Azinger primes Ryder Cup grudge pump … Does it matter if he’s wrong?

Tommy Fleetwood mounts Ian Poulter after reclaiming the Ryder Cup for Europe (and its pro tour) in 2018.

Well, here we are again. Every few years it seems some U.S. golfing professional/personality blithely asserts that the U.S. PGA Tour is without peer. Full stop. This invariably gets under the skin of Europeans who, to be fair, have dominated for 25 years the event created specifically to settle this argument: the Ryder Cup. They and their tour have also claimed roughly half the major championships since the turn of the century.

As golf spats go, it’s run of the mill. There are decidedly more important things to ponder these days. But here’s the problem: The Euros have a point while Paul Azinger, this year’s jingoist rock-thrower designate, doesn’t.

And besides: With the Tour on hiatus and the Masters postponed, you’ve got something better to ponder?

All this came to a head, again, late in final round of the Honda Classic, two Sundays ago, March 1. Azinger, himself a major winner and former Ryder Cup captain, assessed on NBC the mindset of Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who had the chance to birdie the 72nd hole and force a playoff.

“These guys know you can win all you like on that European Tour, the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour,” Zinger intoned from on high, in his booth, adding that Lee Westwood was another Englishman on the leaderboard with lots of worldwide wins (44 to be exact) but just two in the U.S. “They know that and I think Tommy knows that. It puts a bit of pressure on Tommy. But this is where they want to be. They want to come here, they want to prove they can win at this level.”

Lookit: Azinger’s job, or part of it, is to ratchet up the stakes on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also his job to pimp the U.S. PGA Tour (more on that later).

But the Euro response was swift, pointed and, it must be said, pretty spot on. Ian Poulter tweeted: “Paul please do not condescend or disrespect the @EuropeanTour and our players like that. We have slapped your arse in the Ryder Cup for so long.” Westwood himself called the comments “disrespectful”. The winning Ryder Cup captain from 2018, Dane Thomas Bjorn, called them “at best ignorant; at worst, arrogant.” Rory McIlroy, who, like Poulter, now makes his home in Florida, had this to say: “His comments were a little nationalistic,” McIlroy said.

Poulter’s fellow Englishman, Tyrell Hatton, put a bow on all of them a week later by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Azinger, like many members and backers of the PGA Tour through the years, continues to confuse the wealth of a tour for the quality of a tour. Prize money is greater at U.S. PGA Tour events — this is what lures players like McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Poulter, Hatton and Fleetwood to play so many events here, to maintain homes here, to even join the U.S. PGA Tour in order to compete for all that money.

But bigger purses and better-heeled corporate sponsors do not make the preponderance of U.S. pros any better than those competing for smaller purses on the European Tour. That was mere theory in the 1990s, but it’s more or less an established fact today — one American golfers and commentators more or less refuse to acknowledge. For whatever reason, the European Union is turning out as many if not more, better tournament golfers today than the United States. The Ryder Cup proves it. The major championships prove it. For his part, young Tommy Fleetwood — with his 5 European Tour wins, his breakout performance at the 2018 Ryder Cup, his top 10 world ranking — fairly well embodies it.

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Bernie, Biden & DNC ennui all obscure the point: Get out the vote

Now that Bernie Sanders has been rebuffed and a credible centrist path forward has been laid for Democratic voters, I just want to say: 1) Don’t think for a minute there is anything inevitable about Joe Biden’s nomination; 2) I’m all in for whoever earns that nomination; and 3) I have real reservations about propping up today’s Democratic Party beyond Nov. 3.

Clearly, the only sensible thing for Democrats to do over the next four months is go get the vote out. In such hyper-polarized times, this makes more sense than you may realize. More on that in a moment.

Because a funny thing happened on the way to this new, hastily constructed Biden consensus: In the 3 weeks between the N.H. Primary and Super Tuesday, I along with millions of left-leaning Americans were all obliged to come to terms with the idea of Bernie Sanders leading us into the arena against Trump.

We did this for several reasons. Biden on the stump in 2020 is rather corpse-like (with a verbal dexterity to match); Bernie had dominated him and the other centrists in the field. Following the victory in Nevada, Bernie was clearly the front-runner. Suddenly, in the space of 3 weeks, it had all become very real.

