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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Some Rotblatt Blather

<ing that Spring I came up to campus for my first visit and the student guide showed me a Burton room (what kind of hole is this?) covered with Playboy pin-ups (there goes high school morality) and a bunch of guys drinking beer who gladly plugged in an amazing electronically lit Scoreboard which showed the daily results of this Rotblatt thing. It was then I got my first inkling that Rotblatt was more than just softball.
– Don G. Rawitsch ’72, Senior Commissioner and League Historian, A Definitive History of the Marvin J. Rotblatt Memorial Softball League

There is no moment I feel more at home at Carleton than when the sun rises on Rotblatt morning.
– Jon Ver Steegh ‘14

It’s a nice that nothing happens in Northfield. The Carleton bubble blocks out the clamor of contemporary politics and pop culture, affording us the tranquility to occupy ourselves with more serious and beautiful and wondrous questions and ideas. However, once a term, usually, we Carls get a bit restless and a suddenly crave some drama of our own.

Well, last week was that time. After a flurry of passionate meetings, articles, Facebook posts, flyers and a petition, Rotblatt was declared “Saved” almost as soon as we found out that it was under assault. Hooray.

A few brave students rose up against the Big Bad Administration – it was like the ‘60s, you kept hearing. Except that then the students were up in arms for gender and racial equality and against the war whereas we were fighting for … what again?

Senior Matthew Beck laid out his worries in a CLAP manifesto that began thusly:

First they came for the kegs, and I did not speak out–
Because 30 racks were readily available.
Then they came for the sayles dances, and I did not speak out–
Because I was in a relationship.
Then they came for roughly 15 Northfield Option slots per year,          
and I did not speak out–
Because I was an underclassmen.
Then they came for Crack and Rotblatt – and I am speaking up.

It’s difficult to understand how Beck (or any his three friends who apparently helped edit the piece) thought that riffing off a famous line about Holocaust wouldn’t give off the impression that those fighting for the event weren’t merely bored and spoiled whiners lacking any sort perspective (for good measure, Beck later compares his own whistle blowing to vigilance against terrorist activity).

Unclassy rhetorical choices aside, at the heart of Beck’s message is the at least understandable worry over, he says, a systematic erosion of the things that makes our college experience special. “Don’t let Carleton become just another school,” Beck pleads, “– a place to get an academic education and nothing more.” Of course in writing this, Beck’s merely taking part in another of the most time-honored traditions of not just Carleton but society at large: namely, the spectacle of the older crowd lamenting change and pining for the good ol’ days.

Two decades ago, for instance, Jim Thompson reflected in the ‘Tonian: “It seemed to me that nearly every senior I met bemoaned the loss of individuality on campus. It took very little provocation to induce these seniors on my floor last year to stare vaguely into the distance and say something profound like ‘Things sure have changed since I was a youngster. Why, I remember what this campus was like when I was a freshman.’”

Thompson was bemoaning the discontinuation of a different spring celebration: President’s Day. On a sufficiently sunny Monday morning, the head of the College declared there would be no classes or homework; signs posted around campus instructed students instead to “go gallivanting across the greenswards,” which meant a mix of sun-bathing, softball and general outdoors merriment.

President’s Day was discontinued at the beginning of the ‘80s and replaced by a normally scheduled midterm break (the event’s spontaneous nature caused trouble for teachers, who had to rework the syllabi, reschedule speakers, etc…; its discontinuation also allowed students more opportunities to travel during the three-day weekend).

Now most Carls scarcely remember it. Still, it was special enough then that Thompson lamented: “There is a uniqueness that seems to be disappearing in our campus activities and the abolishment of President’s Day seems to be the latest step toward creating a generic college.”

Whether it’s President’s Day as it was for Thompson, or Beer Olympics as it is for Beck, or the Assassin’s Guild or the Carleton Graphic or Skiamatti, all of us seniors have aspects of this place that differentiate our experiences from the ones we imagine our friends or ourselves could be having elsewhere and – as we stare ever more vividly at the future of Carleton that doesn’t contain us – we cling to more tightly.

This is not a unique or prophetic feeling. The poet Robert Hess writes, “all the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.” But no doubt this feeling of cataclysm is provoked more easily for us living amidst the perpetual vicissitudes of modernity, as Jonathan Franzen explains it nicely in his article last winter about the Viennese misanthrope Karl Kraus (I won’t apologize for the long quotation because I think it’s interesting and, hey, gotta fill this space somehow):

“Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows. It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer. And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.”

So next time you feel like the things to which you dedicated your best collegiate moments are on the verge of falling apart, be wary that your concern for the future isn’t merely a proxy for exaggerating your own importance or the splendor of your own privileged moment. As Franzen describes, in modern times it becomes much more difficult to distinguish what is beautiful and worthy of esteem as such and what we’ve merely come to view thanks to the accident of when and where we happened to be groomed. Of course we’d like that the things so fundamental in shaping us work the same on the souls of the next crop of young dreamers, but as Fitzy told me when I was bummed a few weeks ago, we’re probably not as essential as we’d wish; the younger folk will find a way to make do the same way we have, even if its tough to swallow that it won’t be in the same way or even thanks to our own efforts.

