Sunday, October 27, 2019

Mary Ellen (Carolan) Everton, R.I.P.

My mom, Mary Ellen (Carolan) Everton, was born in 1929 in Arizona. Both of her parents came from Ireland. Her dad was something of a wanderer. He didn’t come to the US in a conventional way. Instead, he made his way from Ireland through Europe and then Russia, crossed over to Alaska, worked his way down through Canada, apparently in a hurry because he was on the run from Canadian Mounties—not exactly sure what he did—but he eventually found his way to the American Southwest where he met and married my grandmother. My grandmother had her own adventures. According to family legend, she was supposed to sail to the New World on the Titanic, but she missed it and caught the Lusitania instead. Luckily, she sailed on the Lusitania before German U-boats decided it was a worthy target for a torpedo attack. My grandma came through Ellis Island and worked briefly as a maid in New York, but she quickly concluded that changing other peoples’ linens wasn’t her thing. So, she jumped on a train and headed out West to where one of her brothers had settled. And that’s where she met my grandfather, and eventually my mom was born.

My mom wasn’t their first child. She was the youngest of seven—she had one sister and five brothers, all of whom, including my mom, were quite musical. One, in fact, sang on Broadway, and another played in numerous orchestras, including Lawrence Welk’s (for those of us old enough to remember Lawrence Welk). Once when I was in high school, I went to a movie at the old Pruneyard cinemas, and all of a sudden, there on the screen, was my uncle. The scene was a high school dance, and my uncle was in the orchestra playing in the background.

Because my mom was born in 1929, her family used to kid her that she helped cause the Great Depression. She didn’t take it too personally, but the Depression had a lasting effect on her. She and her family were poor, very poor. She used to compare her family’s wanderings to that of “the Joads” from John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. My mom used to tell a story about how one day during the Depression, she found a penny lying on the street, which she took back to her mom. So, her mom told her to go out and find a nickel, which she did. And then my grandma told her to go out and find a dime, which she did. I’m not sure how long this went on, but I know my mom tracked down at least a quarter, and while that wasn’t a fortune, it was nothing to sneeze at in the 1930s. The Depression also profoundly affected how my mom viewed money. She always looked for ways to stash some away for a rainy day. And while not all of her strategies succeeded, most did, and that’s why both Brendan and Tara have her to thank for being able to attend the colleges of their dreams.

My mom’s family eventually moved to and settled in Grants Pass, Oregon, which she always considered home. After graduating from Grants Pass High, she first attended Willamette University in Salem, but then after she and my Dad got married, she transferred to the University of Oregon where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music. To say that she was proud to be a "Duck" would be an understatement. In fact, at the last Oregon football game she attended a few years ago, when the band started playing the Oregon fight song, “Mighty Oregon,” she pushed herself out of her wheel chair so that she could sing and dance and clap along.

Not too long after graduating from Oregon, she and my Dad moved to the Bay Area, and she eventually attended Stanford where she earned a Master’s degree in Education. And her ties to Oregon and Stanford are why I grew up both an Oregon and Stanford football fan and why my least favorite football game of the year is when Stanford and Oregon play. 

My mom spent the bulk of her adult life as an elementary school teacher. For the most part, she taught in the Campbell Unified School District, teaching kindergarten at Quito School on Quito Road. However, she also worked as an attendant at the El Rancho Drive-in, started and ran a nursery school in Cambrian Park, and after she retired from teaching, she became a travel agent. Doing that, however, I think was more of an excuse so that she could travel the world, which she did with great abandon. She strolled the grounds of the Taj Mahal, climbed the Great Wall of China, and kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland.

As many people who knew her know, my mom was a bit stubborn—something, she got from her dad. She liked to tell the story of how when her dad was in his 70s, something fell on and crushed his foot. And after the doctor took one look at his foot, he told him that he’d never walk again. At which point, my grandpa swung his legs out of bed, stood up, turned to the doctor and said, “The hell I won’t,” and walked out of the room. My mom was just the same. She never, ever, gave in. She never, ever, believed she wouldn’t succeed. And she never, ever, let others tell her what she couldn’t do.

She didn’t let others beat her down, either. When she was at Willamette, her roommate, who came from upper class stock, considered my mom beneath her. In fact, when my mom would go home for a weekend, her roommate would bundle up all of my mom’s belongings and hide them in a closet so that her friends and family wouldn’t see how poor my mom was. My mom’s roommate also owned a transistor radio. That may not seem like much today, but back then, it was a big deal. And sometimes she would play it when my mom was trying to study or go to sleep. And so one time when my mom asked her to turn it off and she refused, my mom walked across the room, picked up the radio, and threw it out the window. And then there was that time when she took a philosophy class. I can’t remember if it was at Oregon or Stanford. The final consisted of a single question, “What did you learn in this class?” My mom grabbed the test, wrote, “Absolutely nothing,” handed the test back in, and walked out of the room. If you’re wondering, she got an “A” in the class. I never had that kind of guts.

