I recently ran across some speaker notes that I used almost 30 years ago on the occasion of my grandfather’s 90th birthday (1994). I recall that a large white party tent had been set up on a backyard lawn and was filled with four generations of my grandparents’ descendants and their remaining lifelong friends. Here are my comments for that day.
I’ve been blessed by not only knowing, but sharing in my grandparents’ lives for many years (I am over 40!) Many of my friends and colleagues do not even remember their grandparents.
They told me I would be speaking at this gathering, but did not tell me what to talk about, so I just picked something that appealed to me. I’m going to tell you a little about an activity that my grandfather undertakes each and every year and we are all the beneficiaries of—their annual Christmas greeting card.
He’s been making photographic Christmas cards for over… well, I don’t know how many years. I was planning to make copies of some of the great ones over the years as a slide show, but then I found out that this party would be in the afternoon, outside!
So instead, I made some posters, and if my assistants will help hold them up I will describe them…
As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I inherited a collection of 16mm movies made by my two grandfathers, each an enthusiastic amateur and early adopter of photo technology. I have been struggling with their fate, as they consume a not-inconsiderable amount of space in my archives. Space that could be used to store other useless artifacts.
They have now been (mostly) digitized. And one can find them summarized at this page.
I have great difficulty getting rid of things. As someone who respects the historical path that brought us to our current time, place, and relations, it is hard to discard mementos, especially (for me) photographs that captured moments along that path. As a scientist, I am loathe to delete “data”, that might someday be valuable.
I have to acknowledge the slim likelihood of such artifacts becoming valuable. I hold no conceit that some biographer will ever be looking for scraps and clues identifying the influences on my own childhood. I like to think that my contributions to society have been positive, but probably not worth much more than an oblique reference in an obituary (“he was a curious man”). But maybe there were things in those movies that would be of interest to someone else. I didn’t know how to find that audience.
So the movies, spooled on metal reels of various sizes, lay dormant for years. When I wondered about their ultimate fate, I realized that eventually, they would have NO meaning to anyone, even if it were possible to view them. If there was any value to be extracted, it would have to be now, by me.
I described that initial effort in the previous post on this topic. Here is what has happened since.
Ten years ago, after a year of renovation kicked off by a housewarming “Before Party”, we hosted an “After Party”, which became the “(Happily Ever) After Party”. We pledged our devotion to each other and were declared, by virtue of superpowers claimed by the MC, to be “well and truly united”.
In the ten years since, we have recognized how well-matched we truly are: emotionally, intellectually, physically. We have had marvelous adventures, and we have nurtured and watched our families grow while sharing in the losses of our elders. We recognize in each other the love of our life.
I once encountered a story about a 90-year-old man who filed for divorce from his life-long spouse. The clerk at the courthouse asked, “why after all these years would you file for divorce NOW?” His answer: “I don’t want to die married to that awful woman!”
And I suddenly realized that I did not want to die NOT married to this wonderful woman!
Cover art for “Vietnam 1970-71, Confronting Challenges” (click to enlarge)
I helped my uncle complete a memoir in his last weeks of fighting multiple myeloma. It is a collection of stories, told in his inimitable style, of the year he spent in Vietnam in 1970-71. My foreword for the book is below.
The book was self-published through my Blurb account for the benefit of close friends and family. There have been others that have expressed an interest in having a copy of the book. There are a few options. If you want a physical memento that you can hold and read and cherish, you can order one from its Blurb book page.
The listed price is the actual cost (there is no markup). Custom printed books are expensive, but you get a real hard-cover book! To reduce the expense slightly, there are a few discounts available. If you can pool orders with others, there are quantity discounts: 10% for ten, 20% for twenty (somebody would have to coordinate and distribute the bulk order). I also know that Blurb makes promotions from time to time with discount coupons. You can Google “Blurb coupons” to find them. I once encountered and used a 40% coupon.
If you do not need the artifact of a physical book, the content is available here in a (50MB) PDF file for free. Download and enjoy it. Maybe you will decide you need it in a form not requiring a machine to read. If so, go ahead and order the book.
