Honolulu notes

We’ve come to Oahu a number of times in the seven years since our close friends moved here from Berkeley. Every time, I spend the first few days exhilarated at being in a beautiful, distant place that’s at once strange and familiar, and pleasantly slow-paced. I muse on the possibilities of moving out here and setting up a design agency, or working freelance, unless I could somehow pay a Honolulu mortgage working my dream job as a bartender at the Waikiki Elks Club. Every time, a few days in, I experience a moment of mild panic when I look out at the ocean and think about being thousands of miles from anywhere. The thought never quite leaves my mind for the rest of the trip.  There’s a Honolulu radio station that plays what it calls the “rock you live on,” and the phrase leaves me feeling uneasy.  Our friends talk about having bouts of island fever. I wonder if I would be particularly susceptible to it.

One of Honolulu’s many pleasures is an abundance of great Japanese restaurants.  I went to one with our friends, a family placr with a big dining room and one of those menus that’s like a book. To start, we ordered something called a Russian Roulette roll, just on the hunch that anything with that name would be good, or at least fun to talk about later. It was both, after a fashion, a setup of six pieces of tuna maki, with one, the waiter explained, hiding a huge chunk of wasabi under the fish.  There was a shot glass in the middle of the plate.  Anothet waiter arrived, carrying a large jar full of a yellowish liquid, with what was obviously a snake coiled at the bottom. He told us the stuff is a liqueur called habashu, and comes from Okinawa. It was obvious what you’re supposed to do if you  wind up with the wasabi bomb.  Both, and the both in combination, made for quite an experience, even if I didn’t taste much of what came after.

The beaches are everywhere and amazing. But for my money, the hikes are better. The other day,  I hiked up one of the volcanic ridges that extend into the center of the islans. I hiked up for an hour and a half, through clouds and mist, to a summit that gives a view out to Oahu’s western mountains in one direction, and up to Kailua, on the island’s windward side, in the other.  The trail was muddy from near-constant rain, and, in spots, only five or so feet wide, with what looked to be a thousand-foot vertical drop on either side. I wondered, if you fall, would your fall be cushioned or even stopped by the incredibly dense thickets of ferns, vines, and trees that cling to the sides of the ridge.  My guess is no.  I hiked up fairly fast, but came down slowly, so as not to slip. The wind howled the entire time. Wikipedia tells me there’s a Hawaiian wind god named Paka’a.  The article doesn’t mention it, but I’m guessing he’s given to bellowing fits.  I was alone on the trail the entire time.

Sunday afternoon, I sat in Nico’s, a fish restaurant and bar by the port, watching the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA finals. I grew up watching the Cavs, and setting them win was amazing and strange in about equal measure. I had a beer but stopped sipping it when they fell behind by 7 points. The bartender had such a deep tan and teeth so white, that had i seen her on the mainland, I’d have assumed both were artificial.  When Kyrie Irving hit the winning shot, I screamed. No one else seemed more than mildly interested.  I had the last sip of my beer, crying as I watched the players celebrate on a TV with the sound off.  Everyone around me had turned their attention back to their drinks and their phones, and their baskets of fried ahi belly and rice.  So many Clevelanders have scattered to so many places, I imagine I was one of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of tiny atolls in a global archipelago of half-lonely joy.

The persistence of the old regime, and steroids

Bill James recently made the interesting comment, talking about changing views on steroids use by athletes, that “history coalesces only around an extreme position.”   Let’s leave the odd locution aside for a minute and look at the issue he’s talking about, and his view on it.  He means that for any controversial issue on which the dominant opinions are each extreme, in the end, one will win out, without there being a compromise.  In the steroids example, he argues that while right now, most people—most sports fans, sportswriters, and sports officials—are resolutely in favor of banning steroid users and denying them the right to win awards and go into halls of fame, etc., down the line, we’ll see widespread acceptance of the other extreme position, that steroid use is no big deal and merits no punishment.

Is James right about steroids?  I think so.  Steroids have been demonized but they are widely used as medicine and this use is increasing.  Over time, as we all become more familiar with steroids, will we really see them as so different from, say, aspirin or cortisone?  Both are performance-altering substances.  And indeed we accept that athletes can use either or both, without deserving any punishment.

The dividing line, in the received view, would seem rather to fall between substances that help athletes recover from a problem, to return to their “natural” physical state, and those that enhance their “natural” abilities.  But what about coffee?  Tony Gwynn, one of baseball’s best-ever hitters, is famous for having drunk enormous amounts of coffee while he played, before and during games.  Coffee certainly heightens awareness and there are studies showing that it also improves athletic performance.  And nobody cares that Tony Gwynn drank so much coffee—he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

So the “recovery vs. enhancement” dividing line doesn’t hold either, at least when it comes to taking substances we accept as a part of everyday life.  And as James notes, “more of us are going to be using more and more steroids for more and more things.”  So even though steroids come from a lab rather than a berry, and enhance, or seem to enhance, performance, we’ll likely come to see them as an ordinary part of all of our everyday lives asas aspirin and perhaps even coffee.  Meaning that like cortisone, we’ll be fine with athletes getting them from a doctor, to be used to treat some problem or other.  And once this happens, it will be hard, or at least much harder, to argue, that we should punish athletes who took them, even if this wasn’t done under a doctor’s care.

