Dollar Sign on the Muscle — the best book on scouting, bar none — is back in print from the good folks at Baseball Prospectus. Very glad to see it back out in the world, and to call Kevin Kerrane my friend. Check it out!
I’ve finally finished one of the odder and more rewarding books I’ve ever read. It’s called Lost Country Life, written in 1979 by Dorothy Hartley. It’s a painstaking examination of how the medieval English lived and worked, covering everything from wool spinning to beekeeping, and following the lead of Thomas Tusser, who published a 16th-century farming calendar in rhyming verse.
Reading Lost Country Life (published in the U.K. as The Land of England: English Country Customs Through the Ages) is a strange experience. You find yourself double-checking to see that you are, in fact, reading a lengthy passage about the design of medieval sacks. But Hartley’s a fine guide, writing with warmth and wit, and so more often than not you emerge ready to proclaim to a bemused friend that medieval sack design is a lot more interesting than they might think.
One of the rewards of Lost Country Life is it makes you realize just how much our society has been shaped by an experience that’s now alien to us. Very few of us now live on small farms, care for sheep and pigs, or bring goods to market, but our customs and our language continue to reflect a time when we did.
Examples abound, so I’ll offer just a few. “By hook or by crook” refers to the ancient right of householders to collect dead branches on their lord’s land for firewood, though not to cut wood for such purposes. The weed hook or shepherd’s crook were simultaneously useful implements for collecting those dead branches and proof that the householder belonged on the estate and was not an outsider. Offering “three cheers” for someone on a momentous occasion originally meant something rather different: It was a ritual that marked the end of harvest, by which the hired laborers let the boss know it was time for their bonus money.
Beyond that, though, Hartley captures how connected to nature our forebears were — how attuned they were to the seasons, and weather, and the habits of animals, birds and insects. It’s a pull many of us still feel, even as we’ve retreated to apartments and houses and life in cars and offices.
Reading Lost Country Life is difficult — it’s not the kind of book you can pick up for a couple of minutes, but one you have to sit with, and let yourself sink into, and read closely and attentively after quieting both everything around you and everything spinning around in your own head. But the rewards are considerable, delivered in passages like this one:
The sheared fleece was by old custom handed over to women workers, who laid it flat, the side from next the skin upwards. removed soiled or matted wool and then folded the four leg pieces inwards. The neck wool they dexterously pulled out, rope-wise, then from the tail end they rolled up the fleece into a neat bundle which they secured with the rope of neck wool.
The uniformity of these fleece rolls was important, as they then went to the wool-room where they were graded and packed into the woolpack. In these days of lorry collecting, the old wool-room is almost obsolete. In old farms the fleeces were laid out on a clean-swept floor in the wool-room and were collected at nightfall.
The fleeces were still live and warm. Each fleece was ivory white, and if the summer night was cold after a hot day, a mist, like the bloom on fruit, clouded the wool, and the cooling fleeces stirred slightly all night through. Most live materials have tension. The fibres of wool, in tension, are locked together like the plume of a bird’s feather, and in an old wool-room you could hear the fleeces stirring; a faint sound like soft breathing.
I’ve read that a couple of times, and each time I’m struck by the strangeness of it, followed by the realization that once such knowledge wasn’t peculiar or specialized, but commonplace. It’s a hard feeling to describe — faintly unsettling at first, but then, somehow, oddly comforting.
The idea that the Mets needed to “change the narrative” has been derided in some baseball circles, particularly by people who think Curtis Granderson won’t prove to be a good acquisition.
All I can say in response is that my own Mets narrative desperately needed changing.
I just wrote a future history of the solar system, then revised it so it read like a school paper written by a 12-year-old. Then I added comments made by an artificial intelligence with a propensity for nitpicking.
Definitely one of the stranger things I’ve ever done. And more difficult than I would have thought.
And here’s the third installment (of 12) of material cut from Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare. Starring Xim the Despot, and featuring a really cool poem from my pal Michael Kogge that I’m really happy to finally bring to the audience it deserves.
This New York Times story caught my eye a couple of days back — it explains how people who think they’re descended from passengers aboard the Mayflower tackle the paperwork required to prove their ancestry and win admission to “one of the country’s most rarified clubs” — the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New York.
It begins with a woman named Kristina Mack, whose documentation convinced the Society of her connection to Mayflower passenger William Bradford — perhaps the source of an ancient wooden potato masher family tradition says made the journey with him. Later we meet a woman who has traced her ancestry back to Miles Standish but is still trying to prove one link to the Society’s satisfaction, and another who persisted and finally proved her link to James Chilton.
As a genealogy and history dork I found it an interesting read, but there was one piece missing, at least for me. There were 102 Mayflower passengers. How many descendants do they have in the U.S. today?
The answer … about 35 million.
The exclusivity of the Society of Mayflower Descendants? It’s a reflection not of ancestry, but of one’s taste for research and paperwork.
Curious, I checked my own family tree, and found my ancestors include two Mayflower passengers: Richard Warren and his future son-in-law John Cooke.
My family tree isn’t anything special, which is the point. Sure, I think it’s pretty cool to say, “I had ancestors who came over on the Mayflower.” But I wasn’t that surprised. Nor am I interested in doing the paperwork to get a certificate to hang on my wall.
I’m not trying to disparage the folks in the Times article. Genealogy is a funny thing, combining dogged investigation and cool logic with a spooky sense of connection and identity. What we get out of that is highly individual — as unique as a fingerprint, perhaps. But as I’ve become better at assembling genealogical information and making sense of it, my interest in names and dates has waned, while my interest in photos and stories has grown.
I gained satisfaction from untangling the ancestry of my great-great-grandmother Lydia Sheets Baker, but what really makes me happy is the faded, battered photo of her that a newfound Baker cousin shared with me. I’ve learned a lot tracing the Frys back from West Virginia to Switzerland, but I really like looking at the lantern my great-grandfather Isaac Henry Fry carried in his work on the railroad.
I’m glad Kristina Mack got her Society certificate, but if she showed it to me I’d make some kind of polite noise and then ask if I could see something I think is much cooler — that worn potato masher that might have been handed down, quite literally, through all the generations since Plymouth.
That’s a teaser from School Library Journal’s starred review of The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra. Very exciting!
The book will be out Dec. 23, but you can read the first five chapters right now courtesy of HarperCollins by going here.
I haven’t written about the Mets for a while over on Faith and Fear. I’ve been busy with other things, and I’ve known my super-prolific blog partner Greg has the fort. But I’ve also had to admit that being mentally disengaged has been nice.
I attended the last game of the season with my family. After it ended, Citi Field’s security goons hustled me and my family out of our seats while a scattering of fans were trying to enjoy a last look at the field for 2013. This wasn’t an hour after the last out, mind you, or even 10 minutes after it — the team was still playing “Closing Time” over the PA.
That left a bad taste.
More than that, though, I was tired of the overall sense of futility — that ownership doesn’t have the money to run the team properly and Bud Selig, MLB’s utterly worthless non-steward, isn’t going to do anything to solve the problem.
It was nice not to think about all that for a while.
So what’s changed? Nothing, really. I just got pissed off enough that I couldn’t ignore it anymore.