Friday, March 7, 2014
Katja, age 6, with her younger sister
Opera is important to me. It’s a link between my childhood and the present. Opera and the music of opera evoke the feeling parts of my life. I go to all of the operas during Cincinnati’s summer season, subscribe to CCM opera, and never miss going to the Metropolitan Opera when I am in New York. The introduction of the Met in High Def at local cinemas has made weekends something to look forward to. Most of all I love listening to the Met broadcasts on our NPR station, WGUC, on Saturday afternoons. I get in bed, close my eyes, and am transported into a quiet, dark, and lovely place.
When I was 7 or 8 years old I lived with my parents and younger siblings in center city Philadelphia. Once or twice a month my dad would drive me out to Germantown after school on Friday to spend the weekend with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather, Samuel B., owned and operated a small dry cleaning establishment, and he and my grandmother, Dora, lived in back and on top of the shop. My grandparents were immigrants from Russia, and, though my grandfather was an agnostic, they kept faithfully to the rules of Orthodox Judaism in their household. This meant that they could do no work of any sort after sundown on Friday evening, even as small a thing as turning on a light switch or an appliance. On Friday afternoon my grandmother would prepare sandwiches or boiled chicken for Saturday’s lunch. My grandfather would turn on the radio before sundown, tuning it to the classical music station so that it would be available on the Sabbath.
On Saturday morning my grandfather and I would take a walk in the neighborhood. When we returned, lunch was waiting. The Metropolitan Opera broadcast would start at 1 p.m. It was my grandfather who was the opera lover, and often my grandmother would take an afternoon nap. I can remember hearing Carmen, La Traviata, Pagliacci, and La Boheme. It was the first time in my life that I spent time concentrating on listening to something. I didn’t quite know what I was listening to, and sometimes I would get bored. But there was such a feeling of quietness and peace, sitting with my grandfather in big, overstuffed, velvet chairs in the dark. We enjoyed hearing the opera quiz and the questions people wrote in, even though neither of us could ever answer a question. The Sabbath ended at sundown or when the opera went off the air, usually around 5 p.m. My dad came back on Saturday evening or Sunday morning to bring me home.
My parents were opera lovers too. They had a huge collection of 78 r.p.m. records. My parents listened to opera regularly at home, but I didn’t pay nearly as much attention there. Being at home had so many distractions. My mother continually sent in questions to the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, though she never had a question chosen. She was quite upset about that.
I really loved my grandfather. He was a kind and generous man with a good sense of humor and an innate sense of what would endear him to his grandchildren. He was the one who took me to my first movie, “The Dolly Sisters,” and he distributed Hershey Bars to us whenever he came to visit. Most of all, I remember the quiet afternoons with my grandfather where I learned to listen carefully to the wonders of classical opera.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Our side yard
It feels like we’ve been buried under snow and ice for a year or more. Finally Cincinnati got a break in harsh winter temperatures last week, and the polar vortex ice cap melted away, at least for the time being. Our yard is sort of rinky-dink, probably a fiftieth of the size of the river property lawn my siblings and I grew up with. However, thanks to Mother Nature and plantings by our gardener Jean Ann, it's full of interesting patterns and colors. I walk one or the other sheepdog to the front lawn 8 or 9 times a day, and so I have lots of time to contemplate the vegetation. Because seeing something other than a blanket of white has been such a visual treat, I thought I'd pass along a few of the images.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
My siblings Steve, Vicki, and Peter on the frozen Menominee River (circa 1957)
My dad, Vic L., was a talented photographer, and he chronicled our family life from the late 1930’s to the mid-60’s and beyond. Starting in 2001, my brother Peter began creating postcards from Vic’s negatives and mailing them to family members. Peter’s multi-year project, along with images taken from family albums, are the sources of the photos shown here. I’ve been posting these once a week in the righthand column of my blog, but, because those individual items get deleted every week, I’ve been saving batches of them in this series of archives. This is the sixth of the series. The previous five can be accessed by going to the righthand column, scrolling down to “Labels”, and then clicking on “Archives. The photos are nearly all taken at various locations in and about Menominee, Michigan, many at our family home on the Menominee River.
