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Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it — never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him at Wes, but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only one I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor — the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building (a few steps from the manhole where we plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps). If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in tin foil.

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The Straight Generational Dope: Strauss, Howe, Draper, Pirsig & my Dad

Harold Gardner Phillips Jr. and Lucy Dickinson Phillips at a Manhattan terrace soirée, circa 1969.

I try to write about my dad each August because it was at the end of that month, six  years ago, that he left this mortal coil, all too soon. For most of his 74 years, my dad recognized himself as a Tweener, someone who didn’t belong to a specific or at least any commonly recognizable generation. For example, Baby Boomers, who comprise the cohort that took shape once World War II ended, when my dad was already 9 years old. The parents of Boomers were, of course, the folks who fought The Big One as young men. So my dad arrived on this mortal coil in between these generations. So did my mother. So did all the parents I knew growing up. Their kids (my cohort) were similarly “tweened” by our Boomer elders — the largest, most consumptive, coddled and self- indulgent generation America has yet produced — and their children, known as Xers. In many ways, these populous and impetuous Boomers overtook my dad’s generation, while his son (i.e., me) has lived all his days in their voracious shadow.

William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of “Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584-2069”, would quibble with “Tweener”. They classify my dad as a member of a distinct cohort, the Silent Generation, or those born 1923 to 1942. These Americans, unlike members of the preceding G.I. Generation (1901-1924), were born too late to participate in WWII. Yet most Silent citizens came into sentience during the war, were hugely affected by it, as children, and developed a lasting respect for the way their  G.I. elders rose to that occasion (and subsequently shaped the post-war world). All this influenced the way my dad, mom and other Silents saw the world, their country, their child-rearing and educational habits, their roles in the public square. Silents were again buffeted by forces outside their own generation when Boomers, the sons and daughters of G.I. folk, overturned then rerouted the culture in the 1960s, by which time my parents were married with three kids.

They didn’t invent it but Strauss and Howe were the first to map this generational theory onto American history. It’s complicated but fascinating stuff (see a more thorough summary of its tenets here). S&H postulate that there are four distinct types of generations — Civic (G.I.s, for example), Adaptive (Silent), Idealist (Boom), Reactive (Thirteenth, my own generation) — that cycle in the same order throughout U.S. History, going back to the Puritans (who, if you think about it, are the offspring of some ongoing English generational cycle). Before reading this book, I’d never encountered history told quite this way. It feels a bit pop-psychological at times but the patterns do fit together with remarkable logic, precision and predictability.

My dad in the mid-1970s.

Though “Generations” was published in the early 1990s, my dad never read it. Didn’t know about it all, though it’s exactly the sort of thing he liked to read the last 20-30 years of his life (then pass to me when he was done). In the six years he’s been gone now, I’ve had the urge to discuss with him hundreds, maybe thousands of things. This seems to me the most striking and unchanging aspect of his death — the fact that I still instinctively think of matters to discuss with him but cannot.

Strauss and Howe struck a chord with me because if there are four distinct generations of Americans alive at any one time (they refer to these groupings as “constellations”), then my longtime complaints about being sandwiched between Boomers and their children in Generation X are not outlying but grounded in a kind of understandable framework. What’s more, this sandwiching has been going on forever. My mom and dad dealt with a variation on this theme: They led their Adaptive/Silent lives between one highly successful Civic generation (which won us the biggest war ever and presided over the largest economic expansion in the history of mankind) and their Idealist kids, the Boomers.

This dynamic has not changed the way I think of Boomers, ultimately a feckless lot of shallow, navel-gazing spiritualists. But it did change the way I think of modern U.S. history, my dad and the 1970s.

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Furniture Displacement Theory Spares Nothing, No One

The phone booth in question, which came from Boston’s Hampshire House — the restaurant above the Bull & Finch, the ‘Cheers’ bar of television fame.

Ed. — From 2000-2003, I wrote an op-ed column for the Portland Press-Herald, having been invited to do so by then editorial page editor John Porter. He had lined up 4-5 different people of distinctly different ages to reflect on their respective existences at these varied life stages. In fact, the regular op-ed feature was called “Stages”.  I was the ‘30something with kids’ columnist. As I’m now a 50something and my kids — the frequent subject of these columns — are off to college, I figured they’d make for some fun, retrospective fodder here at halphillips.net.

By Hal Phillips

First the good news: We’ve come into a lovely piano, a black upright that has been in my family since it was first purchased, new, in 1878. I frankly couldn’t believe my mother was prepared to part with such a hallowed thing, but why question serendipity?

It wasn’t completely random, this bequest. Periodically I’ll see something in my parents’ house, the place I grew up, and I’ll say matter-of-factly, “Will that to me, would you please?” With a sister and brother who share my basic tastes (they are, after all, frighteningly similar to me genetically and experientially) one can’t be too careful.

