Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Seeds of My Chinese Restaurant List and A Childhood Puzzle Solved After 50 Years

I don't think that anybody familiar with my Chinese restaurant list would be surprised to learn that I've been making lists since I was a kid.  What may be surprising is that while I have only been keeping my restaurant list for a little over 25 years, I just discovered a connection to the first lists I remember making as a grade schooler in the late 1950s.

As a kid I was what might be described in today's parlance as an American geography and history geek.  And the first lists I kept were of the cities with the largest population, by state.  Not only based on census data which came out every 10 years.  But I also kept track of annual unofficial updates as reported by the Britannica Yearbook and other publications.  So what does this have to do with visiting and recording trips to Chinese restaurants?  Well in one way,  quite a bit.  Because of my fascination with American cities as a kid, when I finished school and started working and traveling on my own, I decided I wanted to visit as many of these cities and states as I could, and in large part regardless of whether there were any particular tourist attractions of note.  For me,  I was excited to visit Paducah, KY, just because it was Paducah, KY.  And from the beginning, as I had explained in numerous interviews and presentations, my interest in things Chinese American which I picked up in college led me to dine in Chinese restaurants whenever I  could.  While I didn't actually eat Chinese food in Paducah, that first solo out of state trip did lead me to two Chinese restaurants in Memphis and one in Clarksdale, MS, and I was on my way.  Indeed the very next year led to restaurant visits in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Sioux City, Hopkins, MN, Bloomington, Fargo, Houston, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

All this has come to my attention due to a happenstance event which reminded me of my old city population lists.  Sometime in the early 1960s I came across a puzzling listing of the most populous cities in Arizona.  Coming in fourth place after Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa with an estimated population of 10,000 was Amphitheater.  I had never seen a reference to Amphitheater in any previous population listing, and in those pre-internet days, a search of library materials for Amphitheater, Arizona came up with absolutely nothing.  I eventually gave up, assuming perhaps it was somebody's idea of a joke to list some stadium with 10,000 seats as the fourth largest city in Arizona when filled.  And occasionally in years subsequent, I would think about Amphitheater, but eventually resigned myself to treating this as a mystery that would never be solved.

But then just the other Saturday, it was a beautiful sunny day and I worked a half day in my Century City office.  I decided to take a slight detour from my usual path home over to Hollywood Blvd. just to gawk at the tourists taking in the sights on such a quintessential Southern California day.  And as I drove by the Madame Toussaud museum, there it was on the message board.  "Welcome Amphitheater High School."  As soon as I got home I dashed for my computer and did the search.  Amphitheater High School is in Tucson.  A further search showed Amphitheater, obviously not a separate incorporated city, had been used to describe an area of north Tucson since the late 19th century because the natural layout of the area was like an amphitheater.  Strange that in two visits to Tucson I never came across any reference to that community even though my visits to that city were well planned in advance.  I guess it just shows how much more difficult it was to access information of all types back in those pre-internet days.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Kentucky's Final Four Loss As Explained By John Wooden

Like everybody else I was surprised by Kentucky's 71-64 loss in the NCAA basketball championship semi-final game.  They were a perfect 38-0 this season, ranked #1 in the polls since the first week of the season, and had talent comparable to some NBA teams.  But I wasn't as surprised as most people, as I told my friends all week that there was one factor that could stop Kentucky from going all the way--that 38 game winning streak.

Everybody knows legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both as one of the greatest coaches ever, and also as one of the most insightful minds ever associated with athletics with sagacious observations both as to life and athletics.  In my opinion the most insightful thing he said, and probably considered heretical by most people with associated sports is that under the proper circumstances, a loss may actually be a good thing for a competitor's experience.  In particular, when a team is on a long winning streak, he noted that the quality of its performance begins to diminish.  Wooden referred to winning streaks as becoming burdensome, which often leads up to an unexpected losing performance. It's not clear exactly why, but it's probably a combination of different factors.    Maybe the team starts playing not to lose, rather than trying to win, with keeping the streak alive becoming a distraction, whether conscious or not.  Maybe the team becomes overconfident.  Maybe opponents dig down deeper.  Maybe it's something totally subliminal.  And even if the team with the winning streak continues to win, quite often it's clear that the team is laboring under the pressure of the streak.  (Perhaps an explanation of Kentucky's close win over Notre Dame in its previous game.)  But whatever the reason, it is not unusual for teams on long winning streaks to stub their toe against an opponent that seemingly doesn't match up.

Now if the loss is suffered in a relatively meaningless game, the loss can be beneficial, as in today's parlance it's like hitting a reset button and you can again return to your former level of excellence.  But if that loss occurs in the sudden death NCAA tournament, it can't be remedied.  To me it's clear that if Kentucky had suffered a loss, say during the SEC tournament, that there's no way that anyone would have come close to them during the NCAA tournament and they would have sailed to the championship.

Of course things are a little more complicated than saying teams are more susceptible to a loss when on a winning streak, as there have been some impressive winning streaks in sports history.  One corollary rule is if you are vastly superior to your opponent, that opponent won't beat you no matter how badly you play.  Given that the college basketball season ends with the sudden death NCAA tournament, entering the tournament on a long winning streak is not a good thing, as the team will be facing a string of high calibre opponents.  No wonder why there hasn't been an undefeated NCAA basketball champion since 1976. (Remember that great unbeaten early 90s UNLV team?)  Another corollary is that consecutive wins from a prior season probably shouldn't count because each year's team is a different entity.  And of course, if two teams with long winning streaks meet, one of them will have to win.

Indeed one sees the effect of the winning streak phenomenon every year in college football.  Around the eighth week of the season there are often several unbeaten teams, many of which project out as going unbeaten for the rest of the year based on the calibre of their remaining opponents.  "Oh my gosh," pundits exclaim.  "It will be chaotic if the regular season ends with so many unbeaten teams."   But every year the season ends, and there's usually no more than one unbeaten team left, the others suffering upset losses at the hand of underdogs.

So yes, a loss can be therapeutic.  In John Wooden's last season as UCLA coach in 1975, they suffered a humiliating 21 point loss to a mediocre Washington team near the end of the regular season.  Now they weren't on a long winning streak at the time. But after that loss many observers concluded that the 1975 UCLA team wasn't that good and it wasn't going far in the NCAA tournament.  But indeed that team did win it all with some great play in the NCAA tournament.

John Wooden was also remarkable because he really didn't care whether his teams won or not, just that they played to their potential, so different from the winning is everything mentality we see all over sports.  And perhaps it is this mentality that obscures the truth that a loss might just do you good under the right circumstances, and help you win when it really counts.