Monday, November 30, 2009

Who's Swedish Anyway?

                V.A.L. Sr. and his grandkids (circa 1950) [photo by VAL]

Dear George,

My paternal grandfather, Victor August L. Sr. (1875-1959), was born in Ostersund, Sweden, and my grandmother, Olga Henrietta Olson L.  (1879-1942), was born in Landskrona.  My granddad emigrated to upper peninsula Michigan in 1893, and he and Olga met there and married on June 1, 1904, in Marinette, Wisconsin.  My father, V.A.L. Jr., was born in Marinette on Nov. 5, 1908, and he grew up at least in part as a member of the local Swedish community.  That Swedish influence, though, didn’t seem to extend much across the generations.  My dad would say a few joking words in pidgin Swedish now and then, mostly to indicate that he had no command of his parents’ native language; my mother, who was not Swedish, cooked what we were told were Swedish meatballs; and we enjoyed creamed herring appetizers on special occasions.  That seemed to be it for our Swedish exposure.


When I joined the Psych Department at UC, the only other faculty member of Swedish background was our statistician, Dick Melton.  We’d joke now and then that we shared a common heritage, and, in fact, we were rather similar sorts of persons.  One day Dick came to my office and said he had run across an article that I might find interesting.  It was a description of Swedish “national character”, i.e., the cluster of personality traits that tend to characterize Swedes.  I was shocked – there was such a perfect fit with my personality that the author could have been describing me (as well as Dick).  I’d never thought of myself an ethnic Swede, but it sure sounded like I was.


Recently I looked around for the article Dick had shown me, but I couldn’t find it.  In its place my friend Anna L., who is herself a native Swede, loaned me a copy of “Swedish Mentality” by ethnologist Åke Daun.  Daun identifies a cluster of characteristics that define Swedish behavior patterns: e.g.,  reserved, socially anxious, independent, conflict avoidant, emotionally unexpressive, rational, somber.  The picture sounds a lot like the characters played by Max Van Sydow in Ingmar Bergman movies.


For the fun of it, I paged through Daun’s book and made a list of the terms and phrases he uses to describe typical Swedish characteristics.  I wound up with a list of 22.  Then I turned half of these around so that they were the opposite of Swedish traits (e.g., cheerful rather than gloomy; outgoing rather than shy).  To provide a point of comparison, I asked several family members and close friends to think about Katja (who is of Russian rather than Swedish background) and myself and to judge which of us was more like the given trait term in question.  I didn’t make any mention of nationality or ethnicity at all.


The results were interesting. The lists below show who was judged highest on “Non-Swedish” and highest on “Swedish” characteristics for the 16 traits where there was perfect or near-perfect agreement.


Antonyms of Swedish traits (91% agreement that Katja L. is higher)

Outgoing:  Katja (7/7 raters agree)

Socially confident:  Katja (6/7)

Active in conversation:  Katja (6/7)

Spontaneous:  Katja (6/7)

Seeks attention:  Katja (6/7)

Prone to exaggeration: Katja (7/7)

Subjective:  Katja (6/7)

Cheerful:  Katja (7/7)


Swedish traits (96% agreement that David L. is higher)

Shy:  David (6/7 raters agree)

Reserved: David (6/7)

Prefers family, close friends: David (7/7)

Avoids pretending:  David (7/7)

Tends toward understatement:  David (7/7)

Values honesty:  David (7/7)

Rational: David (7/7)

Somber:  David (7/7)


As I discovered with Dick Melton’s article years ago, I seem to be a near-perfect match with the Swedish character type.  I’ve always thought of myself as powerfully influenced by my parents as unique individuals, by my siblings, by the community in which I grew up, etc.  National ethnic identity, however, didn’t even show up on my subjective list.  It sure sounds like I’m a prototypical Swede though.  Maybe the lesson is that we don’t have as much insight into the powerful forces that have made us who we are as we think we do. 


The other interesting pattern is that Katja and I appear to be perfect opposites, with Katja lower on anything Swedish and uniformly higher on the antitheses of Swedish traits. That’s not entirely surprising.  I’m reminded of a conversation at our wedding reception when my favorite Psychology professor told my nervous mother-in-law that ours would be such an interesting marriage because we were so different and so complementary to one another.  After all this time, I guess he was right. 




G-Mail Comments:

Phyllis S-S (12-6):  Maybe Jung was really right....

-Ami G (12-1): What about "droll sense of humor"?    Love.  Ami

-David L. (12-1): Sounds right to me.  However, Ake Daun emphasizes seriousness above all and cites Swedish proverbs, "When joy's in the house, sorrow's on the threshold"; "Do not jest in earnest"; "The food of pleasure is served on the platter of regret."  Droll?

Love, Dave

-Vicki L. (12-1): Hi David,  Loved your bio re. Vic's heritage and the outcome of your study - still doing Social Psych I see.  Actually it is quite fascinating.  My therapist is constantly making reference to my Swedish traits ... we laugh about it… Give my love to Katja.  Vicki 


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

G-Mail Comments:

Phyllis S-S (12-6): How beautiful these are.  With your library of them think of all the possibilities of stories....

Jennifer M (11-28):  Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

Ami G (11-26): And Happy Thanksgiving to YOU! 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dogs of Our Lives: Jacques

                    Katja and Jacques, circa 1971

Dear George,


We’ve always joked around that one of the unintended effects of Steven’s good nature was that he had a penchant for adopting dogs in need of a home, but then, when circumstances got complicated, he would wind up passing these loveable orphans along to other family members.  Our parents received most of these surprise gifts, but we got our poodle Jacques from Steve and Margie when they moved to Detroit in 1965 where Steve was beginning law school.  They had gotten Jacques from a friend in Florida, and, while they were very attached to him, they weren’t allowed to have a dog in their new apartment.  We were living in the country outside Ann Arbor, with lots of yard space and landlords who were o.k. with dogs; plus we were ready for a new pet.  Jacques was a smallish standard poodle with curly black hair, just a puppy at that point, housetrained, and with a happy and energetic disposition.  We were more than happy to take him in, and he immediately added fun to our high pressure grad student lives.


