who is now confined to a wheelchair, taken care of by friend and neighbor Ada Hawkes and her daughter Shelly in the home of Ward’s grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward.  It was in this California home his grandparents finally settled after living in a number of frontier outposts during the formative years of their marriage.  Lyman Ward’s father, Ollie, was the oldest of their three children. 

Part of Stegner’s novel is devoted to present-day Lyman, who is trying to stay independent in spite of his being wheelchair bound, while his only son, Rodman, is trying to place him in an assisted living home.  But Lyman is fiercely opposed to the idea.  He is now also divorced from his wife, Ellen.

But the majority of the story is the one that Lyman Ward is trying to write about his grandmother, an extraordinary women of letters and an artist as well, who marries a young engineer, reluctantly leaving her best friend Augusta, and the Northeast, to join Oliver (she thinks for only a few years before a planned return to the East) in his quest to pursue a career as a mining engineer in the West.

Actually, the character of Susan Burling Ward is based on the real life of Mary Hallock Foote, and Stegner makes liberal use of Foote’s writings in the novel, which led to some controversy although Stegner acknowledges that use saying that he did not hesitate “to warp personalities and events to fictional needs.”  At times it almost feels like an epistolary novel, although all letters are one sided, from Susan to Augusta.  Augusta’s life is firmly within the gravitational pull of the eastern intelligentsia, a life that Susan pines for, for herself and for her children. 

So, it is Lyman’s objective to write this history, to remain independent while doing so, living in the home he used to visit as a child.  He thinks of “Angle of Repose” as being an appropriate title, and considers the Doppler Effect as an alternative, “saying” to his grandmother:

If Henry Adams, whom you knew slightly, could make a theory of history by applying the second law of thermodynamics to human affairs, I ought to be entitled to base one on the angle of repose, and may yet. There is another physical law that teases me, too: the Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you - a train, say, or the future - has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne…. You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.

In recounting the life of his grandparents, Lyman hopes to find something about his own “angle of repose:”
 
Yet do you remember the letters you used to get from isolated miners and geologists and surveyors who had come across a copy of Century or Atlantic and seen their lives there, and wrote to ask how a lady of obvious refinement knew so much about drifts, stopes, tipples, pumps, ores, assays, mining law, claim jumpers, underground surveying, and other matters? Remember the one who wanted to know where you learned to handle so casually a technical term like "angle of repose"? I suppose you replied, "By living with an engineer." But you were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest….As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don't mean the rigid angle which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it….

Wheelchair bound, and distraught and cynical about the present (the 1970s), by exploring (and glorifying) her life, Lyman temporarily finds a way out of his: Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don't completely comprehend. I'd like to live in their clothes a while, if only so I don't have to live in my own…. We have been cut off, the past has been ended and the family has broken up and the present is adrift in its wheelchair. I had a wife who after twenty-five years of marriage took on the coloration of the 1960s. I have a son who, though we are affectionate with each other, is no more my true son than if he breathed through gills. That is no 'gap between the generations, that is a gulf. The elements have changed, there are whole new orders of magnitude and kind. This present of 1970 is no more an extension of my grandparents' world, this West is no more a development of the West they helped build, than the sea over Santorin is an extension of that once-island of rock and olives. ….My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents' side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.

While plot and character development are outstanding strengths of the novel, the sense of place (or displacement) permeates the entire work, the East vs. West, civilization vs. the frontier, and a miscarriage of the American Dream:

I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can't go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places. I doubt that anyone of Rodman's generation could comprehend the home feelings of someone like Susan Ward. Despite her unwillingness to live separately from her husband, she could probably have stayed on indefinitely in Milton, visited only occasionally by an asteroid husband. Or she could have picked up the old home and remade it in a new place. What she resisted was being the wife of a failure and a woman with no home.

When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like my grandmother.  So much that was cherished and loved, women like her had to give up; and the more they gave it up, the more they carried it helplessly with them. It was a process like ionization what was subtracted from one pole was added to the other For that sort of pioneer, the West was not a new country being created, but an old one being reproduced; in that sense our pioneer women were always more realistic than our pioneer men. The moderns, carrying little baggage of the kind that Shelly called "merely cultural," not even living in traditional air, but breathing into their space helmets a scientific mixture of synthetic gases (and polluted at that) are the true pioneers.  Their circuitry seems to include no atavistic domestic sentiment, they have suffered empathectomy, their computers hum no ghostly feedback of Home, Sweet Home.  How marvelously free they are!  How unutterably deprived!

And, indeed, the “place” of frontier and its bearing on his Grandfather’s failings, hangs heavily in the novel.  Lyman feels empathy for this man who perhaps unwisely trusted others in his pursuit of colossal dreams:

As a practitioner of hindsight I know what Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do. That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken. He was premature. His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn't yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid. Like many another Western pioneer, he had heard the clock of history strike, and counted the strokes wrong. Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality.

I’ve liberally quoted from Angle of Repose as the writing is extraordinary.  These passages are typical.  Susan’s letters to Augusta are equally remarkable.  There is not one page, not one word in this novel that is superfluous.  It’s 500 plus pages are filled with energy, beauty, and philosophical contemplation.  And I think it so ironic – or is it prophetic – that while this novel was in the process of being published I was hiring Mary who, 44 years later, finds me in the brave new virtual world, and asks me a simple question, “have you read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose?”






Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"It Saddens Me to Leave the Field"



I haven't written lately about baseball, my favorite sport, one I played constantly as a kid, pitching in sort of a combination Little League/Babe Ruth league (very informal and disorganized, more like pick-up games with uniforms) for the Highland Park Terriers, taking the old Jamaica Avenue El to get to the field in Highland Park.  I am a lefty and even though I could not crank up an intimidating fast ball, I compensated with breaking balls and placement.  I was constantly practicing with neighborhood kids, with dreams of big league ball, but high school and then college teams put those dreams to rest.  When I tried out for college baseball I found that most on the team were on an athletic scholarship and although I pitched some batting practice, the first baseman at the time -- forgot his name -- took one of my balls not only over the fence, but to an apartment building way beyond.  It was meager compensation to learn, well after I graduated, that he apparently made it to AAA ball.

Although those days are now long gone, there is something about having played the game, knowing its nuances, that still gives rise to fantasies of what might have been, had I been more physically gifted, or worked harder, or had more support from my parents (who pretty much ignored my quest, rarely attending my games).  No, mine was a solitary undertaking, getting on the El for practice and then games on Saturday mornings.  So to this day I watch baseball with a sense of awe, especially the mental contest between the batter and the pitcher. 

While I follow the team of my childhood, the NY Yankees (truly an over the hill gang this year), we enjoy going to our nearby Florida State "Advanced A" minor league games of the Jupiter Hammerheads or the Palm Beach Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, FL.  There we can watch the game almost right on the field, not like being exiled to some distant corner of Yankee Stadium at fifty times the price. 

So it is no wonder that when the highly praised The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach was published last year, it immediately went on my Amazon wish list, patiently waiting for a used copy to come on sale through one of their partners. (I usually wait it out until it's one cent plus shipping). 

Last time I checked my "wish list" the book was getting close to my price point and one day I was on the phone with one of my best friends, Ron, who, like me, shares a love of the game and he asked whether I had read the book.  No, and I explained why. He said, we'll I'm finished with my copy, I'll send it to you!  You don't want to keep it, I asked, and he said, no, you enjoy it and only a few days later, Jeff, my postman, handed me the package.  So, I put it early in the queue on my bookshelf.

As I started to read it I immediately began to think that if John Irving was a college baseball player instead of a wrestler, this is something he might have written.  It has so many Irvingesque features, particularly the quirky nature of the characters, the sexual overtones, not to mention the idiosyncratic names of most characters and places.  In fact, one major character, Owen Dunne, had me thinking of Irving's Owen in A Prayer for Owen Meany, who as a little-leaguer hits a ball that kills one of his best friend's mothers (Harbach's Owen is hit by a ball and almost dies and like Irving's Owen has a certain presence -- he is known as "Buddha" to his friends).

And that is not the only literary tip of the hat as the novel is set in the fictional Westish, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where in the novel Herman Melville once gave a lecture at Westish College.  Guert Affenlight who is now the president of the college had discovered this lecture and wrote his dissertation on it.  Hence, there is a Melville statue on the campus, and various references, both direct and implied to Melville's work.  Although the college is not exactly the good ship Pequod, it is the place where the lives of the five main characters are transformed through their interaction, Guert and his daughter Pella, and three students (all members of the college baseball team, aptly nicknamed the " Harpooners "), Owen, who is gay and Thoreauesque, and then the larger than life Mike Schwartz who is mentor (sometimes torturer) to the unrealized talents of the baseball prodigy, Henry Skrimshander (yes, you could make the correlation that Mike's project was like a Scrimshaw).  But, in the end, Henry takes on some of the characteristics of Bartleby from Melville's short story. 

The Art of Fielding begins with the premise and promise of Henry following in the cleats of his idol, the greatest shortstop ever to play baseball, the fictional Aparicio Rodriquez who had written what is more of a philosophical treatise than an instruction book on playing the position, with the fitting title, The Art of Fielding.  So, in a sense, Harbach's novel is thematically a "play within a play."

One of the nuggets for Henry to ponder from Aparicio's book is it always saddens me to leave the field.  Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.  Harbach writes "There were admittedly, many sentences and statements in The Art that Henry did not yet understand.  The opaque parts of The Art  though, had always been his favorites...As frustrating as they could be, [they] gave Henry something to aspire to.  Someday, he dreamed, he would be enough of a ballplayer to crack them open and suck out their hidden wisdom: Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does."

As a young ballplayer, Henry was an artist, a lightly hitting but exceptionally gifted fielder who played his position with the grace of a ballerina, capturing the notice of Mike Schwartz when Henry was in high school. ("What [Henry] could do was field.  He spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came to him would be bound up high or skid low to the dirt.  He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.")  Mike recruits him for Westish College on which team Mike is the quintessential catcher, the team captain who plays in pain and on pain killers, a star player whose knees are already giving out. 

It is through Mike's quest to build a star out of Henry that some of Harbach's best lapidary baseball prose shines: 

The making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art; an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer-you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error. The scouts cared little for Henry's superhuman grace; insofar as they cared they were suckered-in aesthetes and shitty scouts. Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can't be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.

And Harbach captures the uniqueness of the game.  It's one unlike any other:

Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game. Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse -- these were melee sports. You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy. You could redeem yourself through sheer desire.

But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric -- not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?

And, so, Henry becomes Mike's project.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  Mike (AKA "artzy") needs to exhort and Henry wants to become the perfect ballplayer.

All he'd ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever.  It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what 'artzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better....Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts - whatever you didn't need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.

He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he'd ever craved since he'd been born. Maybe it wasn't even baseball he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you'd based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.

And so, armed with his glove "Zero" (named so as when his mother asked if he made any errors in a game, he was always able to say "zero!"), Henry becomes a Westish Harpooner, and while Owen, Pella, Mike and Henry are essentially in the same age group and naturally their interactions are the substance of the novel, so is Guert's involvement with his daughter and with Owen.  This is a character driven story, one that is hard to put down, particularly if you love the game, and even though the ending seemed to me to be a little contrived ("low and away" in baseball-speak), Harbach is on my permanent radar for future work as a promising young American writer.  This is an exceptional first effort.