A Man (in) Full: Headcheese, Jelly Sticks & my Dad’s Food Fetish

So, I try to write each August about my dad, the original Hal Phillips, who passed away seven years ago this month, all too soon. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him in some way, shape or form. Many times, that moment comes when I open the refrigerator door and see my collection of hot sauces.

My dad was an enthusiastic eater and devotee of exotic, spicy and otherwise full-flavored food. Growing up, we used to kid him that he had essentially deadened his taste buds — such was the relish with which he applied not just hot sauce but salt, butter, condiments and dressings of any kind. He took this ribbing as he took most efforts to curb his foundational behaviors — with good-natured indifference — then went ahead and treated his pig knuckle with another dollop of blazing-hot mustard.

My paternal, Jersey-based grandmother was not an enthusiastic or particularly skilled cook (whenever we went to visit, she would serve us the same thing, in great quantity: steak, corn and a black forest cake from Sara Lee). American cuisine in the 1940s and ’50s — in private homes, in restaurants — was pretty bland. My dad’s reaction to this cultural upbringing was to find himself a wife who, among other things, appreciated and was equipped to prepare the same wide variety of food.

For her part, my mom, Lucy Dickinson Phillips, was raised on the West Coast, which, because it was still America in the ‘40s and ‘50s, was similarly staid on the food front. But Californians did have good Mexican, not to mention proper Chinese. What’s more, her mother occasionally cooked things like (gasp!) curry. In this and so many other ways, my mom proved the woman of my dad’s dreams.

Perhaps on account of their relatively white-bread American upbringings, older couples today are often satirized for this single-mindedness. How was your trip to New York? “Oh, we found the most wonderful northern Italian restaurant near Washington Square…” My parents routinely answered travel questions in this fashion; mom still does. As a good cook, she grew annoyed when my dad would salt or spice food up before tasting it. But their 50 years together were a more or less uninterrupted, gleeful quest for good eats. As such, it has fallen to their children to react in kind — to try and restore some level of sanity and moderation to the food-intake process.

This remains a work in progress.

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I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK: Walker Earns Inaugural Harris Award for Political Nihilism

With this communication, we introduce and inaugurate the random presentation of the Harris Nightmare Awards (HNAs). Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The HNAs will henceforth call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since Newt Gingrich executed his hostile take-over of the party in the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations.

Most folks will be familiar with the title of Harris’ book, which refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: For one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it. In short, right wing media have decided there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re fake; they must be fake.” Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

But this phenomenon extends well beyond right-wing media circles. Hence our need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, whose first designee is the inimitable Scott Walker, inert presidential candidate from 2016 and two-term governor of Wisconsin now running for a third term. His opponent this fall will be former state superintendent of schools, a Democrat named Tony Evers. Walker remains unfazed.

“I’m not worried about who runs for governor on the Democrat side,” he told a group of followers in Reedsburg earlier this month. “Because they’re all about the same, they’re all just as liberal as the others. What I worry about are outside groups—names like Barack Obama, and Eric Holder’s group, people like Tom Steyer and George Soros, the billionaires from outside the state who are dropping millions of dollars in the state.”

Behold, our first but oh-so worthy HNA designee (because politicking this nihilistic produces no “winners”).

To call Walker’s opposition to out-of-state political spending “highly ironic” would be to spectacularly understate the matter. Since his first run for governor in 2009, Walker has been the pet project of billionaire libertarian donors Charles and David Koch, whose views on campaign-finance laws, among other things, Walker has dutifully promoted with legislation in Wisconsin — for a price. They don’t live in Wisconsin. Since 2009, the Koch’s very own “outside group”, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has backed Walker’s three runs (he prevailed in a recall election back in 2012) to the tune of untold millions — untold because in our post-Citizens United era (another AFP pet project), we don’t have any idea how much AFP actually provided.

We do know how much the 2018 campaigns of Walker and Evers have spent so far: Outlays on the Republican side since the primary are about $5.4 million compared with roughly $2.2 million for Democrats. The Republican Governors Association (by definition an “outside group”) has reserved $5.7 million in TV ads for the final two months of the race while the Democratic Governors Association (yet another) has booked another $3.8 million. Americans for Prosperity on Tuesday announced a $1.8 million television and digital ad buy.

In Walker’s warning of “outside groups” unduly influencing Wisconsin elections, we see the longstanding, one-sided dynamic that produced the HNAs — one where right-wingers just assume left-wingers operate as mendaciously as they do, as utter movement soldiers. This attempt at immoral equivalence doesn’t wash, has never washed, but has nevertheless informed right-wing charges of left-wing mendacity in the context of campaign spending, gun-control, media bias, labor law and dozens more realms. It stems from this basic tenet, held on the right: Some right winger in a position to favor or otherwise advance a right-wing cause will surely do so, will do whatever it takes — in large part because he/she reasons, cynically and inaccurately, that counterpart left-leaning types are already operating on the same mendacious level.

