Things He Carried: The Peculiar Consumerism of a Mid-Century Man

I try to write about my father, the original Hal Phillips, each August. It was late in that month, back in 2011, that he shuffled off this mortal coil, all too soon. Because this particular August marks the 10th anniversary of his passing, it’s appropriate to tackle a weighty subject: toe and finger nail clippers. 

My dad was never ever without clippers on his person — really good ones, the kind that unfold from a sleek and compact “resting” position in some clever way, because they were engineered in places that value elegant design and function for their own sake. Like Scandinavia. Or Switzerland. What’s more, when I think hard about the various clippers he bought and deployed through the years, I realize my dad had a somewhat strange but highly developed idea of what practical consumer items he was determined never to do without. Or that’s how it seemed to me, at the time, as an 8-year-old rummaging through the various belongings he kept atop and inside the highest drawers of his notably high dresser. 

My dad never did without a leather change purse, either. Not those cheap plastic ones but a lovely little valise-like item the size of a pack of baseball cards. Mind you, I reckon that for 65 of his 74 years on this Earth, spare change had meaning: at tollbooths, during retail transactions, or to mollify his children should they have pined for some worthless doo-dad. In all of those cases, he produced said coinage from this leather, button-clasped casing, wherein he would also keep his clippers, a new iteration of which he would acquire every 3-4 years. 

Let me emphasize again that these were top-of-the-line personal grooming devices, the likes of which one might find in a Brookstone catalog, though I don’t honestly know where he or anyone procures such things, now or then. I have a nail clipper, too, of course. I keep it in my dopp kit. I don’t know where it came from. Despite my father’s example, it has never once occurred to me to carry it around on my person. Just as it has never occurred to me that I might store my loose change in fashionable leather pouch — and I hate loose change in my pockets! 

My dad was an industrial engineer by training, so he frankly got off a little bit on the sophisticated representation of most things: a succession of mechanical pencils, for example, which complemented the 4-color pen he always kept in the breast pocket of his shirt. Like most mid-20th Century men, he wore a watch and never took it off. Ever. He was partial to somewhat bulky Seikos where the stainless steel bands folded over themselves in order to clasp.

He was a cigar smoker for many years, so he always had on his person a cool straight-cutter, which he also kept in the change purse. This indulgence obliged him to have fashion- and otherwise tech-forward lighters: I remember one that operated like a small blow torch. There was another, quite old-fashioned model — partly sheathed in a cool leather casing — that I periodically encountered while poking around in his collection of keepsakes. Today I keep it among the memorabilia and bric-a-brac atop my own dresser. 

This serial geekdom when it came to consumer electronics I also trace back to his professional background. Because he was a serious student of classical music, for example, we would always have the finest stereo — and speakers. Massive ones, from that period during the 1970s when fine speakers had to be outsized. I remember my father making a big fuss over our very first color TV, a Sony that we purchased in time to watch the 1972 Summer Olympics from Munich. He honestly never struck me as the sort of super consumer who had to run out and buy the latest of this or that. Not at all. Nineteen seventy-two seems to me pretty late to the color-TV party. What’s more, I believe we owned that Sony Trinitron for a decade, until I left for college. Thereafter, however, it seemed as though every 4-5 years, he’d eagerly invest in the next level of TV technology. Each of these upgrades was met, by him, with a sort of childlike wonder: “Look at that picture!” he’d say, over and over again, to anyone there to listen. 

I want to be clear: This was not an extravagant man. In fact, he had some real hang-ups about spending money generally. Perhaps that’s why these flights of consumer fancy stood out to me then, and stand out to me still today. My dad was an ardent golfer but played a set of MacGregor MTs from the late 1950s, until such time that I grew into them. Only then did he hand them down to me and go buy a new set for himself. When my dad was first out in the working world, during his mid-20s, he apparently bought for himself a pretty snazzy Triumph TR3, in British racing green. He quickly sold this traditional roadster, however, to help pay for business school. He met my mom during those two years in Cambridge. He had sold the TR3 as an example of “putting away childish things,” or so my mother has told me. What followed was a sober succession of middle-class VWs, Volvos and Honda Accords. I think he felt obliged to balance his naked desire for “stuff” with this more serious, understated image of stolid American masculinity. 

My father was a pretty mediocre photographer but always had a kick-ass camera. There was an Instamatic phase. My mother still has at least one carousel full of those tiny slides to prove it. Thence followed a fancier phase, starting with his Canon AE1, which became available to American consumers in 1976. One time, while rooting about in some closet, I found two of his Polaroid cameras — the early ones, from the 1950s apparently, that expanded in accordion-like fashion from thick-but-streamlined, notebook-sized shells. 

