James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Sports

  • Vic Braden

    The man who taught America tennis during the boom era of the sport

    VicBraden.com

    Through the 1970s and 1980s, when American tennis was strong and players like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were the American face of the sport on court, Vic Braden was (with Bud Collins) the face of American tennis in TV commentary. Collins called the matches; Braden popped up everywhere to give tips on how to play the game.

    The cover of one of his many instructional books

    Tennis has receded enough in popularity that no current figure quite matches his role. The closest sports-world counterparts would be some leading basketball (Phil Jackson?) or football (John Madden?) coach.

    Vic Braden appeared on late-night talk shows and even on network news shows. He wrote a popular series of books and produced instructional videos. His name and always-smiling face were familiar in ads and on the airwaves, in a way that seemed appropriate for the de-country-club-ization of tennis that, with their respective styles, Connors, McEnroe, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King were bringing about.

    What I hadn't realized, until I had a chance to meet him in the 1990s, is that beneath this court-jester exterior Vic Braden was a deep and serious person, and a good one.

    Twenty years ago, when I had finished a very long book writing stint (for Looking at the Sun), I somehow talked my wife and kids into letting me go through detox via immersions in two tennis camps. First, Nick Bolletieri's, in Sarasota, Florida; then Vic Braden's, in Coto de Caza, California.

    About Bolletieri's I'll simply say: you can find someone else to tell you that he is a great guy. My stint there toughened and toned me up. Plus, I got to see a newly arrived little blond-ponytailed girl from Russia who was walloping the ball, and who I have always assumed/ wanted to believe was the just-off-the-boat Maria Sharapova.   

    About Vic Braden I will say that he seemed to be a born teacher and evangelist, and was someone I wanted to stay in touch with over the years. In the September, 1994 issue of this magazine, I wrote about going to both camps. I can't give you a link to the article, since it's from that twilight zone before our articles were on line (yet is not yet far enough into the recesses of history to put online for antiquarian purposes). In that piece I said that while Bollettieri's operation was devoted to prodigies and couldn't quite conceal its disdain for adult plodders like me, Vic Braden—who, in contrast to Bollettieri, was a huge, in-person presence at his camp—seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players, because there was so much more he could teach us.

    An article I wrote two years later, called "Throwing Like a Girl," is online and talks about Vic Braden's concept of the "kinetic chain" as the key to many successful athletic movements, from golf or baseball swings to tennis strokes to throwing any kind of ball. I got the feeling around him that he loved teaching tennis as a subset of his love for teaching in general, which in turn was a subset of his fascination with looking into how people could make the most of their opportunities and potential.

    As you will have guessed by this point, I am saying all this because I have just heard that Vic Braden died two days ago, at the age of 85. He was a genuinely accomplished, deep, influential, loving and loved man, who deserves to be noted by people who were not around during his media heyday, and to be taken more seriously by people who are aware only of his corny on-air routines. You can read some tennis-world appreciations of him here, here, and here. Although I haven't found any of his 1970s-80s TV appearances on line, these instructional videos give a feel for his style. The third is about his approach as applied more broadly than just to tennis technique.

    On the low volley:

    On the forehand backswing:

    On changing the backhand, but really about change in general:

    And, why not, a surreal moment from a Davis Cup match in Ecuador featuring Arthur Ashe:

    My sympathies to his family, and my gratitude for having known him.

  • Iron Pigs Rising

    Another strand in the fibers of civic connection

    Warming up before the Pigs-Chiefs night game, Coca-Cola Park (James Fallows)

    It turns out that the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs aren't really that good at baseball, at least this year. They lost two of the three games we saw at Coca-Cola Stadium last month—a day-night doubleheader on a Saturday, and a night game the following Monday, all against the Syracuse Chiefs and all in idyllic, clear high-sky conditions. A few weeks later at the end of the season, the Chiefs were at the top of the triple-A International League Northern division, and the poor Iron Pigs were 15.5 games back in last place.

    Maybe we're not good-luck omens for plucky minor-league teams. Earlier in the summer, our Duluth Huskies, of the Northwoods league, took a 9-7 lead over the Eau Claire Express into the bottom of the 8th, only to lose by the improbable 11-inning score of 16-9.  (That is what giving up 7 runs in the top of the 11th will do to a team.) Happily, the Huskies ended up tied for first in their league.

    But we couldn't feel too bad about the Iron Pigs' loss. Although we loyally cheered for them, the visiting Chiefs are the AAA-farm team of our local rampaging Washington Nationals, so from our perspective it was a win either way.*

    (The Iron Pigs are part of the Phillies organization.) And we got to take part in one of the civic institutions meant to be part of a revived Allentown and greater Lehigh Valley.

    Deb Fallows describes the game, the team, the stadium, and the idea behind all of them in a new post in our American Futures series. You can read it here. Below you can see that post's author, in the white skirt, looking on from the centerfield lawn/stands as Kai Ryssdal (green shirt) and his Marketplace team interview Lee Butz (white shirt) who built the stadium.

    And if you're still wondering about the Allentown spirit, please check out this city video, produced earlier this year and featuring many of the people you've heard about in our dispatches so far, and a few more to come.


    Personal note: for the past ten days, and the ten+ days to come, I have been and will be heavily preoccupied with a big print-magazine project. Look forward to returning to this beat.

    * Similarly: From my parochial perspective, this is the most satisfying baseball season in a long time. The Eastern division leaders are the Nationals and the Os, for whom my kids grew up cheering in the pre-Nationals era. In the West, it's the LA Dodgers with whom I grew up, and the Angels. The Central people can fight it out. Only imperfection is that the As, who we cheered on when living in Berkeley, haven't yet made it. 

  • Barefoot Running: The Videos

    "The collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system." Scientists on what can happen when you run.

    How bones, muscles, tendons, and joints absorb stress, as documented in a famous study ( Skeletal Biology Lab, Harvard )

    Over the years I've mentioned the famous and fascinating running-related videos from Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard. But I haven't done so in a while, and in the context of recent finger-shoe news it's worth highlighting them again. This is also a way of thanking people who keep sending me links to them.

