Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


Flashback: A Letter from Ma to the #1 Bum on V-J Day

Given that it’s the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day today, tomorrow, or maybe September 2, I want to re-post an entry I posted fifteen years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. On August 14, 1945, my grandmother Sade wrote a letter to her only son Frank (my father) while he was still at a radio base in Mali, North Africa. That letter is a marvelous little glimpse of how ordinary people responded to the end of the biggest and most calamitous war in human history. Follow the links to the letter. It’s worth your time. Really.

Below, a photo from 1950. L-R: My mother Victoria, my father Frank, my aunt and godmother Kathleen, my grandfather Harry and my grandmother Sade.

LR Vickie Frank Kathleen Harry Sade 1950-500 Wide.jpg

The day after Pearl Harbor, my father enlisted, along with all of his friends and cousins who were of age. This gang of fifteen-odd random Chicago kids scattered to the far corners of the world during the War, but one thing held them together: My grandmother’s Underwood typewriter. Throughout WWII, Sade “Ma” Duntemann called them The Bums, and (almost) monthly published The Bum’s Rush, a one-sheet newsletter carefully typed in two columns and run off after hours on a mimeo machine at the First National Bank downtown, where my grandfather Harry “Pops” Duntemann was a bank officer. She drew (or borrowed) little cartoons, and once enclosed a copy of a photo of the pool table in their basement, where my father and his buddies had hung out before enlisting. The newsletter held all the neighborhood gossip, and when possible descriptions of where the Bums were and what they were doing. The January 1945 issue described how my dad’s younger cousin John Phil Duntemann lost a toe when a greenhorn trainee backed T-5 John’s own bulldozer over his foot.

Five or six years ago, my sister and I unearthed something else: A private letter to the #1 Bum (our father) written by Sade on that same typewriter. It began on August 14, running on to the 15th, and it was a first-hand account of the gathering expectation and then the pandemonium in Chicago when news came that the War was finally over. It’s as close to a time machine as I’ll ever find. I cannot read it without hearing her voice, and the shouts in the street, and the church bells, the car horns, and the laughter and the joyous relief beginning a block off North Clark Street in Chicago, and spreading throughout a tired and grateful world. I knew a lot of these people, though most are now gone. I also know and appreciate what they did, so if they went a little nuts, and got a little drunk and silly, well, they earned every second of it.

Don’t try too hard to sort out the names. Sis was my Aunt Kathleen. The Marks (“Marxes”) were cousins. John Malone was my dad’s best friend and (later) his best man, and the families were very close. Most other people mentioned were neighbors. Willie is the mongrel dog my father later smuggled home from Africa, which is a wonderful story I will tell on the anniversary of my father’s return from the War.

Sade Prendergast Duntemann was very Catholic and very Irish. She tried to infuse her letters with some of that Irishness, and if you’re not used to reading Irish dialect, it may be confusing. So what I’ve done is prepared three copies, and you should attempt them in this order: Look at the scanned images of the letter (it’s faded and hard to read, but at least scan it) then read the literal transcription. If you can’t figure something out, then read the third version, which I edited a little for comprehensibility. “Demoni” means “tomorrow” in Italian. And I have absolutely no idea where Kernenyok is!

Image, Side 1 (521K) Image, Side 2. (567K)

Literal transcription.

Edited transcription.

I can add nothing to that. I’ll only say that when I was ten and my grandmother’s health was failing, she gave me that old Underwood typewriter, and I furiously pounded out stories on it for almost ten years until the keys started to fall off. I didn’t appreciate it at the time (How could I? and what 10-year-old ever does?) but no other gift apart from Carol’s gift of herself would ever change me more.

Christmas in the French Alps

IMG_0296-500 Wide.jpg

(Start the saga with yesterday’s entry, if you haven’t read it already.) Once the river cruise boat saw us down the gangplank, the six of us hopped a train in Basel, Switzerland and took off for Geneva: Carol and I, Kathy and Bob, and Alexis and Brian. One of my friends had told me before we left that the run between those two cities was flattish and not especially scenic.

