The Stolen Featherbowling Portraits of East Detroit

18 Jun

As the city collapsed around them, a small group stayed behind to guard the rarest game in America.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about the wall of featherbowling portraits in Detroit’s east side. They just somehow seem familiar. I once showed some photos of the portraits to a curator friend at a gallery back home. I asked if they were any good. She asked me who the hell painted them. And added, “yes, they’re quite good.”The loose brushwork was clearly influenced by the Dutch Masters. As you scan the entire wall, you see the artist’s style evolve from year to year. Early on, the direct stare out to the viewer, glimmer of light in the eyes of the sitter, is reminiscent of Rembrandt. Then, Frans Hals. By the time the artist gets to Steve Gosskie, the lines are warmer, there’s a pastel color palate more evocative of van Gogh. My friend suggested that the loose, open and expressive lines also denoted a sense of urgency. “Almost sketch like. Your artist is trying to capture a likeness in a short time, perhaps?”

Indeed, it turned out there was very little time. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to explain exactly how this all fits together. The artist. The theft. The unlikely grand champion. The way small diaspora communities graft things from far away onto the most unlikely places, nurturing them until they grow into a twisted, stronger, somehow more authentic version of what once existed in the Old World. As Rembrandt put it: Die meeste ende di naetuereelste beweechgelickheijt. [1]

This story has it all.

Featherbowling was born from that medieval family of games that endure, in no small part, because they can be played with a beverage in the shooter’s free hand. It’s Belgian shuffleboard. It’s horseshoes with a pigeon feather instead of an iron stake. It’s bocce, except you roll disks that have been weighted to roll unevenly across the earth, exposing the shooter’s secret divine grace for all to see. It’s pétanque, kubb, mölkky, curling, Cherokee marbles, Irish road bowls—the variations are endless—but none has the otherworldly mystery of this thing they’ve come to play on the east side of Detroit.

That 60-foot downhill triple breaker Tiger Woods nailed on the 17th hole at T.P.C. Sawgrass, which sucks every last atom of karma out of the air around it—that’s every sixth shot in feather bowling. You shout op de pluim when your ball snakes through the gauntlet of other fallen wheels, wobbling like a wounded buffalo nickel, before settling on the feather.

The perfection of the game is in the imperfection of the featherbowler’s trenches. For decades it was thought that only the old Belgians could read these imperfections. Not just any old Belgian. Only those from a small region in West Flanders, once part of the Netherlands. (When a tiny brewery in this region moves to a bigger location to keep up with the global demand for their strange sour beers, they move the dusty walls with them, for fear they’ll lose the yeast that developed in the air over time and hangs in the cobwebs.) It was as if those Flemish men—never entirely Dutch, never entirely Belgian—had been born, like swamp monsters, from the trenches on Cadieux Road. A grand champion needed this blood. And for generations, there seemed to be an invisible asterisk beside anyone who won the title that wasn’t from that direct line. And then the most inexplicable thing to ever happen to featherbowling in America happened: Steve Gosskie.

Read the story in ESPN The Magazine.

Related: Eat. Sleep. Walk. Smile. Die.

[1] The greatest and most natural movement has been expressed.

Where Goaltending Stereotypes Come From

21 Feb

The internet may brim with iconic images of goalies, but nothing gets to the soul of it like Ralph Morse’s photo of Terry Sawchuk in LIFE magazine.

Ralph Morse's photo of Terry Sawchuck for LIFE magazine.

Take a minute to let that image sink in. (It will become hard for you to walk down a dark alley without seeing Sawchuk’s face in the cracked asphalt.) The accompanying text informs readers:

This face belongs to Terry Sawchuk, a 36-year-old goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Re-created here, by a professional make-up artist and a doctor, are some of the more than 400 stitches he has earned during 16 years in the National Hockey League. Sawchuk has sustained other injuries not shown here: a slashed eyeball requiring three stitches, a 70% loss of function in his right arm because 60 bone chips were removed from his elbow, and a permanent “sway-back” caused by continual bent-over posture.

Last year there were only six NHL goalies, but games had to be interrupted so regularly for spot surgical repairs that a new rule was passed requiring every team to carry a spare. The bloody ordeal has bred a special kind of man — half commando and half human pincushion — and it is not surprising he has special problems. Continue reading

You are 18-to-34

28 Jan

They’ve studied you hard. You’re their least understood demographic. You’re young, dumb, full of come. You’re the age group that claims to prefer socialism to capitalism—yet you’re prized above all other ages because they want to “build a lifelong relationship” with you. This logic could only have been invented by a 35-49 year-old.


All those Sunday nights with the Simpsons did not make Fox your lifelong brand—but your gateway to BitTorrent. Sony was your gateway to Apple. Wonderbra to Victoria’s Secret. Jesus Christ is the most perfect incarnation of youth—and so the Catholic Church became your gateway to Xtube.

