Thursday, June 28, 2012

Craft Beer and the Next Economy

Picture from Brewfest Link
A couple of Saturdays ago I went to the Hyperlocal Brewfest at the Somerville armory. It was a dozen or so area craft, micro, and other (the other being Sam Adams & Narraganset, which was nice because I'd been intrigued by the Sam Adams Porch Rocker, but wanted to try some before committing to a six-pack. Verdict: It'd be perfect if I'd just mowed a lawn, but I think I'll fill my fridge with other beers) brewers giving tall pours and unlimited samples of their wares. I tried beers from Cambridge Brewing Company, Watch City, Backlash, Idle Hands, Jack's Abby, Somerville Brewing Company, and Night Shift. The CBC, Jack's Abby (which I didn't realize was local) and Somerville Brewing Company, had the best individual beers, and the pims beer (which really tasted like a pims cup, meaning it was cucumber beer) from Cape Anne was really interesting, but the best beverage I had was a combination of Night Shift's Taza Chocolate Stout AND! Viva Habanero, a rye malt with habanero peppers. (For the love of peace and justice and the children and puppies, put that in a bottle!)

Of course, this is all part of the growing localism trend, the absurd belief that life is better when you give enough of a shit about the town or city you live in to shop in a way that supports said economy of said town. (Aside, I wonder how strong the locavore movement is in this small-town value-driven, um, towns, that people keep telling me are the real America. What? Wal-mart put all those stores out of business? OK then.) But with the national unemployment rate hovering around the 8s and looking like its going to stay there for awhile, and the growing concerns around global warming and climate change, I wonder if, more than just producing a delicious, delicious beverage, local-focused craft beer might be leading the way to the next American economy.

In general, locally owned businesses hire more people per dollar of sales than national and international businesses, at least in terms of retail. Part of this employment difference, of course, has to do with duplication of services. A thousand different locally owned businesses will all have their own marketing coordinator, personnel manager, receiver etc, while a large national chain will only have one or a small group meeting those responsibilities. (Part of this difference might also be that locally owned independent businesses don't usually have some rich asshole at the top demanding shmillions of dollars a year in earnings.) And, of course, the other benefits of shopping locally, such as tax revenue, property values, and general economic activity, are well documented, but I think the craft-micro-local beer industry might have even more to teach us.

What about an economy of small-scale manufacturing and production? When we think about restoring manufacturing in America, we tend to think about car factories, and other massive endeavors, the kind of industry that defined the, um, industrial revolution, but maybe the answer to our manufacturing deficit is to go small. Thousands of small operations around the country, hiring people with a productive level of redundancy and, perhaps, making high quality goods in an environmentally rational way at reasonable prices to boot.

Beer, of course, is the perfect product for sustainable small-scale production. You can start your business in your kitchen. If things go well you can be a tenant brewer as Pretty Things did, renting space in existing breweries to make your beer. And even if you end up owning your own brewery, you don't need a huge space for it. And there seems to be a range of economic sustainabilities in making beer; you've got your Sam Adams and Harpoon, and you've got your Peak, Notch, Cape Ann, Ipswitch, and you've got your Night Watch, Pretty Things, and Somerville Brewing Company.

In metro-Somerbridge, we're seeing a little bit of this, especially in terms of various food products, but is there a way to develop, small-scale clothing, appliance, home goods, electronics, and other manufacturing? Cities, towns, and state subsidize businesses all the time, usually through tax breaks and low interest loans, but nearly all of the time these subsidies go to big national chains. Wal-Mart walks into the local city council meeting promises adding 500 jobs by building a warehouse in the town and then casually hints they suppose they could build that warehouse in the next town over unless they don't have to pay property tax on the warehouse for ten years. (Then, because this is Wal-Mart, they deliver half the jobs they promised generally at a non-liveable wage, and if a few local businesses go out because of this, the city's tax base usually erodes even further, but I doubt I needed to tell you Wal-Mart is bad.) Millions or perhaps billions of dollars in local funds have been poured into massive and already successful and profitable businesses. It's kind of like the steroid era in baseball, the strongest are just getting stronger. (A couple places for all the data: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance and The 10% Shift)

But what if towns, cities, and counties, started subsidizing small-scale manufacturing and production? You would probably create more jobs for less money and, in terms of the city's investment, jobs that aren't going to up and relocate to Bangladesh. It would be investments in business owners who are themselves specifically invested in the well-being of the city. And this wouldn't have to mean the end of large-scale production.

