Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Christmas

Amen with a T will resume in 2008.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Pud

There are a few pieces of paper I brought across the Atlantic and have filed and re-filed over the years. Some I will introduce you to later, but there are one or two I need to mention today. Both are recipes. While I was in college, I stayed with my friend Sylvia in Lincolnshire. (I will always remember Sylvia for two things: her recording of Four Freshman and 5 Trombones which rang out through the basement of Lindsell Hall during our first year at Bedford and her proud association with Scunthorpe). While staying with Sylvia I tasted a sweet bread which is preserved in my recipe file as “Sylv’s mum’s plum bread.” It was delicious. Needless to say, I have never made it, but my preservation of the recipe is a contribution to fine dining.

In my last post I mentioned Christmas pudding. My son-in-law Ron has tried his hand at this piece of English tradition. I, alas, have not. But I cherish my mother’s recipe, which I have preserved, written in her own hand. This is a war-time or certainly pre-war recipe and it calls for brandy or rum butter as opposed to our traditional custard. I like to think of her, in our little kitchen, mixing up a batch of this recipe. I am sure the Christmas pudding we will eat this Christmas will be a little more sophisticated, but both cooks prepared this recipe with love. And for your listening pleasure, go here and click on Listen Now.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Child’s Christmas in England

Last Christmas Dave Lane, who is married to Ernie's niece, Bridget, invited the family to submit their memories of Christmases past for inclusion into a publication. I don't know how many submissions there were, but this is the text of what I wrote, together with some of the photos.

I wish I could tell you all that my Christmases when I was a child were like something out of Dickens. They weren’t. Remember Scrooge and the goose? We never had goose. It was always a turkey, and what a treat that was. Remember, I was born in the first year of the war and food rationing lasted through my childhood. We always had enough to eat, but it wasn’t fancy. We pulled out all the stops at Christmas. Our main meal was around one p.m. I remember that my maternal grandmother (Nana-round-the-corner) joined us. I think I have a vague memory of us going to her house for Christmas dinner when my grandfather (Garby-round-the-corner) was still alive. I don’t think my paternal grandparents (Nana and Garby-down-the-Lock) were ever with us. We wouldn’t have left them on their own, so I suppose they celebrated with some other family members. The piece-de-resistance was the turkey. In fact, I can’t remember what else we had, though it must have included brussel sprouts. (And any of you who haven’t given brussel sprouts a try have missed a real treat.) No Christmas dinner was complete without Christmas pudding. This rich, almost cake-like, concoction is made of currants, raisin, butter, spices and a minimum of flour. The mixture was put into a buttered bowl, covered with greaseproof paper and a pudding cloth and steamed for hours and hours. So rich are Christmas puddings that they are traditionally made several weeks before Christmas in double quantities so that one can be saved for next year. No brandy butter for us. It was always thick custard. Hardly had we digested this meal than it was time for Christmas tea. In our household this was traditionally stalks of celery with bread and butter (don’t ask, I have no idea why except that in post-war England celery was a treat), followed by canned fruit and evaporated milk, jello (called jelly in England) and trifle. This was topped off by mince pies and Christmas cake. The latter was also made weeks before Christmas and was a fruitcake stuffed with currants, sultanas and raisins. There was a layer of marzipan and the icing was a hard, royal icing. Funny, after all these years I have just remembered a rather worse-for-wear robin that we always had decorating the top of the cake.

Christmas crackers were a traditional part of Christmas tea. They were designed to be pulled apart with a sharp “crack” and there was always a paper hat and some other goodies inside.

Not only was there lots of food at Christmas, we also had drinks. I don’t think my parents bought alcohol during the year, but on Christmas day we always had Dubonnet and Sweet Vermouth.

Another food I remember when I think of Christmas is crystallized fruit. Some of my father’s relatives immigrated to Australia earlier in the century and Aunt Hetty and her family always sent us a big box of this dried and sugary fruit. I wasn’t fond of it (except for the pears) but it was a kind thought at a time when candy was rationed.

Our Christmas decorations were mostly paper chains hung from the picture rails, and in spite of Prince Albert, we never had a tree. Most people didn’t. So there were no gifts under the tree. We didn’t have stockings, either. The custom was to hang a pillowcase on the end of the bed, and Father Christmas came during the night and left our presents. They were never lavish. Brian and I both got bikes at some point, but obviously not in our pillowcases, and for the most part the presents from our parents and grand parents and one aunt were modest. I almost always received books, and I can admit now that I was so often disappointed. I wanted something more exciting. But I came to love those books and many of them have found their way across the Atlantic. Last year I gave my grandson Patrick my copy of A Christmas Carol. I’d treasured it for nearly sixty years.

Seems to me that there was snow in A Christmas Carol. At least there was in the Muppet version. I don’t remember snow in the London suburbs at Christmas. In fact it rarely snowed ever, and then only lightly (early emergence of global warming?) It could be cold. As we grew older we were taken up to London to see the Christmas lights on Oxford Street and Regents street. Last year I wrote a post which included a photo taken of me on Christmas Eve in London with Garby-down-the-Lock.

I remember spending a lot of time in the Woolworth’s in Waltham Cross picking out gifts. I can still see the bird brooch with blue and white stones that I bought one year for my grandmother.

Strangely, I do not remember any changes in our Christmas celebrations when Brian and I became teenagers. I do recall that when I was at university I worked for a couple of years for the Post Office, delivering Christmas cards. I have a hazy memory of coming home one day chilled to the bone and sinking into a tub of hot water.

What a great idea it was to collect these accounts. It brought back so many happy memories of Christmas in England. And guess what? For the first time in forty-four years, that's where I will be spending Christmas this year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Piccolo Ernie

I am happy and honored to share my birthday with Nathaniel, the youngest of Al and Gody’s four boys. Today he is one year old. He was here at Thanksgiving when he was already running around, flashing his lovely smile and gazing out of those big brown eyes. So, who does he look like? He somewhat resembles his brother Emmanuel at the same age, but the general consensus is that he looks a lot like his grandfather Ernie. Not surprising that his Detroit family, who has at their disposal all the family photos, should think so, but Gody told us that when Nate spent three weeks in Italy in June, all his Italian family was calling him “piccolo Ernie.” I will make sure they see this photo of Ernie, clinging adoringly to his dad over three quarters of a century ago, and I think they will agree that they got it right.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Gift of the Three Wise Women

Three women came to my house today bearing precious gifts of their time, creativity and energy—and lunch. My daughters were bringing me an early birthday present: their combined efforts to dress the house in some Christmas finery. It really doesn’t make sense. I have all the time in the world, a modicum of creativity and memories of a time when I could move mountains, but I do seem to need a push to get me going. There are too many things undone around here. I have lost my sense of proportion—I found myself the other day energetically working away at a sewing project, carefully calculating 45° angles and seaming triangles and had to tell myself that so much effort was hardly worth spending the morning in frustration. The project was in response to my granddaughter Evelyn’s request for a Christmas stocking for her cat, Faygo. Meanwhile larger and more important projects are ignored.

A delicious lunch (wild mushroom soup, accompanied by a still-warm loaf of Ron’s tasty bread, salad and a hazelnut cake with poached pears and ice cream) was followed by more work and soon door and window frames and mantels were wreathed in green picked out with scarlet berries.

Recently Ronni Bennett wrote a post about gifts suitable for the elders on a person’s Christmas list. There were wonderful suggestions and I wish I’d though to comment and include the gift I received today. I have my new camera, but I am taking working with it slowly. I hope I can post photos of the lovely work done by these three loving Magi.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Things Scandinavian

Today we pay homage to Shield Sheafson and his descendents and to the Geats and the Swedes.

