Adventures in Organics

[Ed. This story appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Management magazine. In April 2019 it won the Gardner Award from TOCA, the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. I’ve won a bunch of these over the years but the Gardners are new — a sort of Best in Show among all the annual winners apparently, so I figured it was worth sharing here. There’s a link herein to another profile I wrote about the same time for GCM, on Dr. Frank Rossi. That one came out pretty well, too, especially if a) you’re a fan of kunekune pigs; or b) you want to know why Bethpage Black has agronomic relevance outside this week’s PGA Championship.]

When Kevin Banks was a turfgrass management student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it wasn’t uncommon for decorated or otherwise experienced golf course superintendents to drop in for guest lectures. When Jeff Carlson, CGCS, came by in 2005, Banks says he remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy is crazy!”

Frankly, that’s how most students in the midst of a traditional turf management education might have appraised Carlson’s work at the Vineyard Golf Club. When permits were being sought for building this golf course on environmentally sensitive Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass., in 1998, developers were obliged to promise the local conservation commission that the prospective golf course would be managed in an entirely organic manner.

The Vineyard Golf Club opened for play in 2002, and Banks graduated in 2008. He would then apprentice at several traditional clubs before this story came full circle — Banks took over for Carlson as head golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club on April 1, 2015.

“I guess I’m the crazy one now,” the nine-year GCSAA member says.

Two-plus years into his tenure, Banks has more than warmed to the nonconforming aspects of his job, one of the few in golf course management that takes the organic approach from mere trend or direction to guiding principle.

“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve also definitely become addicted to it,” Banks admits.

Just 31, Banks today finds himself at the crux of another nascent industry trend, a phenomenon where head superintendents hire and groom their replacements, having accepted another position at the same club. Carlson stepped aside in the spring of 2015, but he remains at the Vineyard Golf Club as property manager, where he oversees capital projects — a just-concluded Gil Hanse redesign, for example.

The idea of having the previous superintendent at the club — perhaps hovering, perhaps exerting undue or unwanted influence — may strike some as awkward. Not Banks, and here, the organic dictates governing turf management at the club intertwine with these issues of succession.

“Before I took this job, I knew who Jeff Carlson was. Almost everybody in New England and New York did too, and I’m sure that reputation extends even farther than that,” Banks says. “He has been the organic ambassador for my entire turfgrass career. Having him help manage the golf course with me my first season here was a really sensible transition. I knew it would be very different for me, at first, but Jeff knew exactly where to expect an outbreak. He knew where we would first see weed pressure, and all this input came with his very relaxed and calm presence.

“I will always thank him for being patient and mentoring me into a truly organic manager — something I take great pride in today,” Banks adds.

Can Banks imagine having taken on the organic learning curve without Carlson there, on-site?

“Not really,” he answers. “Jeff was very patient. My first year, the disease we encountered in certain areas maybe should not have happened. I believed moisture levels were adequate and acceptable enough to fight disease pressure. They weren’t. But Jeff sat back and let me learn from my mistakes, and watched me grow.

“From the beginning, I was talking to anyone and everyone to get my head around the issues. And I still do that.”

Banks says he frequently talks with colleagues, companies and researchers about the specific issues he faces. Frank Rossi, Ph.D., of Cornell University and recipient of GCSAA’s 2018 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship, is “a great resource,” he adds.

“But the way I look at it, Jeff is my best researcher. As often as I do interact with all these organic contacts and their ideas, I still take most of them with a grain of salt. They can recommend what they think is right, but you must compare that to what I’m finding here on the ground and what I think is right — and to what Jeff thinks, because he’s done it.”

Martha's Vineyard golf course
The first new golf course to be built on Martha’s Vineyard in 30 years when it opened in 2002, the Vineyard Golf Club was designed, built and is maintained in an all-organic manner to satisfy the community’s strict environmental standards. Photo by Larry Lambrecht
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Welcome to the Teahouse: Korean Road Warriors Curate, Stylize the Game at Home

[Ed. This story appeared in Golf Australia magazine in 2015, as a preview to October’s President’s Cup. I’m in the midst of a couple Korean projects right now; may be headed back there in September… Figured it was worth reprising here.]

