By Charles Matthews

Monday, September 13, 2010

3. Silk Parachute, by John McPhee, pp. 56-117

Silk Parachute"Spin Right and Shoot Left"
A blurb on the book asks, "Is there any subject McPhee cannot make interesting?" Well, no, there isn't -- to a point. Unfortunately, McPhee wrote past that point in this sixty-page article about lacrosse. For about thirty pages I was amused and informed about a subject (lacrosse) in a field (sports) about which I have no interest. After that point, I began to lose interest rapidly and began noting McPhee's tricks: the upended expectations, the odd facts, the ways he supplies information by working it into an anecdote. For example, he misses the bus to a lacrosse tournament in Dublin and has to find his way to the stadium where it's being held, discovering that Dubliners are as clueless about lacrosse as most people. This gives him a way of imparting basic information without condescending to the reader: He explains the game to the Dublin cabbie who helps him find his way to the tournament.

Yes, I learned a lot. For example, that lacrosse "is essentially the same game as basketball," which McPhee establishes with an opening paragraph that describes what the reader initially thinks is a basketball game but which turns out to be lacrosse. I didn't know that James Naismith, who "invented" basketball, was a lacrosse player. Or that Wayne Gretzky, the only hockey player whose name I ever remember, was too. Or that lacrosse is pretty much the same game as not only hockey and basketball but also soccer and water polo, but is the only one of the five games that isn't played at the Olympics. Oddly, McPhee, for all his famous thoroughness, never gets round to discussing why lacrosse isn't an Olympic sport. (The book was published too soon for him to mention the passport problem that the Iroquois Nationals had this summer in England.) 

There's also a good section on the technology of the sport -- "the plasticization of lacrosse." McPhee opines that the technological "revolution from wood to plastic [that] took place in the nineteen-seventies" was actually a good thing: "The fastest of running games became even faster, and even prettier to watch." And, again responding to a question from the cabbie, he talks about the etymology of the game's name:
The etymology has a lot of whip. A player's stick is also called a crosse. it is said that when the black robes of the seventeenth century saw the sticks of the Iroquois they thought of ecclesiastical crosiers. In some parts of France, cricket has been called la crosse. A game more or less like field hockey developed in France and as also called le jeu de la crosse. Prairie La Crosse, where the La Crosse River enters the Mississippi, is where the Winnebagos played, and where La Crosse, Wisconsin, is now. 
He gets a good deal into the social history of a sport that began with native Americans and took on an air of being an elitist, preppie game: "I once asked a basketball coach to go to a lacrosse game with me, and he said, 'I'm not going to watch a game played by the sons of doctors and lawyers.'" McPhee notes the racism that permeates so much of sports history: In 1867, the Canadian National Lacrosse Association was founded. "Within a decade, Indians were banned from the association." "In 1941, in Annapolis, Maryland, the lacrosse team of the United States Naval Academy refused to take the field if Lucien Alexis, Jr., of Harvard, did, too. Alexis was black. Harvard sent him home." On the other hand, in 1876, Queen Victoria watched a team of thirteen American Indians defeat a team of fourteen whites at an exhibition game at Windsor Castle. She "wrote in her diary that lacrosse was 'very pretty to watch.'"  The game took place on "the day after the Lakota annihilated the Seventh Cavalry in the Battle of Little Bighorn."

"Baltimore is the spreading center of modern lacrosse," he tells us.
In 1940, the Baltimore Sun declared, "It is time now ... to put lacrosse among the distinctly Maryland things of wide reputation along, say, with the literary works of Poe and Mencken, certain superior cookery styles, and liberal tolerance,' a sentiment that went untoppled for twenty-six years until Spiro Agnew was elected Governor.
But as the article goes on (and on) about the growth of soccer, the steam goes out of the writing. There are too many MEGO transitions like "At numerous colleges and universities, club lacrosse is the only way the game is played." McPhee loves to run lists of names: Writing about the college coaches who gather at the University of Maryland to watch promising high school senior lacrosse players, he lists fifty-three colleges (plus "etcetera"). And then gives us several pages of coaches' notes on the (mostly unnamed) players. And thus the article trails off, as if he hadn't found a way to end it, or had simply tired of it. As I had quite a few pages earlier.

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