The last Republican I voted for was Bill Weld (when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 1990), a fact that doesn’t make me a liberal firebrand. I never voted for Nader, nor any Green candidates. Obama was probably more cautiously centrist than I’d have liked. But I did vote for Sanders during Tuesday’s Maine primary. Having rationally gone through his platform — over and over again, often beside scandalized centrists in need of reassurance — I did come to terms with the good sense it largely represents. The polls that show him faring as well or better vs. Trump in November didn’t hurt.

It tickles me to hear moderate Dems and conservatives (who have resisted the snake-oil charms of our president) detail their fear of and disdain for the “crazy left-wing” ideas advocated by Sen. Sanders. “Wacky” is another word they use. When pressed for examples, Medicare for All always heads the list — despite the fact that expansion of this existing U.S. program is essentially the operative model for nationalized healthcare systems in every industrialized nation on Earth but ours. Mind you, these are models that all deliver care for less cost per citizen than the private system now deployed here. In other words, not crazy.

[Free public college education usually comes next: “Another socialist fantasy!” Oh yeah? From 1945 to 1980, this country essentially had a public university and community college system that was so affordable as to verge on free. Tuition was so minimal it could be dispatched via summer jobs and winter-spring vacation gigs — that is, until we made the conscious, Reagan-enabled decision to stop socializing the cost of such things. Today, a year at UMass costs $30,000. “Oh, and you’re just gonna forgive all that student debt I suppose?” Yeah, I would. It’s crippling the middle-class striving of 70 million Millennials. And seeing as colleges (for-profit and otherwise) cynically pocketed all those Pell Grant billions, leaving these consumers holding the bag, some manner of redress is warranted. The Green New Deal? Yeah, it’s such a whack-job, pinko fantasy that the European Union — a common market representing 300 million consumers — just this week declared a target of net-zero carbon by 2050 and halving emissions by 2030. The outcry there? It’s not aggressive enough. Bernie’s agenda is typical of centrist and center-left governments across the industrialized world in Europe and Asia. Three weeks of coming to terms with his front-runner status made this plain. Not. Wacky. At. All.]

Yet something else happened when I walked through all this, over and over again, trying to explain how electing Bernie Sanders wouldn’t destroy the Democratic Party and this country: I questioned anew what it was about the Democratic Party in 2020 that was so worth preserving.

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Alma Material: Top 5 Regrets, University Division

Joni Mitchell performs at Wesleyan’s McConaughy Hall, in 1969.

With my son out of school almost two years now and my daughter set to graduate in May (we wrote our final college check in January!), I see the need to balance this pending financial boon with the prospect of psychic loss. Yes, opportunities for nostalgic reflection — on my own university experience — will soon be greatly reduced, or markedly detached from anyone who gives a shit. (I don’t think my wife ever did; she’s from the Midwest where, apparently, people stop talking about where they went to college, outside the football context, pretty soon after graduation.) My kids give one meager level of shit because they’re attending (or did) on my dime. And honestly, I don’t care that they’re mainly just humoring me. It’s enough. Because one cannot talk to one’s spawn about their classes, parties, relationship dramas or whatnot without summoning one’s own such memories.

Which brings me to the college memories one seems to summon (especially New Englanders) more than most in middle age: regrets. Yes, I have a few — but here are the Top 5:

I regret not having walked the measly half-mile across campus that spring of my freshman year to see The Replacements, who played McConaughey Hall, the dining facility we called MoCon, in March of 1983. As you may well know, The Replacements have since developed one of the most rabid, enduring cult followings in the history of rock ‘n roll (see here a pretty good documentary on the subject, available via Amazon Prime). And while none of us knew who they were back in 1983, it wouldn’t have killed us to show up. It wasn’t as if bands played Wes that frequently, much less decent ones (Graham Parker was the best we could do from 1982-86; lowlights included the send-up band Blotto). Later, my housemate Dave Rose in particular grew to love The Replacements with the heat of a thousand suns. I quite like them (especially the album Tim) but to have been there at MoCon that night would have represented some primo post-punk cred to have claimed all these years later… I should funnel two more things into this single music-related regret: 1) the fact that, for the entirety of my college sojourn, I failed to pick up a guitar and learn how to play it. This I would eventually do, at 40, but had I done what any self-respecting collegiate male might have done, I’d be a way better player by now; and 2) MoCon itself was torn down in 2010, but not before having hosted the likes of Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf, Miles Davis, Gloria Steinem and Martin Luther King Jr. MoCon was the locus of so many memories (and regrets), I could write an entire column on that subject alone, so enormous was the impact of this spaceship-inspired structure on my early college life. But I’ll spare you that, dear reader. For now.