By Hal Phillips
SEOUL, South Korea — Let’s get straight to the irony: Koreans are hands-down the most ardent and prolific golf travelers in the world. For a variety of reasons, however, their collective reputation in these golf destinations, particularly those in Asia (their most frequent ports of call), is less than sterling. For the first time, this October — on the occasion of the 11th Presidents Cup Matches — the golf world returns the favor, en masse, as thousands of internationals will descend on the Peninsula to observe four days of competition and make their own golf holidays.

What will they find? One of the game’s singular golf cultures, highly stylized (sometimes to the point of curation) and complemented by a collection of first-rate parkland courses, immaculately kept. The Presidents Cup is a showcase event for the Korean golf community, the biggest international golf event ever staged here, and while public courses remain somewhat rare (and definitely dear), many private clubs are throwing open their doors to welcome the international golfing public — and make a few won (855 to the Australian dollar) in the bargain.

But Aussies who do venture north this spring — especially those who may have cooled their heels behind a glacial Korean foursome in Pattaya, or perhaps witnessed a Gold Coast waitress endure another East Asian browbeating — will be pleased to find a kinder, gentler, quicker brand of Korean golfer on home soil. One might well ask about the phones, to which Korea golfers seem permanently affixed. Well, don’t expect miracles. This remains the most wired, technologically obsessed population on earth, and that extends to their golfing habits, home and away, for better and worse.

To be fair, there are sanguine byproducts of this high-tech mentality. In June, while striding down the 2nd fairway at Whistling Rock Country Club — a private club northeast of the capital and home to one of the nation’s top 5 tracks — the visiting golfer is immediately struck by two things: First, my playing partners and everyone else on the course that day are dressed to the absolute nines. Second, as my caddie walks beside me, our golf cart drives itself down the path — thanks to an electric-eye mechanism embedded in the concrete and caddie-operated by remote control. It goes without saying these drone carts also come complete with sockets, for phone charging.  

“I love Korea, totally wired and everyone looks sharp, man or woman, 25 or 65,” says David Dale, a partner with California-based course architects at Golfplan, who have designed 22 courses in Korea. “Golfers arrive at the course in sport coats and slacks, carrying small grooming bags with golf shoes and change of clothes. They go to their lockers with their 4-digit security codes and change into these highly fashionable pants, shirts and caps (with ball markers on the brims). Most of the time, they’re putting on sleeves to keep the sun off them, even the men.”

Dale and Golfplan have designed courses in 75 different countries, “But I’ve never been to any other country that had a stronger sense of fashion,” he says. “They have these awesome golf slacks that are fleece-lined with waterproofing and pin stripes. I’ve got a pair. They’re thermal. I use them for construction visits in cold climates — but they’re stylish enough to wear with a sport coat!”

The clubhouse at Whistling Rock is typical of the genre here: palatial, modernist and staffed to the gills. Upstairs, a long, narrow Zen garden splits the hallway leading to a massive but still-elegant dining space, where picture windows look out onto the golf course. Downstairs, some 40 members of a course-rating panel (representing GOLF Magazine Korea) populate a sumptuous meeting space of burled wood and overstuffed chairs. Back upstairs, I pass a golf shop that is, well… remarkably modest: mostly golf balls and a few shirts.

According to Whistling Rock Vice President David Fisher, this is typical of Korean clubs, which stock very little logoed merchandise because the lion’s share of golf apparel is purchased not from clubs but direct from top designers. The golf apparel industry in Korea has been estimated at USD$3.5 billion — this for a country of just 1.5 million golfing souls.

“In Korea, the fashion changes. We have four distinct seasons and the manufacturers come up with new designs for each season,” explained Michael, a Korean-American living in Korea and working for a golf industry company (he asked that his real name not be used). “People tend to keep up with the season and they don’t have loyalties to the club they belong to. Elsewhere it’s common that members will wear shirts with the club logo, but in Korea that’s not the case. People tend to lean toward designers shirts, which can be very expensive, 200-300 dollars. Even if they don’t have a good game in terms of golf skill, they try to look good. In Korea, if you don’t dress up, you’re pretty much looked down upon.”

For men, shorts on the golf course are considered particularly frumpy. “Most of the membership golf courses,” Michael says, “do not permit shorts — and golfers must wear hats outside the clubhouse. Without hats, you cannot go out on the course.”

Um, why is that?

“I don’t know.”

