The Centipede’s Dilemma
The screen door slams.
Mary's dress sways.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
A few years ago, I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run. It’s a great read. I love Springsteen. I consider Thunder Road to be nothing short of a master class in song writing, storytelling and imagery.
Thunder Road is a monster of a song. There’s no verse, chorus, verse in Thunder Road. It’s an epic fucking poem. Go read the lyrics to Thunder Road.
Go ahead. Google Thunder Road lyrics.
It blows your mind, right? How does he write such deeply beautiful words and turn them into a song you can dance to?
But here’s the thing that really got me about the book. Bruce Springsteen has had an amazing life. He knew from a very early age exactly what he wanted to be and was so laser focused on making it as a working musician, that he’s literally never held a job in his life other than being Bruce Springsteen.
He’s been completely successful at doing exactly what he wanted to do.
And he suffers from depression.
How the fuck does that happen?
How can you be The Boss, get to live exactly the life that you envisioned yourself living, regularly go on stage in front of enormous crowds of adoring fans and still need the same shit that I need just to get out of bed in the morning?
That’s completely unbelievable to me.
I need it because nothing went the way I thought it would.
He needs it because everything went exactly according to plan.
What an amazingly gooey mess our brains are.
When I was growing up in Houston, I played a lot of baseball. High school football might be king in Texas, but youth baseball is right there behind it. We played it year around down there.
Try-outs for spring usually happened around the middle of February. The season went until the end of school and then all-stars would start at the beginning of summer. After that, there was fall-ball and winter-league. Those were invitational.
In the fall, I’d finish up football practice and go straight to a baseball game. I’d take off my shoulder pads in the car and once I got to the field, I’d pull the pads out of my football pants and play in those. Baseball pants and football pants are basically the same thing. Football pants just have extra pockets and snaps for all the pads. I was a catcher, so the equipment covered everything up anyway.
If you’re going to play baseball and you really want to make the team, the best thing you can be is a left-handed pitcher. Every team always needs a left-handed pitcher. If you can’t be a left-handed pitcher because you’re either right handed or you can’t pitch, then the next best thing to be is a catcher.
Teams always need a good catcher.
I was a good catcher.
From the time I was 8 until about 14, my father and I took care of the baseball fields for a couple of different leagues that I played in. We were up there every day. It was a great way to grow up. Some kids grow up on a farm. Some kids grow up in the back of their parent’s restaurant. I grew up on a baseball field.
My father and I would get to the fields at about 5:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings. We’d be up there all day striping the baselines and batter’s boxes, raking the infields (which is actually called dragging the field), tending to the sprinklers and making sure the national anthem was played at the beginning of each game.
It was a lot of work but you got to spend the entire day running around with your friends, drinking slushies and eating Fun-dip. The best though, was when it rained.
Then you got to burn the field.
They don’t do this anymore. This was one of those things that only got done in the 1970’s.
You get a lot of thunderstorms in Houston. They come in off the Gulf of Mexico and dump a shitload of rain in about 15 minutes. Then, just as quickly as it came, the storms roll out and you have clear skies for the rest of the day. You also have a baseball field that’s completely unplayable.
Unless you burn it.
First, you have to dig trenches and drain off all the big puddles in the outfield. Don’t worry about kids tripping and breaking their ankles. You have to get that water off the field. Better a twisted knee than having to reschedule a rain-out.
Once you’ve got the standing water off the grass, then you can turn your attention to the dirt in the infield. That’s when you want to get yourself about 10 to 15 gallons of gasoline and a couple of rakes.
It probably goes without saying, but you want to be careful when you’re doing this. Work in sections, but be generous with the gasoline. Temperature is going to be important. But more important is knowing exactly where to stand and where not to when the match is thrown.
Like I said, they don’t do this kind of stuff anymore.
This was wrong and bad and is a practice that’s best left in the past. But back then, burning the field was fucking awesome.
They called my dad The Torch because he was the best at it and once the big ball of flames and massive quantities of thick, toxic black smoke cleared, I’d get in there with my rake and move that flaming hot dirt around until you got a dry crusty surface layer on top. By game time that infield might be a bit on the sloppy side, but it was playable. You may get a little light-headed and woozy from breathing in 9 innings worth of gasoline fumes, but you got your game in.
Dinner was burgers and fries from the concession stand. And after the last night games were finished, all the adults would hang out in the parking lot of the Diamond Convenience store across the street from the baseball fields and drink beer while we ran around like maniacs, played Tempest and ate candy until midnight.
Those years taking care of the baseball fields with my dad were the best years of my life. I can’t imagine growing up any other way.
It was a serious baseball program though. The kids that came out of these leagues ended up playing for state championships in high school, got scholarships to the University of Texas and other blue-chip programs around the country and a handful of them would even make it to the pros.
