« August 2010 | Main | October 2010 »

September 27, 2010

God save the King (and keep him far away from us)

The title of this entry is based on a line from Fiddler on the Roof: When someone asks the rabbi if there's a blessing for the Czar, he replies, "May God bless and keep the Czar -- far away from us!"

Royalty in general -- and the House of Windsor in particular -- holds no appeal for me; while something of an anglophile -- at least for the England of Churchill, Kipling, Shakespeare, Peter Sellers, Alec Guiness and Ealing Studios -- a voluptuary of royalty I am not.

(When someone told me that "Princess Di is dead!" I asked, "Diana Ross died?")

When I think of England beset and besieged in the dark days of 1940, it's Churchill who personifies the indomitable spirit of the Tommy. The English king, when thought of at all, is remembered as the fellow who had a speech impediment and fathered Queen Elizabeth, appearing in newsreels during the Blitz, silently touring the damage, hardly fertile ground for an engrossing film.

This trailer proves me wrong. While I think it's a bit overwrought for a character to tell King Bertie that he's "the bravest man I've ever met," it *is* an interesting tale of a man thrust into a very public role that required him to address and conquer his most terrible fear: public speaking, a fear shared by most of his fellow humans.

It doesn't hurt to have Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter starring, either.

I especially like the king's daughter watching a newsreel of Hitler giving a speech and asking her father, "What's he saying?" The stammering king replies, "I don't know, but he seems to be saying it rather well."

If I went to the movies, this'd be on my must-see list.

Posted by Mike Lief at 07:02 AM

September 19, 2010

File under "Better Mouse Trap"

I've watched this video several times, but still haven't quite gotten a handle on, well, the pedal and crank and cable on this reimagined bicycle propulsion system.

The gears and chain we all know from our childhoods have been replaced, their familiar round-and-round circuit replaced by an irregular elliptical path at the front crank, and cables rising and falling, winding twining around the rear hub.

How the gearing works -- can it even be called "gearing" when there aren't anything with teeth? -- is still a mystery to me.

Eccentric discs. The pedal axis rotates these discs at both sides of the frame. The discs has a specific, kidney like shape which determines the driving characteristic i.e. the angular displacement of the rear wheel of the bicycle as a function of the angular position of the pedal shaft. The chosen shape provides for a conventional driving characteristic i.e. the same as if a chain-driven bike with circular gears were used. In a more expensive model the discs can be changed with other ones having different shapes, whereby the driving characteristic can be changed in a tour or in a contest, to load different muscle groups.

The swinging unit, comprising a pair of oppositely swinging arms arranged for swinging movement around a pivoted auxiliary axis. The rotation of the eccentric discs results in the swinging movement of the arms in forward and backward direction.

Transmission (speed) changer. This unit is a controlled slide. It changes the longitudinal position (height) of respective pulleys guided along the swinging arms. The height of the two pulleys is always the same. When the pulley is in the outermost position, the transmission ratio is at maximum, while in the innermost position this ratio is at minimum.

Uh, yeah.

The design is supposed to offer a number of benefits, the least of which is no dirty chain to lubricate -- and mess up your pants.

The rest, along with photos, are here.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:00 PM

September 10, 2010

But can you flat-pack a cat?

As you may have surmised, I am a dog guy, through and through. Still, if pressed -- upon threat of something really painful being done to bits and pieces upon which one really doesn't want anything painful done -- I'll confess to having perhaps a hint of a smile play (ever so briefly) across my usually poker-faced features while watching this video, featuring 100 cats in an Ikea store.

But I'll deny it, of course.

Posted by Mike Lief at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

How long does it take to field-strip a Jeep?

How long does it take to field-strip a Korean War-era jeep? About four minutes for these soldiers.

Did I say four minutes? I'm sorry, that's how long it took to tear it apart and put it back together -- and drive away.

There's something to be said for simplicity and purity of design.

I wonder how much time they could shave off with a World War II jeep, an even less complicated design?

Posted by Mike Lief at 10:22 AM

September 06, 2010

What's my name?

Every family that immigrated to the United States has heard stories of how their last name changed over the years, supposedly as a result of impromptu modifications at the hands of the officers staffing Ellis Island. I've been exploring online, seeing what I could discover about my original last name; there have been numerous versions given over the years at family reunions, so it's interesting to see what's recorded in the official record, such as it is, from when my great-grandparents first arrived in the U.S.

The answers to a variety of questions, like our name, appear to have been rather elastic.

June 15, 1900, was the first time my great-grandparents participated in the U.S. Census, the enumerator visiting them at their apartment at 26 Cook Street, Brooklyn, New York. My paternal great-grandfather Max Lipsitz, 33, had been married to Sadie, 30, for nine years; they had three children: Lillie, 8, Henrietta, 6, and my grandfather Harry, 3.

1900 census detail.jpg

According to these entries in the 1900 census, Max and Sadie arrived in the United States in 1891, the same year they'd married. My great-grandfather was working as a day laborer; he'd soon be trading a shovel for needle and thread.

Ten years later, May 5, 1910, my great-grandfather Max Lipshitz was living at 213-215 Seigel Street in Brooklyn. He'd been married to my great-grandmother Sadie for 19 years; Max was 41, Sadie was 39. They had seven children living with them, although the census enumerator noted that Sadie had given birth to eight children, with all eight still alive; Lillie, born in 1893, was already out of the house, although she was back at home by the 1920 census. My grandfather Harry was just 13 years old in 1910, not quite old enough to run away and join the cavalry.

