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A taste of Americana in Nolan Ryan's fountain of youth


NOLAN Ryan looks like Tab Hunter in "Damn Yankees."

I have my wife's word on that, since she got a glimpse of him on television, pitching against the Orioles one night. Martha says she never cared much for Tab Hunter's looks (luckily for me, I guess), but she saw why other people did.

Nolan Ryan is 45, almost two years older than I.

I suppose I, and most American men around my age, should be inspired to see Mr. Ryan doing so well, even though his record wasn't so good this year. But I can't help thinking of Ellen Goodman's reaction to Sophia Loren at 50: "Is that what we have to live up to now?"

It might be less of a blow to the ego if we could kid ourselves that Mr. Ryan, like Mr. Hunter's Joe Hardy, had a Mr. Applegate somewhere waiting for his payback. But no such luck. Mr. Ryan, like Ms. Loren, started with extraordinary physical gifts. He can take no credit for that, but, like Ms. Loren, he can take credit for caring for those gifts in a way anyone willing to make the effort should be able to do -- even if some of us try to argue that we can either make a full-time job of fine-tuning our bodies or we can have lives.

We used to be able to console ourselves that if we did nothing else by age 35, we'd live longer than Mozart. No more. We know how to get every last drop of use out of our physical and mental faculties, and it seems a shame to refrain from doing so. In fact, it may be one of the last things still recognized, in post-Puritan middle-class America, as a sin.

Two cures for personal and social restlessness are aging, which -- assuming you're healthy and not poor -- gives you a certain dignity as it puts you on the sidelines; and a limited sense of social possibilities, which -- assuming you don't mind the position into which you're cemented at birth -- keeps you from either falling too far or worrying about how to get the good things that are out of your reach. We've pushed the first cure back almost to the vanishing point, and we outlawed the second when we banned titles of nobility in the Constitution.

Very early in our national life, we chose a future in which anything might be gained, but by the same token everything might be lost. Tocqueville documented what that meant to our temper. "It is strange," he wrote, "to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it."

More than a hundred years after he wrote, he was vividly seconded by a compatriot of Ms. Loren's, the great journalist Luigi Barzini Jr.

In "O America: When You and I Were Young," his last book before his death in 1984, Barzini recalled encountering American feverishness and dread when he immigrated in 1925. Seeing some of his fellow passengers insensible from Prohibition-era quick drunks, he wondered: ". . . What other cruel and mocking god had condemned so many venerable old ladies . . . to masquerade as schoolgirls or blushing brides? (I was 16 and women of 40 looked decrepit to me.) Their disguise was so clumsy it was evidently meant to deceive nobody, but to rob the poor women of their dignity and make fools of them. Did the god blind them whenever they faced a mirror? Why did he not allow them to look like ordinary grandmothers, as they still did in Italy at the time, with kindly and serene and well-washed faces, gray or white hair, and dark dresses? Were these American women not happy to have reached at last the tranquillity of middle age?"

The boom of the 1920s, approaching its collapse, sharpened Barzini's impressions: ". . . Ordinary rules and laws clearly no longer applied to rich Americans. They could do no wrong. Was Zeus immoral when he transformed himself (as many American millionaires were more or less doing for similar purposes, according to the tabloids) into a shower of gold so as to penetrate a pretty girl's bedroom? There was, of course, a great fundamental difference between Olympus and the United States. No ordinary mortal could become a god. Every American could become one. That was the great American achievement. Everybody could seduce Danae [as Zeus had done]. In fact, it was his fault if he did not. The poor had only themselves to blame for their seedy destitution."

In 1930, just out of college and facing the Depression, ethnic prejudice and defeat in love, Barzini returned to Italy. He was no fascist, but he found Mussolini's tyranny -- "as full of holes as a colapasta, the colander in which spaghetti [was] drained" -- easier to bear than Americans' "individual moral duty not to waste one hour of their lives, achieve success and make money, build and produce more and more, and, at the same time, persistently improve the world, untiringly trying to teach all men how to live, work, produce, consume and rule themselves the American way."

Even in his own time here, Barzini knew Americans for whom it was all too much; middle-class kids of my generation, listening more acutely than their elders knew to the elders' complaints about the rat race, made a whole subculture, fed by a highly sophisticated industry, of the idea of escape.

And yet, and yet . . . Barzini came to think of his leaving America as an act of cowardice. He might have sympathized with Russell Baker, a generation younger than he, always being harried by his formidable mother to show some gumption and make something of himself. He might also have understood what Mr. Baker implies in his memoirs: For all that her harrying maddened him and left him unable to feel fully at ease, even when covered with years, honors and material comforts, it did what it was meant to do: get a fatherless young man through the Depression, and with eminence at that.

Barzini ended "O America" with the reflection that "in spite of my century-old Mediterranean skepticism, I still believe the world would be a better place if some of the American ideals of my youth had prevailed everywhere and, first of all, in the United States itself."

It's just this relentless passion for improvement, and its often surprising results, that has fascinated foreigners since before Tocqueville's day, has led half the world to try to remake itself in our image, and has attracted millions of immigrants from the kind of static, fatalistic countries we sometimes dream of staying in -- as tourists or vacation-home owners. The message seems to be listened to everywhere but at home. While so much American culture occupies itself with finding ways to blame genes, or bad parents, or society itself for everything wrong with our lives, Nolan Ryan is getting on with his in what Barzini might recognize as the ideal American spirit.

Jeffrey M. Landaw, the grandson of immigrants, is a Sun makeup editor.

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