Tuesday, January 16, 2018
We’ve just had our second snowfall of the month, a frosty reminder the we’ve reached the thick of winter. According to Google, over one septillion snowflakes fall in the U.S. every year. I didn’t even know what one septillion is, but it turns out it has 24 zeroes. That’s a trillion billion, more than all the grains of sand on earth or all the gallons of water. As adults we tend to forget just how astonishing snow is. Among other things, it falls out of the sky. Second, though each snowflake is tinier than a ladybug, a good snowfall blankets the earth, often spreading over thousands of square miles. Snow not only turns the whole world white, but there are endless things to do with it. Roll in it, slide on it, eat it, make snow angels, ski and sled, build sculptures, throw snowballs at the tree trunk, etc. Having grown up in the U.P., snow was a dominant part of our lives. Here are a few snow memories in honor of the season.
KINDERGARTEN. In my early childhood my parents and I lived on the second floor of a big white house on Ogden Avenue at the foot of the Interstate Bridge, and my friend Sally F. and her parents lived in the first floor. At age 5 Sally and I walked the half-mile to kindergarten at Boswell School every day, and in the winter this often meant trudging through drifts of snow. We were all bundled up with boots and scarves but it was still freezing. Fortunately Sally’s dad owned the Boiler Works on Ogden Ave. which was midway on our route, and we’d stop in each morning to drink hot cocoa and warm our hands and mittens at the potbelly stove. I don’t remember anything about my kindergarten classes, but I do remember our snowy journeys to and fro.
SNOW WARS. Our family moved to Sheridan Road when I was in first grade. My friends Frankie S., Darl S., and I built a good-sized snow fort at the curb in front of our house, and several older neighborhood kids built an enemy fort on the opposite side of the street. We lobbed snowballs at each other for hours, even if nobody ever managed to hit the other guys.
PLAYGROUND TACKLE. As soon as snow covered our Washington Grade School playground, the boys would play tackle at recess. One of the more athletic kids was chose as a runner, and all the other kids would chase him until somebody tackled him in the snow. The tackler then became the runner, and everybody chased after him. The crowning moment of my youth was when Tommy H., the halfback on our school’s football team, ran straight at me and, to everyone’s amazement, I actually managed to tackle him. I didn’t do very well as a runner, probably lasting about twenty seconds. I didn’t care. I’d had my day.
ALL AGAINST ONE. One of the boys a year younger than me lived in the house right across the street from the playground. On winter days he’d come out in his yard during lunch hour, and all the boys would thrown snowballs at him from across the street. He successfully dodged most of them. However, when everybody threw their snowballs simultaneously at the count of three at least a few would hit the target. The kid didn’t mind in the least. He loved being the center of attention even if it was a matter of collective aggression.
ON THE RIVER. We moved out of town to our house on the river when my dad came back to the war. Playing in the snow became even more of a full-time occupation. We’d ski off the river bank, hike across the ice to Pig Island, and walk with snowshoes in the forest. My dad tied the toboggan to the back bumper of the Lincoln V-12 and pulled us along the snow and ice on Riverside Boulevard, swerving from one side to the other. Steve and I played endless hours of basketball on the snow-covered driveway, lighting the hoop at night with a desk lamp attached to an extension cord. In the morning we ran barefoot races in the snow-covered front yard. Every winter we tried to build an igloo, but when we got to the center of the roof it would always cave in.
SNOW DRIVING. Cruising around town in the family car became our major teenage activity. I practiced winter driving on Stephenson Avenue near the cemetery, hitting the brakes, and spinning the car in circles as it bounced off the snowdrifts on each side of the road. One holiday night my friend Bob A. volunteered to take my mother and I to the O’Hara’s house on the Green Bay shore during a major snowstorm. Halfway there his Model A Ford skidded off the road and tipped over in a ditch. My mother wound up on top of Bob, and I was laying on top of her. Too embarrassing.