• • •

I regret that my senior housemates and I did not follow through on our bright idea to create a time capsule using the husk of my 1978 Dodge Omni. Rather than consign it to some scrap heap, my parents had ceded this charmless vehicle to me for my final semester in Middletown. It burned a quart of oil for every $10 of gas and the ball joint connecting the clutch cable to the (clutch) pedal kept slipping out of place, which required me to lay upside-down in the driver’s seat — head and hands down by the gas & brake — in order to coax the ball back down the slot into place. The Omni nearly expired several times that spring. And so one night, very late, we hit upon a fabulously practical and sentimental notion: As we were about to move out of our off-campus house into the real world, we were obliged to wrestle with the not-insignificant matter of what to do with all the shit the five of us had accrued there at 8 Warren Street — not just over the course of our senior year but the previous three years, as well. Here was our brilliant plan: drain all fluids from the Omni; dig an appropriately sized hole in the field across the street, beyond the hockey rink and athletic fields where the soccer team practiced; buy a keg (most of our plans back then involved a keg) and throw a killer party whereby everyone brought something to store inside this would-be, once internally combustive time capsule. After filling the Omni with all these mementos, we would set about finishing the keg before rolling the car (or tipping it over) into the hole, whereupon we’d bury it. Eventually, we reckoned, we’d come back to some reunion and excavate — yet another great party (and keg) opportunity would surely ensue. Alas, we never motivated on this front and it’s a real shame because some years later Wesleyan built a palatial athletic complex around the old hockey rink and completely upgraded the old practice fields. In the course of these construction projects, the Omni would surely have been discovered at some point — and we’d have all been famous.

Our ’78 Dodge Omni was silver, with red pleather interior. Some credit this model, not the K-car, with saving Chrysler. I find this hard to believe…
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FDR: President, Statesman… Golf Course Architect?

[Ed. This piece appeared in Golf Journal back in 2001. Published by the USGA (without advertisement), this was a fine magazine — one of many print outlets to fall by the wayside in the 21st Century but this one really stung, as I did a lot of work through the years for the editor there, Brett Avery, who shared a love of quirky, often historical pieces. For years I had kept my GJ story clips in hard copy form, but they all perished in my 2016 barn fire. Time to start archiving them here.]

One is taken aback by the photograph. It’s encased in glass and big as life, the first thing one encounters upon entering the Visitor Centre at Roosevelt Campobello International Park. There’s FDR, young and turn-of-the-century attired, posing at the finish of what appears to have been an elegant swing.

FDR played golf? I had seen that written somewhere, but this photo speaks to a level of proficiency that surprised me. Fluid. Relaxed. Confident. Beside the photograph, inside the exhibit case, is further testimony to his skill: a medal, earned by winning the August 1899 members’ tournament at Campobello Golf Club.

There’s a book in the case, too, detailing the results of these competitions staged between 1897 and 1920. But it’s the photograph that intrigues as it contrasts so markedly with those more familiar images of FDR: the new president, waving from his convertible Stutz; the four-time candidate addressing boisterous crowds from the stump; the solemn slayer of fascism, posing with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta — all of them burned into the public consciousness but all depicting a much older Roosevelt, aged beyond his years by lengthy struggles with polio, global economic depression and world war.

To see FDR so youthful and athletic, swinging a golf club no less, when the mind’s eye is so accustomed to seeing him differently — invariably seated, or perhaps standing stiffly while leaning hard on the arm of his young naval officer son — is startling.

***

A visit to Campobello, this small Canadian island off the coast of Maine, is replete with enlightening discoveries. It was settled in 1770 by Welsh sea captain William Owen, who remained loyal to King George following the American Revolution. Indeed, island tax records show that Benedict Arnold maintained a residence here, at Snug Cove, in 1786.

The Roosevelts, from the Hyde Park section of New York’s Hudson Valley region, summered here in the province of New Brunswick for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1883, when FDR was just a year old. He learned to sail here on the frigid waters of Passamaquoddy Bay. It was on what he called his “beloved island” that he secretly proposed to his future wife, Eleanor. While visiting Campobello during the summer of 1910, he resolved to run for the New York State Senate, thus launching one of America’s most remarkable political careers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. was born on Campobello in 1914, and it was here, in 1921, that his father and namesake contracted the disease that would cripple him.

