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Things He Carried: The Peculiar Consumerism of a Mid-Century Man

I try to write about my father, the original Hal Phillips, each August. It was late in that month, back in 2011, that he shuffled off this mortal coil, all too soon. Because this particular August marks the 10th anniversary of his passing, it’s appropriate to tackle a weighty subject: toe and finger nail clippers. 

My dad was never ever without clippers on his person — really good ones, the kind that unfold from a sleek and compact “resting” position in some clever way, because they were engineered in places that value elegant design and function for their own sake. Like Scandinavia. Or Switzerland. What’s more, when I think hard about the various clippers he bought and deployed through the years, I realize my dad had a somewhat strange but highly developed idea of what practical consumer items he was determined never to do without. Or that’s how it seemed to me, at the time, as an 8-year-old rummaging through the various belongings he kept atop and inside the highest drawers of his notably high dresser. 

My dad never did without a leather change purse, either. Not those cheap plastic ones but a lovely little valise-like item the size of a pack of baseball cards. Mind you, I reckon that for 65 of his 74 years on this Earth, spare change had meaning: at tollbooths, during retail transactions, or to mollify his children should they have pined for some worthless doo-dad. In all of those cases, he produced said coinage from this leather, button-clasped casing, wherein he would also keep his clippers, a new iteration of which he would acquire every 3-4 years. 

Let me emphasize again that these were top-of-the-line personal grooming devices, the likes of which one might find in a Brookstone catalog, though I don’t honestly know where he or anyone procures such things, now or then. I have a nail clipper, too, of course. I keep it in my dopp kit. I don’t know where it came from. Despite my father’s example, it has never once occurred to me to carry it around on my person. Just as it has never occurred to me that I might store my loose change in fashionable leather pouch — and I hate loose change in my pockets! 

My dad was an industrial engineer by training, so he frankly got off a little bit on the sophisticated representation of most things: a succession of mechanical pencils, for example, which complemented the 4-color pen he always kept in the breast pocket of his shirt. Like most mid-20th Century men, he wore a watch and never took it off. Ever. He was partial to somewhat bulky Seikos where the stainless steel bands folded over themselves in order to clasp.

He was a cigar smoker for many years, so he always had on his person a cool straight-cutter, which he also kept in the change purse. This indulgence obliged him to have fashion- and otherwise tech-forward lighters: I remember one that operated like a small blow torch. There was another, quite old-fashioned model — partly sheathed in a cool leather casing — that I periodically encountered while poking around in his collection of keepsakes. Today I keep it among the memorabilia and bric-a-brac atop my own dresser. 

This serial geekdom when it came to consumer electronics I also trace back to his professional background. Because he was a serious student of classical music, for example, we would always have the finest stereo — and speakers. Massive ones, from that period during the 1970s when fine speakers had to be outsized. I remember my father making a big fuss over our very first color TV, a Sony that we purchased in time to watch the 1972 Summer Olympics from Munich. He honestly never struck me as the sort of super consumer who had to run out and buy the latest of this or that. Not at all. Nineteen seventy-two seems to me pretty late to the color-TV party. What’s more, I believe we owned that Sony Trinitron for a decade, until I left for college. Thereafter, however, it seemed as though every 4-5 years, he’d eagerly invest in the next level of TV technology. Each of these upgrades was met, by him, with a sort of childlike wonder: “Look at that picture!” he’d say, over and over again, to anyone there to listen. 

I want to be clear: This was not an extravagant man. In fact, he had some real hang-ups about spending money generally. Perhaps that’s why these flights of consumer fancy stood out to me then, and stand out to me still today. My dad was an ardent golfer but played a set of MacGregor MTs from the late 1950s, until such time that I grew into them. Only then did he hand them down to me and go buy a new set for himself. When my dad was first out in the working world, during his mid-20s, he apparently bought for himself a pretty snazzy Triumph TR3, in British racing green. He quickly sold this traditional roadster, however, to help pay for business school. He met my mom during those two years in Cambridge. He had sold the TR3 as an example of “putting away childish things,” or so my mother has told me. What followed was a sober succession of middle-class VWs, Volvos and Honda Accords. I think he felt obliged to balance his naked desire for “stuff” with this more serious, understated image of stolid American masculinity. 