I was struggling at the time to make progress on my dissertation research, and, though I had my data in hand, I was having a painful time getting it analyzed and getting words down on paper.  Katja was working full-time as a sales clerk at Faber’s Fabric in downtown Ann Arbor and doing a lot of sewing on the side.  She made clothes for both of us, and, for our one-bedroom house on West North Territorial Road, she made red velvet curtains for all of the windows in the living/kitchen/dining room area.


Our landlady’s name was Zorra, and, like her name, she was a handful – heavyset, noisy, uncouth, plus she was lonely and wanted to be personal friends.  We didn’t reciprocate, and when, six weeks before our scheduled move to Cincinnati, our toilet got plugged up and required a plumber, Zorra and her husband served us with an eviction notice.  Steve was finishing up his first year of law school, and we became his first informal clients.  He prepared an argument for us and accompanied us to our court hearing, certain that we would win our case.  Since Zorra had cashed our rent check after having served us with an eviction notice, the judge tossed our case out, and, though he wasn’t allowed to speak in the courtroom, we credited Steve with his first legal victory.


I’d taken a job in Cincinnati, and things got hectic in our last weeks in Ann Arbor.  We stayed in town very late one day, essentially forgetting that Jacques was home alone waiting for us.  When we got back around 9 p.m., we could tell something was wrong as we approached the house.  We walked in, turned on the lights, and were shocked at the scene.  Jacques had gone around the entire large room, pulled every red velvet curtain down onto the floor, and systematically pooped on every single one.  This was a smart dog with an impressive poop capacity, though he clearly had a streak of vengefulness as well.  We never again made that mistake again.


We’d made arrangements in Cincinnati to rent a two-story townhouse in the Williamsburg Apartment complex just outside the city limits on Galbraith Road.  Katja liked the air conditioning and the well-equipped kitchen, as well as the fact that the complex was brand new.  We were among the first tenants in a gated village which would ultimately hold thousands.  Our apartment was on a quadrangle, and we could walk Jacque on its interior.  There was also a playground and forest area nearby where I would take him on outings.  After a while, we started letting Jacques out on his own to run around the quadrangle.  He did this faithfully, never leaving the area despite several possible exits, but some of our neighbors complained to the management, and we had to start walking him on a leash.


Jacques was such a sweet, loving, intelligent dog.  Katja and I attributed this to our dog-raising skills and took it as a sign that we could look forward to being good parents.  Some months later we went to a big graduate student party hosted by our friends, Clyde and Ann McCoy.  In the midst of the party, Katja told all the party-goers she had a surprise for me.  She then disclosed to me and everyone else that she was pregnant.  I was shocked since I’d had no idea that she had stopped taking her birth control pills.  Katja said she’d interpreted our discussion about being good dog parents to Jacques as my signal that it was time to have a baby.


Thus, partly due to Jacques’ good character, our son J was born in September of 1969.  Katja’s mom came to help before the birth, and my mom came afterward.  We didn’t need that much help, though we felt obligated to provide for the traditional role of grandmothers.  When my mother asked what she could do, I said that the best thing would be to walk Jacques around the quadrangle on his leash.  My mom, who’d spent her life with dogs running free in the country, stubbornly balked and said she’d never walked a dog on a leash in her life and had no intention of starting now.


Jacques coexisted perfectly with our new baby, and we would all take outings together.  As J grew and got more mobile, the four of us would go most weekends to Mt. Airy Forest where we’d take a long trail walk that wound up at a creek with a horse pasture on the other side.  J and Jacques would climb on the rocks on the creek, and the horses would wander over and look at us with curiosity.  

                    J, David, and Jacques at Mt. Airy Forest (circa 1971)

In the summer of 1973 we went to Bethel, Maine, where I was doing research on sensitivity training groups.  We rented a house trailer, located out of town at the edge of a pretty evergreen forest.  Each morning we’d go to the back yard area and play near the creek that streamed by.  One day we cooked hot dogs on our barbeque grill on the trailer’s front porch, and Bethel’s entire volunteer fire department came racing to the scene, called by a passerby who’d seen the smoke at the front of the trailer.  On our last night in Bethel we went with our friends Dave and Jillian to Martha’s Restaurant in Bethel to dine on oysters and rhubarb pie.  When we got home, the babysitter and J were on the front stoop, and the babysitter was in tears.  She explained that Jacques had gotten loose, had gone out on the road, and had been hit by a logging truck.  She had his body in a box on the porch.  We were crushed.  I drove the sitter home.  The next morning we took Jacque’s body to the back yard near the creek that we’d enjoyed together all summer long.  I scratched his name and the date on a white boulder, dug a hole next to the creek, and we buried his body there. 


Jacques was an important part of our family during a period of many life transitions: my departure from graduate school, Katja and I taking new jobs and having our first real home, Katja’s pregnancy and the birth of our son, my first major research project as a faculty member, our settling into a new community.  He was a playful, affectionate companion and added a lot of enjoyment to our lives in this difficult period.  We had seven good years with him.  We’ll always remember sweet Jacquey.




