Friday, February 26, 2016

Who Is Fred K. And Why Is He In Our Yard?

Dear George,
Like many voters I’ve watched a majority of the presidential primary debates in recent months.  The Republican events are the most appealing because of their fireworks and reality-show flavor.  I skipped the first two Democratic debates because of lack of suspense, but that’s definitely changed.  The latest Ohio polls show a tie in the state between Clinton and Sanders, while Donald Trump is leading Governor Kasich by five points.  

The Ohio primary is on March 15th, too far away to generate much attention.   Aside from the presidential race, I haven’t even been aware of who else was running.  However, when I walked out of our front door the other day, I noticed that there were two political signs in our yard promoting the candidacy of Fred K. in the U.S. congressional primacy.  Not having any idea who Fred K. was or what party he belonged to, I called Katja on my iPhone to see if she’d given permission for someone to put signs in our yard.  She’d never heard of Fred K. either and was mildly outraged.  “Take them down,” she said.  “They have no right to leave signs on our lawn without our permission.”  I said I probably would, but I thought I’d check first to see whether we want to support Fred K. 

When I looked him up on the Internet, it turns out we had actually voted for Fred K. two years ago.  So much for my political attention span.  Fred had run on the Democratic ticket for the Ohio District 1 congressional seat held by Republican incumbent Steve Chabot.  Recently reconfigured, District 1 now includes Cincinnati’s west side, various suburbs, and nearby Warren County.  It wasn’t much of a contest.  Cabot had $860,000 in campaign funds available; Fred K., $16,000.  Chabot won a one-sided race, 63% to 37%.  Chabot is a local fixture.  He was recently identified by a nonpartisan group as the most conservative member of the U.S. House.  In response to this accolade, he tweeted, “There aren’t many to my right.”  Aside from 2008 when Obama led to a Democratic sweep, Chabot has been a House member representing Cincinnati area residents since 1995.    According to Balletopedia, he’s anti-abortion, anti-affirmative action, anti-Obamacare, anti-gay marriage, anti-clean energy, and anti-higher taxes on the wealthy.   On the other hand, he favors charter and religious schools, absolute gun rights, and keeping God present in the public sphere.  

Fred K. is hardly a Bernie Sanders liberal.  He ran in the congressional primary four years ago on the Republican ticket, but switched parties when he judged that the Tea Party had drawn Republicanism too far to the right.  He describes himself as a moderate Democrat.  He’s running in the Democratic primary against Jim B., a former two-time Libertarian candidate, and Michele Y., a local lawyer and author.  Jim B. garnered 2-3% of the vote in past elections.  Michele Y. is a first-time candidate but is endorsed by the Hamilton County Democratic Party. 

Geographical Boundaries of Ohio District 1   

Actually it doesn’t matter who wins the Democratic primary because, in effect, whoever the candidate is they have already lost November’s general election.  District 1 was reasonably competitive a decade ago.  However, as a consequence of gerrymandering by Republican legislators after the 2010 census, the boundaries of Ohio District 1 have been manipulated to guarantee victory for Republican candidates.  The map above shows how preposterous the geographical arrangement is.   Ohio is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation.  For example, in the 2012 election Democratic candidates for the Ohio house received 55,000 more votes than Republican candidates, but, due to gerrymandering, Republicans won a supermajority of 60 out of 99 House seats.  Consequently we have an extremely right-wing state legislature.  Because election outcomes are preordained in our district, there isn’t much incentive for local Democrats to vote at all, at least in the congressional race.  

Katja thinks we are obligated to vote for Fred K. because we are promoting him in our front yard.  After looking over the primary candidates I will probably vote for Michele Y.  She doesn’t have any record in public office, but at  least she hasn’t yet been decimated by Steve Chabot.  If Michele Y. wants to add a sign or two in our yard, she’s more than welcome.  We’ll go faithfully to the polls as we have in the past.  However, it’s grating and pitiful to realize that Ohio’s congressional election outcomes have already been decided in Columbus.
P.S.  There is a ray of hope.  In November 2015 Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan anti-gerrymandering bill which will go into operation in 2021 and provide for fairer rules for drawing districts for state legislature elections.  Supporters hope that a similar plan will be approved this year for congressional districts in Ohio.   

