Anatomy of Regret

The perennial holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life was, at the time of its release in 1946, considered a resounding flop. It struggled to recoup its production costs at the box office, and many thought that the failure signaled the end of director Frank Capra’s career, which was until then like Spielbergianly bankable.

Maybe what those initial filmgoers who stayed away in droves were responding to–or more accurately, I guess, weren’t responding to–was something that even as a young little dudelet I sensed about the movie: the world minus George Bailey, the one where everyone was Lindy-hopping it up and getting their baby boom on, the one meant to scare ol’ George into reconsidering that felo-de-se notion–it didn’t seem entirely bad.  Sure, for George and his immediates Pottersville was pretty distressing, but everyone else–no longer living under the constant, teetering threat of a possible Savings and Loans scandal wrought by one dottering old dunderhead–could afford to be a bit more profligate, financially and otherwise.

The Bedford Falls/Pottersville dichotomy in some murky but important way fails to deliver on the movie’s basic homily, which is a pretty frequently recurring one throughout recorded human history: Be happy with what you have. Maybe it, meaning the homily, requires such repetition because it is so difficult to learn. There’s an existential buyer’s remorse that, for some people, seems to gnaw at even our most inconsequential decision, a feeling that, and I almost certainly misquote here, Kierkegaard described as like “being adrift on a sea of infinite possibilities.”

This gut-level philosophy was given some scientific support recently. Advances in behavioral economics suggest that everyday decision-making has a diagnosably real psychological effect on the human brain, one that Barry Schwartz in his bestseller The Paradox of Choice argued was pernicious and anxiety-producing. Many scholars dispute the severity of this effect, claiming that most rationally behaving humans are able to pretty quickly resolve the momentary cognitive dissonance of choosing between, say, a tasty quesadilla or a sensible salad for lunch. Still, there seems to be some intuitive truth to the basic assertion–after all, as choices proliferate, the odds that we make the optimal one necessarily go down.

Making matters worse is the fact that preying on this insecurity is pretty much the advertainment industry’s bread and butter. Look, it says, here is a better world, a world peopled by implausibly attractive potential mates that can be entered (the world and mates both) by simply purchasing the correct two-in-one body wash plus skin moisturizer. In his glow-in-the-darkly good essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace details how, as the viewing public grew more adept at detecting marketing ploys, marketers adopted more subtle ploys. The escalation resulted in the prevalent tone of the times, the ironic wink, in which advertisers co-opted the doubt that the audience felt towards advertising, and deflected it back against them, turning it into self-doubt. You’re too smart, too independent to fall for the old advertising tricks, commercials tell us. You ignore the herd and take time for yourself. And that’s why you’re sophisticated enough to truly enjoy our premium fat-free single-serve yogurt.

It’s a telling coincidence that the term of art for this strategy is “aspirational marketing;” in medicine, “aspiration” means the leakage of foreign material into the lungs. They both are a sickness. Wallace contends that this tactic has become so pervasive that it amounts to a London, 1941-level barrage on our psyche, and that the resulting national mood, the one that has driven our economy to this place of ruin, is one of constant and almost preemptive regret.

All of which is to say: I really wish I had drafted Emilio Bonifacio in my fantasy keeper league.

Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball

Central to this blog’s fascination with sports–and I’d guess this is true of most ardent sports fans–is the question, “What is it like?” As we’ve mentioned here before, athletes at the pinnacle of exertion attain a level of conspicuous grace that we mere onlookers, in our humble, daily trials, can never truly access. We’re desperate for anything that can make this sort of unfathomable genius discernible to us. Or as David Foster Wallace put it, we’re trying to “get intimate with all that profundity.”

Our inability to understand is matched by the athlete’s inability to explain. Wallace dissects this disconnect in his essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” He suggests that the banal, unenlightening postgame clichés an athlete offers up aren’t evidence of his or her lack of intelligence, but instead are real and deeply true and essential to the athlete’s success in ways we can’t grasp. I think this is echoed by the A.A. members in “Infinite Jest.” For recovering addicts, like top-flight athletes, success is only possible by abandoning oneself and trusting in the mercy of some higher power. “One day/pitch/serve/foul shot/putt at a time,” then, takes on a terrifying, mind-clearing urgency. 

Dock Ellis, former Major Leaguer and recovering addict, died yesterday. He wore curlers in his hair, and once set out to bean every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup. He was maced by a stadium security guard who didn’t believe he was who he said he was, and spent his post-baseball years as a drug and alcohol counselor in Los Angeles. He was a man of his time, especially because he and his time didn’t often see eye to eye*. He also threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.

Still high from the night before, Ellis woke up the morning of June 12, 1970, in his girlfriend’s Los Angeles apartment. Believing he had the day off, Ellis dropped acid again before one of his companions pointed out that the newspaper listed him as the starting pitcher in game one of that day’s doubleheader. In San Diego.  The no-hitter wasn’t of the Kerry Wood, untouchably dominant sort. Understandably, Dock had trouble locating the strike zone, walking eight batters and–naturally–hitting one. But, c’mon, give him a break. He was really, really high.

This is a great story, great for so many reasons. But one reason, for me, is because it both emphasizes and explodes the divide between athlete and spectator. Asking Ellis what was going through his mind that day would have been absurd, and absurd not in the existentially tragic, Sisyphean way, but absurd in a way that was funny and potentially revealing. What could his response possibly have been? “I don’t know, freaking Yodas and shit?”

Or maybe something more like, “I noticed that there was a hole in a corner of the sky, and through it I had a complete view of the universe and the secrets it contained, and I watched as these secrets leaked through the hole like liquid, and I was filled with the knowledge that we, every one of us, are bathed by this liquid, today and forever.”

And everyone in attendance would have understood him, for once, because that day at Jack Murphy Stadium they had seen the same thing, too.

*For more on Dock’s struggle with race, drugs, and baseball, check out this book, which is also the source of this post’s title.