Well. There’s Nebraska flattish, and then there’s Switzerland flattish. Nebraska wins hands down. The land we crossed was rugged, and there were always mountains in the distance in one direction or another. It was a gorgeous ride, and our first look at rural Switzerland. I found myself thinking, if this is the flat part of Switzerland, what must the mountainous parts be like?

We’ll check into that next trip. Matt met us in Geneva, and we stopped for a while at his house before piling into several cars and heading across the border into France. The drive took an hour, and it wasn’t long as the crow flies. Not being crows, we had to deal with endless doglegs on mountain roads. But late afternoon we found ourselves in Morzine, a ski town in the foothills of the French Alps. Morzine itself is at 1000 meters (3300 feet) above sea level, but that’s just the town. All the real action is uphill. From Morzine you can take a dozen ski lifts a good deal higher.

For our second week in Europe we teamed up with several people in Carol’s extended family and rented an entire (small) ski chalet in Morzine. Everybody except for the old folks (like us) were skiers–and a couple of the old folks were too. Me, well, at 67 I’ve never broken a bone, and don’t intend to start now. You ski. We’ll watch.

The chalet was comfortable, if chilly at times on the first floor. The common areas were bright and cozy, with a wood-burning fireplace and lots of chairs and sofas:

IMG_0305-500 Wide.jpg

The dining room had huge windows overlooking the mountainsides. That is, when the weather was clear, we could see the mountainsides. Clear weather wasn’t the norm, so I took the shots when I could. This is the view from the dining room, on Christmas Day:

IMG_0313-500 Wide.jpg

And this was the view (without any zoom) through a nearby window that was typical of most of the rest of the week:

The ginormous dining table could easily seat 16, but we were only twelve plus a toddler. And the food, good lord, it was like nothing else we’ve ever had. Chef Michael prepared breakfast and dinner, and left fruit and fresh bread on the table for those who would still be in the chalet at lunchtime. This is a standard ski chalet practice, rooted in the assumption that skiers would not be coming back to the chalet for lunch. Carol and I bought ham, turkey, and cheese down in the town center for sandwiches.

Below is Christmas Eve dinner. After the meal we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a long-time family favorite. Most of us had brought Christmas Vacation-themed T-shirts, and some of us even dressed like the characters, especialy Grandma Wilma, Brian, and Alexis. (Carol bought the two of us T-shirts at our local thrift store. Mine was an XXL, but that’s what was there.)

IMG_0332-500 Wide.jpg

It snowed most days, if not a lot. (And Morzine knew how to deal with it.) Christmas Day, however, was crystal clear and brilliantly sunny. The whole bunch of us decided to take the big cable gondola up the mountain to Avioraz, a sort of satellite town that catered almost solely to skiers. Those who ski, skied. The rest of us wandered around looking in shop windows. The streets of Avioraz were (deliberately) under a foot or so of hard-packed show, and could be skied as easily as walked.

IMG_0320-500 Wide.jpg

Avioraz, as you might expect, consists mostly of ski chalets, ski shops, restaurants, and bars. We had lunch outside in bright sun–mercifully, there was no wind to speak of, so it was almost warm. Not long after lunch, while Carol and I were walking around (most of the gang had gone even further up the mountain on the ski lifts) I heard bells. And what should come around the corner but…a one-horse open sleigh! Egad, I’d been singing that song ever since I was a toddler, but until Christmas Day 2019 I had never actually seen a “one-horse open sleigh.” Maybe I just don’t get out enough.

We did get out Christmas night, and went to church in Morzine. It was the first time I had ever heard Mass in French, though we had heard it in German when we last visited Europe in 2002.

Sagely predicting that at least some of the week would suffer lousy weather, Matt brought a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Bob Ross mountains-and-trees painting. We dedicated a game table to it and got to work on the first day. We worked on it whenever there was nothing much else to do. I had never before attempted a puzzle that large (nor one with such vast expanses of blue) and didn’t contribute a great deal. Carol worked at it a lot, as did her sister Kathy. Brian’s wife Alexis had a near-magical touch with puzzles, and whatever time she spent on it greatly accelerated its assembly.

