Knees redux!

17 Oct

I have been remiss in keeping up with my blog entries, so some have asked how the recovery is going. Since I am completely devoted to my Facebook cadre, I share almost daily, or at least weekly, updates on all manner of my personal life, from pictures of dinners (yes, the standard stereotype of FB inanity is true!), my grandchildren’s doings, and indeed, the progress of my recovery from what my surgeon calls “an amputation of the knee”!

When I look at the photo of my knee’s scar as it appears today, 2 months after surgery, I can only say that–after having viewed numerous other photos of knee scars on my FB Knee Replacement Support Group page–the knee is not a very attractive part of anybody’s body, and certainly not on the body of someone over 70 years of age! Still, my incision is looking pretty good compared to others I’ve seen.

At 2 months, looking pretty good!

And therein lies one of the problems with these support pages: it’s just human nature to want to compare one’s own progress with others’ recovery journey, despite knowing that this is a foolish thing to do. And boy, do the stories run the gamut from “I was ready to run another marathon after 3 weeks” to “It’s been a year now, and I’m still in excruciating pain.” So here’s my update, which lies somewhere far between those two extremes: I have made good progress, can bend the knee to beyond 125 degrees, which I think is really good, whatever my very young PT thinks. He’s a very nice physiotherapist, but so fit and so young that I can’t imagine he has any idea what it’s like to be older than 35 and someone who has always HATED exercise of the gym sort, with all those reps and boring efforts to add more exercises to the routines. I’ve decided now that the world is divided into two groups: just like those who believe the glass is half full or the glass is half empty, there are those who WANT exercise routines to get longer and harder so they can get fitter and stronger, and those–LIKE ME–who are happy to keep the exercises to the bare minimum to make a difference. I have been doing my exercises religiously, two times a day and at the beginning three times a day, because it was drummed into me that the exercises were the most important part of the recovery process. That does not mean I have to LIKE them, but have looked upon this as my job for the last two months. I will continue to do them, apparently ad infinitum! My PT has been concentrating, instead of on the bend, which is apparently fine, on my extension, which he says is not entirely straight. Part of this may be because of my anatomy–the other, still “natural” knee also has a -5 extension–but he still feels compelled to push hard on it, which is very painful as he does it. But again, I’m making progress on that front, and I’m being a good patient. I still take ibuprofen or Celebrex at night for the pain, along with gabapentin to get comfortable enough to sleep. But since I’ve always had trouble sleeping, I can’t say that I’m any worse in that regard than I was before.

See the bone spur on the left, right below the bottom part of the device. There’s also one on the right, which bothers me less.

So how am I feeling now? I am a bit dismayed because the only pain I have left, aside from some tightness around the new knee device, is the same pain I had before the operation, on the inside and back of the knee, caused, I am sure, by the bone spur which is STILL there that presses against nerves along the knee edge. Why the surgeon did not remove this bone spur at the time he was in there is beyond me. Unless he can persuade me convincingly that this pain is not caused by rubbing up against this bone spur, I am going to demand to know what he can do about it and when. The only reason I had the surgery now was because of that pain. It feels quite different from the rest of the now-healing bits around the new knee. So I hope the surgeon can do something about this, otherwise I’m just going to have to live with this pain, I guess. I know it’s really early days yet, but I can’t see how I’ll make much more progress now. That being said, I am comfortable walking for about a mile now, although it’s still a little wobbly getting up stairs. It’s not like I’m ever going to be planning on hiking 10 miles or anything, but I would like to be more or less healed completely for our hoped-for trip to Hamburg, Germany, next March. Fingers crossed!

So that’s my update for those of you who follow my blog and have asked for this news. Tremendously boring, I know! My final word: it will take a while for me to get up the courage to have the other knee operated on, but it will happen some day! I do think that the more in pain someone is before the operation, the more satisfied they’ll be after surgery. Since I really wasn’t in continuous pain beforehand, this process has been a challenge. Not unhappy I’ve done it, and since it’s now a fait accompli, I better get used to it. How’s that for an ambivalent answer?


31 Aug


The picture above is me practicing to be an invalid a few days before I had total knee replacement surgery. We had just found a recliner, which I had been told was a good thing to have for recovery, and the cats were very happy to have this new object to sleep on. Anyone who has had this operation will know that I am far too serene in this picture for it to have been taken after surgery!