My father was a pretty mediocre photographer but always had a kick-ass camera. There was an Instamatic phase. My mother still has at least one carousel full of those tiny slides to prove it. Thence followed a fancier phase, starting with his Canon AE1, which became available to American consumers in 1976. One time, while rooting about in some closet, I found two of his Polaroid cameras — the early ones, from the 1950s apparently, that expanded in accordion-like fashion from thick-but-streamlined, notebook-sized shells. 

Only as I write this do I recall the mildly awkward moments when I would come to him with a find like this, to ask what it was and how it worked. First he would smile at the sight of this consumer item he’d once enthusiastically acquired but, until that moment, hadn’t seen in years. Then a different sort of emotion would register in his face: “Geez, would you stop rummaging through my stuff?” Invariably, that silent rebuke quickly gave way to his original reaction, followed by some intergenerational Show & Tell.

The Big Chill, Classic Rock and the Boomerfication of America

By the time I headed off to college in August 1982 — which is to say, by the time the lead-edge of Generation X (those born between 1962 and 1980) had finished high school and headed off to college — the classic rock radio format had already begun to dominate the FM dial.

We children of the Seventies, who’d grown up in the Baby Boomer’s undertow, did not recognize in this musical phenomenon any overt Boomer-centrism. Not at first. It took another pop cultural marker to crystalize the audio-generational connection: The Big Chill. This film, released in 1983, had plucked a dozen “classic” Sixties tunes for its destined-for-platinum soundtrack, and an intersectional light flipped on in my head: This is Boomer music! In their plenitude, they have now claimed it as their own. That’s why radio programmers have deployed it as a staple of classic rock formats.

You may have noticed I spend a lot of time working to distinguish my fellow GenXers from our next elders in the culture. This matters, to me, because I’m often mistaken for a Baby Boomer (born between 1943-1961), and I don’t want to be associated with this cohort that has so dominated and distorted the culture, the economy, the political landscape.

Accordingly, I’m extra inclined to notice all the different cultural markers that serve to set us part. “Sesame Street” is one such indicator: Gen X was not insignificantly shaped by this show, while Boomers were too old to partake of this PBS standard when it debuted in 1969. The Big Chill and its soundtrack represent another prominent bellwether. Indeed, Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-winner (Best Picture, 1984) did more than cement a burgeoning radio format: It reinforced ideas Americans already held about ‘60s-era culture and student activism, while cannily updating us on what had happened to all these Boomers since.

This wasn’t the first bit of cinema to attempt this specific retrospection: John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven arguably did it first (1979), and more artfully. But The Big Chill did introduce to a far broader swath of U.S. culture the intense nostalgia Boomers still held for the 1960s — the idealism, the style of communitarianism, the capacities to make change, stop wars and pioneer a youth culture.

More pointedly, the film also posited that adult Boomers were, by the early 1980s, beginning to actively sell out and abandon those ideals, economically and politically.

Having first witnessed this massive generation of Americans transition from activist-idealists to Seventies-era truth-seeking hedonists, I already associated my next elders with self-indulgence — never with any great degree of false virtue, however. Nonetheless, as The Big Chill makes evident, Boomers already recognized this burgeoning hypocrisy in themselves. Eighties America and Reaganism were about making money. Grown-up Boomers wrestled with this market/capitalist ethos for a time: Remember the blowback Kevin Kline’s character gets for owning a business, making friends with cops and selling out to some multi-national? Lovable, non-threatening Kevin Kline!

Eventually, however, Boomers bought into naked capitalism and the politics of self-interest. Big time.

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