One night, in the first all-star game of the tournament, I went 4 for 5 with two homeruns—one of them was a grand slam. After the game, my father said I could have anything I wanted for dinner. I told him I wanted a Whopper with French fries AND onion rings.
When we were waiting in line for our order there were two kids from another league ahead of us in line. They were talking in awe about some kid who had hit two homeruns that night. They were talking about me.
That was the greatest night of my life.
That was the best it ever got for me.
Two homeruns. French fries AND onion rings.
And fame at the Burger King.
I’ve never even gotten close to matching that.
I was 12.
It really sucks to have the best thing you’ll ever do happen at 12. That leaves you with a hell of a lot of life left to slog through. And it’s all going to be downhill.
Anyway, I played a lot of baseball.
When it came time to go to high school, I ended up going to one that was a perennial baseball powerhouse. They were regularly in contention for the state championship. And every year the team produced half a dozen college players on full ride scholarships at some of the top schools around the country. It was a fucking pipeline.
Freshman year, me and one other kid made the junior varsity. That was a big deal at my school. The other kid was a left handed pitcher. He got pulled up to the varsity team before the season was over. Like I said, every team always needs another left handed pitcher.
By the halfway point in the season, I had earned the starting catcher position on the junior varsity team and pretty much had myself in position to make varsity the following spring. If I pulled that off, then I would start getting calls from colleges by junior year. It was that kind of a program.
After the regular season ended, I was playing in one of the invitational leagues. There were two. One was Mickey Mantle and the other was Connie Mac. I can’t remember which I was playing in at the time. I don’t even remember who we were playing. But on the last out of the game, a kid tried to steal on me and I threw a rope to second base that was waiting for him when he got there.
I remember everything about that throw. It was perfect. Effortless. I can walk you through the mechanics step by step, from the moment the ball hit my catcher’s mitt to the moment it left my hand. It was perfectly executed . And it would be my last.
The next day I went to practice, like pretty much every day of my life, and when I went to throw the baseball, my arm no longer remembered how. It was bizarre. It was literally as if I had forgotten how to throw. As if during the night someone had snuck into my room, stolen my arm and replaced it with one that had no idea what a baseball was.
My father took me to every sports doctor in town. No one could help. No one could fix my arm or teach me how to throw again. It just didn’t work anymore.
It all fell apart.
There’s not much use for a catcher who can’t throw the ball back to the pitcher.
Baseball was over.
Just like that.
The Centipede’s Dilemma is a poem that was written by Katherine Craster in 1871. It goes like this:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
The poem basically says that if a centipede were to stop and think about which foot it moves first, then it would become completely incapable of moving at all. The poem was referenced as inspiration by psychologist George Humphrey in his work to help explain why people could suddenly lose the muscle memory used to perform simple, repetitive tasks they had previously mastered. He called it Centipede Syndrome. Which I don’t particularly care for.
Medically it’s more commonly referred to as task hyper reflection. It means that once certain tasks are learned and become second nature, the mind not only no longer needs to focus on their mechanics but can actually interfere with the ability to perform them if it does. I don’t love the phrase task hyper reflection either, but it’s better than the centipede thing.
Philosopher Karl Popper, in his book Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem: In Defence of Interaction gives the example of violinist Adolf Busch (no relation to Augustus), who was asked by fellow violinist Bronislaw Huberman how he played a certain passage of Beethoven's violin concerto. Busch told Huberman that it was quite simple, and then found that he could no longer play the passage.
It's happened to lots of baseball players. Most famously Steve Sax. They even started calling it Steve Sax Disease. I’m not really crazy about that either. Chuck Knoblauch got it when he was playing for the Yankees. He’s from Houston and came up through the same programs I did.
In golf they call it the yips. In gymnastics they call it the twisties. I don't know what they call it in football or basketball.
A few years later when I was in college there was this girl named Kimby. She was this hot little red head from Los Angeles who all the guys were crazy about, so naturally, we were just friends. One night she shows up at my dorm room with a baseball and a glove. She wanted me to go up to the roof with her and play catch.
I was nervous. I hadn’t thrown a ball since I was 16. Kimby was beautiful and also a tomboy. She had a good arm. She threw me a zinger and it snapped in the pocket of my mitt. It felt good. I hadn’t played catch in years. But I also really didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of Kimby.
I remember thinking: Fuck it. Don't think about Kimby. Don't think about throwing. Think about Burger King.
I reached into my glove, took out the ball and hurled it right back at her. She was lucky she got her glove up in time or it would have left a hell of a bruise in the middle of her chest.
She gave me a take-it-easy look.
I laughed and told her to do the same.
That was a good game of catch.
The centipede had finally crawled out of my head.
And 30 years later, when my boys get home from school, we go into the backyard and throw the ball for a while. It's a nice way to end the day.
Now go listen to Thunder Road. I got a bunch of work to do.
It's a town full of losers.
And I'm pullin' out of here for a win.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you again real soon.