    Videos like the ones below are slow-mo studies of how a runner's legs and feet look, and how the body absorbs stress, with different running styles. The main contrast is between landing on the front part of your foot, as almost anyone naturally does when running barefoot, and landing on the heel, as almost anyone naturally does while walking and which today's thickly padded shoes encourage for running as well.

    Here's one of the videos showing the biomechanics of "forefoot strike" running. Its main point is that the impact of landing and pushing off is spread out over a longer period, and buffered in force (mainly by the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and arch of the foot), compared with the sudden shock of landing on the heel.

    Here, for contrast, is the way heel-strike running looks, with padded running shoes.

    As part of the explanation on the site says:

    Our research indicates that humans were able to run comfortably and safely when barefoot or in minimal footwear by landing with a flat foot (midfoot strike) or by landing on the ball of the foot before bringing down the heel (forefoot strike)...  

    Most runners who wear standard running shoes usually heel strike, [in which] ... the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.

    Therefore, quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.

    There is a lot more on the site, which I will simply steer you toward rather than trying to summarize. The larger point, again, is that barefoot-style running, and the "minimalist" shoes that encourage it, can be easier on your whole system—if you're able to adjust to run that way. The recent no-questions-asked trial offer for the best known minimalist shoe is a chance to find out whether your running style, and these shoes, are a plausible match. 

  • Sunday Readings on Media, Sports, and War

    Talk shows aren't bringing on Captain Hazelwood to discuss safe shipping. But they still can't get enough of the Hazelwoods of foreign policy. Also, whether the "New York Times paradox" applies to public radio.  

    Marilyn Monroe statue in Chinese scrapyard. Explanation below. (Reuters)

    A harvest of items worth attention:

    1) Media Decline Watch, public radio edition. Anyone who has spent time in Seattle knows the voice and sensibility of Steve Scher. He has been a long-time urbane host and interviewer on the public radio station KUOW. He has made a place in the public awareness similar to that of Michael Krasny on KQED in San Francisco, or Diane Rehm on WAMU in Washington, or Larry Mantle on KPCC in Southern California, or their mainstay counterparts across the country. I was on the show sometimes, and listened to it frequently, in the years we lived in Seattle.

    This story by David Brewster, himself a stalwart of Seattle journalism, on the regional news site Crosscut is a sobering account of why Scher decided to take himself out of the radio business. You can read the story yourself, but it helps illustrate public radio's version of what I think of as the modern "New York Times paradox."

    The paradox is that digital technology has made the NYT more influential worldwide than it has ever been before, and more than any other single news organization in history. And that same technology has put the Times in terrible economic straits. In the Times's case, I've always assumed that this paradox will be resolved in its favor. It will find a way to convert its global brand into some kind of sustainable business.

    The Scher story is a reminder that there may be a comparable "public radio paradox." In influence, public radio in all its incarnations is more important than ever. (The incarnations include the mother-ship NPR, PRI, APM (host of our American Futures-partner Marketplace), the numerous local stations, some state and regional alliances, and others.)  And yet NPR layoffs and cutbacks are always in the news, and many other parts of the public radio ecosystem are in financial trouble. This paradox will be harder to resolve than the NYT's, for a variety of reasons: because there are so many players, because there are rivalries among some of them, because they're not run as normal businesses, and because their governing structure is more cumbersome than that of a family business. But it's in everyone's interest that they succeed.

     

    2) A walk on the Aussie side, Baffler edition. On first exposure to Australia, many Americans think, "Hey, it's a nicer version of home." In many (pleasant) visits over the years, I've come to think that—both to its credit and not—Australia is a very deeply different place from the United States. In The Baffler, Sarah Burnside, an Aussie, explains some of the reasons why.

     

    3) Oh calm down, Boomer-finances edition. Scare-mongering is one of our national pastimes, in realms from aviation safety ("My plane almost crashed!") to China's rise or budget deficits. In the American Scholar, my friend Lincoln Caplan debunks a fiscal version of scare-talk: the idea that Boomer-era retirement and medical demands will bankrupt us all. Calm down, he says:

    A demographic tool has become an economic one, treating a demographic challenge as both an economic crisis and a basis for pessimism justifying drastic reductions in bedrock government programs, including those supporting children and the poor. Even at state and local levels, the aging boomer demographic is repeatedly blamed for our economic difficulties. That is a lamentable mistake... 

    The dependency ratio does not justify the solutions that the alarmists propose. Just as important, perhaps, it fails to account for the striking benefits accruing from the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century—what the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on an Aging Society called “one of the greatest cultural and scientific advances in our history.”

     

    4) Seriously, why are we still hearing from Cheney, Kristol, et al? After the Exxon Valdez, cable news wasn't bringing us Captain Hazelwood as expert commentator on maritime safety. After the next big air disaster, we're not going have the Malaysian aviation authorities on to offer advice. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysts who have always been wrong and the officials who put wrong policy into effect keep commanding air time. Today, incredibly, ABC gave Dick Cheney an extended platform on This Week with more deferential questioning than Megyn Kelly had applied on Fox News.  

    Why? Why? If TV is not serving up Hazelwood or the Malaysian savants, or O.J. on managing a post-sports career, why are they bringing us Kristol and Cheney? In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt offers not excuses but diagnostic-style explanations. You can see them here

     

    5) Sports news, throwing department. For background on the "Throwing Like a Girl" concept, please see this original article and follow-ups like this and this.

    The last of these links takes you to a slo-mo video of the Giants' Tim Lincecum throwing. Tim Heffernan suggests points to an incredible GIF of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and says we need a new category, "throwing like a machine." I can't embed it, but you can see it here

     

    6) OK, what about Marilyn Monroe? My friend Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet, says that the standard outside reaction to photos of the statue in a Chinese scrap yard, has been some variation on: Oh, those wacky Chinese! To the contrary, Adam says. He explains why here.