Only as I write this do I recall the mildly awkward moments when I would come to him with a find like this, to ask what it was and how it worked. First he would smile at the sight of this consumer item he’d once enthusiastically acquired but, until that moment, hadn’t seen in years. Then a different sort of emotion would register in his face: “Geez, would you stop rummaging through my stuff?” Invariably, that silent rebuke quickly gave way to his original reaction, followed by some intergenerational Show & Tell.

The Big Chill, Classic Rock and the Boomerfication of America

By the time I headed off to college in August 1982 — which is to say, by the time the lead-edge of Generation X (those born between 1962 and 1980) had finished high school and headed off to college — the classic rock radio format had already begun to dominate the FM dial.

We children of the Seventies, who’d grown up in the Baby Boomer’s undertow, did not recognize in this musical phenomenon any overt Boomer-centrism. Not at first. It took another pop cultural marker to crystalize the audio-generational connection: The Big Chill. This film, released in 1983, had plucked a dozen “classic” Sixties tunes for its destined-for-platinum soundtrack, and an intersectional light flipped on in my head: This is Boomer music! In their plenitude, they have now claimed it as their own. That’s why radio programmers have deployed it as a staple of classic rock formats.

You may have noticed I spend a lot of time working to distinguish my fellow GenXers from our next elders in the culture. This matters, to me, because I’m often mistaken for a Baby Boomer (born between 1943-1961), and I don’t want to be associated with this cohort that has so dominated and distorted the culture, the economy, the political landscape.

Accordingly, I’m extra inclined to notice all the different cultural markers that serve to set us part. “Sesame Street” is one such indicator: Gen X was not insignificantly shaped by this show, while Boomers were too old to partake of this PBS standard when it debuted in 1969. The Big Chill and its soundtrack represent another prominent bellwether. Indeed, Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-winner (Best Picture, 1984) did more than cement a burgeoning radio format: It reinforced ideas Americans already held about ‘60s-era culture and student activism, while cannily updating us on what had happened to all these Boomers since.

This wasn’t the first bit of cinema to attempt this specific retrospection: John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven arguably did it first (1979), and more artfully. But The Big Chill did introduce to a far broader swath of U.S. culture the intense nostalgia Boomers still held for the 1960s — the idealism, the style of communitarianism, the capacities to make change, stop wars and pioneer a youth culture.

More pointedly, the film also posited that adult Boomers were, by the early 1980s, beginning to actively sell out and abandon those ideals, economically and politically.

Having first witnessed this massive generation of Americans transition from activist-idealists to Seventies-era truth-seeking hedonists, I already associated my next elders with self-indulgence — never with any great degree of false virtue, however. Nonetheless, as The Big Chill makes evident, Boomers already recognized this burgeoning hypocrisy in themselves. Eighties America and Reaganism were about making money. Grown-up Boomers wrestled with this market/capitalist ethos for a time: Remember the blowback Kevin Kline’s character gets for owning a business, making friends with cops and selling out to some multi-national? Lovable, non-threatening Kevin Kline!

Eventually, however, Boomers bought into naked capitalism and the politics of self-interest. Big time.

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Great Moments in Towing: A Brief, Late ’80s Anthology

It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in Boston, which is to say it’s been a long time since my car’s been towed. Cars do get towed in Maine, I suppose, but vehicular hazards here are more often centered on large antlered mammals in the roadway, as opposed to somewhat smaller, slightly less hirsute, exclusively bipedal mammals hooking one’s stationary vehicle to a still-larger vehicle, then driving away.

Further, my life here (I moved north in 1992) has been predominately family-oriented, pastoral and deliberate. In Boston, where I lived from 1986-92, I was single, urban and reckless. Nothing more viscerally illustrated this directly post-collegiate existence than lighting out for a party or club, circling a particular destination for a legal parking spot, successfully hunting one down (perhaps on the cusp of legality), leaving one’s largest and most valued possession there, only to return three hours later and find it gone — or, to find it untouched! It was a survivalist game of cat and mouse that I played with some skill for many years opposite traffic authorities representing the cities of Boston, Cambridge, Allston, Brighton and Somerville. I’d like to think that six years of eschewing parking garages saved me more money than I ultimately spent on tickets and towing fees. But that risk/reward ledger has never been reliably reckoned.