The nine-hole layout at Campobello Golf Club is long gone. A thick forest now occupies the site and further envelops the 34-room Roosevelt “Cottage” and the Hubbard Cottage next door. At the turn of the century, when FDR and his fellow colonists whiled away their summers here, this portion of the island was treeless. In 1881, the Boston-based Campobello Land Co. had cleared these properties in hopes that wealthy families would be enticed by unimpeded ocean views. They were indeed, and many of the noblest clans in the U.S. soon built rambling estates on the land above Friar’s Bay.

The Campobello Land Co. also built a pair of summer hotels on this high ground, the Tyn-y-Coed (Welsh for “house in the woods”) in 1882, and the Tyn-y-Mays (“house in the fields”) a year later. Both were gone by 1910, but it was beside these grand, American shingle-style hostelries that Campobello Golf Club was laid out. No photographs of the course survive, though in the photo of FDR swinging his club, a corner of the Tyn-e-Coed is visible in the background.

“The course was there beside the hotels, opposite Hubbard Cottage, across the road,” recalls Mrs. Howard Hodgson, 74, a resident of nearby St. Andrew’s, N.B., and a Hubbard by birth. “I spent all my summers [on Campobello] in the cottage, from 1925 to 1941. My grandfather was treasurer of the golf club and James Roosevelt, the president’s father, was the one who started it.

“Nobody played any golf on the island when I was growing up, so I don’t remember the course, per se; it was just a cow pasture when I was there. Once the [First World] war ended, the colony just sort of fizzled. But I remember going blueberry picking with my father in that field. We used to find these funny old golf balls there.”

The Visitor Centre at Roosevelt Park is modest in size but its displays thoroughly recount the Roosevelt’s aristocratic-but-vigorous existence on Campobello via museum-style text, complemented by oversized black-and-white photography. There’s a tiny theater, wherein a short film, entitled “Beloved Island,” further documents the picnics, hikes, sailing and golf FDR enjoyed. About halfway through the film, the screen fills with the photograph from the lobby: FDR, no more than 20 years of age, following-through (“posing” if you will) with his driver.

“FDR,” the narrator explains, “served on the Governing Committee at Campobello Golf Club and laid out the course …”

What? FDR laid out the course? This notion is perhaps more startling than the photograph. Could it be that FDR, Architect of the New Deal, was also an amateur golf course architect? For buffs of history and golf, this is an extraordinary prospect, one that warranted further investigation.

***

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Fifteen Months into NFL boycott, Life Continues Remarkably Unchanged…

So, I hear the Patriots are no longer unbeaten. I gather the NFL has deigned to grant Colin Kapaernick an audience — and Antonio Brown is officially old news? I know the basic outlines of this stuff despite the fact that, for the second season running, I’m abstaining from football. I’m not reading anything on the subject, not watching NFL games, nor college games (which barely register in my Yankee world), or even Patriots games on TV. I’ve found it instructive that a conscientious objector like myself need not actively follow the nation’s most popular sport in order to know with whom Josh Gordon has latched on, who’s been accused of sexual assault, and which guys you should probably activate in your fantasy league this week. That’s one of the big take-aways here: The NFL is so dominant in our culture that one is effectively buffeted by news of all this stuff, non-stop, via the dribs and drabs of interpersonal conversations, serial web impressions and daily newspaper headlines (the one made of real paper), whether one wants to be or not. Love it or hate it, such is the NFL’s omnipresence in 2019. Americans routinely absorb its competitive results and attendant news/outrages almost by osmosis.

It’s difficult for me to profess, definitively, that I ever came to dislike the NFL or football in general. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: I quite like it — as exhibited by my 40-plus years of fandom and three decades as a sports writer, including multiple essays published in this space (see here and here) and elsewhere. But the arguments for opting out of the NFL just kept stacking up, like the arguments against smoking — or those advocating more cardiovascular exercise. Or flossing. The smoking example is best: NFL fandom was something that undeniably amused me but was pretty obviously bad for me.

I was riding in a Lyft down in Philadelphia a couple months back when the middle-aged driver and I mused for a time about the Sox-Phillies series then taking place at Citizens Park. We quickly moved on to Celtics-Sixers before taking up the inevitable: the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots in February 2018. A great game, despite the result, I admitted. But when he asked what I thought about Antonio Brown’s brief dalliance in New England, or how long I thought Tom Brady might keep playing, I explained that I’d checked out of football starting the year before. He appeared sorta dumbfounded by this and asked me why. It wasn’t a long ride-share we’d ordered; my wife and daughter were in the backseat. I provided him only a cursory explanation. For you, dear reader, a complete set of well wrought justifications appears below.