This family Xmas card looks to me like a professional photograph that was probably taken at Conant Studios in Marinette. From the left, my brother Steve, myself, my dad Vic, and my mother Doris. I would guess it’s about 1946 when Steve was 5 and I was 9. Usually Vic did his own Xmas cards, but this seems to be a special edition.
Steve and I are with our mom on Xmas morning after opening presents. Probably 1943 or 1944. Xmas was the most exciting day of the year in our family. Santa brought presents, and so did our parents. We were thrilled to get new toys and games and played with them for days and weeks on end.
Here’s my brother Steve, around age 3, manipulating one of the floodlights that my dad used in his photography. Vic enlisted our participation in his photo projects, most notably by having us help develop pictures in his darkroom space. I’m going to guess that this was taken in our house on Sheridan Road during the war.
This is my parents and myself, probably in 1938 when I was about one year old. It’s nice to see my parents when they were so young Vic would have been 30; Doris, 28. It was the midst of the Great Depression, a hugely difficult time for couples and families, but they look happy nonetheless.
Carnivals and traveling circuses visited Menominee every summer, and they were highlights of the year. The merry-go-round was exciting, if somewhat scary, for little kids, as were the pony rides and, later, the bumper cars. This is me, toughing it out, around 1940.
My dad is reading to me (left) and my brother Steven. Steve joked about this photo, saying that Vic had never read a book to us in our entire childhood, except for the purposes of taking this picture which chronicles an imaginary family scene. That might well be correct. The photo does look quite idyllic, though, and that’s how we like to remember things.
My Mom and I are checking out what’s probably a photo album. More idyllic family life. I look a little younger then than our five-year-old kindergarten grandchildren,V and L, are right now. That’s mysterious.
Here’s my dad and myself, circa 1940. It’s sort of an unnerving image – e.g., two generations facing an uncertain and potentially harrowing future. My dad’s looking quite formal in his suit and tie. It’s a fitting father-son image from the depression/pre-war era.
Here’s my dad at the helm of a sailboat, probably Bob Hood’s, somewhere on Green Bay or Lake Michigan. Menominee, of course, was and is an important Great Lakes port in the U.P., a destination for boaters from Milwaukee and Chicago as well as the home base for local boaters. My parents regularly went on watery expeditions with friends to the Mackinac races, to Door County, and elsewhere.
Family friend Dooley Worth sent this photo to me. It was taken at her parents’ hunting camp at Cedar River. My dad, Vic, is in the middle. I think the man at the left may be Judge William Hupy, a U.P. friend and lawyer colleague. Margaret Worth is at the right. The men are pretty solemn-looking. I think they were having some fun by putting on faces.
This is a view of the Menominee River looking west from our front lawn. The sunsets were often spectacular there. We made swimming rafts out of dried out logs from Pig Island across the river. Then, when we were teens and thanks to the construction skills of my friend Bob A., we started having real rafts made with oil barrels and planks.
This is myself, my brother Peter, and my brother Steven at YMCA camp somewhere near Green Bay, Wisc. I was about 13, Steve 9, Peter 5. My parents sent me off to YMCA camp for two weeks every summer. I hated going, and it put me in a state of deep despair for weeks beforehand. Once I got there, it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared. However, when families came to visit on the middle Sunday, I still prayed they would take me home. But they never did.
This photo was also taken at YMCA camp, probably a year or two before the preceding one. My brother Peter is in the tires, Steve is at the right (with big pants cuffs), and family friend Tom Caley is at the left. I think Steve was the YMCA camper the year that this picture was taken. He was more comfortable about going away to camp than I was, though none of us were thrilled about it.
These are such representative facial expressions from my sister Vicki (left), her chum Kevin (Kiera), and our brother Peter. Peter looks very impish, which in fact he was as a child. I don’t remember the hand puppets, though they look like fun for the young people.
This scene is at my eleventh or twelfth birthday party. Participants from the left are my brother Steven, Frank S., Skipper B., Jim J., Bill C., and Sam W. Birthdays at this age were a mixed blessing, since you got a lot of presents but you also underwent a lot of hazing, e.g., running the gauntlet while others spanked you. I do look happy enough here.
