Category Archives: Memoir

The Global Suburb (A letter from Salzburg, Oct. 19, 1998)

[NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This one, from October, 1998, reflects on how Austrian and German culture have absorbed and adapted American culture, including borrowing words, especially from popular culture, business, and high tech.

I wouldn’t come to all the same conclusions today.  A lot has changed in twenty years – for example, Netflix is making many series produced abroad available to American audiences – and a lot sounds quaint and out of date, but a lot has stayed the same or continued to develop in the directions described.]

 

The Global Suburb

Last week I bought some potato chips–“Chips” in German–with the brand name “Funny-frisch.” “Frisch” means “fresh,” and Germans seem to think that “funny” is the adjectival form of “fun,” so this probably means “fun-fresh,” not “humorous-fresh”.  The product and the name have the aura of America, where both the snack (German “Snack”) and the idea of eating for fun come from. Countless such borrowings show the pervasive influence of American and international culture in Germany and Austria, especially in business, popular culture, and high technology.

4257715

Many a German “Manager” hopes that his “Management” has the “Know-how” to provide the “Level” of “Service” required to avoid a “Flop.” Whether his “Business” involves “Leasing” or “Investment” in “Blue chips” (not to be confused with “Microchips” or “Funny-frisch Chips”), he will probably want to provide his customers with either a “Hotline” or “online internet business” opportunities–in short, “E-Business.”

Google.de

The “Kids” in Central Europe are hip to “Hip-Hop” and “Rap-Musik,” of course, if they’re “cool.” If they watch “TV” they probably avoid “Gameshows” and “Talkshows”–the realm of the uncool–and prefer “Videoclips” on MTV.

One cable station fills the dead hours after midnight with uncommented footage of various “Raves,” especially last spring’s “Love Parade” in Berlin, a huge demonstration of resolute pleasure-seeking, a sort of urban Woodstock without illusions. The Love Parade’s motto, “One World One Future,” displayed in English on banners in mid-Berlin, is not unconvincing, even if global unity is being ushered in not by abstractions about peace, love, and understanding, but by CDs, McDonald’s, Gatorade, CNN, and the Internet. To paraphrase Brecht, “Fast Food,” then ethics. To be sure, the global suburb is peopled by the propertied: “Consumers of the world, unite!”

mcdonald-s-deutschland-mehr-moeglichkeiten-beim-mcmenue-und-neues-snacking-angebot

I haven’t checked to see whether the “Love Parade” has its own “Homepage,” but it wouldn’t take too much “Surfen” on the “Web” to find out. Whether with a “Notebook” or a “Desktop,” many Germans and Austrians are connected to the “Internet.” As might be expected, being “online” means being hooked up to a flow of American English terms like “Software,” “Hardware,” “Bytes,” “E-mail” and “Internet Service Provider.” You can check (“checken”) all this out by going to “Yahoo Deutschland” or one of the other German search engines. “Heute schon yahoot?” (Did you yahoo yet today?)

Even before the “Computer” became the conduit for the English language and American ways of life, the movies, television, and pop music were transplanting names, images, and words from California and New York to Frankfurt and Linz. American “Stars” are as well-known here as in the US. As the movie audience nibbles its “Popcorn” at the “Cineplexx” in Salzburg this week it can see “The Mask of Zorro,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Dr. Dolittle” with Eddie Murphy, “The Horse Whisperer,” “Lost in Space,” “Mafia,” “Armageddon,” “Godzilla,” and “Out of Sight.”

2016-09-23_57e581979cd92_DerSoldatJamesRyan-Cover-720x482

While I think it’s patronizing snobism to want to save the poor Austrians from such flagrant cultural imperialism–why shouldn’t they see the movies we watch?–it is too bad that most Americans will never see the other films in Salzburg this week–the cabaret film “Hinterholz 8,” or Niki List’s homegrown Austrian spoof “Heroes in Tyrol,” or “Lola rennt” (“Run Lola Run”), or the film version of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s novella “Krambambuli,” showing at the Mozart-Kino downtown. Too often we Americans do not benefit at all from the internationalism our culture has unleashed.