What about James’s argument about “history”?  Here, I think, he’s less right, if not totally wrong.  Yes, it’s true that in any number of instances in any number of societies, we can see that a position broadly perceived as radical, challenging a position seen as important to the identity and indeed the future survival of the society in question, can eventually win broad and seemingly total acceptance, against all odds, at least as those would have been set, at the outset of the debate.  Think of the victory of abolitionism, in European and then US public opinion and politics, over the course of the 19th century.  Think even of the—brief—victory of prohibitionism in the US in the early 20th century.  There is also the civil rights struggle in the US south in the 50s and 60s, and, yes, I think James is right to cite, as a parallel to the current reaction against, and coming “so what” attitude about, steroids, the evolution of attitudes about gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan’s once-chimerical dream.

But in each of these instances, did the radical vision really win, in the way James suggests?  I’d suggest that the reality is more complex.  Arno Mayer, in The Persistence of the Old Regime, a masterful study of 19th century Europe, stressed the backward-looking focus of the continent’s new bourgeois elite, which had risen to power by virtue of its having created a new, vital capitalist, trading economy, yet remained subservient to a nobility and royals whose power was based on moldy traditions and landed wealth that no longer much mattered.  The bourgeoisie, and the previously radical position that there should be popular control over the state, had “won,” but this victory was everywhere tempered by the continued hold of an old elite on key levers of power, and, critically, of the terms by which power was defined.  Even after the collapse of the European old order, in the First World War, the power of the old elite persisted—and persists today to a real degree, despite the arrival of democratic rule and decades of wealth taxes and redistribution, even in a place as nominally egalitarian as Sweden.

As to gay marriage…  It’s marriage.  Yes, the acceptance of gay marriage is indeed a huge victory for the gay community—and indeed for anyone who cares about equal rights—but this “victory” is a compromise.  Indeed Sullivan intended gay marriage to be a means by which gay rights could be advanced in accord with very traditional views on relationships and family.  In his famous New Republic article advocating for gay marriage, he pooh-poohed domestic partnership as too un-traditional, arguing that “the concept of domestic partnership chips away at the prestige of traditional relationships and undermines the priority we give them.”  His victory, ultimately, is the victory of tradition—redefined, yes, but still recognizable, to the point that a generation or two down the line, many people might well wonder what the fuss was all about.

Back to steroids, and Bill James.  Yes, all the best ballplayers of the post-strike era, steroid-taking sluggers included, will eventually get into the Hall of Fame.  To my mind, they should be in there now, because there is a legitimate question whether steroids actually improve performance significantly and in the long run, and anyway there are plenty of guys in the Hall who did amphetamines, or otherwise played outside the rules, as a way to get an edge.  Cheating at the margins is as much a part of baseball tradition as balls hand-sewn in Haiti.

Moreover, as James himself says, we’ll all come soon enough to see steroids as just part of life.  But when this happens, this won’t represent the victory of an extreme position.  Or not just.  Rather, it will represent the redefinition of a tradition by which we see sports as a competition among athletes who’ve made the most, by everyday means, of their “natural” abilities.  The distinction is important, I think, because without the persistence of this tradition, in the minds of people who care about the game—not just writers and players, but, above all, fans—baseball would become something very different.  A baseball that preserves that tradition, even by redefining it to include practices that now seem abhorrent to so many, is still a sport, in the standard sense.  The key being not just suspense about outcomes and the thrill of watching athletic feats, but also the sense that those performing those feats represent the best of ordinary humanity—what anyone could be, given some natural talent and incredibly hard work.  Absent that, and thus absent the deep connection between fans and players, baseball, like any sport, would become a lot like the circus, or any other show or spectacle that makes no pretense that it, or its performers, bears any relation to those who watch it, or their everyday lives.  And thus it would be much less compelling, not to say much less popular and lucrative as a business.  Preserving its traditions, however that’s done, is essential to baseball’s survivals.  Leaving the best players of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s out of its Hall of Fame would be, in essence, an admission by baseball’s leaders that it had let itself become something other than a sport, for a significant length of time.  That’s too great a risk for baseball to bear.  Better to let evolving attitudes about steroids carry everyone to a point when it’s possible to say that really, nothing bad happened then at all, and baseball’s traditions were never put at risk.  Even if those traditions are, by then, much different than what they seem to be now.

Could ultimate frisbee be the next big US spectator sport?

This can’t seem likely, I realize, given most Americans’ unfamiliarity with the game, and the limited interest in the two professional leagues that have been launched recently. Still, I think frisbee’s chances of success – if we take success to mean a level of general interest, and revenues, at least as great as pro US soccer within one generation, and hockey, in two – are pretty good.