It took us until the middle of the last night we spent at the chalet, but at some point the last piece clicked into place and it was finished.

The skiers among us were gone a lot, but overall, we talked, laughed, drank good French wine, read, worked the puzzle, and entertained little Molly while her parents were out on the slopes. Molly’s parents, both her grandmothers, and her great-grandmother Wilma were all there, so Molly got plenty of attention. She’s starting to talk, and almost got the hang of “Uncle Jeff” during our week together.

Our trip home was long but uneventful: We flew from Geneva to London Heathrow, then from London to Dallas, where we had to retrieve our suitcases and go through customs. Carol got the two of us TSA’s Global Entry certification earlier last year, and so customs was trivial. We re-checked our bags and hopped a flight from Dallas to Phoenix.

At the airport we ordered up a Lyft ride. The driver told us that airport management was pushing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft out of the airport, and that he would no longer be serving passengers after a whole raft of new fees and requirements are imposed later in January. The fees are being challenged in court, so the whole thing could collapse if the ruling goes against the city. I like Lyft and will miss it for airport trips, but technology has its way of getting past government interference. It’ll be interesting to see what ways eventually emerge.

Overall it was a wonderful trip, both on the water and in the mountains. I got behind on a number of projects (not least being the final bits of my novel) but it was worth it. On the upside, we didn’t put up much in the line of decorations here in Phoenix, so there was less to put away on our return. Alas, one of the first things that happened was the noisy death of our built-in 1500-watt microwave oven. We ran down to Walmart and picked up a smaller 900-watt unit for…$65. That’ll do until the JennAir repairman can make it out here.

In the meantime, we’re enjoying our (slightly chilly) Phoenix winter, and gradually getting over eight hours’ worth of jetlag. Happy new year to everyone here, and don’t believe the doomsayers: This is by far the best time in human history to be alive!

The Man (Always) Behind the Camera

Orchard Place Group Circa 1933-500 Wide.jpg

Father’s Day. I find it a little startling, riffling through my photobase of scanned images going back to the 1880s, how few photos I have of my father. The reason is no mystery: Photography was one of his hobbies, so when family photos were taken, he was invariably the man behind the camera. My mother wouldn’t touch that camera, as it was fancy and (for its era) expensive. (It was a Graflex medium-format twin-lens reflex.) So there are plenty of excellent pictures of my mother, my sister, and me. What we don’t have are many photos of Frank W. Duntemann II. (II? Not Jr.? No. Stay tuned.)

The ones we have, alas, are so-so. The photo above is a good example. My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann (1892-1956) took it. I don’t know what sort of camera he had. A lot of the photos are ever so slightly out of focus. Age has faded most of them. (I touched up the one shown above.) I’m guessing it was a Brownie or something similar. Harry golfed, and fished. Photography was not any passion of his.

As best I can tell, the undated photo was taken in 1931 or 1932, at Orchard Place, Illinois. From left to right: Kathleen Duntemann (1920-1999), my aunt and godmother. She’s holding up the family dog, Sugar Boy. Sade G. Duntemann (1892-1965), my grandmother. My father, Frank W. Duntemann II (1922-1978), Martha Winkelmann Duntemann (1871-1967), my great-grandmother, and Frank W. Duntemann I (1867-1936) my great-grandfather. I use “I” and “II” in my genealogy research to differentiate between my father and his grandfather, after whom he had been named.

I’ve said this before and will say it again: If you have a stash of old photos, identify their subjects and write them on the back, or in some kind of database. Do it while those who know the people, places, and things in the photos are still alive. There is a photo of my father as a buck private about to go off to war in 1942, with his arm around a girl. By the time I found the photo in 2000, no one who knew the girl’s name was still alive. There were many more photos of people in the same box, most of whom I cannot identify. Every picture of a locomotive or an aircraft, however, was minutely described on the back.