The knee degeneration began in about 1992, when I fell on the cobblestones at Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne, and tore the meniscus on my left knee. Since then, all kinds of treatments: physical therapy, hyaluronic acid injections (Synvisc and Orthovisc–from rooster combs!), then when those injections stopped working, on to the cortisone shots every six months. I was doing pretty well, still able to walk 1-2 miles with only minimal pain. The orthopedic surgeon was amazed, looking at my x-rays which showed that both knees were bone on bone, but he said that sometimes people with minimal damage are in great pain, and those with obvious damage are able to continue daily activities with no or minimal pain. But we did talk about the inevitable need for knee replacement surgery; at 72, he said, I was in the upper range already of optimum time to have the operation(s), and that he didn’t want me to wait until I was in a wheelchair.

Then, last February, I had the most painful flare up of my left knee–absolutely excruciating pain, as bad as childbirth, at exactly 6 months from when I had had the last cortisone injection. Since I needed to get relief right away, the doctor gave me another cortisone injection, which meant I couldn’t have the surgery for at least a few months. When I asked if this kind of flare up could happen again, he said yep. So that was it: I decided I would spend the summer getting ready for the surgery–doing pre-op exercises, losing weight, and getting ready mentally. By August, I had lost 10 lbs., I had gotten my glucose and cholesterol numbers down to acceptable levels, and I felt stronger in my legs from doing the exercises.

I had the operation on my left knee on August 18–so, as I write this, I’m 2 weeks post-op. This is a rugged and long recovery–the pain is pretty strong, and the absolutely necessary exercises are sometimes brutal. I have been having trouble getting an in-house PT who is compatible, but I’m doing all the exercises religiously, although I hate them. It IS hard to push oneself, but I do it, and hope that soon I’ll be able to go to the outpatient rehab center instead of having in-house PT. I’ve found a great support group on Facebook, which teaches me that every case is different, recovery varies wildly from person to person. I think I’m doing pretty well: the last PT (who I let go!) measured me at one week at 105/0. That means I could bend the knee to 105 degrees, and had no problem keeping my leg straight in alignment with the other leg. I can now walk without the walker, although stiff-legged still. The goal for me is 120 degrees within the next few weeks. Pain is still there, but I’m coming off of the narcotic hydrocodon tomorrow, and will then only be on ibuprofen (and aspirin to prevent clotting). I’m feeling fairly good about this progress so far. I just hope that this knee will eventually feel as good or better than it felt right before I had the surgery, when I really wasn’t in much pain at all. My doctor is fairly realistic about the prospects; he says that I am not going to be as pain free as I was at 20 years old, but it will be much better than what it would be if I hadn’t had the replacement done. Hmmm. OK, I can live with that. It will take me some time to get up the courage to do this again with the other knee, though! I can’t imagine how debilitating it would be to do both knees at the same time, but I know people who have done it, and have recovered.

So, it’s early days yet, but I’m happy with my progress. I don’t really want to write about this much, but when and if I can walk without a stiff leg and without pain, I’ll send an update. My advice to those who are coming up for this surgery: be prepared for pain! Do the exercises, no matter what! And get a pet! Here’s my cat Zuma using his purr box to help with healing!

Growing up female

15 Jun

The note above was sent to my grandmother by her younger sister when my mother, her second daughter, was born in 1926. The strong implication that having ANOTHER daughter was somehow disappointing haunted my mother throughout her life; she told me this story many times. But in the end, she fell into the same frame of mind: when my youngest sister Robyn was born, when I was 5 and my sister Christa was 2, when people asked what she had had, she responded “another damn girl!” My mother never had any filters and always blurted out what she was thinking before she thought about it, but this statement compelled a neighbor, a mother of five girls, to chastise her. “How do you think that makes Erika feel when she hears you say that about her new baby sister?” Again, she told me this story many times in later life. I’m assuming that meant she had learned her lesson. I guess. But she also told this story to that baby sister, too, and I don’t think she exactly apologized for being so tactless. All of these memories of growing up female in the 1950s have surfaced lately, as I contemplate all of the societal attitudes that we women just took for granted as a given: boys were more sought after by parents, boys still had more advantages that were seen as the way things were in the world, despite the fact that girls were doing better than boys in school, at least until high school age. As girls in the 50s, we were still led to believe that we couldn’t easily become doctors or college professors, or especially not business executives.

While some things have changed for the better, I am still astonished to find that women are still paid less for the same work, that women are still expected by many men to do most of the housework and child rearing, and that women athletes, even super stars in their sports, can expect less accolades and less pay. Are mothers still preferring boys as their first borns? I really don’t know how much that attitude has changed. I would hope that no one receives a congratulatory statement like the one above anymore, a back-handed congratulations if there ever was one!