G-Mail Comments:  
Jennifer M (11-28): I like this story and the pictures!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Nostalgic Return of Teaching Guy

                      Sculpture Arch, near Dyer Hall, UC

Dear George,


Recently I went for my annual vision checkup at Dr. Werner’s office near the southwest corner of UC’s campus.  Dr. Werner said my eyes looked o.k. and I should come back next year.  They gave me a pair of cardboard dark glasses for my dilated pupils, and I headed back for my Crosley Tower office at the opposite end of the campus.


On the way I stopped by the Psychology Department in Dyer Hall to check my mail.  As I chatted with the secretary, my long-time friend and colleague Kathy Burlew came out to say hello.  For many years Kathy and I were next door office neighbors and one another’s #1 gossip sources (though neither of us hardly ever had any).  She asked how retirement was going, and I said it was o.k., but my opinion is that working is better.  I said I’d liked my job, liked the people I worked with, and I missed all of that.  Kathy was sympathetic.  I had to go and said we should get together soon.


As I left Dyer Hall, I realized that it was 9:50 a.m., the exact time on a Monday morning when I would be leaving Dyer to go and teach my 10 a.m. Social Psychology class in Rieveschl.  Just outside of the building there is a brightly-colored modernistic sculpture which bridges the sidewalk and which pedestrians pass under.  I had walked through it on my way to teach every Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning for a decade.  To boost my confidence, I would always imagine that the colorful passageway gave off magical vibes, and, by walking under it, I would be transformed from a quiet restrained person to “Teaching Guy” – secure, full of confidence, extroverted.  This mental ritual always gave me a little boost, and I wondered if the archway still had its special powers.  


The sidewalks were crowded with students changing classrooms, and they looked sort of somber as they’ve usually looked to me on past Monday mornings.  Last year I would keep an eye out for students I might have in class, but now I felt anonymous and felt good about being unrecognizable.  I crossed the green space behind McMicken Hall and turned into the Engineering Quadrangle.  At about this time in the Autumn quarter I would be giving a lecture on Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience to authority.  It’s one of my favorite topics and always generated more student interest than anything else I might talk about.  While classroom teaching almost always made me anxious, I was entirely relaxed about doing Milgram, and I looked forward to that particular class session.  After all those years of preparation and practice, it was hard to accept that I won’t be telling students about destructive obedience any more, and I felt a fleeting twinge of regret that I wasn’t doing that this morning.


I followed the steps down to the fifth floor of Rieveschl Hall.  Everything looked familiar.  I treated myself to a package of Zingers from the vending machine.   There’d been some renovation of the seating area, and the corridor into Rieveschl was under construction.  Things weren’t exactly the same as they’d always been.  My big social psychology class had been in Room 502 Rieveschl for many years, a lecture hall with stadium seating accommodating about 170 students.  On this particular Monday the 10:00 class had just started.  I couldn’t see the teacher at the front of the room as I walked past, but the students were all facing him or her and displaying varying degrees of attentiveness.  The room was about two-thirds filled.  The students looked just like my students had always looked.  Had I not known better, it could just as well have been one of my classes.  I was glad that I wasn’t in there, but, at the same time, I was depressed to be on the outside looking in.


I viewed the whole scene with some nostalgia.  Being a faculty member had taken up the biggest part of my adult life.  With retirement, those activities have simply disappeared.  If you asked me a year ago who I am, I would have said “a social psychologist” or a “UC professor”.  Now the best I can say is that I used to be those things.  “A retired college professor” somehow doesn’t cut the cake, phrased as it is in terms of who I no longer am. 


The secret of retirement, as far as I can tell, consists in remaking one’s life so that one has a new identity and a meaningful array of activities.  I’ve made some beginning steps in that but haven’t really solved it yet.  Retirement has its obvious perqs, including freedom and leisure time.  However, a lot of that freedom is really a matter of loss, and, until one figures out how to fill the empty time in, it’s not as liberating as one might think.  Maybe I should walk through that Magic Arch in the opposite direction and see what it does for me a second time around.



G-Mail Comments:

-Jennifer M (11-22):  :-)

-Ami G (11-22): This is another great one, David!  Reinventing oneself is a difficult full time job.  It seems to involve all the stressors and pangs as actually having a job.  However, I'm convinced that we'll figure it out!  Until we do, keep writing.  Love.  Ami

-JML (11-22):  Hey Dad, Nice post.  I went to a Saints party today and ran into an older friend who retired from teaching 8th graders 4 years ago due to Katrina.  Turns out,  she went back to teaching and is now a "religion" instructor for 5th graders.  She has no formal training in this other than her Catholic pedigree and her desire as a 13 year old to one day be a nun. Anyway, she's loving it, says the kids keep her from getting old,  and they love her because she's the only teacher at this school who doesn't use a paddle or ruler to enforce discipline.  Anyway, just thought i'd share. Looking forward to your visit this December.  ~ J

-Gayle L (11-22): Dear David, Your teaching stories are wonderful. You mention being only a college professor. Not ... In my eyes Professors were looked up to and always treated with respect. Retired or not. If you were going to enlighten someone regarding their future retirement what would you tell them. I believe you would tell them to live life to the fullest follow your dreams and ha ve no fear. I think and this is only my opinion, but U should follow those rules a little. U worked hard all of those years. I. Bet You made quite an impression on many students. U deserve to live a lot now. Life is too short;). You know. Also. I. Love to read your stories. Its like peter's pictures except with words. Please keep writing. ;_ give my love ;)   G

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Twin City Postcards: Main Street, Marinette, WI