What I undoubtedly gained was a slew of great tow stories. I chronicle three selections here. Most tales of tow are tales of woe, where the system clearly got the best of me. That wouldn’t be a full and accurate portrayal, however. I could just as easily detail for you three occasions I parked illegally but successfully in the alleyways that divide city blocks in Back Bay, or parked sans resident sticker (and sans incident) in neighborhoods all over Greater Boston. But I won’t be doing that. As they say in the media business, it ain’t news when the plane lands safely.

September 1986: The Return — If there were an international governing body of traffic incidents, where meticulous logs were kept regarding the speed with which one regains possession of a towed vehicle, I might be world record-holder. On this potentially record-setting occasion, I was fortunate watch the truck slowly pass by the first-floor window of my Beacon Hill apartment. Once I had deduced that my silver 1978 Dodge Omni was literally in tow, there was nothing to do but bolt out the front door and give chase, on foot. I caught the tow truck in Government Center, a third of a mile down Joy Street, and another up Cambridge Street. At first the dude wouldn’t let me ride with him. But ultimately he took pity, acknowledging the effort perhaps, and waved me into his cab.

The impoundment lot this fateful night was located in South Boston, hardly remote. Dude let me out 100 yards before reaching the chain-link gate, so as not to reveal his breach of tow-truck protocol. Often there is a mass of pissed off people milling about the desk of an impoundment lot, but there was just one person there on this providential evening: A woman, in a fur coat, chatting agreeably with the staff. They clearly knew her, so frequently did she flaunt the parking system apparently. Soon she had paid and was gone; 5 minutes later I followed suit and exited through the same door. Same dude was still lowering the Omni back to Earth when I handed him my receipt. Hightailing it back to Beacon Hill couldn’t have taken more than 10 minutes.

I would peg the elapsed time — from the moment my car was placed on the hook, to the time I returned to the Joy Street apartment — at 30-32 minutes. The period stretching from my moment of realization, that my car had been towed, to my reappearance in the flat, could not have exceeded 25-27 minutes. That has got to be some kind of record.

Anyone who knows Beacon Hill — with its high-density residential, its narrow one-way streets, its proximity to three high-volume employment venues (Mass General, the State House and Government Center) — understands that parking thereabouts is about as challenging and high-risk as the Boston street scene gets. In many ways, the stakes are higher today: Computerization connects bad parking behavior with dire consequences almost immediately. Circa 1986, prior to the digital age, it took years for the DMV to run down scofflaws — and so, the anxiety was more textured. Who knew precisely how close to the precipice one stood? A letter might arrive, only go unread for a week or completely ignored. Two weeks later one might be two tickets deeper in the hole, maybe three. Would the next ticket summon the cursed tow truck, or (perish the thought) the dreaded boot?

The ultimate penalty was not meted out this record-setting evening, but there was a karmic breach. A group of us were headed out that particular night. Everyone else, three or four others, were clustered in the living room, positioned at the rear of our Joy Street apartment. Standing in the front bedroom, alone, I saw whirling red lights refracting through the windows on the walls. For an instant, I mused to myself, “Some moron got himself towed.” The regret was equally instantaneous. I was the moron.

No one had even noticed when, without word or warning, I raced out the door and down Joy Street. Twenty-five minutes later I returned and they were like, “Where have you been?” I got towed.

“Oh no. We’re going to be really late now.” No, I already got it back. Let’s go.

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Bikes, Beer, Biscuits & BBQ: Golfing the Hipster Mountain South

My lunch in the clubhouse up at Roaring Gap had been staid and sober, never boring but full of earnest, intellectualized discussions of course renovation and a round just completed on the charming Donald Ross design visible out the window. I’d been in North Carolina only 24 hours. I was about to set out from the state’s north-central highlands for the western outpost of Asheville. When there came a brief lull in the conversation, I cut to the chase: So, gentlemen, what’s this Biscuitville place? Worth a visit?

The tenor of our discussion was swiftly transformed.

“Well, you gotta go to Biscuitville,” my host said, his soft drawl getting more pronounced. He set down his flatware and dabbed with a napkin each corner of his mouth. “Great biscuits. The best you’ll find at a restaurant chain. I’m partial to their turkey sausage biscuit.”

Each member of our party quickly followed up with his own ringing endorsement. Biscuitville, I learned, is a regional institution, a drive-thru breakfast chain whose analog for New Englanders like myself is probably Dunkin Donuts. Only biscuit-based. One won’t find any Biscuitville franchises in Asheville, however. In the chicken & biscuit category, that’s Bojangles country — on account of the fact that Biscuitville, a family-run operation, has opted not to expand willy nilly, or even outside east/central North Carolina. But the overarching point was clear: The larger culture here is quite unimaginable without biscuits. Or so my hosts explained.