The shorts thing is good to know, though daytime temperatures for October typically range from 7-18 degrees (and these days hats make good skin-care sense most anywhere, anytime). Still, Dale suggests that exacting standards and high fashion are just what we should expect from a population with “the highest level of elective cosmetic surgery in the world and the no. 1 destination for these procedures in Asia. I’m even thinking about getting something done, around my eyes… I’m serious.”

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Sable Oaks is No More; Amid Cheers, I Will Defend Her…

Golf course closures are typically met with howls of indignation and despair, as locals countenance their stark, new, diminished reality. But it’s fair to wonder exactly how the public golfing population here in Southern Maine processed the news, received in late January, that Sable Oaks Golf Club would not reopen this spring (the land will instead be marketed to housing developers).

Because while I loved Sable Oaks, mine has always been the minority view.

Most of the Maine golfers I know never cared much for Sable Oaks. Too penal, they said. Driver was too often taken out of their hands (on account of wetlands too often cutting across fairways in constricting fashion). For walkers, hilly Sable Oaks was death march.

These sentiments, accompanied by knowing nods and perhaps champagne toasts, are surely being bandied about even now. But I must protest. It’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, after all. And so I’m here today not merely to praise Sable Oaks but to defend her — for perhaps the last time.

All the things people hated most about Sable Oaks recommended the course, to me, when I moved to Portland in 1992. I was 28 years old and a pretty good player back then — breaking 80 at Sable (something I managed only three times in 30 years) really meant something. I didn’t even carry a driver for much of the ‘90s, relying instead on a 1-iron (and a weirdly shaped, seldom deployed, persimmon Ping 2-wood). Walking 18 holes at Sable with a bag on my back was certainly a workout and a half; the hike from 17 green to 18 tee in particular was a heart-stopper — but I was young! A round there meant I didn’t need to go to the gym.

And what a taxing-but-comely walk it was. Designed by architect Brian Silva (who laid out the once-private, now semi-private Falmouth Country Club at exactly the same time), Sable Oaks made for golf in an undeniably gorgeous, secluded setting across lush, dramatic terrain, with gargantuan specimen trees framing the greens and colorful wetlands everywhere one turned.

Okay, those wetlands required forced carries on four of the first five holes — but they were even more colorful in the fall!

Yes, Sable Oaks was located directly in the Portland Jetport flight path — but you never heard the highway (!).

I arrived in Portland that March of 1992 to take a new job: editor-in-chief at Golf Course News, a national business journal published by Yarmouth-based United Publications. When I stumbled upon Sable Oaks that spring, I was honestly blown away. The greens were inventive and fun — always in superb shape, too (something Sable could boast to its dying day). Indeed, the place seemed pretty brand new. The overall conditioning, the contour/detail around those greens, the bunkering throughout seemed way too nice for a public course — especially one that charged just $20.

Sable seemed fancy and new because it had been conceived and built as a private golf/residential community just a few years before I showed up in Portland. A late-80s recession obliged it to open and operate as a public course. Ownership would change several times through the years. Housing and other commercial elements never got built. An oversupply of competing courses meant Sable would never do more than survive. National trends didn’t help matters: The U.S. course stock has suffered an annual net loss of some 150 properties each year since 2008. Ironically, Greater Portland’s red-hot housing market today — and Sable’s prime location on a wooded hillock right across I-95 from the Maine Mall — made the closure decision (from current owners, Delray, Fla.-based Ocean Properties Hotels Resorts & Affiliates) something of a no-brainer.

•••

But none of this accounts for Sable Oaks’ poor reputation among Greater Portland golfers. Did it get a bad rap? Or was it simply too hard to enjoy? Are Southern Maine golfers a bunch of pussies? Is course difficulty something they want to observe on television but avoid for ourselves?

The answers here are complicated. I can tell you this much, having spent 30 years in the golf business (rating courses and writing about course-design issues): Difficult tracks are, more often than not, successfully marketed on account of their resistance to scoring, not in spite of it. Portland-area golfers were eager throughout the 1990s, for example, to drive two-plus hours for the pleasure of losing 10 golf balls and shooting 117 at Sugarloaf (where river crossings were celebrated). The Woodlands in Falmouth (another track that debuted about the same time as Sable and Falmouth CC) is a much harder golf course than Sable Oaks, in my view, and yet it has succeeded in attracting private club members in this market.