Firstly for their modern books. I have written previously about some of the Scandinavian literature I have enjoyed reading. Since then I have discovered Åsa Larsson, read a mystery set in Iceland (is that considered Scandinavia?) and been bowled over by another Henning Mankell book, Depths , which proves that you can live alone on an island eating only fish.*

Next we come to Beowulf. We got babysitters and went out to see the movie the day after Thanksgiving. I enjoyed it a lot, but I still don’t understand why it has been such a box-office success. Does everyone go to expand their knowledge of myth and watch the Great Mother do her thing, or are they just going to see Angelina Jolie? I wonder if she knew what she was getting in to? Can’t you just see Bob Newhart pitching the part to her?—

"Yes, Angelina, there are a lot of muscular men in the movie. Well, no, the translation actually calls her “a tarn-hag.” No, it’s more like “a swamp-thing from hell”. No bikini, Angelina, but you will get to raise your head out of the water. Several times—whenever there is a new king and you need a new son. No, not a cute little baby like Shiloh, Angelina, more like . . . well, let me send you the script."

They sure did make it look cold and bleak. There was lots of merrymaking and feudal carryings-on. Gody, for whom English is a fourth language, was confused by the concept of a “meat-hall”. We explained about “mead” but we could certainly understand her problem as they all sat around eating huge chunks of roasted beast, with side dishes of roasted beast, garnished with—well, you get the idea.

Scandinavia’s third contribution to civilization is IKEA This store was founded in Sweden because it takes those muscular men to carry the goods. If you buy bookcases and wardrobes, as we did the other day, it’s comparatively easy to get the boxes on the carts, into the parking lot and into a van, but bringing them into the house is quite a different story. Of course, the instructions, which you find after you open the box, indicate it needs more than one smiling naked man to bear the weight. In our case it was Ernie and Lucy. Both fully clothed. Then we had to put them together. But that’s another entry.

*Editor’s note: Let’s just hope they didn’t look like those piscatorial monsters that appear in that cute commercial about the guy who didn’t know if he was a Swede or a Geat.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Reinventing the wheel is a required qualification for running a university. Every five years or so a new administrator comes up with an idea which has been proposed—and roundly defeated—before.

And once in a while the proposal becomes policy.

More times than I care to remember there were rumors that the Greek and Latin Department, or Classics Department, depending on the era, was to be merged with some or all of the other language departments of the institution where Ernie toiled for so many years. Quel horreur! It was always in the interest of cost cutting, never based on a philosophical concept of teaching language, literature and culture. Petitions were signed, local dignitaries supported the cause and the danger was averted. There were various pairings—Near Eastern and Asian, German and Slavic—but it wasn’t until this year that the unthinkable happened. The budget crunch in the State of Michigan claimed more victims. The languages merged.

And so tonight we go to a party. Knowing the generous hostess as well as I do, I am confident it will not be a “last” blast, just a significant one.

And if you wonder if the demise of the Greek and Latin Department is a big loss, allow me to point out an article which appeared recently in our local rag.

Athens, Italy! Jack and Ernie, Ken and Katy and everyone who worked for you— we still need you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Times They Are A-changin': Hardware Stores

I promise that I will stop this indulgent wallowing in the Remembrance of Things Past, at least for a little while, but we do need to address the topic of Hardware Stores. Or, at least, one hardware store.

When we moved to Grosse Pointe, over 40 years ago, Damman Hardware was situated somewhere around the spot which is now CVS. When Kresge’s moved from the corner of St. Clair and Kercheval, Dammans moved into the vacant building. I always had a soft spot for Dammans, because it appears that Archie Damman built our house back in 1929, but he lost it in the Depression. Over the years we frequented Dammans: it wasn’t quite the neighborhood hardware store with barrels of nails and screws, dusty tools and spare parts for long-extinct equipment, but it was staffed by elderly men in red vests who could be counted on to give us a tip about downspouts and washers or paint and wallpaper strippers. Eventually Jacobsons closed down their store for the home next door and Dammans annexed the site. The additional space meant they could add a few fancy odds and ends, but it was still the placed to go for the basics of home repair and remodeling.

A couple of years ago, everything changed. Dammans became Ace and the store was no longer staffed by knowledgeable elderly men, but by teenagers and corporate-looking employees muttering into their headphones. I was in the store a few weeks ago and saw a flurry of activity. There were display racks where the cookie sheets and casserole dishes had been, vignettes were being created, attractive plates were on display and silver twinkled. The hardware store took on a distinct museum quality. It is even fancier now with the Christmas wares on display, but I have yet to get my new camera, so you’ll have to do with the photos from a few weeks ago. I’m not altogether sorry about the makeover— we are so far from Somerset with its Crate and Barrel and Williams-Sonoma that I welcome this tempting merchandise. But if you look carefully at the mobile island with the butcher-block top in the last photo, you will see a price tag of $1,879. At a hardware store!

We’ve come a long way from barrels of nails.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Phoning It In

“He just phoned it in” is a disparaging way of describing a perfunctory, careless way of performing a task.

I have been reading blogs for many years. I am amazed at the great writers who have set the bar high and kept their standards. I regularly follow links in search of new bloggers and there are many out there who don’t have what it takes. But I would encourage them all, based on the theory that writing can only improve with practice and that putting pen to paper—so to speak—is an exercise that fosters language and meaningful communication.

But now, thanks to Utterz everybody and his brother can literally “phone it in” and instantly create an audio file which can either be heard on the Utterz site or added to an existing blog. And boy, do people ever ramble. I suppose if someone can come up with an NPR-like commentary, I might listen, but I don’t want to hear someone describing a car-ride though Minnesota or some drunken ramblings from a bar. Listen, and see what you think.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Times They Are A-changin': Halloween

We have already talked about changes in habits, customs and perceptions which are not necessarily bad, but which take some getting used to. There was the Jesuit reliance on Wikipedia as a source and the vetting of baby sitters, worthy of Homeland Security. I can’t let Halloween pass without a comment. Well, I did, but I was unhooked, so to speak, so I am making up for it now.

When my children were little, I made most of their clothes. The girls hardly ever wore anything I didn’t make, and the boys had plenty of handmade shorts and pj’s. I had boxes of patterns, which I threw away, thinking there would be modern versions of the old favorites by the time I had grandchildren. But Simplicity, Butterick and McCalls no longer offer a wide range of designs, unless you want your kids to look like Hannah Montana.

There is, however, one section in the pattern books that is crammed with patterns—costumes. Naturally I always use the past as a yardstick, in a good-natured way, I hope. I am not a crabby old lady! In the good old days we used old sheets, lumps of cardboard (you should have seen Kate as an M&M) and adapted patterns we already had to produce a bunch of pirates, clowns and hobos. These days everybody turns into a Project Runway wannabe in October. There are costume patterns for babies, toddlers, kids and adults. Every suburban housewife can fulfill her long-held desire to become a French maid, while her husband can emulate Johnny Depp. I can’t tell you how many times I have giggled in the fabric store a few days before Halloween as moms drive up in their SUVs, clearly thinking “How had can it be to sew a costume?” and ask the kind of questions that drive the Joann’s employees crazy. For a start, the patterns are extremely complex and making wings and antennae and sewing on dinosaur tails isn’t always as easy as it looks. Then there’s the fabric. If you bought fabric for costumes 20 years ago, you just bought it from the regular stock. Now bolts of special fabric arrive in August—shiny, flimsy fabric with sequins, shaggy furs for animal outfits, lame and pleather. I made a purple butterfly outfit one year out of the paillette-encrusted fabric which was just perfect, but which frayed my thread every second stitch. I found out later I should have used a ballpoint needle. Even Kate, who knows better, got fooled and bought black pleather for her Ninja this year, only to discover she couldn’t sew in on her machine.