My mom was also proud, so proud, of being Irish. In some ways she reminded me of the dad in the movie, My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. Whenever one of the characters mentioned a word or concept or type of food, he would trace it back to Greece or Greek culture. That’s how my mom felt about Ireland and being Irish. If there was something good or just or honorable or pure, then she believed the Irish probably had something to do with it. My mom genuinely believed that St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland and that the Irish really did save civilization. She loved Notre Dame because they were known as the “Fighting Irish” – although it probably helped that Ronald Reagan played the Gipper – and she was convinced that the University of Oregon was really an Irish school because green is one of its primary colors.

My mom was also a huge sports fan. She loved watching her grandkids, Tara and Brendan, play baseball, softball, soccer, and volleyball. And she and my dad never missed a single one of my baseball or football games, at least not until I started spending my summers playing ball in Cape Cod, Alaska, and Canada, but even then, they made quite a few.

And unlike a lot of fans, my mom knew her sports. For the last couple of years, I would usually visit with her on Sunday afternoons, and we’d spend the afternoon watching either the Warriors or Niners or Giants, and even at 90 she could tell the good plays and good calls from the bad plays and bad calls. She didn’t need a Statcast strike zone to know when an umpire missed a call. In fact, back when I played in college, she used to sit right behind home plate and let the umpire know, in no uncertain terms, how well or how poorly he was calling the game. And when I came to the plate for my last at bat in college, and I started digging into the batter’s box, the umpire paused the game and stood up. “Sean,” he said, “I’m going to miss your mom.”

I’m going to miss her too.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Leaving Syria Stupidly

A few years ago, the counter-insurgency expert, David Kilcullen, remarked something to the effect that "just because you invade a war stupidly, doesn't mean you have to leave it stupidly" (see Tom Rick's book, "The Gamble," p. 29). Kilcullen had in mind the 2nd war with Iraq, and we should've heeded his advice. Back in 2014, rather than removing all of our troops, we should've left a small force behind that could have secured the safety of Iraqi citizens. We didn't, and that allowed ISIS to emerge and develop into a deadly force that the world is just now getting control of.

And now it looks like we've done it again. This time we're leaving (or have left) Syria "stupidly," leaving some of our allies in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds, to fend for themselves against a historical foe (Turkey) that would prefer they'd go away. So, now it appears that the Kurds have allied themselves with Syria, and the Russians have swept in to protect them. There's also some evidence that ISIS prisoners have escaped, which could help it reemerge in the future. It makes you wonder if anyone will ever trust us enough to ally themselves with us ever again.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Best Teams Don't Always Reach the World Series

The best teams don't always reach the World Series, let alone win it. As the theoretical physicist, Leonard Mlodinow, notes in his book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, even in a 7-game series, there's a good chance that the inferior team will win:
For instance, if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55 percent of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. And if the superior team could be expected to beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of each 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 matchups. There is really no way for sports leagues to change this. In the lopsided 2/3-probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 percent or less of the time (see chapter 5). And in the case of one team’s having only a 55–45 edge, the shortest statistically significant “world series” would be the best of 269 games, a tedious endeavor indeed!
Heading into the playoffs, FiveThirtyEight's ratings of the 10 teams that had qualified for the playoffs looked something like this (along with the % chance of them winning the World series):
  1. Astros - 1592 - 25% chance
  2. Dodgers - 1590 - 21% chance
  3. Yankees - 1584 - 21% chance
  4. Athletics - 1560 - 4% chance
  5. Nationals - 1557 - 6% chance
  6. Cardinals - 1548 - 6% chance
  7. Rays - 1547 - 3% chance
  8. Braves - 1547 - 8% chance
  9. Twins - 1543 - 5% chance
  10. Brewers - 1532 - 2% chance
In short, the best three teams heading into the playoffs were the Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees, and the probability that one of them would win was 67%. But, that still meant that there was a 33% chance that another team would. A 33% chance may not sound like a lot, but I suspect that if there was a revolver lying around, loaded it with two (out of six) bullets, very few people would put it to their head and pull the trigger even though there's only a 33% chance that it would fire a bullet.

Last night, the Nationals upended the apple cart by upsetting the Dodgers 7-3. A lot of blame is being thrown around, especially at Dave Roberts, Clayton Kershaw, and Joe Kelly, but even if Roberts had managed the game differently, there was still 80% chance the Dodgers wouldn't have won the World Series this year, which are pretty low odds for a team that won 106 games during the regular season.

Is there anything major league baseball (MLB) can do to insure that the best teams reach the World Series? Not much, given what Mlodinow has demonstrated. It can, however, increase the odds that it will happen, by turning the Wild Card games into a best of 3 series and the Division Series to a best of 7. To do so, however, MLB would probably need to shorten the regular season, say from 162 games to 154, and that might be a bridge too far for most owners. Not for the Dodgers' owners, though, I bet. I'm pretty sure they wish there were two more games to play against the Nationals.