Evidently girls were not my father’s passion in his youth. This changed in 1946, when one of his childhood friends introduced him to my mother, who was a friend of his girlfriend. I honor my father on this day, and on most days, when some of his mannerisms and turns of phrase cross my mind. His expression “Kick ass; just don’t miss” is the working title of my memoirs. He died young, but he lived long enough to see me grow up. I have lots of excellent pictures of me growing up. Alas, I have more of his excellent photos of steam locomotives than I have of him.


Kids as Parametric Oscillators

Back in June, when Carol and I were in Chicago, we took our nieces to the school playground across the big field behind my sister’s house. We pushed them on the swings, as usual, and I considered that both girls are tall and muscular for their ages. So I asked, “Katie, do you know how to pump?”

“What’s pump?”

“It’s pushing yourself on a swing so nobody else has to push you!”

She looked at me funny. She does that a lot; it’s part of the Uncle Jeff job description. So while pushing her I prepared to answer the obvious question: How do I do that, Uncle Jeff?

I stood there for a second before I realized that I had not pumped a swing for, well, decades. I wasn’t entirely sure I remembered how to do it. I gave Katie an extra big push and jumped onto the swing next to hers.

Shazam! The mind may forget…the body remembers! In thirty seconds I was going way high, and was devising my tutorial for the scarily bright little girl three feet to my left:

As you go forward, pull back on the chains and stretch your feet out. When you start to go back, stop pulling on the chains and pull your feet underneath you.

Wait a minute. Wait one damned minute! How does that work? I mean, I’m not pushing against the ground or anything else, and not hurling reaction mass. I realized that while the body remembered clearly how to pump a swing, the mind could not explain it.

I vaguely and anciently recalled reading something about a swing with a kid on it acting as a parametric oscillator, but the details were just gone. My guess at the time was a good one: When you pump a swing, you’re raising and lowering your center of mass a little by “bending” the pendulum, synchronized to the timing of the swing’s motion. That adds energy during the forward motion of the swing. There are explanations all over the Web, but the one I found by Dr. William Case at Grinnell College was the best, including several short video clips.

It’s an amazingly subtle business.

I’m kicking myself now for not thinking to try the obvious enhancement, which is pushing forward on the chains at the rear extreme of motion. Next time.

Katie didn’t quite get it but she gave it a good shot (heck, I was at least six before my cousin Diane taught me circa 1958) and with a little practice she’ll remember it well past her sixtieth birthday in 2066, and possibly even into the 22nd Century.

Some things are just timeless.

Something’s Burning…

Like, Colorado Springs.

Ok. First of all, Carol and I are fine. We’re fine in part because we’re not yet back in Colorado Springs. We’ve been in Chicago for three weeks and might have stayed a little longer, but then friends started to call and email asking, “Are you near the fire?”

Egad. I don’t talk much about being away until we’re back, so apart from locals few people knew we were not in Colorado. Once it became clear that the fire was no quick or small matter, we got things in order as best we could and started the long trip west. We’ll be home some time tomorrow.

Our house is about 11 miles SSE of the Waldo Canyon fire and does not appear to be in immediate danger. Jimi Henton is there with Aero and Jack, and we’re in regular touch with her. Over the last two days, the fire’s perimeters have moved mostly north and east. 30,000 people have been evacuated already (including several of our friends and even Michelle Malkin) and things are a stupendous mess.

More than this I can’t tell you until we get there. Stand by.

Sic Transit Gloria Veneris…

Sun With Venus 1.jpg

…for another 105 years. By 2117, I’ll be heavily involved in other pursuits and may not be able to watch–but man, did we get a show this time!

Catching any short-lived astronomical phenomenon always involves a strong measure of luck. In 1972, seven friends and I drove 1200 miles to Cap Chat, Quebec, to see a total solar eclipse. We brought out the big guns–my 10″ telescope looks superficially like a big gun, and took a little explaining at customs both coming and going–but alas, two hours before totality the clouds rolled in. We had the novel experience of watching the umbra hurtling toward us by the darkening of the undersides of the high clouds, but of totality we saw nothing.