There are lots more opportunities to wear costumes these days, at school. community parties, even church, so I am sure there will be many more emerging from my sewing machine over the years. Here are a few that my grandchildren have worn.
The first photo is Emmanuel in the first costume I ever made for him—a dinosaur. The photo below is the king costume I made for him a couple of years ago. Then we have Theodore and Liesl, who were Peter Pan and Wendy this year. Below that is Evelyn in her Raggedy Ann costume. Cleaning supplies have certainly changed over the years, so I was glad I was able to find a mop to dye for wig. I was afraid I would have to cram a Swiffer on her head. Last but not least is Eleanor, starring as Holly Hobbe. I made the dress, but Kate made the lovely apron, bloomers and bonnet. There are lots more in the costume file, but no space. Watch this spot again next year.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Things Medical

I have spent a considerable amount of time since my return from DC visiting doctors’ offices. I had a tiny bit of cryosurgery and needed to have several bits, from my lady-parts to my lungs, checked out. Then it was time for the annual mammogram. That’s a procedure that isn’t normally associated with a barrel of laughs, but this year it turned out to be rather amusing. As I was filling out one of the forms, I noticed a sheet of paper taped to the clipboard. I was reading it with one eye while using the other to write when I had one of those “Whoa!” moments. It took a few seconds for me to realize that the information was, in fact, a joke. The technician told me that these instructions had made the rounds of the Internet, but I had never seen them and I reproduce them for anyone who may have missed them.

Many women are afraid of their first mammogram, but there is no need to worry. By taking a few moments each day for a week preceding the exam and doing the following exercises, you will be totally prepared for the test and best of all, you can do these simple exercises right in and around your home.
  • Exercise One
  • Open your refrigerator door and insert one breast in the door. Shut the door as hard as possible and lean on the door for good measure. Hold that position for five seconds. Repeat again in case the first time wasn’t effective enough.
  • Exercise Two
  • Visit your garage at 3 a.m. when the temperature of the cement floor is just perfect. Take off all your clothes and lie comfortably on the floor with one breast wedged under the rear tire of the car. Ask a friend to slowly back the car up until your breast is sufficiently flattened and chilled. Turn over and repeat with the other breast.
  • Exercise Three
  • Freeze two metal bookends overnight. Strip to the waist. Invite a stranger into the room. Press the bookends against one of your breasts. Smash the bookends together as hard as you can. Set up an appointment with the stranger to meet next year and do it again.
    You are totally prepared.
Oh, and the mammogram? It didn’t hurt one bit.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dear Kroger

I’m afraid that the new marketing intern you tasked with organizing your store promotions this week doesn’t quite grasp the concept of “loss leader.” Or maybe I don’t, but then I have never fancied myself as MBA material. I thought that a loss leader was a product—usually one that is a basic commodity and much in demand—which you offer at a low price, even below cost, in the hope that the consumer who comes in to take advantage of the savings will then buy lots of other items in your store at your usual inflated price.

Milk is a good candidate (especially now that milk and gas are running neck and neck) and the good citizens of Grosse Pointe were surely delighted to see your sale fliers this week in which you touted milk at “3 half-gallons for $5”. I ran out of milk on Friday, so I made an early morning run to the store. But just as I was about to grab my “bargain”, I noticed the price on the gallon jug. $3.29. Three half gallon at $5 works out to $1.66 per half gallon, or $3.32 per gallon. Do the math. It’s a great MEAP question—real-life solutions for real-life problems.

I keep re-checking the figures and I am getting a headache. I need to relax with a glass of milk and some cookies. Got any cookies on sale this week?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Jury Rigged

Or is it jerry-built? Jerry-rigged? Whatever. The important point is—I am back on line. The computer room isn’t finished, though the new ceiling is up and all the plaster has been repaired. The ceiling and three of the walls were primed today. Ernie had the brilliant idea of buying a 50ft cable, which extends from the Comcast feed in the computer room, is festooned across the landing, and finishes up in the bedroom which is the temporary home of the computer, printers etc. Why did it take us so long to arrive at this solution? In part because we went to Washington, where we joined in Halloween festivities at Theodore’s pre-school and Liesl’s school and celebrated Emmanuel’s tenth birthday. He’s the first of our grandchildren to reach double digits. Back in Detroit, Evelyn had a birthday too. I hope to expand on and illustrate these milestones later, but the gods of technology who were powerless to stop our flawless reconnection of the computer cables and our final victory over incompetent refrigerator repairmen finally zapped my camera.

It rained solidly from the mountains of Pennsylvania to Rockville and for the entire time we spent with Andrew and Marcie, but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for being with them and enjoying the great meals coming from their new kitchen. I hadn’t seen Sebastian since he was born and it was delightful to have a baby to hold again. Our time with Al and Gody included trips to two delightful towns we had never visited, Fredericksburg and Occaquan. Once again we had the chance to get up close and personal with a “lesser-known” grandchild. Nathaniel is adorable and soon got friendly.

Now we are back and gearing up for Thanksgiving. I spent a little time catching up with some of my favorite on-line writers. Many are participating in NaBloPoMo and undertaking to write an entry every day for the month of November. I find the site a lot less user friendly than last year’s Holidailies, but I am hoping to find a new writer to add to my blogroll.

I am off to wrestle with the camera and leave you with a list of activities you may wish to avoid if you are visiting England and do not want to run afoul of the law. Now the bit about mince pies . . .

I was asked if I could notify readers when there is a new entry. Blogger doesn’t have a mechanism, but I can set up an e-mail list. I think I tried this before, but since there was only one name on the list, I soon gave up. If anyone is interested in being notified, please send me your e-mail address. Anyone?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Time Out

In a few minutes this whole computer set-up will be unplugged. We are having the computer room floors re-finished, the ceiling fixed, the walls and woodwork painted and the whole place spiffed up. From time to time I hope to be able to get to the library or borrow an Internet connection. That will work for e-mail, but isn't an ideal solution for posting to a blog.

Then comes the problem of plugging it all in again (including two printers, a scanner, a Picturemate and a Dymo.) I may have to send my brother a transatlantic plane ticket.

Hope to be back soon.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In Memory of Joe

One of my dearest friends in Los Angeles was Joe Margon. He was a fellow teaching assistant, but his journey to that place was very different from the norm. He was in his forties and had left an interesting life and career (he evaluated books and plays for Warner Brothers to see if they would translate into movies) to become a lowly graduate student with the aim of eventually teaching classics in a university. How he did this with a wife and two children, I never knew. I wish I had a photo of him. I can see his face with its big grin clearly in my mind’s eye, and remember the general impression he gave—a grey, rumpled teddy bear. I loved spending time with him and he was a valuable window for me, young and English as I was, into the life and culture of America. His was the rarified air of the arts. After all, his wife, Saritha, was an artist and his best friend, Howard, was married to a woman who had been married to Mel Ferrer before—or was it after?—he was married to Audrey Hepburn. (That’s about the closest I got to Hollywood.) Joe was serious in his pursuit of a degree. We kept in touch for a while and later I heard he had accepted a position at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I heard about him from time to time from mutual friends, eventually hearing of his death. No surprise that he was as much loved in Santa Barbara as he had been in LA.

So why do I always remember Joe at this time of year? Well, Joe loved baseball and part of my introduction to life in the USA was Joe’s paean to the national sport. He loved baseball intellectually and aesthetically, as perhaps only a son of Brooklyn can. He talked of timing and the chess-like machinations of the runners and the coaches. I tried, Joe, I really tried, but I couldn’t quite get there. But every year as we get to the play-offs and the World Series, I watch baseball, hoping I’ll get to see the interesting innings and that some of your enthusiasm will finally rub off.

And if the Tigers ever get their act together again I’ll work on understanding baseball with all the zeal we used to put into those Greek prose compositions.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Brief Encounter

She dropped something on the floor of Krogers in the Village. I heard the sound of her exasperation, and recognized on her face a look which probably mirrored my own expression, “Here I am for the three thousandth time buying pork chops and paper towel and milk and carrots, while I would much rather be anywhere else.” I made a comment in commiseration, and when she responded, I heard the distinctive Scottish accent in her words. She pegged me immediately too. So we started to chat. “Where are you from?”—safe beginning. The answer, in her case, was Edinburgh. We talked about Inspector Rebus and Irn-Bru, and moved on. “How long have you been here?” Me somewhat longer than she. How often do you go home?

The subjects came thick and fast. Do you have family there? Too bad British Airways no longer flies Detroit to London. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back, rent a place and spend some time? We were both aware, I think, that the Britain of today is not the Britain we remember, that life is not the same, we are not the same.

