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

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A Day in The Respite Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My nephew’s firefighting boots, complete with kilties

What’s with the kilties? I inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When (Cartoon) Art Imitates Live (Action)

I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind, but the classic cartoon Go-Go Gophers is further evidence of a little acknowledged but fascinating trend in 1960s cartooning, whereby animators actively ripped off popular live-action television shows of the time, essentially mining/co-opting them for themes, plots and personalities.

These cartoons were the stuff of my childhood — on Saturday mornings, after school — and I expect much of my cohort will read this and nod knowingly. “Ah yes,” they will ruminate, mindfully stroking their gray beards, “The Flintstones.”

Yes, but it’s bigger than that.

The Flintstones are indeed the best-known example of this dynamic and the first cartoon ever to air on network television in prime time. Launched in 1960, the show was a blatant rip-off of The Honeymooners, then a vivid-but-still-a-mere memory; its 39 episodes had aired from 1955-56 (though star Jackie Gleason would reprise the role and the show intermittently for years). Fred and Wilma Flintstone were clear homages to the lead, live-action roles played by Gleason and Dorothy Meadows. Barney Rubble was even more distinctively based on Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton. I think everyone realized what was going on here, even at the time. It was part of the imprimatur that led to featuring of The Flintstones in prime time, something unprecedented for an animated series at that time and frankly, still today, apart from The Simpsons.

But cartoonists would eventually prove some of the most facile and prolific rip-off artists in 20th century media history. They saw The Flintstones formula working and reprised the process without shame — to a degree we kids didn’t realize at the time and, I’d wager, few appreciate still today.

Exhibit A? The inimitable Go-Go Gophers, an under-appreciated cartoon and one based completely on another live action (and culturally tone-deaf) TV show from that era, F Troop. Indeed, Go-Go Gophers was the cartoon that decades ago tipped me off to and set me thinking on this weighty matter.

As a kid, I thought F Troop was sorta funny. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great theme songs, followed by an uncanny homage to F-Troop’s fertile-if-untoward frontier theme. One wonders today how anyone could see the opportunity for such broad humor in the slow-moving genocide of an indigenous people… (We could include here a sitcom based in a German POW camp, with the Holocaust presumably taking place all around it. When Hogan’s Heroes was airing, perhaps folks were similarly dumbfounded by our bygone acceptability of black minstrel humor, like Amos & Andy, just 30 years prior. Thirty years from now, we may similarly come to grips with other such untoward manifestations of white supremacy and the patriarchy.)

Be all that as it may, the creators of Go-Go Gophers (ad guys from Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, apparently seeking to provide content during which their General Mills client’s cereals could be advertised) and their producers (Total Television then CBS, starting in 1967, as part of the brilliant Underdog Show) devised a cast of characters that does the live-action show one better. The two aboriginal characters (members of the Hakawi Tribe) are straight cribs from the TV show, but you’ll recall the cartoon Colonel inhabits a Teddy Roosevelt milieu, while the Sergeant (played by Forest Tucker on TV) is animatedly morphed into a laconic John Wayne-ish figure.

Larry Storch’s memorable TV character, “Agarn”, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Colonel’s live-action love interest, a sort of Annie Oakley figure clearly inspired by Ellie May from the Beverly Hillbillies. (In the 1960s, when in doubt, no matter how incongruous to the sitcom premise, producers were sure to write into the show some hot young blond. See The Munsters and, for that matter, The Jetsons). Television producers did a lot of shameless things, then and now. They borrowed from any genre or competing show that worked. And so they could hardly complain when cartoon producers did the same.

