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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 the 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 and, crucially, I liked the theme song. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great themes 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 or 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 oldest graduates from college this month and while I naturally believe him to be a lovely, capable kid in most every way (ditto for his younger sister), these young adults are each remarkably similar — in terms of sociability, focus, ambition, daring and temperament — to the two-year-old kids they were. 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 extra-curricular “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 has; 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 (see here the book review that led to my buying/reading the book). 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 that is the environment that matters (and the variability of peer groups helps explain why siblings turn out so very differently).

Of course, 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 53, 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.

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

Larry Sanders: I Never Knew Ye

[Ed. This piece was originally written/posted in 2011. It’s reprinted here to mark Gary Shandling’s recent passing.]

I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month here and there when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we didn’t see as relevant.

However, many is the time I wish I had actually seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.

Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good. I had seen the odd show here and there. But ultimately I had trouble watching them en masse, to be frank. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…

IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy this sea of Larry.

I’ll temper my enthusiasm by saying the first two seasons of Larry Sanders were only slightly better than average — and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from TV cognoscenti. These episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it is I am supposed to care about any of the main characters who are unfailingly funny but shitty.

Well, I can report that in Season 4 the show officially hits its stride. It’s not just easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.

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Forward, March! Dirt Driveway is Lone Beneficiary of Late Spring

As a Masshole, I have not earned (and will never earn) the right to publicly complain about winter weather here in Vacationland, lest I be called out by some actual Mainer as “a flatlander” who doesn’t “know what winter is”. Truth be told (and chastisers be damned), very little distinguishes southern Maine winters from those in Greater Boston. March is the exception. It is traditionally the most difficult month for my flatlander/Michigander wife and me. Down in Boston (and out in Kalamazoo), there might be a late-winter storm or two but signs of spring abound in March: the inevitable melt, up-creeping temperatures, budding trees… Here in New Gloucester, we don’t see those things until April, and with each passing year that proves a harder pill to swallow.

There is one advantage to this annual winter extension, however: The generous slather of ice and snow keeps our 600-yard dirt driveway smooth and comely. Indeed, it never drives so well as during the months of January, February and March. It’s supposed to snow another foot tonight (March 12), meaning we can expect to enjoy burnished, aesthetically pleasing driveway conditions throughout the month. When we thank heaven around here, this is what passes for a small favor.

Reared in the suburbs, I knew nothing of dirt driveways and their upkeep prior to our landing here in the spring of 1998. Like any new homeowner, I learned these ropes on the job.

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Awfully Fond (and Proud): Sesame Street’s Founding Generation

I have a distinct memory (among my very earliest) of my mother describing a new TV show about to debut on PBS. “It’s for kids exactly your age,” she told me, and so it was. Sesame Street first aired in late 1969, when I was 5. In a home where screen time was highly restricted (our Sony Trinitron representing the only screen), Grover, Ernie, Bert, Maria, Mr. Hooper, Kermit, Gordon, Guy Smiley & Co. proved a staple of my early cultural sentience. And it occurred to me recently that without the enthusiastic approval of kids my age — this founding Sesame Street cohort — the show might not have survived or become such a thing. And what a thing: 50 years and counting.

While channel surfing through the upper, premium reaches of my cable guide, I never seem to happen upon Sesame Street. Yes, today the show airs on HBO. You may have read about this arrangement whereby first-run episodes can be found there on Saturday mornings; eventually, they cycle back onto PBS in a post-modern form of syndication. I never see it there either, to be honest (my viewing habits are primarily nocturnal). It made this transition 2 years ago and I gather the show continues to wear extremely well.

Buoyed by the idea that this hugely influential, 50-year old show retains “the brassy splendor of The Bugs Bunny Show and the institutional dignity of a secular Sabbath school,” I’ve been conducting an experiment these last few weeks: I’ve been mentioning Sesame Street to folks generally my age and paying attention to their mood in reaction. If it generally brightens, I know they are fellow members of my cohort… If I make a Cookie Monster or Roosevelt Franklin reference to someone just 4 years older, however, the reactions differ quite markedly. Often they don’t get it, or they will roll their eyes and make it clear they didn’t really watch Sesame Street. This makes sense: When the show debuted, these elder folks (Baby Boomers, primarily) had already aged out.

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