We mentioned our current homes—she in the City on Dodge Place (nice, that) and me in the Park. But we never exchanged names. She seemed like a very nice person, but we are not destined to be friends, just to remind each other in a brief encounter of other days in other places, of what has been and what might have been.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Linus Is Two

Look at this adorable photo: I hope to take some more this month when we go to DC to check on affairs there, but until then everyone who has suffered through photos of tongues hanging out and fingers making gestures over someone's head will know the score. Then there's his yellow duck—no security blanket for this Linus. Look at the bandaid on the toe. I can't wait to kiss it better. Finally the baseball themed outfit. Er, sorry about the Yankees, Marcie.

OK, Linus, get ready to tell me what it is like being a big brother.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Me Too!

I borrowed this cartoon from Aenodia. It kind of speaks for itself.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Here It Is, Folks!

I have already e-mailed this photo to most of the friends and family who have watched this creation from its inception, through its birthpangs to the final delivery. This was Ernie's chef-d'oeuvre of the summer and my pride and joy. I had always wanted an arbor to lead from the main garden through to the vegetable garden and Ernie designed, made and erected this beauty. The project involved digging down the existing paths and carting over four tons of the white crushed rock you see there. That's a purple clematis to the left and with any luck it will grow up next summer to crown the arbor.

I think a tasteful champagne launch is in order.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

On the Horns of a Dilemma

At the stroke of midnight on October 1, the hospital we had frequented for over forty years with our broken bones and gory abrasions, always known as Bon Secours, became Beaumont, Grosse Pointe. And, with my customary sense of occasion, I was there. Literally. In a bed. I certainly hadn’t intended it. I swear that when I had pneumonia seven years ago and they gave me a shot, they told me I would never get it again. But, apparently, it’s only good for five years and I fell victim to pneumonia for a second time. This time with pleurisy. So after several X-rays and a CT scan, I found myself admitted to the hospital. And that’s where my problems began.

I was wheeled into my room sometime after midnight and the first thing I noticed was that the television next to the other bed in the room was blaring away. The nurse kindly turned it off, noting that my roommate was sleeping. But, at 6:00 a.m. that television came on and was not switched off until I left, thirty-four hours later. Have you any idea what shows are on at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning? Her visitors came and went. My visitors came and went. Meals came and went (very fancy now, you pick up the phone and order what you want. Unless it is something not on your allotted diet and then they tell you that you can’t have it.) Quiz shows, soap operas (her stories), movies, the Home Shopping Network— I was forced to listen to it all, whether I wanted to sleep or not.

I could, I suppose, have told her to turn it down/off. Or could I? What is the definition of “reasonable noise?” It made her happy and I was forced to ask myself where her rights ended and mine began. If the hospital provides the television, it is with the expectancy that patients watch it and the sound is collateral damage. It wasn’t her fault that I like complete silence or my fault that she likes noise. I vented my feelings on the pad of paper provided by the nice lady from “Guest Services” (don’t you love it?) and I am about to write a letter to the honcho in charge. The only reasonable suggestion I have is earphones and they would probably get mixed up with the oxygen thingies we had in our noses.

I am glad I am home.

Theodore is Four

It seems like only yesterday I was on my way to DC to take care of Liesl while Theodore was born. What a difference four years makes! Here he is on his first day of pre-school looking pleased as punch. There will be a party for him today, together with his brother Linus, who will be two in a few days, but when I heard from Marcie last night, she was afraid Theodore was coming down with an ear infection. He's an adorable kid and I am working hard to make sure that the Peter Pan costume he requested for Halloween lives up to his specifications (tho' the hat looks like it is meant to be balanced as carefully on the head as any book in a runway walking competition.)

Happy Birthday, Boots.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Decision Time

John Copeland usually has something to say about the absurdities of life in “Lax Britannica”—a country of which he is really rather fond. Last week he referenced an article in The Sunday Times of September 23 detailing the prohibition on emergency services against saving lives.

Officers like Sergeant Craig Lippitt, who attempted to rescue Jordon by stripping off and diving in of his own volition, were acting against instructions, although they would not be disciplined for rescuing someone, the spokeswoman said.

Firefighters who attempt the same are not necessarily so fortunate. In March a 42-year-old firefighter, Tam Brown, saved a woman in the River Tay. He was later informed he could face disciplinary action.
Read the article: see what you think. John’s verdict? “Presumably the day is not so very far away when the Health & Safety Executive comes up with an edict that soldiers must not fire bullets in case they hurt themselves. I really do live in a daft country.”

Thursday, October 04, 2007


“Why,” you may ask,“ did you not go apple picking with your family in Canada"? The answer is simple—my “green” card expired. Note the apostrophes, real ones, exactly as used by the United States Government. The “green” card is actually salmon pink, but since it was historically green, the INS had to reconcile history and fact and that’s how they did it.

Here’s the back-story. I received my green card in 1964, thanks to a letter from my chair at Southern Cal indicating he couldn’t find an American to do my job and promising I would not be a financial burden for at least a couple of years. I remember going down to Long Beach to go through the process. I also remember that at that time I had to report myself and my current address every January. After a while that was no longer necessary, but I do recall phoning the INS and asking if I should get a new card since I had changed my name. I was told that neither a new card nor a new photo was required. So life went on uneventfully until about 10 years ago when I began to hear rumblings that the green card was to become obsolete. I eventually got a new card, but what a business that was. Telephone trees that never delivered an actual person, a visit to the immigration office to be fingerprinted, less than friendly personnel and a photo with an ear prominently displayed. That last requirement was the source of much consternation to the mother of a friend who wanted to keep her ears to herself, thank you.

Fast-forward to this year when I happened to look at the card and realized it had an expiration date in September of this year. No-one had warned me this was a 10-year card, and indeed an Australian neighbor, a very well-organized person, found herself in Ireland with an expired “green” card, so I expect many of us have been caught short. Times have changed: there is now an efficient web-site. Efficient, but hardly user friendly for a permanent resident struggling with English. Then there is the cost. $290! In the post 9/11 world, I suppose that is a small price to help put together a comprehensive data base, so I am not complaining. The forms now come from the Office of Homeland Security. But since I had needed my card to cross over to Canada a couple of weeks ago, I did not have the replacement in time for our annual trip to Theissens nursery.

That should be the end of the story. I am one of the lucky ones. Every so often we hear heartbreaking stories of families being broken up as a father or mother is deported for residency violations and someone will justify the resulting tragedy by pointing to the absolute nature of law. Allow me to introduce you to Roy M. Bailey of Romulus, who was acting field office director for detention and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Detroit, and who is charged with accepting bribes, conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit extortion, conspiracy to defraud the federal government, and failing to report a felony. I am not quite sure why this story was tucked away on page 3B of today’s Detroit News, or why he is on paid administrative leave.

I hate to say, “Only in Detroit”, but in this instance, I hope it is the case.

Another Birthday

These three hunt in a pack. The one in the middle is Elizabeth, and today she is thirty-eight. Get her together with her sisters, and the stories come spilling out. For a large portion of her teenage years she wanted to be Olivia Newton John, but I guess those days are over. She actually underwent several metamorphoses, calling herself at times Beth, Ellie and Liz. By the time she decided she really wanted to be known as Elizabeth, it was too late for many people to adjust. Jeff, well he often calls her “Lil.” And there are four cute kids who know her only as mom.

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Danny is Six

Today is Daniel's sixth birthday He celebrated with his cousin, Benjamin, who is six days older at the family apple picking in Canada. I didn't get to go and as it turned out, it was just as well. I'll explain later, but for now I want to make sure I commemorate this day for Danny. I had hoped to get a photo of Benjamin and Daniel from Saturday, but it didn't work out, so I leave you with a photo from the summer of Danny and a collection of worms from the compost.