On television (public, cable, or satellite) this week you can enjoy the following American fare: “Full House,” “Mad About You,” “Baywatch,” “Star Trek Voyager,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “ER,” “The Simpsons,” “Alf” (remember “Alf”?–the Germans have never forgotten him), “Seinfeld,” “The Cosby Show,” “Married with Children,” “The Rockford Files,” “Friends,” “Suddenly Susan,” and “Who’s the Boss?”, to say nothing of the Hollywood movies, dubbed into German, but often with the original English titles (“Free Willy,” “Born to Be Wild,” “Bad Girls,” “Destiny,” “Tank Girl,” “Tin Men,” “Extremities,” and “Bananas.”)

eine-schrecklich-nette-familie-staffel-11

But how many Americans are aware that after 24 years, the venerable police drama “Derrick” with its popular star Horst Tappert ran its last episode this past week? It’s too bad–although they’re importing “Homicide ” and “Law and Order,” Germans and Austrians have long been creating cop shows of the same caliber (I happen to like the genre). But who in the US has ever seen “Derrick,” or “Scene of the Crime,” or “Kottan on the Case,” or “Kommissar Rex,” or any of the other good shows that are filmed on the streets of Munich, Berlin, or Vienna?

“Derrick” is seen in Japan, the Netherlands, France, Israel, in 100 countries, but not in the United States. Is it stupidity or arrogance that makes US producers think that foreign fare won’t play? (Maybe that’s the same thing.) A TV special marking the end of this era is called “Goodbye, Derrick.” Not “Auf Wiedersehen, Derrick,” but a farewell in the language of Edgar Wallace and Hollywood. This is not just faddish; it shows a certain sensitivity to the cultural position of a German television police drama: we’ve borrowed from America, but made it our own.

derrick

There are many exceptions, but all in all Europeans are enriched by their knowledge of American culture. They learn English, and they’re globally oriented in a way that Americans simply are not, even though the means of global understanding through business, music, film, TV, and computers were largely developed in the US. Paradoxically, instead of using technology to bring the world to us, we use it to tell us our own stories to ourselves, over and over again.

You may protest that CNN and CSPAN bring the world to us, and indeed they are better than nothing. But while I can watch CNN here in Austria, I can also watch German news, Austrian news, and French news, and I could watch Italian news too if I could understand Italian.

While I can hear Madonna and the Beastie Boys, I can also hear Such a Surge and Rainhard Fendrich. While I can see “Der Soldat James Ryan,” I can also see “Solo fuer Klarinette” (Solo for Clarinet), a current German movie drawing much attention. American culture is available, even dominant, but not exclusive.

Granted, some broadcasters like RTL in Germany have succeeded in importing or imitating the worst of American TV. The “Talkshow” is now a fixture on German cable and satellite (still the only forms of purely commerical TV in Germany and Austria), and it is just as tasteless as at home. “The Wildest Police Chases in the World” is probably not the best ambassador of America. On the other hand, at least its viewers know that America exists, that it has big cars, wide roads, and desperately stupid drivers. They have seen it. What have Americans seen of Germany on television or in the movies? Not much.

So, even though a group of lexicographers in Germany called last week for contributions to translating English borrowings into “real” German, I am not concerned about Americanism ruining German and Austrian culture. Germanic tribes learned to make wine from the Romans, Caribbean islanders turned oil company junk into steel drums, South Africans claimed the electric guitar as their own, and British guys like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton turned Black American music into something that Black Americans like to listen to too: cultural clashes and exchanges have always been productive as well as destructive.

The Germans and Austrians, I trust, are smart enough to know which parts of American culture they want and which ones they have no use for. The “leveling” of culture is as much the triumph of the petit bourgeois (culturally dominant in the US) as it is an Americanization.

To throw out popular culture and its language because it is not German enough, or not “authentic” (whatever that might be), or not sophisticated, would not only be arrogant, it would be as foolish as if we threw out diplomacy and its language because it is French. Any attache worth her dossier seeks detente and rapprochement with as much finesse and elan as she can muster, without worrying about French cultural imperialism.