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

Until last month, no poll had ever shown Walker trailing a declared Democratic opponent by more than a few points in any of his 3-plus gubernatorial races. NBC/Marist released a poll in July showing Evers ahead of Walker by 13 points. Another poll, from Emerson College, had Evers ahead by 7.

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Stand up, Badgers sing!

Grim Realities for England’s Global Football Following

While their close neighbors and erstwhile enemies in Ireland, Scotland and Wales crow this morning over another anguished English exit from the World Cup, great swaths of the globe suffer alongside the Albion faithful. Some of this is due to the sheer size of the cultural footprint left by the mother country, once an Empire, today a Commonwealth. Yet millions more in places that have shaken off even that lighter cohesion (Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Capetown) still follow the English game because the English introduced it to them a century ago. Billions more pay special attention for reasons better explained by 21st century marketing: Across Asia, the Middle East and the United States, 25 years of English Premier League broadcasts have bred spectacular ratings and merchandize sales, ephemeral things that have ultimately morphed into a form of allegiance — a fandom all the better fed by internet access to the always entertaining, bandwagon-inclined British football media.

For 30 minutes in Moscow on Wednesday, the English would appear to have produced — for the first time in 54 years — a team equal to this global glut of hope and expectation.

To the delight of Gaels everywhere, it was instead Croatia that earned a place in Sunday’s World Cup final against France, claiming a dogged 2-1 victory in extra time. This had been another pillar of English support Wednesday — the prospect of a cross-Channel, once-more-into-the-breech final, a rematch some 1,054 years in the making! But the indefatigable Croats were deserving winners. They adjusted and persevered where England could not.

The opening half hour would appear to have signaled the next in a series of sanguine developments for the English at this World Cup. A weak group had led to a preposterously easy side of the tournament draw. A great escape vs. Colombia in the Round of 16 (on penalties of all things) was followed by a thorough bludgeoning of Sweden (a team England had beaten just twice in 16 tries). In Wednesday’s semifinal, Kieran Trippier’s splendid free kick put England ahead 1-0 after just 7 minutes. The ensuing 20 minutes saw Raheem Sterling, the sprightly Man City striker, run rings around the Croatian defense.

This was the key to the game: England found it so easy to get Sterling in behind Croatian centerbacks Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, another goal seemed just a matter of time. Harry Kane indeed should have made it 2-0 after 15 minutes, having found himself on the doorstep with the option to shoot or slide it to Sterling for a tap-in. He went for goal, had it saved, then clanged the rebound off keeper Danijel Subasic and the post. That ball goes in and there’s no way back for the Croatians, though it seemed of little consequence at the time. The English were that good, that confident on the ball, that in control of this match.

That dominance, in a roundabout way, proved England’s undoing. Instead of continuing to patiently knock the ball around and pick the Croats apart (a side running on fumes after playing two exhausting knockout games in the previous 7 days), England were beguiled by Sterling’s ability to get in behind Lovren and Vida. The last 15 minutes of the half were squandered, as the English eschewed possession and impulsively pumped long balls over the top.

Pundits have claimed that England played an excellent half on Wednesday. They did not. They played an excellent half hour, then muddled their way to the break with a lead only half (or a third) of what it should have been.

Croatia made one vital adjustment before intermission, dropping Lovren and Vida off Kane (and his withdrawn running mate Dele Alli), in order to better cope with the speedy threat of Sterling. After halftime, they changed things up again — pressing England higher up the pitch. All of a sudden, central midfielder Jordan Henderson had no time on the ball. After 45 minutes of expert English distribution out of the back, Croatia took this away.

England made no adjustment at halftime and much as it tried, could not make one on the fly. The long balls continued, with ever diminishing returns. Faced with this increased pressure, Henderson and the entire English defense were a study in creeping panic — launching hopeful balls forward rather than risk having it taken by the Croats who, the longer this game went (despite their travails), looked the more energetic side. In the first 30 minutes Henderson & Co. looked imperious. After 60, they no longer wanted the ball at their feet. At this level, that is a recipe for just one thing: hanging on for dear life.

All of this ignores fully half the match, which would indeed require 120 minutes to decide. Ivan Perisic (I’ll not be bothering here with all the various Croatian accent marks, you’ll notice) leveled things on 70 minutes and England’s descent into anxiety and fatigue only got steeper. They were lucky to make it to extra time, when Mario Mandzukic struck the winner some 7 minutes before the onset of penalty kicks. England made the maximum four substitutions over the last hour, desperately looking to change the game, to change its own footing in and approach to the match. Nothing worked. Trippier injured his groin after the Mandzukic goal; having exhausted their allotment of subs, England finished meekly, playing 10 v. 11.

