Christmas among the Heathens

We weren’t Christian, but we kept Christmas. My mother subscribed to the Dickensian school of yule revellers. Each year, a month before Christmas, she would make a plum pudding, which to my single-digit mind did not look like pudding, and since I helped her make it, I knew it didn’t have plums in it, but lots of candied fruit and a little flour, and some suet.

One year my mother sent me down to Trent’s Market to buy the suet (she was tied to the house by her brood of six), and I can picture her handwriting on the note she wrote for me to give to the butcher: suet. Come to find out it’s just fat, but in later years she had to special-order it (and the goose) because it was no longer a standard item in the butcher case.

The plum pudding was wonderfully intense after being turned out of the fluted metal form and  flambéed and served with hard sauce, which didn’t look like sauce, but it was hard, like fossilized whipped cream.

Unlike any other family I knew, we did not have turkey at Christmas, but goose. A small, dark bird that like the plum pudding concentrated its flavor and substituted quality for quantity. I have an early oral memory of biting through the crisp, oily skin into the seriously dark meat. There was no white meat.

Another necessity for Christmas dinner was rutabaga, that big yellow turnip that was peeled, chunked, boiled and mashed, and produced a pale orange cousin to the mashed potatoes, not as hearty, and a little insipid, if “insipid” can have a positive connotation. A root vegetable we ate only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and its rarity made it taste good too.

On Grove Street we didn’t have a fireplace, so we hung our stockings with care on the drawer pulls of a chest in the living room. I have an image of Santa Claus coming through the front door instead of down the chimney, since we didn’t have one. I never saw him, but I pictured him stepping in off the porch, and I appreciated his flexibility.

We knew about Santa mainly through the ritual reading of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” on Christmas Eve. We’d gather around my father, whose deep voice (which I did not inherit) was laced with the aroma of pipe smoke as he read the magic words. “And Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap / had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.” What a strange world, where people wore hats to bed! And I loved the idea of settling my brain — it’s something I still struggle to do — and I’m sure that our folks were hoping we could settle them too, in our half-crazed anticipation of waking up from a winter’s nap that we hoped wouldn’t be too long.

When we did awake (on Christmas you don’t just wake up, you awake) we had to examine our stockings before turning to the presents under the tree. You put your whole arm down the sock to find Brazil nuts, almonds, filberts, walnuts, and pecans, and a tangerine, and a Droste chocolate apple, from Holland. To this day I’m disappointed when I have to settle for chocolate apples of some other brand, or — sacrilege of sacrileges — a chocolate orange.

I knew we were celebrating Jesus’s birth, and I knew about the star and the shepherds and the wise men, and I knew and loved the songs and their mysterious language: “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” What was “ye”? “How still we see thee lie.” What was “thee”? “The joys and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I understood joys and fears, and all the years. There’s a wondrous melancholy in those lines that I felt at an early age.

I didn’t know that people considered Jesus divine, and I didn’t have any concept of God. We were humanist children, pint-sized agnostics without knowing it. In our Howes exceptionalism (which I didn’t yet know was so exceptional, and I didn’t yet know how much our family identity depended so much on being different) we had warm, pajama-clad family Christmas mornings that celebrated midwinter, and generosity, and plenty, and we did it without a god or church.

I know you might say that God was in our midst, even if we didn’t call it that, and you’re welcome to put it that way. But it was Scrooge’s rebirth as much as Jesus’s birth that guided us in those days. The possiblity of reaching into ourselves to find the hopes and fears of all the years, to discover a warmth and a hope that were mysterious and all the more enduring for being nameless.

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A Sled Ride in the Alps

A Sled Ride in the Alps

Between New Year’s Day and Epiphany in 1983, our friend from the University of Klagenfurt, Tina Macher, invited Christen and me to visit her family in St. Lambrecht, an Alpine market town in Styria, Austria. St. Lambrecht is home to an architecturally significant Benedictine abbey and a dynamite factory. At that time, the factory was owned by the Swedish firm Nobel Industries, but now it belongs to Austin Powder, based in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Macher family was very hospitable. Tina took us to see the magnificent eighteenth-century manger scene in the abbey church, with over 130 figures and a mountain backdrop over six feet tall. Her father was the game warden for the local woods, and he showed us home movies of stags at the salt lick and feeding station, and we met the large eagle owl (German Uhu) he kept in protective captivity. One night we ate stag liver and mashed potatoes—delicious! And Tina let us help her make apple strudel, which involved stretching a single piece of dough to cover a large dining-room table.

The unforgettable centerpiece of our visit, however, was the evening we went sledding. We set off in the afternoon with two European style sleds, which sit higher and are shorter than a Radio Flyer and are made entirely of wood, except for strips of metal on the underside of the curled runners.

Tina didn’t tell us the details of what we were about to do. We got on a bus full of skiers heading up the local mountain, the Grebenzen (about 1800 m / 6000 ft). I recall hearing music on the bus by Falco’s former punk group, Drahdiwaberl, singing a song called “Lonely,” which sounds like Ruben and the Jets and has the unforgettable line “I asked the Lord up above / what is this thing morals [sic] call love?”

When we got above the tree line, to the bottom of the ski slopes and the beginning of the t-bar lift, Tina hailed friends of hers on the lift and asked them to drag our sleds up the mountain. (Tina had been hailing friends of hers all day—St. Lambrecht has about 1000 residents.) We trudged up through the snow along the course of the ski lift until we reached the top of the mountain, from which we could see over toward Klagenfurt, which was shrouded in fog, as it often was.

We went to the ski lodge and met the owners and more friends of Tina’s. We had some nice homemade schnapps (which is not syrupy, but clear like vodka) and fresh-baked rye bread, and Tina’s friends gave us some loaves of bread to take back to her family.