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Winter Ephemera

Dear George,
Each of the seasons has its own visual wonders.  Winter, with its landscape transformed to white, can be the most spectacular of all.  We haven’t had a lot of snow so far this year, but we did get four or five inches the other day.  I went out with my new camera and took these photos in our immediate neighborhood.  I’m glad I did because today, with an expected high in the 60’s, even the last dabs of snow will have disappeared.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Unfettered Valentines

Dear George,
What, I wondered the other day, if we could send Valentines to anybody in the world?  Like Queen Elizabeth or the Empress of Rangoon.  Who would I personally pick to send Valentines to?  After I mulled it over for a while, I realized that we can actually do this.  Though not having private mailing addresses used to be a barrier, the Internet solves this problem because we can transmit our greetings through the ether.  Excited about the prospect, I quickly compiled a list of over 70 people that I’d like to send Valentine’s wishes to.  It seemed appropriate to limit my list to the opposite sex, though, of course, I could include a Valentine to Garrison Keillor or Stephen Colbert too.  Seventy was too excessive, so I winnowed my list down to a bakers dozen.  Maybe I’ll even hear back from two or three.   In any case, here are my messages to just some of the famous personages for whom I have a soft spot in my heart this Valentine’s Day. 

Zsa Zsa Gabor, actress and socialite

Dear Zsa Zsa,
I’ve long feared that all of the Hollywood movie queens of my youth have gone on to meet their maker, so I was pleased to see that you were still around for your 99th birthday last week.  I still remember your glamorous performance in Moulin Rouge (1952).  I know your senior years are not going so well, but I wish you many moments of cheer as you celebrate your 100th Valentine’s Day today.

Cissy King, former dancer on The Lawrence Welk Show

Dear Cissy,
As I do most Saturday nights, last night at 7:30 I was watching you and Bobby Burgess do swing dancing on the PBS rerun of the Welk Show.  I was glad to learn that you're still performing at age 70 on the "Stars of the Lawrence Welk Show" tour.  When the tour arrives in Cincinnati, I plan to be in the front row.  Champaign bubbles to you on Valentine’s Day.  

Kelly Ripa, Co-host of Live! with Kelly and Michael

Dear Kelly,
When I first saw you on Live! with Regis and Kelly some fifteen years ago, my heart skipped a beat.  If anything, your charms have only increased over the years.  Please include me among the tens of millions of your Valentine admirers.

Lisa Kudrow (“Dr. Fiona Wallace”, Web Therapy, Showtime)  

Dear Lisa,
I used to consider going into psychotherapy, but the prospect was always too daunting.  Now that I've watched your brilliant therapeutic interventions on Web Therapy, I’m eager to be one of your Skyping clients.  Empathic Valentine wishes to you.  

Vera Farmiga (“Norma Bates”, Bates Motel, A&E)

Dear Vera,
I worry that playing the character of Norma Bates may be too much for you to bear.  It’s bad enough to lose your life savings in a disastrous motel venture, but being a single mom to a psychotic  adolescent serial killer is the pits.  When Bates Motel begins its new season on March 7, I will be rooting for you.  In the meantime, Valentine wishes from the dark side. 

Jane Fonda, actress and activist (at the Golden Globes, Feb. 2016)

Dear Jane,
Since we were both born in 1937, it always perks me up to see you looking so young and healthy.  Here’s to your Valentine’s Fountain of Youth.  

Mercedes Stafford (“Sadistic Sadie” on the Cincinnati Roller Girls)

Dear Mercedes,
In my college co-op days I used to frequent the Saturday night roller derby matches in the old Armory near 26th and Lexington in Manhattan.  I was pleased when the Cincinnati Roller Girls fielded their team here in town.  Thought I’ve only attended once so far, I was most impressed with Sadistic Sadie’s bravado and unprovoked aggression.  Roller Derby Valentine’s Greetings to you.

Michelle Dockery (“Lady Mary Crawley” in Downton Abbey)

Dear Michelle,
We love your perfect portrayal of Lady Mary every Sunday evening.  However, I do worry about Lady Mary’s psychic well-being.  Rich, intelligent, elegant, she’s been unable to find a true match among her never-ending parade of suitors.  If Lady Mary thinks herself superior to these chaps, that’s because she is.  Maybe tonight’s Valentine’s episode will turn the tide.    

Edith Wilma Connor, the world’s oldest female body-builder

Dear Edith, 
As the oldest competitive female bodybuilder at age 80, you are a true inspiration.  I keep you in mind when I’m lifting those twelve-pound weights at the fitness center.  Here’s to building our Valentine biceps. 

Lady Gaga, singer and actress

Dear Lady Gaga,
I didn’t pay close attention to your career until you started playing the Countess in American Horror Story.  The undead Countess is extremely scary, but I still hope she’ll be my Valentine.  