The deMille Chair

9 Feb
My father’s birth certificate, 1927

In recent weeks, my sisters, in acts of decluttering, have been sending me all kinds of family documents: photos, wills, school certificates, and official papers from my parents and grandparents. I have become, by default, the family historian. Amid all of these items–including my father’s report cards and spelling tests from the 4th grade!–I found his birth certificate, something I had never seen before. As all genealogists and archivists can tell you, even the most mundane of old documents can sometimes lead to exciting discoveries, forgotten facts about one’s own family. In some cases, these discoveries can either disprove or substantiate anecdotes that have entered family lore through oral transmission, the truth of which has been lost or never thought about one way or the other once the older generations have passed. And so it was with my father’s birth certificate and the story of the deMille chair.

Some background: my father was born in Los Angeles in 1927, the second son of two new immigrants. My grandfather Robert Jacob Esau was Prussian, from Mennonite family and already in his late 20s when he left Germany in 1910. He was 41 when my father was born. He seems to have spent some years back East and in Florida, and we don’t know exactly when and how he came to California. My grandmother Sofie Overgaard came from Norway via New Mexico and Arizona, arriving in L.A. in 1920. The city was just beginning its phenomenal growth, boosted by the establishment of the film industry in Hollywood; jobs of every sort were there to be had. My grandparents found work in the homes of the newly rich movie moguls, who needed staff to support their lavish lifestyles. According to memories recounted to us by my mother–the only one to ask my father’s parents anything about their past–they met when Sofie worked as a cook in one of these homes, and my grandfather was a chauffeur. Since my uncle, their first-born, arrived in 1924, their meeting must have happened in about 1923, if not earlier. While details are now lost, the family elaborated on this story to claim that their employment had something to do with the residence of Cecil B. deMille. deMille, of course, was the famous early director of silent films who continued to reign in Hollywood into the 1950s, when his spectacles such as “The Ten Commandments” extended his popularity into my generation. The material symbol of my grandparents’ linking to this movie legend was THE CHAIR.

In my grandmother’s tiny Santa Barbara house lived a chair that was proudly identified as one that the grandparents had somehow acquired from the deMille house. I remember it clearly; it had purple upholstery and was rather gaudy to my child’s eyes. I could only find glimpses of the chair in a few photos of the living room at their West Figueroa house, a place that was the touchstone of my and my sisters’ childhood years. 

My sister’s memory of the story includes the tidbit that the chair came from deMille’s mother’s estate. I hadn’t remembered that detail, but my sister spent more time later in life with my grandmother than I did. While we had all incorporated this story into our family lore as children, none of us had ever thought to follow up on the truth of the chair’s origins, or really knew anything about what our grandparents had done when they were younger and lived and worked in Los Angeles. By the time we knew them, our grandfather was totally infirm (he died in 1955), and we just loved our grandmother and never asked her anything about her past (she died in 1985, three weeks after my father, her youngest child, had died, only 57). So the story of the chair just remained a vague anecdote without any possibility of verification.

Until now! My father’s birth certificate revealed one tantalizing clue that opened up a whole thread of speculation.

Under the section listing my father’s father’s occupation, the certificate states “Property Man, Lasky Studios.” That single line “Lasky Studios” led me right to the origins of Hollywood. Jesse Lasky (1880-1958) was one of the founders of the motion picture industry in Hollywood, having formed the Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913 in New York, along with Samuel Goldfish(Goldwyn) and Cecil B. deMille (1881-1959). The group came West in 1914 to make the epic Western, The Squaw Man. Lasky’s sister married Samuel Goldwyn, and Lasky was introduced to deMille by deMille’s mother, who was already a well-known entity in the theatrical world. They decided to stay in California, setting up one of the first film studios in Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, deMille’s mother Beatrice (1853-1923), the successful playwright and literary agent, moved to California as well. By the mid-1920s, Lasky Players had merged with Adolph Zukor’s Players, to become Paramount Pictures, although Lasky still ran his own branch of the company as Lasky Studios.

The film-making group had tremendous success, and by the early 1920s were living in luxury in the burgeoning neighborhoods near their Hollywood studios. deMille had built an elegant villa in 1916 in what was called Laughlin Park (south of Los Feliz Blvd.), next to the home of Charlie Chaplin. His vivacious mother, to whom he was devoted, lived nearby. Lasky, on the other hand, became one of the earliest residents of Belair, the exclusive neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills to the north of what is now UCLA but was then only beanfields.