Anyway, I requested the Steinway at a later date and I’ll be damned if she didn’t offer it up forthwith!

As for the bad news, well, it’s become a running joke in my house… Basically, the place is only so big. As my wife and I get older and come into more compelling stuff, like pianos we don’t have to pay for, other things have to go. Invariably, what goes are my possessions — that is, those things I brought to the marriage seven years ago.

The dynamic is bittersweet: First, there’s the sanguine feeling of having acquired something really cool; then the downer — the realization that yet another of my things will soon be politely but ever so systematically removed from the mix.

Like I said, it’s become a comic, ritual dance between my wife and me. She’ll rearrange the living room and I’ll notice another of my things has been set to one side. “Where’s that gonna go?” I’ll ask, assuming my naïve role in the drama.

Her role? A pregnant pause followed by a sweet smile.

I know well this coy pause. It’s my cue to say, “You know, I bet that would look good in the barn.”

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Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways
The 11th at Royal St. David's (photo courtesy of Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways

Royal St. David’s Golf Club and its singular Welsh backdrop, Harlech Castle

 

The British Open is nearly underway, and naturally there are myriad reasons to visit the U.K. with your golf clubs and, well, none of them have much to do with the British Open or any of the courses that host the Open Championship. Look at Wales, which is right next door to Birkdale (to all of England, to be honest) and the Open has never been held there. Yet the golf up and down the northwestern Welsh coast is outstanding. What’s more, when you venture into this section of the British Isles, you enter a region so remote, so removed from modern resort and tournament conventions, that a golf journey there feels almost, well… Arthurian.

Indeed, a hefty chunk of the King Arthur legend is Welsh, drawn from early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin that are, like the Welsh language itself, pre-Christian. The Druids, the priestly class of the class, considered the Welsh island of Anglesey sacred, and this ancient, mystical feeling still pervades the country’s dark hollows, its untamed coastline, even its trees (The Celts thought them sacred, you know).

Here’s an example of how this world and the modern golfing world can interact:

About 15 years ago my girlfriend, Sharon, who would later become my wife, and I went to visit friends in Market Drayton, Shropshire, just over the Welsh border, in England, and not far from Birmingham. In fact, I was there on assignment, writing a travel piece re. where to play in the Midlands while attending the 1995 Ryder Cup (and we can see what sort of promotional effect that story had; when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Edgbaston, Beau Desert or Hawkstone Park?).

Anyway, we decided to head west a couple hours, over the Welsh border to seaside Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s Golf Club. I had written a letter to the club secretary requesting the courtesy of the club (remember letters?), and he had kindly obliged. Still, we arrived in coat and tie, ready for an audience and perhaps a drink in the bar before teeing off.

Now, Sharon was a pretty rank novice at this stage. She had her own clubs and arrived at the club looking pretty darned smart in a turtleneck and one of my vintage sport jackets with the sleeves rolled up (remember the ‘90s?). Still, the club secretary was dubious. I don’t know whether he suspected her inexperience (none of us had handicap cards), or he was merely a mild sexist when it came to sheilas playing the course. Whatever the case, he followed us to the first tee to witness our inaugural drives. I’m not sure who was made more nervous by this, Sharon or myself, but she drilled one right down the middle about 230 yards and off we went. Come to think of it, that may have been the day I decided she was the one…

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Published Letters and Iberian Slang

A bit of housecleaning here at halphillips.net: First, I coined a useful, new word a while back. See below and feel free to deploy as part of your common parlance going forward:

Smoor n. archaic, 13th century Iberian slang for a mixed-race resident of Andalusia during the Muslim occupation of what is now modern Spain; one of mixed parentage with chocolate-, graham cracker-, or, less frequently, golden marshmallow-colored skin; one who stands to be roasted over an open fire for this crime of miscegenation.

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Next, I had a couple letters to the editor printed this spring in the Portland Press-Herald, not technically my “local” paper (those have folded) but published only 20 miles south and still the largest daily in Maine. See below, and if you want to check out the comments, visit here (you’ll find a pretty typical right-left troll exchange therein).

To the editor:

In this day and age of reckless, willfully obtuse, anti-government bloviation, it’s important to be clear about how/why government functions as it does, why it’s rarely “perfect”, but why it is nevertheless worth defending and maintaining. Today’s case in point: Kevin Miller’s April 25 story re. L.D. 1379, which would allow the Dept. of Marine Resources to more actively police (via GPS) disputed fishing boundaries. I’m no lobsterman. I’ve no dog in this fight. But here we clearly have an industry that cannot or will not police itself in civil fashion. All parties agree that escalation, even violence will ensue if nothing is done. Like so many prickly deals in a country of 330 million people, responsibility for any potential solution falls to government.

