"It is not surprising that after a long period of searching and erring, some of the concepts and ideas in human thinking should have come gradually closer to the fundamental laws of this world, that some of our thinking should reveal the true structure of atoms and the true movements of stars."
- Victor Frederick Weisskopf, Knowledge and Wonder
This journey of a thousand steps begins with a passport application. Mine expired this spring. On March 25, 2000, the original date of issue, there was no Mid-Majority website, and the NCAA Tournament for men's basketball was something I watched on the couch after work, my tie undone and a sweating bottle of beer in my hand. Back then, there was no way of predicting that ten years later, exactly and to the day, Butler University would upset top-seeded Syracuse University in the West Region semifinals, or that this event and others like it would leave me indisposed, thousands of miles from home, swept up in a prolonged and beautiful season. Life's minor clerical details completely slipped my mind.
After the season ended, I had plenty of time for paperwork. Once I returned home to Rhode Island, getting a new passport was one of the very first items on my to-do list. Two weeks after I filled out the online form, I received a terse two-paragraph form letter in the mail from the U.S. Department of State. I was informed that my application was flagged for review and would be delayed until further notice, and there was a toll-free number if I had any questions.
Weeks went by without any further notice at all. I spent a lot of that time wondering what I could possibly have done to attract negative attention from my own elected federal government. Not knowing is the worst. The human brain is wired to solve puzzles with whatever pieces it can find; the less available information there is, the more ridiculous and convoluted those internally-generated constructions become. Some people go so far as to mistake these answers as actual facts, or react to them as if they were the news.
I felt myself turning into one of those people, so I finally made the call. The only way I would be able to discuss my case, the lady on the phone told me, was if I had impending international travel plans. Then, and only then, I could schedule a face-to-face appointment. More weeks went by. I bought a cheap round-trip ticket to Peru on Avianca, just so I could talk to somebody other than myself about it. By that point, I was convinced that a printout of something I'd written on this website was in my FBI file, and it was just a matter of finding out which essay it was. I even had a few guesses.
The passport office in Boston is in a room at the Tip O'Neill Federal Building, which is near the arena where the Celtics play. There, a middle-aged man with dead eyes gave me the answers I was looking for. My passport had been scanned at a border crossing on February 12, and it expired six weeks later. In the year 2010, which is an anagram for 2001, that is a sequence of events that an aggressively-programmed government computer will notice right away.
From that point, however, the process was simple and straightforward. The border in question happened to be Canada's, and the date was that of the Opening Ceremony of the XXI Olympic Winter Games. The man typed a "note" in my file, and made a joke that I still don't understand about kicking a donkey. Five weeks later, I had a 21st Century passport, full of inspiring American quotes and landscape illustrations and lord, the holograms
. Embedded inside is something else my old passport didn't have: a new RFID chip. Perhaps it is a device that's constantly broadcasting the book's longitude and latitude to orbiting satellites (like the one pictured on the inside back cover), so They can know exactly where I am, wherever I go.
It didn't, however, arrive in time for my flight. As of this writing, I haven't used my brand new passport, and those lovely pages are still all blank. After 15,000 miles on the road last winter and spring, I hardly did any traveling at all over the summer. At some point, I realized that I had no desire to.
During the days, I watched tennis on television, ran hundreds of miles through my suburban streets, and finally got around to reading the complete written works of Emily Carr. Then I ended up writing 600 pages of my own. In the evenings, I sat on the porch and drank red wine and listened to radio baseball from faraway cities I'd visited before. I didn't age, never felt lonely, and wasn't afraid, not once. I ignored politics. I took slow, deep breaths. When my lungs were full, I felt a tremor and soft ache in my chest, the physical manifestation of the feeling of never wanting a moment to end.
Mostly, I looked up. For nearly all of July, the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major, from Alkaid to Dubhe, were fixed and arrayed across the horizon from left to right. The Big Dipper hung there, poised and full, ready to ladle a giant spoonful of water on the far line of sleepy neighborhood rooftops. It was a dry summer, as many of them have been since I moved back to the Northeast, and the rain rarely came.
As autumn approached, the language of the stars changed. Those famous seven still pointed to Polaris, as they always will, but colder nights brought to mind other interpretations. Farmers in ancient times tended to see them as more of a harvesting plough, or as a symbol for the wagons that brought their crops to market. The constellation itself was named for a great bear, an animal for whom shorter days signal long slumbers ahead. For the select few of us who choose this particular pursuit, college basketball, we are on an inverted hibernation schedule. These longer nights belong to us. The Colonial Athletic Association, come to think of it, is a Dipper too. The handle begins up at Northeastern and extends down to Towson; the corners of the bowl are anchored by Old Dominion, Wilmington and Georgia State.
That's the shape of it, and will be until the next round of changes. The conference has been like that ever since the league's expansion, whether you saw it that way before or just realized. But finding patterns in maps is easier, and perhaps less absurd, than arranging stars. That's a process that requires flattening three dimensions to a false geographical two, and it doesn't take into account this fact: at any other fixed point in space, the arrangements are vastly different. Still, though, we continue to imagine the outlines of people and animals up there, and see our own inventions in places we'll never be. We inflict ourselves on the cosmos, we project and impose meaning as if the stars are nothing but a mirror for our hubris, and we build religions and mythologies and belief systems around shapes that aren't there.