Taken together, they make it ever more clear — to me, for me — that football generally and the NFL in particular were bad for me, like trans-fats. Or cocaine during the 1980s. Or fascism any ol’ time. But the NFL (and college football, it must be said) are frankly worse because trans-fats, for example, don’t seep unbidden into one’s body or consciousness via the culture at large, beguiling conscientious objectors and devotees alike with the same prurient, mass-produced id-candy.

Please believe me when I tell you this essay is not an exercise in virtue signaling. Like someone who stops drinking for the month of January, or perhaps indefinitely, I found it edifying to write this stuff down — to better process and perhaps defend (to myself) the quality of the decision-making involved. So, in no particular order of importance, let it be known that I’ve sworn off the NFL because:

1) It can kill you apparently. Not everyone who plays NFL football (or college football, or high school football) develops CTE-induced aphasia and dies, of course. But enough of them have, and enough exhibit these debilitating cognitive effects in the long term to make a compelling adverse case. Roman gladiators may have been the all-pro middle linebackers of their time, but eventually they were borne from the arena in pieces. Free will allows anyone the license to play that game, but I’m free to opt out that sort of spectacle… How parents can allow their children to play the game, knowing what we now know, I truly do not understand. Create for yourself a Google alert for “High School Football Spinal Cord and Head Injuries” and witness the sickening news trickle in each Friday night, often via the live-Tweets of sportswriters who witness yet another ambulance on the field, under the klieg lights of small town America. It’s no shock to learn participation is falling across the country. I predict that, in 20 years, no public high school in the nation will have 11-man, tackle football teams, because no public school system will have the money to cover the liability insurance. Kids will continue to play football, or course, but only via private clubs. Like Rollerball.

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Kershaw’s more Clemens than Koufax

So, sports are cruel, whether the participants are professionalized adults or mere school children. But sports are real, which is what makes them so damned compelling — in a way that lays bare the mockery of a sham that “reality” TV truly is. The latest case in point: Clayton Kershaw, now a certifiably tragic figure in baseball’s sprawling Hall of Misery & Woe.

I fell asleep in a Vermont hotel room two Wednesday nights ago thinking Kershaw and his Dodgers had beaten back the pesky Washington Nationals in their best-of-five National League Division Series. Kershaw, having already lost Game 2, at home, was summoned to preserve a 3-1 lead in the 7th inning of Game 5. This he did, securing the third out.

That’s when I nodded off.

For some reason, I later learned, Kershaw was summoned by Dodger manager Dave Roberts to pitch the 8th, wherein the erstwhile starter gave up home runs on consecutive pitches to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. Tie game. Kershaw was lifted and L.A. lost in the 10th on Howie Kendrick’s grand slam… Where was Kenley Jansen through all this? Isn’t he L.A.’s closer?

I want to be clear: I honestly have nothing against Kershaw — or the Dodgers. When I first started following baseball in the early 1970s, I loved those Dodger teams of Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Yeager & Ferguson behind the plate, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith in left and right). I rooted hard for them later in the ‘70s when they faced the Evil Empire Yankees in consecutive World Series.

And yet I have been mystified by the conventional wisdom surrounding Kershaw these past few years. Folks seem determined to cast this guy as one of the great pitchers of all time — despite the fact that he’s done so very little in the post-season, which, we can agree, is the true measure of pitching greatness. I’ve even heard Sandy Koufax comparisons! (Just google “Kerhaw Koufax” to see the extent of this folly.) Yes, they’re both Dodgers; their surnames both begin with K; they’re both lefties. But that’s where the similarities end.

Again, I don’t dislike Kershaw, nor do I wish to run the guy down in light of what has been another gut-wrenching failure. But his October went like other Octobers, which is why these Kershaw-boosting narratives make no sense. They are in fact the careless musings of baseball know-nothings and hype-vendors.

I don’t Tweet much (follow @MandarinHal, if you want proof) but after watching Kershaw struggled in the first inning of Game 2, I posted the following:

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A Day in The Respite Life

6 p.m. on a Friday in May
The 12-year-old we’d been fostering for the previous 8 weeks, whom I’ll call Bri, informs us there is a concert at school where the “staff band” performs ­— and the kids apparently join in. Having been through the middle/high school thing twice with our own children, both of whom are off to or out of college, my wife and I are pretty well done with this sort of thing. It’s a Friday night after a long workweek. I’m making pizza… But we live in semi-rural Maine and our charge, the charming and talented if somewhat moody Ms. Bri, is generally starved for entertainment here, with us. So we scarf down a couple fresh-hot slices, drop her there at the education-plex two towns over, and head to a movie. Rocketman, listed at 7, doesn’t start till 8 apparently. So we opt for Booksmart instead. Not half bad.