Back to my family’s chair: that my grandfather is listed as a “Property Man” for Lasky Studios in 1927 seems to substantiate that he was indeed working for Jesse Lasky, the first “movie mogul,” and probably had worked there when he met my grandmother. We had always heard that he was a chauffeur for someone in Hollywood, and such a task may have been understood in the phrase “property man.” My grandmother, too, then, must have worked either for Lasky or for his close associate Cecil B. deMille. In 1927, Lasky Studios actually ceased to exist, as Lasky’s properties and film rosters were now merged to form Paramount Studios, but my grandfather would have still referred to his place of employment as Lasky Studios.

And now the plot–and the speculations–thicken: Beatrice deMille–another woman who should be given more due for her role in early motion pictures and theater–died in 1923, just about the time my grandparents were setting up a household together. (When their children were born, they lived on what looks like a homestead out in the wilds of Thousand Oaks!) In my imagination, then, I can envision some kind of estate sale or even just an open house for employees of the Lasky-deMille group, whereby they could choose an item from Beatrice’s home’s furnishings for their own.

Voila! A possible verification of a family anecdote that we grandchildren took with a grain of salt. I now so wish that we had asked more questions of my grandmother, and spoken to my mother, who had shown an interest in my grandfather’s tales, to learn about their adventures in early Hollywood. But as children, most of us just aren’t interested in what the old folks have to tell us. This may seem like a trivial “discovery,” but for me and my sisters, it’s an exciting piece of a forgotten puzzle. And what fun to do this kind of research!

Missing Links

24 Dec


As promised in my last blog about the publication of my book, Three German Women: Personal Histories of the Twentieth Century, I want to include here an addendum of all those materials I received after the manuscript had been sent to the publishers. It always happens: no matter how long you wait, no matter how many pleas you send out to archivists and individuals, you will never get all your eggs in one literary basket before the publication deadline.

In this case, I finally received some photographs relating to Irmgard Rexroth-Kern’s life from her son Vincent Rexroth, literally the day after I had sent off the manuscript after the final proof reading. I was able to get one of the best images into the book, a shot of Irmgard in 1975–as she looked when I knew her–-by flipping two photos so it did not affect the formatting.

The other photos Herr Rexroth sent were not able to enter the manuscript, so I highlight them here. The first one is that lovely one at the beginning of this text, showing Irmgard’s mother Elisabeth Kleine as she appeared in the year she married Irmgard’s father, Guido Joseph Kern. Elisabeth died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, so this photo is particularly poignant. Irmgard was only 11 when she died, and her loss affected the little girl that she was for the rest of her life.

Guido Joseph Kern, 1947

As so often happens when writing biographical studies, these late arrivals can add to, or–as happened with the last photo Herr Rexroth sent–revise the story presented in the book’s text. As details about the Kerns’ life in Berlin made clear, Irmgard and her father had a serious rift at the time she married H.G. Rexroth, in 1936. Given her father’s activities in the 1930s involving Nazi collaboration and finding no evidence that she and he had any contact after that time, I assumed their break was permanent. Herr Rexroth found this photo sent to Irmgard and her son in 1947, at which time, according to Herr Rexroth, he apparently visited them in Frankfurt. That he was still in touch with his daughter after the war (he died in 1953) means that her many years of financial struggle and estrangement from her family, even after her husband was killed on the front in 1944, could have been caused by her own stubbornness and determination to be independent of unpleasant ties to the past.

Other latecoming documents related to Anna Spitzmüller’s work with the so-called “Monuments Men” at the end of World War II. Having limited luck digging deeply into the records at the National Archives for information about Spitzi’s work at the Central Collecting Point in Munich (where all the artworks, both plundered by the Nazis and stored by German museums, were brought by the Allies), I wrote to the Monuments Men Foundation’s archivist. While I had been able to find the dates of her stay in Munich, I wanted to know if there were any specific references to Spitzi’s time there. I had written initially in early 2019; I finally received a response, with relevant letters, in July 2020–too late to revise substantially that chapter.

If nothing else, these genial letters substantiate that Fr. Dr. Spitzmüller was a vital presence at this time, when she went to Munich to sort the objects, the national treasures of Austria, that belonged to the Albertina. If I had received them earlier, I could have presented in the book a more detailed picture of Spitzi’s activities at the Collecting Point.