The last skiers left the lodge for the last run before sunset, but we were still sitting in the lodge, wondering what was to become of the sledding expedition. We soon found out. As the skiers disappeared below in the blue twilight, we sat on our sleds, me on one and Christen sitting behind Tina on the other, at the top of the ski slope, and pushed off.

A sled can go very fast on a ski slope. Very fast. I was also in charge of keeping the fresh rye bread under my coat, but I managed to hold onto it the one time I wiped out. The snow powder flew, and we flew until we reached the tree line. The slopes were behind us, but our run was just beginning.

We got on a path that wound down the side of the mountain through the woods. It was dark, but there must have been occasional lights, because I never ran into a tree. You steer a European sled with your feet directly on the ground, and  ice was building up on my pant legs. I remember looking down and seeing the lights of the village far below, and it was beautiful, like an impossible postcard. The whole run lasted about one and a half hours. The trail led us directly into St. Lambrecht, and we went home and warmed up, for a long time.

Christen told me later that as they descended, Tina would indicate points of interest such as a spot where one friend had cracked his head open and another had broken her leg. And Tina kept calling out, “Look out for the pumps!” Christen wondered why there were pumps along the mountain trail, and hoped Tina could steer around them. Then she realized Tina was saying “bumps” with an Austrian accent.

Tina was a student of English at Klagenfurt, so we often spoke English as well as German. Her father liked to try out his English too, and the afternoon before we went sledding, which was the day after an attempted cross-country skiing outing that had been foiled by freezing rain, he asked where Christen was. I said she was upstairs taking a nap, and he said sympathetically, “Ah, she’s upstairs collecting power.”

As it turned out, she needed more power than she could have guessed to make the unforgettable sled run down the Grebenzen in the early days of January 1983, still vivid almost thirty-four years later.

Book Review: Sabine Gruber, Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks (2016)

Sabine Gruber, Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks (Daldossi or Life in the Moment). Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016.

Sabine Gruber’s new novel moves in the world of war photographers and war correspondents. Bruno Daldossi is a war photographer from South Tyrol whose mixed German-speaking Austrian and Italian identities are only the beginning of his ambivalances and ambiguities. Having spent much of his career in combat zones and scenes of revolution and forced migration, he cannot really come to rest, even though he needs rest and belonging. He is compulsively competitive: with his colleagues, with his romantic rivals, and even with his romantic interests. One of his coping mechanisms is the act of photography itself. “Solange ich photographiert habe, war ich ruhig” (“As long as I was taking photographs, I was at peace”), he reflects late in the book. Another coping mechanism is self-medication with alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and sedatives. And a chief mechanism is not staying in one place. He knows these habits are destructive, but less destructive than the dangerous worlds he inhabits, and which now inhabit him in the form of memories.

Much of the novel consists of memories: short-term, long past, triggered by or hardened into images. The few days of present action of the novel, which take him from the Austrian countryside to Vienna to Venice to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, are filled with Daldossi’s memories. The theaters of war crowd into his head nearly as randomly as articles in an online news feed, except that they have a subjective causal logic and a persistence that allows them to outdo the here and now. “Daldossis Gedankenschalter hatte die Angewohnheit, hartnäckig in seinem Zustand zu veharren, es war kein Standby möglich, die Bilder ließen sich nicht wegklicken, die Wörter nicht streichen, es sei denn, Daldossi hatte getrunken oder er war endlich, meist mit Hilfe von Beruhigungsmitteln, eingeschlafen” (“The toggle switch in Daldossi’s mind had the habit of sticking tenaciously to his condition. There was no standby. The images could not be clicked away, the words couldn’t be deleted, unless Daldossi had either been drinking or had finally—usually with the aid of sedatives—fallen asleep”).

Personal connections or visual reminders call up pictures of Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt in the Arab Spring, or South Sudan. These images tear Daldossi out of the present moment so that life, past or present, gets stuck in the moments of the subtitle. The narrative thread consists less of continuity than of interruptions, torn by personal conflicts, the intrusion of others’ needs, or moving on to the next location. Even when escaping his assignments—and his assignations—Daldossi reacts to the new emptiness (emptiness of experience, of emotion, of the landscape) by giving himself new assignments.

The narrative permits empathy with this damaged man even as it reveals his self-destruction. The novel does not come down on one side or the other of the classic conflict of the war photographer: he records extremes of human suffering without doing anything to alleviate them. This dilemma hounds Daldossi, although he also knows that those who make that judgment would not be able to sympathize with the victims without first learning of them through war journalism. A crucial subplot involves his helping out two female refugees in Vienna, but he hardly recognizes his own altruism because it is obscured by a sense of obligation, of the built-in guilt of the observer who doesn’t act.

The human connections that could bring him some peace and quiet cannot stand up to his restlessness and contradictions. So he loses his lover Marlis, who escapes to Venice. He rashly travels to Venice to find her, unsure what he will do when he does, and ends up drunk and on the streets, a refugee for one night. At the same time, Johanna is attracted to him and has asked him to accompany her to Lampedusa, a tiny southern outpost of Europe, where she has been sent to fill in for a colleague reporting on the refugee situation. He finally decides to join her there, where he does not have to distinguish so neatly between his professional and personal identities, but is no less restless.

Sabine Gruber’s novel is set squarely in our times, with invasions, civil wars, refugee crises, and the identity crisis of the educated, liberal middle class of Europe (but not only of Europe). This is our world, where instant communication both enables and threatens interpersonal relations as well as international relations. We have too much information, and yet not enough information that could guide us. We are forced into improvising and constantly adjusting to the conditions on the ground, and Daldossi’s moments are a particularly concentrated version of this circumstance.