  • Americana: Wade Stadium, Home of the Huskies

    An evening in the ballpark, a look into the sports-in-America beat.

    A mid-inning conference by the visiting Eau Claire Express.

    This evening the political news is out of Virginia, and there is upcoming news in this space from Mississippi and from San Francisco, both of them tomorrow.

    The Duluth Husky builds morale.

    But for now, this is how things looked this evening at Wade Stadium in Duluth, Minnesota—an atmospheric WPA-era not-quite-minor-league baseball field that is home to the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League. This is a league for promising players who are still active on college rosters, and thus not eligible for pro contracts of any sort. They get expenses and—according to the lifelong Duluth families we sat among in the stadium—most of the players, who come from around the country, spend the summer boarding with volunteer host families in town. Some of the players join their Northwoods teams late because they've been busy in the College World Series and other postseason play.

    The home-team Huskies looked strong this evening. They were up 6-1 at the end of the 4th, and came back for 9-7 at the end of the 5th. I asked the native-Duluther sitting next to me, a veteran of the mining industry, whether Northwoods games were generally high-scoring like this, Little League style. He said, No: the Huskies usually didn't get so many runs. But then the visiting Eau Claire Express scored a depressing 2 runs in the top of the ninth, and seven in the top of the 11th—and this is how things stand as I write.

                                                                 ***

    This is a placeholder note about America, and also an announcement about an additional theme in our travels-around-America reports. Last month I had the honor of delivering the 14th annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture, at Brown University. Casey Shearer was a talented student journalist and writer in the Brown class of 2000 who, tragically and unexpectedly, died of a heart virus while playing basketball with friends just before he was to graduate. Casey Shearer's influential and popular writings in Brown student media were often about sports and their ramifications; the sports-and-society beat is one he presumably would have pursued as a writer. In his honor, his parents (and our friends) Ruth Goldway and Derek Shearer set up a memorial lecture about some aspect of the journalistic world in which he presumably would have worked.

    As part of this year's Shearer Memorial Lecture, I received, with my wife, a modest honorarium of $1500. We said that in gratitude for this award and in respect for the kind of writing that Casey Shearer might have done we would use the money in the months ahead to pay expenses for reports exploring the role sports plays in the cities we are visiting. I am not making any larger point about the role of the Huskies for the moment, but I am saying that we have applied the $9 cost of our Wade Stadium tickets this evening to this account. (This was half price on "Two-fer Tuesday"). The $18 for beers and brats we are happy to cover ourselves.

    Update: the Huskies are coming back with 3 so far in the bottom of the 11th, so it is 16-12 as I write. But my hopes are modest. We actually left the stadium, and have been following online, after the Huskies rallied and seemed back in control by the bottom of the 6th. The truth is, we were freezing. (When flying over Lake Superior yesterday, we didn't see any icebergs, but most people have mentioned that they were present as recently as Memorial Day.)

    Deb Fallows prepared for a summertime game in Duluth.

    We're not going to be here for Friday night's game, but in case you are, there's a special attraction: a group of local women are going to dig their way around the infield with spoons, in search of a hidden diamond. American sports at its finest.

    Late-inning scene in the WPA-era stadium on a chilly night.

    And it looks as if it tonight's game might end at 16-12. Pitchers' battle! And there is always tomorrow night, when the Huskies take on the Express again.

  • Who Has a Legitimate Gripe Against Vibram Shoes? The Syndactyly Crowd

    Why some readers view this photo as a frightening "trigger."

    Earlier this month I explained why I still wear, like, use, and tout Vibram "finger shoes," despite the company's having settled a claim from those who felt its health benefits were overstated. Once again, above you see one of my sons and me modeling the shoes four years ago.

    Summary of that earlier argument: If you already know how to run in the "forefoot-strike" style that comes naturally when if you are barefoot or wearing minimally padded shoes, or if you can adjust or learn, then these shoes are great. But if you prefer, or are stuck with, the "heel-strike" style of running that is fostered or enabled by today's thickly padded shoes, you're not going to like finger shoes and should stay away.

    Now responses, starting with someone who brought up an angle I hadn't considered. A reader wrote:

    Say what you will about your finger shoes, but I'm one of those one in
    a thousand or so with webbed toes (syndactyly); on each foot I have
    two toes fused together.

    These are not the reader's feet. They're from
    Wikipedia to illustrate the syndrome.

    It gave me a certain amphibian chic as a school boy swimmer, and a
    proud sense of identification with my web-toed grandfather, but other
    than that my toes have played no exceptional role in my life apart
    form the role ties usually play; but those shoes - they freak me out.

    I could only wear them if I had my toes sliced apart (ain't gonna
    happen), to my feet and brain they look like medieval torture devices,
    so when I see them I can't help but cringe and turn away.

    I wrote back to say, touché, "I think you're the only person who can legitimately complain about these shoes!"

    He replied right away:

    You know more of us than you realize - we just don't wear open-toed sandals.

    Excellent point! Now a few more on this theme, less exotic (mainly) in their medical info and all in the testimonial vein. 

    "I have no kneecaps." From another reader, a female runner:

    I'm not applying for the Vibram Fivefinger shoe either! 

    My knee caps were removed one at a time in the 1970s—no replacements back then—due to congenital dislocation issues.  Don’t worry, my legs don’t bend backwards: but finding shoes in which I could walk for miles, or stand all day as a trainer has been profoundly difficult.  Because of the imbalance of muscles (great rocky calves and really flabby quads because of the biomechanics), I’d lost the ability to “feel” the ground.   Poor proprioception, it’s called.  My neighbors called me out about how much I was falling in my yard.

    For me, the funky looking toed shoe is a life saver.  Since I began wearing them as my everyday—and sometimes platform—shoe, my knees hurt less, I fall much. Love them, and wish the lace-up version came in a basic black. 

    Now about their chronically funky smell…. [JF note: Yes, it is good to wash them regularly.]