I had seen the signs for Biscuitville on I-40, one of the many cultural clues I’d gathered while driving west from Raleigh the day before. You can learn a lot about a place from its signage, from its junk-food terroir, from its indigenous leisure options. Every 10 miles or so, I’d been struck by yet another town name that recalled cigarette brands, or country/bluegrass lyrics, or storied NASCAR venues, or movies like the estimable Last American Hero.

All week these whiffs of southern iconography and the images/memories they spurred breezed into my consciousness and out again: Martinsville. Wilkesboro. Hickory… Johnson City, TENNESSEE! Driving through Winston-Salem, I passed the Winston Cup Series museum and experienced a multi-faceted hunk of NC-enabled nostalgia: Cale Yarborough dueling Davey Allison one of those Saturday afternoons from my youth — all of it brought home by my friends at R.J. Reynolds.

I had dared fly into RDU during a relative lull in last year’s pandemic summer, to visit with my son, Silas, who lives in Chapel Hill and had just turned 24. His work for the Conservation Corps of North Carolina takes him all over the state. Golfers visiting Tar Heel country normally make the pilgrimage to Pinehurst, but this trip would be something quite a bit different. I was due to meet Silas in Asheville, after my game at Roaring Gap.

It’s a long way from east to west down Tobacco Road, 9 hours end to end. Driving the nation’s interstate highways, we Americans are treated to all manner of advertising tropes, commercial entities, and place names that never fail to register with first-time visitors. Dinkins Bottom Road. Gumberry. Frying Pan Landing. Kill Devil Hills. Silas Creek just happens to run through the Old Town Club, and beside the Krispy Kreme headquarters there in Winston-Salem.

Across this great nation, car dealers now routinely place themselves — and their family members — at the center of local advertising campaigns. Approaching Greensboro from the east, I was introduced to Cox Toyota via the smiling face of a 12-year-old girl, fully 30 feet high. “Before You Buy,” she advised travelers, in small letters, before the big message exploded across the full breadth of the billboard, “WHY NOT GIVE COX A TRY?”

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Ascendant Sand & Scrub Movement Meets Curious Headwinds in Asia

The Yangtze Dunes Course at Lanhai CC in Shanghai, PRC

There are two kinds of people in this world: those whose tastes in golf courses hew to The St. Andrews Ideal, and those whose preferences gravitate toward The Augusta National Ideal. 

Courses built and maintained according to the St. Andrews paragon we identify generically as “links”: natural and treeless, firm and fast, lightly kempt and several shades of brown. The Augusta model has come to represent an opposing pole, and these so-called “parkland” designs do exude a different vibe altogether: lush and soft, multiple shades of green, landscaped and manicured to a fare thee well. 

History, culture and geography have traditionally funneled Asian golfers into the parkland camp, a classification that may strike one as trivial, or arbitrary. But Asian predispositions in this regard are robust and stand to shape global golf trends for decades to come — even as contemporary tastemakers exalt the links model (and sneer at the parkland genre) as never before.  

For centuries, even this binary choice did not exist. Links courses — named for the sandy terrain that connects beach to more arable land — were the only game in town, and that town was St. Andrews. The Home of Golf will never change, but after several hundred years as a purely Scottish pursuit, golf began to migrate. First the game moved south, to England. During the mid-19th century it moved inland, where the parkland style was devised. 

Late in the 19th century, golf and its attendant tastes traveled West, across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, where the parkland style took firm hold and thrived as never before — fueled by American cultural influence, its economic sway, the opening of Augusta National Golf Club in 1934, and the advent of course irrigation. This shift toward the parkland ideal and away from the British links ideal happened far more quickly and comprehensively than anyone could have imagined. In 1880, for example, it would have seemed laughable to Brits that their game would, in just 50 years, be so dominated by America, Americans and their tastes in course design. But that’s exactly what happened. What’s more, during the ensuing century, the game arrived in Asia where the parkland style also came to predominate. 

In the mid-1990s, the stylistic pendulum swung back. The American course zeitgeist underwent a major shift, whereby The St. Andrews Ideal gained extraordinary new steam, while The Augusta National Model declined. Why? Resorts like Bandon, developed on a remote stretch of Oregon coast, proved links golf was popular enough with Americans to be profitable. Projects like Sand Hills — located in even more remote western Nebraska — showed that oceans and shorelines were incidental to the genre’s appeal. Anywhere there was sand, developers learned, compelling links golf could be devised. The more isolated the links course, the more golfers seemed determined to travel there. 

