Letters from Popi

The Coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for everyone.  The handwriting is on the wall.  It will diminish the need for office space (who needs offices when many can work from home).  City centers will be affected.  It will impact business support companies, restaurants, schools and – in short – life as we know it.   I have concern for my family.  And for the ongoing meaningful education of my granddaughters – Eve and Elin.  So a few months ago, I had an idea.  

I have always been an advocate of the written word.  I have posted on the value of handwritten letters in the past (see September 26, 2011).  So it comes as no surprise that since mid-March, I have been sending my granddaughters a handwritten letter — every day.  

Now these are not ordinary letters.  Each one bears a cartoon image of – guess who (and sometimes guess who else).   It may be written on a sheet of paper from my largesse of stationery taken from the hotels Donna and I have stayed since we were first married (and I do have a largesse).  The letters always have a theme.  Discussion of the city or country from which the stationery originates; history; science; food; poetry; foreign languages; etc.   On the back of each envelope is the rubber-stamped image of a frog — who offers a clue as to the topic of the letter.  And each envelope bears a “Forever” frog stamp (yes there are frog stamps).    

I think the letters have gone over well.  On Father’s Day, I was presented with a thick 3 ring album bearing the title “Letters from Popi.”  It contained acetate envelopes — each containing a letter and the corresponding envelope.  The good news is — there are many spaces left to fill.   

Fourth of July!

[A timely Holiday repeat from July 2, 2017]

On this Independence Day eve, here’s a distillation of a few prior posts on a subject near to my heart.  

Fireworks? Firecrackers? Cherry bombs? Should they be legal? In Wisconsin, fireworks stores seem to outnumber cows.  Weekend festivities are often punctuated by the staccato of firecrackers or the magnificent boom of larger devices.

In 1956, the Hungarian Revolution began.  My 9 year old pals and I learned about “Molotov cocktails.”  So we thought – why not?   We filled pop bottles with gasoline, stuffed a rag in the top and lit it — tossing the bottle into Weller creek.  WOW!!   Spectacular eruptions of flames (not to mention the bumblebee whiz of shards of glass and rocks).   

I was a bomb maker.  We’d break open firecrackers, shake out the fulminate of mercury powder into cigar tubes with homemade fins, balance them on an incline and then light a fuse sending the “rocket” skyward or sometimes just bouncing along the ground.  Then we put “Lady Finger” [firecrackers] in the nose.  Wow!  These would end with an airborne explosion.  We would grab handfuls of match books at the local pharmacy and snip the heads off.  And stuff match heads into thin pipes, shaking in the fulminate powder for more incendiary displays.  And bombs.  We made cannons stuffed with BB’s held in place by dripping candle wax.  And once a hand grenade – using Slaymaker lock dial.  Every boy had a supply of firecrackers, cherry bombs, M-80’s and such.  And my neighborhood was frequently ripped with massive explosions.  

I am aware of the arguments of some armchair howlers (“what about accidents?” “they can blow your finger off!”).  Puh-lease.  Wisconsin and 39 other states have it right on fireworks. Illinois – not surprisingly – marches to the wrong drummer.  

Shuji Shuriken

[A repeat from June 9, 2016] Kenjutsu is the overarching term for all schools of Japanese swordsmanship.  Swords.  Very important in the martial arts in Japan.  And to the samurai class.   The study of kenjutsu has been a sub-culture in Japan since feudal times.  For practice, they used the bokuto (solid wood stick) or shina (bamboo pole).  For battle, they used the real McCoy.    And only the most disciplined of swordsmen could repeat and internalize the magic words of the Shuji Shuriken — “the cutting of the nine ideographs.”  Only the most devout of Japanese swordsmen could give life to these nine words.  

U – Being 

Mu – Non-being 

Suigetsu – Moonlight on the water     

 Jo – Inner security 

Shin – Master of the mind  

Sen – Thought precedes action 

Kara – Empty:  the Void.  Virtue       

Shinmyoken – Where the tip of the sword settles.   

Zero – Where the way has no power. . . .

It was not enough to merely think or speak the words.  The words and their meaning must be summoned from deep within.  The thought was – if you get through the first one while meditating and contemplating, you’re doing pretty well . . . . .