9:30 p.m.
Home again, post-concert, we watch the finale of Killing Eve, which is probably, ahem, not appropriate for all three of us. Were the state to know we’d shown it to this 12-year-old, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) might just take her back. It’s a bit gory but remains high quality television, we reason — unlike her current obsessions, Riverdale and Vampire Diaries.

10:16 p.m.
Sharon notices that DHHS has in fact just called us. Somehow, in discussing the abrupt ending to Killing Eve, we’d missed it. Turns out our friends with the state have not checked in to take issue with Bri’s TV viewing habits. They’ve got a 6 month old and her 8-year-old brother both in need of a place to stay this weekend. Sharon and I look at each other. This is the “respite” exercise, the temporary care of foster kids and would-be foster kids on short notice for short periods. This is what we signed up and trained for. We call back and leave a message.

[To catch you up: Sometime last summer the Portland Press-Herald published an investigative series on the lives of children in the Maine foster care system. Household conversations ensued, mostly centered around how we as a society (and Maine’s worthless governor at the time) seem ever more and even deliberately indifferent to the plight of these and other kids, the least fortunate among us really. The 2016 election had also radicalized each of us in our own ways, effectively focusing our empty-nest minds on what we could do to make a difference, directly. An encounter at the mailbox — with our neighbor, who leads an agency that provides services to special needs kids in the foster system — led to an informal back-porch coffee, then a more formal information session in Biddeford. A series of training classes followed, then fingerprinting and ultimately a license from the State of Maine to serve as “resource” parents (recently rebranded from the more familiar “foster”). Sharon and I do respite care, the ad hoc, short-term care of kids between homes, kids just received into state custody, or kids whose long-term resource parents just need a week off. What you’re reading here is an account of one of the half-dozen experiences we’ve had so far in 2019. More families are needed, for the record; kids are still being housed in motel rooms. Do reach out if you’re foster curious.]

10:24 p.m.
The state calls right back. On speaker, Haley (I’ve changed all these names) sounds to my middle-aged ears impossibly young, flustered, disorganized and why not? These two kids have apparently just been taken into the state’s custody from a Portland homeless shelter; it’s 10:30 on a Friday night and they need a place to stay, a place that isn’t a motel — through Tuesday. We explain we can take them through Monday morning, when we both go to work. Haley seems relieved and grateful at this news. They need our address. Halfway through Sharon’s providing it, I interrupt and ask for the phone — Haley’s uncertainty, her inability to answer some basic questions (What sort of provisions do the kids have with them? How many diapers are they bringing, how much formula, what happens on Monday?) did not sit exactly right with me. “Sorry, Haley, but I have to say, this all sounds a bit dodgy. Can you provide us the name and number for your manager, or the state case worker on 24/7 call?” Not unrelatedly, our 12-year-old has a bio-mother whose parental rights have been terminated but remains determined to stay in touch with her daughter and ultimately reunite, which is impossible until she turns 18 — but here we are. Social media and phone use are total minefields… For a brief moment on the phone with DHHS, I thought this might be a ruse to find out where we lived, for future surveillance/stalking. Upon hearing my doubts, however, Haley snaps back into sober bureaucrat mode, indicating that it was she who was in charge so late on a Friday night; she reels off a bunch of other stuff that ID’s her as a legit DHHS employee. We provide our address.

11:05 p.m.
It’s half an hour’s drive to our place from the DHHS mothership, in Portland, and in those 30 minutes we ready as we can: pulling the antique bassinette from Sharon’s closet, making up a bed for the 8-year-old, pulling out clothes that might fit him. Throughout, Bri, who generally alternates between sullen and charming — because she’s 12, and because she doesn’t know where she’ll end up when the school year ends, when the summer ends — is fully energized and engaged. She proves a huge help, doling out advice about the sort of clothes they may or may not come with, cleaning her room and offering the second bed in there (if the boy doesn’t want to crash alone). We agree she’s the one who has the most recent baby experience, vis a vis her younger siblings, who, she explains (for the first time), were still very young when her homeless mom bounced from place to place, when the state finally took possession of them after 3 second chances, when all three kids moved from foster home to foster home. More than either of us, Bri knows what this sort of exercise entails.