Now is is chilly and rainy and I am off to snuggle down in bed.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Autumn Garden

I grew up calling these lovely flowers Michaelmas daisies. I knew they were also called asters, which tends to be the name they are known under in the States. The word “Michaelmas” conjures up pictures of cold mediaeval churches and a way of life defined by the Saint’s days and the church calendar. Let’s not forget the Inns of Court, where the legal year is divided into four terms: Michaelmas, Hilary (now that’s a thought), Easter and Trinity.

Aren’t they lovely? I think that is Professor Kippenburg in the middle. For me the words Michaelmas daisy and “bronze chrysanthemums” sum up autumn.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Card-Carrying Member

Here’s a fact that not many people know about me. I am a member of the UAW. As a member of the Professional and Administrative Union at the university where I was employed, I was—for reasons known only to God and Walter Reuther— a de facto member of the UAW. At one point there were a couple of real perks. UAW members could fly on Pro Air out of City Airport standby to Pro Air’s destination cities, like DC, Newark, and Indianapolis, for $25. But Pro Air folded up its wings and City Airport closed to commercial jets, in part because the good folks of Grosse Pointe didn’t like planes flying overhead.

If the UAW had asked me whether they should strike against General Motors, I think I would have told them it didn’t seem like a bright idea. The whole economic climate in Michigan is pretty bleak. It used to be that if you wanted a house in Grosse Pointe, you befriended a realtor and hoped to get a jump on all the other people eager to move to the Pointes. Now a drive down any street nets a whole slew of houses for sale. The auto companies are in bad shape and I don’t think a long drawn out strike is in their interest. The university where I worked and where Ernie taught is consolidating and eliminating departments. Did I mention that the entire state is going to close down? The Tigers have blown it. There are still (sardonic smile) the Lions.

It looks, however, as if the whole strike thing is over. I lived through a strike or two while I was employed. My favorite memory is of the Vice President who came into the office to man the phones when the clerical staff was on strike. I am sure he was thinking, “How hard can this be?” But after an hour he was looking rather pale and suddenly remembered an important meeting.

Yesterday the President of this same university resigned. We live in interesting times. I am glad I am too old to picket.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Another Six-Year Old!

Congratulations Benjamin. After a less-than-enjoyable first day at school, I gather you are now one of the guys.

Benjamin gets spaghetti and meatballs at home tonight with Jeff's parents and will be part of the annual joint-birthday-with-Daniel-apple-picking-in-Canada-party on Saturday. Hope the mutsus are still available. Hopefully there will be a better photo from that occasion, but here is Benjamin (second from the right) with his Bernas cousins this summer.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Customer Service

I took our Taurus in for service the other day to Roy O’Brien Ford. What a nice experience! The service bay was sparkling clean and Tina listened respectfully to my concerns. There was good coffee in the service lobby and it wasn’t long before I had a rundown of my problems and their probable solutions and Tina got a sprightly driver to take me home. The repairs were made and I picked up the car later in the afternoon. I don’t have much experience with car dealerships and how the treatment I received stacked up against what happens at other dealerships, but I was left with the certainty that when the time comes for another car, this is where I will return.

Customer service is a much-discussed topic amongst my friends. John Copeland has an apocryphal composite figure called “surly Sharon”. We have all met our share of “surly Sharons.” You know, the representatives who argue with you for ten minutes, tell you there is nothing they can do and then end the phone conversation by saying, “Is there anything else we can help you with?” I actually got pretty good results from Thermador this year, mostly by being polite but insistent after the greeting, “Why are you calling me? Your warranty is expired”. I had to fax in my original purchase agreement and the invoice for the first repair of this part, but I fortunately could put my hands on them. I suppose it is my responsibility to keep these bits of paper, but I am here to tell you that any company who keeps their own records and doesn’t force me to prove that I own the appliance in question will get my repeat business. One repairman I hired this year (from a firm that has been very satisfactory in the past) told me he could fix the hose on the GE refrigerator, but that he “doesn’t do digital.” And the factory authorized repairman who came next insinuated we were witless and charged me $70 to tell me I don’t have a problem with my settings. I do. Don’t get me started on the building inspector from the city of Grosse Pointe Park. The electrician was a gem, but now we have to deal with the replacement window people. One window sill is coming adrift.

All this is to explain why I was so happy to read a column in last week’s Free Press entitled Good service means I’ll be back. I am pleased to report that Claire Nelson of Bureau of Urban Living who is so highly praised by Georgea Kovanis is someone I know. She has the added double distinction of marrying into a wonderful family we have known for a long time and having the loveliest wedding dress I have ever seen.

Now let’s just hope I can get through this week without having to call Comcast. Or Macintosh. Or the immigration people. I’ll get to them in a future post

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Truth is Every Bit as Strange as Fiction

Remember my post with the cute clay-people video attached? “How silly”, you said. Well, take a look at this.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are You Being Served?

The little kids are not the only ones going back to school. Among the class of “returning students” we have characters such as Lucy who are looking to “retool”. Here she is on her first day as a student of art and design. Any of you familiar with her work in the last seven or eight years know how much the scientific, legislative and policy writing is at odds with the creative part of her nature. No more dull journals, now the house is enlivened with frothier writing!

Among the magazines I have found lying around is the New York Times Fall Fashion Supplement, with the article about “The Wonder Room” in Selfridges. That brought back memories of summer 1962. Several of my college friends lived in a house off Haverstock Hill. There were two flats, each with beds for four, one on the ground floor, one in the basement. That summer I moved with Anne, Maggie, Jan, Sylvia, Penny and two others whose names will doubtless come back to me. To pay the rent I got a job at Selfridges, in the “better dresses” department. I don’t remember applying for the job and I certainly don’t recall what I could have put on my application that indicated I knew anything about high fashion. Anyone who knows me will laugh at the pairing. In fact “better dresses” meant “more expensive” and certainly not more cutting edge. It was the era in which Mary Quant was taking over from Hardy Amies, but neither name sprang readily to my lips—and neither designer was in evidence in that department. I have two memories of my time there: one is standing on the selling floor watching my friend Sylvia sidle in with an envelope containing the results of my degree examinations, the other is of selling a depressing outfit to a dreary woman who wanted something to wear for her wedding.

There wasn’t a large staff. The head honcho was Miss Gladney and she was assisted by Miss Potter. Miss Gladney was one of those top-heavy middle aged ladies who mince along on high heels, and in appearance she was not unlike Mrs. Slocombe on the British comedy which is a wacky depiction of a department store and the epitome of the double entendre, Are you being Served? Miss Potter was somewhat younger and rather dowdy. Rumor had it that she was “carrying on” with a married man. If that was the case it was a joyless affair—she always seemed rather glum when she returned from her extended coffee breaks. For some reason the department had its own bookkeeper and what a delight she was. Kathleen and her husband Miklos and their son lived in Hampstead and they frequently invited me to their lovely house full of reminders of their native Hungary from which they had fled a few years before. (To read the text, click on the image.)
Strange that I remember these characters from Selfridges so very well when I have forgotten people from the past I knew much better. The space I worked in has been given over to other endeavors, but maybe I will duck into “The Wonder Room” next time I am in London and pick up something for old times’ sake. Maybe a Tiffany diamond.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Waiting Window

There are three windows in our dining room. There’s a triple window taking up most of the wall looking out directly to the street and two smaller windows on the side, overlooking our neighbor’s drive way. This is one of them. The bare patch towards the bottom is the drive way and the two houses are across the street. Standing at this window and looking towards the right, you can see the cars approaching from Jefferson, pretty much the only logical access route to our house.

I have spent a lot of time looking out of this window, watching for headlights, trying to identify cars. If we are expecting guests, I’m usually not watching for them. I have other things to do, like cleaning bathrooms or making beds. In the past, two sets of circumstances led to my anxious waiting beside this window. Snow. Not the scant layer of unthreatening snow you see here, but blankets of the stuff. I remember the evenings I waited for Ernie (“I grew up in Iowa. I’m not afraid of snow”) to make his way carefully up the street after a day of teaching. In the days before cell phones there was little to do but wait. Of course I was worried, but there was also the question of dinner and a bunch of hungry kids. Should we wait or go ahead and eat? I suppose we solved the problem somehow, but I still remember the relief when the familiar wagon skidded past the window and in to the driveway.