In the end, the Croats proved more canny, more flexible, more skilled, more confident, more dogged, more fit. They were deserving winners.

I haven’t partaken of the vaunted English footballing press this morning. I’m sure the knives have come out, the weight of all that worldwide hope and expectation having crashed down about the head and shoulders manager Gareth Southgate and his young team. There are questions to be answered, of course, because this remains a very young team (the youngest at the World Cup, save Nigeria), full of promise:

  • Is Southgate the man to lead them at the European Championships in two years time? Probably, but he frittered away (or his boys frittered away) a very winnable World Cup semifinal.
  • England scored more goals in this World Cup than any since 1966 (a tournament they won, on home soil). But very few (3 of 12) came from open play. The rest came from corner kicks, free kicks, penalty kicks. Can any team win big tournaments relying so nakedly on set pieces? Maybe. The French went through to the final via a set-piece goal. There have been an inordinate number of them at this World Cup: 30 percent of the total, higher than the rate posted in the pro leagues of Germany (21.8%), England (20.2%), Italy (18.5%), Spain (16.9%) and France (15.6%). Do we think there have been so many on account of VAR? Are we seeing a shift in the way elite football is played, i.e. defenders can’t manhandle guys in the box with the same impunity, for fear of retro-awarded PKs? I think there’s something to this.
  • With quality all around the edges, can England win without a confident, playmaking midfielder or two of real quality — men who will hold their nerve when a World Cup semifinal hangs in the balance? This cuts to the core of English football, esp. in the Premier League era, when foreigners are typically paid big bucks to occupy these creative roles. The larger question: Can the English still produce such players, full stop? Croatia can. This 2018 England team was in desperate need of someone the quality of Luka Modric or Ivan Rakitic (whom my nephew calls Rocket-tits).
  • Why bring Reuben Loftus-Cheek to this tournament and not play him late in the semi-final when England desperately needed his possession? Young player. Didn’t see action in this WC but for the meaningless group game vs. Belgium. It would have been a difficult spot for the lad, but he was just what the doctor ordered.

These are the questions Englishmen and women are asking this morning, the questions English football fans the world over are asking. With the United States National Team sitting at home, they are the questions I am asking.

We pose them not because we expect answers but because a World Cup with England still in the running is a more interesting World Cup. All credit to the Croats, their sheer will and kick-ass checkerboard kits. I hope they make a game of it on Sunday. But for literally billions of football fans/observers the world over, England v. France would have been a more absorbing spectacle. Instead, all we get is yet another meaningless match (the day before) against Belgium.

 

 

 

 

In or Out? Why Linesmen So Often Get it Wrong

This ball was deemed out of play. Clearly, it was not…

We’ve reached the first 48-hour break in what has been a delightful frenzy of World Cup matches. The round of 16, our first knock-out stage, concluded Tuesday. Quarterfinals start Friday. Through the magic of YouTubeTV and its DVR function (we cut the cable cord in June), I’ve managed to see most every game. A few observations:

•••

This may strike one as extremely small bore but I think the marginal sideline in/out decision is called wrongly more often than anything else in top-class football. The statute is clear: FIFA’s Rule 9 reads, “The ball is out of play when it has wholly crossed the goal line or touch line whether in the ground or in the air.” The advent of goal-line technology has given us  a new, better perspective on this rule. A birds’-eye view of the ball is what matters; the ball is in play until it’s entirely over the line, until there can be seen (from above) a sliver of green grass between the ball and touchline. Technology, now in the hands of a Video Assistant Referees (VAR), has brought new accuracy to goal-line decisions (and schooled observers on the over-arching rules relating to all in/out decisions — but touchline decisions remain in the hands of linesmen and the man in the middle, and they get it wrong way too often. I’ve noticed this for years now but VAR has brought in into clearer focus. Touchline decisions are called differently and I think I know why: Linesmen aren’t looking at it from above, of course. From a ground level view, if linesmen see any sort of green between ball and line they judge the ball to be out of play when the entire ball, according to Rule 9, has clearly not passed wholly over the line — something that would be obvious with a birds-eye view. The lead image atop this post (a screen grab; thanks again, YouTubeTV) provides a perfect example. This ball was called out for a corner. One can sorta tell the players are increasingly peeved by this double standard and why shouldn’t they be? Players on the ball do have a bird’s-eye view. There appears to be one standard for the goal line and another for every other boundary on the field. I’ve not seen nor heard nor read of VAR ever being used to mete out a touchline decision. I’m not advocating for that. But possession is important and in/out should better hew to the standard spelled out in Rule 9.