Some products, cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. just can't be produced at the local level and that's fine. There can be room in our economy for the large-scale and the small-scale, the local and the international, the big and the small. The only reason we don't see more of a mixed economy is because big businesses tend to spend a lot of money on getting bigger, usually in the form of lobbying the shit out of Congress and local governments for tax breaks, subsidies, and lax regulation that gives them economic advantages. Or, they just take a 6.025% price advantage by not collecting and remitting sales tax. (AMAZON!)

But, as usual, it starts with beer. By making home brewing legal Jimmy Carter maybe have begun the process of the next American economy, a small-scale, sustainable, productive economy that creates jobs and lowers our carbon footprints. And delicious beer. Delicious delicious beer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Will the Big Three Come Back? And a Couple Other Sports Thoughts

Of the four major American sports, basketball is my least favorite (which drops it to around 6th or 7th in the world of sports in general, but still puts it higher than just about anything else on TV) but it was damn near impossible not to become emotionally invested in the Boston Celtics this year. Everyone kept knocking them down and they just kept getting right back up. And not just dragging themselves to their feet to stagger through another round. They got back up to the Eastern Conference finals (more on that in unpacking the titular question) and went seven games with the Miami Heat, in the course of which, their play demanded Lebron James put it one of the great performances in NBA playoff history to beat them. They proved that great coaching and great team play can still beat the greatest individual talents the sport has to offer, if said great team could muster a few more points from their bench players.

But the question on everyone's mind of course, as the Heat fans gave the Celtics a standing ovation in the closing seconds of game 7 is, is this the end? Is “The Big Three” era coming to an end? There were points in this season (say, before the All-Star break) where this was an easy “no,” but, with the playoff performance the question is a lot more complicated, and is, I think, leaning ever so slightly towards, “yes.”

First of all, I think it's important to remember that if Avery Bradley was healthy the Celtics beat the Heat in six games. Maybe five. He would have guarded James most of the time, and by the playoffs, he had developed into an elite defender. Not only would he have added his own abilities, he would have eased the burden on Paul Pierce, who noticeably faded as the series wore on. Much like in their re-match with the Lakers when Kendrick Perkins went down, it wasn't poor play from the Big Three that accounted for a loss, but the absence of a key supporting player. The same thing could be said for the Heat, of course. If they had lost the 12 or so points Chalmers provided, they would have lost series. (And while we're on the Heat, if Chris Bosh didn't suddenly turn into a 3-point shooter in game 7, the Celtics would still be playing. I mean, seriously. What more could we ask from the Celtics defense than to force Bosh to take 3s as the shot clock expired?)

On to signing or not signing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to new contracts. Let's start with Ray Allen, because I think the possibility of his contract is more complicated.

First of all, it depends in his ankle. If he gets out of ankle surgery and doesn't believe he can consistently make jump shots, I assume he'll retire. But even if the ankle comes back healthy, the Celtics would have to be concerned about his ability to stay healthy for an entire season, given the ankle, the bone spurs, and his age. I think we can safely assume that Ray Allen can no longer contribute effective starter minutes. But coming off the bench? If Ray Allen's ankle is healthy after the surgery, I think he can be an major contributing factor off the bench. In 12 minutes or so per game, we could expect about 12 points or so from Allen, but more importantly, a fresh Allen at the end of games could be huge. He could only average 6 or 7 points a game, but if those points come in the fourth quarter to close-out games, they will be major contributions to the team's success. And you don't have to run around to make free-throws.

The question is whether a future Hall of Famer and the greatest pure jump-shooter the game has ever seen is willing to take a 1 or 2 year contract that reflects that role. Because it will be a pay-cut. And it might be only a 1 year deal. Personally, I think a Wakefield-like contract makes a lot of sense for Ray Allen. In a diminished role, he could continue to contribute for a 2,3, or even 4 years, but any game and any season could be the last. The rolling contract that Wakefield had, could be a perfect fit.