Gum Behind the Ear

[A repeat from March 31, 2013]  When I was a kid, I chewed gum on the way to school.  Upon entering class, I would stick the gum behind my right ear.   Just behind the lobe.  At recess, I’d pull out the gum and start chewing.  I was reasonably efficient in this task as I could probably nurse a one penny piece of Double Bubble Chewing Gum for the entire day.   Ear.  Mouth.  Ear.  Mouth.  And so on.  I do recall that by the end of the day, the gum was always a little grittier – and saltier – than in the morning.  But hey — it was good chewing gum. 

Fast forward to last year.  I’m sitting on the train.  Reading.  And a couple gets on the train and plops down in front of me.  Probably in their late 50’s.   My gaze sharpens.  At first, it looks like the guy has a large and ugly mole on the back of his ear.   Just behind the lobe.   But then it comes to me . . . . oh my socks and shoes – this guy has a piece of chewing gum behind his ear!   Now mind you I haven’t put a piece of gum behind my ear since last week (YES I’M KIDDING) and I haven’t thought about the subject for about fifty years.  But wow!  It all came roaring back.  And I couldn’t resist. . . . click on the pic below and enlarge. . . . .  By the way, when the guy heard the distinctive “click” he turned slightly, plucked the gum from behind his ear and put it in his mouth.  Scout’s Honor. . . .

Gum behind the ear


I recently finished Bob Spitz’s delightful biography of Julia Child — Dearie. You may scratch your head when I say it was hard to put down.  It was.  What a read!  And what an amazing story of success.

Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born in 1912 in Pasadena, CA.  She attended Smith College and worked for several years as a copywriter in NY.  When World War II came along, 6’2″ Julia was too tall for the WAC’s or WAVE’s so she joined the OSS.  She was posted in Asia where in 1944 she met Paul Child – a low level career diplomat.  They were married in 1946 and Julia followed Paul as he was transferred to Paris. Julia was bored by the lack of things to do.  Sooo . . . she took up cooking and attended Le Cordon Bleu — the legendary culinary institute.   At the age of 39 she began teaching cooking to American women — in her small Paris flat.  And with two colleagues, she began writing a cookbook directed to American housewives.  After nearly ten years of writing and at the age of 49, her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published by Knopf.   Julia’s star began to soar.  A true outlier. . . . . 

In 1962, she appeared on Boston’s WGBH — a television program designed for the staid discussion of books.  Instead of sitting and talking, Julia arrived with food and paraphernalia (including a one burner tabletop stove) and — much to the consternation of directors — she insisted on cooking an omelette.   On camera!   The producers feared no one would ever watch WGBH again.  Of course, Julia’s appearance had the opposite effect.  Her success spawned her own show “The French Chef” and Julia became a household name.     

In 2004, Julia passed away at the age of 92.  Her kitchen was moved to the Smithsonian where it is on permanent display.   Bon appetit!  



Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country (200 million).  It is a bit more than twice the size of California with less than 3% of the population over 65.  It is an interesting country — amazingly wealthy in natural resources (31st in the world in GDP) yet more than 70% of the populace live below the poverty line.  The country’s leadership over the years has been corrupt, venal and self-serving — sending billions out of the country for personal bank accounts. 

There are three main tribes in Nigeria:  the Yoruba (21%), the Hausa/Fulani (25%) and the Ibo (Igbo) (18%).   While there are hundreds of indigenous languages, English is the official language of the country.   Yoruba are half Christian and half Muslim.  But it is interesting that Muslim and Christian Yoruba get along just fine.   They intermarry and often attend one another’s religious services.  The Ibo are primarily Christian.  It is the Hausa – who are 95% Muslim – who seem to create issues — not only in Nigeria but also in the region.  The terrorist group Boko Haram is composed of violent jihadists (Hausa) who want to impose sharia law (see my post of September 8, 2016).   Boko Haram (means “Western education is forbidden“) has been an instigator of ongoing bloodshed in the northern part of Nigeria. 

There are a fair number of Nigerians in Chicago.  Most seem to be Yoruba.  A large number of cab drivers are Nigerian (see my post of August 19, 2012).    The Yoruba and Ibo assimilate reasonably well among other African nationalities.   Given the strategic location of Nigeria (coastal West Africa) and its tactical resources (mainly oil), this is one country we should really want to understand.   And – there are 11 golf courses in Nigeria.  And yesI am thinking about it. . . . .  