Humans had no part in creating the stars, but constellations are our own invention. The universe has presented us with dots, billions of tiny and maddening dots. We draw lines between them because we need to. We would go insane if we were to stop.***
"Not until the fire is dying in the grate, look we for kinship with the stars."
- George Meredith, Modern Love
At the midnight that separated April 5th and 6th, the skies over Indianapolis were dead dark. The stars were all invisible because of a high, thin layer of clouds left over from a monstrous weather system from earlier in the day, one that unloaded rain and hail by the metric ton across Indiana and Ohio, and spun off tornadoes like schoolyard jacks.
I could have used Polaris at that moment. I was lost, wandering in the lots surrounding Lucas Oil Stadium. I was looking for the rental car I'd parked in the attended lot of a government building I'd forgotten the name of. I couldn't retrieve a modern digital map to illuminate my way. My iPhone battery was drained out -- a casualty of AT&T's saturated network, which my handheld device spent three hours burning computer cycles trying to connect to during the game. I was on my own, without navigation, and it took me 45 minutes to find what I was looking for. (Indiana State Surplus
... that was it.)
Those sad parking lots were the most sorrowful places I've ever walked through. Everywhere, women were crying, collapsing and shaking and sobbing in each other's arms. There were grown men in dark blue t-shirts trying their hardest not to break down, squeezing and twisting their faces as much as they could to stay the ducts. I've witnessed tragedy and panic and grief firsthand, but this was different: mass stunned despondence. Something that a lot of people were emotionally invested in and wanted very badly to happen, didn't. There was a way that things were supposed to go, and there was this. It's been said many times that "it always ends in a loss," but our pet theory was this close
to being destroyed. We were supposed to gather again on Wednesday, all of us together, right there in the shiny streets of downtown Indianapolis. There was going to be a parade. Now there wasn't going to be anything but the end.
We all had to leave that building and that celebration and "One Shining Moment" as quickly as we could, and we did. We all booked it the heck out of there. But gridlock on those very streets ensured that moving on with our lives, and finding solace and pride in finishing second, would have to wait.
None of us are born scientists. Our default settings are to be overwhelmed by the universe, and to fumble to make sense of it. To successfully move one's central locus of control from heart to brain requires prolonged exposure to the accumulated knowledge of our species, best accomplished by expensive and specialized college education. When it comes to finding explanations for that which there are no ready explanations, choosing an illusion is cheaper than rigorous research. Confirmation bias takes a lot less time than a knowledge quest. And astrological concepts are easier to latch onto than astronomical ones. That night, the bible black of the Indianapolis sky suggested that the stars simply weren't aligned for a Butler win.
Gordon Hayward III was born in Brownsburg, Indiana on March 23, 1990, under the sign of Aries. That he came into the world almost exactly ten years before my passport was issued is of no importance whatsoever. That a certain star field passed between the earth and the sun, however, is. There is a long convex arc of four stars there, and some imaginative Greeks saw in Aries the shape of a ram (and not, perchance, that of a worm, which the line more closely resembles). Important, too, are the ideas that each of us are bound together by the time of year during which we were born, that there are 12 basic types of people in this world, and that we are sexually incompatible with several of the other 11.
Or, that those who share birthdates all somehow share destinies as well. Gordon Hayward (and his tennis-playing twin sister Heather) were born under sun trine Mars
, an alignment said to unleash flowing athletic energy. Here is Gordon's star chart and daily analysis for April 5, 2010, from a leading astrology website. Period when you will be in top physical shape. From the mental point of view, thanks to your physical form, you will be full of go, confidence, ready to do a thousand things. You will be full of bravado, courageous, determined and bubbly. You will have total confidence in your ability to do things, and will never doubt yourself. You should harness this energy and take advantage of this time to tackle projects or problems. Difficulties can disappear, everything will seem obvious to you, black and white.Very good time to enter a competition, if you are sporty. During this period, you are likely to succeed in everything, you will finish all your jobs, and go to the very end. Success is guaranteed.
But failure occurred. It has been documented
in the seven months since: had Hayward's wrist been angled an eighth of an inch to the left upon release, a movement too small to be perceptible without full attention, everything would be different. Had the ball impacted the Lucas Oil Stadium backboard three inches to the left, it would have fallen down through the rim, and the Butler Bulldogs would be National Champions.
An eighth of an inch, and they'd have won for all of us, and we'd have all had our parade. On a computer screen, which has a graphic resolution of 72 dots per inch, 0.13 inches translates to eight pixels. To repeat: eight pixels.
For the entirety of our seventh season, a tiny blue blip, eight pixels wide, will sit in the upper left-hand corner of each and every page of this website. You didn't notice it when you loaded this page in your browser. But now, it will remind you, every day, of how close the distance between 61-59 and 62-61 really was. That's how far we all were from our parade: the width of a tear.