Today, where sand does not dominate the existing soil profile, developers import it and “cap” the entire 18-hole footprint, ensuring both efficacious drainage and links-enabling bounce & roll. At venerable Pinehurst No. 2, turf once dominated the landscape wall to wall. In 2011, prior to a U.S. Open held there, architects peeled back all but the fairway turf to reveal a sea of native, sandy scrub. Acolytes of the St. Andrews model swooned. 

Golf in the 21st century remains markedly U.S.-centric, but the game’s momentum continues to move West. Today, Asia-Pacific is the region where course development, player development, tournament interest and prize money/corporate support are growing most rapidly. True to golf’s migration patterns, the resurgent St. Andrews Model has been newly deployed all over Asia — along the coast of Vietnam, on islands in the Yangtze River, atop dead-flat properties in Greater Bangkok. 

There’s just one problem: Asians don’t much like links golf. 

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Count Me Out of Any and All Hall of Fame Melodrama

Apparently the San Diego Chicken is Cooperstown material but Barry Bonds is not.

In my dotage, I find myself at the heart of Major League Baseball’s core demographic. After all, I still watch playoff and World Series games in their entirety — not later, online, via some highlights package. I get choked up when Henry Aaron and other icons from my youth pass from the scene. I even cut MLB slack in small-but-meaningful ways — like this summer, when I pointed out that COVID-era baseball doesn’t suffer so much for the lack of fans, because we’re already used to watching extra-inning games where pretty much everyone has gone home.

But count me out of any and all Hall of Fame melodrama.

Yet another episode of this embarrassing, annualized hall pall descended last week when Trump toady and erstwhile World Series hero Curt Schilling was denied his piece of immortality, along with steroid poster boys Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Ho fucking hum. Would-be inductees might be dicks, or saints, in the superficial and cynical ways these traits are communicated to the sporting public. But I am determined never again to invest emotionally in such constructs — the Hall of Fame being the greatest construct of them all.

What a sorry collection of misplaced sentimentality and tradition. Because of its Hall of Fame, MLB’s entire relationship to the past is a maudlin self-congratulatory muddle… The NFL? Worst sport coats I’ve ever seen. It’s as if new inductees are all guest-hosting Monday Night football in 1973… The basketball Hall of Fame is located in Springfield, Mass., in a nod to inventor Dr. James Naismith. As a Bay Stater who covered Travis Best in high school, I should stick up for it. But the place isn’t affiliated with the NBA, and so folks like Wilt Chamberlain and Alexander Belov and Pat Summit are honored side by side, with nothing at all to connect them… The World Golf Fame in Florida is absurd — and needy. Players need not retire from competition in order to gain entry. Phil Mickelson was inducted — in 2012! They invited Tiger Woods; he told them, “Not yet, thanks.”  Whatever… As for the NHL Hall of Fame: Is there one?

Award rituals in this country are unusually dependent on murky interpretations of phrases, term and ideas that feel dated or misplaced. “Hall of Fame”, for example, is a phrase that does not mean anything. What sort of “hall” are we talking about here? Like that place dead Vikings gather, if they should die holding a sword? In what other context do historic figures convene in this way, so as to honor them for all time time? It’s like a museum that is also an exclusive club — but only if you never gambled or did drugs?

The bizarre trappings of hall induction politics have become an anchor around the neck of Major League Baseball, in particular. Pete Rose pioneered this particular shit storm but let’s be clear: On-field greatness cannot effectively be withheld — not by a bunch of sports writers, based on something so amorphous as lapses in “character” or “integrity.” This is a level of caprice that is simply impractical.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, members of which vote on Hall of Fame induction, delineates HOF criteria this way: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Pretty wide open to interpretation. It is, I suppose, some type of “injustice” that Barry Bonds has been denied entry based on his steroid use, but here is my solution: It does not matter to me, as a matter of will. And I would urge readers to join me in worrying about something else. It would frankly matter more, to me, had the juice won Barry and the Giants that World Series in 2002. Same with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — the juice won them nothing. So who cares. I’ve consciously turned myself off to the potential for outrage.

Now, if Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone were juiced, I’d be pissed.

Otherwise, meh.

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Coup-by-Con. An Alternative Fragment

“What’s unfolding now is an attempted coup by a con.”
—  Tim Egan, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2020

In Xanadu did Coup-by-Con

Via stately news bubble decree

Where Rudy, the sacred river troll, ran

Amok through caverns baseless and inscrutable to man

      Down to the Four Seasons — no, not that one.