Besides, American culture is transformed when it is adopted. This dialectic is reflected in strange ways. David Hasselhoff is known in Germany not only as the star of “Baywatch,” but also as a singer. A singer? Something in the German taste (or lack of it–Germans invented kitsch, after all) can stomach this idea even if this American export never made it as a crooner in the US.

hqdefault.jpg

The live event of the year, with David Hasselhoff. 

The dialectic is also reflected in the language, in the form of words and phrases that are English but not English at the same time, that somehow convey international panache (that pesky French again), but are puzzling to native speakers. “Happy ending” has become “Happy End” in German. An emcee is a “Showmaster.” Clearly English, but clearly not a word we use. And the now-ubiquitous cell phone is known here as a “Handy.” An English word, but who in Cleveland or Liverpool would know what you’re talking about?

And so English, mostly American English, pours in more and more. Commercials revel in it. Business pages cannot get by without “Joint Ventures” and “Crossrates.” “Singles” and “Teenager” buy “Singles” and “CDs,” the “Chartbreakers” they hear on “Melody FM” during “Drivetime.” Sheryl Crow is as big as she is in the US, and so are “Boygroups” like the Backstreet Boys.

But where is the reverse flow? Every German fan of Hip-Hop knows who Busta Rhymes is, but how many Americans get to hear Moses P., a German purveyor of fine rap? Granted, the heavy-metal group “Rammstein” (a pun on the name of a NATO air base) has had German-language hits recently in the US, but this is the exception that proves the rule. The last spate of German music on US radio was over 15 years ago (Nena, Falco, Trio). This does not mean that German pop musicians stopped making music with German lyrics after 1983.

Maybe because so many cultures are within our borders, we don’t need to hear German rock or Italo-pop. Maybe because we do so well exporting our shows, we don’t have an economic need to import others’.

But the economic power of the Hollywood industry isn’t all that keeps foreigners out. There is a corresponding aesthetic, something about the products themselves that recycles our self-images and keeps us from seeing beyond them.

For Europeans and others around the world, American culture is a window, but for Americans it is a mirror. America send its images out to the world, and much of the world happily welcomes their casualness, their directness, their fun. Americans themselves, however, don’t follow those images across the planet. America sells but it doesn’t buy. It stays at home, busy at its transmitter, only it hasn’t turned on its receiver. America is everywhere and nowhere.

 

Advertisements

Letter from Salzburg, Sept. 11, 1998

NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This is the first one, from September, 1998. It reflects on changes since my last previous stay, in 1993-94.

 

Dear Colleagues at BGSU,

Greetings from Salzburg, Austria. I am here for the third time now to

direct our Academic Year Abroad program for juniors and first-year

master’s students. It is a great opportunity for them to improve their

German and learn to live in a foreign culture. The program celebrated

its 30th anniversary this year and is well set up to provide the

students with a challenging but organized international experience.

This year 26 students will participate. I thought it might be nice

occasionally to send reports and impressions back to BGSU.

 

Goodbye to the Schilling

What has changed since I last left in 1994? Quite a bit, actually. I

showed my passport to enter Austria between planes in Brussels,

because for the past half year Austria has been a member of the

Schengen group of European Union countries, who have dropped their

interior borders. Austria joined the EU in 1995 and will participate

in the currency union that begins in January 1999, so we will soon (by

2002) say goodbye to the Schilling coin with its Edelweiss blossoms,

and Sigmund Freud on the 50-Schilling bill.

 

In 1990, it was impossible to shop on Saturday afternoons. In 1994,

the first Saturday of each month was a “long Saturday” with shops open

until 5 pm. Now, many stores stay open every Saturday until 4 or 5.

The Saturday-morning ritual of rushing to get your shopping done for

two days (stores are closed on Sundays) is past. Yet the Saturday afternoon

feeling that you can and should do something besides

contribute to the economy is also gone. Sundays still have that

feeling, but I can only predict that the dominance of economics and

convenience will expand and even Austria will see shopping 24-7, as

the saying goes.