This scenario is typical. Government action is by nature reactive. It works slowly. It can be unwieldy. But when there’s a problem — when human nature and/or the “unerring” profit motive fail to address (or utterly pervert) that problem — it is the authority of last resort. That’s the story with L.D. 1379, and it’s the story behind 90 percent of the regulatory measures on the books today. Right-wingers are convinced that bureaucrats sit in rooms all day wondering how they can extend their unelected influence over this business sector or that public domain. That’s just not how it works. Observe the gestation of L.D. 1379. That’s how it works.

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Frank Rodway, MTM & TBR: RIP

When I moved to Portland, Maine, in 1992, abandoning Greater Boston for what I then considered the ends of the Earth, I lived at the expense of my new employer for those first 2-3 weeks in the city’s lovely West End. It reminded me of the Back Bay and my temporary residence, the modern art-strewn Pomegranate Inn, was so cool — and my apartment over the garage so spacious and funky — I’d have just as soon stayed there forever.

I met Frank Rodway because eventually I had to find my own place. At that time, Frank was owner and proprietor of Thomas Brackett Reed House, a 19th century brownstone once inhabited by and now named for the Maine Congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the turn of the 20th century, when America was slowly transitioning from insular, adolescent republic to imperialist bestrider of worlds. Frank was then a small, trim, 60-something fellow with a fit, vaguely military bearing. Before he even walked me upstairs to the third-floor apartment then available for rent, I mentioned my two cats, Scott and Zelda. “Oh, well, we don’t take pets here,” he said. Frank showed me the place anyway, which gave me the chance to pursue an historical charm offensive. The space was great — 13-foot pressed-tin ceilings; windows stretching from the floor to somewhere above my head; $525/month, heated! What’s more, I had just finished The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial history of Thomas Brackett Reed’s very heyday. We mixed it up, Frank and I, trading Mark Hanna anecdotes, book citations and recommendations. Half an hour later as he and I were walking back downstairs, I said it was too bad about the cats. “Oh, don’t worry about them,” he said.

Frank Rodway passed away this past January at the ripe old age of 91, the result of a fall on icy pavement as opposed to simple old age. I was among five former residents of Thomas Brackett Reed House who showed up to his memorial service in South Portland. TBR House was a different sort of rental property: An historic landmark, for starters, watched over by a guy, Mr. Rodway, who knew that history but also how to engender esprit de corps. This quite elegant building had a guest apartment on the first floor that tenants could rent for $25 a night. I routinely stashed my parents and visiting Greater Bostonians there. Every Christmas, that guest room and the entire first floor played host to Frank’s holiday party, a shindig that routinely proved the event of the season, as current and former residents alike renewed old acquaintances and partook of Frank’s legendarily strong and plentiful punch. I should never have known Steve Weatherhead and his lovely wife Annetta; they departed TBR just before I arrived. But I met them at these Christmas parties, along with longtime golfing buddy Michael Moore. At Frank’s funeral service, Steve recalled these parties among other things, but not before answering the question that opened his remarks: “I mean, who goes to their former landlord’s funeral?” Well, if it’s Frank Rodway, you go. He was one of a kind, as this obit (clearly written by the man himself) attests.

Another former TBR denizen in attendance this past January was one Mary Fowler, my upstairs neighbor and probably the first real friend I made in Maine. She remains one, but I thought of her again, in the immediate aftermath Frank’s memorial, when Mary Tyler Moore passed away.

Mary Fowler and I had a running joke, each of us claiming to be the Mary to the other’s Rhoda. “Hal,” she would start in, with not inconsiderable finality, “Rhoda was the loud Jew and Mary was the tactful WASP. And my name is Mary. Clearly, I am Mary and you are Rhoda in this relationship.”

“But May-uh,” I’d say in my best Brooklyn accent, “while all that is true, you live upstairs in the apartment crowded by charming eaves, while I reside in the open and airy apartment downstairs. Cultural heritage has nothing to do with it. It’s all about upstairs and downstairs. All the action takes place here, in my apartment. There are no eaves here. These are 13-foot, pressed tin ceilings. It’s all about the eaves!”

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Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I daresay, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so.

Top players from the U.K. (and mainland Europe) routinely travel stateside hone their games at American colleges and universities. Indeed, many of these men, women and their games will be on display later this month (May 19-31) at Rich Harvest GC, site of the 2017 NCAA Championships. But why do they make this trip in such appreciable numbers?

Because collegiate golf in the U.K. — like all college sports there — is decidedly low-key, even compared to the low-stakes Division III golf I played at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., during the early 1980s.