•••

The short-handed Colombians were put out of the tournament by England Tuesday in a Round of 16 affair that was at once pedestrian and completely riveting. That’s what an otherwise punchless World Cup match that goes to penalty kicks can do, especially where England are involved. Just the idea that some 60 million Brits were watching the game — increasingly pissed, in the fetal position, waiting for something catastrophic to happen — imbues all of their knock-out fixtures with that certain, extra-special something. Their boys didn’t disappoint — blowing the game, then rescuing it — and the rest of us duly lapped up the many layers of shadenfreude. The English did indeed have it won before conceding a 94th minute equalizer and sleep-walking through extra time toward penalties, the tie-breaking mechanism that has put them out of three World Cups and three European Championships. It’s a tragically accurate running joke in England that the national team cannot cope with, much less win, a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament (Tuesday’s win makes them 2-6 overall). It’s harped upon nearly as often as the fact that, “We invented this game.” But they won this shootout, celebrated accordingly, and they’re off to face plucky Sweden in a Saturday quarterfinal where the stakes, the alcohol intake, the national anxiety will be that much higher.

•••

Golden Boy James Rodriquez was the reason Colombia played short-handed Tuesday, having pulled up lame in the last group game. James (pronounced hah-mez) bears a fairly striking resemblance to a young John Harkes, US midfielder from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Colombian and his coiffure cut a more metrosexual pose than Harkes and his period mullet ever could. But close enough to meet the ‘Separated at Birth’ threshold, eh? Or maybe first cousins?… This is the sort of thing an American soccer fan is reduced to when we fail to qualify.

•••

I’ve now watched and participated in hundreds of these penalty shootouts (the Round of 16 produced three in eight matches). I’m surprised goalkeepers, at this elite level, don’t hold their ground at least once in the first couple kicks, if not to account for a Panenka or blast down the middle, then to plant in the heads of subsequent shooters the possibility that he might not be guessing/diving one way or the other as the shootout progresses. For keepers, this guessing has been the long-standing strategy: Shooters are so close that goalies must guess which way a shooter is going with the ball — and hope for the best. Yet so many elite players today basically trust their ability to see the keeper’s movement and, at the very last second, go the opposite way with the ball. A goalie who doesn’t move would completely freak the shooter out – and give every succeeding shooter uneasy food for thought.

•••

More observations from the first two weeks: Poor Japan. They deserved better than a 3-2 Round of 16 loss to Belgium on the last kick of the game. But honestly, WTF were they thinking — committing so many men to a corner kick (tiny team vs. big team) in the 94th minute tied at 2? It was a bold decision, I’ll grant you. But I’d have put a few token dudes in the box, stayed behind the ball essentially, and taken my chances in extra time… Sweden has played 50 World Cup matches in its history. Only Mexico has played more without winning a Cup. Yet Sweden’s international record is far more decorated. Indeed, Sverige is perhaps the globe’s most underrated soccer nation. This country of just 7 million souls, where one cannot play outside all year round, has produced a World Cup finalist (1958), three semifinalists (1938, 1950, 1994) and two quarterfinalists (1934, 2018). It may well better a last-8 finish this year — all without Zlatan Ibrahimovich, the finest Swedish player of his generation (perhaps of all time) who, though still active (in MLS), petulantly retired from international play two years ago. Sweden’s example is something for American soccer boosters to ponder when reckoning grandiose future goals. The US has reached a single quarterfinal, full stop… FIFA is as corrupt as they come, but it’s important to recognize the root and nature of that corruption. Since the late 1980s, FIFA’s particular corruption is born of the fact that each and every participating nation (all 211 of them) have a vote in where the World Cup will be held every four years. And make no mistake: Those votes do in fact get bought. But let’s also be real: Without this sort of arrangement (which leads to coalition-building and corruption), there would never have been World Cups in Africa, or Russia, or the Middle East. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that Qatar paid through the nose, to literally hundreds of national football federations, order to secure the 2022 event. And yes, repressive regimes benefit from buying such events — but so do the soccer-loving masses in those countries and regions. Ask an African soccer fan if it was worth it to have the 2010 event in South Africa. Ask a Saudi if they’re happy the World Cup is coming to Qatar. Moving the Cup around is good for the world game. Without its particular brand of corruption, the event would be held somewhere in Europe or North/South America every four years, forever… Mark Geiger, the only American referee participating in this World Cup, drew a very tough assignment in the England-Colombia match. It’s hard to imagine how a more experienced, skilled ref would’ve handled things without killing the game: Colombia deserved to have 2-3 guys sent off for dissent alone following the quite-right penalty kick decision that put England up 1-0. Radamel Falcao has complained publicly about Geiger’s performance, claiming he favored the English. But any neutral observer could plainly see the Colombians, down a goal, ratchet up the physicality in hopes of turning the match back in their favor. Unfortunately, Geiger didn’t want to decide said match by sending anyone off — something those Colombians sensed immediately. In bending over backward to preserve Colombia’s chance of ultimately getting a result, Geiger may have torpedoed his own career at this level.