Since I had access via many family members to many details of Maria Steinberg’s life story, that chapter of the book seems to be fairly complete. If I wanted to dig deeper, I would love to see a transcript of her father’s memoirs, which the family does have, but they are still in handwritten Alte Schrift, waiting to be deciphered by better German scholars than I–and, in the end, more appropriate to be presented by other members of Maria’s family.

Finally, one more image that I wanted to include in the book: a newspaper clipping saved by Fr. Kern, showing her beloved Airedale meeting a rabbit at an Easter show in the Odenwald. I remember her dog Terry very well, when I knew her in Darmstadt. Somehow the image seemed a little too frivolous for an academic book, but it pleases me to remember her walking Terry, as she was when I first met her in 1974.

The Book and the process

22 Dec


As many of you know from reading this blog, I have been working on this book as a labor of love for several years now. It is so exciting that I finally have it in my hands! The title is Three German Women: Personal Histories of the Twentieth Century. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (CSP) in the U.K., the book, I now realize, would probably not have found as comfortable a home for publication anywhere else. CSP is known for publishing academic works, but ones that authors would otherwise not have been able to publish because they fill a minority niche. Here’s a great article about how they do it:

As the article points out, CSP is peer-reviewed, but decisions to publish are not based on profitability, but on whether the title fulfills some academic research need. As the article says, “We put our authors at the heart of everything we do.” They keep overhead down, so that their profit margins are small, but they publish so many books that in aggregate, they stay afloat financially. They publish out of Newcastle — not a traditional hub of English publishing! — and all processes are done locally. Their method of printing also contributes to their success, as their Chief Executive explains:

Print on Time works by doing short-run digital print which makes sure we hold a small stockholding, based on our calculations of how many titles are likely to sell. We direct-supply our US distributors, quicker and much more cost-effectively than an on-the-ground US warehouse could supply. That’s not supposition – we tried it, and we disintermediated it, and it worked. We don’t get stock-outs, or pulped stock, or returns, because we fulfill an order the same day, and get it to the distributor faster than a local warehouse can. That means we don’t have to worry about the intersections in the supply chain – which is where things always go wrong – or have a manager managing those intersections, reporting on them, and having meetings about them. Nothing is ever ‘out of print’. If someone buys a book we haven’t sold a copy of since 2013, we will very likely have one or two on the shelf, and if we don’t, we will print and ship it the next day. We don’t have boxes and boxes of books gathering dust on a shelf that we will never sell. If it’s older or slower-moving, we hold them in ones and twos. If it’s newer and quicker-moving, we measure their movement in weeks, not years. We keep the margins that printers and warehousers take. We don’t tie up cash in stock and watch it sit and depreciate every day.”

I have been astonished at how quickly CSP can get a shipment of books to me: within a week from the U.K. to California. I have been pleased with the freedom I was given to write as I wanted to — my book is quirky, a bit memoir, a bit women’s history, a bit German history — and that the process of publishing went so smoothly, much more smoothly than my previous academic books.

That being said: CSP is not a publisher for books requiring much graphic design or elaborate illustrations. Being used to publishing in art history, most of my other publications have required lots of illustrations and thought about pleasing design. While I did include black and white illustrations in this book, all of the “design” — what passed as design! — was my job. (I was thrilled, after much searching, to find the Kirchner painting of three German women for the cover!) The typesetters did aid a bit with formatting, but for the most part, the look of the text and placement of photographs within the text were my responsibility as the author. The final product is clear and clean, but not at all adventurous graphically.

Finally, and most unfortunately to my mind, such a simple publishing philosophy, and one that involves taking some risks on a variety of titles that will not necessarily sell well, means that the prices of the volumes are very high. My book costs in the U.K. £62, which translates to about $US83. This is an enormously high price for the people who I would like to have read the book. I am hoping that people will request orders from their local libraries, so the book will be available for those who want to read it but can’t afford the cost. Currently, the book is offered on at $US100! (It sells for €58 on  There is talk that in a few months, CSP will be able to print the book as a paperback, and it is apparently also now available as an e-book for academics who have access to ProQuest. In the meantime, I have been ordering copies at my author’s discount, then passing on those savings to my friends who really want to read the book now. At the moment, I think it is still possible to order the book on the CSP website with a 25% promotional discount, by using the code PROMO25. Here’s the link to the CSP page:

I am just happy that the book is out there, and hope that anyone interested in stories of intellectual women persevering in the turmoil of 20th-century Central Europe will find it interesting.

My next blog will include some of the research and documents that I received too late to include in the book! This always happens…..


