So two months ago, to reward Adam for undergoing a visit to the doctor and shots, I bought him a ball, a blue plastic thing I’d spotted in a shop window near the pediatrician’s office. When I brought it home and rolled it to him, however, he let it roll by. He had other business to attend to. Then, suddenly, last week, he starts getting interested in the ball. He clips after it when I roll it. He likes to see it go down the stairs. The ball, it has connected.
The ball.
“Your toddler is starting to have a ball – first by rolling that curious round thing you’ve handed him or her… and then by attempting to throw it – or more likely, dropping the ball and watching in delight as it moves across the floor.”
What to expect the second year: from 12 to 24 months, by Heidi Murkoff
Since we joined the Y, I’ve decided to make a go of living a healthier lifestyle. The first week that meant swimming – and I’m not a good or dedicated swimmer – the running machine, the rowing machine, this torture machine in which you move your thighs to make some weights go up a bit in the air. However, in the back of my mind I was thinking of the racket court. Unfortunately, I don’t know anybody in Santa Monica who plays racketball, but I decided to get some balls and today I just played myself for an hour. Winded myself. I was surprised by how slow I was. On the other hand, I play racketball with instincts shaped by tennis, which I played manically between the ages of 11 and 21, and thus there was always this phantom length of racket that the racket ball would go through, there were these angles and speeds that were twists on the tennis ball, enough like it to fool me.
There is a tremendous literature about sports in the 20th and 21st century, but really little about the ball. The ball itself. Yet the ball is fascinating. The hardness, the compression of the racket ball balls is satisfying, but I can’t get myself into one of those balls. By contrast, that is what I spent my time trying to do between 11 and 21, playing tennis. I was a steady player, but mediocre. I was paired with another such player on the high school team – not for me the thrill of starting as a single. On the other hand, I was good enough that I could sometimes defeat our single player – not the Swedish ringer, but my buddy, W. – in a match. In tennis, sometimes you have a growth spurt – you play above the level of your play, you get it in a new way, the ball is your second self. But I could never climb to that level and stay there. Not enough dedication. Even so, I knew that when I played well, it was about the ball. The racket, the beautiful racket, followed, obeyed, it was a part of you, but it wasn’t idiosyncratic, it didn’t have a free will, it wasn’t a ball.
It is odd that economists don’t consider the ball. All the activity, the immense labor, that is woven around balls. Because why? Because you want to win, and to win means doing your thing with the ball, which is the thing – the object and the symbol – between you and your opponent.
Balls have evidently been around a long time, but they don’t get the study that, say, coins do. They should, though. Take, for instance, the American football. That ball is grotesque. It is less ball than projectile. If Adorno had had a sportif bone in his flabby kritikdrenched body, he would have recognized the intimacy between the football and Hiroshima. In fact, football is a tremendously interesting game, but it is interesting the way the war in the Pacific, circa 1941-1945, is more interesting than the Thirty years war.
On the other hand, you have the baseball, which is all Renaissance, a thing of beauty that would have been recognized by Alberti or by da Vinci. The stitching and the whiteness and the generally regal bearing of that ball, the great materials it is made of, mystically color the entire game.
Yet even so – there is the ball – not the individual balls. Oddly, all of these balls are inter-substitutable. One doesn’t play a ball game with the individual ball in mind. There are, of course, balls that are fetishistically claimed – bowling balls, for instance. But mostly the balls are disposable in their very essence. You might try to live on the tennis ball during the game, you might try to clear your mind of everything else, but in the end, you have no affection for the ball qua that particular ball.
Children’s encyclopedia’s retail glorious myths about the invention of fire, or of the wheel, or the pully, or bronze – but they never both to imagine the invention of the ball. The ball, in fact, seems part of nature. A pebble, a nut. Yet the ball is surely the very symbol of culture – it is the very symbol of the symbol. In itself, it is nothing. But in play, it becomes more than itself. It starts to mean. It is Victor Turner’s symbolic object, and as such, it defines spaces and limits. It creates a passage, traversing a space that is charged with meaning. But unlike those objects – human beings – who also go through passages, the ball can mean but it can’t express. This, of course, brings us back to the afore mentioned fact that balls do not earn our affection, as say a piece of furniture, a house, a car do. A ball is always being subsumed into the great collective of balls.
Enough about balls.