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Hello, World. Welcome back to The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason China has long referred to itself as The Middle Kingdom, and Daryl Morey, the NBA and frankly much of Western Civilization is beginning to understand why.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Morey is the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and, until last week, he was known primarily as one of the league’s most savvy operators, an early, successful adopter of advanced hoop metrics and a keen, innovative judge of talent in a league turning inside-out (read: the NBA’s new, stat-backed reliance on 3-point shooting). He’s also politically aware, apparently, something he exhibited last Friday when he tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters in their running battle with China’s central government. “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote.

Well, with that seemingly innocuous digital bromide (the political equivalent of “Boston Strong”), Morey has pissed off that central government, in Beijing. In the process, he may have inadvertently clued much of America into the fact that the unilateral, post-Cold War Era is over.

Morey has since taken the Tweet down but he, the Rockets and the NBA have reaped the 21st century whirlwind.

In response, the Chinese Central Government has announced that Rockets games will no longer be broadcast by Chinese state TV or partner Tencent, which recently agreed to a $1.5-billion deal with the NBA to stream games in China. Last year, some 600 million Chinese watched an NBA game in this fashion. The Rockets themselves just happen to have been the most popular team in the country — mainly because Yao Ming, China’s most successful NBA product, played his entire career in Houston. Today Yao is head of the Chinese Basketball Association. On Monday he severed the CBA’s relationship with his former team.

What we see here is an illustration of why China is known to itself (and to every other historical culture in Asia) as the Middle Kingdom. China so named itself circa 1,000 BCE, when the reigning Chou people, unaware of advanced civilizations in the West, believed their empire occupied the middle of the Earth, surrounded by unsophisticated barbarians.

For the ensuing 3,000 years China has indeed been the center of the universe in Asia, such has it dominated economic and cultural affairs in this region — in a way that has no European, African, Middle Eastern, South or North American analogue really. In Asia, over this long arc of history, China’s military whims were routinely indulged. Its culture effortlessly spilled over into countless neighboring nations. Its outsized market (always a function of its outsized population) routinely bent foreign states to China’s economic will.

North Americas and Europeans have a difficult time grasping this concept — the enormity of China’s power — because recent history doesn’t bear this primacy out. Starting in the mid 1800s (when the English first acquired Hong Kong and its holdings in the Pearl River Delta) and ending with Mao’s victory over nationalist forces in 1949, China was something of a geopolitical and economic pushover.

Here’s the way I’ve always thought of it: China had a bad century. The Chinese call it a “Century of Humiliation”… But one or two bad centuries in 30 isn’t such a terrible batting average. In any case, that blip is over. Its recent “rise” is merely a reinstatement of a longstanding status quo.

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More proletarian landmarks rent asunder by Portland’s upward mobility?

Silly’s main “dining room”, home of the Key Lime Pie Shake and the Slop Bucket

Two pillars of Portland’s bar & restaurant vanguard exited the city’s vibrant but transitional culinary scene last week. First came the announcement that Silly’s, long a boho totem on Washington Street, would close its doors on Sept. 1. Two days later, Brian Boru — the peninsula’s “It” bar for much of the 1990s — announced its doors would close.

In a Facebook post equal parts trenchant and heartfelt, Silly’s owner Colleen Kelley explained that the city, in general, and the Washington Street corridor, in particular, were rapidly becoming too chic for her tastes. She also has an aging father who requires her 24/7 attention, something the restaurant had commanded for the past 31 years.

“My sister Shelley and I have sold the buildings — not Silly’s, just the buildings,” Kelley wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “As much as Erin and Will, the managers, and the rest of the staff are taking care of me and the business, it is constantly challenging to do business with the city of Portland, which also wears me out. Another huge factor in my decision: I am smart enough to know my business model won’t work in a city destined to be Seattle, which isn’t meant to be a slam; it is just my opinion of where Portland is going. I don’t want anything but wonderful things for Portland, Maine. I have enjoyed many years here. However, I am a fat woman who serves fat, over-portioned food and I won’t charge 24 dollars for 4 oz. of dip and some pita bread.”

Not 24 hours before this news broke, a Portland friend had raved to me about a new southwestern restaurant that had just opened on Washington Street, long a gritty thoroughfare that, of late, has gentrified — commercially — thanks to a raft of restaurants, breweries and distilleries. To call these “upscale” is to ignore the inherent casual vibe that pervades all things Portland (I can’t think of a single restaurant in the city where jackets are required or shorts frowned upon). But this much is beyond dispute: Portlandia in 2019 is increasingly posh; the owner of Silly’s has recognized this and wants no part of it.