Yet the novel does not depend on current events for its relevance; rather it proceeds from the particular human predicaments embedded in these events. Thus the narrative makes current events relevant, not the other way around. All globalism is local. While Daldossi’s moments are associated with each other thematically or visually in his roving mind, they are anchored in particular times and places. Gruber fixes these times and places with the narrative invention of describing rather than reproducing Daldossi’s photos, which are then summarized in captions. Local events are given global significance by photography—or by narrative—but only if they are not wrested from their time and place, or from the hands of those who live, suffer, or die there and then.

Daldossi oder das Leben des Augenblicks is steeped in the melancholy of its protagonist, but it is remarkably free of antagonists, of the easy but made-up targets we all know from online comments sections. Nearly every character is trying hard, but that is never enough. The author allows the moments of human connection, of recognizing the humanity of another, to shine among all this tarnish. They do not outshine it, but they make it bearable—at least for the moment, and moments are all we have.

Geoff Howes

A parable, adapted for 2016

Adapted from the Gospel according to Luke, 10:25-37, in the King James Version

by Geoff Howes

 

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side, saying, all lives matter, and if I help him I will be ignoring all other lives.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side, saying, he probably had a criminal record and so he deserved to be wounded. Else why would he be among thieves?
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
And the host said, I suppose you Samaritans now think you are the shit, acting all holier than thou and shit.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, all of them, because all lives matter.
Then said Jesus unto him, WTF dude, were you even paying attention?

The Acoustic Jargon Bicentennial Summer Tour 1976

Part 1: The Making of Acoustic Jargon

It was my second day in Snyder Hall, a dorm at Michigan State University. I walked past my R.A.’s room and saw a lanky guy with dark shoulder-length hair and a dark beard sitting on his bed playing a nylon-string guitar. This was Dave Babak. His friendly eyes greeted me. I was a shy kid, not quite eighteen, but I had a calling card just in case my personality wasn’t working: a mandolin.

I mustered my courage and said, “Hey, I play the mandolin. Maybe we could play sometime?”

“Cool. We can get Phil down the hall to play with us. He’s really good.”

Before long I was part of a beery, all-night jam session in Dave’s room. Phil Klum, the really good guitar player, was there, along with Leon Luczak and his sweet little Gibson, and a tall funny guy named Swanee, and probably a couple of other guys.

I remember for sure that we played “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with Dave singing. We probably played “The Accident” by John Prine, with Leon on vocals. And “Moondance.” It was the night after a kegger, and some of our beer was leftovers in plastic gallon jugs, slightly flat. But who cared? This was college life.

We lived in Precinct 17 of Snyder Hall, which was nicknamed “Stalag 17” after the Billy Wilder POW-camp movie. Eventually this motley collection of pickers and songsters with no name became a motley collection of pickers and songsters with a name: the Stalag 17 Blues Band. Later, Frank Siciliano joined us on percussion, and so did Bob “BC” Cook on flute and saxophone.

We debuted at a coffeehouse in the Snyder-Phillips dorm cafeteria. I had never played for an audience before. Leon and I also peeled off that fall and played at the legendary Brody Hall cafeteria. My eight-string social prop was doing its job.

Swanee noticed that he and I had the same cheap Yamaha guitar and the same shitty little mustache, so we had to form the spinoff duo Crusty Dog. In spite of our important similarities, Swanee was at least 8 inches taller than me. Or maybe I was 8 inches shorter than him. Anyway, the disparity was part of the musical comedy act.

Crusty Dog performed a Swanee original titled “Every Day I Miss You More (or Less),” and an old folk song, “My Sweetheart’s a Mule in the Mines.” I told the audience: “This song goes back to the days of the Pharaohs’ mines. It was passed on in different versions over the centuries, and finally wound up in the Appalachians. We learned it off a John Denver record.”1

The band was a big part of my social life at MSU. I drank lots of beer, but just drinking beer was boring. Playing music gave my uptight little heart a sense of purpose while still allowing me to get debauched. I hung out with musicians more than I hung out with my fellow German majors, and I loved cultivating this ragtag identity while learning about Heinrich von Kleist and Goethe and Brecht. Swanee called me a “derelectual.”

Dave moved on, and we settled into a configuration with two lead singers, Phil and Leon. Phil leaned toward rock and pop featuring the major seventh chords that sounded so rich on his Gibson Hummingbird. America and Stephen Stills were two of his favorites. Leon walked the line between rock and country: Van Morrison, John Prine, Jackson Browne, New Riders of the Purple Sage. Leon was from Saginaw, and the twang in his voice earned him the moniker “The Saginaw Cowboy.”

Phil’s and Leon’s musical interests intersected in songs by the likes of the Allman Brothers and Neil Young, and their voices layered with BC’s, pulling lush three-part harmonies out of the air of that era of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Eagles.

On a typical evening we’d play Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” and “Wild Night,” America’s “Ventura Highway,” Dan Hicks’s “Payday Blues,” the Allmans’ “Whipping Post,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” and a bluegrass-inflected “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (a.k.a. “Fallin’”) with five-part harmonies.

I’d sing an occasional lead — less often than George but more often than Ringo. My favorites were “Seeds and Stems Again” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and “Ooh La La” by the Faces. I figured I could sing at least as good as Ronnie Wood. Swanee told me I sounded like a regular guy who could sing.

In January 1975, we got a gig at the Peanut Barrel, a popular bar on Grand River Avenue just off campus. (It’s still there.) This was our chance to announce to the world, or at least to twenty or thirty of its representatives, that we were dropping the name Stalag 17 Blues Band. No one lived in Stalag 17 anymore and we hardly ever played blues. Now we called ourselves Acoustic Jargon.

Left:  "An event." Flyer made by my RA, John LaLonde. 
Right: A note of congratulations from fans. 