The heart wants to know why. The reasons for failure are right there, obvious and in black and white, revealed through the physical sciences, mechanics and physics and biology. Still, the heart wants to know why. It rejects the rational answer, and doesn't understand all those numbers. It wants to hear about fate and destiny, invisible animals in the stars, or a gentle puff of God's breath. The heart pleads, demands, insists on poetry. It won't stop asking why until it gets what it wants.***
"Look at the stars! Look, look up at the stars! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!"
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, No. 32: The Starlight Night
There is a place in Kansas I know, but I couldn't pinpoint it on a map if you asked me to. This somewhere has no name, like so many places between places in that part of the country. But it's between Emporia and Ottawa along the free, non-Turnpike spur of Interstate 35 in the eastern part of the state. It's technically a part of my beloved Missouri Valley, but the Big 12 claims the land as its own too.
At 3 a.m. on a clear night last January, I drove through this place, the only one on the highway for miles on end in either direction. With no light pollution other than my own halogen headlamps, I was surrounded, outnumbered, overwhelmed by thousands of tiny lights. I felt compelled to pull over to the side of the road, switch off the ignition, exit the vehicle and sit on the front hood of that rented Ford Focus as long as I could stand the cold. I leaned back. The land was so flat, and the canopy of stars was pulled tight, tucked down into the edge of each far horizon. I had never seen so many at one time. I took slow, deep breaths. When my lungs were full, I felt a tremor and soft ache in my chest, the physical manifestation of the feeling of never wanting a moment to end.
For a bunch of faraway globs of glowing plasma, simple dots against darkness, they sure hold the capacity to inspire the imagination. So much so that we've been using stars as metaphors for accomplished, rich and popular people for over a century now, and perhaps longer than that. We keep adding adjectives -- superstar, megastar, all-star -- but for some reason, the core noun hasn't worn itself out yet. Probably because the pedestals we place certain people on have so much in common with our strange relationship with the skies. Stars are high, shiny, interesting, distant and seemingly unreachable, but we demand a high measure of ground control.
Gordon Hayward is a star now. He left school two years early, entered his name in the professional draft, and now draws a salary from the NBA's Utah Jazz that's larger than Butler University's per annum basketball expenses. He's no longer the computer genius and bad rapper
next door. Gordon Hayward is an X
-value entity to hold opinions about, a number to gamble on, a member of your fantasy team. He is a higher being, visible to all. Millions of people can now cavil over whether he's a ram or a worm. And so the celestial parallel holds: he's moved beyond what most would consider earth, and gone above.
As such, there isn't much more to say here about Gordon Hayward. What we do is very different from that kind of discussion and debate. Changing people's minds on the internet is a game for others. We choose our dots and draw our lines
, but what we don't do is argue with people, or try to convince them why our maps are superior. For six years, we've found wonder and beauty in a plot of tiny specks in constant motion. Our job is not to flatten the sky; it is to wander among that field, and to report back the findings. The answers tend to be poetic and scientific in equal measure; if they seem supernatural or religious, we haven't worked hard enough.
This will be our seventh semicircle around the sun. For a few of you, those who have been on all six previous journeys with us, this is a very familiar routine this time of year: several days of essays and overviews, followed by several more of nuts-and-bolts orientation, and then finally the games. For others, this is your second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth ride through the Beautiful Season
, and it's awesome to have you back. To others, The Mid-Majority is something that doesn't quite make sense; to more than some, I come off like a stoned transient, or a loopy uncle who talks to puppets. After six-plus years, I'm used to that. We lose readers all the time.
Here, we experiment, we make mistakes, we're unapologetic, we're funded by our readers, and our volume of travel and mileage will parallel our level of incoming finance. This time, we have things to offer in return
, but no persuasive PowerPoints for those who might be on the fence about active involvement. Our side discussions of philosophy, personal experience, cartoons, Tom Petty, Mexican milk-based beverages and redheaded cheerleaders ensure that this is not a site for everyone, much less most college basketball fans and their closely-held opinions about everything. It might be for you. If Season 7 is your first trip with us, welcome aboard. I guarantee you that there is nothing else on the sports internet even remotely like this.
The seven months between the Epilogue and the Prologue turn easy and quick, a series of hot days melting away in rapid succession, a cycle of morning coffee and evening wine. The only predictable element of The Mid-Majority is the start date. The end of Season 7, and its own long Epilogue, will come whenever the last team of our 262 is eliminated from consideration from the National Championship -- whether that happens on the first Friday of the NCAA Tournament, or on April 4, 2011 at Houston's Reliant Stadium. If there's a remaining audience at that point, the sequence will reset, leading up to the beginning of Season 8 exactly one year from now.
Because today is the first of November, and that means something around here. The sun is just about halfway across the fixed constellation of Scorpius. The Northern Hemisphere is tilting away from the galaxy's central heating system in the earth's wobbly orbit, and it's getting cold here in New England. Just last week, we had our first frost, and I finally put the deck furniture back in the basement. It's time to leave home, to gather with friends and colleagues in warm, faraway arenas to contemplate the complexities of Our Game. It's time to gather material for the next book.
It's time, once again, to float in space.