According to this census, Max and Sadie came to the United States in 1881, and Max was not a veteran of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy, nor was he deaf, dumb, or blind in both eyes.

Harry Lief circa 1914.jpg

My grandfather Harry Lief, circa 1914.

Ten years later, Max Lifshutz was living at 920 DeKalb Avenue, in Brooklyn, when the enumerator stopped by on January 9, 1920, to count up how many of my ancestors were crammed into that small apartment.

1920 Census names Max Lifshutz 1.jpg

Max was 50 years old, living with his wife and nine children (my grandfather Harry apparently between hitches in the military).

My grandfather in France during World War I. He returned home after the war and was living with his parents during the 1920 census.

Looking across the page of the census ledger to the right, I found a list of their occupations.

1920 census occupations.jpg

Max was a tailor, making men's pants; my grandfather was a clerk in a "clothing house."

According to the 1920 census, Max and Sadie came to the United States from Russia in 1892, and their three eldest children were born in Manhattan -- presumably near Hester Street -- the rest born later in Brooklyn.

Harry Lifshutz and one of his brothers at the beach, circa 1925

Harry and Shirley Lief 1928.jpg

Harry and Shirley Lief on their wedding day in 1928.

By 1930 my grandfather was married to my grandmother, living with their daughter, my father's debut still three years in the future. Herbert Hoover was president and the Depression was in its early stages, the stock market crashing just a few months earlier.

The enumerator visited my grandparents on April 10, 1930, at their apartment at 2015 Mermaid Avenue, Brooklyn, for which they paid a monthly rent of $33.

In the intervening decade since the '20 census, my grandfather did another hitch in the Army, got out and married my grandmother in 1928. Now 33, Harry was using the last name "Lifschutz," and my grandmother, 24, had dropped her birthname "Sadie" in favor of the presumably more fashionable "Shirley." Harry was working as a "chauffeur," according to the enumerator, who clarified in the next block of the ledger that grandpa was driving a taxi. The census form also reveals that my grandparents had a radio in their apartment, although family lore says they did not yet have their own bathroom, still having to walk down the hall to share one with the neighbors.

The 1940 census isn't online yet, but I was able to track down my grandfather's draft registration card from early 1942, in the months after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

You'll notice that we've finally arrived at the last name currently used by my family: Lief. Harry and his brothers filed the paperwork to adopt "Lief" in late 1939, the government giving the okay in '40.

Grandpa is still living in Brooklyn, apparently having moved to a new apartment. On closer inspection, Harry writes that my grandmother is the person who will know how to contact him; she's living on Liberty Ave., the address Harry lined out.

Were my grandparents living apart? I've heard the marriage was often ... tumultuous, but this is a bit of unexpected news. As I recall, my grandfather was anxious and eager to enlist in the Army, my grandmother appalled that a 45-year-old father of three would volunteer and leave them behind. Perhaps this was the source of the separate living arrangement.

Draft registration back Harry Lief.jpg

Although the draft board said an approximate height was good enough, someone made sure my grandfather was given credit for that last half-inch past 5'6" that was his to claim; I may be a mere half-inch taller than him, but my grandfather towers over me in my memory. Check out those racial classifications; they provide an interesting glimpse into the nation's melting pot stock at the beginning of the 1940s.

A night out on the town for my grandparents, circa 1948. That's my grandfather seated on the left; my Dad's older sister Phyllis standing next to him, my grandmother (second from left), my late-godfather's dad, and my grandmother's sisters on the right.

So, to review:

1900 - Lipsitz
1910 - Lipshitz
1920 - Lifshutz
1930 - Lifschutz
1940 (approximately) - Lief

The flexibility in spelling was easy to explain early on, given that our family name was being translated from Russian or Yiddish, and transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet into English, meaning that the spelling was merely trying to capture the sound of the name.

Harry and Shirley Lief 1977.jpg

Harry and Shirley Lief at my bar mitzvah reception, July 1976. Harry passed away less than a year later, almost 50 years after he and my grandmother married.

What's less easy to explain are the multiple spellings in the census logs. I suppose the most likely explanation is a combination of my great-grandfather's accent and the enumerator's lack of interest in listening to thousands of immigrants explain over and over again how to spell their names.

Or, in the alternative, my great-grandfather was having them on.

The different years given for our arrival in the U.S. -- 1891, 1892, and 1881 -- are more difficult to attribute to language barriers; I have no good explanation for this, and have yet to find the passenger list for Max and Sadie's voyage from the Old World to the New.

As I look over the pages from the various census ledgers, I'm struck by the humanity of the entries, flowing strokes from a fountain pen capturing the smallest details of the daily lives of my great aunts and uncles, grandparents and great grandparents. These handwritten ledgers seem so alive, all the more so compared to the modern, sterile, computer-generated logs that will appear to be untouched by human hands when released 72 years from now.

When I look at these written entries, I feel a connection with my grandfather, the three-year-old boy; the 13-year-old youth; the 23-year-old veteran; the 33-year-old husband and father. And, although I never met him, I also feel a kinship beyond that of blood ties with his father, Max, younger in 1900 than I am today, building a family, a new life, in the bustling ferment that was turn-of-the-century Manhattan.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:31 PM | Comments (5)