What’s more, Sable Oaks was not a long course; it played only 6,300 yards from the tips. Indeed, the choosing of one’s tees at Sable was key to maximizing the fun and strategy Silva created there. Too often, in my view, Sable-haters didn’t manage this aspect particularly well for themselves.

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It’s the Charisma, Stupid: Tiger Crosses Back Over

So my wife and I have a 12-year-old girl staying with us for a while and last Thursday evening she settled down beside me (armed with a big bag of magic markers and a sketch pad) as I watched a recording of The Masters first round. She wasn’t paying much attention. In that way she was a credible stand-in for the broader American public, which, let’s face it, doesn’t pay much attention to golf, even its majors. Indeed, when she did take notice, she playfully mocked the idea of watching golf altogether — that is, until she noticed Tiger Woods walking off a tee.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

That’s Tiger Woods, I told her. I swear to god, I did not prep her in any way; she picked him out of the crowd of players all on her own. The next afternoon, during the live broadcast of Round 2, she wandered back into the living room. Unbidden she asked, “How’s Tiger doing?”

He’s doing quite well, actually. You like him?

“Yeah.”

Why?

“He’s handsome.”

What else do you like about him?

“He’s cool. Look at the way he’s walking around. He’s very confident.”

What about that mock turtleneck? Is that cool?

“Oh yeah. Those are in.”

Watching golf with a 12-year-old, distaff, golfing neophyte is a fascinating exercise in its own right. This one in particular had strong opinions: She thought Jon Rahm looked like a fat punk; she didn’t like him at all and rode him without mercy throughout (“He should just go home”). She quickly remarked on the unusually lanky stature of both Tony Finau and Matt Kucher. Brooks Koepka was notably swaggy — but nothing like Tiger, in her opinion. Surprisingly, Ricky Fowler’s youthful mien did nothing for her — something about his eyebrows being too dark (“And I don’t like his shirt”). Norwegian amateur Victor Hovland was pilloried for his prominent schnozz, which, in fairness, was fair comment.

But these were all bit players in the drama so far as she was concerned. Tiger was the anointed one.

A lot has already been written about how Tiger’s victory on Sunday has introduced his phenomenon to an entirely new generation of golfers. I don’t anticipate this girl will suddenly want to play the game, or start wearing mock T’s. But it has been 11 years since Tiger won a major. This weekend’s performance reminded us all of what we’ve been missing.

Forget the 15 majors, the renewed Nicklaus chase. We’ve missed this man’s naked charisma most of all. No golfer in history has half the presence Tiger exhibits just walking down a fairway. Charisma is a hard thing to quantify, but it’s also one of the few things that readily spills over from a niche sport like golf into the larger culture. And that’s another thing golf has been missing these past 11 years.

I watched Sunday morning’s finale at Tomaso’s, a fashionably down-market, diner-sized canteen in Portland, Maine. At 10:30 a.m., when I showed up, there weren’t but 3 or 4 us there. An hour later, the brunch crowd had attracted a full house of young, bearded, IPA-swilling hipsters This was no sports bar, much less a golf bar (does such a thing even exist north of Pinehurst?). Even so, when Tiger birdied 15, the place went crazy. The barman quickly turned off the music (a pleasant alt-country playlist featuring the likes of Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell) and turned up the CBS television feed. Tiger had the place in the palm of his hand. When his tee shot on 16 came to rest 2 feet from the hole, the patrons inside Tomaso’s erupted.

About this time, I noticed a text had arrived. A friend of mine was down in Boston at the TD Garden watching the Celtics-Pacers playoff game, an inelegant affair he referred to as a “game/rock fight.” He reported there were “tons of people clustering around TVs on the concourse watching golf. It’s amazing how much love there is for Tiger.”

There’s really is something about this guy — something non-golfers can appreciate. Yes, he has battled back from considerable personal/physical adversity, but this obscures the larger point: He was stupidly charismatic when he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, when he won three straight U.S. Amateurs, when he debuted as Nike’s cross-over pitch man, when he claimed those 14 majors… Apparently, after a decade away, he remains stupidly charismatic, not just to core golfers but to casual fans and mere onlookers around the world.

Sunday night, my daughter sent me a text: “Is Tiger Woods good again?”

She’s 20 years old, a junior in college, and couldn’t care less about golf. But somehow the news had reached her via the broader cultural news drip. I asked exactly how she learned of his Masters victory.

“I saw him on the TV at this bar! Some people were watching.”