SNOMANCE. In my second year at Antioch College I had a coop job in Madison, Wisconsin, and I went to visit college friends in Milwaukee. Much to my surprise Katja was there with them. I’d never met her before but had admired her from afar. We went for a walk in downtown Milwaukee, and the snowflakes started falling. We stopped on a bridge to watch the snow and the river, and I’d have to say those snowflakes led to love at first sight.
CLOSED ROADS. During one of our Xmas breaks my college friend Arnie P. joined me to drive the 600 miles from Yellow Springs, Ohio, to Menominee. A major storm was raging, and, as we got north of Milwaukee, state troopers had shut down Highway 41. They explained that all of the highways heading north were closed, with the exception of one two-lane county road which was still open for local traffic. Disregarding police advice, Arnie and I set out on the county road with the snow already up to our bumpers. We never could see the road or its edges but simply pointed the car midway between the evergreen forests on the right and the left. It took us 6 hours to go 150 miles and we didn’t see a single other car, but we did pull in to Menominee about 3 or 4 a.m.
SNOW PARENTING. Snow took on a whole new meaning when I was a new dad in the early 1970’s. J and I would go sledding at Burnet Woods, or, for still bigger thrills, at Mt. Storm Park with its skyline view and steep hill. Katja was raising rabbits at the time, and J and I would build a large snow rabbit in our side yard. Every year, as J got bigger, the snow rabbit got bigger too. After New Years Eve we’d go around the neighborhood and collect discarded Xmas trees, creating our own forest of a dozen or more trees on our patio deck.
SNOW DOGS. Our Old English Sheepdogs, Mike and Duffy, were curious about the snow but I don’t think they were true enthusiasts. The snow stuck in their paws, and the salt from the roads and sidewalks was painful. I put socks on them with a rubber band but they never stayed put. For our best sheepdog outings we joined Donna and Sophie for winter snow hikes at Miami Whitewater Forest. The down side of the snow season involved the dogs pulling too hard on the leash and me landing on the sidewalk on my rear end. That probably happened fifty times over the years, but I managed to survive.
It’s been snowing about six hours since I started these reminiscences, and our street is looking beautiful. I think I’ll go for a stroll.
Monday, January 1, 2018
When I was 21, I didn’t spend nearly as much time on New Years Day thinking about what had happened in the previous twelve months. Probably I started doing this around age 60 or so (when it dawned on me that I had fewer years left than I used to). My first thought this morning was that 2017 was the worst year politically that we’ve ever experienced. On reflection, though, there are a lot of other contenders, e.g., 1963 (JFK’s assassination), 1968 (RFK, MLK Jr., nationwide riots, Vietnam outrage and despair), 1973 (Watergate), 2001 (World Trade Center). Fortunately 2017 has been much more pleasant for me on a personal level. I’ve settled fully into retirement and am appreciative of a relatively stress-free and at least mildly enjoyable existence. Here’s my summary list for 2017.
Worst day of the year: January 20 (guess why)
My most reliable source of cheer: baby hippo Fiona at the Cincinnati Zoo
Big birthday: No. 80
Best one-day outing: the Ohio State Fair
Best junk food: gigantic Bloomin’ Onion (at the Ohio State Fair)
Favorite movie: Lost in Paris (Paris Pieds Nus) with Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel
Best new activity with Katja: Israeli folk dancing
Sweet out of town visitors: J, V, and L drive up from NOLA in June
High Culture: Linton Chamber Music, Cincinnati Opera
Favorite hiking place: Miami Whitewater Forest
Favorite TV show: Ray Donovan
Tastiest dessert: Putz’s Creamy Whip chocolate sundae with peanuts
Most aerobic exercise: Zumba
Sport thrills: Roger Federer wins two grand slams
Sad restaurant loss: Clifton Subway (where we regularly shared a footlong each week)
Most esoteric expedition: Victory of Light psychic fair
Best local thrift shop: Valley Thrift Store
Irritating condition: sluggish hearing
Funniest book: Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen
Overhyped natural phenomenon: the wimpy eclipse in Cincinnati
Favorite Lean Cuisine: Swedish Meatballs
Grandchildren accomplishments: V and L’s success in changing schools
Big loss: our friend Donna moved to Nashville in December (happy for Donna, sad for us)
Made me nervous: J signing Katja up for Amazon Prime
Museum show: Iris Van Herpen fashion exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum
Best trip: Caribbean cruise with V, L, K, and J
Guilty pleasure: Spider solitaire
Favorite Cincinnati Restaurant: Jean-Robert’s Table
Favorite OLLI class: Poetry Writing Workshop
Temporary disability: strained Achilles tendon (two months recovery time — yuck)
Something I like, Katja hates: Lawrence Welk show on PBS
Best flea market: Flea ’n Tique (Dayton fairgrounds)
Worst newspaper: the Cincinnati Enquirer
Neighborhood excitement: Clifton Market opened in January (after 5 years with no local supermarket)
My biggest Amazon purchase: a home haircutting kit
Happy Christmas celebrations: with the Minkarah family
New Years Eve dinner at Postmark: at the waiter’s suggestion we added a few truffles to our entrees (I hadn’t heard him correctly — they cost $36). Such a start to the New Year.
NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS
Sit less; get back to 10,000 steps a day
Take more camping trips
Read one book a month
Clean up my junk room
Cut down on Ambien
Be less grumpy and picky around the house
Be less obsessed with Trump horror stories in the newspaper
Plan a big trip
Talk more by phone with loved ones
Drink more water (I could actually accomplish this)
Lose ten pounds (fat chance)Get my blood sugar down (lots of luck)
Thursday, December 21, 2017
Katja and I both celebrated big birthdays this year, and, in honor of the occasion, our son J and daughter-in-law K invited us on a Caribbean cruise. That definitely was the highlight of our year. We haven't been out of the country together for ages, and we've never been on a cruise before. We flew down to New Orleans for Thanksgiving and then set off down the Mississippi to the Gulf and the high seas.
Our cruise ship was truly astonishing. 15 decks high and longer than the Titanic or the Queen Elizabeth. We were still discovering new places on the ship after a full week on the ocean.
It's very mysterious and mind-altering to travel for days and see nothing but water (and perhaps an occasional ship) as far as you can see in all directions.
Our stateroom (deck 1, #1319) was comfy as could be. Our ship carried 3500 passengers and about 1500 crew. Every morning the staff left an animal on our bed which had been sculpted from a folded towel.
With a waterpark and multiple swimming pools, cruises are ideal for families. There was also a basketball court, a gym, a spa, a jogging track, hot tubs, a miniature golf course, a library, continuous gatherings and games, and an "ocean camp" for kids that stayed open until 1 a.m.
The adults-only "Serenity Retreat" featured a well-stocked bar. There were lots of happy-looking parents there.
Our ship had a dozen or so restaurants -- Italian, French, Mongolian, Indian, sushi, tacos, pizza, burgers, steak, etc. -- all of them serving delicious food. We had our fancy dinner every evening at 6 in the Scarlet Room. Our grandson L pointed out that you can eat as much as you want and it's all free. His dad explained that it wasn't exactly free, but you get the idea.
Every night we went to a Broadway-caliber music revue in the main auditorium. Then we’d follow up with a standup comedian in the Burgundy Room. J and I are wearing our new headbands at the "America Rocks" show.
We spent Day 4 at a beach resort at Montego Bay in Jamaica. Perfect white sand beaches and crystal-clear blue-green water. K participated in the music/dance contest, and she won first prize (a fancy cap which she gave to me).
On Day 5 we docked at Georgetown on Grand Cayman Island. Our grandkids and their parents went snorkeling with stingrays (actually kissing them), while Katja and I browsed in the historic business district. Along with fancy shops where Katja bought a new watch, the downtown streets were also home to well-fed chickens.
On Day 6 we landed at Cozumel, Mexico. Our family went to the beach while Katja and I toured the ancient Mayan ruins at San Gervasio, then traveled along the Caribbean shore.
On the last day V and L and all the other children at camp received stuffed animal souvenirs of the trip.