Dear George,
This view of Main St., looking north, is at the heart of Marinette’s downtown business district.  Lauerman’s Department Store is just around the corner, and Dunlap Square and the Interstate Bridge are just beyond Lauerman’s.  The parking meters in the photo were installed in the early 1950’s and were viewed by many grumpy citizens (including myself) as a violation of God-given human rights.  My grandfather’s Marinette drug store on Main St. was a block south of this photo .  One of my teenage job duties was to deliver the drug store’s daily financial receipts to the bank at the left of this photo.  Though only a walk of a few minutes, I was always alert to the possibility of robbers lurking in doorways and carried out my mission in a state of high vigilance.  After a successful stop at the bank I’d celebrate by walking down the street to Lauerman’s and buying a frozen malt cone for fifteen cents (an unbelievably delectable treat which I’ve never been able to find again).  The Main St. business district  included the variety stores pictured here (Woolworth’s was the better of the two), women’s clothing shops, a couple of bars and a restaurant, Haas’ shoe store, a photo store, a record store where one could listen to demos over earphones, a movie theater, gift shops, a liquor store, and numerous other establishments.  Because of lower sales taxes, many Menominee-ites came across the river to Marinette to do their shopping, resulting in our sense of civic inferiority in Menominee.  Marinette’s downtown was much more thriving in the 1950’s than it is today, partly as a consequence of Pine Tree Mall being built on the town’s outskirts.   

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vic's Photos: How We Got to Be Brave, Clean, & Reverent

                  Menominee Boy Scouts (Peter J. at left; Steve L. at right)

Dear George,


The title, of course, comes from the Boy Scout Law.  When I turned 11, my dad volunteered to be a local scout leader. Our troop was a mix of my Sheridan Road friends and a bunch of tough and rowdy kids from St. John’s parochial school. Vic decided the youth were mainly in need of discipline.  He recruited an ex-Marine sergeant who had been a drill instructor, and our main scouting activity was to practice marching in military formations in the St. John’s gym every week in preparation for the Memorial Day parade.  The scouts were less committed than my dad, but we attended practice for eight months and ultimately were good marchers in the parade.  

               Michael Dennis & Steve at the Memorial Day Parade (circa 1957)

We did things other than marching, though I’ve lost touch with the details.  One occasion that does stand out was when our troop went to Marina Park in downtown Menominee for a fire-making competition (basically pitting the bad kids from St. John’s against the good kids from Sheridan Road).  We good kids felt superior because we more camping experience, and we were eager to show off our skills as outdoorsmen.  When my dad said “Go”, my friends and I ran off to the birch trees at the opposite end of the park to gather birch bark and twigs.  By the time we got back, however, the bad kids were standing around a roaring six foot high fire that they’d started with some yellowed newspaper and old tree branches that they’d quickly gathered up on the beach.  I don’t know exactly how to verbalize it, but we learned some things that weren’t even in the boy scout manual.


When I was 12 or 13 Frankie St. Peter and I joined a group of scouts from Green Bay for a trip down to Philmont Scout Ranch in the mountains of New Mexico.  The week at Philmont involved hiking through rugged mountains from one camping location to the next, and it was a challenging adventure.  We travelled to New Mexico and back by bus.  We stopped in Oklahoma on our way back, and a bunch of our group went over to a nearby carnival.  Frank and I decided to join them, but we found our route blocked by a tall fence.  We walked a long way, but the fence went on and on.  It had a sign on it that said something like “Danger – Keep Away,” but we got impatient and finally we just climbed over the fence, sign or no sign.  It was pitch dark, but we could make out something that looked like a large hut and some big amorphous globs around it.  Soon we came to a second equally tall fence.  We climbed over that too and went off to the carnival midway.  In the morning we came back to see where we’d been.  We discovered that, unwittingly, we had climbed into a buffalo pen.  The sign on the fence in fact said “Danger – Wild Buffaloes” and warned onlookers to stay at least ten feet away from the fence.  There was a large hut in the center of the pen with buffalo inside it and milling around outside.  We counted – there were 27 full-grown buffaloes with large horns congregated in the area that we’d inadvertently walked through in the dark.

            Our Air Scout Troop: David L., Elroy D., Jim H., Alan P., Earl M.

When I got older, Vic helped found and lead the first Menominee unit of the Air Scouts, a teenage version of the Boy Scouts.  We thought we should have been Sea Scouts rather than Air Scouts, since we were located right off Lake Michigan, and Menominee was not known as an air hub.  Our troop did do a tour of the local airport one evening, and my dad arranged for Frankie and myself to go up on a demonstration flight that weekend.  At the airport there was a Piper Club and a very jazzy looking two-person plane that I’ll call a Spitfire.  Both Frankie and I picked the Spitfire, and I got to go up first.  The pilot put the plane through its whole repertoire, zooming up and down, flying sideways, zigzagging, etc.  In the midst of it all I vomited up my entire breakfast and lunch all over the cockpit.  We promptly returned to the runway.  Frank was furious to find out that he had to go up in the boring Piper Cub because the Spitfiire was grounded for the day.


The high point of our Air Scout experience came when our troop spent a week at O’Hare Air Force Base in Chicago.  We slept in tents at the far end of a runway, and, years later, my dad recounted how he took a valium to go to sleep, though he had no water to wash it down.  The pill stuck in his throat, slowly dissolved, and he was certain he wouldn’t live through the night.  The Air Force Base was doing some sort of military simulation of a complete lockdown, and our troop was escorted everywhere by an armed guard.  Frank and I did sneak off on our own to go back to the gift shop, and we were apprehended and interrogated by MP’s who thought we had been assigned to play roles as Communist spies.   On the last day of the trip we spent several hours at the Maxwell Street flea market in Chicago.  I didn’t learn about it until years later, but it turned out that a woman of the streets took my dad aside and offered to entertain the whole teenage troop for ten dollars a head.  Consistent with Air Scout principles, he declined.  Frankly, I  think that was good judgment.




