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What Made Grandma Grandma? ‘Kantika’ Deploys Clever, Analytic Tool: Fiction

Book Review

There is historical fiction. There are the literary cousins of memoir and family history. Then there is the canny, lyric hybrid Elizabeth Graver deploys in Kantika, the 2023 novel that tracks her own family’s 20th-century journey from Constantinople to America, by way of Barcelona and Havana. Don’t worry: Ellis Island and its many overworked tropes do not figure here. Those are generally reserved for Eastern Europeans and Ashkenazi Jews. Graver’s people are the decidedly Mediterranean, metropolitan and mercantile Sephardic Jews, first invited to the Ottoman capital by Sultan Bayezid II, in 1492, following the Christian Reconquista of Spain.

Four centuries on, the author introduces her great grandfather, the cultured, haute bourgeoisie owner of a textile concern, until he isn’t. After retooling his factory during The Great War, to produce military uniforms, the new Turkish government absconds with it. Or so Alberto Cohen tells his wife and children. Did Ataturk really take their livelihoods and social standing by eminent domain? Or did this charming-but-passive sensualist fritter or perhaps gamble it away instead? Such questions are rarely meted out for certain, not in real life, not within families, certainly not looking back across generations. Graver is unflinching in her fleshing and framing of such consequential gossip, yet the novelist can also absolve or blame or leave ambiguous all the saucy or ambivalent bits, pretty much at her whim. To the narrative’s great benefit.

And so Rebecca — our protagonist, the author’s maternal grandmother — decamps with her penniless relations for Barcelona, just as she comes of age. There she marries a largely absent dullard because four centuries on, in what would shortly become Franco’s Spain, Sephardic men are hard to find. She builds a business and bears two children, only to be widowed at 30. Her older sister, already emigrated to the U.S., makes her a speculative, trans-Atlantic match with another widower, Sam Levy, whom Rebecca meets in Havana. As a test. Twenty-four lusty hours later, they are married and aboard a boat bound for New York City.

Stories of American immigration tend to concentrate less on the old country, the conditions that obliged one to light out for the territory in the first place. I am grateful that more than half of Kantika is set abroad. Not everyone in a family might choose to emigrate, or is allowed to. Rebecca waits two years for her boys to join her in America, for example; her aged parents expire before their papers & passages are secured. What’s more, the ones who do manage to leave tend to self-select according to their strength of self, adventure and determination. To some extent, these metrics account for the can-do immigrant spirit that has, in large part, made the U.S. what it is. After the same fashion, it enabled and informed the distinct culture of the American West. In short, the sad sacks tend to stay home. The same goes for those immigrants who get dragged to a new world and never leave the old neighborhood. (In Greater Boston, where I grew up, they have a name for those folks: The Lace-Curtain Irish.)

There are plenty of sad sacks in the Cohen family, in any family, and this story does not ignore or pigeon-hole them. But Rebecca is determinedly bound not necessarily for bigger things but the next thing, all the while singing and cajoling, striving and faltering, dusting herself off and risking it all again. America and its celebrated dreams do not magically lift her blended family out of working-class hardship. In several not-insignificant respects, she was sold a bill of goods (by her sister!). Yet Graver still depicts Depression-era Queens and this new, extended family with a clear-eyed, richly detailed generosity, which feels deserved.

The Cohens and Levys will never be confused with the high society Sephardim of Steven Birmingham’s esteemed 1971 history, The Grandees. But neither did he create characters as earthy and captivating as Rebecca. Working in non-fiction, he didn’t create them at all. The humans who populate Kantika, while technically the fabrications of a novelist, nevertheless feel markedly genuine — because, in these pages, the reader recognizes them as actual historical figures, relatives and literary characters all at once. This genre Graver cleverly contrives here: It can’t be her own invention, can it? Either way, her sketches of fin de siècle life by the Bosphorus, the portraits of her great grandparents in particular, and the language of those newly arrived in Barcelona, then the boroughs of Gotham, all ring very true. As do the black & white photographs that headline the chapters. I took the time to study each one, delighting in my recognition of these blood relations we’ve come to know via the unfolding drama. These components and others all deliver such splendid narrative impact because, it seems to me, they strike the reader as more authentic and intimate than mere details in a work of fiction, while never succumbing to the gloss of memoir or family history. Because the author is clearly moved by the epic sweep of this tale, so are we.