 

 

 

Now It Can Be Told: When Media FAMs Go Wrong…

The history of media seeking to leverage their publishing capabilities to secure various fringe benefits is long indeed. Traditionally, as befits transactions undertaken by relative paupers, these perks rarely rise above the level of heavy hors d’oeuvres. I worked at a daily newspaper back in the early ‘90s where the nightly assignment schedule invariably included this reception or that event — places often devoid of news value but where free food could be had. Open bar? Well, the entire editorial staff might show up for something like that.

Lookit, reporters and editors don’t traditionally make a lot of money; they’re frequently quite young. This is to say, freeloading of this kind shouldn’t be viewed as particularly untoward or shameful. It’s something of a necessity frankly. One of our many mascots in that newsroom was a giant cartoon headshot of a Dick Tracy-like character, complete with ‘40s era fedora. Tucked in his hatband was an index card that might simply have read “PRESS”; instead it read, “I’m with the PRESS. Where’s the FOOD?”

Several links up the food chain in this realm is the media FAM trip — FAM being short for “familiarization”. There’s no way to spin such an event in light of journalistic standards and ethics: These are flat-out junkets whereby some publicity-seeking entity lures reporters and freelancer types on some trip with the understanding that, once they’ve been wined/dined and return home, media will write nice stories about the resort property, the golf course or cuisine to be had there, or maybe the broader “destination” itself. In the golf and travel realm, where I’ve toiled for more than two decades now, FAM trips are the ultimate perk because, well, let’s not be coy: In addition to all sorts of free food & drink, participating media also get complementary air fare, lodging and assorted swag.

The quid pro quo nature of the FAM exercise is little discussed but well understood. One doesn’t visit a golf course or hotel, on a FAM, only to savage the place in print. That would be untoward. As our moms all told us, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all (or concentrate on something else that doesn’t suck).

Here’s another FAM trip bylaw: Answer the bell. No matter how much free boozing and carousing was had the night before, media guests have an obligation to show up, on time, first thing the next morning (according to the itinerary) without fail.

There’s one more, less formal understanding re. media FAMs to establish: Something is sure to go wrong. I’ve been on dozens of these junkets as a working journalist. I’ve organized dozens more on behalf of various clients. When one is devising a week-long itinerary in a foreign country — for one’s self — something is sure to be overlooked. When organizing for a dozen people, most of whom will be drunk 35 percent of the week? The odds only increase. The mere presence of a dozen journalistic chancers eating, drinking and indulging on someone else’s dime makes the possibility of mishap a mortal lock.

Someone, someday, will write a comprehensive book about all the great FAM trips gone awry: who got thrown in jail, what foreign dignitary got naked, and why shellfish is always a risky choice. In the meantime, writers will merely trade these yarns back and forth like war stories. In that tradition I offer up the itinerary from a single morning gone wrong, in Jakarta, during Ramadan, back in 2012. This was a trip I helped to organize and host. I promised the client I wouldn’t breathe a word until a reasonable period of discretion had passed. Still, I have changed the names to protect, not the innocent necessarily, but rather those professional reputations still in play.

•••

In most respects, this particular FAM was a roaring success. It produced dozens of glowing, published pieces re. the awesome golf product on offer in and around Indonesia’s sprawling capital. To produce this content I had wrangled a genial and cosmopolitan group of 12 media and tour operators hailing from the UK, China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the U.S. From the Fond Memory Dept., I could just as easily cite the epic karaoke session, the compelling version of “Take It To The Limit” I performed with the band at our closing soiree, the five superb rounds of golf we played, or the incredible dinner we organized for 20 at the Four Seasons. But none of those vignettes would include the burning of tires or police in combat gear.

See below a timeline of events, the morning after said banquet. I can vouch for its accuracy because, like James Comey, I was moved to take contemporaneous notes, on my phone — such was the utterly random nature of the proceedings.

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SI Memories, Developmental & Professional, Come Thick & Fast

The late-2017 sale of Sports Illustrated, TIME Magazine and other titles to Meredith Publishing, a deal made possible by an infusion of $650 million from Koch Industries’ private-equity arm, has elicited both howls of indignation (from those who fear the further right-wing weaponization of information) and an ongoing hail of gauzy nostalgia — from those who grew up loving SI and fear the sale will only further its fall from a decades-long perch atop the sports media food chain.

