Monday, April 30, 2012

The Dogs Turn Ten

Sheepdogs on their birthday (Duffy, left, black ear; Mike, right, all-white head)

Dear George,
Our sheepdogs, Mike and Duffy, celebrated their tenth birthday on Saturday.  Like all such things, it’s hard to believe.  It seems not that long ago that Katja brought them home as little roly-poly balls of fluff.  Now they’re the equivalent of age seventy in human years, and we all live together in a senior commune of sorts.  

 The other day Mike and Duffy and I went on an outing to Burnet Woods, and I took some photos along the way. Here’s how these handsome, ten-year-olds are looking these days.  The dogs have recently gotten their spring cuts, and they are looking very lean and boyish.  People on the street frequently ask if they are puppies, and they’re surprised when I say they’re ten.  Because we’re around them all the time, we see more signs of the aging process.  Both dogs have to work harder to get up from lying on the floor.  Mike struggles some when walking up the back porch steps.  Duffy has always jumped into our high bed from a standing position, but now he occasionally misses and has to try again. 

In addition, the dogs’ personalities have tended to change with age.  Though still the alpha dog, Duffy has mellowed a lot.  He’s less fanatical about owning all the toys in the house and less frightened by the garbage can lids on the sidewalk on trash pick-up day.  Mike, who’s always been subordinate, has become more assertive, even aggressive at times.  When he’s up on the bed first, he goes crazy barking at Duffy to keep him off.  Duffy, however, is not intimidated.  Usually he turns his head and simply lets Mike do his thing.  Eventually both of them will circle around and lie down, and that’s the end of the fracas.  While they used to have physical spats every now and then which wound up with bite marks in Mike’s ear, now it’s just some mutual growling which is macho-macho but short-lived.  

Mike and Duffy go to see the dog chiropractor in Northern Kentucky every three months, and he gave both dogs a good report on our most recent visit.  I’m especially pleased for Mike because his X-rays at age one showed severe hip dysplasia, and we didn’t even know if he would be around at age ten.   

The dogs, of course, continue to be at the center of our daily lives.  They’re very human-oriented and have become more affectionate with age.  They’re both distressed when we leave the house and are thrilled when we return.  An outside observer would probably conclude that Katja and I are pathologically enmeshed with the dogs since we exhibit practically every stereotype of excessive American pet ownership.  However, it’s hard not to be infatuated.  Though we sometimes have had parties on Mike and Duffy’s birthday, we just had a quiet day this year.  They lay on the bed for five hours with Katja, listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Wagner’s ring cycle.  They looked like they might be enjoying it, but who’s to say?

G-mail Comments
-Terry O-S (4-30):  Happy Birthday to Mike and Duffy.  Katja listening to the Ring Cycle on Saturday reminded me of your Dad lying on his bed at Farm and listening to the weekly Saturday Met broadcast.  Have you and Katja attended any of the live digital broadcasts of Met performances at the Regal Theaters?  I absolutely cannot do Wagner - but there are others I've really enjoyed.    Terry

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pig Island

The Menominee River from the Michigan side (circa 1906)

Dear George,
This photo of the Menominee River is from a postcard published about 1906.  I was excited to run across it because it was taken at the approximate location that became our family’s front yard some 40 years later.  My grandfather Guy Cramer built a summer cottage near this spot in 1941, and, after my dad returned from the war in 1946, our family moved there permanently on a year round basis. I was 9, Steven was 5, Peter was 1, and Vicki was soon to be born.  Ours was the first house on that stretch of the river, and, though we gained a couple of neighbors in ensuing years, we had a strong sense of living by ourselves in the woods.  It was a big change from living in the middle of town.

As the postcard shows, there was a large island across the river from us, roughly six-tenths of a mile long and four-tenths of a mile wide.  My parents named it “Pig Island”, and that’s what we’ve always called it.  Family legend holds that when we first moved to the river a farmer was keeping his herd of pigs on the island, and we could occasionally spot them grazing on the shore.  I can’t remember that sight any more, but it’s probably true.  Across the river from our house, Pig Island had a distant, mysterious air about it.  The river had been the major conduit for the logging industry during the late 1800’s, and remnants of a couple of the loggers’ structures still remained -- a crumbled cabin on the eastern tip of Pig Island and a weather-beaten log building, perhaps a bunkhouse, on a small manmade island in the middle of the river. 