Ooh La La - Acoustic Jargon live at the Peanut Barrel

In the summer of 1975 I went to Germany for the first time, spending nine weeks on the MSU study-abroad program in Mayen. I took my mandolin along as a carry-on, and at the farewell party I borrowed a guitar and played “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special” in front of a bunch of Germans. This required some intestinal fortitude (a.k.a. guts) that I owed to Acoustic Jargon.

In November 1975 we made a tape (it really was a tape) to send to Dave Babak, who had moved to Aurora, Colorado. This recording still exists, and in 1998 Phil, who has been a mastering engineer in New York for many years now, mastered it and sent me a CD (it really was a CD).

It’s ragged around the edges, but the bond of playing together for two years is audible. We are reading each other’s musical minds. The harmonies really fit that cliché about harmonies: they are lush. Between the tunes there’s some funny banter and great affection going out to Dave— now poignant since he died of cancer in 2010.

During spring break of 1976 I missed out on some Acoustic Jargon shenanigans because I went out to Massachusetts to visit a young woman I thought might be my girlfriend. At the beginning of the year, she had transferred to Tufts. My advice to romantic young musicians: if given the choice between following your music and following your heart, opt for the music. Your heart may be persuasive, but it’s stupid. And you can always retune a mandolin.2

There was exciting news back in East Lansing: a friend was working with us to organize a summer tour Up North over the Fourth of July. This was 1976, the year of our country’s Bicentennial, and we were bound to celebrate it in style.

 

  1. All totally untrue.
  2. But it will go right out of tune again.

 

Part 2: The Tour  (posted July 4, 2016)

In the summer of ‘76 I was living with my parents in Royal Oak, Michigan, and working at Hagelstein’s machine shop in the next town north, Clawson. My parents’ neighbor Don, known as Neighbor Don, worked there and helped me get the job. I learned to run drill presses and milling machines, and my life was filled with 9-hour workdays, 6-day work weeks, grayish-white lubrication fluid, and metal filings.

In June Neighbor Don was gracious enough to host Acoustic Jargon on his back deck for a rehearsal/performance. (It is a sign of professionalism to distinguish between rehearsal and performance.) My family could hear the band, the band could show off a little bit, and we were having a reunion.

Working so much, I was overly excited to get away for a long Fourth-of-July weekend. The Fourth was on a Sunday in 1976 and Monday was a holiday too. I still can’t figure out how my parents could afford to give me use of the family car all weekend. I have a clear memory of my emotions lifting as the station wagon banked onto the entry ramp from Telegraph Road to I-696.

My first stop was East Lansing, where Acoustic Jargon assembled for a pre-tour party and maybe a little rehearsal. At the party I talked a long time to a young woman I knew from the Snyder-Phillips dorm, Christen Giblin. Thoughts of her accompanied me all weekend and then all summer long.

 

A digression on nicknames. Before I started at MSU, I went to a scholarship competition in East Lansing that involved taking a proficiency test and getting a taste of dorm life. I stayed overnight with some students in McDonel Hall. One of the guys in the suite was nicknamed “Scummy” (his last name was Scully) and another one was “Warthog” (I don’t remember his last name). I was amazed and amused that they actually called each other by those names the whole time.

Little did I suspect that within a year or so I would be part of a group of people who called each other nicknames the whole time. Swanee (Bob Swanson), BC (Bob Cook), and Bo (Mark Seaman) already came with their nicknames. Frank got the least outlandish handle, “Frankie.” Phil was P-Dog (aka Dog Man). Leon (now Leo) was, as already mentioned, the Saginaw Cowboy, which of course morphed into “Saginaw Cowpie,” which sometimes became “Pie Man” or just “Pie.” A guy in Snyder Hall named Howie Fixler started calling me by the French version of my name, “Geoffroi,” which the Saginaw Cowboy pronounced “Geoffwah,” which was reduced to “Wah.” There are still people who call me “Geoffwah,” “the Wah,” “Wah,” “Wah Boy,” or “Wah Man.” In fact, the night that Christen (the girl from the party) and I announced our engagement to her family, she said “The Wah and I have decided to get married.”

Digression on the digression. When I was offered a $50 scholarship on the basis of the test I took, my father stated, “One is tempted to tell them to roll up their 50 dollars and put it where the sun don’t shine.” I’m sure my father thought things like this all the time, but he didn’t usually say them. 

 

I wish I could write a chronological, blow-by-blow account of that long Bicentennial weekend, but forty years later I just have fragments of memories. I’ll try to translate these mind chunks into bits of story, and maybe something will gel.

We caravaned our way Up North, with the five-member band and some friends of the group, Swanee, Claudia, and Bo. We stopped in Saginaw, where Leon and Bo were from, to lay in some provisions. In the Meijer’s parking lot I got out of my folks’ station wagon and joined the others in a van while someone went into the store. We were listening to Gram Parsons, whom I’d never heard before, and I was hooked right away. “In My Hour of Darkness” with Emmylou Harris: wow. Bo looked out the window at his home town and said, “So this is the fuckin’ Naw!”

Our Saturday night gig was at a hotel in Boyne City. We set up to practice in a big empty room, and for the first time I plugged in the instrument pickup I’d borrowed. Hearing my mandolin resounding from the speakers changed my life. Someone, our host I think, had a drum set, and jamming with a drummer changed my life a little too.

That night in the hotel lounge there were about three people besides our retinue listening to us. It was a ski resort in July. Oh well, we needed a rehearsal anyway. I remember trying to play Phil’s cheap Norma bass guitar, with the G string missing. The song was “My Girl,” which I also sang lead on. I don’t know why I thought I was talented enough to sing Motown while playing an instrument I didn’t know how to play.