Thursday, November 12, 2009

What I Got Out of My Aqua Therapy Class

Dear George,

When I first signed up at the Fitness Center in February, trainer Emily gave me a set of strength exercises to do and suggested that I might want to add a swimming pool workout class in a few weeks.  I cancelled the class idea because of my inclination to avoid mingling with strangers and concentrated instead on doing machine workouts.  About five weeks ago though, I woke up one morning with a lot of pain in my upper arms and shoulders.  I attributed this to overdoing it on the strength machines, though Emily also suggested it could mean the onset of arthritis.  I lightened up on my weights, then took a weeklong break from strength training altogether, added Advil and Tylenol to my diet several times a day, and started doing a lot more stretching.  While my aches and pains didn’t get worse, they didn’t get any better either.


I looked back over my fitness center material, and I noticed that they held arthritis classes in the warm water therapy pool multiple times a day.  I’d seen these going on because the pool is behind a big bay window as you come in the front entrance, but, partly because there never seemed to be any men there, I hadn’t given it any thought.  Yesterday, though, I woke up so sore that I thought I’d better try a new tack.  There were aqua arthritis classes scheduled for 8, 9, 10, 11, 2, 3:30, and 5.  I fiddled around until mid-afternoon, then gritted my teeth and decided it was now or never.  Katja said she wished she could go with me, but she’d just had cataract surgery the day before and couldn’t get water in her eyes.  She wished me luck and said she was sure I could do it.


I told the fitness center receptionist I was going to my first aqua class and asked if I needed to do anything special.  She said no, just go in there.  A sign in the men’s locker room said to shower before using the swimming pool because, otherwise, your body would shed two hundred million bacteria into the water.  I had no idea I had that many bacteria on me, and so I showered carefully.  I doubt whether I got rid of more than maybe fifty million though.  By the time I got into the warm water pool area, a fair-sized group had already assembled.  There were about 15 women near the end of the pool closest to where I entered, and there was one man at the opposite end.  It might sound appealing to be in a swimming pool totally full of women, but it was not like Fort Lauderdale.  All the women looked like they could be my grandmother, gray-haired, wrinkly, usually tubby.  (This statement, of course, attests to my distorted view of my own age since I’m also a grandparent, probably an age-mate to many in the group, and hardly lean).  The women all seemed acquainted with one another and were busy chatting in groups of two or three, except for one group of five who were bouncing a big beach ball back and forth.  The water was pleasantly warm, and I quickly paddled my way to the opposite end of the pool.  The other man and I treaded water for five minutes or so without speaking.  When we finally floated within five feet of one another, I turned and said to him that this was my first class.  That broke the ice, and he replied that he was in his tenth year.  His name was Harold.  He’d started there when he came down with arthritis in his knees and thumb joints, and he’d had no recurrence after beginning this class.  He recounted his lengthy history of medical problems.  I found it easy to chit chat with Harold because all I had to say was “Oh yeah?” and “Really.”   He’d retired ten years ago and, though I’d pegged him as an old geezer, he was actually a couple of years younger than me.  Suddenly, as Harold talked on, I noticed that all the women had formed a circle.  One of them beckoned to me to join them.  I excused myself to Harold, and, as I moved toward the group, another woman said that they were having a prayer circle.  I joined hands with two random women.  The prayer was being held for Jackie, an absent member of the group, but I didn’t get a sense of why.  The instructor, Billy, then asked if there was anybody else we should be praying for.  A skinny woman with glasses wondered if anybody knew where Mary Jo was, since she hadn’t been to the class for some time.  Nobody knew so we included Mary Jo as well.  Billy then led us in the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s been a long time, and I was pleased that I only made one obvious error. 


After the prayer circle, Billy went over some scheduling changes.  Harold had told me that she was a nurse at a nearby hospital and taught these classes after work.  She was perhaps in her late fifties, wore glasses, and had a friendly personal style.  It’s impolite to comment on people’s body shapes, but I did observe that the water in the pool rose several inches when Billy climbed in, and I inferred that aqua therapy may be excellent for arthritis, but it apparently doesn’t do a lot for slimming down.  Billy began leading the group in upper body exercises, swaying one’s arms to the left and right, then down to one’s knees and over one’s head, then holding one’s arms out to one’s sides and turning one’s palms up and down and up again.  When she got to one of the more complicated routines, Billy paddled over to me in the back row and asked if I’d been to class before.  I said I hadn’t, and she gave me some one-on-one instruction.  It’s hard to follow someone’s physical motions when their body is under water and they’re making big waves, but I did finally get it.


Billy returned to the front of the class, and then, without any preface, she suddenly broke into song, leading the group in a spirited rendition of “God Bless America.”  Everybody else joined in, swaying back and forth in rhythm.  Billy had a pretty good voice, and she was the loudest singer.  Following a technique I’d learned in fourth grade, I moved my lips along with the words, but didn’t sing any notes aloud.  After “God Bless America,” we launched right into the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Then with each new aquatic exercise, Billy started a new song.  We did the Star Spangled Banner, This Land is Your Land, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and some others I can’t remember.  I felt peculiar and wondered where I was.  At first I thought perhaps this outpouring of patriotism was happening because it was Veteran’s Day.  But then, when we exhausted Love for America songs, Billy moved on to “Oh Susanna,” “It’s a Great Day for Singing a Song,” and “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain.”