Eugenie Bouchard, Canadian pro tennis player

Dear Genie,
You probably don’t remember me but I was cheering for you from the twentieth row at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati a couple of years ago.  I was happy when you reached your number five world ranking in 2014, and then I was sad about your locker room fall and concussion at the U.S. Open.  I figure 2016 will be a great comeback year for you.  Valentine victory wishes!  

Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood

Dear Cecile,
I have been a fan of Planned Parenthood since since 1960 when I accompanied Katja to  pick up her birth control pills at the Liberty St. clinic in Ann Arbor (one of the first outlets for the pill in the nation).  I am sorry that your organization is coming under such malevolent, crazy attacks, and I fantasize that people will start coming to their senses on Valentine’s Day.

Stephanie Courtney (“Flo” in Progressive Insurance TV ads)

Dear Stephanie,
I DVR most of the TV shows we watch these days because I like to fast-forward through the commercials.  Your laugh-out-loud Progressive Insurance ads are the exception.   I not only watch them in real time, but then I sometimes rewind and watch them over again a second time.  I hope we’ll see your newest ad on Valentine’s Day. 

I could write a lot more, but now I need to go down to CVS and buy a real Valentine for Katja.  It will cost $5.99, and she will be able to open it and put it on the kitchen counter.  It’s the 58th Valentine’s Day that we’ve celebrated together, and I’d have to say a real card is more enjoyable than a dozen Valentines on the Internet.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Boiler Works Stories

Dear George,
Every time I read about people in my home town in earlier generations, I’m struck by how dramatically different their lives and times were.  I thought about this most recently when I was searching for information on the Internet about the Menominee Boiler Works.  The Boiler Works had special significance in my childhood because the firm’s president, John Fernstrum, and his wife Grayce and kids shared a house with my parents and myself at the foot of the Interstate Bridge on Ogden Avenue.  The Fernstrums lived on the first floor, and we lived on the second floor.  Their daughter, Sally, and I were the same age, and we began kindergarten together at Boswell School.  Sally and I walked to school together every morning.  My recollection is that Boswell was at least a mile away, but, when I look at a city map, it was more like 6 or 7 blocks.  In any case, during the freezing U.P. winter it was a long trek for five-year-olds.  Fortunately, the Fernstrum Boiler Works was exactly halfway between our house and the school.  Sally and I would stop there every morning to warm our hands and mittens over the pot-bellied stove in the office.  We must have been cute little kids because the office staff always greeted us enthusiastically.  They might even have given us hot chocolate, though my memory could be playing tricks on that.  In any case, the Boiler Works was our sanctuary — sort of a home away from home.

The Menominee Boiler Works had belonged to the Fernstrum family for well over half a century.  The first Fernstrum owner was Sally’s great-grandfather, Frank Gustav Fernstrum.  Frank was born in Westergotland, Sweden, on May 11, 1884 (see sources listed below).  After his childhood schooling, Fernstrum served a seven-year apprenticeship to learn the boiler-making trade.  At age 19 he took a job in a machine shop and shipyard, gaining further experience in building steamships and railroad engines.  In 1869 he emigrated to the United States, landing at New York City on July 3rd.  Fernstrum travelled to Chicago, but had trouble finding work there because he didn’t speak any English.  After a short stay in Illinois, he moved  north to Marinette, Wisconsin.  Marinette and Menominee had become a thriving lumber capital and had many Scandinavian immigrants.  Fernstrum worked for a month at the Hamilton-Merrymen sawmill, then took a position at the Menominee River Lumber Co. for the next four years.  

Fernstrum had met his future wife, Christine Wilhemina Lagergren, in Sweden.  Christine was born in 1849 at Motola, Sweden, and Frank lived as a young adult at a rooming house owned by her family.  Frank’s family name at birth was actually Anderson.  However, another resident at the rooming house was named Fernstrum.  Deciding that there were “too many Andersons” in the world, Frank, with Christine’s approval, decided to change his name to Fernstrum, and he did so when he moved to America.    

Christine also emigrated from Sweden in 1869, and she and Frank were married in Marinette on October 30th of that year by Dr. J. J. Sherman.  The couple lived in Marinette for some years, then moved across the river to Menominee in 1882.  They lived at Dunlap Ave. and McCullogh Street (now 11th Ave. and 18th St.) behind the Menominee Boiler Works, and they later moved their house to Stephenson Ave. (14th Ave.) across from the Menominee Granite Company.  Over the years the couple had nine children:  Rosina Christine (1871-1959), Frank Oscar (1873-1896), John Emil (1875-1961), Ellen Marie (1877-1965), Caroline Johanna (1879-1935), Robert Gustav (1884-1904), Herbert William (1888-1971), Benjamin Albert (1893-1973), and Mabel Victoria (1896-?). The family belonged to the Swedish Luthernan Church in Menominee, and Christine was a member of the Missionary Society. 

