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.