Monday, October 23, 2017

"The Missing Thing (A Substandard Title I Hope To Ultimately Replace, But Probably Won't)"

I have an interest in perfection, a subject easier studied than possibly attained.  (Although I found the previous sentence to be remarkably successful.)

This curiosity began unfortuitously when, as a precocious eight year-old, I proudly proclaimed to my grandfather,

“I got ninety-six on my arithmetic exam.” 

To which he unsmilingly replied,

“What happened to ‘the other four’?”

Is there such a word as “Grand-patricide”?  (I may have then wondered, and probably did.)

Still, the incentivizing “seed” had been permanently planted.  How exactly, I urgently pondered, do you scale the seemingly unreachable summit of “a hundred”?

Then, I went into writing, a pursuit in which “perfection” is functionally inoperative, partly because writing’s a subjective operation so “Who’s to decide what exactly constitutes ‘a hundred’?’”, and partly because there are so many words it is practically impossible to consistently hit the bull’s eye with each of them. 

I’ll bet even Hamilton’s prodigiously gifted Lin-Manuel Miranda has sleep-sapping second thoughts about rhyming… I just flipped through the booklet of Hamilton lyrics and was unable to identify one regrettable rhyme.  (Although I am certain if you asked him, he’d go straight to the spot and say, “I just could not come up a better one.  ‘College’ and ‘astonish’?  Ay, Carumba!”)

Still, despite my inability to approach close enough to “perfection” to see it with the Hubble Telescope, I assiduously examined that conundrous enterprise in others, to determine why that sought-after objective is so frustratingly beyond human achievement.  (Although animals can do it.  CHEETAH:  “I have an unblemished record at ‘bringing down antelopes.’  Which would be noteworthy, except that all the other cheetahs do too.”)

Recent Memorable Example:

I saw the 2017 Dodgers, at one point this season, winning an astonishing 51 out of 62 games – challenging the best “Won-Loss” record of all time – suddenly losing 20 out of their next 25 games, capturing, during that dismal decline, one game, while contemporaneously losing 17.

Yes, there were injuries.  And yes, the “Marathon”-length season eventually exhausted their energies.  And yes, there is the inescapable “Regression toward the mean”, the “Law of Averages”, inevitably bringing one’s “Icarus”-like performance more predictably back down to earth.  (Though, hopefully, without the accompanying Icarus-like “splat.”)

Those factors were unquestionably contributory.  But there was, I believed, some more salient and ultimately more satisfying reason for the precipitous nosedive.

Of course nobody ever wins all their games – an “imperfection” my grandpa, in a mistaken incentivizing technique, would have unhelpfully pointed out.  Still, in baseball, you take 51 out of 62 games, that’s a stratospheric “Winning Percentage” of… you know, numerically, it’s a ton!

And then, the rains came down.

After record-setting successes, pitchers with pinpoint accuracy were suddenly “just missing” their locations.  Batters who regularly punished the opposition pitchers’ “mistakes” now fouled them harmlessly out of play, or whiffed entirely, the missed pitches popping tauntingly into adversary catchers’ welcoming gloves.

Inevitable winners becoming inevitable losers?

What the heck was going on?

Suddenly, I “got” it.  (A spontaneous insight, seen as the illuminating “Answer”,  because, for me, “spontaneous insights” have never once led me astray.)

In baseball, with its under-appreciated standards of Major League proficiency, where even the worst teams can defeat the most talented ones, there is an indefinable “Winner’s Edge” that ultimately generates champions, an edge the juggernaut Dodgers once possessed but had allowed, unconsciously, to slip away.

You win 51 out of 62 games, then take your foot imperceptibly “off the gas”, the propelling “wind at your back” turns in the other direction, and before you know it,  

You are a horrendous “one-and-seventeen.”

It is a precarious proposition, the players – and teams – being carefully tuned machines.  You deviate from your typical game – by, say, the softening distraction of being so far ahead in the standings – you lose your enabling “Winner’s Edge”, and, shortly thereafter, you lose 20 of the next 25 games.

I recall, not dissimilarly, as a performer on the 1974 summer replacement series, The Bobbie Gentry Goodtime Hour, I was waiting to tape my sure-fire “Making a Peanut Butter Sandwich from ‘Scratch’” routine – involving the essential ingredients: a sack of shelled peanuts, a skittish elephant and a measured infusion of scurrying mice.  (Use your imagination, remembering the reliable “‘Eek!’ Effect” scurrying mice have on highly-strung elephants and their shattering consequences on strategically strewn shelled peanuts.)

As I waited backstage – confident, prepared, and ready to go – a visiting producer, a transplanted Canadian who, I believe, mistook me for my older brother, began loudly berating me for “… thinking you are ‘so great’.

When I finally appeared before the cameras, that disquieting incident threw off my studied “calm but focused” equilibrium, leaving a once can’t-miss “Mice and Elephant” routine edited strategically out of program.

The “Good News” is, with preparation, experience and fueling enthusiasm, you are nearer “Perfection” than you can possibly imagine.  The “Bad News” is, the slightest buffeting distraction, and your excised “Peanut Butter From ‘Scratch’” routine lies ignominiously on the production’s cutting-room floor.

More than any conceivable factor, it’s that vaguely determinable “Winner’s Edge” that spells the disparity between “ninety-six” and “a hundred” – the difference between (arithmetical) “Perfection” and “Just missed.” 

To this day, I wonder what deflecting determinant robbed 8 year-old Earlo of that elusive “other four.”

(And why my infuriating grandpa felt it maddeningly necessary to bring it up.)

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