Here I will indulge in the latter, because I’d been meaning to post the above story in some way, shape or form ever since my friend Jammin’ ran across it last September. SI was not merely a staple of my young reading life (along with The Boston Globe’s superb sports section) — it was where I started my freelance-writing career. Indeed, this was my very first freelance piece, full stop. It warms the cockles of my heart to see it lovingly preserved online in flipbook fashion deep in something called the SI Vault.

[I had some trouble linking this page in the embedded sense. Copy and paste this, should you have the same trouble: https://www.si.com/vault/1997/10/27/233677/small-wonder-the-dunes-club-our-pick-as-the-best-nine-hole-course-in-the-country-is-twice-the-challenge-of-most-18-hole-layouts#]

By 1997, when this piece was published (Oct. 27 issue), I had spent some 10 years as a working journalist, first for a collection of weekly and daily newspapers in Massachusetts, then as editor of Golf Course News, a national business journal published here in Maine (indeed, taking that job brought me to Maine). Nineteen ninety-seven was also year I left GCN to start Mandarin Media, Inc., with the secondary intention freelancing more in earnest. The ensuing years would see my work appear in pretty much every major North American golf and travel magazine (several of which still exist!). That effort started here, with this Sports Illustrated feature.

I had pitched the magazine a piece ranking the best 9-hole golf courses in America, but, as often happens in the freelance milieu, the story ended up being something quite different: a feature on Mike Keiser and his 9-hole masterpiece, The Dunes Club, with a sidebar detailing the country’s other top 9s. The story itself frankly could have been better. I ended up submitting a finished draft, only to have the editor suggest a major rewrite. This I did, and then the bastard ended up running something that quite closely resembled the original version. Some old stories you read with great pride — this, alas, is not one of those. It feels cautious and dry.

[The sidebar produced a funny moment: When we agreed on this feature and brief ranking alongside, I launched into some lengthy disquisition on how we’d research and tabulate a proper Top 9 Nines list. The editor interrupted me at some point and simply said, “This is SI. We’ll just tell people what we think the Top 9 is.” Such was the power (some would say hubris) of the magazine in those days.]

Despite my failure to reprint this on the 20th anniversary of its publication, the experience was not without its serendipities. For a Boston-bred lad, it was fabulous to be included in any issue with Larry Bird on the cover. What’s more, while I wouldn’t say I discovered Mike Keiser, one would be hard pressed to find earlier coverage of the man, who eventually revolutionized the golf resort business. When I first met him in the spring of 1997, the private, 9-hole Dunes Club was Keiser’s only connection to golf development. Today, having created five award-winning, top-ranked courses in Oregon at Bandon Dunes, he’s had a major hand in developing additional, no-less-heralded, multi-course projects in Nova Scotia (Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs) and Wisconsin (the new Sand Valley), with another now planned for Scotland. All are links courses fashioned from sandy sites hundreds of miles from the beaten path. Keiser didn’t just build awesome tracks; he proved that American golfers would pay top dollar — and travel to the middle of freakin’ nowhere — to play this type of golf.

I remember sitting in the modest clubhouse at The Dunes Club with Keiser in the summer of 1997, eating hot dogs and conducting our interview when, at some point, he mentioned that he’d just purchased 2,000 acres of coastal property in Oregon, 2 hours west of Eugene and 4-5 south of Portland, where he planned to develop not just one course but a whole complex of them. I thought to myself at the time, “I like this guy but he’s clearly delusional.”

It would not be the last time I mistook vision for delusion.

The Profound Limitations of Parental Agency

Long before I had kids, I recall my parents making the case that all of their children had pretty much formed their basic, enduring personalities by the age of two. They said as much more than once, invariably in the act of throwing up their hands in exasperated resignation, for much as they tried to shape their children’s characters further or cajole them into this/that behavior (and trust me: they did this a great deal), fundamental personalities almost always prevailed. On account of this experience, by the time their third kid (my younger brother) had reached high school, my parents had become markedly laissez-faire in dozens of ways that frankly annoyed my older sister and myself. “We never got away with that,” we’d grouse to each other.

Well, as has been the case in myriad respects, my parents were right. My oldest graduates from college this month and while I naturally believe him to be a lovely, capable kid in most every way (ditto for his younger sister), these young adults are each remarkably similar — in terms of sociability, focus, ambition, daring and temperament — to the two-year-old kids they were. Yeah, they’ve grown or excelled or lagged or flagged in these and various other respects. And I don’t believe anyone can or should stop parenting (I don’t think that’s possible). But there seems to me a remarkable, observable consistency of character that is more or less resistant to “parenting”.

I’m always amused when I come across yet another parenting book reviewed in The New Yorker or New York Times. I muse at the publishing industry’s having identified and exploited this incredibly willing (read: anxious) audience. Then I laugh outright, at myself, because I nearly always read them, too (the reviews anyway).