This is my mom and Circuit Court Judge Ernie Brown who lived in Iron Mountain. Peter sent us this photo as a postcard and wrote of Ernie: “He would make me sit on his lap while he sang ‘Bye low my baby.’ He loved me and threatened to kidnap me on every visit which filled me with terror.”
Peter was the sole high school football player in our family. He was on the junior varsity at Menominee High, and he might have progressed to the varsity as well. Steve was a high school basketball player and golfer, I played #2 singles on the tennis team, and Vicki was a junior high cheerleader (cheerleading being the only athletic option available for girls in the early sixties).
The Chicago Northwestern Railroad ran north from Chicago through Marinette and Menominee, and each of the twin cities had its own depot. In the late 1950’s I’d take the C&NW railroad train from Marinette to Chicago and then transfer to another line to Springfield, Ohio, in order to get to college.
Our family’s social circle would enjoy frequent gatherings at people’s houses, cottages, and hunting camps. These are some of the regulars of the group. Standing, from the left, are Jean O’Hara, my brother Steve, Muriel Sawyer, my mom Doris, Bill Caley, and my dad’s law partner, Dick Sawyer. Kneeling from the left are Michael Dennis O’Hara, Mike O’Hara, Florence Caley, and Tom Caley. This was taken in the early 1960’s. Our lives were all so intertwined that a photo like this brings back many memories.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Years ago Katja, our young adult son J, and I were driving from Cincinnati to New York City. Approaching Pittsburgh, we happened upon a radio station that was playing hit songs from 1953. The singers included favorites like Eddie Fisher, Kay Starr, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford, and a host of others. Katja and I started singing along with the tunes. We knew the lyrics to every song that they played. J was astonished. He’d hardly heard of the songs, and he couldn’t believe his parents’ memory powers. Though he listened to lots of contemporary music himself, there were very few songs of his own era that he knew all the words to. Those fifties pop tunes were a lot more singable, often told a story, and had more memorable lyrics than much of the music that came later.
I know more songs by heart from 1953 than any other year. It’s because I was in tenth grade, and that’s when pop music first became an important part of my and my peer group’s lives. We all turned 16 that year, and along with that came driver’s licenses, increased freedom from family, and the start of dating and teenage romance. The girls in our crowd led the way with pop music. At first pop songs sounded sentimental and yucky to the boys, but, as our interest in girls grew, so did our interest in music. We listened to the DJs on our local radio station, WMAM, Marinette and Menominee. It was the only daytime radio station we could get in our Upper Peninsula/Northeastern Wisconsin area, though at night we’d receive more distant broadcasts including WLW from Cincinnati. My friend Bob A. had a car radio in his Model A Ford, and a bunch of guys would cruise the Loop through the twin cities, listening to the hits of the week. The top rated show was “Your Hit Parade” which aired on NBC on Saturday nights. Frank Sinatra and Doris Day had been co-hosts, and regulars included Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, and Gisele MacKenzie. We listened faithfully and rehashed the Hit Parade results with friends on Sunday or Monday.
Pop music was also important because of high school dances. The girls learned to dance first, mastering new steps from a teen magazine. Sally H. had dance parties at her house in which the girls taught the boys how to foxtrot and do the jitterbug. At first the tenth grade boys just stood around at dances in groups by themselves while the girls danced with one another. Eventually we got up our courage and started getting out on the floor.