This is also where I stood enveloped in darkness, waiting for teenagers to return home in the wee small hours. I can honestly say that our children were—with very rare exceptions—totally responsible and trustworthy. Ernie tended to wait up for them on the couch with a book, but when I was on duty, this is where I stood. Each time I caught sight of headlights, I was sure it had to be them. Eventually it was. But parents fall prey to apprehension and fear.

I no longer need to stand on guard near the window. But I do need to get some new wallpaper.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Weekend on the Bruce Peninsula

Remember me saying I wanted a back yard privy? Well, I found one. A visit to Keppel Croft gardens was one of many lovely experiences of the weekend we spent in Ontario and that’s where we found this beauty.

We had been invited to spend time with our friends Vic and Peggy at their cottage on Mountain Lake on the Bruce peninsula and we drove up on Saturday morning with Pete and Cindy for two days of the food, drink, conversation and general hilarity that are the hallmark of a get-together with these delightful people. More narrative and photos can be found here.

The flowers and the whimsical statuary are easy to capture on film, but some of the other features are harder to show. It was only last October that we were at Stonehenge, so we were fascinated to compare it to Keppel Henge, created as a millennium project. This part of the gardens is also the site of the fascinating analemmatic sundial , which assured us that the time really was 4:30. And look at this photo, created by the same astrophotographer.

How did we get from outhouses to the heavens in three paragraphs?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Public Safety Reports

Here are two articles (somewhat abbreviated) from our local newspapers. They describe the same incident, though one of the reporters can’t tell his big hand from his little hand. From the Grosse Pointe Times :

An officer observed a vehicle at around 1:24 a.m. July 31 parked in a driveway of a home in the 400 block of McKinley with its headlights on but the car not running…The officer opened the driver’s door to check on the well-being of the 52-year-old City man and could immediately smell alcohol.”
And from the Grosse Pointe News:
A 52 year-old City of Grosse Pointe man was arrested for drunken driving after police found him passed out in his vehicle parked in a driveway in the 400 block of McKinley at 3:37 a.m. Tuesday July 31…Police suspected he had been drinking after detecting a strong odor of intoxicants coming from his facial area….”
Facial area? I immediately assumed that the News had hired a new reporter who was determined to add to zip to the Public Safety Reports with some flowery language, so I phoned the newspaper to ask. I was told that for the past couple of years, all the police reports in the Pointes have used this circumlocution. There must be a reason. Fourth Amendment? Help me out, any lawyer who happens to read this. Maybe it is a new Grosse Pointe misdemeanor—having a facial area smelling of intoxicants. It can go down with the current favorite—being an annoying person.

But it must make life very difficult for anyone who still uses Bay Rum aftershave.

She's Laughing About it Now

This photo of three of Elizabeth’s children was taken on Labor Day. That is Benjamin at the back, carefully loading into a handy truck some of the tons of rock that Ernie moved in. For the last five years Elizabeth has been warning us that she will break down and cry inconsolably on Benjamin’s first day in kindergarten. Lately she has been expressing concern about him going to school on the bus. “Nonsense”, we said, “those are just freak cases you read about in the newspaper once or twice a year."

So yesterday Benjamin packed his snack in his back-pack and went off, not entirely joyfully, on the school bus. At the end of the afternoon, Elizabeth was at the bus stop to meet him and find out about the first day of school. No Benjamin. She jumped on the bus to see if he was waiting for her. No Benjamin. The bus-driver radioed back to school. No Benjamin. The bus-driver then radioed all the other buses to see if anyone had an extra little boy. Finally they located Benjamin, who had been loaded onto the wrong bus in spite of his label with the right number writ large. So eventually Benjamin, who wasn’t even aware that he had been lost, was re-united with his mom, who had made lots of friends among sympathetic parents and drivers.

Benjamin likes the bus. He likes kindergarten. But he says it’s time to give it a rest.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Choose One from Column A . . .

We were once amused by the menu of a restaurant in Rome. The owners, obviously hoping to appeal to English-speaking tourists, had translated their menu valiantly, if a trifle unsuccessfully, into English. “Tepid” apple pie didn’t seem so bad, but we were reluctant to discover the true identity of “hog scraps”. I suppose it could have been julienned ham, but . . .

So I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Beijing Tourism Bureau has released a list of translations of 2,753 dishes and drinks to solicit public opinions and to ensure some conformity in preparation for the Olympics. According to the article at, “Bad translations of Chinese dishes are headaches for foreign epicures. There used to be translations like "Virgin Chicken" and "Burnt Lion's Head", which are actually dishes based on young chicken and pork ball resembling lion's head. These translations either scare or embarrass foreign customers and may cause misunderstanding on China's diet habits.” I should say so.

After an explanation of the guidelines used to establish the new translations, the article goes on to note two examples of dishes described based on the materials used. The first is "Mushroom-Duck's Foot". It is the second that piqued my interest—“AmentJuice-BalsamPear”. You can imagine why.

It also piqued the interest of Garreth Powell, who writes for ChinaEconomic In his September 4 post he recognizes that the purpose is to help foreign guests to recognize the materials and content of the dish. “Except”, he continues, “that the writer in his pitiful ignorance has no idea what Ament Juice is although there is a singer in Pearl Jam with the second name of Ament but that may not be the connection.”

He ends the article,”The committee also plans to launch a training program to equip waiters and waitresses with knowledge of the dish names in case customers demand explanations. They can start by explaining Ament Juice to one ignorant Westerner.”

Make that two.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Is This the Little Girl I Carried?

It’s the time of the year for the obligatory “back to school" post and I won’t repeat anything I have written before. This year we have seven grandchildren going to school, leaving behind their smaller siblings. Marcie sent me this lovely photo of Liesl in her school uniform, and I am preserving it here. Seems like only yesterday she looked like this.

Nothing is Certain, Only the Certain Spring

I am not too happy with my garden this year. Here’s a photo I took to show the progress on the arbor (and the arbor-meister assures me that now he has wheeled in the more than four tons of rock needed to create the paths, the arbor will be finished very shortly.) This is the view you get if you sit sipping coffee at the picnic table, and from a distance, the garden looks pretty decent. But I know better: seen up close, the flowerbeds evidence a coreopsis that should have been deadheaded long ago, a lily that desperately needs transplanting, some weeds that have made themselves at home . . . well, you get the picture. I can blame the weather, time given over to other worthy pursuits, or plain laziness. Take your pick.

It happens every year: I am aware of my mistakes and shortcomings as a gardener and vow to do better next year. The garden is a recalcitrant child which needs to be put to bed for the winter. Next year we can both redeem ourselves.

But shall I? The succession of seasons is a conceit I have long cherished. I found comfort this spring in Housman. How easy it is to read his account of the passage of the years. The sky is blue, the blossoms are white and fluffy and he has a reasonable expectation of reaching his allotted lifespan. That gives him fifty more years to see the beauty of the transition from winter to spring with its unspoken promise of amends.

Laurence Binyon had no such illusions. I don’t know when he wrote his poem The Burning of the Leaves, but it was certainly at a time when the succession of seasons held no promise of infinite springs. The vocabulary of the poem bristles with words like “weeping”, ‘brittle”, “rotten” and “corruption.” Binyon understands that Nature demands clean-up work to be done in the garden in Autumn and that there is the sure and certain hope of the glory of spring—but that he may not be the one to enjoy it. The poem ends:

That world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.
This poem is a reminder to live in the moment. Our only achievements are what we accomplish today, not what we promise to do tomorrow. Nature will endure, not us. I have already written about the hymns I want sung at my funeral. This is the poem I want read.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Whatever Happened to . . .?

One of my great pleasures is life is reconnecting with my children’s childhood friends. Some have come up to me in the street with a, “Hi, Mrs. Ament, remember me?” More often I hear news of them from their parents. My strangest experience? I once met a woman at a party whose boys were in Little League with Andrew and Al. I asked what her younger son was doing and she replied proudly, “He’s the road manager for Marilyn Manson.” It is hard to re-arrange your face into a suitable expression when confronted by that answer.