The irony is, as parents, we have an agency that simply isn’t so strong as we want to believe. Even if we accept our limited impact, on some level, this desire for agency tends to seep into other areas we believe we can control: etiquette, dress and manners; identification and pursuit of extra-curricular “passions”; geography (i.e., buying houses in towns with “good” school systems); self-esteem (i.e. “premier” soccer and other invariably commercial gambits); the entire SAT prep and college admission culture… There’s no harm in trying all this stuff, in doing one’s best. But it’s really a hit or miss affair, I’ve come to believe. Ultimately, 9 times out of 10, it’s down to the kid and his/her fundamental self.

This is not parental fatalism. It is an attempt to recognize (with serenity) the agency one has; to accept (without prejudice) those situations that are beyond one’s control; and (in a perfect world) to capably distinguish one from the other. I held onto this quote from Adam Gopnik’s January 2018 review of yet another parenting book, in the NYer:

As satirists have pointed out for millennia, civilized behavior is artificial and ridiculous: It means pretending to be glad to see people you aren’t glad to see, praising parties you wished you hadn’t gone to, thanking friends for presents you wish you hadn’t received. Training kids to feign passion is the art of parenting. The passions they really have belong only to them.

Surely environment matters. Even then, however, it’s not the environment parents provide that seems to matter most — or so writes Judith Rich Harris in the best book I ever did read on this subject, The Nurture Assumption (see here the book review that led to my buying/reading the book). In short, Harris argues that we assume our kids turn out the way they do according to a pretty even split between nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (environment). “The use of ‘nurture’ as a synonym for ‘environment’,” Harris explains, “is based on the assumption that what influences children’s development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up.”

If this were true, siblings — who are as genetically similar as any humans can be (save identical twins); who are traditionally raised in the same household by the same parents — would all have very similar personalities. Anyone raised in a family of two or more children understands just how ridiculous that idea is.

Ever wondered why the children of recent immigrants don’t speak with accents, even though their heavily accented parents do? Or why the children of deaf/mute parents learn to speak at all? Put simply, Harris argues that a child’s peer group accounts for far more environmental influence in the long run — influence that, since Freud, had traditionally and unduly been attributed to parents. If we’re honest with ourselves, as parents, we’d admit that our children generally do put a lot more stock in the opinions, social mores and examples of their peers. To an extent, parents can help determine or control a child’s peer groups but that is the environment that matters (and the variability of peer groups helps explain why siblings turn out so very differently).

Of course, children do pick up quite a lot from their parents — most of it genetic. This is the other nurture assumption: that we pick up traits and habits and behaviors by copying our parents. Harris argues, persuasively, that we humans don’t do this nearly so often as is commonly accepted; most of those things we attribute to parental modeling are in fact inherited from parents genetically, not environmentally.

I’m on board with this idea of behavioral genetics, too. Growing up, there were dozens of things that my mom and dad did that drove me absolutely crazy — and yet today, at 53, I find myself doing many of these same things. I didn’t “model” my behavior on them in these cases. Far from it. Still, I couldn’t resist these behaviors because they are genetically baked right in.

Which brings me back to my brother, and how my sister and I felt he got a sweet deal — coming third and last, by which time, my parents had given in to the power of personality (and behavioral genetics, though they wouldn’t have put it that way). Invariably, she and I would inveigh against this new libertine parental stance of theirs, or make some wise-ass comment in place of outright carping. At which point my mother or father would issue another pearl of wisdom, one we’d heard before, one that has nothing to do with nature or nurture but still rings true: We’ve never tried to treat everyone exactly the same around here. Everyone gets what they need.

With Marcus Back, the Smaht Money’s on Boston

When Patrice Bergeron returned from injury during the Maple Leafs series, he made the Bruins better. But I wouldn’t say he was the difference. Too many hockey players(20-22) participate in playoff games to connect the dots through any non-goaltender (unless that man’s name is Gretzky or Crosby). Basketball is different. The playoffs typically shorten any team’s bench to 7-9 guys. I don’t see the Celtics losing this series to the Bucks if Marcus Smart is able to play.

Smart tore a tendon in his thumb six weeks ago. Kyrie Irving went in for the first of two knee surgeries three weeks later. Irving is clearly the best player on this team. Without him, the Celtics aren’t good enough to make The Finals this season, much less win them.

But Smart’s return should win the Celtics this series and perhaps the next. He’s that good, that influential, and it’s sort of amazing how far under the radar he manages to fly.

When the playoffs started, national media and the talking heads on ESPN and TNT made a big deal about how Boston would contest these playoffs without two starters, Irving and Gordon Hayward. But the latter has been gone so long (having gruesomely wrecked his ankle in the season opener), it honestly doesn’t feel anymore like we’re playing without him. In theory, Hayward is a stud, exactly the sort of wing shooter the Celtics need. But he was a brand new free agent signing back in October. He might have taken Boston to the next level but we really don’t know for sure. [One thing is for sure: If he had played this season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would not have progressed as far as they have. The minutes and end-of-game possessions would not have been there for them.]