About then, probably from  being in all that water, I came down with an uncontrollable bodily urge that I won’t identify.  I told Billy I would be back shortly and climbed out of the pool.  I walked back to the men’s locker room via the adjacent lap pool where a guide dog was sitting patiently while his blind mistress swam laps.  By the time I returned the singing was over with, and Billy had moved on to lower body exercises, moving one’s legs this way and that, rotating one’s hips, etc.  I noticed that about half the class, including myself, were carefully following Billy’s lead.  The rest of the women, however, were paying no attention to her at all and were just standing around chatting with one another.  This seemed to be a permissible option.  We more serious students did a series of hand and finger exercises to work on potential sore joints, and then we all wound up doing the hokie pokie.  The hokie pokie was the most fun of all.


By and large I found water exercises to be pleasant and relaxing.  While I’d felt some achiness early on, my muscles felt better as we went along.  At the end of the class I told Billy about the symptoms I’d been experiencing and asked her if this class were the right place for me.  She said it was, though she suggested that I should check with my doctor as well.  I said I would if my aches didn’t go away.  So, songs or no songs, I’m going to give aqua therapy another shot tomorrow.




*Pseudonyms used in this story.

G-Mail Comments:

Jennifer M. (11-13):  A very funny post.  I'm glad you gave it a try and it was a success.  :-)

Linda C. (11-13):  dave, this is hysterical, you know i have thought of joining one since ted burke says he goes and has gotten rid of any pain. was this held in a church and if not ask her to sing some jewish songs. the singing could be really fun because it would be so laughable and yet who knows, maybe singing does something to the body. the prayer circle is a bit much for me, and i think a study showed that people having surgery did worse if people were praying for them. that moving your lips is calling doing a brittany spears, she did it in one of her shows.  and the word you stumbled over  was it which, as in our father which is in heaven or the tresspasses verse, you must keep going so you can write about it. it made my day.  

Donna D. (11-13):  i love this david!  especially how you described billy's shape!

Vicki L. (11-14):  D, This is too hilarious and not to be believed. Is this what people are referring to when they speak of the "Christian Right"? Did you make this up? Remember, when your father set about curing his rheumatoid arthritis in his shoulder, he swam at the was always a good day when he went swimming at the "Y".  Love, Vicki 

Phyllis SS (11-15): Dave, I think you'll need a new t-shirt that reads, "I am a singing swimmer."  I just hope it helps.  Pain is not a nice friend.  Best, Phyllis

Monday, November 9, 2009


                            The Chicago Eight (1968; J. Rubin, top left)     

Dear George,

Us oldies vividly remember Jerry Rubin as one of the most prominent radical social activists of the 1960s and 1970s, though few probably recall that he was a Cincinnati native.  Rubin was born on July 14, 1938, the son of a bread delivery man and a homemaker mother, and grew up in Avondale, then an upscale Jewish neighborhood.  Both of his parents died while he was a student at Walnut Hills High School, and he took over the task of caring for his 13-year-old brother Gil.  He wanted to teach Gil about the world and decided to take him to India.  When relatives protested and fought to gain custody of Gil, the teenagers went to Tel-Aviv instead.  Rubin studied sociology for a year.  Gil decided to stay and later moved to a kibbutz.  After leaving Israel, Rubin visited Cuba despite a law forbidding Americans to travel there, and he was strongly inspired by an encounter with Che Guevara.  He returned to Walnut Hills H.S., co-editing the school newspaper, The Chatterbox (for which J was a reporter a couple of decades later), and began writing high school sports results for the Cincinnati Post.  Rubin received his B.A. in Sociology at the University of Cincinnati (my department, of course), then began graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out in 1964 to focus on social activism. 


Rubin was a founding member of the Youth International Party (the Yippies), along with Abbie Hoffman.  He was one of the main organizers of the anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (a protest event that Vicki and her friend Kiera participated in, much to our parents’ dismay).  Along with Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and others, Rubin was one of Chicago Eight who were indicted on charges of conspiracy and incitement to riot.  Though all were found guilty on charges of incitement, the convictions were thrown out because of government misconduct (e.g., bugging the offices of the defense team).  Later Rubin studied Erhard Seminars Training (EST) and became a practitioner in the growth potential movements of the 70’s and a successful businessman.  He died at age 58 when he jaywalked on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. and was hit by an oncoming car. 


It’s a little hard to imagine one of the nation’s radical leaders coming out of conservative Cincinnati, but these were turbulent and unpredictable times.  It makes me edgy to think back to them, with the tragedy of the Vietnam War, the rage and divisiveness in the society, widespread extreme disillusionment with the government, and the personal distress with how to deal with it all. 




Saturday, November 7, 2009

Vicki and Her Brothers

Dear George,


When my Dad moved from Birch Creek to the Alois Alzheimer Center in Cincinnati in 1991, we started getting more frequent visits from Steve, Peter, and Vicki than we’d ever had before or since. Vicki and Peter both came together on one such occasion, and we spent a lot time together at the Alois Center for several days.  These were bittersweet occasions.  My dad, absent of many memories, remained full of energy and his own unique eccentricity, so we had some fun.  At the same time we felt a lot of sadness, for him as well as for ourselves.  We stayed till closing time on a Friday night, then decided to go out to a bar and take a break from these emotionally draining matters.  Katja and I never go to bars, so I didn’t have any favorites to suggest.  We’d passed a place called the Briarwood on our way out, so we decided to go back there.


A sign in the window said it was “Talent Night” at the Briarwood, and the bar was probably half full when we got there.  A three-piece band was playing old standards, and a few people were dancing.  We asked the waitress about talent night, and she said it would start in about ninety minutes.  She said people could do anything they wanted: sing, dance, tell jokes, etc.  You had to pay ten dollars to enter, and there was a fifty dollar first prize.  We decided that just by chance we’d picked a fun night to be there.