    If they work for you, they’re wondrous.  If they don’t, don’t wear them.  We could use this common-sense approach to a lot of issues these days.

    "I think of them as Zoris." From a reader on the west coast:

    I am a 60-year-old, non-athletic woman with a bad knee who loves my Vibram Five Fingers. It should be noted that I grew up not wearing shoes unless I had to. For me, growing up in SoCal, it was mostly barefoot or Zoris (aka thongs or flip-flops). I even have "Zori feet," a major space between my big toes and the next. I've tried Tevas, but they were too constructed for my feet.

    Sample Zoris, also from Wikipedia.

    When my husband I did a half-world trip last year (Hong Kong to Venice), I bought my first pair of VFFs. I walked everywhere in them, including rocky terrain, sand, and asphalt. I did mountains, monuments, and muddy streets with no issues at all. Three months in all, and I never wore anything else but VFFs. Yes, I washed them periodically.

    While Vibram has acknowledged their adverts were somewhat misleading, I cannot in all conscience put in a request for a refund based on those claims. I LOVE my VFFs and even purchased another pair after the announcement of a possible refund.

    The shoes just WORK for me. I have never had a better pair for hiking and walking. Not to mention all the people who took pictures of my VFFs in rural communities around the world!

    "I have never looked back." From a male runner—I'm ID'ing people this way just so you know who's weighing in:

    I have been running regularly for 10 years, but after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run soon after it came out, I tried Vibram Five Fingers -- and have never looked back.

    As you noted, the shoes taught to me run on the balls of my feet (which I had never done before), and now (at 67), I am still free of the bone and muscle ailments that my siblings and friends seem to all suffer from, I was very glad to see your defense of Vibram. 

    "Burn it to earn it." From a male runner on the West Coast who was able to shift his style. 

    I think the lawsuit reflects a failing of marketing rather than a failing of the product. Too many people bought the shoes on the basis of hype without considering their own running style.

    My own running experiences reflect the same kind of transformation of style that is necessitated by a switch to finger shoes. I had been running in big, cushy stability shoes and getting shin splints. I switched my gait from a heel strike to a mid-to-forefoot strike and went to a near-minimal shoe. No more shin splints.

    I’m glad to hear you’re a runner as well as a beer aficionado, as I am myself. Beer always tastes better when you work up a thirst. Burn it to earn it, eh?

    That is all. My sympathies to those in the syndactyly community. I am sorry to have given you a fright. 

  • Basketball, NYT, Filibusters: 3 Stories Worth Reading

    No one likes Donald Sterling, but maybe there is a better answer than forcing him to sell his team. 

    A misunderstood Neanderthal family. See bonus item #4. (Reuters)

    Three stories worth your time:

    1) Why Donald Sterling Shouldn't Be Forced to Sell. A contrarian but convincing argument by Anthony Yannatta for a better way out of the Sterling debacle. No, Yannatta is not saying that the benighted Sterling family should keep the Clippers franchise. He has a better idea, which I also wish would apply to the D.C. NFL team. (For the record: The author's parents are friends of ours.)

    2) A To-Do Item for the Newest NYT Exec Editor. Jay Rosen's Press Think column, on an inexplicable false-equivalence tic from the country's leading news organization, was written three days ago. That is, it came before Wednesday's startling news about a shake-up at the top of that organization. Maybe the new boss of Times journalistic operations, the seemingly universally liked Dean Baquet, could read this post and add its recommendations to the (short) list of things he thinks need changing at the Times.

    It turns out that nearly all of the NYT's false-equiv framing comes out of its D.C. bureau. You don't see its education reporters writing, "Supporters claim that Western universities like Harvard and Oxford embrace the principle of academic freedom, but Chinese spokesmen say their universities are just as good." Or their science correspondents writing, "Geologists claim that the Earth is four-and-a-half billion years old, but Biblical scholars maintain that it was formed six thousand years ago." Or their foreign-affairs reporters writing, "Chinese sources claim that Japanese troops massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians in Nanjing in the 1930s, but Japanese officials say this was just a big misunderstanding." Or, they might report these differences as showing the extent to which some perspectives depart from agreed fact. But the Times's science (etc.) correspondents don't assume that the "real" answer is some mid-point between two claims. That's left to the D.C. team, as Rosen points out. 

    3) Lest We Forget the Filibuster! A National Journal/Atlantic piece by Norm Ornstein on why this really, truly has become a problem for democracy.

    Bonus point 3A: An eye-opening report by Common Cause on what it calls "the New Nullification." You'll see why they use this term, and why I'm using the photo at right.

    Bonus 4: More truth-squadding on the crucial unfairness-to-Neanderthals front. On why I take this personally, check here.

  • Those Vibram Shoe Refunds? I'm Not Claiming One

    Think that these odd finger-shoes are "bullshit"? Think again.

    I gather that there is much gleeful stomping on the grave image of Vibram and the weirdo/chic "finger shoes" it has popularized, because the company has settled a suit claiming the shoes offered no health benefits. That's me and one of my sons, modeling Vibram shoes, in the picture above. I'll let you figure out the extremities. 

    That picture comes from four years ago. I'd been running regularly for many decades before that, but since the early 2000s I'd been vexed by one wear-and-tear problem after another. Never involving the knees, miraculously; most frequently afflicting the Achilles tendons.

    Then, as I shifted to Vibram shoes, I also shifted to what has been (again miraculously) a multi-year stint of injury-free running. True, my change of footwear coincided with some other injury-buffering changes: Always taking at least a day off between runs. Opting for rubberized tracks rather than hard paved roads. Stopping as soon as something started to hurt, rather than "running through" the distress; and generally acting like a senior-status wimp.

    All of these amounted to a blow to the pride, perhapsone of many as the years roll on. But, for now, through the Vibram age nothing has gone physically wrong with my running infrastructure. Whether merely coincident with or perhaps helped by these same funny-looking shoes, I scored my memorable success in the "Haynesworth Test" a few years back and kept on going.