Then, before we knew it, we were back home in New Orleans. Katja said it was the best trip we've ever taken and that she'd like to spend her entire life on a cruise ship. That sounds good to me.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Because of the disgusting political climate in Washington (and many other places including Ohio), I seem to be in a less thankful mood this holiday season than in the past. However, I’m doing my best to break free from the deplorables and keep them from wrecking my life. Compiling a list of reasons to be thankful is definitely helpful.
First of all, I’m thankful for my parents and the family they created. Not flawless, but our mother and father provided their kids with a rich and stimulating environment, fostered good values, and created foundations for happy lives. Then I think of falling in love with Katja at first sight and, miracle of miracles, winding up being married. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if this hadn’t happened. Parenting was a great joy, and our son and daughter-in-law, J and K, and grandkids, V and L, are what make the future bright. I owe a lot to Antioch College and the University of Michigan. We’ve made good use of the many resources of Cincinnati and our Clifton neighborhood.
I’m thankful, too, for still being around and in a good state of health. Hikes, walks, and expeditions with long-time friends give me much of my current life satisfaction. Line dancing too, even working out at the fitness center. We enjoy local music, theater, art museums, and indie movies at the Esquire Theater. I thrive on my OLLI poetry class. And I’m surprisingly appreciative of having the Internet available.
Now I’m in a better mood than when I started out thinking about this. It’s a good challenge to keep one’s equilibrium in the face of grungy national events. At the moment my thoughts are centered on Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie. This makes me salivate.
Friday, November 10, 2017
We’ve lived in our Cincinnati home on Ludlow Avenue for over forty years. We just have a very small yard on the front and east sides of the house. The other day I counted the trees on our lawn. There were twelve. It dawned on me that I’ve been unaware of most of these trees for all the time we’ve lived here. Still more revealing, I don’t know the species name of a single tree on our property.
That’s the complete opposite of my childhood experience. We had a large lawn at our house on the Menominee River with a lot of trees. Even today I could draw a map which would locate virtually every one of those trees. And I knew the name of every one as well (oak, cedar, spruce, etc.). One reason for this is that we spent so much time playing out in the yard, and the trees were a significant part of our environment. In addition, our parents were nature lovers, and they taught us the names of all the trees, as well as birds, flowers, animals, and insects. Trees were not just part of the surroundings, but most of them had significant meaning, emotion, and memories connected with them. Here are some of my father’s family photos that include images of trees in our yard, along with a story or two for each species.
There were three pairs of Norway pines that stood on our lawn: one pair toward the west border, outside our parents’ bedroom; one pair visible from our dining room window in the center of the lawn; and a third pair toward the eastern edge, closer to the river bank. The Norway pines, tall and straight with their lowest branches perhaps twenty feet above the ground, were the most stately trees on our property. Our house was built from Norway pine planks, so we had a special connection to these trees. My father always said we had many wonderful trees, but it was the Norways that best symbolized our property and lives. We played most frequently around the two Norways outside the dining room window, tying a rope between them to serve as a goalpost in our touch football games. The Norways produced large pine cones which I’d use in arts and crafts projects, constructing little people by adding acorns and pipe cleaners. On one memorable occasion, when we were playing cowboys and Indians, my brother Steve tied me to one of the Norways, then pummeled me with his fists till I broke free and chased him into the house where he hid behind our mother. When my sister Vicki reached school age, our dad erected a swing between the easternmost pair of Norways, and we all enjoyed it for years.
Oaks (right side of photo)
There were three oaks, growing in a cluster together outside our dining room door, and another tall oak was in the center of our driveway. Providing a plentiful supply of acorns, the oaks attracted the squirrel families that we saw in the yard every day. The acorns also attracted little kids. Steven and I (and later Peter and Vicki) used them as ammunition in daily acorn fights. Our one rule was to throw only at the body, not at the head (to prevent putting out an eye). On one horrifying occasion, Steve started climbing up one of the oaks as I was throwing acorns at him, and a branch broke. He plummeted to the ground and broke his arm, winding up at St. Joseph-Lloyd Hospital. A year or two later my father built a tree house in the three-oak cluster which we accessed with our bunkbed ladder. Steve, Frankie St. Peter, and I formed our clubhouse there, requiring a secret password for admission (perhaps “Shazam”).