The word “kantika” means “song” in the old Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino, the accent of which Rebecca never shakes. One imagines that Graver herself — a Boston College professor whose 2013 novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the National Book Award — was enthralled by her grandmother growing up. And perhaps a bit intimidated by such a robust, borderline domineering, still-rather-foreign figure. Graver and I attended Wesleyan University together in the mid-1980s; we didn’t really know each other, but we did share several English classes. Perhaps the cynical, white-bread nature of the New England small college initially led her to dismiss as mere mythos her grandmother’s literary potential. Credit the free-thinking Jesuits in Chestnut Hill and maybe a tenure track for leading her back to subject matter, a legit heroine’s journey, that was there all along.

The NBA Didn’t Require Ernie D. Dave Gavitt and The Big East? Oh yes.

It’s never too late to mark and quantify the impact of Ernie DiGregorio. Not in New England. Not when the subject is college basketball. Yet here’s the immediate news peg, the reason to contemplate Ernie D and his attendant rabbit hole early in 2024: It was 50 years ago this week that DiGregorio set the NBA rookie record for assists in a game: 25, for the old Buffalo Braves, during a 120-119 win over the hapless Trailblazers, in Portland, on New Year’s Day 1974.

This particular moment in NBA history, in and of itself, packs enough meaningful hoops serendipity to justify an entire 30 for 30 documentary:
• Ernie D led the Association in assists that 1973-74 season, his first. He led the league in free throw percentage, too.
• The Trailblazers were indeed terrible enough to earn the no. 1 pick in the June 1974 draft. They took a guy named Bill Walton.
• The Braves coach that record-setting January night? Dr. Jack Ramsey, who left for Portland the summer of 1976, whereupon he and Walton immediately led the Blazers to their only NBA championship.
• After acquiring Nate Archibald in September 1977, Buffalo let DiGregorio go — to the Lakers, who waived him halfway through the season. Boston signed him but didn’t offer a new deal. Just like that, Ernie D’s NBA run was over.
• That same summer, Buffalo owner John Y. Brown Jr. swapped franchises with Celtics owner Irv Levin, who promptly moved the Braves to San Diego.
• A year later, the newly christened Clippers signed Walton, meaning Ernie D missed playing with The Big Redhead by only a couple Degrees of NBA Separation.

Consensus NCAA Player of the Year in 1973, at Providence College. NBA Rookie of the Year in 1974. Out of the league by the summer of 1978.

Today, that sounds like an epic tale of crash and burn. Yet the mid-1970s did represent the most turbulent period in NBA history. The league had battled the ABA for talent and eyeballs the previous 10 years, before absorbing its competitor prior to the 1976-77 season. Free agency was instituted at roughly the same time. Many on-court careers were cut short or otherwise doomed by the ensuing roster consolidations, by franchise-swapping owners, by drugs, by a decidedly incoherent league promotional strategy. In the pre-cable age, television networks weren’t at all convinced the NBA would ever prove marketable as a major sporting enterprise. One reason why: The newly merged league was far more Black (the pre-merger NBA was so lily white, there was meaningful playing time for not one but two Van Arsdales!). Would middle America ever watch something so “urban”? Ultimately, yes; it would. But as late as June 1980, two full years after Magic and Larry showed up, CBS was still showing NBA Finals games at 11:30 p.m. EST, on tape delay.

It’s no coincidence that college basketball first planted its own flag during the Seventies, this period of marked NBA chaos/weakness. In this sliver of broadcasting daylight, especially, college hoops created a viable toehold in the culture. And it was the college game where Ernie D would prove a far more influential figure.

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RIP Robbie Robertson, A Man Who Understood Branding a Bit Too Well

[August 12, 2023]

My parents, like so many elder Americans, loved The Band. And so it was no surprise the Aug. 8 passing lead guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson resulted in a widespread outpouring of praise and reflection. Yet very little of The Band’s renown never made obvious sense, including why its reputation has proved so very durable and Robertson himself so controversial.

It doesn’t follow, for example, that the group responsible for founding the Americana movement would feature a lineup that was 80 percent Canadian.

During the late Sixties and Seventies, when the rest of rock and roll grew increasingly psychedelic, star-driven and glam-orous, The Band emerged as a countrified ensemble whose oddly antiquated sound was driven by collaboration and the vocal abilities of not one but three superb lead singers.

Robertson wasn’t even one of these front men. Instead he played lead guitar and wrote songs about rusticated figures from the Civil War era. As he would later explain, The Band got famous by zigging when the rest of the rock world zagged.

When one picks over Robertson’s legacy, these signature zigs — and his role in them — come easily to mind. It was Robertson, along with pal Martin Scorsese, who organized and filmed The Last Waltz, the much-praised concert movie and easily the most effective, brand-building farewell in music history. Robertson went on to make a bunch of movie soundtracks for Scorsese, including one for the 2023 release, Killers of the Flower Moon. The two collaborated again on When We Were Brothers [2019], a classy rockumentary that framed The Band in a gauzy historical context of Robertson’s devising. Note the title tense: Before anyone else did, his former colleagues came to resent Robertson for his canny legacy-building skills.