 

The consequences of Austria’s shift toward convenience are immediately

visible. In the Old Town, the heart of Salzburg and the reason why

tourists come from all over Europe, Japan, and the US, there are many

empty storefronts. Why? It’s easier for people to go to the big

shopping centers on the outskirts of town and park easily and for free

than to brave the narrow, often cobblestoned streets and search for

tiny parking spots or pay to park in one of the garages carved out of

the rocky hills among which the city is nestled.

 

Imitations of imitations

As business hours expand (evening hours are also more liberal than

before), only big stores with lots of of overhead and large staffs

will be able to compete, and even more of the mom-and-pop stores

(called “Tante Emma Shops” here) will go under. Genuine quaintness—

butchers, bakers, grocers, stationers, and cafes that real people use

along with the tourists—will give way to subsidized attempts at being

a “real” old town.

 

This kind of thing is already in evidence. Across from Mozart’s

birthplace—although a museum, it’s really the house he was born in–

there is something called “Mozartland.” It is full of spin-off

merchandise based on cartoonized characters of young Mozart and his

family that are shameless Disney ripoffs, in other words, imitations

of imitations. The real Cafe Mozart–a classy, classic old

coffeeshop–is out of business, replaced by Mozartland’s “Mozart

Cafe,” designed solely to draw tourists.

Mozart.birth.500pix

Mozart’s birthplace, Getreidegasse, Salzburg, 1998. Photo by Adrian Pingstone. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

 

“Community”: support and cooperation within a group that cannot afford to avoid each other.

On the other hand, the reason Austrians used to live crowded in

cities, ride buses instead of driving private cars, and use specialty

shops instead of supermarkets is because they couldn’t afford anything

else, and women stayed at home to do all that daily shopping.

“Community” can be defined as support and cooperation within a group

that cannot afford to avoid each other.

 

Now the Austrians, with country houses, nice cars, and shopping

centers, can afford to can the quaintness. The trick is to keep people

thinking that you’re authentic even as you abandon authenticity for

reality. Otherwise the tourist trade might dry up, too, and there goes

the affluence that allowed you to be modern.

 

The specialization of space 

It’s a dilemma that we don’t encounter as often in the US, because

long ago we made the choice for the horn of plenty. As a teenager I

experienced the death of my hometown downtown as the malls grew. The

specialization of space continues so that people live, shop, and work

in entirely separate worlds, and we are so eager to avoid each other

that we will use prime farm land (wrested by Anthony Wayne from the

Indians) for the purpose of putting space between us.

 

Occasionally there is a whimper from the other side of the question,

and we get an argument over whether to build a mall on the site of the

Battle of Fallen Timbers. I don’t think we should, but it will

certainly be a fitting tribute. Tecumseh (eventually) died so that we

can shop on Sundays.

 

Monuments and mementos

For the time being, though, when I come to Salzburg I still live where

people work and engage in commerce. I prefer to ride the bus, even

though we have a car, because all too often the convenience of

individual transportation means sitting through four lights just to

get through an intersection. On the bus at least you can hear the

people cursing at you.

 

I love the quality of food and drink whose main purposes are not to be

prepared as quickly as possible, to appeal to as many people as

possible, and to survive a 2000-mile ride in a semi truck. I also

enjoy being a tourist, having the old monuments and mementos all

around me, and I trust they’ll stay here as long as their ability to

attract foreign tourists exceeds their ability to frustrate native

shoppers.

 

Until next time,

Geoff Howes

(Written September 1998)

The Demon Returns

Is your main friend someone who’s an old acquaintance of ours?– Bob Dylan

I was diagnosed in 2002 with endogenous depression. In retrospect, I could recall many times over the previous twenty-five years when I had been in depressive episodes: Feeling no emotion at getting accepted to every graduate school I had applied for. Deciding that leaving my graduate program was the only solution to my inexplicable dissatisfaction. (If nothing is right, everything is wrong, so maybe changing everything will work?) Arriving in scenic Austria for the first time and not being able to take my nose out of the paperback thriller that gripped me and scared me—at least that was a glimmer of feeling. Getting invited to celebrate my birthday at a beer garden with my students and not being able to convince myself that they didn’t mean it ironically, that they weren’t taunting my obvious inability to enjoy myself by making me pretend I was. Walking across campus to teach a graduate class and suddenly realizing that I did not care one bit whether anybody learned anything, and feeling trapped because I was not insane enough just to give up.