28 Nov

The selfie of us on our March anniversary (46th!) seems an appropriate one to begin a holiday letter for this most bizarre of years: a little crooked, a little blurry, and kind of manic! What can we say about a year in which we had to stay home for most of it? Since I wrote last year’s letter before our travels at Christmas, I’ll include some tales of that trip first. Since Max & Dottie & kiddos planned to be in Austin with her family, we decided we would drive over to be with them. We managed to find a great home to stay in via HomeExchange (so it was free accommodation!), and en route made a detour to the famous little Texas town of Marfa–the site of artist Donald Judd’s projects, and a place I had always wanted to visit. Despite the cold and a lot of closed galleries, it was a fascinating place, better than my expectations.   

Marfa Court House

George at the Marfa Store, and below, Chinati Foundation

It was great to see the kiddos in Austin, despite minor family illnesses. We were especially pleased to meet the kiddos’ new cousin Sonny, Dottie’s sister’s little boy, who looks exactly like his father!     


Other events:  My book, Three German Women, arrived in October! I love the cover, and the contents look better than I expected they would. Read about it here:

Sadly, George’s 93-year-old father, George Albert Boeck, Sr., died on Halloween day in Greeley, Colorado. He was a real gentleman who prided himself on being curmudgeonly, and we miss him greatly. To whom will we now send articles about Sherlock Holmes and Abraham Lincoln? Here is the obituary I wrote for him that appeared in the Greeley paper:

Finally, I gave in after months of not seeing the family, and flew via Southwest Airlines to Denver. A lovely visit, with Lyle, who wanted an axolotl, and Lou, who said his favorite animal was a unicorn.

About the only other event to report in this crazy year is that George has once again acquired a beehive! No bees yet, but it is a sign of his perpetual optimism that he’s waiting for a swarm to find the new digs to call home. So we persist in our hopes for renewal, regeneration, and lots of honey in the New Year!

Please let us hear from you, by whatever means:  EE & GB, 450 N. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, CA 91101, 626 644 2389, We both have Facebook pages, too! Thanks to all of you for making this year survivable! WE LOVE OUR TRIBE!


The book is here!

25 Nov

As many of you now know, the book that I began as blog entries on this site, and where I have posted numerous updates as I did the writing (, has now arrived! I am glad that I continued to search for the cover image until I found the one that looks right. I’m really pleased with how zappy it looks. The contents look better than I had expected, and now I wish I had included more images than I have.

What can I say? This book was a real labor of love, about women I knew, who lived through the most turbulent times in Central Europe, and managed to persevere and survive. This is my most personal work, not at all like the academic books and articles I’ve written in the past: a bit memoir, a bit women’s studies, a bit German history, it’s very hard to decide where it fits in book publishing categories. I do think it is important in recovering from obscurity the lives of intelligent, professionally active women who made contributions to their culture. Personally, I’m proudest of my translation (after transcribing, with the help of Adobe, from German Fraktur) of the marvelously evocative “Autobiografie einer jungen Frau” that Irmgard Kern wrote in 1934 (Appendix I). This series, presented over several weeks in the renowned Frankfurter Zeitung, was perhaps Kern’s finest writing, and presents such a vivid picture of the life of a privileged Catholic girl growing up in early 20th-century Berlin. I’m grateful as well that Maria Steinberg’s family allowed me to include some of the writings of Maria’s brother Jan, describing in fascinating detail their life on a farm estate outside of Berlin (Appendix II). A world now completely gone.

As happens with small publishing houses now, the book price is outrageously high, in my opinion, but it can’t be helped. While it is now available on, I have found that it is cheaper and faster to order directly from the British publishers, at this site:

For the moment, I think you can still get a 25% discount using this code PROMO25. I have also been assured that in six months, they will publish a paperback and e-Book at a lower price. My other suggestion for those who would like to read it but don’t want to buy it is that you request that your library purchase a copy! Most libraries, if they have any funding at all, are pretty amenable to patrons’ requests.

I would be most grateful to anyone who could suggest possible publications that might review such a book. There are tales here of those who had to flee the Nazis, stories about a woman who worked with The Monuments Men to save European art treasures, and rediscoveries of forgotten writers who got lost in the aftermath of World War II. The book is dedicated to the late film historian Thomas Elsaesser, whose own discoveries about his family’s history overlapped with the biography of one of “my” women. He was immensely helpful and enthusiastic about this project. I hope I have done justice to these women, who were such inspirations for this American.