A liberal arts education is probably much easier in modernity because we confront much more readily the fact that the things we grew up valuing are so incidental. That what’s a golden age to us might to someone else be a sure mark of decadence and degeneration. And visa versa.

To illustrate, let’s return to Rotblatt, Henry Neuworth ’13  commented on the petition site: “No one wants to play softball at 11AM with only upperclassmen. That isn’t the college’s best tradition, that’s an IM sport.”

But of course, this was pretty much exactly what Rotblatt was in its early days: a season-long affair played at normal hours with upperclassmen only (“so complete was one’s commitment to Rotblatt then that the initial rationale for barring freshmen was that they ‘needed a year to become acclimated to the college life and we did not want them to use us as an excuse as to why they might not have made it academically.’” –‘tonian, 5/2/86).

The ‘70s Rotblatt scene that one Carl writing in the early ‘90s described with so much joy scarcely resembles what the event we’re out on the streets with our pitchforks to defend: “Seasons began with a smoke-filled player draft and concluded, with playoffs, a World Series and a gala postseason banquet. Player statistics were scrupulously compiled by official scorers, and reported regularly in the paper, along with mock serious game accounts and other “Rotblatt 
Blather. “ (As one early Rotblatter opined, ‘It s not if you win or lose, 
it s how much ink you get in the ‘Tonian’).” He concludes, “Those years were the golden age of Rotblatt in its original form.”

Beginning in the late ‘70s, Carls have repeatedly bemoaned that Rotblatt just ain’t what it used to be. “By mid- decade statistics were no longer kept, ‘Tonian coverage had become irregular at best and the game itself was transforming into an increasingly sudsy version of beerball. We want a pitcher, not a glass of water” was a popular Rotblatt rallying cry.”

The centrality of alcohol to Rotblatt, something so central to recent incarnations of the event (for example, the tagline for Rotblatt in 2006 was “come for the beer, stay for the beer”) was something to rue for many Rotblatt purists.

Marc Greene wrote in ’86 that, “Although his game lives on, it is a shadow of its former self. By 1974 Rotlatt and Beerball seemed to have merged. … Can one still say, as Rawitsch was able to do in 1972, “that Rotblatt means something special to many of the guys who play it…[?]” and a few years later it was declared that “Carleton has since lost its faith, for what used to be the surest sign of spring this side of the Cannon has now become a tradition of the past, not of the present.”

Doomsday-sayers spoke, yet Rotblatt lives on. Different, no doubt, but it still is and will be the same big goofy stupid fun shebang, “The Best Day of Your Life,” “To Carleton What Lutheranism is To St. Olaf,” “The Next Best Thing to Sex.”

This most recent Rotblatt brouhaha was good in that they afforded students an excuse to articulate and appreciate more precisely what Rotblatt and campus traditions in general mean to them, and I enjoyed reading others’ positive reflections about the day’s magic. One of the biggest changes since Rotblatt’s early days, for instance, is that it’s become much more inclusive – something Kaitlyn Gerber ‘14 highlighted in her reflections last week.

On the other hand, I personally could have done without some of the posturing, squabbling over who got to take credit, Holocaust comparisons and students vs. administration narrative, which is regrettable and will probably make it temporarily more difficult in the near future for collaboration though I hope won’t be long-lasting. Stevie P, Lee Clark, et al are nice people who really do want the best for us. Besides, as Marcus Rider ‘14 said nicely, when students instantly point, bitch and moan and point fingers at the administration at the slightest smell of change it makes us look like a bunch of dweebs. And it’s hard to take some of those students seriously when they’re the same ones who complain that the Administration isn’t doing enough to get them a spot in law school or a cushy gig on Wall Street.

The modest changes to this year’s event are really awesome and the committee that came up with them did an awesome job. It’s everything one could want and more (my only addition might be to set aside a few bucks for some can openers so the Rotblatt refs don’t totally destroy their fingers cracking open all those ice-cold cans, but maybe that’s part of the day’s charm too). Most importantly, the commotion put the pressure back on us, the students, not to be stupid inebriated asshats the way we sometimes can be when RB148 rolls around. Johanna Fierke ’12 put it elegantly: “Some drunk people are dicks and they are the ones directly ruining everything, not the administration.” So let’s have no more repeats of last year’s stolen t-shirts, trashed Little Nourse, damaged sound equipment, over-exuberant base-running or sexual harassment that cast a dark cloud on an otherwise fantastic day. Oh, but let’s bring back the actual rain cloud since slidding and dancing in the mud was the shit.

Thanks for Mike “The Whirlwind” Tolan ‘14 for the tip on President’s Day and to Dylan “G-Baby” Cheever ‘13 for polishing my punctuation. Photos and captions swiped from the ‘Tonian archives.

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