In my mental image, we’re looking out from the low stage toward the long bar across the room, with empty tables fading to the right and left into brown shadows. One of our Up North benefactors must have arranged this gig, because we were able to stay free that night in the nearly deserted ski hotel.

On Sunday the Fourth we were scheduled to play a community cookout, in Charlevoix, I think. We stood on a big outdoor stage, with a large audience kind of off in the distance. My main memory is the clouds of chicken smoke from the huge grill wafting over and shrouding us on the stage. I have no idea whether anyone listened or how we played. I’m sure we had some fun.

In the evening we played the “Community Cabaret” at the Holiday Inn in Petoskey. We were opening for some clown called Jango Edwards. No, he really is a clown: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jango_Edwards . Kenny Rogers’s cousin Dan’s band, Dan Rogers County Line, was playing an engagement at the Holiday Inn and we got to use their sound system, which made us feel pretty special in a Kevin Bacon sort of way. I remember being crammed onto a shallow stage, playing to a good crowd. In my self-centered recall I’m singing “Ooh La La.” We finish, and someone in the crowd yells, “rock ‘n’ roll!” I still haven’t decided whether that was sarcastic or not.

We must have camped out that night. I remember seeing the Northern Lights, throwing a frisbee the next day on a Lake Michigan beach, and finding a rural roadhouse where the beer was 25 cents a glass.

According to some flyers I’ve kept as mementos, we played the “Community Cabaret” again on Monday, this time in Charlevoix at a place called The Weathervane, which is still there (http://www.staffords.com/weathervane-restaurant/). I don’t have a specific memory of that gig, probably because everything was overlaid by worry about having to leave after a 10:00 pm show to get back to the Detroit area to return the car and make it to work on Tuesday morning.

Claudia needed to get back too, so she rode all night with me in my parents’ station wagon. By the time we reached Oakland County the sun was up and I could barely keep my eyes open. I fell asleep for a second in heavy traffic on I-696. Luckily, I did not kill myself and Claudia, destroy the family car, injure or kill some unsuspecting commuters, and fail to make it in time to punch in at Hagelstein’s.

Actually, I did make it in time, but I realized, probably encouraged by my parents, that the second-stupidest thing I could do on July 6, 1976, would be to go to work, fall asleep on the job, and run my hand under a drill press. I had already done the first-stupidest thing.

Thus ended the Acoustic Jargon Bicentennial Fourth of July Summer Tour of 1976. Even without dying in a fiery crash on I-696, it is my most memorable Fourth of July ever. And forty years later I hope to keep it that way.

 

The Quinsy Report, parts 1 – 4 (complete)

The Quinsy Report, part 1

My throat was starting to feel sore. My wife Christen and I were driving to Ann Arbor for our niece’s graduation party on a Saturday in June 2011, and I sang louder along to the Gram Parsons tribute CD, trying to stretch my tightening gullet. Later at the party I found myself looking for the coldest, numbingest drink I could find.

On Sunday the pain had increased, so I went to urgent care. The nurse said there was a sore throat going around. She put me on an antibiotic and prescription-strength ibuprofen. She did notice I had a tissue in my hand to sop up the saliva I couldn’t swallow. She seemed to reflect for a moment, and I went on my way.

On Monday my pain was so bad and my throat was so swollen that I could talk only with difficulty. I canceled my summer class meeting, and Christen insisted that I go to the doctor. I agreed on the condition that she would make the appointment and drive me there. Dr. Kuebeck looked into my throat and made a worried face I’d never seen on that cheerful, confident man. Christen remembers him saying, “Oh, Geoff!” He couldn’t even tell where my uvula was. He immediately got me an appointment with Dr. Merrell, an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Dr. Merrell was calm as he examined me. A medical student was shadowing him, and he narrated everything, which allowed me to follow the diagnosis in real time. Within two minutes he told me I had a peritonsillar abscess, also known as quinsy. An infection of the soft, folded tissue around the tonsils, where there are a lot of opportunities for bacteria to take hold. He almost seemed glad he could easily identify a condition he had often seen as a doctor in the army.

Symptoms of quinsy: swelling, severe pain, trismus (which I had previously known as lockjaw), and something called “hot potato voice.” Since then I’ve tried to imitate this croak, and it doesn’t work. It’s hard to constrict your throat on purpose, and to mock swelling. Maybe one could try it with an actual hot potato.

Dr. Merrell aspirated the abscess, which relieved the pain a little, and gave me prescriptions for a powerful painkiller and antibiotics. He also put me on probiotics, since the antibiotics would attack my normal bacteria and give me the oral fungus called thrush.

That night I was sitting on the couch waiting for everything to take effect. It didn’t seem to be doing much. Christen went out for her usual Monday-evening knitting social. The phone rang. It was Alice, a neighbor whose husband Jim had a degenerative disease that tried his patience and hers, and made him talk slowly and stiffly. Alice said that Jim was hearing loud music in the neighborhood and wondered if I could go locate the source.

Getting out and taking a quick walk around a block or two—it turned into more of a stomp —seemed like a good distraction anyway. I found a party with moderately loud recorded music. I noted the address and stomped home to call Alice. I explained my problem and tried to hot-potato the house number. She said she wanted me to talk directly to Jim. The conversation between his laborious creak and my puffy scratch was the strangest verbal exchange I’ve ever had.

This episode had increased my distress. My throat was sorer, and pain had whipped me into generalized anger. Christen got home, took one look, and went into alarm mode. She called Dr. Merrell, told him the meds were hardly working, and asked what to do. He told her to take me to emergency. She repeated, “Are you saying he needs to go to the hospital?” “Yes, there’s nothing more I can do.”

