Monday, April 24, 2017

Being a Yooper

Dear George,
When I was a kid, the term “Yooper” hadn’t yet come into existence.  As far as I can tell, it entered mass circulation in the early 1970’s.  Once out there, however, it crystallized a lot of people’s life experiences, providing a shared identity based upon place.  Like being a Texan or a New Yorker or a Hoosier.  A narrow definition of “Yooper” simply means somebody who lives or grew up in and identifies with the U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula).  However, the meaning of the word is a lot broader, with associations to geography, climate, population, economy, rural/urban context, the natural environment, lifestyles, attitudes and values.  I tried to capture some of what “Yooper” means to me in the poem below.  Everybody’s associations to being a Yooper are to some degree unique, but this is my version.

Being a Yooper

Driving north on M-35
Green Bay is just to the right
Blue-green water glistening in the sun
Tipped by the whites of the waves
To the left, pine forests stretch for miles
A six-point buck pauses, darts across the road
Lunch stop at Paddy’s Bar, Cedar River
Butter burgers that melt in your mouth
Soon we’ll be in Escanaba

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula
The people there call themselves Yoopers
Yoopers are those who live in the U.P. 
While Downstaters are known as Trolls
Trolls, of course, are beings who live under the bridge
The Trolls, we believe, are envious of Yoopers
So we let them cross the bridge in the month of July

The U.P., in large part, is a wilderness
Its forests cover millions of acres
Pine and spruce, cedar, maple and oak
Here a pristine lake, there a waterfall
A Great Blue Heron skimming over the pond 
In hidden places a bear or a moose                 

My home town is named Menominee
“The Land of the Wild Rice Eaters”
Nine thousand, the U.P.’s fourth largest city
One stoplight, one high school, eight taverns
The Marina, Henes Park, the Interstate Bridge
It’s spread for three miles along the bay shore

People in Menominee are friendly and kind
They’re fanatic about the Green Bay Packers
Strong passion for boating and sailing
For hunting and fishing and camping
For Jim Beam whiskey, creamed herring, and pasties

Our family lived out in the country
In a house built of Norway pine
We spent summer days in the river
Splashing and swimming, diving off our raft
Searching for golden doubloons in the mud
Backstroking across the Pig Island

Our treehouse was in the great oaks
The willow was best for climbing
Steven and I had daily acorn fights
We raced barefoot on the gravel driveway
Searched for antlers in the woods
Shot at tin cans with the twenty-two
And played night basketball all winter long

Deer came to feed in our garden
There were porcupine nests in the maples
Huge pine snakes lived next to our chimney
The chipmunks stole seeds from the feeder
At dusk the snapping turtles swam by

U.P. winters were harsh
Sometimes zero, even ten below
Our cheeks got red, our noses burned
The snowdrifts reached three or four feet
My father towed our toboggan behind his car
Icicles stretched from the eaves to the ground
Snowbound, the county road would close, vacation time

At sixteen we went to hunting camp
Our dads played cards and drank Silver Cream beer
We rose at five to take our posts
Freezing, I sat motionless for hours
Waiting for a wayward deer
No luck

In high school we borrowed the family car
And cruised the Twin City loop
Drag-raced at the stoplight
Waited at the drawbridge
The girls walked in pairs along Ogden Ave.
Waiting for the boys to pick them up
Root beer at the A&W
Perhaps the 64 drive-in

Menominee was a blue collar town
Many grownups worked with their hands
College degrees were infrequent
And there wasn’t much gap between rich and poor
All of the teens went to Menominee High
Every one of us, I’d say, was a Yooper

I’m lucky I grew up in the U.P.
It’s a thoroughly remarkable place
Perhaps we were lacking in big city smarts
No ballet, museums, or opera
But people were warm and honest and caring
And as kids we were free and secure
Life was filled with high adventure
Who could ask for more than that?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dancing My Way Through the Golden Years

Dear George,
One of my various regrets is not taking up dancing in any concerted fashion during my first sixty years or so.  Katja and I started doing ballroom dance classes at the start of the new millenium, and it was a revelation.  Then, when I retired, I joined my Tuesday night line dancing class, and that’s become the high point of my week.  We got a new instructor in January, and she’s been posting YouTube videos of various dance numbers (e.g., My Pretty Belinda).  The videos have led me to practice a lot more during the week.  At first I was doing this in front of the computer on our second floor, but Katja complained that I was shaking the pot holder that’s mounted to our kitchen ceiling.  So I moved my practice sessions downstairs to the foyer, playing music from the Solid Gold Oldies channel on our cable TV. 

Our fitness center also offers Zumba classes, and I’ve had my eye on that for some time.  I’ve been nervous about it though.  Finally I asked Google: “Should I do zumba if I’m quite old?”  Google’s first piece of medical advice was a blurb about an 86-year-old great grandmother who does zumba every morning.  That was definitely reassuring, and, when Katja went to a fancy party last week, I decided I should try the 7 p.m. Zumba class.  I told the instructor that it was my first class and I wasn’t sure I would stay the whole time.  He said that I should take a break whenever I felt like it.  There was only one other man in the class (one of my line dancing compatriots), and a majority of the women looked to be in their thirties or forties.  I did stick it out for the full class.  It is much more aerobic than line dancing, and I worked up a good sweat.  I was pretty awkward and confused compared to my experienced classmates, but I was able to follow the movements enough that it gave me hope.  I plan to go back next week.