    So what about this new Vibram debunking? I say: Pshaw. What I reported when I first tried them is what I still think now. If you already run in the way these shoes favor, or if you're able to shift your gait to a "forefoot-strike" style, they're great. And if not, not.

    For instance, a (fair-minded) Washington Post writer noted:

    I tried the FiveFingers in 2009 and knew within a quarter mile that they were not for me. Yes, they forced me up onto the balls of my feet, where running coaches want you, because smacking your heels on asphalt roads without any padding to protect them will [make you] do that.... 

    Running that way didn't make sense for the writer. For me, it was the way I'd always runin part because the primitive, unpadded shoes available in the 1960s, when I started, strongly discouraged any runner from landing on the heels. So the shoes wereareright for some people, including me, and wrong for others. It's a big world.

    What the shoes are not, is "bullshit," which was the churlish judgment of the proudly "data-driven" (and generally admirable) but in this case snarkily hyperbolic Vox, with this headline: 

    If they're wrong for you, then wear something else! For its part, Vibram shouldn't claim they're right for everybody. Andsuch are the wonders of our legal systemif people actually bought these shoes for promised health benefits, then perhaps it's fair for them to get their $94-per-pair back. (What does this augur for the Belly Burner Weight Loss Belt? Or for Axe? You mean, thousands of bikinied women are not going to mass around any man who buys a can? Zounds!)

    But Vibram shoes are right for some people, and bullshit they are not. I would send a picture of my current pair, here with me in Mississippi, but they are too battered and use-worn, most recently today, to be presentable.

    Update: Thanks to those who pointed out that The Wire, which is affiliated with the Atlantic, had a microscopically-less-snarky report on the finger-shoes controversy. Eg, "In the event that you had a temporary lapse of judgement and bought these heinous toe shoes, you can get your money back (just not your dignity.)" Again, if you're a heel-strike runner, as many people who learned in the era of fatly padded shoes are destined to be, these are not the footwear for you. But for people who run the way these shoes are designed for, or can learn, they're neither bullshit nor heinous but very good. 

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  • The Most Exciting 1,231.4 Miles in Sports

    A string that started when Lyndon Johnson was president and Barack Obama was a schoolboy in Jakarta still goes on.

    This is the actual winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi, but Bennett Beach achieved an equally impressive goal. (Reuters)

    OK, we've all just seen the most exciting 2 minutes in sports, from Churchill Downs. Congrats to California Chrome.

    Before it recedes too far in the past, let me note an amazing achievement last week in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Not just the first American male winner in a very long time. Nor simply the "Boston Strong" inspiration from the race, inspiring as it was.

    On top of all that, Bennett Beach made history by starting and finishing his 47th consecutive Boston Marathon, which at 26.2 miles apiece is a total of 1,231.4 miles. No one had ever done that before.

    I paid attention on general reverence-for-history groundsbut also because I had run alongside Ben in the 1969 and 1970 Boston Marathons, when we were friends on the college newspaper. As he described those days in a nice item for WBUR:

    “In 1968, you showed up at Hopkinton Junior High School, and some guy would put a stethoscope on your chest to confirm that you were healthy enough to run it and hand out your number, and you were on your way,” he said. “It’s just a different world.”

    Back then, he said the athletes were rewarded at the finish line with beef stew and showers at the Prudential Center. But, then again, back then, there were only about 1,000 runners.

    Ben had in fact started in 1968; it was his description of that first race, which he said required hardly any preparation, that got me interested the following year. And while I had my fill of marathoning (including some more with Ben) by the early 1980s, Ben has been there every single year since 1968.

     —In 2012, he tied the record for most consecutive Boston Marathons. 

    —In 2013, when he was running to set the record, he had passed the halfway mark when the bombs went off and the race was cancelled. Runners who had gotten more than halfway were deemed to have "completed" the race, but Ben felt this was not a clean way to get the record.

    —This year, he had leg and dehydration problems late in the race, on top of some longer-term health issues, and had to walk the final stretch. But he got across the line in time and now, uniquely, has a 47-consecutive-finishes string. In addition to an astonishing 17 finishes at 2:40 or below, which means averaging close to 6 minutes per mile for the entire race. The fastest I ever did, in a Marine Corps Marathon in DC, was 3:02, or an average of 7-minute miles.

    Congratulations to Ben Beach, his wife Carol, and their family. Also please see this great story in the Boston Globe by John Powers, our contemporary and friend on the college paper, which includes a very nice picture of Ben. I don't know many people who have achieved more in a certain category than anyone else, ever, so I am all the prouder of what Bennett Beach has done.

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  • 3 Different Topics, 3 Works Worth Reading

    The publishing industry is in terrible trouble, as we all know. But more high-quality work keeps getting published than anyone could possibly read. A few suggestions for today

    Roger Angell, via PBS

    1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.

    Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.

    2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.

    From Daniel Brown's site

    The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.

    I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.

    3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.) 

    John Judis, via CEIP

    John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:

    Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”

    There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.

    When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.

    I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."

    You can read what strike me as more accurate, though sometimes critical, assessments in the Jewish Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The American Prospect, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

    "The press" is in trouble, as we always hear. But more high-quality work keeps appearing than anyone could possibly read.

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  • 2 Reasons to Have Watched the Pre-Opening Night Sochi Broadcast

    "For Russians, if our hockey team wins, nothing else will matter. And if they lose, nothing else will matter."

    I never think I'll end up watching these oddball winter events, and yet... The payoff last night:

    1) Jun Miyake. If you watched, you know that American figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott had a rough night. It was the more painful because, when not falling, he is so obviously elegant in carriage and movement. Silver lining of his heartbreak: if you watched, you heard him skate to this music, "Lillies of the Valley," from Jun Miyake, which was new at least to me. The video below is a different kind of elegance, more David Lynch-hypnotic, but the music is the same.