 

The Quinsy Report, part 2

sometimes you don’t know

a word until it gets you

like quinsy got me

 – senryu from June 6, 2011

 

It was around midnight when Christen drove me to Wood County Hospital. My excellent patient advocate (she without the hot-potato voice) explained what I had. I felt some mental relief because we were getting some serious care, including my first CT scan ever. Dr. Merrell didn’t have admitting privileges at Wood County (he had implied some unpleasant falling-out), so he and the emergency room people negotiated a move to St. Luke’s, about 15 miles north in Maumee.

A cheerful ambulance crew arrived, a big dark-blue male presence among the light-blue-scrubbed ER women. They had “Life Flight” patches on their uniforms, so for a moment I thought I’d be helicoptered. Oh, no! Was it that bad? On the other hand, I hadn’t flown in a chopper in decades! No such luck—it was just the same company that ran the Life Flight. But I was getting my first ambulance ride. I watched out the back window as familiar landmarks peeled off on Route 25. The ambulance guys cracked jokes the whole way. Somehow I joined in, hot potato or no hot potato.

Christen had gone home for some well-deserved sleep. She didn’t get much. When I got to St. Luke’s they took me right to the ICU. The nurse there needed information from me, but I was indisposed, so she called Christen. It was now about 4 a.m. I was thirsty. My throat hadn’t let me drink anything. They couldn’t give me a drink in case I needed surgery. I did get a stick with a pitiful little sponge on it that held maybe three drops of water.

When they moved me from admitting to an ICU bed, I had been awake for twenty-four hours, I’d had virtually nothing to eat or drink, my throat was screaming, and there was a patient on the other side of the curtain who I gradually figured out was going through alcohol withdrawal, with the attendant DTs. The room itself had something basementy about it. I think they were doing some renovation.

Thinking I might have to run my German for Reading Knowledge course from the hospital, I had brought my laptop. Now, in the early hours of June 7, I started to communicate with the outside world. (I had announced my diagnosis on Facebook the day before.) This Facebook post is dated 8:16 a.m. on June 7, 2011:

over night I was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in Maumee and I’ll be here at least all day and likely overnight. So far, surgery is not indicated–aggressive antibiotics and pain meds, but they haven’t ruled it out either.

How innocently hopeful this message looks. Those who know me, though, will see evidence of great disturbance in the lack of initial capitalization in the first sentence. Of course, my sisters weren’t exactly thrilled that I advertised my situation to the Facebook world before I emailed them privately to tell them what was going on.

By the time I made that post, I had been put on IVs with antibiotics, nourishment, and periodic pain medication. I was also getting oral painkillers every four hours. I was finally able to moisten my mouth, but I still couldn’t swallow. I was getting good at monitoring my blood oxygen on the readout, and breathing extra if needed. Extracting spit and drainage from my mouth with a little turkey-baster-looking thing was one of my major duties. A nurse named Ryan, an Army veteran, was taking good care of me. It was time to wait for the ICU to do its magic.

Digression: Quinsy Lore. Dr. Merrell had told me that George Washington died of quinsy. Later, when I told that to my dentist (by way of medical update and survival brag), he said that wasn’t quite right. Washington had quinsy when he died, but he died of the treatment, not the disease. The old-school army doctors who treated him relied on bloodletting. They didn’t pay attention to the younger doctors, who were starting to get a better idea of infection and its agents.

Michel “What Do I Know” de Montaigne was another famous quinsy sufferer.

The word “quinsy” came into English, not surprisingly, from French. Ultimately it goes back to the Greek words for “dog” and “collar.” Here’s a brief etymology from Google:

Middle English: from Old French quinencie, from medieval Latin quinancia, from Greek kunankhē ‘canine quinsy,’ from kun- ‘dog’ + ankhein ‘throttle.’

In other words, I was suffering from what you could call “dogthrottle.”

 

The Quinsy Report, part 3

During my time in the hospital, I couldn’t speak very well, so I wrote notes to people, especially Christen and our son Coleman. These are my slightly edited notes from my “St. Luke’s Hospital” pad.  I’ve tried to arrange them chronologically as much as possible. Warning: there are occasional references to bodily secretions, excretions, and products of infection.

Swallowing can’t get through drainage

Coughing is painful

But if I let the drink mix w/the yucky stuff, I can suck it out of my mouth w/ that thing  [A device with a bulb and a tube that allowed me to remove fluids from my mouth because I couldn’t swallow.]

 I fall asleep and dream immediately and my brain turns the constant babble of ESPN in[to] things I know and care about, include (sic) German! Very imaginative [See section on hallucinations below]

 It’s going to take a long time

Swelling is reducing, but that means more drainage

I was dying for some water, but they did[n’t] want to give me any in case they decided on surgery. Then when the[y] brought it, I couldn’t drink!

But my mouth is finally moist.

Staff has been great    Merrell is great.

 [To Coleman] The ambulance attendant really liked Mom. – How long have you been married, he asked. [To Christen] He was impressed by your sense of humor.

 I seem grimmer than I am. I am tired and I have to be patient and avoid what causes pain.

New phase: We have saliva!

Tea is soothing but make (sic) me cough.

 I was falling asleep during every sentence in emails & on facebook   Morphine!

******

Feeling better + morphine = frequent drifting off

You guys have raised my morale. (Even if not my morals)

 I’m only sleeping

 Der Nachbar ist alkoholsüchtig und wird dafür behandelt. Er hat Halluzinationen, delirium tremens.

[This is German for “My neighbor is an alcoholic and is getting treated for it. He has hallucinations, delirium tremens.” I guess I thought I had to be discreet and use a secret language even though I was writing.]

 I’m just gross.

I gave myself a “sponge” bath today & used no-rinse shampoo. I was schrecklich! [schrecklich = awful, terrible]

 [In margin] febreze [I think this was an analogy to no-rinse shampoo]

 *******

 I have no desire to eat food. The prospect is too painful. Drinking is more attractive, but I’ve resigned myself.