The dinner party that Katja went to while I was zumba-ing was one we were both invited to, but I talked my way out of it.  It was in the fanciest section of town and was held in honor of the new music director of the Cincinnati Chamber Music Orchestra.  It sounded overwhelming to me.  Katja was sad and hurt that I didn’t want to go, but she RSVP’d for just herself.  It turned out to be lots of wealthy philanthropic supporters of the Symphony and the Opera.   Katja, who does substantially better at most social occasions than I do, had a good time.  She said afterwards that it would have been awful for me.  I think she was sympathetic to my social deficiencies.   

Along with line dancing, my poetry writing class takes up a chunk of my spare time each week.  We get a homework assignment each Tuesday, and I work on it all week long, usually writing two or three poems instead of the single poem that is assigned.  I owe my poetry writing style to Miss Herscheid’s fourth grade class at Washington Grade School.  We learned to write poems in rhyme and end each poem with the phrase, “The End”.  I’m the only person in my current class who writes all his poems in rhyme with a fixed meter (or rhythm).  In fact, as far as I can tell from reading lots of contemporary poems on the Internet, I’m the only person in the world who writes rhyming poems (except for children’s authors who are inspired by Dr. Seuss’s style).  Hopeful of expanding my repertoire, I’m currently trying to write a poem in free verse about “Being a Yooper.”  I have to admit that composing in free verse is much more free-flowing than my struggles to create rhymes.  But I’m sure that either method keeps blood circulating in my brain.

I was working on my Yooper poem several days ago when all of a sudden our newish Mac computer went blooey.  The word-processing screen is normally white, but now it was alternating between green, blue, and lavender, and all of the visual images that appeared on the screen were mottled and distorted.   I went into a state of shock, attributing the problem to powerful viruses.  I checked with a knowledgeable friend, and she said it sounded like to monitor was dying.  Fortunately Katja had bought an extended service contract, and I called the Apple support number.  The technician had me try several things with the keyboard and the power button, but none of them seemed to help.  He finally scheduled an appointment for me to bring the machine into the store.  An hour later, however, all the problems disappeared.  I didn’t know if the technician’s suggestions had solved the problem, but I’m relieved and am holding my breath.         

We’ve been watching a lot more TV since late January.  I think it’s a matter of retreating into fantasy in order to escape from horrifying political news. Nonetheless, we seem to be drawn to hair-raising politically-oriented programs involving Washington dysfunction, conspiracies, Middle Eastern and domestic terrorists, Russian spies, and national catastrophes.  Our favorites are Homeland, Designated Survivor, The Americans, and 24 Legacy.  All of these programs have become jumbled together in my mind, and I can’t keep straight which good guys go with which bad guys (or even who the good guys are).  It’s like there is just one single program: “24 American Homeland Survivor.”  I do have to say that these fictional events are more dramatic than our relatively mundane lives.  

That’s all the news from Ludlow Ave.  It’s a beautiful spring day, and I’m going to go and get some Fitbit points.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Paul Bunyan, U.P. Lumberjack

Dear George,
Growing up on the Menominee River, we were well aware of the lore of the nineteenth century logging industry in our region.  The best-known legends, of course, were about Paul Bunyan who roamed Northern Michigan and Wisconsin.  Here are some of the Paul Bunyan tales, set to poetry.

The Ballad of Paul Bunyan

The most famous figure in my home town
Was Paul Bunyan, the North’s lumberjack
He dug the Menominee River
He could level ten pines with one whack

Paul Bunyan was born in Menominee County
He weighed over two hundred pounds 
It took eight storks to deliver him
Six wet-nurses made daily rounds

Each time baby Paul rolled over in his sleep
He would flatten an acre of trees
His parents built a raft in the midst of Green Bay
But Oconto would flood when he’d sneeze

As a child Paul Bunyan was not only strong
He was faster than a lightning arc
He could turn off his light and leap into bed
Before his room even got dark

Paul found a blue ox in a snowdrift
Took him home and young Babe grew so fast
A crow took an hour to fly twixt Babe’s horns
When he burped, buildings crumbled from the blast
Babe could pull anything Paul asked of him
For example, their crooked logging road
Babe pulled on that road till it straightened out
And that new road carried ten times the load

Babe was in need of a watering hole
Paul Bunyan dug a hole with his axe
Today it’s the Lake called Superior
Pictured Rocks were formed by Babe’s tracks

Paul and Babe took a hike through Minnesota
Their footprints in the earth were so big
Those depressions became the 10,000 lakes
And Babe drank them up in one swig

A log jam blocked the Menominee River
Paul poked Babe’s derriere with a spear
Babe swished his tail and broke up the jam 
And the river stayed clear for a year

The axe men in Paul’s camp were seven feet tall
And each had the same name of Sven
When Paul called out “Sven” the whole crew came running
Dragging sled-loads of logs from the glen

Sourdough Sam made pancakes at their camp 
His griddle covered thirteen full acres
Twenty-five men with bacon on their feet
Greased that griddle to help out the bakers

Paul Bunyan enjoyed a pipe after dinner
And he blew his smoke far away
It floated westward over the hills
Creating the smog in L.A.  

The winter of ’07 was so brutally cold
The axe men’s words froze in mid-air 
Those words remained frozen until the spring thaw
Then they heard melting chatter everywhere

No one is certain where Paul is today
Some think he is at the North Pole
They say he returns to the U.P. each May
Bringing Babe for a leisurely stroll