     

    2) Vladimir Pozner! Here is the only thing that's been missing in Reagan-era verisimilitude, from the otherwise delectable FX series The Americans: No cameos of Vladimir Pozner. For those who weren't around in the 1980s, it is difficult to convey how weird it seemed to have this urbane character smoothly laying out official Soviet agitprop on Nightline and other programs -- and sounding as if he'd grown up in New York City, because in fact he had. The picture below is how he looked back in the day. (You can see him, circa 2000, talking with a surprising young-ish and less tedious Rush Limbaugh, here.)

    I tell myself that native-sounding accents shouldn't really matter in our assessment of people; that it's all about the accident of where you happened to be during those crucial phoneme-developing elementary-school years; and that actors, if they're good enough, can pass themselves off as almost native. (Hugh Laurie of House, Dominic West of The Wire, both Brits passing as Americans; Meryl Streep passing as anything.) Still, listening to Pozner during the Cold War was truly strange.

    And now, thanks to the Sochi Olympics, he is back! Apparently in Russia he's never gone away. But last night he was on NBC, in an improbable segment with David Remnick (yes) and Bob Costas, on Russia, sport, resentment, and more. Among other things, Pozner let us know that for the host country, it was all about the national hockey team. "If we win, nothing else [that goes wrong in Sochi] will matter. And if we lose, nothing else will matter." On homophobia: "I would say that 85% of Russians are homophobic, not just in disapproval but to the point of physical violence. This is a very homophobic country."

    I'll be watching for him, and will be disappointed if the next season of The Americans doesn't work him in.

    Olympic bonus point #3, following on Pozner's observation: yesterday's Google Doodle. Understated in design but unmistakable in its stand.

    And the logo on the Google Chrome search box:

    Let the games begin.

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  • Now This Is Team Spirit

    What the Wright Brothers have wrought. 

    I am taking no sides in The Big Game this weekend. I don't care.* 

    But I have to admire the combination of team spirit, precision flight planning, and disregard for practicality shown by the group at Boeing that produced this flight yesterday in solidarity with the Seahawks' "Twelfth Man" concept. Here is the radar record of the flight track, via Flight Aware.

     If you'd like to replicate the route, here are the waypoints, also courtesy of Flight Aware:

    SEA SEA146051 KS06G 4625N 12000W 4625N 11945W 4725N 11945W 4725N 12000W 4743N 12000W 4800N 11945W 4800N 11925W 4625N 11925W 4625N 11910W 4600N 11910W 4600N 11850W 4653N 11850W 4712N 11830W 4712N 11800W 4737N 11800W 4737N 11825W 4725N 11825W 4725N 11850W 4743N 11850W 4800N 11830W 4800N 11753W 4743N 11733W 4707N 11733W 4649N 11753W 4649N 11825W 4625N 11825W 4625N 11800W 4635N 11800W 4635N 11730W 4600N 11730W 4600N 11850W 4600N 11910W KS06G SUMMA SEA 

    It's up to you to find your own 747 to match** what Boeing flew.

    Update Here's the plane itself! Thanks to many readers in the Hawks diaspora who pointed me to stories about it (and this company photo).

    Update-update A reader who examined the Flight Aware charts adds this:

    Check the detailed flight data. They flew the 747 at 15,000 ft at 200 kts. In a way, that impresses me even more. Imagine flying your SR-22 at 1,500 ft and 80 kts for six hours straight.

    Yes, for an airliner this is quite low and slow -- comparable to early stages of an arrival/approach as an airliner is getting near an airport. For some other installment, what would be easier and harder about flying this way.


    * I grew up with the LA Rams: no más. My kids grew up with the DC NFL team: at this point, its continued flailing is not even interesting, the 15-year achievement of the league's worst ownership and management. So I decided that henceforth the community-owned Packers would be my team. For them, maybe next year.

    ** You'll probably also need to line up an RNP-style navigation system to plot out and follow this exact track, despite the powerful and variable jetstream winds blowing at those flight altitudes. I described the way some American-designed RNP systems were used for a different national-pride purpose, getting Chinese airliners into remote valley airports in Tibet, in China Airborne.  

  • Found Art of the Day: How Not To Be Alone

    They didn't meet in the finals, but they do on the page, or screen.

    NYTNadal.png

    Lots of other, weightier things going on, but this was too day-appropriate to pass up. Thanks to reader (and subscriber!) SC in London.

    I always like to see Federer win, because he looks just like one of our sons, and (by the way) he plays the sport with unique beauty. But well done Nadal -- and Serena Williams, with a charming speech all in French at the end of her match.

  • Throwing Like an American, Throwing Like T-Rex

    The surprising meanings of a deceptively simple act.

    Thumbnail image for trex.jpg

    In response to this recent item, plus this, and my original Atlantic article on "Throwing Like a Girl," many readers have weighed in.

    As a reminder, the original contention was that throwing a ball, like riding a bicycle, is a skill that nearly anyone (male or female) can learn, but that everyone has to learn or be taught, since the movements and coordination involved are not innate. Gender differences tell us why the strongest male can throw faster than the strongest female. But the male-female gap in average throwing skill really has to do with the fact that little boys are more likely to spend their time throwing rocks and balls. Now, let's go to the readers. The illustration is explained in due course.

    Maybe it's one more chapter in the long saga of American exceptionalism.

    It's some support, I think, of the idea that throwing is learned, and culturally determined, that many European men -- or anyone, really, who grows up playing soccer -- throw like girls.  In fact, cricket bowlers throw with a different motion than baseball players (or, say, Americans tossing a tennis ball off a court).  The fastest bowlers are a little slower than the fastest pitchers, but not by much.  Moreover, cricket fielders throw slightly different than bowlers, but not quite like American fielders, either.

    What's odd is that you would think the act of throwing was something so basic that we were built for it; in this way it's not quite like riding a bicycle.  It's more like, say, running, even kicking (there's no such thing, I don't think, as "kicking like a girl", or if there is it's not as noticeable).  That is, you would think that the motion was more or less natural -- capable of being improved upon, certainly, but roughly inherent.