In more recent studies, they’ve redefined you as “the absence of functional and/or emotional maturity.” Which is an obtuse way of saying you’ll abuse a credit card. They’ve determined that 78% of you are optimistic about your future. You believe in potential as an end in itself. Any brand that seeks to woo you must ask the question: why the fuck not? And never ever deliver the answer. Endlessly sorting through potential partners on Tinder, you dream of being in Vegas like Hunter S. Thompson; Liberia like the Vice impresarios—it all seems totally possible—but at the same time, it’s enough just to know that there are secret worlds and endless possibilities. Hence vampires. Hence meth. Hence mainline Christianity. Your defining moment was September 11—not the Cuban Missile Crisis—the brand of NYC, where anything can happen at any given moment, including jet planes bursting through skyscrapers. You don’t overtly like that shit. But there is potential in that shit too. Because if jumbo jets can fly through skyscrapers, then maybe some guy with a cape can leap frog them in a single bound too. (You love cosplay.)

The thing that’s hard to quantify about you is that while you might consume Vice and appear to seek a seat at the cool kid’s table, what you lust more deeply for is the seat at the adult table. Continue reading

Ghost Towns | DIY Funerals | Murders of Crows

29 Aug

How to bury family in a town that may never have actually existed.


“The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw.”

—Jack Handy

You wake early on a Monday, get into dress clothes, then drive 250 km out of downtown Calgary, southwest to an old mining town at the Alberta/BC border, for the funeral of a cousin you’ve never met. The morning fog drops right down to the road, which twists and rises and dives through the Foothills before exploding into the forest-and-peak splendor of The Crowsnest Pass. A realm in the full-blown Tolkien sense, the Pass swells up into the Rocky Mountains, right down to the Montana border. Within its embrace is the most cursed stretch of towns in Canada. Continue reading

Ethnic Photo Ops: The Pandora’s Box of Conservative Politics

15 Jul

Why should you pay attention to Jason Kenney? For starters, he’s the prohibitive favourite to replace Stephen Harper as Prime Minister of Canada—a possibility that most Canadians don’t seem to grasp. Maybe more significantly, however, he’s the architect of  an “ethnic outreach strategy” that has begun to transform the American Republican Party and social conservative politics across the globe.

Kenney leveraged a minor cabinet position as Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism to change Canadian culture forever. The fact that he is known both affectionately and derisively as “Curry In a Hurry” says everything about Kenney’s brand—and whether or not his ethnic outreach strategy will succeed or destroy parties like his.

Along the way, he mastered political cosplay and the ethnic photo op. The images that follow represent our favourites from Kenney’s tenure. Please submit any of your own, and we’ll keep building this gallery. May Kenney draw inspiration from Vladimir Putin in his new posting as Minister for Employment and Social Development.

Handing out “red pockets” at Pacific Mall in Markham. (RICHARD LAUTENS | TORONTO STAR)

Continue reading

Vacationing at Alberta’s Oil Sands

9 Jul

Forget the Stampede and Niagara Falls. Instead visit Fort McMurray and behold the fulcrum of 21st century Canada.

The trick of Edward Burtynski’s photos is that there is no trick. They’re inherently neutral. He only says: “We all partake of what comes from this place, but we have no idea what it looks like.” It was this fact that excited us. Our trip would not be like The Grand Canyon or Disneyland or a scramble around some ancient ruins. It would be a modern experience to the most relevant place in Canada.

“This was a visionary act. So much so that half the environment needed to be invented.” 
                                          —Jim Harrison, Sundog

When you live in Calgary, you eventually get sick of taking people to Banff. “You could go to the mountains,” we told our friend Pia at the airport, after she arrived from Germany. “But really, it’s just big mounds of rock and wood and hoardes of tourists.” I made an exaggerated yawning sign. Then laid the trap.

“There’s another thing. Imagine Mad Max and a Chevy truck commercial.” I told her to imagine a bad hangover. Cold coffee. Dinosaurs. Optimus Prime. The stage of a Motely Crüe concert. Ozymandias. Dolly Parton. Angkor Wat. The planet Mars. The Moon. Falco lyrics. The planet Pluto (in the winter). “Imagine the world’s biggest trailer park and it costs more to rent a room there than an entire flat in Dusseldorf. That’s where we’re going.” Continue reading

“O Canada” versus B.J. Snowden’s “In Canada”

1 Jul

Long before the most beguiling song on the internet was ripped off by South Park it had begun to creep in as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. WARNING: what you hear below can never be unheard.


When musicologists talk about B.J. Snowden they like to discuss the crowd she’ll draw for shows in New York. Are her fans sincere or do they just show up to gawk? Her devotees range from Jello Biafra to Fred Schneider to WFMU’s Irwin Chusid, who highlights Snowden in his outsider music anthologies—a kind of backhanded celebration of artists with “more sincerity than bona fide talent.” Continue reading