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So Provincial! Central European Art Claims, on Parade

I can’t remember any trip of mine so richly affected by so many formal art exhibits. In the space of five Central European days in October, my family took in shows featuring Gustav Klimt, Andy Warhol, Alfons Mucha, the Maine-trained Donna Huanca, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Only the Klimt, long a favorite of mine, had been planned. The others we happened upon more or less by chance, as apparently one does in Prague and Budapest. Observations include:

Ethnography Matters: Austrians naturally claim Klimt for their own; he headlined the Secessionist Movement based in his native Vienna, so it’s no surprise his most famous works remain permanently on show at the Belvedere, an 18th century palace built by the Habsburg Prinz Eugen. Sharon and I went there straight from our morning plane, checked our bags in the cloakroom, and gadded about the grounds before meeting our son Silas and his girlfriend Rene, who’d been backpacking about the Continent since Sept. 7. We treated them to lunch then went back across the strasse to see the Klimt, who didn’t disappoint. The Belvedere curators require tourists (and the place was teeming with them) to roam through 2.5 full floors of oversized Romantic Eras shite before getting to the Secession stuff (which included some Munch and Von Gogh I’d never seen). Our hosts knew exactly whom we’d come to see — the entire experience was built around it. There was even a special room where folks could take selfies with an oversized poster version of The Kiss — some 50 feet from the real thing.

We were further struck by the way Slovaks studiously maintain a different sort of claim (but still a legitimate one) on Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, the son of immigrants from Eastern Slovakia (in the various placard lit his mother was repeatedly referred to as Ruthenian, a reference to Greek Orthodox Slavs who live outside the Rus). This show, in Prague, occupied the third floor of GOAP Prague (Gallery of Art Prague). The more intimate, dormered fourth floor concentrated solely on Warhol’s young life and his parents’ early days in Pittsburgh where so many Slovaks and Poles landed (remember the wedding scene from The Deerhunter?). This was wholly appropriate — the attic is where old family stuff is meant to be stashed.

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A Man (in) Full: Headcheese, Jelly Sticks & my Dad’s Food Fetish

So, I try to write each August about my dad, the original Hal Phillips, who passed away seven years ago this month, all too soon. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him in some way, shape or form. Many times, that moment comes when I open the refrigerator door and see my collection of hot sauces.

My dad was an enthusiastic eater and devotee of exotic, spicy and otherwise full-flavored food. Growing up, we used to kid him that he had essentially deadened his taste buds — such was the relish with which he applied not just hot sauce but salt, butter, condiments and dressings of any kind. He took this ribbing as he took most efforts to curb his foundational behaviors — with good-natured indifference — then went ahead and treated his pig knuckle with another dollop of blazing-hot mustard.

My paternal, Jersey-based grandmother was not an enthusiastic or particularly skilled cook (whenever we went to visit, she would serve us the same thing, in great quantities: steak, corn and a black forest cake from Sara Lee). American cuisine in the 1940s and ’50s — in private homes, in restaurants — was pretty bland. My dad’s reaction to this cultural upbringing was to find himself a wife who, among other things, appreciated and was equipped to prepare a wide variety of food.

For her part, my mom, Lucy Dickinson Phillips, was raised on the West Coast, which, because it was still America in the ’40s and ’50s, was similarly staid on the food front. But Californians did have good Mexican, not to mention proper Chinese. What’s more, her mother occasionally cooked things like (gasp!) curry. In this and so many other ways, my mom proved the woman of my dad’s dreams.

Perhaps on account of their relatively white-bread American upbringings, older couples today are often satirized for this single-mindedness. How was your trip to New York? “Oh, we found the most wonderful northern Italian restaurant near Washington Square…” My parents routinely answered travel questions in this fashion; mom still does. As a good cook, she grew annoyed when my dad would salt or spice food before tasting it. But their 50 years together were a more or less uninterrupted, gleeful quest for good eats. As such, it has fallen to their children to react in kind — to try and restore some level of sanity and moderation to the food-intake process.

This remains a work in progress.

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The Profound Limitations of Parental Agency

Long before I had kids, I recall my parents making the case that all of their children had pretty much formed their basic, enduring personalities by the age of two. They said as much more than once, invariably in the act of throwing up their hands in exasperated resignation, for much as they tried to shape their children’s characters further or cajole them into this/that behavior (and trust me: they did this a great deal), fundamental personalities almost always prevailed. On account of this experience, by the time their third kid (my younger brother) had reached high school, my parents had become markedly laissez-faire in dozens of ways that frankly annoyed my older sister and myself. “We never got away with that,” we’d grouse to each other.