My brother Steven and I would row to Pig Island in our rowboat, wrap our anchor chain around a large tree which hung out over the water, and embark upon the island.  We’d swim at the river’s shore, gather clam shells and snails, strip birch bark from fallen logs, eat wild blackberries, collect snakeskins and antlers that deer had shed, run through the forest, climb trees, and rummage around the old logging cabin.  We could be pirates or Indians or lumberjacks or seventeenth century explorers, depending on our whims.  Each summer we’d gather up some dried fallen logs, tie them behind the boat, and tow them home to build a primitive raft for swimming.  When I reached my teens Steve and I would take overnight camping trips to Pig Island, transporting our gear by boat.  We’d clear a patch of land for a campsite, build a fire pit with rocks we’d carried up from the river, dig a latrine, cut tent poles and stakes from tree branches or shrubs, and boil river water for drinking and cooking.  One winter we cut evergreen branches to construct a platform which would shield our tent floor from the foot-deep snow in the freezing weather.  Unfortunately I gashed my left hand with a hatchet, and our arctic expedition was cut short. 

The tip of Pig Island (right) in the winter (circa 1952)

In the summer time my dad would row the boat, well-stocked with life preservers, while Steve and I would swim across the river to Pig Island, as did Peter and Vicki a few years later.  As we grew older and that task became less challenging, we swam all the way down to the logging structure a half mile away.  Years later I was horrified when my teenage sister Vicki and her friend Kiera, in our parents’ absence, swam across to Pig Island with no accompanying boat or life preservers.  They were always the most adventuresome. 

In the mid-1950’s one of my father’s friends, Bob H, who was the president of a local manufacturing company, bought Pig Island and its next-door neighbor.  He built a one-lane bridge to the island from the Marinette shore, put in a gravel road to the island’s interior, and erected a contemporary A-frame house and tennis court.  We were distressed because civilization had invaded our wilderness paradise.  One day my siblings and I and the O’Hara kids rowed over to the western end of the island and walked in to check out the A-frame house.  We didn’t know it, but Bob and his wife had bought three Rottweilers which they allowed to run free.  Midway on our inland journey the dogs started coming after us.  We abruptly turned around and walked gingerly back to our boat, with the dogs barking at the top of their lungs and nearly nipping at our heels.  That was our last unannounced expedition to Pig Island, though I did go over several times to play tennis with Bob.

There was a second large island immediately west of Pig Island, and we called the small waterway between the two islands “the channel”.  Much narrower than the main river, the channel was an entirely hidden and quiet world unto itself.  We could never use our rowboat’s 1.5 horsepower motor there because the water was shallow and filled underneath its surface with stumps left over from logging days.  The channel’s surface was covered with flowering water lilies, and dragonflies would flit about, sometimes landing on our arms or shoulders.  Turtles sunned themselves on the tops of deadheads.   Blue heron nested in the channel, and they’d fly off when they heard the sound of our oars.  Often when we entered the channel two men were fishing in an aluminum boat in one of the lagoons.  We’d wave from a distance, but never exchanged words.  There was a small marshy island in the middle of the channel, and I camped there by myself one night as a 16-year-old.  I fantasized that I’d left home and was hiding out because the Russians had invaded the U.S. and occupied Menominee and Marinette.  Having escaped and established my secret base in the channel, my plan was to carry out night-time forays into town and blow up the Russian installations.  In real life, however, the mosquitoes got so thick by dusk that I had to set my guerilla plans aside and devote my time to swatting insects. 

Sunset on the river

There’s a great temptation to romanticize one’s childhood, and this seems to escalate the further removed one becomes from it all.  When I push myself to be realistic, I have to recognize there were lots of drawbacks to country living, e.g., social isolation from other kids, long periods of boredom.  From the distance of decades, however, it all seems enchanting and idyllic.  Pig Island, in particular, was a magical place.  Until my mid-teens, we never saw another human being on the island, and, for all practical purposes, the land effectively belonged to the kids in our family.  Free from parental surveillance, we could do whatever we pleased, and Pig Island provided a limitless playground for exploration, independence, and growing competence.  Sometimes I wonder where Pig Island went in my life and what its equivalent is nowadays.  I haven’t figured it out, but I would like to find a new version of Pig Island if I can.