The Menominee Boiler Works had been established in 1872 by D. M. Burns and Lewis Young.  Employing the technical skills that he’d learned in Sweden, Fernstrum began working at the Boiler Works in 1873.  When Frank expressed an interest in moving East in 1882, Young sought to keep him with the company and sold him a one-quarter interest in the firm.  Fernstrum became a full partner in 1882, and, when Young died in an accident in 1886, Fernstrum purchased the entire business from Young’s estate.  According to the Menominee Evening Leader (1900), the Menominee Boiler Works was the largest such company in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin, conducting business over a 100-mile radius from Menominee.  The firm, located initially at 1208 Ogden Avenue and later at 1824 Ogden Avenue,  manufactured high quality steam boilers and various other kinds of sheet iron work. Fernstrum’s son, John Emil Fernstrum, was foreman of the shops in the early 1900’s, and a second son Herbert was in charge of the office.  Two-thirds of all the boilers in the twin cities were produced by the firm.  Much of the manufacturing work was done during the winter months, while summer tasks were mainly repairing and small shop work.  The Boiler Works employed from 16 to 30 men over the course of the year in the early 1900’s.   According to a biographical statement by historian Charles Moore (1915), “Mr. Fernstrum has been a man of indefatigable industry and perseverance and through his well directed efforts has achieved a worthy success. He is numbered among the substantial, reliable and valued business men of Menominee and is a citizen who commands unqualified confidence and esteem.”  Frank died in 1924 in Menominee, and his wife Christine died there in 1929.

The Menominee Boiler Works continued as a family firm until its dissolution in 2001.  According to Polk’s Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory, three of Frank’s sons were operating the company in 1921-22.  John E. Fernstrum was President and General Manager, Benjamin A. Fernstrum was Vice-President, and Herbert W. Fernstrum was Secretary and Treasurer.  John A. Fernstrum, Sally’s father, was the company president in my youth and young adulthood, and her brother Jack, a close friend of my brother Steve, began working at the firm as a fourth-generation family member in the 1960s.  For myself, I still have fond memories of the pot-bellied stove in the Boiler Works office and our temporary reprieve from the harsh winter elements.

Sources:   “The Menominee Boiler Works,” The Evening Leader (Menominee, Michigan; Illustrated Industrial Number, Oct. 25, 1900, p. 37);, “Descendants of Frank Gustav Fernstrum”;, “Polk’s Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory (1921-22)”;;, “History of Michigan,” by Charles Moore (Vol. 4), “Frank G. Fernstrum,” pp. 2281-82;, “A History of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan and Its People (Vol. 2), Alvah L. Sawyer, pp. 713-714;, “Memorial Record of the Northern Peninsula of Michigan,” “Frank G. Fernstrum,” pp. 189-190. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

February: One of the Coolest Months Ever

Dear George,
I sometimes think that the start of February is the gloomiest time of the year.  It feels like we’ve been putting up with the dark and cold forever, and the winter shows little sign of letting up.  If anything, we’re probably due for more snow and ice in February than we’ve had in December or January.  Like many places, February in Cincinnati is one of the coldest months of the year (average lows of 26 degrees) and one of the snowiest (5.3 inches).  It’s cloudy over 80% of the time, and it’s the second windiest month of the year (10.2 m.p.h.), making the wind chills more biting than the actual temperatures.  One discouraging consequence is that my daily FitBit points have dropped over 50% since October, tangible proof of lethargy and stagnation.

Of course, February can include good things.  When we were kids February meant hiking across the frozen Menominee River to Pig Island, walking on snowshoes to Brewery Park, racing barefoot in the driveway, building forts and snowmen in the front yard, sledding off the river bank,  and snow day vacations from school.  My father would tie our toboggan to the rear bumper of the Lincoln V-12 and tow us along Riverside Boulevard at hair-raising speeds.  

Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 was an exciting holiday at Washington Grade School since the boys and girls could send semi-amorous Valentine cards to one another.   The children’s rule was to never send valentines to everybody in the class since that would defeat the purpose of assessing popularity by the number of valentine cards received.  On the other hand, we tried to make sure that nobody wound up with zero valentines.  I never got the most valentines among my classmates, but fortunately I never got the fewest either.  We celebrated Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 12) and Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb. 22) in school, learning about chopping down the cherry tree and the  Emancipation Proclamation.  We were also curious about Groundhog Day.  We didn’t have any groundhogs in Menominee, but I’d go outdoors each February 2 and determine whether groundhogs would have seen their shadows had they been there.  Though we didn’t have it in childhood, February has officially been Black History Month since it was designated so by President Gerald Ford in 1976.  