    Curious problem.

    More on the curse of the soccer-playing cultures.

    This is a topic I'm interested in because my daughter is a high school softball player who throws very well, and because I spent some time teaching her and other girls on her little league softball teams how to throw.  I have also spent time teaching her younger brother and his baseball teammates.  Based on my experience, I would say that throwing is a skill that can be learned equally well by either sex, and that even boys who have picked it up through trial and error (as I did) can improve through repetition of drills that isolate various parts of the kinetic chain and then put it back together. 

    Also, fathers aren't throwing in the back yard with their kids enough, at least in my town.  I've seen boys as old as 12 who throw a baseball like they are shot putting an ostrich egg.  At some point, I'm going to start revoking man cards.
     
    Watching the Argentine video of men throwing with their off hands was very interesting. [It is here, and if you missed it the first time, be sure to check it out.] They don't throw like girls as much as they throw like people who've never tried to throw anything at all before.  I've often wondered how well boys or men who grow up in soccer dominated countries throw compared to Americans.  We take it for granted that boys will grow up throwing balls as well as rocks, but in most of the world they grow up kicking them instead (I once read an article by a Frenchman extolling the wonders of soccer who asserted that if you give an infant a ball, the first thing it will try to do is kick it - not over here, Pierre, I thought - an American baby will pick it up and throw it).  You are much better travelled than I - how do you think these guys would have done with their dominant hands compared to the average American male?  How well do men throw in China? Have you seen any comparative studies?

    I have not seen such studies. But come to think of it, I have not seen that many people in mainland China throwing, as opposed to kicking, balls. Japan and Taiwan, on the other hand, have big baseball traditions and lots of accomplished throwers.

    Now, from a Westerner in China here is more on the ever-popular US-China angle.

    I wrote a short poem after seeing the Dodgers and Padres play on March 16, 2008, two days after the Lhasa Uprising, in Wukesong. [JF note: this was in the buildup in to the Olympics, at the baseball stadium where the Olympic baseball games were played.] The teams had played on Saturday, the15th, though the PSB [Public Security Bureau] was in a full flutter and had turned the pre-game activities into a disaster; they were worried sick that a gathering of Americans and other international expats would turn the event into a pro-Tibet rally, not understanding that this was baseball. The 16th was a bit more relaxed. And Jet Li was on the mound to throw out the first pitch. I wrote a short poem on his toss.
    "The Second Major League
    Baseball Game in China

    When I saw Jet Li
    throw out the first pitch
    I thought, man, he throws
    just like my sister
    threw
    the night she hurled
    the rock at my head
    and took out
    the living room clock.
    I was lucky.

    Then
    I kept my mouth shut
    too.
    Jet Li.jpgI happened to snap a photo of Mr Li's pitch: . His form is not bad, though his left arm isn't fully extended, and his release timing was off    - an "inside the elbow" as you explain in your piece - producing a low velocity arc that barely made it to the catcher. With his natural athletic abilities, I expect that with a few quick lessons Mr. Li would have been throwing quite well. But it drove home the fact that throwing a baseball is a learned skill, one that often pre-dates our memory to recall the actual process. I suspect that my father had the greatest influence on how I ended up learning to throw a ball.

    Another soccer casualty.

    I read your latest post and agree completely that throwing and most other things can be taught and it often takes a long time to develop the skill that we tend to take for granted because as boys we started very early. When I was in the service in the 60s and still able to associate with guys that has been in WWII and Korea, I was told that the German Potato Masher grenade was designed that way because European sports didn't involve a lot of throwing, and that made sense to me.

    The T. Rex angle, from a reader in Florida.

    I don't know if this is a localized euphemism, but among various baseball teams on which my 9-year-old boy has played, the term for low-elbow, no-body-rotation throwing has become "throw like T-rex." I've taken to using it myself now that I'm coaching. And I spend a lot of time trying to teach kids to throw. I think you'll agree that's a much better phrase -- more accurately descriptive, harmlessly funny for the kids, and even educational in its way.

    I love this woman's point [from this post] about feeling the joy of a body in motion. That's why the hell we do this for our kids/ and to our kids. I have a stutter, and one of the ways I developed confidence as a kid (actually the main way) was I got to be quite good at catching, throwing, and shooting. And I love to this day shooting, catching, throwing -- with anyone. By myself. Went out and took a bunch of jump shots today all alone. I've met more friends through pickup hoops than almost anything else. Athletic confidence, which my parents didn't really have, almost certainly altered my life for the better. If they had not pushed into sports at a young age, who knows how my life would have suffered?

    And one the great byproducts of coaching I've found is how much just a little bit of attention can help an awkward kid. A lot. And what incredible fun that is to see happen. You see an awkward kid that you've worked with make a shot or catch a rebound when they could hardly hold the ball when they first started, and it's fantastic. And then getting those kids to compete (and I am pretty competitive) with the bigger, stronger, more coordinated kids and believe in themselves a little is just as gratifying. Forget the score; it's the competing on honest terms that matters. Self-respect.

    So you're right and she's right. Anybody can be taught to do these things well enough to enjoy them, well enough to feel themselves getting better. If more coaches cared about competing with the kids they have and helping them get better rather than team-stacking so they can be elite at 9, we'd all be happier.

    Coaching has showed me why people still teach despite all the crap that comes with it.

    From a mother of a daughter.

    I didn't think twice about marrying a guy who throws like a girl because I threw very well and would be the go-to athletic coach parent.

    I didn't count on coming down w/ inherited autoimmune arthritis.  I gotta pop some tylenol and teach my girl how to throw.

    Thanks for giving me the motivation. She throws even worse than my husband, and I didn't think it was possible for anyone to be worse.  ;-)

    From a father of a daughter.

    I've been paying attention to the throwing issue. Girls with no brothers tend to throw better than girls who have brothers. Dads with boys spend most of their coaching time with the boys. Dads with only girls spend their coaching time with girls. Very few moms teach kids of either gender how to throw. The big exception: willful girls in mixed-gender families that are madly obsessed with participant sports.