Patti Page was the top female singer of the day. She had endless hits. I loved “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.” Also “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Cross Over the Bridge,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” and “Let Me Go Lover.” Some of my other 1953 favorites were:
Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes, Perry Como
Till I Waltz Again With You, Teresa Brewer
Oh! My Pa-Pa, Eddie Fisher
Your Cheatin' Heart, Joni James
You, You, You, the Ames Brothers
Three Coins in the Fountain, Frank Sinatra
Vaya Con Dios, Les Paul and Mary Ford
Elvis Presley cut his first recording at Sun Records in August of 1953, and within a couple of years rock and roll had taken over and traditional pop music was on its way out. Patti Page and Frank Sinatra never disappeared though. Nowadays, when I work on the computer, I go to I-Tunes, click on the Radio link, and then go to “Golden Oldies”. Some listeners think that “Golden Oldies” refers to the sixties or the seventies. However, I go straight to one of the 1950’s stations on I-Tunes. That’s where the real Golden Oldies live on.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
I probably had my first academic nightmares in grade school, though I remember them most clearly from college and graduate school. They even persisted for decades after I’d finished school altogether. One of my most common dreams was that I’d registered for a difficult course, but then completely forgotten it and never attended class. Suddenly it was time to take the final exam, and I didn’t know a single thing. When I became a college teacher myself in adulthood, this scary dream morphed into an alternate version. I started dreaming that it was the first day of the semester and that I’d forgotten I’d been assigned to teach a course in a field that I knew absolutely nothing about, e.g., geology. I had to go and face a classroom full of skeptical students and publicly reveal my incompetence.
Katja and I have become students at the university again, but now it’s in what’s billed as an anxiety-free atmosphere. We’re enrolled in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a program which offers 80 plus courses per quarter for people age 50 and over. This term we’ve been going to “Behind the Scenes in the Arts,” “Hebrew Union College: The Pride of Clifton Avenue,” and “Writing Down Your Life Stories,” a class in which members take turns reading a personal story that they’ve written that week. OLLI involves no tests, no grades or quizzes, and usually no homework. Thus, you get all the perks of interesting content and new information, but with few of the pressures of a regular college education.
I thought that OLLI was anxiety-free until I had a brand new academic dream last week. I dreamt I was in an OLLI singing class. I was sitting in the second row, and the teacher asked the woman across the aisle from me to sing the song she’d prepared for this week’s class. The woman proceeded to sing an aria from a famous opera. She had a beautiful voice. I realized that she was enrolled in the class because she was an accomplished singer who loved to sing. In fact, everybody in the class appeared to be a great singer except me. I was taking it because I’m a terrible singer and hoped that I might get just a little bit better.
When the woman finished, everyone clapped, and the teacher asked if I would like to go next. I paused for a moment, then said that I’d like to tell a story first. The teacher looked surprised but said o.k. I said, “When I was in fourth grade my teacher, Miss Hunnefeld, started a glee club at our school. Every week we met after school to practice so we could perform for the Lion’s Club at the end of the year. One day Miss Hunnefeld walked up and down the front row, listening carefully to everyone in the group. She stopped right in front of me and said that I was out of tune. She asked me to sing a line by myself but, even with three or four tries, my voice sounded flat and off key. Miss Hunnefeld said I seemed to be tone deaf. She said I could stay in the Glee Club and be in the Lions’ Club performance, but I had to promise never to sing out loud again. So I went to practice after school for the rest of the spring and mouthed the words as my classmates sang. Every now and then I would sneak in a note out loud, but my singing career had essentially come to an abrupt end.”
That, of course, is a true story. My singing class teacher smiled sympathetically. Then she asked what I was going to sing today. My mind started racing. I couldn’t think of a single song I knew. The teacher handed me her songbook. I scanned the titles, but I’d never heard of any of them. Finally I remembered my favorite song from grade school, so I sang that.
Centa, Sweet Centa
Refuses her polenta
Don’t scold her
Don’t hold her
She’ll eat never a bite today
Gather buds, yellow and red and blue
Twist a knot yellow and blue and red
Patience, lad, cheerily bide your time
Girlish moods are quickly fled
When I got to the end of the song, the teacher gave me a funny look and started to say something. I never found out what she was going to say because that was the moment I woke up. I realized immediately it was all just a dream. What a relief! I wasn’t in a singing class at all – there is no singing class in OLLI. Then I realized that the singing class in my dream was pretty similar to my writing class, since students in that class take turns presenting stories they’ve written to the whole group. I wondered if my dream were really about my writing class. How could that be? It’s true that I’ve suffered some writer’s block recently and have been apprehensive about reading material in class. But it can’t be as bad as having to sing in front of a group. I am objectively horrible at singing, and everyone would agree about that. But I’m certain I can do better as a writer. I guess my unconscious mind doesn’t see any difference though. It’s interesting how our inner insecurities gnaw away at us, whether or not they have any firm grounding in reality. I also decided that my OLLI class must be important to my emotional life since it’s now taken a central place in my rich collection of anxiety dreams.