This is not to underplay the man’s artistic gifts, or The Band’s. When Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, it was rightly billed as a transcendent debut from Bob Dylan’s O.G. electric backing band. Dylan himself contributed to the album — and to The Basement Tapes, recorded around the same time, bootlegged for years, but not formally released until 1975. These two works set The Band’s collaborative reputation in stone. Yet Robertson had started writing/arranging most of the songs on subsequent albums because, to hear him tell it, those three lead singers — pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko — had all started abusing a wide variety of drugs in unsustainable quantities. Eventually all three took issue with Robertson’s claims to sole authorship (to say nothing of the royalty money), right up until the day they all died.

I play in a couple bands that cover several Band standards: The Weight, Makes No Difference, Up On Cripple Creek, Rockin’ Chair… They never fail to elicit from Boomers and Gen X folk visceral, sing-along responses that often veer toward the ecstatic, and/or the weepy. In fact, folks of all ages, including country and bluegrass fans, tend to respond the same way. Their songs come from a curiously nostalgic place, one that Bruce Springsteen has remarked upon: “It’s like you’d never heard them before, and like they’d always been there.”

Robbie Robertson wasn’t solely responsible for this music. Yet, in large part, he did prove responsible for curating, over the course of decades, these ideas and feelings about The Band. He may have understood branding a bit too well, and many longtime fans of The Band reviled him for that, right up till the day Robertson died.

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Play-in, Schmay-in: Just give every D1 team in the nation an NCAA bid

Play-in, Schmay-in: Just give every D1 team in the nation an NCAA bid

351 image

Let’s take the gloves off and settle this, right here/right now, for the greater basketball good: Another bout of March Madness is nearly upon us and the current NCAA men’s basketball tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — begins with the worst sort of capricious, competitively arbitrary folly. From the moment the current play-in gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope got very slippery indeed. At first, just two small-conference champions squared off for the right to get boned, on 36-48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. Let’s skip over mere half measures, or further regression, and proceed straight to the ultimate solution: tournament berths for every last Division 1 program, all 351 of them.

Don’t freak out: Here’s how quickly and seamlessly it would work:

1) The regular season ends when February does. All 351 teams in Division I Men’s College Basketball retire briefly to their ever-more plushly appointed training facilities, where they wait on the tabulation of a final computer ranking — 1 through 351. In essence, the period now devoted to “Championship Week” is given over to a 287-game, three-round, six-day tournament that produces the familiar, final bracket of 64.

2) The opening round — comprising 95 games and held the first Tuesday & Wednesday in March — pits the team seeded 351st against the team seeded 161st. In between,  #162 takes on #350, and so on. You like Cinderella? I’ll give you Cinderella: Imagine the crazy shit that will inevitably stem from a 190-team Round I — contested over two nights, at on-campus venues all across these United States. Elegant in its mayhem, Round I rewards the top 160 with a bye (thus lending meaning to the our otherwise meaningless regular season) and quickly reduces the field to 256, a perfect multiplier of 64.

3) Round II takes place Thursday and Friday, whereupon those 256 remaining teams — the bye teams and the Tuesday/Wednesday winners — contest 128 games and symmetrically reduce the field to 128. Traditionally, the Thursday/Friday segment of NCAA Tournament week delivers 32 games and a dependably crazed bacchanal of buzzer-beaters, nail-biters, upsets and blowouts, all in the space of 36 hours. A universal-bid Thursday/Friday takes that spectacle and quadruples it.

4) The 64 games comprising Round lll, on Saturday and Sunday, would approximate a mere doubling of the traditional Thursday/Friday pandemonium, while neatly and cleanly winnowing the field to the recognizable 64. Sunday night the remaining teams — retaining their original seeds — are assigned opponents and regions in the traditional manner we’ve come to expect.

Rounds I, II and III would essentially form a massive, universal play-in bracket unto itself — producing more money in less time, via a more competitively honest framework than the current play-in scheme combined with the odious, so-called Championship Week. All 287 games are necessarily played on campus, at the higher-seeded school. This mechanism is critical because, in rewarding higher seeds, it assigns another, much needed element of meaning to the college basketball regular season. It also guarantees kick-ass atmosphere and avoids potential scheduling conflicts at neutral sites, while reducing site-rental and travel costs. There is no reseeding between rounds. The bracket holds its shape and schedule all week, meaning teams are locked into either a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule, or a Wednesday/Friday/Sunday schedule.