Here’s a photo taken at Lucy’s High School graduation in 1994. That’s her friend Brian with her and all those cords around their necks signify that they were both in the top ten of their graduating class. Brian’s the “four year-old” I mentioned in an earlier post. He and Lucy were great buddies from kindergarten through to the end of high school and he spent a lot of time at our house. Then it was on to the U of M and Vet school at Penn. His last assignment was a residency in New York. He will take his Boards in October and go off to California to join a practice in Glendale. So he’s home for a couple to months to study for his Boards and I had the joyful experience of having him back at my dining room table, this time with the letters DVM attached to his name and a specialty in emergency veterinary medicine under his belt. It has been such a long time since I have seen him—but it seems like yesterday.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Let Me Help You with That

The new Northwest Airlines building at Detroit Metro-politan Airport is impressive. Visitors to Detroit arrive in a clean, shiny and vibrant terminal. Also a long one. It is a real hike from one end to the other and pretty daunting from the middle, where you enter and exit, to either end. There is a train thingy, but I have only used it once. You need to go up a level to the station, hauling whatever carry-on baggage you have, and even then—unless your gate happens to be right where the train stops—you still have a walk. I find it quicker and easier to jump on the moving walkway and hoof the rest.

Back in June when I picked up Ernie’s sister at the airport, I wondered how she would cope after her recent knee surgery. I kept an anxious eye on the escalator from arrivals to the baggage area. At one point I glanced toward the baggage carousel, and there she was. . . in a wheelchair, pushed by a friendly employee.

So although I have been mulling over the problems I may shortly face as an aging traveler, I wasn’t fully prepared for the grim picture painted in Ronni Bennett’s recent post.

This entry is a study of callousness. There is institutional callousness on the part of the TSA and the airlines (not to mention the airport architects). Just read some of the comments made by other fellow sufferers. I was about to endorse the suggestion made by one of the commenters,”I ask that you send your post to the highest levels of airport authorities, airlines, appropriate elected officials, consumer groups, and others. This might bring at a minimum some relief to the predictably hardest hit victims.”, but that plan of attack won’t have immediate results. It does, however, seem to me that we can all do our bit to prevent the other type of callousness exemplified here, individual disregard and apathy.

My blog entry, when I returned from England last year, contained these words: What surprised me the most? The courtesy of the people we came across and the fact that I never once got on a crowded tube without someone offering me a seat.

So here’s the challenge for today. We can all of us examine our attitude to the elderly person in the grocery store who can’t reach the beans on the top shelf, or the pedestrian who holds up traffic. It may involve actively helping, or merely showing patience and human decency. And those of you with small children—use these situations as teaching moments. Those people who gave up their seats to me on the tube were for the most part young: it would be wonderful to have a whole generation for whom the phrase “Let me help you with that” comes more readily to the lips than, “Have a great day.”

Monday, August 27, 2007


My dad never owned a car. Nor did he, to my knowledge, ever drive one. It wasn’t a big deal: not many people did back then and we had lots of buses running at the end of the street. There was the 649, the 659 and the 679, which went to places like Manor House and even Liverpool Street: there was the 310 to Enfield Town, the 275 to Cockfosters and the wonderful Greenline which went to central London, setting down passengers at a few well chosen stops. But there wasn’t a direct route to Enfield Rolling Mills, where daddy worked as an electrician.
That’s him at work, second from the right. I already explained how the importance of electricity to the Rolling Mills got us our phone. Too bad it didn’t get us a car, because every morning daddy would fasten his bicycle clips round his baggy grey pants, get on his bike and ride the three or so miles to the Rolling Mills. At noon he would bike home for dinner and bike back to work, returning home sometime between five and six p.m. Day in and day out, in rain, snow and what passes for blazing sunshine in England. I don’t recall him having much in the way of protective clothing either. His pants were frequently soaked. He repeated this routine until he was sixty or so.

That is what you do when you have children and a house. But when he was a young man, in the brief years before the war made everyone sober, he had a much more dashing mode of transportation. My mother wrote on the back of these photos, but she did not date them. I suspect they were taken between their marriage in October, 1937 and my birth in December, 1939.My mother identified the site of her photo as the “ferry from Fowey to Bodinnick, Cornwall.” The sidecar, in which my mother rode in solitary splendor, looks enormous.

But it wouldn’t have worked with a pram. As for my dad, after the freedom of the motor-bike, there must have been days when the daily ride seemed like miles of quiet desperation.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

On Death and Dying

This is not the post I planned for today. I came up after dinner to complete my intended entry, and checked on a few blogs. One of them I found a few weeks ago when listening to This American Life on NPR. The subject of the piece was people who become spokesmen, whether by profession or through chance. The blog is Rachel from North London. Rachel North is one of the people who was wounded in the bombing of the London underground in July, 2005. She confronted her trauma by blogging about it and by gathering together survivors in unofficial therapy sessions in pubs. There was an amazing outcome, including a group who denounced her, claiming a conspiracy: there was an electrical problem that caused the destruction on the tube and the bus incident was staged by actors to help cover up the negligence by the transportation authorities

This was potential fodder for my blog. Bizarre? Yes. I realized that there was no way I could mention Rachel without carrying out a lot more research than I was prepared to do. So I dropped the subject.

But when I looked at her blog today, Rachel was confronting a pain worse than she suffered on 7/7. One that requires no research to understand.

Dip into her writing and to the comments attached to her posts. This is what makes the world of blogging so human and raw.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


The word economy is derived from the Greek word for a household manager, a far cry from this “global” economy stuff. Those of us who were brought up in post-war England learned economy from the masters of household management—our mothers. They learned how to stretch everything. And if you couldn’t stretch it, you did without it.

My mother was a fantastic knitter. When she wasn’t actively engaged in housework, she always had a pair of knitting needles in her hand. I am proud that Kate has taken up this hobby with so much skill. My mother knitted sweaters galore and the most exquisite matinee coasts and booties for babies. I still have one delicate, snow-white coat she sent for Al. It is knitted on the smallest gauge needles imaginable, with blue smocking. There was no way I was going to put it on a baby! Though I must admit that some of the other garments she sent came through the wash pretty well.

As we grew, the sweaters and cardigans grew too small. Was that the end of them? Not for my mother, the household manager. The garment was taken apart, the wool was carefully undone, made into skeins, washed and re-knitted.

Were all her garments successful? I do somewhat question the swimsuits. We all had them, I think. I have photos of me and my brother wearing one, and one showing her in a suit identical to the one my brother is wearing in this photo, taken at Clacton-on-Sea. I can't tell from the photos if my dad escaped the Madame Defarge of beachwear. Surely they got waterlogged, saggy and uncomfortable pretty soon? I don’t remember, but I do think Brian looks pretty adorable in this photo.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Another 40th

Today is Jeff's fortieth birthday. It is hard to get a good photo of Jeff—he's always running around monitoring children, pouring drinks, rounding up dirty dishes. One of these days I will get him to sit still and I'll take a photo that does him justice.

I took this one earlier today at his house. We celebrated in grand style: his parents and brother were there, as were Ernie and I and Lucy and Kate and Ron and their family. We remembered the surprise birthday Liz gave Jeff for his 30th when they lived in Livonia. Scary though that in another 10 years, he'll be fifty!

Back then neither Liz nor Kate had children: now there are eight of them and I couldn't resist taking this photo. There was a time we wondered if they would ever talk to each other. Now they are playing board games.

Happy 40th Jeff.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ave atque Vale

I was saddened by Olivia’s last post. She has decided to leave the world of blogging—at least for a while. So I have removed her lyrical Toast and Honey from my list of English blogs. I will miss her lovely writing.

I was, however, delighted to add a second blogger to my “People I know” links. Please welcome Kim at Mad Mommy Meanderings. I have known Kim for close to thirty years and I knew her grandparents and her parents before that.