Do you find him charismatic?

“Not really. He’s cheated on a lot of women.”

My daughter is clearly not so forgiving of Tiger, in part because she’s a woke young woman, but also because she’s yet to make the mistakes that Tiger and the rest of us 40, 50 and 60somethings have made. But her admonition is well taken: Recognizing and appreciating anew Tiger’s ungodly magnetism doesn’t mean we should get all crazy (again) about what his charisma really means.

It doesn’t mean, for example, that we should start believing Tiger’s mere presence will bring millions of kids (or Millennials, or Baby Boomers) into the game. That never held in 2003; it doesn’t hold now. Nor does it mean we should start building new golf courses willy nilly to accommodate this chimerical wave of converts. It doesn’t mean Tiger has, on account of his victory, instantly become a particularly good man or father. It made no sense to ascribe him these qualities in 2007 frankly; knowing what we know, it makes even less sense now. Why we blithely attach these sterling personal traits to men (or women) who exhibit extraordinary sporting skill is beyond me. One hopes we’ve learned our lesson here.

But it does seem clear that Tiger and the professional game in which he competes have changed more than a little in the 11 years since he limped to his last major win. Today’s Tiger is 43 years old, his hairline in full retreat. He’s been through a world of shit, both physical and personal. The process of dealing and coming back from all that would change anyone. His swing and his outlook on life are forever altered.

And here we confront what might be the most interesting manifestation of all this change: Sunday’s victory was the first time Tiger has ever come from behind in the final round to win a major tournament. The greatest front-runner in history has learned how to come back.

Tiger won from the front so frequently because, from 1997 through 2008, his outsized aura truly cowed most all of his would-be competitors. Remember how they’d wilt when paired with him? Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau did not play well beside Tiger on Sunday but here, too, the game has changed a great deal in 11 years. Today’s PGA Tour is stocked to the gills with young, dynamic, swaggering talent. It will be fascinating to watch this generation of professionals compete with the man many of them grew up idolizing.

Because one thing has not changed: You can’t take your eyes off this Tiger Woods fellow. This was true over the weekend; it was true through 2008. If we’re honest with ourselves, it was true afterward, through his many struggles. We rather shamelessly rubbernecked the wounded, struggling Tiger like we ogled an accident on the side of the road. More than a decade has passed and we still can’t take our eyes off him. Why? Because he still has more charisma than anyone who has ever played this game, more perhaps than all the major winners in history, combined. Even a 12-year-old, non-golfing girl can see that.

‘You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built’

Roger Goettsch and his pride and joy, a ’49 Chevy pickup he restored.

[Ed. I once learned at an AP seminar that anyone, in the right hands, could be the subject of a prize-winning profile. This one may or may not qualify, but it’s pretty darned good and has been widely shared in golf circles these past few months. See here the published version in Golf Course Management magazine. See the slightly longer and more casually profane original draft below.]

By HAL PHILLIPS
I received the following email from Roger Goettsch, CGCS, in the spring of 2018: I recently designed and built two different wetting forks for applying wetting agents to the soil in our LDS (localized dry-spot areas). We have had issues getting wetting agents into the soil due to the thatch layer and this seems to have helped… He attached pictures of the wetting forks in action, along with shots of the “Plug Pushers” he also designed and built, to remove cores following aeration.

Goettsch is the head superintendent at Shanqin Bay Golf Club in the small town of Longgun, on the island of Hainan, in the People’s Republic of China. Like many American-trained supers working overseas, Goettsch can’t get his hands on every last piece of equipment his little heart desires. So he just builds what he can, himself, putting to work his AutoCAD skills, his welding and fabrication expertise, and a mechanical imagination born deep in the American heartland. Goettsch has worked all over North America, and now Asia, leaving behind him a trail of custom-designed and custom-built equipment — like breadcrumbs in the woods.

“You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built,” he says, upon compiling for GCM a list of Top 10 Greatest Hits. “Literally, what you’re seeing there are just the big items from the last decade or so. There’s at least another 20 big-ticket items I’ve leaving out and several hundred more I’ve just sort of forgotten.”

Like those sprig planters you built for all those contractors? Or the fairway aerifier you whipped up that one night?

