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

Why Wine Reviewers Don’t Score Drunkenness

17 Feb

Sharp salesmen understand that a customer doesn’t buy drills, but holes. And their psyche doesn’t feed on gin, but the emptiness it forgot it had. This is how intoxication works.


You want to review a glass of wine, begin with hue and stench, then the legs, then the tango it performs up and down the tongue, the way it sticks in the throat, at which point—the exact point the show should really begin—the tasting notes invariably end. Gullet to gut, blood, brain, liver, porcelain—when we talk about wine, why are the qualities of its intoxication so rarely referenced?

Is the buzz instantaneous? Supple? Will a third glass make us giddy or violent? Does a glimpse of God await us in the fourth? Professional wine critics never outline the demons that might sneak up on us after the fifth because professional wine critics spit out every sip they taste. 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

File Under The Miscellaneous Toe

23 Dec

In lieu of recent blog posts, here’s a Vine video of our cat Oscar getting ready for Christmas. We promise to do better in 2014.


A Better End to Breaking Bad Would Have Been

29 Sep

Walt staggers into the lab, falling onto the cold cement floor, where he sees Jesse’s last batch of baby blue. He knows this is the greatest batch of meth ever cooked. And as the life drains from his body, he is struck by one last idea. With his final guilty breath, the scientist takes his first hit of the substance that destroyed the world around him.


Michael Ignatieff and the Political Wisdom of Cab Drivers

26 Sep

In his new memoir, the disgraced Liberal leader captures perfectly the preternatural life wisdom that can only be acquired from inside a taxi cab:

As I got into his cab, he pulled his rear-view mirror to get a closer look.

“Are you who I think you are?”

“I am,” I said.

“I voted for you.”

“I’m glad somebody did.”

Then he shrugged and said, “It’s politics.”

It was if he was saying, “Look, this is how the world is. You did not know it before. You know it now.” As we talked, I learned that he was from Lebanon and had been in Canada for 20 years. He combined a cabbie’s shrewd grasp of the democratic politics of his new country and a sardonic memory of the brutal confessional politics of Lebanon. I began to see that “politics” was the word he used for the baffling combination of will and chance that determines the shape of life. The way taxi medallions are awarded in a city, for example, was politics. The way dictators continue to rule poor countries was politics, the way Lebanon was carved up by the civil war was politics and, he was saying, the way well-meaning innocents get beaten was politics. When I paid my fare and left him, I wanted more than anything to write about this politics, this brutal game, this dramatic encounter between fate and will, malignity and nobility that fascinated him as much as it fascinated me.