Friday, February 14, 2014
My friend Linda and coworker K. died from cancer a week ago Thursday at 1:30 a.m. That was a totally sad happening for many people. It was Linda’s 43rd wedding anniversary, and her adult kids had implored her for days to hang on till that special day arrived. It was just like Linda to persist until she reached her goal. She was one of the two administrative staff members in Sociology for many years. I worked with her closely because I was the Director of Undergraduate Studies for much of that time, and Linda did all the undergrad record-keeping and administrative tasks. She went way beyond the call of duty, creating personal files that she used to keep track of every undergrad major’s progress toward graduation. While all of the students are assigned to individual faculty advisors, Linda informally did a vast majority of the undergrad advising in the department – far more than all the faculty combined. The students were much more comfortable with her and stopped into her office whenever they had any questions. Linda occupied the main department office, a hectic location. She was beholden to a dozen faculty members, grad students regularly arrived with this or that request, she answered all the phone calls for the department, and undergrads made her office their first stop. In the face of chaos all around her, Linda maintained a cheery, friendly, and welcoming demeanor. It wasn’t a forced thing – it was her basic nature. She was the central person in making the department a warm and welcoming place to be, and she helped hundreds of students navigate their ways through their college degree. Shortly before she retired last year, I told her that I had more daily contact with her than with anyone else in the department. Linda smiled and modestly admitted that many people had recently told her the same thing. Her positive impact on people and legacy will continue for a long time.
Funerals are powerful occasions. One’s community gathers, and loved ones share their grief. I still remember struggling with the concept of death as a child. It’s horrendous, mind-shattering. If there’s anything permanent and trustworthy in the world, it’s the presence of one’s parents, and the idea that their lives will end is intolerable. Not to mention the notion of one’s own death. I think by adulthood we more or less come to terms with this. However, I think the child’s naïve responses are the most authentic and valid. Death is simply beyond acceptance and beyond comprehension.
My most direct personal experiences with death have been with my parents and my in-laws. My siblings and I were summoned to Menominee in April, 1986, when my mother, Doris L., was hospitalized and judged to have only a few days left. My brother Peter and I were in her room toward the end, and she was in a great deal of pain. She said she wanted to be alone, so we went out into the hall. Then we decided we should be with her since so little time was left, and we came back in. Doris looked up and softly whispered, “I’m grateful.” I think those may have been her last words.
My dad, Vic L., continued to live at their beloved Birch Creek farm for the next five years. Eventually he was unable to sustain that, and he moved to a residential facility in Cincinnati. Toward the end, when his quality of life had sharply deteriorated, he told me not to worry about him. He said he’d had a wonderful life, had been surrounded with magnificent friends, and had enjoyed more rich experiences that anyone could ever hope for. He said he had no regrets whatsoever. I admired the peace and contentment that my dad achieved and think it a rare thing.
My father-in-law, Buck, was in a lot of pain toward the end of his life at age 88, and he was cantankerous throughout the process. He was angry with the hospital, the doctors, and the technology; irritated by family members; and generally upset about his dire circumstances. Knowing that he was going to die, he said he didn’t want to be left out. The rest of us would go on doing fun and interesting things, and Buck was most distressed that he would no longer be a part of it. My mother-in-law, Helen, lived for six more years, but mourned Buck’s death throughout the remainder of her own life. She felt Buck to be present in their apartment and sometimes carried on a conversation with him at night. Helen said she was ready for her own death to occur so she could be reunited with her beloved husband. It was difficult for her to go on without Buck, and she seemed to have no trepidation about the end of her life at all.