6 Sep

Since the pandemic lockdown, I’ve been devouring crosswords as a way to combat boredom and intellectual atrophy. And I am apparently not the only one: crossword compilations I’ve ordered online are frequently out of stock, and the shelves of our local bookstore are cleaned out of the newer books of puzzles. Serendipitously, this crossword mania also seems to be having a moment of youth-inspired “rediscovery.” New crossword puzzle creators are appearing in The New Yorker and other publications, hipsters who are eschewing the dreary old clues such as “16th century Dutch coin” or “African root plant” for references to Hip Hop musicians and far too many (for me) Harry Potter and NEW series “Star Wars” entries. It’s fun and invigorating, even when I have to cheat to figure out the lyrics to a 2001 #1 recording by Cardi B or whatever the name of Dumbledore’s sidekick is (yes, I made that up, only showing how complete is my ignorance of Harry Potter characters).

Having finished all the puzzles in my most recent NYT compilation of Sunday ones, and unable to get any of the newer ones I tried for, I desperately grabbed some compilations that were available at Vroman’s, our local bookshop. Starting to work my way through them, I was initially perplexed that there were no TV show references, and lots and lots of Shakespearean clues.  Only then did I realize this book had compiled NYT crosswords from the 1970s!  The difference in tone and attitude was immediately striking! No wonder puzzlers were until recently seen as grandmas and nerdy or crusty old retired professors. Let’s hear it for the renaissance in puzzle making brought on by a new generation of hipster nerds! Now if I could only find some more compilations to do by hand rather than online. Please, young uns, for we oldsters, do remember to put out some compiled books of your brilliant works, so that we can take pencil to paper (I never use a pen!) to complete another crossword a day! 



3 Aug


Reading this article today reignited an enthusiasm, and reminded me of the reasons I began teaching the history of photography in the 1990s. As I told my classes at the beginning of each semester, I wanted to explore with them the seductive nature of photographs, to try and figure out why, at least in my case, it is nearly impossible NOT to look at a photograph. I can always ignore or skip over a painting or other artwork that doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically, but there’s something about the capturing of time and place in photographs that causes me to want to know more about any photographic image I see.

My mother came from a family that put their photos in albums, and so she made great big books of pictures she took throughout our childhood and beyond. I loved looking through the old ones, reading all the captions as a way to cement in my mind a visual memory bank of who was who and where was where in my family’s history. Then I started helping her compile the albums of our events, and finally, when I was on my own, making up my own books of my adventures as captured on Kodaks. I now have all the family photo albums, as well as boxes of images from various family members, dating from the 1920s through the 1950s, most of which have no identification, and there is now no way of finding out who these strays are or what they meant at one time to someone I know. But I still hang on to them, and occasionally look through them for signs of the times and to reflect on how landscapes have changed. In other words, I come by this obsession with photographs honestly, with a special attraction to found images, just as the writer of this article, Bill Schapiro, is drawn to them.

When I began to teach the history of photography at the Australian National University, my own curiosity about how photographic images work was my main motivation for offering the course. The teaching of photographic history, at least in Australia and I suspect in the U.S. as well, had been taken up primarily by photography departments in art schools, and for reasons that I suppose have to do with the enormous number of complex perceptual considerations that photos provide, most classes were steeped in theory, top-heavy with philosophical analyses and artspeak jargon. My history of photography class was, in the 1990s, the only one in Australia that considered photographs from an art historical rather than a theoretical perspective. I really loved teaching this class, because my students were as enthusiastic about the issues as I was, and they felt comfortable talking about a medium that they all knew about in some form. It has been years since I have revisited these topics, but this New York Times article sparked the interest again. So from my own collections, pictures that I love, and ones that are exemplary of the mystery of the medium, we can contemplate together some of these issues: how photographs’ meanings change over time, and finally, what to do with all those images in albums and boxes as references fade. Do they simply become non-entities, meaningless objects, or do they take on other, still significant, meanings? Here we go:


**I found this little photographic card at a paper store in Los Angeles, in a box of old photos and post cards (I collect post cards, too, adding on to the collection begun by my great-aunt in the 1910s). I had initially thought that its address in Hay referred to Hay, Australia, but of course, it refers to Hay-on-Wye in England. The photographer, Thomas Moxon, was a well-known figure in the late 1890s and early 1900s, so this card was probably produced in the early 20th century. Why did it appeal to me? For the same reasons that it would appeal to Schapiro: here is a darling little girl, dressed in a pristine white dress, probably held up from behind by a “hidden mother” or father. Aside from the evidence of past styles of children’s dress–and I do love that revelation from found photos–this is an image of someone who is now gone, but who, as Schapiro writes, “lived, worked, made their share of bad decisions, loved a bunch and surely suffered some.” Just like Schapiro, this image grounds me, and gives me a longer view, of “humanity’s slow and sweeping waltz.” Everything about life is ephemeral, but the photograph remains.