Luck, yeah. While planning for the event I noticed that my sister Gretchen’s back yard has a near-optimum line-of-sight to the place on the NW horizon where the Sun would set on June 5, 2012. Her lot fronts on a large open space running roughly E-W, with high-tension lines and their towers the only significant obstruction. Given that my western horizon is a 9,800 foot mountain and I see granite up to about 35 degrees, Gretchen’s back yard seemed flukily ideal.

Transit Setup-500 Wide.jpg

So there we chose our ground. (Without hawks but with hounds–sort of–and elves be damned.) The instrument was my Bausch & Lomb Criterion 4000 suitcase scope, which has gone on a number of expeditions with us, including two total solar eclipses and Halley’s Comet in 1986. The technique was what I generally do for solar observing: project an image on a piece of foamcore supported by a separate tripod. The image at the top of this entry was a shot of the foamcore, taken with an ordinary and slightly ancient Kodak V530 pocket camera.

I logged first contact at 5:05 PM. Second contact (when the trailing edge of the disk of Venus enters the disk of the Sun) came at 5:22 PM. After that it was the long slow crawl of Venus downward (on the foamcore) as the Sun slowly set in the northwest. Gretchen’s girls thought it was interesting, and before the transit I showed them how the telescope brings in a magnified but inverted image of things far away, like a 55-gallon trashcan across the open space. I’m sure they didn’t completely understand what was going on, but as with all Uncle Jeff tricks they did consider it a lot of fun.

The weather was nothing short of astonishing: high 60s F, light breeze, crystal blue skies down to the horizon. So it had been the whole day, and so it stayed every minute until the Sun vanished behind some trees at 8:03 PM. I got a lot of good photos, considering that the photos were of an image projected on cardboard. Toward the end of visibility, the scope was directed square across the approach to O’Hare Field, and five, count ’em, five jet aircraft crossed the disk of the Sun while we watched. The exhaust from the engines, though invisible directly, distorted the solar image in an interesting way.

Fifteen minutes before the Sun vanished, it passed behind one of the high-tension towers across the open space, allowing me to fiddle the focus a little and get some remarkable shots, like the one below:

Sun Behind Tower.jpg

Gretchen made one of her trademark pot roast feasts, with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes almost the color of the solar disk. (A dollop of real butter yellowed ’em up gorgeously.) Dash and QBit ran around in circles, chased balls, and slept like rocks last night. As did we all.

Success just don’t get any more successful than that.

You Can’t Go Home Again

We’re back and I’m ok; you can stop worrying about me now. (Nonetheless, many thanks for all the concerned emails.) We flew to Chicago to house-sit for Carol’s sister for a week or so, and most of what I did there was read books and visit family and a few old friends. My arm no longer hurts…much, and that only when I put significant weight or torque on it. I’m going to strength training tomorrow, a session I suspect will be interesting.

In the meantime, I passed through my old neighborhood on the way to visit my kindergarten friend Art, and cruised down the street where I grew up, to see the house I lived in until I was 23. I was halfway down the block when it hit me: This is all wrong. I stopped where I knew my old house had been, and looked at something that was no longer my old house. In fact, it looked a lot like Dorothy’s tornado had dropped somebody else’s house on top of the house of my birth and somehow got the alignment right.

Let me show you the house shortly after its completion in 1949:


It was a fairly common design, by the well-known Chicago developer Maclennan, and there were lots of them in our neighborhood. The original floor plan was just 900 square feet, with only two bedrooms and one bath. When my sister came along in 1956 my parents put a floor under the cathedral ceiling and made a third bedroom out of it, with a new dormer for a half bath upstairs. Shortly after that, they put a good-sized family room off the back side of the house that ran the full width of the structure. The family room included a brick fireplace with its own chimney. It was a little tight (especially by today’s standards) but I finished the basement in knotty pine when I was 15 and after establishing my desk and workbench there spent a great deal of my time downstairs.