What’s more, there is no good reason why a 351-team women’s tournament could not, or should not, be administered in exactly the same way, during the exact same time frame.

One of the great attractions of March Madness, perhaps the greatest of all, is the meting out of  champions based purely on game performance. Polls don’t matter. Bowl traditions don’t muck up the works. Ultimately, seeds don’t either. By winning six games in a row, a deserving champion is invariably crowned. The universal-bid system underlines, preserves and enhances this dynamic. As an added bonus, we dispense completely with any and all “bubble” and “snub” talk. Crucially, the regular season is dramatically transformed, for the better, in myriad ways I detail below. The bloated frippery of conference tournaments is eliminated. Bracketology? That irksome construct — and the tiresome, flatulent conjecture that wafts about it — are similarly put out to pasture.

•••

The original play-in scheme, instituted at the turn of the millennium, was shameful enough. The 8-team “First Four” we’ve endured since 2011 has proved that much more arbitrary and capricious. I wish I could tell you these “expansions” of the tournament were first undertaken in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But let’s not kid ourselves: In fact, let’s add a third descriptor, “mendacious,” because this peculiar arrangement was first advanced and expanded entirely in service of annually preserving tourney revenue and exposure for no more than a dozen would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans — at the expense small-conference champions. Today, the Atlantic Sun Conference title-winner is obliged to play-in against its Summit Conference counterpart because, if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some seventh- or eighth-place team from the Big Ten — a conference that will soon have 16 basketball members.

This is shameful. If you think about it, the entire bubble/Bracketology thing — as a media construct — is built around whether and which second-tier, major-conference teams make the tournament, at whose mid-major expense. It defies logic that such expansive hoo-hah fixates on a group of teams ranked 55-75 in the country, teams that will not win the title, almost certainly won’t make the Elite 8, and may not even win a tournament game. Accordingly and appallingly, play-in games have eventuated so these demonstrable haves might make more money — at the direct expense of have-nots. 

But here’s the good news: From the moment this play-in component was introduced, we began the inexorable move  toward the final, most competitive, most equitable, most evolutionarily mature, most lucrative solution: a pair of all-in, 351-team NCAA basketball tournaments. This format is nothing less than our national hoop destiny. It will generate way more money and fan interest. There’s no practical reason why all-in men’s and women’s tournaments cannot run concurrently.

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In Iceland, It Truly Is a Matter of Degree

While rounding a mountainous spit of land north of Husavik, my traveling companions and I reckoned we’d better stop the car and get a picture. We’re honestly not the selfie-taking types, but 66.201 degrees was as far north as any of us had ever traveled before — or were likely to travel again. So we smiled awkwardly, took the picture and pinned the exact spot via the magic of Google Earth.

Technically, Iceland is one of only seven nations whose respective land masses are crossed by the Arctic Circle, a theoretical line of demarcation whose invisible shadow circles the globe at exactly 66.300 degrees north. Yet only two slivers of this country can claim truly Arctic coordinates: Grimsey Island, dead north of our pin, barely visible across 5.9 miles of open ocean; and small portions of the north-jutting spit immediately to our East, along an uninhabited stretch of Route 870 northeast of Blikalon.

Locals here don’t feel cheated by this near miss. At all. Their most chic sportswear company, 66°North, revels in it. Their cold-weather cred is built right into the country’s name. What’s more, no place on this Big Blue Marble of ours — not the arctic bits of Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Canada or the U.S. — can lay claim to such an astonishing landscape and climate. Because this giant hunk of volcanic lava is continually buffeted by the warm-water Gulf Stream, the weather here is pleasantly temperate marine. We spent eight July days in Iceland, and while the temps never crept into the 70s, the winters aren’t nearly so cold as one imagines. The most frigid month is January, which averages -3 degrees Celsius, or 26.6 Fahrenheit.

What does fluctuate wildly is sunlight. The orange orb simply never goes down in July. Come January and February, it never truly comes up, which, according to my new friend Ole, is why half the country decamps for Tenerife or Sarasota each winter. In the interest of self-care. 

It was our second full day in country when Ole and his wife played golf with me at Keilir GC, a pretty awesome, utterly treeless links half laid out on a pleasingly uneven bed of rock-strewn lava. Icelanders all speak excellent English but Ole’s was best, so I got the inside dope from him — not just where to hit the ball, but all manner of Icelandic information, the kind you won’t find in Lonely Planet.