“Well, not one night. We were growing in a Palmer course in Ft. Worth, Texas, working with Arnold’s project architect, Bob Walker. He’ll confirm this story. The soil was horrible there, dark heavy clay. We just had to aerify it. So I decided to build an aerifying machine with my head mechanic, Bill Hess. We had to get this done because I promised Bob Walker I’d have it ready for his next site visit. So me and Bill had been working on it several days, but we worked till 4 a.m. that last night and Bill — I had trained him how to weld — all of a sudden hollers over at me: Roger we gotta quit… I fell asleep welding.”

When pressed for why exactly he’s compelled to build so many things — while simultaneously working full time, taking care of first-class courses from the Gulf to the South China Sea — Goettsch chalks it up to self-reliance, a quality his dad embodied and passed along to young Roger in the farmlands of western Iowa.

“That’s the through line for all this stuff, based on my upbringing — being self-sufficient. You know what they say: The DNA precedes you.”

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NC Legislature Earns ‘Commendation’ for Self-Hating Political Mendacity

The term Jim Crow is rightly loaded down with racial connotations, but it’s important to recognize that, at its core, Jim Crow was a political system. Yes, a central byproduct was a social system that consigned black folk to second/third class citizenship. But this social construct was enabled and perpetuated by overarching political power. At its elemental core, Jim Crow was a system of voter suppression and nullification that allowed a political minority of white southerners to wield unchecked political power and maintain a culture of white supremacy in their respective states — not merely election to election but for a period of some 100 years.

With this in mind and the November elections behind us (pending a few recounts and lawsuits — you were always a rank choice, Bruce), Republican-controlled legislatures today are busy trying to similarly subvert the will of voting majorities while they still can, however they can. Accordingly, it’s high time we bestowed the next Harris Nightmare Award (HNA) for nakedly self-hating political mendacity.

Our choice for the 2018 post-electoral HNA: The GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature, which, in the face of U.S. Circuit Court rebukes and the failure of state and federal investigations to identify meaningful in-person voter fraud, have succeeded in amending the state constitution to permanently suppress the vote via strict voter ID requirements.

This effort alone would not distinguish the NC legislature from dozens of other Republican-controlled bodies across the nation, but for the fact that November’s election in North Carolina did manifest what appears to actual voter fraud — of a kind that 1) the newly ratified amendment would not begin to address; and 2) appears to have been perpetrated entirely by consultants directly employed by Republican Mark Harris, a U.S. Congressional candidate whose razor-thin victory over opponent Dan McCready was apparently enabled by brazenly illegal efforts centered on absentee ballot vote suppression.

Republicans generally and the North Carolina legislature in particular have cited rampant in-person voter fraud as foundational to their arguments for requiring photo ID. There’s still vanishingly little evidence of such fraud; these claims are rhetorical cover for efforts (in the shameful tradition of Jim Crow) to hold down or nullify the votes of Democrats and independents.

But lo and behold, we’ve finally identified actual voter fraud and it’s specific to NC Republicans themselves!

In a striking note of bipartisan resistance, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement — a body comprising four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent — has unanimously voted to postpone certification of the Harris election (which he won by 905 votes) pending an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Dec. 21, 2018.

Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The Harris Nightmare Awards call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations, like the HNAs.

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 the need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, our humble attempt to shame the unshameable.

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When (Cartoon) Art Imitates Live (Action)

I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind, but the classic cartoon Go-Go Gophers is further evidence of a little acknowledged but fascinating trend in 1960s cartooning, whereby animators actively ripped off popular live-action television shows of the time, essentially mining/co-opting them for themes, plots and personalities.

These cartoons were the stuff of my childhood — on Saturday mornings, after school — and I expect much of my cohort will read this and nod knowingly. “Ah yes,” they will ruminate, mindfully stroking their gray beards, “The Flintstones.”

Yes, but it’s bigger than that.

The Flintstones are indeed the best-known example of this dynamic and the first cartoon ever to air on network television in prime time. Launched in 1960, the show was a blatant rip-off of The Honeymooners, then a vivid-but-still-a-mere memory; its 39 episodes had aired from 1955-56 (though star Jackie Gleason would reprise the role and the show intermittently for years). Fred and Wilma Flintstone were clear homages to the lead, live-action roles played by Gleason and Dorothy Meadows. Barney Rubble was even more distinctively based on Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton. I think everyone realized what was going on here, even at the time. It was part of the imprimatur that led to the featuring of The Flintstones in prime time, something unprecedented for an animated series at that time and frankly, still today, apart from The Simpsons.