But too many folks missed the fact that Boston opened these playoffs without three starters, because Smart is one of the five best guys on this team and the best all-court defender in the NBA. He might not have started every game, but he finished every game (that mattered). Without Irving and Hayward, Boston will always struggle to score down the stretch. But with Smart guarding the other team’s best player (a role he routinely occupies), with Smart representing a massive upgrade over plucky-but-limited Shane Larkin in the guard rotation, the Celtics are a different team.

There is no one in basketball quite like Marcus Smart, and I’m not sure why the rest of the league fails to appreciate this fact. He is the best defender on the league’s top defensive team but garners no laurels. He wasn’t even named to the All-NBA Defensive Team last season, when he was healthy. See here that list of 10 honorees from 2016-17:

1st Team

Chris Paul

Patrick Beverly

Kawhi Leonard

Draymond Green

Rudy Gobert

2nd Team

Tony Allen

Danny Green

Anthony Davis

Andre Roberson

Giannis Antetokounmpo

This is a pretty fair representation of top NBA defenders for 2017-18, as well, but Chris Paul and Tony Allen are shadows of the defenders they were 5 years ago. Beverly and Kawhi have been hurt all this season. Roberson has been out since January and is a complete offensive liability. Danny Green? He blocks it well for a 3, but otherwise I don’t know what he’s doing on this list. Draymond, Gobert, Anthony Davis and the Freak are superb defenders — as big men. They are a particular type of defensive asset; they are not all-court defenders.

Once we remove those big men, I would take Marcus Smart over any of the remaining six guys. Of those who are injured, only Kawhi compares. At 6’4” Smart can check your point guard, your shooting guard, your small forward and most of the league’s shrinking 4s. He routinely guards LeBron James and drives him crazy. He is perhaps the only guy in the league to get inside James Harden’s head.

There is no one quite like Marcus Smart playing in today’s NBA. I’ve been singing his praises for several hundred words now, but I haven’t even detailed his best qualities: He’s wicked smaht. In fact, he’s flat-out smahter and more competitive than anyone in the game today, with the possible exception of LeBron — who is so good, he allows his competitive nature to flag on occasion. Marcus never does.

He is not without fault. Marcus is not a good shooter — a reality underlined by the fact that he refuses to acknowledge it. Though he shot just 37 percent from the floor this year (30 percent from 3), Smart never hesitates; he shoots with the confidence of Bradley Beal — which makes me love the guy even more.

Like I said, the Celts aren’t going to The Finals this year. Ultimately, while injuries have catalyzed the development of Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier (which bodes well for next June), Boston doesn’t have the horses to play for a title this June. But with Smart back and Brad Stevens pulling the strings, they’ll beat the Bucks — probably tonight.

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month here and there when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we didn’t see as relevant.

However, many is the time I wish I had actually seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.

Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good. I had seen the odd show here and there. But ultimately I had trouble watching them en masse, to be frank. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…

IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy this sea of Larry.

I’ll temper my enthusiasm by saying the first two seasons of Larry Sanders were only slightly better than average — and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from TV cognoscenti. These episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it is I am supposed to care about any of the main characters who are unfailingly funny but shitty.

Well, I can report that in Season 4 the show officially hits its stride. It’s not just easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.

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Forward, March! Dirt Driveway is Lone Beneficiary of Late Spring

As a Masshole, I have not earned (and will never earn) the right to publicly complain about winter weather here in Vacationland, lest I be called out by some actual Mainer as “a flatlander” who doesn’t “know what winter is”. Truth be told (and chastisers be damned), very little distinguishes southern Maine winters from those in Greater Boston. March is the exception. It is traditionally the most difficult month for my flatlander/Michigander wife and me. Down in Boston (and out in Kalamazoo), there might be a late-winter storm or two but signs of spring abound in March: the inevitable melt, up-creeping temperatures, budding trees… Here in New Gloucester, we don’t see those things until April, and with each passing year that proves a harder pill to swallow.

There is one advantage to this annual winter extension, however: The generous slather of ice and snow keeps our 600-yard dirt driveway smooth and comely. Indeed, it never drives so well as during the months of January, February and March. It’s supposed to snow another foot tonight (March 12), meaning we can expect to enjoy burnished, aesthetically pleasing driveway conditions throughout the month. When we thank heaven around here, this is what passes for a small favor.

Reared in the suburbs, I knew nothing of dirt driveways and their upkeep prior to our landing here in the spring of 1998. Like any new homeowner, I learned these ropes on the job.

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