Over that quarter century, I had enjoyed a lot of things, and accomplished a lot of things, including getting married to a wonderful woman and having a wonderful son. Getting a good job. Regular stays in Europe. Articles published, an editorship. The marvelous continual contact with youth and change that the university affords. But there were always those episodes that broke it up, completely illogical, out of all proportion to my actual misfortune (which was little) and my actual reasons for satisfaction (which were many).

Luckily, in 2002 we (my wife, my therapist, my doctor, and I) arrested the progress of the disease before it broke me. Fortunately, I responded immediately to the amitryptiline I was prescribed, and I found out that sleeping through the night was not an unattainable luxury. I could hear music better and see objects more clearly. I recall two symbolic moments in my recovery. The first was attending the meeting where my promotion to full professor was announced, and not feeling a trace of that old irony, that sense that if they only knew how little I deserve this! The second was walking into a gallery room at MOMA and suddenly seeing four large Gerhard Richter seascapes, each taking up a wall. I wept spontaneously. For joy.

16485Gerhard Richter, Seestück (Gegenlicht) / Seascape (Contre-jour) 1969

I had actually self-diagnosed long before this, but didn’t think I was in bad enough shape to seek professional treatment. This of course is part of the disease: if you think you’re not worth much, you’re certainly not worth using up other people’s time. I found a book in a Salzburg bookstore in 1990: Depression as Opportunity. The opportunity part didn’t impress me, but the symptoms listed all matched, except for suicidal thoughts and loss of appetite. I quit caffeine and started caffeine again. I numbed myself with doses of alcohol, not enough to depress me more, but enough to cut the anxiety. At some point I started to take St. John’s wort—and it worked for a while. Or maybe not—it might have been normal remission. I had anxiety-related conditions like shingles and prostatitis. Once I found a chart listing points for stressful life events and added mine up: I was a candidate for hospitalization. But I wasn’t in the hospital, which of course proved them wrong.

Then in the fall of 2001, everything seemed to be leaving me. Loss and fear of loss were the tenor of my life. The only time I felt the least bit whole was when playing music with others. And then that too seemed threatened by loss, and became the the worst source of pain instead of the only source of healing. One night I could not sleep and could not stop crying. (How hard that is to write!) My wife gave me specific instructions: make an appointment with a therapist we knew. Make an appointment with my doctor. I did. What a relief to have someone else—a professional—confirm what I had surmised, guessed, feared, and known at some level all those years. I was a diligent patient. In time I even asked to have my dosage upped by half. (In sixteen years, I can remember only one day I didn’t take my pills because I had forgotten them on an overnight trip.) I was lucky. I read Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and William Styron’s Darkness Visible and saw that my case was not so bad. I experienced recurrences, disthymia, flat affect, unfocused anxiety, but I always remembered what it was like not to be depressed, and I had learned it would pass.

So I was living my life for the most part with vigor and purpose. I started to put other aspects of my life in order, including my general health, although there are still loose ends even now. I enjoyed my job. I stayed productive, and really thought I was making a difference when I taught young people. I went six years with only minor and temporary depressive events. I thought I was in permanent recovery.

IMG_1793 (1)

But that spring of 2008, stresses were mounting. The general morale at the university was suffering under administrative changes. Three of us were trying to do the same work that seven people had done only a few years earlier. I had agreed to help a colleague out with a demanding project because the project was so worthwhile. It didn’t occur to me to say no.

