Newsletter – 10 July, 2014

This Week’s Share: Basil, Chinese cabbage
Garlic, Lettuce, Onions
Peppers, Savory, Squash

Next Sunday a bunch of guys from Argentina or Germany will win a soccer game and hoist possibly the most coveted and ugliest sports trophy. And they will be hailed by many as the world champions. But of course they won’t be. There is no such thing.

To be fair, the FIFA World Cup champions will at least have had to make it through a tournament that includes teams from nearly every country. It is a legitimately global enterprise. As opposed, for instance, to the World Series, which has considerably less to do with the world. Baseball is played seriously in maybe eight countries, and only two of those field teams that qualify for the World Series. Not that this stops people from declaring the winning team the world champions. But that is patently hyperbolic and parochial.

Soccer’s near global popularity and the broad participation in the World Cup tournament, however, do not make the eventual winners champions of anything but this specific tournament with its particular rules and structure. Change some element–and there’s no reason you could not–and the outcome could change too.

Imagine, for instance, that FIFA set up the World Cup like a tennis tournament, with the top seeds carefully distributed throughout the draw. Or that they gave up on penalty kick shootouts as tie breakers and made teams actually play soccer to determine a winner. Or that they decided that it is not worth suffering brain damage for any game and outlawed heading the ball. Or came to the conclusion that amping up nationalism does not serve mankind and randomly assigned the top players from each country to mixed teams with self-effacing anthems. Would we still be watching Germany and Argentina play for the title on Sunday? Hard to say. But we would certainly be watching a different tournament.

Of course, if your team wins the World Cup you want to imagine them world champions. And for sports writers it’s more concise and has far more flair. And for the rest of us it is satisfyingly and simplifyingly definitive. There’s a logical system for sorting out international soccer and FIFA has applied it and we have an answer.

Isn’t that one of the points of sports? They offer us a neatly enclosed world of simple, self-referential rules and clear, fair outcomes that recognize superiority. In order to understand the game we just need to know the game. Not that it leaves no room for argument. It clearly leaves room for almost endless argument–about the enforcement of the rules, about luck and timing, about tactics, about skill, even about some of the rules so long as tinkering with them will improve the point of the game, not alter it. You can argue about the existence or placement of the three point line, but not about whether players should get extra points for dressing up as eggplants or reciting verse. You have to accept the basic rules, arbitrary though they may be, as they are, as if nature or some ESPN god had decreed them.

I am not immune to the pleasure of sports, but there seems to be ac problem. Whatever we want to think, the individual results are entirely conditional. When you win a tournament or a game or a set or chukka, you win only that thing played at that precise moment in those precise conditions. In order to be able to sort out competitors in any meaningful way, you have to have them play one another over and over again until the accumulated results begin to take on some actual statistical significance. But we don’t seem to like that way of arriving at knowledge. After amassing the results of 2430 regular season games to sort out major league baseball teams, we resort to a far more arbitrary playoff system to choose the one true world champion. For some reason, that seems more definitive to us.

Which does not really matter when we are talking about baseball. But sports, instead of enhancing our ability to hone our perception, play to our misleading desire for simple drama and clear answers. And that does matter when, for instance, we are talking about climate change. Sure, there are years (thousands of years) of data pointing to some very real changes and trends in our planet’s climate. Enough to convince pretty much every climate scientist not on the payroll of an oil company that there’s something real happening. But the statistics strike as somehow unconvincing. They’re niggling little things, too wimpy to stand up by themselves and boldly declare the truth. They travel in swarms like insects, buzzing about our heads irritatingly, almost impossible to catch, distracting and confusing us. Sure, they add up to something, but what precisely? Nothing that really gets us up on our feet, chanting, clapping, adrenalin coursing through us, caught up in the one true moment. We need that winner take all climate change event, that definitive world champion 600-foot-tall tidal wave washing over Manhattan.

We can go ahead and get caught up in the drama of Sundays soccer match and celebrate–or bemoan–the outcome. But it might help us to recall, once we have put away the flags and washed off the face paint, what we witnessed: not the revelation of a world champion; just a game bound by its own rules to come to a conclusion that tells us only who won and lost at that one moment. And perhaps if we learn to accept the conditional nature of that single event, however glorious or heartbreaking, we might in time learn to appreciate the rather quieter and more compelling force of accumulated facts. And then maybe we won’t have to have that tsunami at all.


Vegetable notes: Herbie told us a couple of weeks ago that we would have a dry summer. He said that’s what the Farmer’s Almanac predicted. Maybe he misread it. Maybe they just got it wrong. Too bad. I like a good drought. But we have had multiple (I have lost count) torrential rain storms this week. It messes with our schedule. We cannot cultivate or sow crops when we should. And it is having a bad effect on the basil. Actually, downy mildew is the real culprit, but it flourishes in humid conditions. It turned up early this year (it comes in on the wind) and now it is running amok. Our basil looked fine on Friday and awful yesterday when I went to pick it for you. I got some acceptable side shoots, but mostly I just ripped the tops off the plants and threw them away. That is not very satisfying picking.

Fortunately, most of the other crops are putting up with the wet conditions well enough so far. The squash has slowed down a bit, but that is not a bad thing. The garlic needed some water. Maybe not this much, but it should help the heads size up before we need to pick them in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we pulled some green because I don’t want you to go a week without garlic. At this stage is is still quite moist and mild. If, for some reason you don’t want to use it right away just put it somewhere cool and dry and it will cure. But be warned that we have another few thousand heads where this one came from. You will be getting more. So you might as well just use this one up now. Squeeze a head into some salad dressing. Saute another with the Chinese cabbage. And puree the rest with the basil and a little savory (the other bunch of herbs, which also makes a nice addition to a squash soup or roast chicken or roasted potatoes) and put it on your grilled squash and onions.