**This snapshot comes from one of my mother’s many albums. She seems to have kept and classified every single picture on the film roll, no matter how badly shot or how non-descript the focus. Playing devil’s advocate in my classes, I used to show another one in this “series” that conveyed even less information about what is depicted–it only showed the hood of the Karman Ghia in the background, the chain link fence,  the table with the orange pot, and my sister’s hands. I then asked the classes why such a photograph of hardly anything could possibly be interesting once the immediate references–my sister and her friend on a trip up the California coast in about 1973–had been lost in time. Students were all adamant: the image conveyed lots of information, they said, about the car, about a pot just like ones they had at home, and even about the landscape. I was amused by how closely they studied the photo, and how quick they were to defend its validity as an historical record, rather than a family heirloom.


**Another one from my family albums, this one really stretches the idea of photograph as information. In context, it was taken by my mother out the window of the plane in which she was flying for the first time–to my college graduation in Denver in 1971. She was trying, with her little snapshot camera, to get a photo of the snow-capped Rockies. Aside from saying something about the quality of snapshot film in the 1970s, this vernacular photograph loses all meaning once its purpose as evidence of one person’s presence in a plane across the mountains is lost.


**A snap of the living room in our “new” house in Torrance, California, in 1959. My mother must have sent this to her family back East, since she has written on the back: “East End of living room.  Behind drapes is a sliding glass door–in other words, the whole wall is glass, but our yard is still dirt, so I keep the drapes closed.” Then she writes below that, with an arrow pointing to the place on the front, “Stereo here.” I can read so much of family biography into this one: first of all, the pride of ownership. This house was a real step up the social ladder from where we lived before. My mother was especially proud that she now could have a piano, the piano on which I took lessons and which now lives at my son’s house. And I remember those curtains, or drapes as they were called, with all kinds of complicated pulls and ropes. They must have been an expensive item, since the curtains moved with us to the next house. And we had that green lounge chair for years and years, where my father usually sat. But what resonance can this boringly neat and tidy image of mid-20th century American suburbia have for anybody else? Just as I accumulated all these albums at my house, my history professor from graduate school contacted me for help with a book she was writing about suburban houses (Barbara Miller Lane, Houses for a New World). She looked through these albums, with their quantity of snaps of Californian suburbs circa 1950-70, and chose several as examples of how we lived, in a time that is now already historic. So there are those drapes, frozen in print for posterity, inside the covers of an academic book about American houses.


**From the boxes of unidentified family pictures comes this wonderful group portrait. I think these may be Norwegian relatives, taken when my grandmother, who had come to America in 1918, went back to visit for the first time 50 years later. A Norwegian friend has verified that the house looks like one from Norway, and if I study the faces carefully, I can convince myself that I see family resemblances. But now they are all dead, and eventually this image will end up in one of those dusty bins for sale in antique shops, flea markets, and second-hand bookstores.


**Finally, one of me. Granted, I’m only 5 days old, and not really recognizable yet, but the photo speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I would imagine that Schapiro, if he found this on any of his collecting expeditions would love it, for he says he is “drawn to quietly composed pictures that hold the sense of an unfinished story.” That it most certainly is.

For me, the picture also points to the great dilemma facing so many of us: what will happen to all these thousands of photographs once I’m gone, and the next generation only takes gillions of digital images? I would hope that my son will take them, and in preparation for coaxing him and his wife into maintaining this “hard copy” legacy, I have already made up albums of “real” photos of the digital images of their two boys’ first years. I am concerned about the fact that the next generation will have no actual visual record of their lives except in cyberspace. I want to make sure that they have the opportunity to peruse their families’ histories just as I have had.

Still, I am aware that, as this New York Times article states, in the end our photos are all that may endure of us. Schapiro’s last lines are something we all have to face: “These found photographs not only remind me of this delicate thing we run both toward and away from–time–but they also hold something else. The humbling, steadying truth that, one day, that’s all we’ll be: a photo.”

There is still so much more I would like to explore on this topic, but I’ll close for now–and include an image of us with a cat! Appleton, Wisconsin, 1985. The cat’s name was Hecate.