Twice the popular vote did sound

Never piercing unscalable walls girdled round

Rose gardens bright with sinuous rills

Where did blossom many a friv’lous conspiracy;

But elsewhere were norms, ancient as the hills,

At last resistant to rank shithousery.

But oh! that deep journalistic chasm which once slanted

Across White House lawns where talking heads did cover

A savage redoubt! So unfair! As holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath “Stop the Steal” banners was chanted

By dead-enders wailing for their demon-lover!

‘Twas from this chasm, with Georgian turmoil seething,

As if straight from his Base, source of all that mouth-breathing,

A mighty fountain of plots was voiced, incandescent:

Amid considered judgment only intermittent,

Huge fragments of bullshit vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy secular grain ‘neath Bill Barr’s tail:

And mid these flauncing “frauds”, these many losses

Did gum up momently the vote-count process.

Five miles meandering with hazy, baseless motions

Through courts and canvass boards the sacred river did variegate,

Reaching Electoral College caverns unresponsive to the electorate,

And so sank this tumult to a lifeless ocean;

Of all this tumult Coup-by did first learn via Fox

Ancestral, once-allied voices prophesying a pox!

   On both houses beneath the dome of pleasure

   Floated fair and balanced on the airwaves;

   By way of Arizona, where was heard the mingled measure

   From the fountain and the caves,

A miracle of objective reportage, from outside the pleasure dome,

Where sun-disinfected facts still reigned!

Come 21 January would he finally reckon the damsel & her lawsuit

   In a vision he once saw:

   ‘Twas an Upper West Side maid

   On her dulcimer keyboard played,

   Singing of dressing rooms at Bergdorf Goodman.

   In spite of this (and others) could he revive, within His Base

   The symphony and song,

   To such a deep delight ’twould win another race,

That with blowing hard, loud and long,

Would build anew that alt-fact dome — perhaps merely on-air.

That sunny Capitol dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should still see them there,

And all the rest of us should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his Orange hair!

Weave a shrinking circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on Quarter-Pounders hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise/Total Landscaping

—   Hal Phillips (with apologies to S.E. Coleridge)

Landed in a Pro Soccer Wasteland, Suburbanites Go Urban & Ethnic

by Hal Phillips

[See here an excerpt from Chapter 5 of “Generation Zero: Founders, Framers and Two Chaotic Decades that Forged a Soccer Nation, a manuscript now in the final-editing stage. It’s scheduled for publication in late 2021.]
At left: Mike Windischmann, U.S. Men’s National Team central defender and team captain from 1988 forward. Windy led by example. Here he can be seen rocking the ultimate in period coiffure, the mullet: “business in front, party in the back.”


5. The Primordial Soup (1986-88)

“Our team is too homogenous,” Lothar Osiander told the Associated Press in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “They’re all the same age, all college students, all middle class. They all go to good schools, read the same books, like the same music, probably chase the same type of women. Everything’s equal. It’s flat as a pancake.”

Osiander served as coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) from 1986-89. His charge of rampant homogeneity within his new roster of players was both spot-on and richly ironic. For these were precisely the suburban kids to whom organized soccer had been intentionally delivered, in the early 1970s, by ethnic immigrants like Osiander himself, like Ray Copeland in Wellesley and Reuben Mendoza in Granite City, Illinois. Like the fathers of John Harkes, Peter Vermes, John Stollmeyer and Marcelo Balboa in the suburban hotbeds of North Jersey, South Jersey, Northern Virginia and Southern California.

These still-hyphenated Americans had moved to those suburbs after initial stints in the country’s big cities. There they had helped establish ethnic enclaves where the outdoor game thrived but never went mainstream — not until the Seventies.

By 1986, professional but league-less (and largely clueless about their abilities to play abroad), Generation Zero was obliged to reverse this process — to go back into those cities to play their club soccer, to play somewhere competitively worthwhile when not engaged with Osiander’s USMNT program.

And honestly, what better way to take the edge off that white-bread veneer than an extended run in the ethnic leagues, which, in the absence of the North American Soccer League (NASL), were now home to the best outdoor soccer being contested north of the Rio Grande?

“After NASL folded, that was the best option,” says Mike Windischmann, who would captain the U.S. team at the Italian World Cup in 1990. “My dream had been to play in NASL, but when I got out of college, it had folded. Perfect timing, right? I played one season indoors but I consciously tried to stay outdoors and that’s what led me to the Brooklyn Italians, where I got to play with [Adrianik] Eskandarian and Hubert Birkenmeier, a lot of really good players. How can you go wrong playing with guys like that?”