My mother lived there for 47 years, and when we sold the house in 1996 I figured that somebody would put some work into it. Whew. Was I right or what? It looks like they literally shaved off the second story and the family room completely, or possibly gutted the place down to the brick walls and started over. (I’m guessing my knotty pine walls in the basement did not make the cut either.) The house as it is today looks a little topheavy, but the lot is only 35 feet wide, and it takes some creativity to maximize the useful space buildable on that little land.

No hard feelings, though forgive me for thinking that it just looks funny. The most striking change was the removal of both chimneys, which made me sigh because my first ham radio antenna was 30′ of #22 wire strung from one chimney to the other. I worked 34 states from that house (on a hacked-up Knight T-60) and saw eight planets from the front lawn. It was, let’s say, formative.

Much more to talk about. I’ll try and catch up in coming days. I have a new desktop machine here, having scragged the old one by touching it before grounding myself. When you see a quarter-inch spark jump from your finger to a USB port, you know that nothing good is about to happen. I have a sketch for a steampunk discharge station coming together, with a 5″ bronze gear and a VR-75 gas regulator tube for visual effects. Touch your quadcore before touching the discharge station, and it’s back to your Babbage barn, bunky!

Unhappy Old Year

So. Once again we rebooted the calendar, and it worked. Whew. Couldn’t have happened soon enough. This year had its moments, but it wasn’t among the best I can recall, though it stands shoulders above 2002.

The year began with the worst flu I’ve had in 35 years. Lesson: Get your flu shots! Carol did. I didn’t. Q.E.D. There was other illness in the family that I won’t talk about, though nothing life-threatening. For that we have to move out into our friendscape. We lost Prudy Stewart, a stalwart from the local Bichon Frise Club, along with Harold Shippey, a gentleman in our camping group. Two of my grade school teachers died within a couple of months of one another: Mrs. Mary Clare Toffenetti, who taught art and French at IC school, and Mrs. Mary Veronica Condon, who taught third grade and also French. Dan Matthews, one of the kids in my grade school class, who had been a close friend for several years, died on Christmas Day. Just last night, one of our parishioners, who generally sat two pews behind us at church, had a serious heart attack. He’s in a coma and is not expected to survive.

All this since November 1, sheesh.

Oh, and my house almost blew up. Settling soil has been our bane here for years now. We had to empty the lower level and get the slab mudjacked, and are still fooling with paint chips and carpet samples now that the carpet’s been torn up anyway. All of my SF and most of my electronics magazines are packed and out of reach. It’s a mess.

For good things to report I’ll begin with the completion of Drumlin Circus, a 53,000 word short novel that came together in one furious six-week period, during which I wrote as much as 5,000 words in a single day. Jim Strickland and I put a tete-beche double novel on the market, incorporating Drumlin Circus and On Gossamer Wings, both tales from the Drumlins World.

Jim and I attended the Taos Toolbox writers’ workshop in July, conducted by Walter Jon Williams and taught by Walter and my SF mentor Nancy Kress. I described the workshop in two entries after we got back, and would have continued if my damned gas line hadn’t threatened to ignite virtually under my feet. (I hope to write a little more about the workshop in coming days.) I will say right now that if you have a little experience in SF or fantasy, Taos Toolbox is spectacular. Granted, it’s expensive, and almost unbelievably intense. Jim describes it as a 500-level graduate course in the art of the novel compressed into two weeks, and that sounds about right. Walter is currently accepting applications for the 2012 workshop, and I give it my wholehearted recommendation. I met a lot of wonderful people, workshopped 15,000 words of my current novel-in-progress, Ten Gentle Opportunities, and returned with new dedication to the craft of fiction. I’d hoped to finish TGO by the end of the year, but (as described above) the year did not cooperate. The new target is April 1. Snotty AIs, zombies dancing the Macarena, a copier factory gone rogue, magic as software, physics as alternate magic, and malware from another universe…hey, what else d’ya want?

On October 2, Carol and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. We spent ten days on Oahu, generating enough gumption to start having the lower level rehabbed when we got back. It took everything we could generate, and more.