G-mail Comments
-Vicki L (4-29):  Hi David,  That was a lovely reminiscence of Pig Island...not only vividly evoking my own memories - but letting me in on all kinds of things you did that I never would have contemplated - eg. camping in 'the channel' by myself! Don't forget we still own 100' on the banks of the Menominee. Love, Vicki
-JML (4-27):  This is wonderful dad 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Peter's Postcard Legacy: Part 2. Vicki and Chums

Vicki, en route from a family wedding (Boise, ID, 2002)

Dear George,
My younger brother Peter, who passed away in 2006 at the much too young age of 61, was a prolific and skilled photographer. He was initially inspired by our dad, Vic, as were a lot of our family members. Around 2001 Peter started reproducing Vic’s photos from the 1940s and 50’s of our family and friends. He mailed these in the form of postcards to his kids, siblings, and nieces and nephews. Then he started adding in his own photos from the 1970’s to the mid-2000’s. The cumulative result was a treasure trove of family memorabilia. Here are some of Peter’s photos (all taken by him over a thirty-year period) of our sister Vicki and her family from our California branch.

Vicki at the Plaza in NYC (2004)

Vicki was born a couple of years after World War II, the youngest of Vic and Doris’ four children and the only girl in the family. I always think of Vicki as managing to combine a sense of seriousness and responsibility with a sense of humor and a great capacity for fun. One can see hints of these various qualities in Peter’s portrait.

Dave, Vic, Vicki, and Steve at Farm

It’s not the easiest thing being a young girl with three older brothers. Vicki was adored by her parents and also by her brothers, though the latter combined that with a degree of envy and perennial teasing. As adults, we’d all meet for annual reunions at my parents’ Farm near Birch Creek in Menominee County, MI, and we enjoyed loving connections and lots of laughter. Here’s some of our group having a good time.

Peter, Steve, Vicki (Baker City, OR, 2002)

Vicki and Peter were closest in age to one another and grew up as a subgroup of their own within the family. Both admired their older brother Steven, and one can see that they all got along famously.

George (Boise, Idaho, 2002)

Vicki met her future partner and husband George on an elevator on the University of Michigan campus where she was completing her B.A. in Psychology and George was a doctoral student in Political Science. They fell in love right away. George, who passed away in 2007, was a completely unique person. Reflective and philosophical, George was equally capable of madcap antics.

Vicki and George at Sawyer’s camp (circa 1971)

Vicki and George became partners in the midst of the counterculture era of the late 60’s and early 70’s, and, drawing from that social revolution, they lived by values that often gave our sheltered U.P. parents mild fits.


All the kids in our family grew up in the woods, and, on our visits home to Farm, we’d help out with various outdoor tasks, e.g., trimming evergreen trees in the nearby forest.

Faith, George, Vicki, and doggie in Green Bay

We also grew up as swimmers. Farm was a mile away from Green Bay, and we’d make regular excursions there. Here are Vicki and George with Peter’s wife Faith and a family dog.

Jacob at his NYC book reading

All of Vicki and George’s kids were home schooled as children, then studied and graduated from UC-Berkeley. Here’s their son Jacob doing a reading of his book on AIDS in the Black community at a New York City bookshop. Jacob married Kazandra in 2005, and they are raising two kiddies.

Rhys and Tim’s Wedding

As Vic and Doris’ grandchildren entered adulthood, one of our great joys has been gatherings at family weddings. Here’s Vicki and George’s oldest daughter, Rhys, and her soon-to-be-husband, Tim, at their 2003 wedding in Santa Cruz. Rhys and Tim are parents of two children also.

Grandfather Vic and Abra (circa 1990)

Abra is Vicki and George’s youngest daughter. As one of the youngest grandchildren in the family, she and her grandfather had a special bond. Abra recently married her long-time sweetheart Michael and is finishing up her doctoral degree in Art History at Princeton.

Vicki, George, Peter, and Gayle celebrating in NYC

Our family has been spread all across the country, but we’ve all enjoyed many get-togethers over the years. Vicki and George flew in for Jacob’s book-reading in NYC in 2004, and Peter and Gayle came in from New Jersey to celebrate the occasion.

Many thanks and much gratitude to Peter for keeping all these memories alive for posterity.

G-mail Comments
-Phyllis S-S(4-23):  Dave,   What a sweet story - maybe Vicki will see it and be back in touch if she isn't already.  Hope all is well.   pss
-Kiersta K-B (4-23): beautiful david, thank you. It's hard to believe that Peter, Steve and Georgie are all gone but it's nice to be reminded of how they live on in their kids and grandkids.   K

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I'm My Actual Age? You Must Be Kidding!