It’s all about the “dash”

[A repeat from March 23, 2017]  I read an interview with Julius “Dr. J” Erving. He was asked the question “What’s the best advice you ever got?”   He responded that it was learning one simple lesson: “It’s all about the dash.” The “dash” . . . . .

Dr. J explained that in the cemetery, every tombstone has two numbers: the year you were born and the year you die. And there’s a dash in between. THAT — Dr. J said — is what it’s all about. “The dash [is everything]. What you’ve done with your life and how you lived it are in that dash.” At some point, we are all going to have two numbers. And a dash.

In my post of April 26, 2014, I suggested that it’s better to be a thermostat than a thermometer. Thermostats take control. Thermostats are on the playing field. Scoring points. Making a difference. Making a dent. Thermometers sit back and . . . . just tell you the score. The dash on your tombstone can be a thermometer. Or a thermostat.

What’s in your dash?

The President’s Lawyer

When the United States House of Representatives delivered the Articles of Impeachment to the Unites States Senate, our President was forced to secure legal representation. As might be expected, he hired the best and the brightest to defend him.   After lengthy testimony and deliberation, the Senate found the President not guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.   And Andrew Johnson went back to serving as President. . . . .  

As some of you know, I have been an avid collector and dealer of historic autograph and manuscript material and occasional rare books.  Over the last forty-five years, my personal collection has focused on original letters and documents of famous lawyers.  The President’s famed lawyer — William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901) is one of them.

Evarts came from a long line of distinguished Bostonians. After his successful defense of President Andrew Johnson in the 1868 impeachment proceedings, Evarts was named Attorney General. He became President of the New York Bar Association and led the movement to defeat the corrupt Tweed Ring. He finished his career serving as United States Senator from New York.

In these last four decades, I have acquired at least 33 handwritten and signed letters of William Maxwell Evarts dating from 1856 to 1893 – touching on a variety of topics.  But as with all things, the adventure will soon end.  The Evarts collection and my (one of very few) complete collections of original letters and documents of Justices of the United States Supreme Court will be on the auction block at the end of this month.  It’s been quite a ride – this collecting business . . . .   

So this guy. . . .

[I could use a smile.  Here’s one from January 23, 2012]

So this guy goes to the doctor.  He’s nervous and fidgeting.  The doctor says “do you smoke?”   The guy responds “yeah – four packs a day.”  The doctor shook his head and calmly offered “well, if you don’t quit smoking, you’re going to be dead in five years.”  The guy is twitching and shaking and says “But Doc – I’m nervous.  I gotta have something to keep me calm.”  The doctor thought for a moment “why don’t you chew toothpicks?” 

So the guy quit smoking and started chewing toothpicks.  Three boxes of toothpicks a day.  He died five years later.  Dutch elm disease. . . .

My Father’s house has many rooms

In 1985, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the Mormon Church – opened a grand temple in Glenview, Illinois.  It was the 35th Mormon Temple in the world.  

Prior to its consecration in August 1985, the doors of the Temple were opened to the public.  From July 15 to August 3d, an open house invited anyone and everyone to take a guided tour through the beautiful structure.   There was no proselytizing and no sales talk.  It was strictly – we would like to share with you – our neighbors – this new home for the Mormon Church. 

I had seen the construction site – and later the completed structure.  When I read that the Temple would be open to the public, I thought it would be interesting.  And educational.   So one weekend afternoon, Donna and I drove over to a very crowded parking lot and lined up for the tour.  We must’ve spent close to an hour walking through – including a small, beautiful oval-shaped room, grand chandelier and four chairs – I believe called a “Celestial Room” – where one might pray more directly to God.  

After the tour, we were met by two young men in white shirts and black ties.  They cordially asked if we had any questions – about the Temple or the Mormon faith.  I thought – and inquired about how Mormons viewed those of other faith traditions who worshiped God in their own way.  The one young man responded by quoting John 14:2-3 – “My Father’s house has many rooms. . . . ”  and he shared an ecumenical belief that while Mormons may have the upper hand in terms of their faith (not unlike the exclusionary attitude of soooo many others faiths, synods, religions), all Christians should have a reservation for lodging in Heaven.  As to non-Christians, there is further latitude that acknowledges that all people are God’s children.  A good thought for all to keep in mind. . . .