For example, 58-year-old Ole and his wife Trina spend their winters in Florida. Anyone with the means similarly bugs out for all of January and February, lest they misplace the will to live during another season of perpetual darkness. When flying home, the plane often stops in Bangor, Maine to refuel: If the weather is poor upon approaching Reykjavik, Ole explained, there is no nearby place to divert a large plane; it must have enough juice to reach Glasgow, Scotland.

What about the Faroe Islands? I asked him. “Not practical,” Ole said with a shrug. “Landing even a small plane in the Faroes is a reminder of why we have seatbelts.” At which point he put down his $12 Gull beer and violently jerked his torso forward, as if air brakes had just been applied to his barstool, full bore, halfway down the adorable little runway serving Torshavn.

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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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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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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 all winter in the shed until my 5-year-old son and I had fired her up to haul some gravel. Silas adores the John Deere. 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. 

I couldn’t completely rid the house of them, however. Not until I went up the ladder and blocked off the hole and fixed the molding.

Of course, when one takes this step, he can’t be absolutely sure the walls are squirrel-free. Predictably, my first blocking initiative had trapped one inside. So, next day I went back up the ladder, three stories, and unblocked the hole.

Standing on the top rung of this ladder, the hole unplugged, I could hear him coming. I could hear him skittering frantically toward the light, louder and louder as he approached me down the passageway. Then our eyes met. He burst out of the darkness, through the new opening, glanced off my face and fell three stories to the sidewalk! He got right up, like nothing had happened, ran across the street and disappeared into what passes for underbrush on Mechanic Street. 

I estimate this episode took a minimum of 18 months off my life.

We would eventually move to rural New Gloucester where my squirrel problems persist. Perhaps these were the same suckers I had deported from Metropolitan Portland, but soon there were several living in the walls of my barn. I work in my barn. I conduct business there. Have you ever tried to conduct a professional phone conversation when some crazed rodent is eating a hole through your office dry wall, pushing pink insulation ahead of him, out the inevitable hole and onto the floor? Believe me: It’s disconcerting. 

Having exhausted the efficacy of politically correct traps, I moved on to dangerous toxins. This worked for a time, but as my mother-in-law would say, the squirrels were “off their poison” soon enough. They’ve stopped eating it. Instead, they’re back to eating away at my place of employment.

In 1998, as new homeownrs, we sat outside on our stone patio and marveled at a family of flying squirrels as they launched themselves from our roof to the spindly outer branches of a nearby oak. This spring, they were in the wall of my home, sleeping there perhaps, rearing their pups but surely defocating, too. Unlike their grey cousins, these flying squirrels are no bigger than mice and bore holes in my barnboard siding no bigger than a golf ball. I took to affixing Have-a-Heart traps onto the house itself, over these holes — so the little buggers cannot help but leave my family’s place of residence without entering the traps. Worked like a charm. I would cage 3-4 squirrels at a time and summarily drown them in the pool — but not before leaving them up there a couple days, two stories up and caged, as a warning to others.

While I’m now considering the  strategic deployment of coyote urine as a further deterrent, the situation remains fluid.

•••

Long story short, I’ve no ethical hang-ups with having killed off the mouse in my tractor tailpipe, perhaps a family of mice, which had taken up winter residence there. On Brian’s advice, Silas and I ran the engine for 20 minutes or so in an effort to cleanse the steel cylinder of charred rodent. 

Then it happened: A projectile shot out of the tailpipe. Then another. And another. I turned the tractor off and retrieved what were clearly charred acorns! By now, Silas and I were laughing hysterically at the sheer absurdity of the situation. “Well,” I joked, “maybe the mouse was storing food in there for the winter.”

To which Silas responded, “Actually, Dad, I think I saw a squirrel putting acorns in there…”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah. I saw him.”

It’s quite a moment when a father catches his son telling his first real whopper of a lie. Clearly the kid had been messing with my tractor, sticking acorns in the tailpipe — a perfectly normal (if foolish) manifestation of a boy’s natural curiosity. But now he was attempting to pin the act on an innocent, if execrable, member of the animal kingdom. 

“Silas: Tell me the truth now. Did you put those acorns in there?”

“No.”

“C’mon, Silas. I won’t get mad. I promise. But you have to tell me the truth.”

“No. It was a squirrel. I saw him.”

Well, we had planned to do an errand together that day, after filling the potholes. I can’t remember what it was, but it was something Silas really wanted to do. “Silas, let’s go inside. We can’t do our errands if you won’t tell me the truth.” I turned and started walking toward the house. Silas burst into tears about then. Confessed unreservedly. We had a good long hug and laughed some more about the entire ludicrous episode.

Then we went straight inside to call Uncle Brian.  

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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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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