During the playoffs, Kevin Garnett proved he is still an elite player and if the Celtics only sign one of them, it's going to be Garnett. The only question is the contract. Is he willing to accept that, as every year passes, he becomes more and more of an injury risk? Is he willing to take a pay-cut in order to help his team fill the gaps in their roster? What is most important to him, being a Boston Celtic or being a high paid NBA star? As with Allen, I think there is a contract in here that makes sense, probably for two-years and probably for less than what he's getting paid now.

There is another reason for sports fans to root for The Big Three coming back next season; we could see professional athletes make a decision based on something other than how much money they'll be paid. There is an amount of money that makes sense for the Celtics to offer Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and there is a chance other teams will offer them more. Unfortunately, we may never know all the details that will ultimately go into the contract negotiations, but if two players who have embraced a team identity the way Garnett and Allen have can leave Boston for more money in the waning years of their careers, we'll have the final definitive confirmation that professional sports has become the same soul-crushing corporate culture as the rest of the world.

About damn time.
A few other sports things to catch up on. Given that Patrice Bergeron won the Selke, as entertaining as it might have been, I will not be pitching a fit. He should win it a half dozen times over his career as long as he stays healthy. However, I do have questions about Karlsson winning the Norris trophy. Yes, there is no question he was the best offensive defensman in the league, but that :35 average shorthanded time on ice really stands out to me. There could be a lot of reasons for it, but it makes his plus/minus 16 much less respectable. From his point totals he was on the ice for a minimum of 78 Ottawa goals, which means he was also on the ice for a minimum of 63 opposing goals, but with so little shorthanded time, nearly all of the opponents goals had to come even strength. (Chara on the other hand had 2:55 shorthanded time on ice and a 33 plus/minus.) When a defenseman is getting points like that, you'd think the net gain for the Senators would be a lot more than 16, especially when he's not killing penalties. For a somewhat unfair comparison, in 1968-9, when Bobby Orr scored a paltry 64 points, he had a plus/minusof 65. The game was different back then, but the stats still add up to opponents scoring a lot of even-strength goals when Karlsson is on the ice. Which makes me ask, if there's a Selke for forwards, why not an Orr for defensemen?

Offensive Juggernaut
If I came back from an around the world tour and you told me Felix Dubron had 8 wins, Daniel Nava was batting .333, Jarrod Saltalamaccia had 13 home runs and David Ortiz was toting around MVP level offensive numbers (.313 batting average, 49 RBI, 18 HR, .614 slugging) and asked me where the Sox were in the standings, I'd probably guess the best in baseball and well on their way to a 100 win season. With a disabled list of mythical proportions, a pitching staff that took two months to straighten out, Youkilis and Pedroia constantly nursing lingering injuries, and playing in a division that is somehow even better than it was last year, the Red Sox are not on their way to a 100 win season. Oh, and what's up with Adrian Gonzalez? I think just about everyone was ready for an off year for the Red Sox, for a whole host of reasons, but I don't think anybody was prepared for the David Ortiz to potentially have the best year of his career, and for the Red Sox organization to demonstrate some pretty remarkable depth. What does this mean for the season? Well, the rest of the AL East is crushing it as usual, being the only division with all teams above .500, and the Sox lost a lot of games early in the season, but they still have Ellsbury coming back and who knows what Crawford can so, the Red Sox are speeding headlong towards another end-of-season playoff heartbreak. That extra wild card might be just within reach, and if they get it, they'll get their opponents ace might be a tough September. Or they could squeak in, everyone could get hot at the plate, and they could steamroll their way to another championship. Ah, Red Sox baseball.