After we’d had one beer, Vicki felt like dancing.  I’m not much of a dancer, but I knew that Peter was pretty good.  I suggested he would be the best partner.  Peter, however, was not enthusiastic.  I claimed we ought to do that for our sister since she’d come all the way from California.  Peter replied, “I am not dancing with my own sister!  You dance with her if you think it’s that important.”  I didn’t have so much reluctance about dancing with my sister as I did about  dancing in public at all.  We bandied back and forth in a sarcastic brotherly way for a while.  Finally I proposed that the fairest solution would be if we took turns dancing with Vicki.  I said that, as a matter of good faith, I would go first.  Peter, much to my surprise, agreed.  On the next number Vicki and I got out on the dance floor.  People were doing no-touch, free-style dancing, with nobody doing any sort of conventional style as far as I could tell.  Vicki loves that and really got into it.  I worked at moving my feet to the music, waving my arms back and forth, bobbing my head, etc.  We didn’t look any worse than anyone else, and it was actually fun.  When the song ended, we went back to our table and Peter said we looked good.  “Well, it’s your turn,” I said.  Peter said, “Oh no – no way.  I’m not dancing with my sister.”  He laughed impudently, and I realized that he’d been planning that the whole time.  I protested and insisted that he live up to our contract, but it was to no avail.  I should have reminded myself that my brother was the consummate practical joker.


The bartender reminded everyone that Talent Night would begin in half an hour, and he encouraged people to sign up.  We’d had a couple of beers by then, and Vicki got the inspired idea that the three of us should be in the competition. I asked what she had in mind.  Vicki said we could be a dance group called Vicki and Her Brothers.  She would be the lead, and Peter and I would be her backup dancers.  Vicki demonstrated.  All Peter and I would have to do was stand behind her, sway back and forth, and move our hands from side to side with the music.  Vicki, in the meantime, would do an interpretive dance of the sort that you might see at a Santa Cruz after hours club.  Peter was reluctant, but I’d had enough beer that I became insistent.  Given all that sibling pressure he finally caved in.  We gave the bartender our ten dollars and “Vicki and Her Brothers” were added to the program.  We were scheduled to go on third. 


We went out to the lobby, where nobody could see us and Vicki showed us how to do our routine.  After a few miscues, Peter and I got better – well-synchronized and flowing with the music.  Vicki, standing out in front of us, was a definite headliner.  By the time we got back to our table, the competition had begun, and a redhead with a nice voice was doing a vocal.  She was o.k., but she wasn’t as good as us.  Then, as the second person got up to perform, Peter suddenly said, “I don’t feel well.  I’m not staying.  You can do this by yourselves.”  Peter didn’t seem angry about it, but he was adamant.  He simply stood up and walked out of the bar.  Vicki and I looked at one another briefly, then we followed him out.  Frankly, I didn’t like forfeiting our ten dollar entrance fee, but I was just as happy to not be performing. Vicki, accustomed to rebellious behavior on the part of her brothers, was mildly amused.  We had a good laugh on the way home.  I do sort of miss having not tried out our family performance.  Who knows, there might even have been a talent scout there. Well, such is life.




Gmail comments:

Linda C (11-8):  I love this story.

Kiera O, via Terry O.S. (11-8):  This is absolutely wonderful...please convey to David how much I enjoyed it. Loved the story about David and Vicki and PEter at the dancing bar...p.s. I think when I saw it was entitled "Letters to George" that it might be a collection of tributes to George written at the time of his death. That's why I anticipated it might be a very emotional experience to read.  On the contrary, this is the best testament imaginable....continuing the tradition of George's flare for life and celebration. David's writing is delicious, I think!

Donna D (11-10):  love it!

Monday, November 2, 2009

If Odd Horten Were to Walk Down Ludlow Avenue

                                Odd Horten and his dog

Dear George,


Some weeks ago Katja and I went to the Mariemont Cinema to see a Norwegian  movie called O’Horten.  We don’t go to Norwegian movies very much (i.e., we never went to a Norwegian movie before) so we didn’t know what to expect.


The lead character, Odd Horten, is a train engineer who is retiring after 40 years of service, having lived a simple life, mostly performing his responsible but routine job.  (Odd, incidentally, is a common name in Norway and does not have the connotations we associate with it).  Beginning on the night of his retirement dinner, he has a succession of disorienting experiences: he visits his demented mother who is mute and virtually catatonic; he climbs a scaffolding to try to get to a party in a locked apartment building, but a little boy insists that Odd sit by his bedside while he falls asleep, then makes him an all-night hostage by threatening to play his drums; misadventure causes Odd to miss his final train run; he goes to his tobacco shop to replace his pipe but the proprietor is dead; he gets lost in an utterly baffling airport, then is taken into custody as a suspected security threat; he watches well-dressed businessmen slide on their rear ends down an icy Oslo street, while another man walks up the street without difficulty carrying a salmon; he befriends a distinguished old man who demonstrates his gift of driving his car around town while blindfolded; he takes a nude swim in a public pool but is interrupted by lesbian lovers and finds himself escaping down the street in red high-heeled boots.  The next to last scene shows Odd in the cab of his train going through a pitch black tunnel with a bright light at the end.  I told Katja that I thought this depicted Horten’s death, but she rejected this idea.  Though I was quite certain about this, I couldn’t find a single critic who agree with my interpretation.