 He’s hard of hearing, obv. [This might be a joke about why the nurse didn’t understand me.]

 They had to find the right antbio (sic), for understandable reasons. They had to get the authorities to prescribe it, understandably.

[Interesting account of the challenge of finding out just what was eating me. The hospital needed permission from the CDC to administer one of the antibiotics I was getting.]

Beats surgery, which also only treats symptoms.

 ********

SOME PEOPLE ASK, DON’T UNDERSTAND, INTERRUPT BUT THEN DON’T LISTEN THE SECOND TIME. I END UP SAYING THINGS 3 X.

[This happens in normal life too, of course, but it’s harder when you have hot-potato voice. I told about a funny instance of misunderstanding on Facebook: Me: can you bring me a urinal? Nurse: what? a Coors Light?]

 I’ve been seen by Merrell, 2 internists, 2 infectious disease people.

[I assume this means experts in infectious diseases, not people with infectious diseases. You never know in a hospital.]

[Here Christen must have asked me how long Merrell talked to me:]

NOT SO LONG

BUT HE’S VERY EFFICIENT AND KNOW [now?] I GET IT

 *************

IT’S REALLY GOOD TO HAVE YOU HERE!

 He says we have [to] assume tomorrow, probably more. He said you said, he’s (me) got to get out of there! He said, he’s got to get better, and that’s when it possible

My mood is much better, as you can maybe see.

I’m going to write a blog called “The Quinsy Report: adventures at the morpheme morphine boundary.”

[It took me five years, but here I am doing it, but without the cute reference to linguistics.]

 It reminds me alot (sic) of when Mr. C [=Coleman] had the embolism. We were in the midst of it before its seriousness sank in (for me).

[A little more than a year before, our son had been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism.]

************

Swallowing always presses the abscess site.

 Tell me about yourself. [I think we had just decided I shouldn’t try to talk so much.]

 I FORGET WHERE I AM SOMETIMES

 I think the pain med is kicking in. Also the ADRENALIN!

 When I drift off like that, I have to let it happen. Sorry to be rude.

 

 I slept a ½ hr amid noise, but it made a difference. I’m slightly less psychotic

Last night no more than ½ hr

 

That played @ 5:30 am today

that loud WTF?

[Must refer to some music or something on the PA system]

 

but ma (sic)

 

 turn off alarm plse [The alarm went off when my blood oxygen got too low.]

It hurts too much.

Talked to Merrell today.

The[y] got the culture — at least 2 kinds [of bacteria] & one might be resistant to most antibios

 

They got the right one today. A CDC person had to approve.

He says if it were “bad” it would be 2x as big.

[I think this refers to the externally visible swelling. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror for a while.]

 

Looks like a goiter!

Washed it (thoroughly this time) w/ no-rinse.

 Please pull curtain & bring urinal to me. Thanks!

 *********

I got the idea last [night] of getting the IV Morphine and then getting the oral ½ hour later. Reduces pain of swallowing.

[This was my clever solution to the problem of not being able to swallow the oral pain medication: let the IV morphine sink in first. They had been administering both at the same time, every four hours.]

 It takes me 1 hr. to write a short email. I drift off 4-5 times per sentence.

 I’ve had a real hard time relaxing, but Jo brought me an extra pillow and I’ve got to find a good way to relax so I can sleep. I’ve realized I am not getting enough restful sleep.

 I’ve also realized that I’ve been afraid of suffocating on mucus and pus but I don’t think I feel so scared anymore.

 Hallucinations

The sleeplessness, pain, and morphine combined to give me hallucinations. I saw bugs scattering across the sheets. Talking heads on the constantly running television would be singing the news or speaking in German. But there was always a rational part of my mind monitoring all of this. Here are some notes about hallucinations (which I call “morphine morphs” at one point).

One of [the] morphine morphs ESPN

“Santa Claus is ahead by a nose!”
(Rudolf’s of course)

 When they were talking about a cook book a little while ago [on television] in my dream it was a book about the third (secret) scion of an ancient noble family.

 I’ve been hallucinating today. I thought you (sic) purse was Scout just now. [Scout is one of our black cats.]

[This is from Facebook]

My brain has been been making rapid, full-fledged decisions about what I’m seeing or hearing, not weighing evidence and letting me decide. The results have been hilarious, if unnerving. Example No. 1: a reference on iTunes to Neil Young’s album “After the Goulash.”

A Facebook correspondent asked: Would it be off-topic to just say that’s a great album?

 To which I answered:

Not at all. Coleman and I saw Neil Young in Detroit in May and he drew much of his material from After the Goldrush. After The Goulash, in case that’s the album you meant, is by a polka band called Neal Jung and the Synchronicities. They’re also known for the party favorite “Let’s Drink Ourselves into Collective Unconsciousness.”

 

The Quinsy Report, 4th and final part

I stayed in the ICC (as St. Luke’s calls its intensive care unit) until Thursday afternoon, two and a half days after my admission. During that time I was transferred from the basement-like area to a brighter ICC room.

On Wednesday I was able to eat a little. I could nip small bites of the institutional hamburger and gingerly chew the soft meat parts, but tiny bits of gristle that I normally wouldn’t have noticed were still too big and firm to get past the dogthrottle.

Unlike some people, I am happy to sit in bed and have people wait on me. Christen and Coleman visited me each day, but we figured out that not talking too much and not being distracted were important for my healing. Nobody needed to hold a vigil at my bedside.

I was on line a lot, informing my family, posting on Facebook, and running my summer class. I wrote that I was typing “partly in the manner of archy the cockroach because it aint easy to type with [one] of those damn e.t. fingertips on.” (I’ve since learned that the device is a “pulse oximeter.”)