One key to understanding both closings has nothing to do with Portland’s national rep as a city for haute bourgeois foodies. Note the first sentence Kelley wrote: She mentioned buildings twice. The real estate market in Portland is blowing up; the opportunity for businesses of all kinds to cash out is only a phone call away.

This dynamic was even more evident with the Boru closing. It was announced Thursday, August 22 that its last day would be Monday Aug. 26. This bar sits more or less all by itself in the middle of an open, undeveloped lot — half the size of a full city block. It’s adjacent to the Old Port, walkable from Congress Street and the tony West End; it’s right across the street from the civic center.

Someone clearly made the owner an offer (based on potential/developed real estate value) he couldn’t refuse… Decision-making is rarely so simple as that, of course. See a sensible rundown of the factors contributing to the phenomenon here… It’s not capitalism run amok — just more evidence (as if we needed any) that its churn never rests.

Still, I’m conflicted by all this because while I’ve always loved Silly’s, one of Portland’s great draws — to me, as a 50something residing half an hour north, in New Gloucester — is the fact that when Sharon and I want to dine out, there is ALWAYS some hot new Portland restaurant we’ve been meaning to try. Folks tend to blame hipsters for the Seattlezation of Portland, but we and our middle-aged comrades are part of the problem.

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Kiltie-Aversion & Conformity — from the Man Whom Clothes Never Made

My 40something dad, his kilties well and truly shorn, in the early 1980s

[Ed. I try to write about my father each August, the month wherein he left this mortal coil, all too soon, back in 2011. For additional essays in this memorial series, visit www.halphillips.net and search “dad” or  “Harold Gardner Phillips”.]

My father abided by few fashion trends and set even fewer, though here I’ll claim on his behalf one initiative to which he proved an early and canny adopter: He hated kilties. His aversion to those oddly fringed, seemingly vestigial, lace-obscuring flaps that for decades adorned all manner of golf shoes would prove well ahead of his time.

I was reminded of this rare fashion-forward response when my 20-something nephew visited at Christmas. Nathan graduated from college a few years back with a degree in fire-suppression engineering; the job he obtained in this field quickly bored him (what’s more, living in suburban D.C. was rapidly depleting his life force). So today he’s out West fighting forest fires with a crew of badass, axe-wielding Latinos. In any case, he arrived in Maine for the holidays wearing a pair of high-laced, black-leather firefighting boots that, to my surprise, featured small kilties down by their steel-tipped toes. If Dr. Martens made golf shoes, this is what they’d look like.

My nephew’s firefighting boots, complete with kilties

What’s with the kilties? I inquired.

“Is that what they’re called?” Nathan replied, before explaining that when one is tramping about the forest floor, these fringed swatches of leather prevent sticks, leaves, pine needles, mud and other bits of underbrush from lodging between one’s tongue and bootlaces.

In the mid-1970s, when I was first introduced to kilties (and to golf, for that matter), this description of their historical utility was never advanced, not to me anyway. I knew my dad didn’t care for them. Beyond that, they were more or less understood to be yet another whimsical affectation specific to golfing attire, along with Sansabelt slacks (from the French apparently: sans belt, get it?), bucket hats and peds.

As it happened, my dad and his cohort of 40-somethings spent much of the ‘70s dispatching with all manner of societal expectations. This helps explain why he looked so dimly upon kilties — and why, from my earliest recollection, he would immediately remove them from new golf shoes.

The evolution of golf shoe fashion is not a popular avenue of exploration, though it must said: Any research into the subject inevitably leads one down a rabbit hole of pleasingly arcane information. For example, it’s possible (quite logical to assume even) that kilties predate golf spikes in that evolution. Spikes emerged only in the mid-19th century when Scots started hammering nails through their boot soles in order to gain better purchase on dewy fescues.

Mid-19th century links were hardly the manicured landscapes we know today. At best they were meadows, managed lightly (and largely) by herds of sheep. The centuries prior featured even more rugged/primitive golfing environments. In short, during these early, less formalized days, anything that kept the prominent undergrowth from mucking up your shoes and bootlaces made a world of sense for both golfers and their caddies. So kilties did in fact, at one time (for quite a long time actually), serve a purpose.

Where does the name come from? That’s less clear.

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