Two maples on a mound (left side of photo)
We had maples in the front of the house (just outside the dining room door) and also in the back of the house near the driveway (between Vicki’s bedroom and the garage). The maples’ leaves turned bright red in autumn, and I’d gather up a bunch and press and dry them for months inside an encyclopedia volume. The maples’ fruit, called samara, are in the form of little wings, and we liked to drop them and watching them flutter to the ground like tiny helicopters. The two maples in the back yard grew on a mound that was roughly five feet by eight feet. My Uncle Karl took me aside one day and explained that the Menominee Indians had lived along the river, including where our property was now located. Karl said it was very likely that the mound on which the maples were growing was an Indian burial mound. He said if I dug deep enough I could recover the treasures that were buried in the graves. Perhaps even gold. He told me not to tell my parents beforehand because they would forbid me from digging it up. My uncle Karl had a perverse sense of humor, so I didn’t take him at his word. I considered digging a smallish hole to find the treasure, but I never got around to it.
The blue spruce was another of our most handsome trees. Each year we chopped down our own Christmas tree from our family property across the road, but the spruce in our front yard was the most majestic Christmas tree of all. Because its branches were too dense and too close to the ground, it was one of the few trees that we didn’t use for climbing or other play activities. Instead, we admired the spruce’s beauty from a distance.
The willow tree, on the west end of the lawn close to the riverbank, was the best tree on our property for climbing. The lowest branches were just a few feet off the ground, and there were plenty of subsequent branches which allowed us to climb all the way up near the top of the tree. My associations with the willow tree aren’t entirely pleasurable. Sometimes, when I’d get in trouble for torturing Steven, my mother would send me out to cut a branch off the willow tree to be used in my spanking.
Young cedar trees (under the righthand window)
A pair of small cedar trees grew outside my parents’ bedroom window on the west side of our house. They smelled good and produced little pine cones that we used in craft projects. Deer fed on cedar foliage in the winter, and, because we’d see them in the nextdoor field from time to time, it’s likely that they visited our cedar trees in the night as well.
Box Elder (branches at the right edge of photo)
The box elder, near our outdoor stone fireplace, was the other tree on our property that was excellent for climbing, though we’d have to bring our bunk bed ladder out to reach the lowest branch. One summer we put my sister Vicki’s pet chameleon on the trunk of the tree, but got distracted and then couldn’t find it. We looked for that chameleon all summer long but with no luck. I fantasized for years that its descendants lived on the elder, but we never found one.
Birch on the river bank
There was a large stand of birch trees on the unmowed property just to the east of our lawn, as well as a small cluster of birches on the riverbank in front of our house. The birches were handsome and romantic – romantic because we associated them with birchbark canoes of Native Americans who occupied the river hundreds of years before Europeans’ arrival. We used the white birch bark for writing notes and for doing various craft projects, e.g., making miniature canoes. We weren’t allowed by our parents to strip bark off of the live birch trees, so we’d row across the river to Pig Island and cut big strips of bark from fallen birch tree trunks.
Vicki and Peter at my tag alder camp table
There were a hundred yards or so of undeveloped, overgrown property between our house and Riverside Boulevard, and it was swampy land, largely populated by tag alder. Miserable and lonely in my mid-teens, I decided to build a secret camp there to get away from my family and the rest of the world. Tag alder, in my father’s view, was an inferior species of tree, and I was allowed to cut down as much of it as I wanted. I used tag alder to build a lean-to hut, a table, a rack for holding cooking utensils, a pot holder over the fire pit, and other accessories. The photo shows my sister Vicki and my brother Peter on a rare visit to my camp. If I remember correctly, I blindfolded them so they could never find the way by themselves.
My parents sold our house on the river in the early nineteen seventies and moved into their newly renovated Farm at Birch Creek. My dad had the Birch Creek property incorporated as a tree farm. Over the next several years, he planted many hundreds of evergreens and hardwoods in the open fields. We’d go for hikes in the forest there, and my dad would hug his favorite trees. I may have inherited some of that tree-hugging inclination.