The Italians, twice U.S. Open Cup champions during this period, illustrate just how competitive, professional and technically advanced New York’s Cosmopolitan League could be. Eskandarian (father of Alecko, who played in MLS and made a single appearance for the USMNT) and Birkenmeier were both former Cosmos, after all — in their 30s, but not completely over the hill.

For Osiander’s crew, there was money to be made with these ethnic clubs. There was fitness to be maintained and on-field savvy to be gained. Most of these organizations maintained regular practice schedules and reserve squads — full teams of players who aren’t quite good enough or old enough to appear for the first team, but remain under contract or otherwise affiliated with the club. Every Major League Soccer club fields a reserve side; today they all compete in the third-tier USL Pro league. It’s telling that NASL clubs never invested in such things, but reserve sides have been de rigeur at European clubs since the 1950s.

Even today, with three tiers of U.S. pro soccer fully operational above it, the Cosmopolitan League’s top two divisions still require maintenance of full reserve squads.

Commonly known as The Cosmo (and not to be confused with the NASL’s most famous club, the N.Y. Cosmos), the Cosmopolitan League was formed in 1923 as the German American Football Association. Along with the SFSL and other elite city circuits, GAFA represented the top tier of U.S. soccer for many decades prior to 1967, notwithstanding serial-but-invariably-fleeting incarnations of the American Soccer League. The formation of NASL naturally put a serious crimp in the GAFA, SFSL and their like, draining them of talent and attention. In 1977, GAFA changed its name to the Cosmopolitan Soccer League, to better represent its multi-ethnic makeup — and perhaps to cleverly play on the New York Cosmos’ popularity, then at its peak.

When NASL gave up the ghost in 1984, the Cosmopolitan League returned to its place atop the American soccer pyramid — where it would stay, for all intents and purposes, until the launch of MLS in 1996.

Walter Bahr and Harry Keough spent their entire club careers in the ethnic leagues. To their eyes, 35 years after the Miracle in Belo Horizonte, all too little had changed. It must be said, however, that in the mid-Eighties, when U.S. soccer needed them most, these ethnic leagues, these largely urban clubs with their aging stars took Windischmann and the entirety of GenZero under their capable wings.

“There were just a ton of talented guys on Brooklyn Italians — former Cosmos, guys from Colombia and all over the world. They were great players,” Windischmann recalls. “I think the entire time I played for the Italians, we may have lost twice. Just incredible players. Later on they had Tab Ramos. Harkes played there. That was some quality soccer. I was learning stuff all the time.”

When the American Soccer League re-emerged again, in 1988, options for young players of quality were naturally increased. But the bottom line did not change all that much. There is wide agreement that the class of soccer remained quite a bit higher in the Cosmo, in the SFSL, in the Luso-American Soccer Association (LASA) in Eastern Massachusetts, and other ethnic leagues across the country. The new “A League” and these various ethnic circuits were all similarly semi-professional, but while A League players generally ran to the bank to cash checks of dubious backing, this was never an issue for members of the Brooklyn Italians, or LASA outfits like mine, Greek Sportsmen of Somerville. 

“It was all cash,” Windischmann reports. “Those guys who ran the club, I’m sure they were betting on games, too.”

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Bankrupt: The Perils of Exerting Moral Authority You Don’t Have

Let’s suppose, as a sort of thought experiment, that we the American citizenry were presented with a judicial candidate — or any public figure with influence on law or policy — who just happened to be active in the Boys Scouts of America the last 20 years. Let’s further suppose this particular figure was not merely a proud former Scout; he credited the organization and its philosophy for providing him his core moral and philosophical compass. As the number of sexual abuse settlements involving the Boy Scouts of America passed the 80,000 mark this fall, ultimately bankrupting the organization, would the general public not pipe up at some point and say to this public figure, “Hey, um, your attitude toward the Scouts, in light of the newly revealed reality, is at the very least awkward. It’s actually pretty fucked up, if we’re being honest. You, or anyone really, who puts such public faith in the philosophy or teachings of something so clearly dysfunctional, should probably not be in a position of authority in our government, much less the high court.”  

Well, I ask you, America: Why does membership in and advocacy for the Catholic Church not prompt a similar rebuke? Today, six of the nine people on the U.S. Supreme Court consider themselves Catholics. All five conservative members on the court — including its newest addition, Trump-favorite Amy Coney Barrett — are quite open about the influence their Catholic faith has had and continues to have on their jurisprudence. In light of the church’s own ongoing sexual abuse scandal, one wonders why the American public tolerates this outward accreditation of something so clearly dysfunctional.

At the very least, we should be talking more about their recusal from cases involving religious faith.