Here is my introduction to Bob’s memoir:
The author of this volume is Dr. Robert Olson, whom I know as my Uncle Bob. Over the years I heard him tell stories of when, fresh out of medical school, he served as a Navy doctor in Vietnam. Now, over the last 12 years, he has worked at putting words to paper to capture the remarkable experiences of that life-changing year, and he has collected photographs of that time, taken by himself and others.
It has been my privilege and honor to assist Uncle Bob in assembling this book. While he is a master storyteller, he is not a master of the modern tools of writers. But as you will see as a recurring theme in so many of the stories that follow, he took on that challenge in his signature manner—head on, picking up what he needed, as he needed it, to accomplish the task. Microsoft Word, hardly an intuitive editing tool, was Bob’s choice to render his material and turn it into text.
Which he did.
The modern tools of writing allow for easy revisions. And he made many of them, carefully crafting each story for impact and detail, augmenting them with photographs to illustrate the locations, people and world context of the times.
When it became apparent that he would not be able to take on the final task of assembling the stories and photographs into a full book and actually publishing it, I offered to help. I obtained his large “working folder” of the many files he had created over the course of a decade. Despite failing strength and plummeting hemoglobin levels, he confirmed the titles of his stories, eventually to become chapters in the book, which I then used to locate their most recent versions.
As I performed my new role as copy editor and typesetter, I learned the backstories and more complete details of these events, many of which I had never heard before, and I was struck by a recurring theme. It is hard to express succinctly, but it has to do with how we respond to events that are not under our control, not what we expect, not what we want, outside our experience or skill, and sometimes even frightening.
This sort of event happens to all of us: life is unpredictable, and stuff happens. In these stories, we see a response that does not shy away, but rather, meets the challenge head-on. It is more than just “making lemonade from lemons”; it goes beyond “rolling with the punches”. It is a full embrace of these unexpected and undesired events; an acceptance and a firm resolve to do the best you can in a difficult situation.
And in the end, two results obtain: the outcomes are better, and you are better.
I am struck, but not surprised, that Bob considers these difficult, challenging moments to be among the highlights of his life. I hope that after reading this book, you will understand why.
It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my uncle, Dr. Robert Olson. After a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma that included periods of remission, he succumbed on September 15, 2022. He was a remarkable man, and there will be many tributes that capture his many talents, his professional contributions, his passion for gardening, and his strong friendships and family relations. They will all be inadequate, as is any attempt to capture the essence of a person’s life.
But to the list of inadequate tributes, I would like to add mine, an anecdote that I wrote a few years ago following a Thanksgiving dinner, one of many large and boisterous holiday gatherings that he loved to host, with his daughters handling cooking and logistics. I was able to share it with Bob in a letter, at a time of better health. He was an important influence on me during a formative period of my life.
[I write this not to gain credit or accolades, but as an attempt to inspire others who may have been blessed by similar good fortune or have been more successful than expected in saving for their futures to consider what to do with their “excess”.]
My dad once told me that he was planning to “spend his children’s inheritance”. It was his lighthearted way of saying that he was not going to restrict his spending during retirement. He intended to pursue his passions for inventive projects and for philanthropic activity, especially for educational causes. And that his children should continue saving for their own financial security. None of us expected any different.
Well, he failed. Despite his efforts to create the ultimate ham radio station, and to support his grandchildren through college, he left a surplus. Not a Warren Buffet or Bill Gates level of wealth, but certainly more than we expected from a man who worked for a salary and who, while we were growing up, paid the mortgage by keeping our daily expenses to a minimum.
1968 was a big year for me. I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included. But that is another story. Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.
My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician: an internship at Oakland Medical Center. In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota. Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.
And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting. The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career. It was freeing. With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences. It was a big year for him too.
My mother managed a large household in a small house on a tight budget. She had five children within a decade during the 1950s. Armed with her Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, she prepared dinner every evening for a table of seven and had it ready by the time Dad came home from work. Diet and meal recommendations in the US at that time were meat, starch, vegetable. The food pyramid was yet to be invented, but family traditions provided the same guidance.
Our family dinners were always accompanied by a green salad: iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery and tomatoes, tossed into a large bowl and passed around the table for us to fill our individual plates or salad bowls. My mother’s care in stretching her self-imposed grocery budget resulted in a few interesting dinner rules, one of them being that no one was permitted to take more than two slices of tomato in their salad portion. (Another consequence of her frugality was that frozen orange juice was diluted with an additional measure of water, permitting us all to have a full juice glass at breakfast).