Makes me seem kind of old.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Food for Thought

I am intrigued by the logistics of professional food preparation. I am a Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen junkie (How many minutes to the pass? Two, chef), but I have no idea what that means. These programs never show us how the food is prepared ready for that last minute onslaught. I do realize, however, that there is a military precision involved in plating food in a restaurant. So it was no surprise to learn that the army supported the production of food for White House picnics (henceforth known as “Outdoor Events”) by lending a mobile kitchen trailer (or MKT).

This was just one of the many things I learned in a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Eleven Years, two Presidents, One Kitchen is a delightful book written by Walter Scheib, who was the chef at the White House for the last seven years of the Clinton administration and the beginning of George Bush’s term in office. The author describes the innermost workings of a part of the White House which has rarely been written about, probably because many people would not be interested. The book is a charming mélange of history, glimpses into the lives of the presidents and their families and recipes. The latter I am not terribly eager to try—they tend to have alarmingly long lists of ingredients—but the vignettes of the inhabitants of the White House are compelling. The author notes in his preface, “There’s no so-called “dirt” to be found about the First Families here”, but in the interests of full disclosure I must admit I went to the index, only to find that the entry after “Lemongrass and Red Curry Dressing” was Limerick, Chris, Director of Housekeeping.

The author is clearly partial to the Clintons, and it is surprising to see a Hillary Clinton with a clear vision of the kind of food she wanted for the White House (encompassing American regional cuisine, with an eye to increasing nutrition and lowering fat content). The First Lady who was anathema to cookie-baking moms throughout America had a clear understanding of what she wanted from an Executive Chef and made sure that her daughter Chelsea learned the basics of food preparation and cooking before she went off to Stanford.

We watch the preparations for State dinners and meet Tony Blair, Chirac and Nelson Mandela, not to mention a President of the Russian Federation who enjoyed the Vodka Marinated Salmon and proceeded to marinate everything, including himself, in the liquid.

Scheib’s tenure in the White House was at a historic time and we see his dawning realization on September 11 that although there were procedures in place for the evacuation of the government, the staff were on their own. We also see him, as the only chef left in the building that day, providing food for 900 Secret Service and other personnel.

There was a different atmosphere in the Bush White House. The president didn’t like green food or “wet” fish, and indicated that all sandwiches were to be served with Lay’s potato chips. Things went downhill from there and although Scheib is respectful of the President, he paints a grim picture of the conditions which caused him ultimately to be fired. The anecdote about the Social Secretary and the Interior Decorator arguing about how many tulips to strew artfully on a platter of food is hilarious.

If you want to learn how to slice salmon, cook hot dogs for George Bush or cater receptions for thousands, you will enjoy this book. I did.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kilkelly, Ireland

Thanks to Mairin O’Byrne who was kind enough to supply me with the name of the song I wrote about in my last post. She graciously supplied me with the words and you can see them if you look at her comment on the August 12 entry. I wish I could point you to the song as sung by her brother, Fergus. However, the version in this video is noteworthy for the photos and pictures of conditions in 19th century Ireland.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Can You Hear Me Now?

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Fergus O’Byrne and Jim Payne in concert several times and one song that never fails to move me—I don’t know the title—is a compilation of fragments from letters sent by family in Ireland to the immigrant who left to seek his fortune in Newfoundland. His sister is married, children are born. The letters are infrequent and clearly from folks to whom writing is a challenge, and eventually comes the news that father and mother have gone to their graves without having seen their long-lost son again.

How strange this all seems in an era of cell phones, when even a trip to the grocery store gives rise to calls regarding the choice of cereals. That’s why the latest book in my “extreme exploration” reading seems vaguely unsettling. Mike Horn is an explorer par excellence and in Conquering the Impossible he describes his 12,000 mile journey around the Arctic Circle via Norway, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Siberia. He travels on foot, dragging a sled, by boat, kite, kayak and even for a short while on a bike. His journey takes 27 months and he encounters temperatures from 75 degrees below zero to 85 degrees of mosquito-ridden heat in Siberia. His constant companion? A satellite phone. I do not want to detract from his courage. The phone would have been no help to him 95% of the time. The dangers were too imminent and he could not have summoned help when confronting a hungry bear or finding himself on swiftly melting ice or facing boat-crushing seas. Although the phone came in useful on a training run when he needed medical advice for the gangrene resulting from frostbite, he used it almost exclusively to co-ordinate the re-supplying of equipment as he changed modes of transportation, and to deal with his worst nightmare, Russian bureaucracy. But I couldn’t help wondering: what difference would it have made to Robert Falcon Scott or to Shackleton if they had had such a convenient way of contacting civilization?

I was reminded of this communication void the other day when I was cleaning out some papers and came across something Al had sent us many years ago. When he was living in Madagascar, he visited Île Ste. Marie, an island off the coast. There he found, wrote down and translated an inscription on a tomb. It was the burial place of François Fortune Joachim Albrand (1795-1826), who had spent six years colonizing the island for France. How sad that he had no way to contact his family in his last days. The inscription ends:

TRAVELER, whoever you may be,
At the sight of this solitary tomb,
Dreaming of your aged father, your brothers, your friends,
Who wait for your return,
You will not be able to hold back from a few tears.
This one here also had a father, brothers, friends,
Who loved him with idolatry.
They hoped to see him again soon,
But he returned no more.

Traveler, pray to the God of mercy
For the repose of his soul.
Some of those who died on September 11, 2001 had the opportunity to make a last call. Would you want to do so? Who would you call? What would you say?

Guess What? As I was trying to locate a photo for this post, I came across this. Watch him climb Gasherbrum II. Real time. Be patient and let it load.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Dear Palmer Heenan

You’re my mayor, and all, and you have my best interests at heart. In the recent Park Communicator you described the new housing lifestyle you are initiating for Grosse Pointe Park: “Brownstone houses of the style that characterize neighborhoods of old Boston.” I like that Boston reference. Classy. Sort of Harvard Square meets Ted Kennedy.

Like many other long-time residents of the Park, I am saddened by the lack of suitable housing for the older generation. Much as I would like one of those splendid new condos on the lake by the War Memorial, there's nothing under a million, so we all know that's not going to happen. No, I would prefer to stay in the Park, so I was excited by your announcement. But wait—there’s more. You are obviously aware of the parking problems in the streets where you intend to build, so your plans call for homes “in the townhouse style with two-car garages on the first floor.” But that gives us three, count ‘em, three floors. You therefore describe this housing as "suitable for young people, single buyers and retirees who don’t mind steps.”

Retirees who don’t mind steps is an oxymoron waiting to happen. Once again, I am saddened. Why can no one ask us what we want?

On the positive side, there may be an answer to the problem—I can outsource myself. I’ll take having flowers braided in my hair over climbing all those stairs any day.

Requiem for a Desk

I told you the other day about the apartment where Ernie was living when we first met. It was basically one room with a Murphy bed stowed away in the wall and there was a small kitchen and bathroom. The room was dominated by this desk. A large, almost square, no nonsense desk. A professorial desk, on which you could find various works of Plato, collections of essays and translations waiting to be graded—and the occasional slice of pizza.

When the time came to leave, Ernie packed the desk and the works of Plato and his big salad bowl into a U-Haul, hitched it to his Buick and started off for Iowa and thence to Michigan. In this photo he has reached Taos, New Mexico.

The desk was hauled up to the upper duplex where we lived for three years and after that to our current house. It spent a year or two in the basement, where Ernie had his first office, but he soon relocated to a room on the ground floor and the desk was carried up into the daylight, where it lived happily for a long time, still home to books and essays and the occasional slice of pizza.

After Ernie retired, he didn’t feel the need of a handy professorial desk and it was hauled up another flight of stairs to the “computer room”, where it supported the Xerox machine and a pile of papers for another few years.

This year Ernie craved a daybed. The desk had to go. I’m not quite sure how it was decided which of the kids should inherit it, but no blood was spilt. Jeff came with his father’s van and the desk made the hour-long trip to Canton. I am sure it will be its final resting place.

Well done, good and faithful desk.