I’m sure O’Horten elicited very polarized reactions.  At first I gave it a C+.  It’s perhaps the slowest movie I’ve ever seen.  I have come to favor movies starring Bruce Willis that have explosions in them every few minutes, so I initially felt that absolutely nothing at all happened in O’Horten.  Over the next few days, though, the movie nagged at me.  Among other questions, what did Horton’s strange experiences have to do with his having just retired?  Horton had left a completely familiar, highly structured world and now was confronted with a bewildering array of unfamiliar situations which took on a surreal character.  I’ve had occasional experiences of this sort recently, having lost about 80% of the deeply ingrained foci of my conscious life.  What do these bizarre experiences have to do with aging?  If Horton’s perceptions didn’t signal the early stages of dementia, they were at least consistent with some of the confusion and bewilderment that accompanies the loss of gray matter.  Maybe this wasn’t such a boring movie after all.


The film did remind me of going to the Museum of Modern Art for the first time as a college student.  It had just rained as I left, and the entire wet streetscape took on a Picasso-esque flavor with bizarre juxtapositions of odd shapes and colors, strange fluctuating events.  It was both eerie and thrilling, a demonstration of how our senses can be substantially altered by art.  As I walked down Ludlow Avenue for the next few days after seeing O’Horten, I became aware of how many quirky and inexplicable things were going on around me.  Ludlow is a very rich and rather unpredictable place.  So I started keeping track of some these in a diary which I titled “Strange Experiences.”  Here are a few of the recent entries -- what Odd Horten might have seen if he came to Cincinnati and took a walk on Ludlow Avenue and environs:




A robin stood stock still in our front lawn.  When the dogs ran toward it, it didn’t fly but hip-hopped thirty feet over to our neighbor’s yard.


A group of six young men in gym shorts raced past me on the other side of Ludlow Ave.  Within a second or two, four young women in gym shorts raced past me on my side of the street.


A young couple walked by, speaking animatedly in Czechoslovakian or perhaps Egyptian.


Someone left a large watermelon in a green recycling bin on the sidewalk with a slice cut through its upper half.  Out of curiosity, I lifted the top up, and hundreds of tiny fruit flies flew out at me.


A gray-haired balding man walked down street holding four dalmations who tugged at their leashes and pulled him in three different directions.


A young woman in jeans sat on the sidewalk soliciting money with a large sign and basket while she was completely absorbed in what looked like a 600-page philosophy book. 


A man helped unload furniture from a moving van across the street while wearing Mickey Mouse ears.


A woman picked her teeth while chatting with a companion in the front window of the new coffee shop.


An African-American woman walked by wearing a multi-colored baseball cap that read “I Love Barack.”


As I passed a neighbor’s driveway a rooster stood there looking at me.


A teenager walked by and the rooster turned and followed him down the street.


A complete stranger across hollered to me from across the street, “We were just talking about your dogs, and there you are!”


Two giggling Chinese girls asked if they could take photos of one another with the sheepdogs (which they did).


An SUV drove by, its every square inch from top to bottom covered with thick mud.


A thirtysomething woman stood at Sitwell’s bus stop grasping the string of a very large helium balloon that proclaimed “Happy Birthday.”


Duffy pooped on someone’s lawn and I’d forgotten to bring a plastic bag.  Though I didn’t notice anyone in the vicinity, I bent over as if I was holding a bag, made the fake  motions of picking up three poops, shook my invisible bag up and down and pretended to tie a knot it, then nonchalantly walked off carrying my supposed acquisition in front of me to avoid the imaginary smell.  (Unfortunately there was nobody there to fool.)


A six foot tall dark-skinned woman with reddish-purple hair walked out of the parking lot, and I wondered if the woman were a man.


A Pakistani man outside of Graeter’s asked if he could use his laptop to Skype an image of the sheepdogs to his friend in Pakistan.  The guy in Pakistan got to watch Mike and Duffy for a couple of minutes.  Given their first and only international stage, the dogs didn’t do that much of interest.


An elderly man squatted outside Kellers IGA with the top of his head hairless and bloody red, appearing as though his entire scalp had been removed to about a quarter-inch depth.  I wanted to ask who had done that and why, but was too embarrassed and hurried on instead.


I walked into Burnet Woods, and a young couple lay side by side on their backs in the middle of the path.  I carefully stepped around them, and they didn’t seem to notice me.


By and large, we experience the world as a meaningful, orderly, and familiar place.  I think that this is particularly the case  when one is working full-time at a profession, since one’s thoughts tend to be centered on goal-oriented tasks and one is prone to screen out peripheral and meaningless distractions.  My theory is that retirement changes things  One loses their center, their cognitive boundaries become more permeable, and consequently more random, meaningless, and uninterpretable things enter in.  I don’t know whether this is good or bad – probably a bit of both.  I do know that walking down Ludlow Avenue is both more perplexing and more entertaining than it used to be.




Gmail Comments:

Ami G. (11-2-09):  Dear David, This is one of your best.

JML (11-3-09):  Love that post Dad.

Vicki L (11-11-09):  Hi David, Thanks so much for this heads up on retirement. On the one hand, reading your account, I felt I was transported back to my experiences in the 60's...days which have profoundly informed my life without the cost of losing all my teeth or going to jail (as in T. Leary's case). On the other hand, I live in this environment which is daily filled with the most unexpected, random events imaginable (despite my goal-oriented determination). I wonder what my retirement will look like in Santa Cruz? Perhaps instead of being consumed by the strange phenomena which I now mistake for ordinary life.....I'll see things like; dandelions or a man petting his dog on the porch or a yellow taxi cab driving by. These things would be so refreshing, would remind me of the world I once knew. I do agree .... both subjectivity and the world at large are very mysterious. Love, Vicki  PS How is Katja doing?