Shouldn’t soccer be in this position? Millions of American kids play it, and this has been true for, what, 30 years or so? So what. Millions of kids play recorder and floor hockey. At the risk of being at once unoriginal and a romantic, I’d say that soccer’s problem, as a rising spectator sport, is that it’s not American enough. Spectator sports become big because they make people feel connected to something in their imagined common past, and then, by watching a match or game, let them share that memory with people like them, thus coming to feel part of a common community. Soccer, in the US, doesn’t work like that. Perhaps this could come to happen, were the US team to win a World Cup, attendance to rise, revenues to increase, and the best US players, and the best players from elsewhere, start their careers here, in significant numbers. Then soccer would come to seem a more American thing. But the competition, both from other countries’ teams, and other countries’ leagues, is too fierce, I think, for this to happen anytime soon.

Frisbee, on the other hand, could not be more American. Moreover – and significantly, I think – it could not be more Californian. And California, particularly the Bay Area, where ultimate is most popular, not only drives the American economy, but, more and more, with the rise of tech and tech culture, is reshaping American society as well. Ultimate, as the – ahem – ultimate California game, is poised, I think, to rise to prominence much as have, in the past, baseball – the ultimate rural American pastime, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the football – the ultimate industrial-area pastime, in the early to mid-20th century; and basketball, the ultimate rural Midwestern, and then urban pastime, starting in the mid-20th century. The cultural power of the Bay Area, and everything associated with it, will only grow over the course of the 21st century. If one of the new ultimate leagues can successfully position itself as the sport most representative of that culture, its success, I think, will be assured.

Can’t groupthink be good?

I follow the Cleveland Indians, who are sort of the unsuccessful version of the Oakland A’s. They’re run by the sort of guys glorified in Moneyball, but they’ve made the playoffs only once in 11 years, and are about the miss again, and by a lot. Perhaps unsurprisingly – if maddingly, for Indians fans – the front office seems to be responding to the team’s failures by doubling down on dorkitude. The other day the team website featured a piece saying that Ubaldo Jimenez, who’s been one of the worst pitchers in baseball since the Indians acquired him more than a year ago, has actually pitched quite well of late – even though he’s given up just as many hits and runs as usual, in his Indians tenure. The GM and manager cited some stat-nerd numbers in support of their argument, and in fact they may well have a case that if he keeps this up, the hits and runs will come in more of a trickle, rather than a torrent. Be that as it may, the piece can only reinforce the widespread perception that these guys will do anything to rationalize their own failures, obsessing about any and all numbers that – ahem! – don’t go by the shorthand “W” or “L.” Wasn’t there anyone in the front office who thought that putting out this story might not be such a good idea? Its appearing shows not just that they’re nerds, but that their office has been enveloped by a groupthink bubble.

But is that always bad? What about Apple under Steve Jobs? That was groupthink city, including in the company’s darkest days, and everything turned out pretty nicely in the end. Maybe, like Apple, the Indians front office is filled with geniuses who’ve had a string of bad luck and been undermined by just a few of their decisions going wrong. Plenty of smart baseball observers are taken by the team’s approach, and every year they seem to win what I call the Rob Neyer World Series, when this (hardcore stat-nerd) writer proclaims them his dark horse pick to go deep into the playoffs, or even – at last – win it all. I imagine that every time this happens, the champagne and confetti come out in the Indians offices, no matter that it’s usually February and if you threw or spilled either outside in Cleveland, it would get lost in the snow.

In all seriousness, I wonder how the team’s owners, at season’s end, will assess the performance of the team president, the GM, and their staff – the guys who make the baseball decisions. On bottom-line numbers – Ws and Ls – they should all be fired. But is that the right criterion to use? Just now, the Moneyball way offers the only compelling approach for building a winning team on no money. Other cheapskate Moneyball teams – the A’s, the Rays – have gone through tough times. But Moneyball has worked for them. The Indians owners have no money, or at least none they’ll spend on anything beyond minimal major league player salaries and the standard minor-league player development costs. So Moneyball is the way to go, if they want an approach that’s both coherent and offers some demonstrable chance of success. So maybe for them, the front office unthinkingly showcasing its own stat-nerdiness, in a time when the team is losing up a storm, could serve as proof that they’ve got the right guys. The same ones, unfortunately, who are so into their idiosyncratic approach to their work, they’ve shut themselves off to anyone who would them that they look like idiots.

When soccer was an English game

What was it like – how was English football, before it became widely played around the world, different from soccer now, not just as a game, but as a culture? That was my question, reading this piece by Canadian writer David Macfarlane, on the Americanization of hockey. And were the English – some English – as troubled by the de-anglicization of the game and everything around it, as is Macfarlane, by the changes in hockey? Likely not, I’m guessing – and I’d bet the question of agency was key. Soccer was taken to all corners of the globe by the English, whereas Americans are responsible for bringing hockey to the Sunbelt, which so bothers Macfarlane.