Well, as has been the case in myriad respects, my parents were right. My kids are both graduated from college now and while I naturally believe them to be lovely, capable kids in most every way, each of these young adults is each remarkably similar — in terms of sociability, focus, ambition, daring and temperament — to their respective two-year-old selves. Yeah, they’ve grown or excelled or lagged or flagged in these and various other respects. And I don’t believe anyone can or should stop parenting. I don’t think that’s possible. But there seems to me a remarkable, observable consistency of character that is more or less resistant to “parenting”.

I’m always amused when I come across yet another parenting book reviewed in The New Yorker or New York Times. I muse at the publishing industry’s having identified and exploited this incredibly willing (read: anxious) audience. Then I laugh outright, at myself, because I nearly always read them, too (the reviews anyway).

The irony is, as parents we have an agency that simply isn’t so strong as we want to believe. Even if we accept our limited impact, on some level, this desire for agency tends to seep into other areas we believe we can control: etiquette, dress and manners; identification and pursuit of extracurricular “passions”; geography (i.e., buying houses in towns with “good” school systems); self-esteem (i.e. “premier” soccer and other invariably commercial gambits); the entire SAT prep and college admission culture… There’s no harm in trying all this stuff, in doing one’s best. But it’s really a hit or miss affair, I’ve come to believe. Ultimately, 9 times out of 10, it’s down to the kid and his/her fundamental self.

This is not parental fatalism. It is an attempt to recognize (with serenity) the agency one possesses; to accept (without prejudice) those situations that are beyond one’s control; and (in a perfect world) to capably distinguish one from the other. I held onto this quote from Adam Gopnik’s January 2018 review of yet another parenting book, in the NYer:

As satirists have pointed out for millennia, civilized behavior is artificial and ridiculous: It means pretending to be glad to see people you aren’t glad to see, praising parties you wished you hadn’t gone to, thanking friends for presents you wish you hadn’t received. Training kids to feign passion is the art of parenting. The passions they really have belong only to them.

Surely environment matters. Even then, however, it’s not the environment parents provide that seems to matter most — or so writes Judith Rich Harris in the best book I ever did read on this subject, The Nurture Assumption. In short, Harris argues that we assume our kids turn out the way they do according to a pretty even split between nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (environment). “The use of ‘nurture’ as a synonym for ‘environment’,” Harris explains, “is based on the assumption that what influences children’s development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up.”

If this were true, siblings — who are as genetically similar as any humans can be (save identical twins); who are traditionally raised in the same household by the same parents — would all have very similar personalities. Anyone raised in a family of two or more children understands just how ridiculous that idea is.

Ever wondered why the children of recent immigrants don’t speak with accents, even though their heavily accented parents do? Or why the children of deaf/mute parents learn to speak at all? Put simply, Harris argues that a child’s peer group accounts for far more environmental influence in the long run — influence that, since Freud, had traditionally and unduly been attributed to parents. If we’re honest with ourselves, as parents, we’d admit that our children generally do put a lot more stock in the opinions, social mores and examples of their peers. To an extent, parents can help determine or control a child’s peer groups, but those peer groups comprise the environment that matters, and the variability of peer groups helps explain why siblings turn out so very differently.

Children do pick up quite a lot from their parents — most of it genetic. This is the other nurture assumption: that we pick up traits and habits and behaviors by copying our parents. Harris argues, persuasively, that we humans don’t do this nearly so often as is commonly accepted. Most of those things we attribute to parental modeling are in fact inherited from parents genetically, not environmentally.

I’m on board with this idea of behavioral genetics, too. Growing up, there were dozens of things that my mom and dad did that drove me absolutely crazy — and yet today, at 56, I find myself doing many of these same things! I didn’t “model” my behavior on them in these cases. Far from it. Still, I couldn’t resist these behaviors because they are genetically baked right in.

Which brings me back to my brother, and how my sister and I felt he got a sweet deal — coming third and last, by which time, my parents had given in to the power of personality (and behavioral genetics, though they wouldn’t have put it that way). Invariably, she and I would inveigh against this new libertine parental stance of theirs, or make some wise-ass comment in place of outright carping. At which point my mother or father would issue another pearl of wisdom, one we’d heard before, one that has nothing to do with nature or nurture but still rings true: We’ve never tried to treat everyone exactly the same around here. Everyone gets what they need.