In recent years Super Bowls have been held on the first Sunday of February.  Though we aren’t sophisticated fans, Katja and I have watched every Super Bowl since the Green Bay Packers won No. I in 1967.  We were saddened by the Packers’ playoff departure this year.  As inveterate movie-goers, we’re faithful followers of the Academy Awards which occur toward the end of February.  Katja is rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant this year, while I’m leaning toward Spotlight and Cate Blanchett.  

There are many puzzling facts about February.  One is that it’s not entirely clear how you say the name of this month.  Actually there is a choice.  People most frequently pronounce it feb-ew-err-ee, as if it were spelled “Feb-u-ary”.  That sounds similar to January.  The month’s actual spelling, however, suggests the pronunciation, feb-roo-err-ee.  I try to say it that way, but it’s not popular because having two “r”s close together is more difficulty to say. 

One February fact that I’ve never been able to assimilate is that February is the third month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.  In Melbourne, Australia, for example, it’s the warmest month of the year with high temperatures averaging 79 and daily lows of 60.   I’ve always experienced February’s freezing temperatures as objective reality, and it’s hard to imagine this “truth” being a mere accident of place.  

February got its name from the Latin word “februum” which means “purification”.  Februus was the Roman god of purification, and he was also the Etruscan god of the Underworld.  The Februa purification ritual was held on February 15, the night of a full moon in the lunar Roman calendar.  Originally January and February didn’t even exist in the ancient Roman calendar since the Romans considered winter to be irrelevant to the harvest and a period which was consequently not divided into months.  January and February were added to the ten-month calendar as the final two months of the year by Numa Pompilius about 713 BC.  February was moved to the second month of the year about 450 BC.  

Unlike the rest of the months, February only has 28 days.  It’s shorter in part because the Roman emperor Augustus took one of its days and gave it away to August because that month was named after him.  Another puzzling thing is that every fourth year February has 29 days.  That’s because the seasons don’t proceed in exact 24-hour day cycles, and so, if the number of days was constant every year,  calendars would drift over time and soon get out of alignment with the seasons.  By adding an additional day every four years, that potential drift can be corrected.  That year is called “Leap Year” because the extra day involves “leaping over” one of the days in the week.  For example, the Fourth of July was on on Wednesday in 2001, on Thursday in 2002, on Friday in 2003, but then it “leapt” over Saturday and fell on Sunday in 2004.  Babies born on February 29 are called “leaplings”. 

A long-time tradition in Britain and Ireland holds that women can propose marriage during Leap Year.  Queen Margaret of Scotland is said to have instituted a law in 1288 calling for a fine if a man refused a marriage proposal during leap year.  The fine included giving a pair of leather gloves to the woman, a single rose, a one-pound note, and a kiss.  Nowadays the tradition is usually applied just to Leap Day, February 29.

Zillions of important events in U.S. and world history have occurred in February.  Here are ten that stand out to me: 

Feb. 4: George Washington was elected by the Electoral College (1789). 
Feb. 9: The Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (1964).  
Feb. 11: Nelson Mandela was released from prison (1990). 
Feb. 12: President Bill Clinton was acquitted on impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice (1999).
Feb. 16: Fidel Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba (1959).  
Feb. 22: In the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team defeated Russia, 4-2, in the Winter Olympics (1980).  
Feb. 23: U.S. Marines took the crest of Mount Suribachi from the Japanese in the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945).  
Feb. 24: National Public Ratio was founded (1970).  
Feb. 27: Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud met for the first time in Vienna (1907). 
Feb. 27: The first Mardi Gras was held in New Orleans (1827). 

In our family’s history February is important because of all the birthdays.  I’ll send cards to my brother-in-law David on February 2 and to my sister Vicki on February 24, think fondly of my mother Doris on February 25, and toast my brother Steve with a glass of Merlot on February 27.  Happy birthday to all the February birthdays that we know.    

Sources:, “February Birthday Fun Facts”;, “Cincinnati, Ohio”;, “Black History Month”;, “10 Facts About February”;, “February Facts”;, “Interesting February Facts”; www.popculturemadness, “February — History, Trivia & Fun Facts”;, “February”, “Leap year”