On Thursday afternoon I was moved to a large private room in a regular ward. It felt like a big hotel room. It wasn’t as noisy as the ICC, so I could start catching up on rest — I can’t exactly call it sleep. I went on line and ordered my first Kindle, which I thought would be a good way to entertain myself during my convalescence at home.

They released me from the hospital at 3:30 pm on Saturday, June 11, according to a note in my health log, which I then used at home to keep track of my medications. I was taking Lortab, an opioid with acetaminophen; Bacid (lactobacillus acidophilus), to restore my normal intestinal bacteria; Augmentin (amoxicillin); and Fluconazole, against thrush. I took my last Lortab on Sunday and moved to prescription-strength ibuprofen for pain. I’m lucky that I had no desire to keep taking the opioids.

I had to do jaw exercises to work against the trismus. I gave myself a free pass to eat as much store-bought tapioca as I wanted to, having discovered the delightfully named “Kozy Shack” brand.

I returned to my classroom and let my students do most of the talking. They were translating German to English, so that was pedagogically sound anyway.

My notes tell me that on June 22 I went off the ibuprofen and but still had symptoms: “Some earache, discomfort swallowing (not pain). No pill [i.e., no opioid] for 1.5 weeks.” On June 23 I wrote: “On Wednesday I finally started feeling better, more energy, out from under the shadow of the quinsy.”

Over the next few days I recorded fatigue, discomfort, and “a sense of roughness and slight swelling in the throat.” On June 30, 25 days after the onset, I took my last antibiotic pill. Some symptoms persisted into July.

At a follow-up appointment, Dr. Merrell said that I’d had “one big, bad infection.” One of the worst he’d seen.

So that’s the Quinsy Report.

 

Epilogue

As hospital veterans might have guessed, it was (at age 55) my first time as an inpatient.

I know many people who’ve had much more complicated, chronic, and devastating illnesses. Mine was a medical adventure with a happy ending.

I didn’t even have to get my tonsils out. The part of my brain that monitors and makes fun of stuff was kept very busy. I felt like I was getting the care I needed, and most of the time I wasn’t afraid of the worst.

When I tell this story, I say that if you’re going to have a life-threatening disease, quinsy is a good one to have, because you can recover completely and there’s little chance it will come back.

A few weeks later, my sister emailed me a link to an article about septicemia, asking if that’s what I’d had. No, I said, the infection hadn’t breached my blood vessels and spread throughout my body. Although it could have.
I’m sure glad I didn’t see that article while I was still in the hospital.

Nerve Stories

One morning I was sitting in the admissions pavilion at the Otto Wagner Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna, Austria, waiting to hear how a student was doing who had been brought there the night before after a psychotic break. This hospital is known popularly by its older name “Steinhof,” after the area where it was built and opened in 1907.

I had come to Steinhof by taxi the night before, when the student was admitted. It was one or two a.m., and the taxi driver got worried as we entered the campus-like complex on a hillside in the dark. I didn’t know which of the many pavilions we needed to get to, so I said we should look out for the ambulance that had brought the student. We spotted it at a lit-up loading dock two levels down the hill from where we were, and the cab driver relaxed.

He asked me what was going on. I explained briefly, and he summed it up: “Ah, eine Nervengeschichte.” In the thirteen years since, I have tried again and again to translate this phrase and the best I can do is to give a couple of possibilities that, taken together, perhaps start to suggest what the cabbie’s empathetic yet gently trivializing appraisal meant: “Ah, a mental thing.” “Ah, a nerve business.” “Ah, a psychiatric case.” (German still blends “nervous” and “mental” when talking about psychiatric and neurological matters.) My favorite version is the most literal and hence least informative one: “Ah, a nerve story.”

As I sat in the admissions ward, I watched a motley group of patients, still unsorted, milling about. One dark-haired young man in a hospital gown, his lower lip drooping, was drooling like the caricature of a mental patient as he walked straight up to whoever was in his path, dodging away only at the last moment. I noticed a distinguished looking middle-aged gentleman with white stubble on his chin, also wearing a flimsy, shapeless garment, and also pacing up and down.

I, with my dark full beard, was wearing a black winter jacket and a felt fedora. The gentleman stopped in front of me and said, “Shalom.” I replied, “Shalom.” He went on his way, but soon came back. This time he said one or two sentences in what I could tell was Hebrew, but did not understand. “Sorry,” I said in German, “all I know is ‘shalom’.” His eyebrows arched. “Oh, are you not of the Mosaic religious persuasion?” “No, I’m not.”

He walked quickly away, then turned around and apologized politely and profusely that he had taken me for Jewish.

 

The student was admitted and spent a week and a half in the institution, and then was allowed to transfer to the Christian Doppler Clinic in Salzburg. Our study-abroad program is located at the University of Salzburg. In the long term, after several twists and turns, her nerve story had a positive ending.

 

Two or three weeks later, I was waiting for a bus at the Mirabell Square stop, which in those days was across from the Mozarteum music conservatory. I noticed a woman wearing a traditional Austrian dirndl dress walking in my direction and talking out loud to herself. You could hear her even a block away. People on the sidewalk studiously looked up, down, and sideways. As she approached, she made a beeline toward me, and as she came up I heard her saying, in German, “So, are you going to New York or Tel Aviv, or are you staying here in Salzburg?”

“I’ll stay here in Salzburg for a while, and then I’ll go home to the USA,” I said.

“Oh, you’re from the USA? I have some friends in the USA, Jewish friends, in New Hampshire, I’ve visited them there.” She rattled on a while, talking about her friends and the USA and intimating that she, too, was Jewish. Then she fixed her gaze on me. “You are Jewish, aren’t you?” “No, I’m not.”

“Oh, yes you are! I can tell by your beard!”

I wasn’t even wearing my black fedora.