But cartoonists would eventually prove some of the most facile and prolific rip-off artists in 20th century media history. They saw The Flintstones formula working and reprised the process without shame — to a degree we kids didn’t realize at the time and, I’d wager, few appreciate still today.

Exhibit A? The inimitable Go-Go Gophers, an under-appreciated cartoon and one based completely on another live action (and culturally tone-deaf) TV show from that era, F Troop. Indeed, Go-Go Gophers was the cartoon that decades ago tipped me off to and set me thinking on this weighty matter.

As a kid, I thought F Troop was sorta funny and, crucially, I liked the theme song. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great themes songs, followed by an uncanny homage to F-Troop’s fertile-if-untoward frontier theme. One wonders today how anyone could see the opportunity for such broad humor in the slow-moving genocide of an indigenous people… (We could include here a sitcom based in a German POW camp, with the Holocaust presumably taking place all around it. When Hogan’s Heroes was airing, perhaps folks were similarly dumbfounded by our bygone acceptability of black minstrel humor, like Amos & Andy, just 30 years prior. Thirty years from now, we may similarly come to grips with other such untoward manifestations of white supremacy and the patriarchy.)

Be all that as it may, the creators of Go-Go Gophers (ad guys from Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, apparently seeking to provide content during which their General Mills client’s cereals could be advertised) and their producers (Total Television then CBS, starting in 1967, as part of the brilliant Underdog Show) devised a cast of characters that does the live-action show one better. The two aboriginal characters (members of the Hakawi Tribe) are straight cribs from the TV show, but you’ll recall the cartoon Colonel inhabits a Teddy Roosevelt milieu, while the Sergeant (played by Forest Tucker on TV) is animatedly morphed into a laconic John Wayne-ish figure.

Larry Storch’s memorable TV character, “Agarn”, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Colonel’s live-action love interest, a sort or Annie Oakley figure clearly inspired by Ellie May from the Beverly Hillbillies. (In the 1960s, when in doubt, no matter how incongruous to the sitcom premise, producers were sure to write into the show some hot young blond. See The Munsters and, for that matter, The Jetsons). Television producers did a lot of shameless things, then and now. They borrowed from any genre or competing show that worked, and so they could hardly complain when cartoon producers did the same.

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So Provincial! Central European Art Claims, on Parade

I can’t remember any trip of mine so richly affected by so many formal art exhibits. In the space of five Central European days in October, my family took in shows featuring Gustav Klimt, Andy Warhol, Alfons Mucha, the Maine-trained Donna Huanca, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Only the Klimt, long a favorite of mine, had been planned. The others we happened upon more or less by chance, as apparently one does in Prague and Budapest. Observations include:

Ethnography Matters: Austrians naturally claim Klimt for their own; he headlined the Secessionist Movement based in his native Vienna, so it’s no surprise his most famous works remain permanently on show at the Belvedere, an 18th century palace built by the Habsburg Prinz Eugen. Sharon and I went there straight from our morning plane, checked our bags in the cloakroom, and gadded about the grounds before meeting our son Silas and his girlfriend Rene, who’d been backpacking about the Continent since Sept. 7. We treated them to lunch then went back across the strasse to see the Klimt, who didn’t disappoint. The Belvedere curators require tourists (and the place was teeming with them) to roam through 2.5 full floors of oversized Romantic Eras shite before getting to the Secession stuff (which included some Munch and Von Gogh I’d never seen). Our hosts knew exactly whom we’d come to see — the entire experience was built around it. There was even a special room where folks could take selfies with an oversized poster version of The Kiss — some 50 feet from the real thing.

We were further struck by the way Slovaks studiously maintain a different sort of claim (but still a legitimate one) on Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from Eastern Slovakia (in the various placard lit his mother was repeatedly referred to as Ruthenian, a reference to Greek Orthodox Slavs who live outside the Rus). This show, in Prague, occupied the third floor of GOAP Prague (Gallery of Art Prague). The more intimate, dormered fourth floor concentrated solely on Warhol’s young life and his parents’ early days in Pittsburgh where so many Slovaks and Poles landed (remember the wedding scene from The Deerhunter?). This was wholly appropriate — the attic is where old family stuff is meant to be stashed.

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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 quantities: 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 a 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 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!