There was only one option for dressing the salad. My mother would never consider buying those expensive bottled dressings because my dad could make a French-like salad dressing at home. We would often watch him do this just before dinner. A bottle would be fitted with a funnel, into which he would deliver various amounts of spices from the small spice jars kept on a lazy susan in the cupboard. It was quantitatively uncalibrated; he’d just shake some into the funnel, give the lazy susan a turn, and see what else was available to add to the mix. He would then add ketchup, followed by vinegar, oil, and water. On occasion he would add drops of Worcestershire or lemon juice. The bottle would then be capped and vigorously shaken to mix the ingredients into a tart and flavorful concoction that would eventually separate back out to something clearish floating over something reddish. Shaking to remix the dressing before putting it on our salad was part of the dinner ritual as we passed the bottle around the table.
We all grew up with the understanding that dinner was always accompanied by a tossed salad, and there was only one dressing for it—Dad’s. Over time of course, we grew up and left home and were forced to explore the commercial options for salad dressings. They always seemed to come up short- too sweet or too thick or not enough tang. There was always some deficiency compared to Dad’s. Later on, at extended family gatherings we would insist that he bring his dressing to provide an option at the salad station. At some point, we pressured him to write down how to make it so that we could, in principle, reproduce it.
He yielded to that pressure. To somehow quantify the arbitrary shakes into the funnel must have been an interesting exercise for him; it took a few iterations before he was satisfied. He recorded his measures and supplemented them with an elaborate procedure to put them together. This is not the technique I watched as a kid (which was quite simple– just shake the bottle), but the recipe at least gives a glimpse of how he thought it should be done.
I recently encountered that recipe and made a few batches of Tod’s Homemade Salad Dressing. It was close, but did not match exactly my long-ago fond memories of it. On the other hand, there may not be anything that would match those memories.
Realizing that perfect reproduction was impossible, I made an adaptation that scales the recipe to fit a standard size bottle and utilizes only two distinct measuring tools. I invite you to try it. Feel free to make any modifications you think might improve on it. Dad would.
Tod’s Homemade Salad Dressing Thor’s variation, using only two measures and fitting in a 16-oz bottle.
Ingredients: 1 tsp celery salt/ground celery seed 1 tsp onion salt/onion powder 1 tsp paprika ½ tsp salt (fill the tsp measure halfway) ½ tsp black pepper ½ tsp lemon pepper 1 cup vinegar, in two ½ cup parts ½ cup ketchup ¼ cup oil (fill the ½ cup measure halfway) ¼ cup water
Directions: Add the spices to the bottle. Add ½ cup of vinegar and shake to dissolve spices in the vinegar. Add the ketchup, probably using a funnel. Shake to mix. Add the oil, rinsing the ketchup through the funnel. Shake. Add the remaining vinegar, rinsing the oil through the funnel. Shake. Add the water. Shake. Shake. Shake.
Lower calorie option: omit the oil, increase the water.
Other optional ingredients to consider: Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, garlic…
This is adapted from a tribute that my father made at the memorial of his father, Theodore Olson, after whom we are both named, who died in 2002 at the age of 97. I post it here for the online access of posterity, and to provide a portrayal of the scientific mindset of a family patriarch that influenced not only his students, but his entire family and several generations beyond. Here is my father’s rendition of our family history.
The start of this story goes back almost 150 years. In about 1860 in Norway, Hans Opjörden left home and went to Oslo. Hans had the misfortune to be the second son in his family, and that meant that his older brother would inherit the family farm. Hans left home and headed off to Oslo, where he went to work in a shipyard building boats. After a while he decided he really wanted to sail on the boats instead of just building them. At this time Norway was a province of Sweden. Shrewdly, Hans changed his name from Opjörden to Olson (with a Swedish spelling) and got Swedish sailing papers.
He went on several voyages and along the way befriended a shipmate named Peter Magnus Peterson. We can imagine a conversation between them based on what subsequently happened. Hans confided that he’d really wanted to be a farmer but had no prospects of getting land—and that being a sailor was not his “dream job”, but was good paying employment.