All of this, of course, is pretty heavy stuff. What strikes me is that people each come to terms with the end of their lives in their own unique ways. In the case of our various family members, the last stages of their lives seem consistent with and a product of all that went before. I hope Katja and I have many years to go. It will be interesting, though, to see how we go about this. I think I’ll document as much of it in my blog as I can and see if I can come up with a joke or two.
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Doris L. with Steve & Dave on the Frozen Menominee River (circa 1944)
I’d say winter was our favorite season as kids. We’d build snowmen in the yard and big forts from which we could have snowball wars. Most years we’d try to build an authentic igloo. The walls would go up o.k., but we never could keep the roof from caving in. Instead we’d use packed down snow to build a slide off the riverbank, sprinkle it with water overnight so it would freeze, and use it to sled down and coast for twenty or thirty yards out on the river. As soon as the river ice was six inches thick, we’d walk across to Pig Island and explore the woods, looking for deer antlers and other stuff. One year we tried ice fishing by chopping a hole through the ice, but, without a shack, it was too freezing. At nighttime Steve and I would play basketball on our snow-covered driveway with the hoop on the garage illuminated by light from a desk lamp. When we begged him, our dad would tie the family toboggan to the back of our Lincoln V-12 and pull us up and down Riverside Boulevard. Sometimes after a storm we’d run barefoot through the snowdrifts in the front yard. All in all, winter was great.
I don’t know what’s happened over the years. Maybe it’s because I quit doing fun things, but winter has definitely become a drag. This year has been the worst – temperatures dropping to 10 below, wind chills of minus 25, three times the normal amount of snow, and sidewalks that have been icy for over a month. We’re just trying to last it out.
The sheepdogs look like they’re well-equipped for cold weather, but they get ice and salt in their paws, and I’ve temporarily cancelled their daily half-hour walks. Mike and Duffy don’t miss it. They’re not very drawn to exercise, even under good conditions. So instead of longer walks, we visit the front yard five or six times a day. Even that’s hazardous. Last week I walked cautiously down our driveway with Mike and Duffy on their leash, slipped on a glassy patch of ice, and fell flat on my back. My shoulder and arm ached for a couple of days, but nothing was fractured. Now I’m ultra cautious.
Driving, of course, is a hassle. After a bad January storm I backed the SUV out of the driveway to go to my office. The car seemed to have difficulty moving forward, and it was jiggling on what I took to be icy ruts in the road. After about five blocks I pulled over to see if the axles were encased in ice. Instead I found that my rear tire was flat and completely twisted around the rim. The tire pressure had dropped because of the cold, and then the tire had come loose from the wheel. It took AAA two hours to come. Amazingly, the downtown tire service reattached the seemingly mangled tire, pumped it up, and said it would probably be o.k. The car still was not running well the next day, so I took it into the garage. They found that the power steering hoses had broken, probably because of the subzero cold, and fluid had spurted all over the engine. Just another winter mishap, this time for $1000.
Our house has been cold too. We have separate hot-water furnace units in the basement and the attic, and the upstairs temperature has been stuck well below the thermostat setting of 70 degrees. I told Katja it’s because we have a brick house and that nobody’s’ furnaces are able to keep their houses warm with these extreme temperatures. She asked why the downstairs was warm, but the upstairs was cold. Drawing upon my expertise as an Upper Peninsula native, I said it was because the upstairs is higher in the air and more exposed to the wind, plus it has a roof rather than a protective basement floor. Being cold upstairs is perfectly normal, I said. There’s nothing to do about it, and we just have to wear warmer clothes. I don’t think Katja believed me since she called the furnace people an hour later. The guy arrived later that day, “bled” our upstairs unit to remove an air blockage, and the second floor quickly heated up to 70 degrees. I still feel I was correct about brick houses, roofs, wind, and second floors being inevitably cold, but I have to admit that we’re more comfortable now.
I’ve been trying to figure out how winter could be as much fun as it used to be. I thought about playing basketball outdoors at night behind Clifton School or going tobogganing. Then I decided it would make most sense to embrace winter vicariously by drinking more red wine and watching the Sochi Olympics on TV. So far, that’s helped. It’s only three weeks till March. We can’t wait.