And that should have been a signal to me that all was not right. I had no right to say no. My interests were insignificant compared to those of others who seemed to have a reason for what they were doing. There were other signals: snapping at a colleague for what I assumed was a criticism, which was nothing of the sort. Dwelling on perceived slights two or three or more years old. Creating an iTunes playlist titled “Melancholia.” Organizing an outreach program for 400 high-school students and feeling nothing when it was over: no satisfaction, no relief, nothing but a grudging wonder that anyone might have enjoyed the thing. Widespread plagiarism in a class made me doubt the entire efficacy and purpose of education as I wavered between feeling like the students had wanted to dupe me and that they were irreparably dumb. I thought obsessively about retirement: how soon could I get out of this?

I had already taken steps—deciding to increase my dosage, calling my therapist—and had already had one therapy session before I viewed my disparate symptoms together and realized: the noonday demon was back. One morning before a therapy session I picked up Peter Kramer’s Against Depression and thought I was reading about other people with depression when I came across that classic list of ten symptoms. I had five of them. And for much longer than the two weeks that puts you in the clinical range. I had been looking outside of me for the reasons I felt so bad, and there seemed to be enough of them. But suddenly I knew: this was different. This was inside of me. I was almost excited when I announced to my therapist that day that I had figured it out.

I know a lot about depression. I’ve had forty years of direct experience. I see it in others a lot, because I know and am related to afflicted people. I’ve read a lot about it. I accepted the fact that I had it and, with help, put myself on the road to recovery. And even though I had all the evidence in front of me, I still didn’t see that I was in a full-blown episode. I thought I had put that behind me.

With therapy and an increased dosage I quickly stabilized. Feeling better again, I realize how long—at least three months—I was so far gone that I had forgotten what feeling good is. Not euphoric, not always cheery, but with an even chance to make life work. I have a new-found respect for the demon, that old acquaintance of ours. And even more resolve not to let him back up out of the basement again.

(Revised version. Originally written in 2008.)

A Letter from Salzburg (November 1998)

Salzburg-3-V

Main Station, Salzburg, 1992. Photo credit: ÖBB    https://blog.oebb.at/oesterreichs-bahnhoefe-damals-heute/

NOTE: When I was directing Bowling Green State University’s study-abroad program in Salzburg, Austria, in 1998-99, I wrote a series of letters to the faculty list back at BGSU. I got wonderful responses, so I kept writing them! This is one from November, 1998. It is mostly a remembered monologue by a woman I met on the train.  (I have rendered her speech as colloquial, not to condescend, but to show its relative distance from the standard written language.)

 

Life in Postwar Austria: An Oral Report

[I’ll let my train-compartment acquaintance tell her own story, which

includes, explicitly and implicitly, some themes of Austrian life: the

past vs. the present, rural vs. urban life, regionalism, families,

class distinctions, the importance of one’s dwelling, the ambivalent

relationship to authority, and the distance between ideal and reality.

I suppose these are themes of American life, too, but here they are

with an Austrian twist–Geoff Howes]

 

The scene: The 7:30 a.m. train from Salzburg to Vienna. It is Oct. 26,

the Austrian National Holiday, which commemorates the signing of the

law establishing Austrian independence and neutrality in 1955, although many Austrians

think it’s because that’s the day the last Allied soldier left

Austria. Offices and stores are closed, but of course the trains are

running. I arrive early and find a window seat in an empty

compartment. I get out my book, hardly cracked, and look forward to

reading for three and a half hours.

 

It is not to be. A middle-aged woman sticks her head in and asks if

the seats are free. Of course. She sits down across from me and starts

to talk. She had been in another compartment, but there were

foreigners there, and she just doesn’t feel comfortable with them. (I

resist telling her the shocking news that I’m a foreigner too.) She’s

going to Steyr to the “Christmas the Whole Year Round” exhibit. Maybe

she’ll find something nice for her grandchildren. She has to change

trains in St. Valentin. These kids have treats all the time. Not like

when she was young. “Then it was a cake on your birthday, and some

fruit and nuts at Christmas, and a little bit of candy on St.

Nicholas’ Day, but otherwise, no treats. We didn’t even eat meat,

except sometimes on Sundays. Times were different then, I can tell

you. These kids have cake and candy every day.

