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August 8, 2006

Culture Maven: Do you miss Norman Rockwell?

This has evolved into an ode to Norman Rockwell. Or, at least, to an America that Rockwell famously depicted last century. If you are of tender age and haven’t heard of the artist, that, too, is symptomatic of the story.How this evolution came about is a testament to the human mind and its mysterious machinations. The process was, as Peter Falk admonished Alan Arkin in “The In-Laws,” “serpentine, Shel, serpentine.”Born in Motown and growing up during the halcyon days of Little League when young boys played baseball in the summer, I am a Detroit Tigers fan. My team is having a fantastic season, its best since ’84.That year I’d find myself in the evenings tuning in Ernie Harwell’s game calls from Detroit on my portable radio. There was a palpable romance listening to the games as static and signal faded in and out.Now I find myself on the Web, checking out the contemporary equivalent of the old ticker wire Ed Kallay used to call Louisville Colonels’ away games while sitting in his studio. Called various things at different Web sites, there are charts and diagrams and graphics, ball and strike counts and the box score, photos of the pitcher and batter, fielders names superimposed on a diagram of the field with exact outfield distances.In a more perfect world I would be watching streaming video of the game. At the season’s first blush, I made a valiant attempt. Forty-nine bucks for an all-access pass to major league baseball. After several futile hours with tech support attempting to properly configure my computer, I surrendered.Last night the Tigers had a rally going in the top of the eighth in Tampa Bay. I was tempted to buy the Internet audio broadcasts for the remainder of the season. $14.95. Cheap.I demurred. An hour on the phone with somebody in New Delhi wasn’t my idea of a midsummer night’s dream.Instead I carried on with other business, keeping the self-refreshing game chart on my screen.You could almost hear Ernie Harwell’s voice.Almost.In a more perfect world, say, in Norman Rockwell’s America, there would be a more bucolic setting. I’d be out walking Lila the Love Dog on a balmy summer night. Instead of choking ozonic air, the scent would be honeysuckle. Through the crickets’ eternal chirp would bleed the thrum of foghorns from barges on the river. Folks would be sitting on their porches, sipping lemonade and sweet tea, listening to a ballgame on the radio.“Howdy, Earl.”“How ya doin’, Chuck?”“What’s the score?”“Ordonez just doubled in a run. The Tigers got a rally going. Sit a spell. You want some sweet tea?”Norman Rockwell would smile. Maybe make a mental note of it, use it for a Saturday Evening Post cover.Is this but pitiable nostalgia? Perhaps. Poignant, too. Or so I’d offer.For all its flaws, its racial injustices, America was a gentler place when baseball was the national pastime.Norman Rockwell painted at least a dozen or so baseball-related pieces. Cubs falling asleep in the dugout. Umps checking for rain. A kid who wouldn’t take off his glove while getting fitted for glasses.The painting that resonates for me — a construction crew, blueprints in hand, bulldozer at home plate, ready to dig up the field where the boys play ball. It happened to our gang at the lot on Parsons Place next to the building where Larry Craig lived. Once the home field to our Bonnycastle Bearcats, where we played our “rival,” Jimmy Bevars’ Gang, it was demolished by an apartment building.Life moves along. It is inevitable.Radio begets television. Television begets Internet. Video killed the radio star. Such is the evolution of culture.For all that is gained by progress, sometimes more is lost, more is less.In a time when friends and foes are harder to discern, we spend less time on our porches, more time in front of a screen. Our world becomes digitalized. Chatting over the fence begets phone conversations. Phone conversations beget e-mails. Pen and paper and the art of hail-fellow well met become curios.Ernie Harwell’s voice is drowned out by the cacophony. Norman Rockwell’s oils fade away.And that kid with the glove on his hand silently celebrates the Tigers win in front of a monitor, longing for a sip of sweet tea with a neighbor down the street. Contact the writer at kaplan@culturemaven.com