Yet, for my money, one can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yes, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust, whose ethos dominated my university golfing experience abroad. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched between them. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look and feel more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.

At mighty Wesleyan, a perennial golfing doormat, the exercise we underwent during the ‘80s remains recognizable: Throw on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt; pile into a van and meet a different college team, or two, at the course venue; play 18 holes of medal (maybe match play, on that very rare occasion); shake hands, tally up the scores, pile back into the van and drive home to campus. Big-time Division I golf schools don’t play many dual or tri-matches like these any more, I understand. More often they play various invitational tournaments whereby dozens of schools show up in one place, seven guys from each team play medal, and the best 5 scores count. We did this, too, though only once or twice a season.

Collegiate golf in England during the mid-1980s, when I played for the University of London, was nothing like this. Nothing. For starters, and perhaps most important, we rarely played other schools. Instead, university teams were hosted by golf clubs themselves, which trotted out their best players for a day of intergenerational match play and assorted reverie. Here’s a typical match-day regimen:

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Great Moments in Towing: The Switch

My dad’s 1986 Honda Accord LXi, in the metallic shade known as “Misty Beige”

My older sister Janet bugged out of Greater Boston almost immediately upon her graduation from college, decamping for Greater Baltimore where she resides to this day. I was only a year out of school myself when a college housemate, John Sledge, resolved to wed the former Isabella Penna somewhere between Baltimore and our nation’s capital. ‘Twas an excellent connubial blow-out, as I recall, and naturally — being young and poor — I stayed with my sister for the weekend. One night she, some fellow Weskids and myself went out to the Fell’s Point warehouse district of Baltimore to see a Boston-based band we all loved, the one and only Dumptruck.

We were all too skint to have even considered flying the 800-odd miles to Baldimer, so for this junket I borrowed my dad’s newish Honda Accord to make the journey; surely it was more reliable than the shit-box ‘82 Accord I was driving at the time. In any case, my dad’s 4-door sedan was a sort of metallic taupe color, and I parked it on the street that night a block and a half from the club (the name of which escapes me). I don’t remember having parked illegally, or even on the edge of legality — though I pushed the envelope so frequently back then, it’s hard to rule it out.

I’ve mentioned this before in the course of my Great Moments in Towing series (see earlier entries here and here), but it bears repeating: This was 1987, an era well before the computerization of parking records. Accordingly, when one traveled out of state, there was little to no fear of some Baltimore parking cop running a search on my plates and discovering my laundry list of Boston-area parking violations, dozens of which surely languished in multiple file cabinets, unpaid, at the time. These were far more innocent times, in so many ways, and they frankly emboldened one to park, out of state, with an even greater degree of impunity.

In any case, after a predictably kickin’ show (search this site for Dumptruck to find additional, more in-depth references to this seminal, alt-country forebear), we all stumbled out of the club in the direction of my dad’s car. When we turned the corner, there was the tow dude, latching his mighty hook to the front undercarriage of a newish, metallic taupe-colored 1986 Honda Accord.

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A Post-Easter Meditation: Whither the Jellybean

When I was kid in the 1970s, jellybeans were a particular obsession and while the big, commercial confection purveyors didn’t pay this segment a whole lot of attention back then, neither was it hard to find them, all year long.

Today candy marketers treat them as a seasonal item, available in bounty only the 6 weeks ahead of Easter. This surely troubles my fellow jellybean aficionados, yet when they do arrive in stores, sometime in February or early March, they come in an ever expanding range of flavors, many inspired by tried-and-true candy genres never before associated with the jelly bean.

Easter 2017 seems as good a time as any to parse the jellybean’s curious evolution of variety and accessibility. Like so many things (a handful of jelly beans in particular), it’s something of a mixed bag.

My mother and maternal grandfather were both jellybean enthusiasts and to the extent the choices allowed it, connoisseurs. I embraced this legacy from a young age and took it to a new level. Read More

Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

351 image

Let’s just take the gloves off and hash this out — right here, right now, for the greater basketball good.

The current NCAA tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — is the worst sort of folly, both competitively arbitrary and financially capricious. From the moment the initial “play-in” gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope proved slippery. At first, just two small-conference champions played off for the right to get boned, on 48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. The 8-team, 4-game play-in we’ve endured since 2011 is merely that much more arbitrary and capricious.

I wish I could tell you this “expansion” of the tournament was done in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But honestly, “arbitrary and capricious” is more accurate, for this peculiar tack was undertaken in service of the entirely arbitrary and capricious need to preserve NCAA tourney revenue and exposure for a dozen or so would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans, each year, at the expense small-conference champions. In other words, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion is obliged to play-in against the winner of the Summit Conference, because if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some 5th or 6th place team from the Big Ten.

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