For all the intertwining of Trumpism and evangelical Christianity, no religious force comes close to rivaling Catholicism on today’s high court. The Boston Globe broke the Church’s sexual abuse scandal early in 2001, but its impact has hardly abated, much less blown over. Nearly two decades on, each month brings another report of a U.S. diocese admitting to cover-ups and the shuttling around of offending priests — rather than promptly removing them from contact with children. To date, 21 Catholic dioceses have themselves declared bankruptcy on account of all the financial settlements they’ve been obliged to pay. To be clear, these are just those dioceses that could not afford to compensate all the parishioners who’d been sexually violated by members of its clerical class. There are dozens more that acted as abominably — the priests themselves and their higher-ups in the hierarchy — but could afford to financially compensate its victims.

This is to say, the problems posed by Catholicism remain extraordinarily relevant and widespread. The cynical response to this clearly systemic grotesquery goes right to the top apparently, to the Vatican itself, as November’s allegations against former Archbishop of Washington Theodore McGarrick have proved.  

Vocal defenders of the Catholic faith, who include all these conservative justices and our boot-licking attorney general, Bill Barr, tend to blame the church’s abject moral failings on an infestation of homosexuals in the priesthood, or an evil liberalization of the church stemming from Vatican II reforms in the 1960s. When news of all this abuse first broke, in 2001, these and other Catholic apologists attempted to localize the blame in Boston. When that proved impractical, they blamed the liberalization of America generally. Barr is still beating this drum.

It’s high time that Catholics owned the facts and facets of their own faith, of their church structure and history, of the clerical hierarchy that has contributed to this epidemic of sexual abuse.

As such, America and Americans should also begin to insist that its Catholic public officials — attorneys general, justices serving on any federal court — refrain from using or otherwise citing their Catholic faiths in the execution of their public duties. Would we ask anything less of former Scouts?

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Can Rodent-extermination Yield Life Lessons? You’d Be Surprised

Ed. — From 2000-2003, I wrote a monthly op-ed column for The Portland Press-Herald, which had resolved to make space for a regular op-ed feature called “Stages”.  In essence I was the paper’s “30something with kids” columnist. As I’m now 50something and my kids are both out in the world, columns like the one below make for some fun, retrospective fodder here at halphillips.net

•••

 “It smells like burnt popcorn.”

“Popcorn?” countered my mechanically inclined brother-in-law. “Really?”

“Yes. Definitely popcorn.”

“Well,” he surmised, “I bet you got a mouse in there or somethin’.”

So was broached the Great Tailpipe Poser. My riding mower had been belching smoke from its bustled backside and it smelled for all the world like burnt popcorn. There was no other way to describe it. The beast had sat dormant for months, resting comfortably in the shed until my 5-year-old son and I had fired her up to haul some gravel. Silas adores the John Deer. Can’t get enough of it. He’s always more than willing to help with any chores that involve the tractor. On this occasion, he and I were filling a few craterous potholes on our long dirt driveway. 

Despite the layoff, our beloved Deere had started up fine, ran fine, hauled the trailer just fine. But when I turned it off, billows of black smoke emanated from the exhaust pipe. It smelled like burnt popcorn, as indicated, and my mechanically disinclined mind didn’t know what to make of it.

So I called my brother-in-law, Brian. He’d know what to make of it.

Well, according to Brian, mice have been known to crawl into such things as tailpipes during the winter months to stay warm, make nests or what have you. This was news to me, but I was perfectly willing to accept this premise along with his recommended course of action: “Just run the engine for a while. That’ll clean it out.”

No problem. I’ve no great love for mice, nor for their rodent cousin, the gray squirrel. In fact broiling’s too good for them, in my opinion. 

•••

We had mice in our pantry this fall. They ate our rice and potato chips with impunity, defocated on our shelves, basically intruded quite rudely upon our living space — that is, until I systematically trapped them out of existence (until next fall). Trust me: All this talk of building a better mousetrap is purely metaphorical. There’s no need. They work great! Baited with a bit of chunky peanut butter, traditional mousetraps are ruthlessly efficient.

Squirrels? Don’t get me started. They’ve haunted me since one literally invaded an apartment I shared in Greater Boston, chewing its way through a cheap drop-ceiling and falling onto the coffee table. Years later, when my wife and I lived in Portland, we had several furry, gray scoundrels living in our walls. They got in through a hole created by some rotting wooden roof-molding. Came and went as they pleased — that is, until I bought a Have-a-Heart trap. I snared a bunch and released them a healthy distance away. Like Yarmouth. Or Quebec. 

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