No pads, no time-outs, and, they're friends are rowdier.
Finally, do not miss the rugby sevens at the Olympics this summer. Rugby sevens might be the purest, most athletic team sport in the world. It's played at a blistering pace, the players are freakish specimens of raw ability, and the US is the defending gold-medalist. (OK, we're not going to win any medals in rugby, but, hey, we've got enough.) Though it might be a little extreme to say your avoidance of rugby this summer will test the bonds of our friendship, your avoidance of rugby this summer will test the bonds of our friendship.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review of Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man

Like all good memoirs, Jay Atkinson's Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man is about more than just what it's about. The center of gravity is rugby, but the memoir is about building an identity, discovering one's self in the course of one's life, and using that self as a guide through whatever else existence provides. For Atkinson, the culture of rugby provided a kind of stability that allowed him to cope with the emotional challenges of his life, while struggling through shitty jobs to be a writer.

As a rugby-player myself, I can say that Atkinson perfectly captures the culture of the sport. Camaraderie. Barely restrained recklessness. Penchant for mischief. Roll with the punches attitude. Drinking. Singing. Nicknames. (I was “The Prophet” if anyone is curious.) Through his anecdotes and reflections, most readers will get a good sense of what makes rugby rugby and why ruggers are so willing to constantly risk bodily harm in their sport.. Of course, this is a memoir, not an expose, so readers looking for a wealth of salacious details and vulgar lyrics will be slightly disappointed. There is debauchery, but only so much as can be experienced by a rugby player with a head on his shoulders.

Atkinson describes the games as well as he describes the parties. In some ways, rugby is a complex bundle of confusing contradictions. Despite being played on a roughly soccer-sized field, the bulk of the work takes place in the ugly, messy, brutal, virtually enclosed, chaotic-while-rigorously-policed, ruck as the teams vie for position and control of the ball after a player has been tackled. But then all of that work often culminates in moments of brilliant athletic grace; long passes across the field, perfect drop kicks through the goal posts, and fast runners balletting through the back line. As in all sports, there are specialized roles for the different positions, but all ruggers need a broad base of general skill; tackling, passing, catching, to be able to compete. And there's the scrum, a term that has taken on an opposite meaning in general use from what it means in rugby. The scrum might be the most highly orchestrated, technical, and delicate procedure in all of rugby as it involves getting eight players per team, in different positions, with different body types, and different skill sets and strengths to work in perfect unison. I don't know if there's anything more orderly in all team sport.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man is also a writing memoir. It was Atkinson's hopes for a writing career that brought him to Florida where his rugby career began in earnest, and it was there that he met the late great Harry Crews. If there are two muses in this book, rugby is one, and the hard drinking, hard teaching, hard writing is the other. And Atkinson stuck with writing just as he stuck with rugby, authoring Caveman Politics, Ice Time, Legends of Winter Hill and more.

Which made me surprised there aren't more rugger-writers in the world. What's the difference between a frat that kicks a keg on Friday night and a rugby team that kicks a keg on Friday night? Saturday morning. Who knows what the frat is doing, but I doubt it's walking step by step across a field to make sure it's clear of rocks, setting up goal posts, and painting lines, before playing perhaps the most physically demanding team sport in the world. (Water polo might have it beat, but not by much.) The difference is the work. Whatever else happens, rugby players are defined by the work of rugby. Same thing with writing. The difference between a writer who goes on a Friday night tear, and everybody else who goes on a Friday night tear, is the desk on Saturday morning. No matter what else happens in their lives, writers do the work of writing.

I think that is one of things that makes rugby so important to the people who play it. Sure there's the actual athletic action, there are the parties, there is the camaraderie, there is the ability of sport to unify disparate individuals into a team, but there is also a reason to drag your hung over ass out of bed on Saturday morning and do something. I think we live better, happier lives when he have that reason.

Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man will be most satisfying to people familiar with rugby, whether it's people who've just started watching the 7's version of the game on television, or players who know the tune of “I Used To Work in Chicago,” (You gotta wonder why that lady kept going back, she never got anything she asked for.) but general sports fans will enjoy this insightful look into what is still a fairly exotic sport in America. And since Atkinson never played professionally, he writes from the perspective of the life-long amateur, a perspective most of us can relate to.

Finally, since he is a writer there's a depth of experience and sincerity in the book that just cannot be created by ghost-written celebrity memoirs. You can feel that he didn't write this because he saw a publicity opportunity, but because this was his life and writers are compelled, for reasons often least understood by the writers themselves, to turn their lives into text.