I joined the Writers Write! group here locally, and have made many friends there. The group’s motto is Just write the damn book! It’s advice I need to take.

Those are the broad strokes. Scattered among the days were little flashes of light and minor grunts of annoyance. My brakes have needed work three times. I met Cynthia Felice. My new superregenerative FM receiver has dead spots. I finished a nice steampunk computer table. That sort of thing; up and down on an almost daily basis.

I have high hopes for 2012. Carol and I have deliberately held back opening our Christmas presents until January 6th to get an upbeat start on the year, and 2012’s first 18 hours have gone pretty well. I won’t try to draw any conclusions from the data points presented. Hey, sea level dropped 6mm in 2010 alone. Blips happen, so let’s not read too much into any of them. It’s not the end of the Holocene…yet. Then there’s the Mayan calendar. Y2KXII, anybody? Let’s party!)

Happy new year, everyone. Strive to appreciate your friends this year. (You won’t have them forever!) Write more. Worry less. Go outside and check your gas pipes. Eat fat and drink sweet wine, and make sure you share what you have with others. I’ll be here when you need me.

Uncle Jeff Tricks

Katie-Julie-06-13-2011.jpgTricks? Oh…one of them is that I just disappeared for a week, but I’m now back, having spent five days tending small girls while their parents took a much-needed jaunt to Las Vegas for the wedding of a close friend. Carol and I kept Katie and Julie fed and entertained and (mostly) happy, which is no small feat. We have never had children. We don’t have any real kid experience, especially with girls. We spent plenty of time with our nephews at the same age 20-odd years ago, but boys are…different.

We did our best. A lot of it comes down to devising Uncle Jeff Tricks that interest them for more than a few minutes. I had some success there. Trick #1: The three of us sat on a blanket on the grass in the backyard for some time, eating pretzels. Julie evidently feared that I would starve, for each time I crunched down a pretzel she kept handing me another. Never willing to let a learning opportunity pass by, I began biting portions off the pretzels and making them into letters.

“What’s this say?” I asked Julie, holding up a suitably mutilated pretzel. (Katie is now four and a half, and has her letters down cold.)

“R!” shouted Julie, obviously delighted. I put the pretzel down. She handed me another. I nibbled off a different set of bits, and held it up.


“O!” she shouted, giggling. And so it went. Soon I had spelled their last name out in multilated pretzels. (See above.) That “E” was a bitch. I ended up eating ten or twelve before I got one that E-ified without crumbling into loose punctuation.

JulieAndPullup300Wide.jpgTrick #2: I tried to use the large population of balls in the backyard to model the Solar System. The colors were wrong, but I got the sizes in the ballpark–right down to a slightly greenish tennis-ball Moon for the Earth. Alas, before the lecture began Julie decided she wanted to play planet-soccer, and whap! Uranus got kicked down the gravity well into the bushes. To celebrate, our junior niece ran into the house and came out a minute later with a (clean, whew!) pullup on her head. This was not an Uncle Jeff trick. Really.

Trick #3 worked out a little better, especially for Katie. I poked around the edges of the yard until I found a reasonably intact maple seed from last year’s crop, and tossed it into the air. The girls had doubtless seen them spiraling down from the trees the previous fall, but hadn’t yet hit upon relaunching them. I explained that to work the seeds must be intact and complete (the squirrels eat the seeds and leave empty wings that don’t fly well) and challenged them to dig around the yard to find a special seed that flew better than all the others.

Julie was stumped, so I handed her the one I had picked up and launched several times. Katie, however, ran and got a Jewel grocery bag and spent the better part of half an hour walking around the yard, singing a song to herself while picking up any flyable maple seeds she could find and stuffing them in the bag. I’m not sure many seeds got launched, but trust me, there won’t be any new maple seedlings in the yard this year.

Katie did pick a favorite, and she’s holding it in the photo above.