 

“You’re from America? Well, I’m sure you had to work hard for what you

got, too. Even in America there aren’t roast pigeons flying into your

mouth. Nobody hands it to you on a silver platter. I grew up in the

country, and we had to work hard. I like to work. I worked for twenty

years for the state government, in the Michael Pacher Strasse. I was a

telephone operator. Nowadays they don’t need telephone operators, the

computers do it all. But the service ain’t as good, and I especially

liked being friendly to the people. I don’t know why I had to retire.

Now I don’t do nothing all day. I’d fill in for vacation time for free

if they’d let me. That’s how much I liked to work. I’d do it for free.

Now I just collect my pension check.

 

“I grew up in the country. My mother worked on the mayor’s farm. He

was the biggest businessman in the village and the mayor, too. A fine

man. That was a different class of person in those days, I’ll tell

you. Both my husband and I were love children. My mother was in love

with the mayor’s son, and they were all ready to get married after

they had my brother, but then the mayor didn’t allow it because he

couldn’t have his son marrying one of the help. Then I came along too,

but they never did get married. Same with my husband. We’re both love

children.

 

“No, I’m not from Salzburg. I grew up in Carinthia. We’re a mixed

family! My husband is Styrian, I’m Carinthian, and my children are

Salzburgers. My son and his wife, they’re the ones with the two

daughters, have a house in Hallein, on the Duerrenberg. It’s an old

house, but they’ve really fixed it up. Spent all kinds of time and

money on it. I told them for the same money they could have got a new

house but for some reason they wanted to fix up this old one. First

they got it restuccoed and then they put on a new roof. You should

probably do it the other way around. They put in new plumbing, a new

bathroom, all new tile work. It’s very nice. But it took them a long

time and a lot of money. They did some of it themselves, but for some

of the work they had contractors do it. It would have cost less if

they’d had the contractors do it on their own time, but if you do

that, then you can’t make a claim for bad workmanship, because they

weren’t working legitimate in the first place.

 

“I change trains in St. Valentin. That ain’t for a while yet. What do

you think of the Austrian landscape, coming from America? Beautiful,

ain’t it? But they keep building more and more. Pretty soon there

won’t be no landscape left. All those new buildings. I worked in the

building inspectors’ office for the state government, on the

switchboard. You wouldn’t believe some of the things that happened

then. They let buildings go up and then it turned out they weren’t up

to code, and they knew it the whole time. Some of them were corrupt,

but not my boss. He was good to us. They did bridges, too.

 

“Yeah, we handled all of the building in Salzburg in those days. It

was a busy time. They were always building something. At the Christmas

parties we got together with the commissioners and everybody. They

invited us switchboard girls too. We thought we would go in together

and get the building commissioner a cake. He ate the whole thing all

at once! We said, did you like the cake. He said yes. We looked for

it, but he had eaten it all.

 

“But they treated us real good. I enjoyed going to work every day. I

lived just around the corner, so of course I had to fill in when

somebody was sick or the weather was bad and they couldn’t get in. But

I didn’t mind. I’d work for them now if they’d let me. They treated me

real good. I liked to work, and I don’t know why I had to retire.

“Got something wrong with my hand, it swelled up this big last week.

Don’t really know what’s wrong with it. I was picking flowers with my

grandkids and maybe I got hold of some poisonous plant. It swelled up

real big. Maybe it’s a pinched nerve, though. The doctors couldn’t

tell me. I spent the whole week going from the emergency room to the

internal medicine ward to a specialist, and now the swelling’s down

some and it don’t hurt as much but I still don’t know what’s wrong. I

honestly think they made it worse. This inflammation wasn’t here until

after the doctor felt my hand. They gave me something to rub on it. I

have to go back tomorrow.

 

“This is Wels. I don’t change until St. Valentin. I think that might

be the next stop. I’m going to Steyr. Maybe I can find something nice

for the grandchildren. Lots of people getting on here. Gruess Gott!

Yes, these seats are free. Please sit down. I’m staying on until St.

Valentin. I’m going to ‘Christmas the Whole Year Round.’ Have you been

there yet? They’re supposed to have some nice stuff. I hope they’re

open on the holiday. Maybe I can find something real nice for the

grandchildren . . .”

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.

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.

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.