Dustin Hoffman, age 74, looking good

Jane Fonda, age 74, looking great

Charles Manson, age 74, not so hot

Dear George,
My eyesight has been bothering me lately, and the opthalmologist decided that time has come for cataract surgery. The first step was to get a pre-surgery physical, so I went in to see Dr. C. last Monday. He looked in my ears, asked me some routine questions, then said he wanted to do some blood work and an EKG. I pointed out that the examination form said that blood work was for people who were anemic. He said that was true, but, because of my age, he was going to do blood work plus an EKG. He added that I don’t look like I’m 74 and I don’t act like I’m 74, but, in fact, I am 74. So he didn’t want to take any chances. This came as a big shock. I guess I put too much stock in how I look and how I act. The idea that there was some firmer underlying reality to my biological age that contradicted these surface appearances was disturbing. Does this mean I am an aged person hidden inside someone who doesn’t look quite that old? The medical assistant came in, drew some blood, and hooked me up to the EKG machine. The EKG looked fine, but I still was rattled by my newly altered sense of self.

I came home and went straight to the computer in order to look at photos of people who were 74. For the most part, they didn’t look that bad, probably because most were air-brushed portraits of celebrities. Some, of course, looked awful. A few were corpses in various stages of rigor mortis. One had died in a burning building. Then I googled “age 74,” and the first thing that popped up was a news story from The Telegraph titled, “We are happiest at 74, says new report.” The story summarized a British survey of 21,000 respondents across the age spectrum who were asked to rate how happy and contented they were on a seven-point scale. On average, teenagers rated their happiness as 5.5, but ratings gradually declined to 5.0 by age 40, then began to rise again. Surprisingly, 74-year-olds recorded the highest average happiness ratings of 5.9. After age 74, ratings began to dip again, perhaps reflecting people’s worries about how much time they have left. : The researchers concluded, "Compared to younger individuals, older people tend to place a greater emphasis on emotional aspects of social interactions and are likely to remember the emotional content of their experiences."

I told Katja about the research, and she said she was feeling pretty happy these days. She thought I seemed pretty happy too. I sort of agreed, though I was still befuddled. Thinking it over, I decided I’d felt persecuted as a child, then so acutely self-conscious during my teenage years that it was impossible to be happy. College was an exciting time, but we spent most of our time trying to be alienated beatniks, and we rejected happiness as shallow and inauthentic. Graduate school was threatening and full of psychic pain, and the early untenured years of my academic career were even more agonizing My 40s and 50s offered a little more security and reward, but they were still full of pressure. All in all, I decided, the British research was right. I’m about as happy at 74 as I’ve ever been. Retirement isn’t the greatest thing in the world, but you are more carefree and get to choose things you like without people pushing you around. I decided that my doctor was probably right, but there’s more to the picture. Even if I look younger but am really older, there are other perks, like happiness and contentment, that come along with it. They should invent an EKG that measures that.

G-mail Comments
-Jennifer M (4-20):   :-)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Östersund Is In Our Blood

Map of Sweden Showing Östersund

Dear George,
I’ve always amazed by how much our family roots shape who we are. Katja, for example, grew up with her family in center city Philadelphia, and she is an urban person through and through. Just back from Italy, her dream is to continue touring the great cities of Europe. She likes dining in fine restaurants, shopping at Bloomingdate’s, and attending the opera. By contrast, I’m a small town, even rural sort of person. I like being off in the forest; my dream vacation, a camping road trip in Michigan with the sheepdogs. My best meal recently was at Mom’s Diner in Dayton with its beef goulash and homemade apple pie. What’s one to make of such differences?

My siblings and I were especially shaped by our family’s Swedish heritage. Thanks to my aunt Martha, we’ve learned a lot about our genealogy. It turns out that our paternal family line emigrated to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Östersund, Sweden. My grandfather, V.A. Sr., grew up there and brought along Swedish family culture with him to the U.S. Though we kids were two generations removed from Östersund, we were raised to be like little Swedes. Östersund and its surroundings have much in common with the U.P. and with our home town of Menominee. Östersund is the county seat of Jämtland county, a rural area located in a relatively isolated region of central Sweden. It was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III in order to centralize trading by Jämtland’s farmers. The farmers, however, weren’t interested in cooperating, and, during its first 50 years, Östersund struggled to survive, growing only by about 8 people per year. By 1820 the little village had fewer than 400 people.

Lake Storsjön, Östersund

Like Menominee’s location on Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Östersund is located on the shores of Storsjön, one of Sweden’s largest lakes. Storsjön has its own unique history. Much like legends of the Loch Ness monster, people have believed for centuries that a huge creature called the Storsjöodjuret lives in the depths of the lake, and visitors from around the world have come to catch a glimpse of it. Some years ago a fisheries officer named Ragnar Björks was reportedly checking fishing permits on the lake when a huge creature with an 18-foot tail slapped the water and threw Björks’ rowboat 9 or 10 feet into the air. Since 1987 over 400 sightings of the Storsjöodjuret have been recorded.