Trick #4 fell flat: I tried to teach them to make grass whistles. This was a stretch, and they don’t (yet) have the manual dexterity to hold a blade of wide grass between their thumbs in such a way as to make the monumentally irritating sound that grass makes when blown on just so. Katie, frustrated, decided to simply imitate the whistles I was making with a blade of grass, and Julie soon joined in. They are excellent mimics. The two of them sat screeching along with Uncle Jeff’s blade of grass until the blade disintegrated and the two of them got bored. I imagine the neighbors were grateful that grass is as flimsy as it is.

Herding girls is hard work, and it took a day or so for the two of us to fully recuperate. I expect to be back at full vigor tomorrow, and need to be flailing at Ten Gentle Opportunities in a very big way. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Tripwander: The Ghost of Christmas Presents


Christmas in Chicago is always aerobic, and this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and gather impressions, now that we’re packed and ready to hop a plane. In seven short days I chauffered, shopped, entertained small girls, repaired a planter that needed deck screws and Plastic Wood, fixed computer problems, wrapped innumerable presents, unwrapped (different) innumerable presents, and ate far, far too much sugar.

KongSnowman300Wide.jpgFirst bit of advice? Don’t mess with small white dogs. The Pack has been with Jimi this trip, but Carol’s sister Kathy has a ten-pound Maltese, and Wrigley received two dog toys for Christmas. One was a stuffed squeaky dinosaur that was all but guaranteed by its maker to be unshreddable by dogs. The other was a Christmas Kong snowman toy made of the same stuff that luggage straps are made of, and certainly looked like nothing short of a machete would take it down.

Ha! I use the word “was” deliberately and with emphasis. It took Wrigley less than 24 hours to chew the squeaker out of the unshreddable dino, leaving a hole that suggested an alien bursting its way out from the vicinity of the poor thing’s kidneys. The Kong snowman lasted a little longer, but 36 hours post-Christmas, its squeaky plastic core lay exposed, and Carol had to remove its innards to keep Wrigley from swallowing them.

We did a lot of visiting and probably more eating than we should have. On the way to see our nephew Matt’s flashy new apartment, I drove past my high school (Lane Tech) for the first time in over twenty years. The building itself hasn’t changed since I graduated in 1970, but the neighborhood is now almost unrecognizable. The “tech supply” stores where we bought drafting paper and bow compasses are gone, perhaps because Lane is less technical than it used to be, or perhaps because French curves are now draggable splines in a CAD document. The legendary Riverview amusement park (behind Lane Tech and still in operation until my sophomore year) is now a drab retail center.

Sic transit, and all that.

Transit? Uggh. The weather was hideous (clearly due to anthropogenic global whining, or perhaps unsustainable xenon dioxide emissions) and I had a rental car peculiarly unsuited to snow and ice: a lumbering Nissan Altima with rear wheel drive, grabby brakes, and a keyless key fob with an un-guarded panic button that will go off if left in your pocket with anything stiffer than a glob of rice pudding.

My nieces gave me a Pillow Pet shaped like a penguin, which I suspect will be useful for leaning on while I mark up manuscripts, or simply as a laptop cushion for a lap that doesn’t have much inherent cushioning. I can see it parked on the back of my big reading chair, staring down at QBit, but therein lies some danger: QBit, like Mr. Byte before him, doesn’t like artifacts with eyes, and we’re going to have to be careful that he doesn’t drag the plush creature off to his lair to shred at leisure. (At least the penguin doesn’t have a squeaker.) Like I said, don’t mess with small white dogs.

It was abundantly good to see family again, and partake of vigilia on Christmas Eve with my sister, Bill, and her girls, complete with piles of pierogi and Manischewitz sweet wine, just like we did it in the Sixties. Christmas Day at Kathy’s brought us cookies, key lime pie, ham, Hawaiian salad, potato bake, bean salad (which I heard was very good) apple and pecan pie, and much more.

It’s a little late, but better late than never, and no less sincere for that: Merry Christmas to you and yours from Carol and me and the Pack. There’s much to be said and done in the coming year, if we can get past this bruiser of a winter and remember what really matters: freedom, family, and friendship. I’ll give it my best shot if you’ll give it yours!