    My observations aren't scientific, but I'm near certain anyone who carefully measured would come to the same conclusion.

    From another father of a daughter.

    I read today's blog entry with great pleasure, as almost nothing raises my hackles as quickly as that loaded phrase. My daughter, you see, plays baseball. Not, as she frequently has to assert, softball. Both spring and fall, she has been the only girl in a 150-player Little League division. She started playing at six because she wanted to follow her brother. At her first practice, she simply refused to throw overhand. It wasn't comfortable, it wasn't natural, and she knew perfectly well she could throw the ball the 15 feet to the coach by tossing it underhand. She also wouldn't even try to catch a gentle return toss, just letting it drop and then retrieving it. Two years later, she throws like a gunslinger and delights in egging me on to throw it ever harder when I send it back at her. So what happened?

    The same thing that happens to every other Little League kid. Many of the boys I've coached over the past three years didn't have a lot of baseball exposure at home. Their models, if they have any, are big league players they've seen on TV. When they start, most of them throw "like a girl" (the ones not trying to throw sidearm like a 3B barehanding a groundball).

    We don't call it that, of course; we tend to call it "the shotput motion," with the elbow tucked under the throwing hand, the step with the throwing-side foot, and a predictable high arc to the throw. Getting proper mechanics to stick takes roughly two seasons, on average, with wide variability sourced in both athletic and listening ability. The same, I'd imagine, applies to throwing a football, another sport from which girls are typically excluded. Small wonder that many women have horrible throwing mechanics.

    The gender essentialism assumption -- that girls just can't throw properly -- does raise its head in Little League at times, sometimes with gratifying results. In one game this past spring, an opposing player hit a clean single to my daughter in right field. As the runner approached first, she had already scooped up the ball, but the first base coach sent the runner to second. Rebekah had plenty of time for a mystified double-take before throwing a rope to second base that easily beat the poor runner, who didn't even bother to slide. Sometimes it's a good thing to be underestimated.

    However long she keeps playing baseball, she'll spend the rest of her life occasionally smirking at some poor sap whose assumptions got the better of him. Hopefully enough young men will read your piece that there'll be fewer saps around to be caught out.

    That's a limited sampling of what's come in; more after a while. Thanks to all.

  • Back to 'Throwing Like a Girl'

    Most females 'throw like girls,' but not for the reason you think.

    Fig10.gif

    I was traveling so didn't get on the much- commented-upon Washington Post feature about "throwing like a girl" when it first appeared. I am reminded by Andrew Sullivan that the topic is still bouncing around, so here goes:

    1) I am weirdly heartened to have other people treat this as a "real" subject. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the article I've most enjoyed doing in my Atlantic career was one called "Throwing Like a Girl," from some 15 years ago.

    2) As you'll see if you compare my piece and the Post's, we come to somewhat different conclusions. We both agree that there is a such a thing as the throwing-like-a-girl motion. We disagree on its fundamental cause.

    3) The Post piece talks about a variety of differences between the genders. Eg, "[a professor of psychology and women's studies] found what she defined as a 'very large' difference in only two skills: throwing velocity and throwing distance." I ended up being convinced that, apart from obvious gaps in size and strength, the only difference that mattered between men and women is that more males than females have spent time learning how to throw.

    4) Learning how is the crucial concept, because throwing a ball "correctly" is like riding a bike, in this way. Virtually anyone can learn to do it, but virtually no one starts out knowing how. Once people learn, gender differences in strength take over. The average male bike rider will be stronger than the average female; the strongest male ball-thrower, like Randy Johnson, above, will throw faster than the strongest female. But they all can ride bikes the same way, or throw balls the same way, once they learn how.

    5) Check my article for details (and this follow up), but here's the simplest try-it-right-now proof that throwing motion is a learned rather than an innate skill. Pick up a ball with your "off" hand -- for me, the south paw, since I am right-handed. Throw the ball with that hand. You will throw it "like a girl." And it will take you hundreds, probably thousands, of throws before you feel as if you can do it naturally. As part of my article research, I threw left-handed with my sons and my wife. It was revealing and character-building.  UPDATE! Here is a fabulous Vimeo clip of men throwing with their "off" hands. Every one of them throws like -- well, see for yourself. [Thanks to reader ER.]

    6) Now we get to the other realm of gender differences. For whatever reason, most little boys spend more of their early years learning how to throw than most little girls do. They get better at it -- as they would be at bike riding, if only boys rather than girls were taken through the inevitable shakiness and falls of those first few rides. But that's where the boy/girl difference emerges -- from the thousands of instances of a boy picking up a rock to skip it across a pond and learning how the "kinetic chain" of a throw feels, while a girl, for whatever reason, is doing something else.

    Below, as discussed in another item, is a great super slo-mo video with the Giants' Tim Lincecum, showing the "kinetic chain" of an effective throw. And after that, continued after the jump, is a note that came in just now on the very topic of learned rather than innate skills.



    Now, below and after the jump, a touching letter that has just arrived, on this very topic. It is long but to me very interesting:

    I loved your article, "Throwing Like a Girl." it.  I loved that you even dared to point out this stinging little "euphemism"  and all that it implies.   I am personally guilty of using the expression (along with "you scream like a girl") and I AM a girl.
     
    I think the part of this article that interested me most, however, was not that  you pointed this out, but that  you pointed out that throwing properly is something that can be learned by adults - and more importantly to me, by children. 

    I'm sure the reason my husband brought this article to my attention was to sooth my worried and inherently UN-athletic soul.  I have managed to pass this inherent lack of athleticism down to my oldest son, despite ALL of the opposite genetic material encoded in my husband and his side of the family.  It runs deep and strong on his side, but apparently not deep and strong enough. 

    When I realized that my tall and naturally strong boy, a boy who even looks graceful in repose, was not actually gifted with any grace when it came to running, throwing or hitting, I got very sad about it.

    More »

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