Jamtli History Land, Östersund

Located across from the island of Frösön, the home of the Norse God Freyr, Östersund is the sole city in Jämtland. Our great grandfather Carl August L. was born in Östersund in 1830, as was our great grandmother Martha (Thorisdotter) in 1833 . When our great grandparents were children, Östersund was a small farmer village with a population of about 500. Carl became a successful merchant in Östersund when he grew up, and he and Martha had three children, Carl Jr., Anna, and Victor August.

View of Old Östersund (circa 1881, when my grandfather was 6)

Östersund’s economy began improving in the 1850’s and 1860’s when a full-scale logging industry was developed. By the early 1870’s trade had begun expanding dramatically. My grandfather Victor August L. was born in Östersund in 1875. A railroad was built in 1879 soon after his birth and helped turn Östersund into a real city. The railroad, finished in 1882, ran from coast to coast through Östersund and connected Sweden and Norway. Östersund grew faster than any other city in Sweden for the next decade, passing 20 other Swedish cities in population.

The Good Templar Order House in Östersund

During this period of expansion the free minded Good Templar movement, an important force in the worldwide temperance movement, took hold in Östersund, and the city became known as a world center for Good Templars (who advocated total abstinence from liquor). By 1883, nearly a quarter of the city’s total population of 3,000 were Good Templars. The Good Templar Order House in Östersund, built in 1885, was the world’s largest, and the order had their own banks, insurance company, markets, library, and coffeehouses. Given my family’s appreciation of Glögg and various other alcoholic spirits, I don’t think we were members of the Good Templars, though we did inherit a pernicious moral streak. We were not to stick around though. Like hundreds of thousands of their countrymen confronted with depression and disastrous crop failures, my grandfather V.A., his parents, Carl and Martha, and his sister Anna emigrated to the United States in 1893, locating in Marinette and Menominee. Carl died in Marinette in 1899, and Martha died in 1901. V.A. married Olga Olson of Marquette in 1904, and Olga gave birth to my father, Victor August L. Jr., in Marinette in 1908.

Grandmother Olga, V.A. Sr., daughter Martha, son Vic (circa 1940)

Nowadays Östersund (pop. 60,000) is Sweden’s 24th largest city. Like Menominee and the U.P., Östersund has full-fledged winters. Less than 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the city enjoys 118 snow days a year, and its coldest temperatures fall to a typical -29 in January and -23 in February. The city bills itself as Vinterstaden (Winter City), and its citizens and tourists delight in winter sports, e.g., speed skating, ice-fishing, dog sledding, cross-country skiing. The winter Nordic games have been held in Östersund on several occasions, and the city, with its nearby mountains, has been considered as a potential site for the Winter Olympics.

Vinterstaden, Östersund

So, just as Swedish immigrants to the U.S. found the U.P. to be a highly compatible place in the 1890’s, I have the same sense today about Östersund. It’s easy to envision our family roots there – a small town in rural surroundings, far from urban centers, located on a great body of water, a local fishing industry, rich forest lands, a logging history, a northern climate with hardy winters, outdoor sports and activities. It’s probably stretching it to claim that we are spiritual offspring of Östersund, but it certainly feels like a congenial motherland. Maybe my sister Vicki and I will make a trip there one day and see what we can make of our social origins.

SOURCES: (“Östersund); (“Östersund – Winter City”); (“Östersund); (“The Lake Storsjön Monster”); (“Östersund)

G-mail Comments
-Vicki L (4-20):  Thanks David - That was a fascinating piece of family history. Let's go to Ostersund together!...  Hope things are snappy on Ludlow Ave. Best, Sis
-JML (4-15):  I want to go 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Zoo Blooms

Dear George,
We always think of going to the zoo in order to see the wild beasts, but, as an extra treat, the Cincinnati Zoo’s botanical gardens rank among the finest in the U.S. In fact, the zoo features more plant species (over 3,000) than animals. Each spring they celebrate “Zoo Blooms” by planting a hundred thousand tulips and over a million daffodils and hyacinths. With our early spring this year, the zoo grounds have been looking beautiful since mid-March. Here’s a glimpse.

G-mail Comments
-Ami G (4-15):  Wow!  These are gorgeous! 
-Phyllis S-S (4-14): Dear Dave,  Lovely, lovely photos.  I'm going to a charity luncheon there next week and hope it still looks pretty…  Phyllis