Camping with Devin – 27 Years Later

Devin was a Boy Scout when he was little. The picture below was taken of the two of us the morning after camping with his troupe at a Boy Scouts camp in Balboa Park in San Diego. I don’t have any exact record of the date, but I am guessing it was 1995 or 1996. Devin was seven or eight years old then.

Today we went back to re-enact the photo. I still have the same jacket, and the same chairs we used then. We got permission by the San Diego – Imperial Council of the Boy Scouts, found camp site #1, and sure enough, the fire pit was still there. We tried to match the same pose, even though this one was in late afternoon light, the old one was early in the morning.

Devin is now an experienced outdoorsman and athlete, and works for the California Conservation Corp. And I try to keep up, climbing and hiking as much as I can. It all started with the Boy Scouts.

It meant a lot to me to go back to the same spot, with Devin now three times the size he was then, and sit in the same chairs.

Too bad we didn’t bring any coffee.

A Tribute to 22 E. Summit

On August 22, 1974, I was a bright-eyed 18-year-old AFS foreign exchange student, when I arrived in Lakewood, New York. The Saxton family took me in for a year and made me one of theirs within the first few hours of my arrival. When we pulled up to the house at 22 E. Summit, they had hoisted two flags, the German one next to the American one. I took this picture within a few hours of arriving there on that hot August evening, the first day of a drastically changed life.

I gave the camera to my host sister Val who then took this picture of me by the flag. Check out my crazy cut-off shorts! The kids never let me hear the end of it, and those shorts went into the trash quickly never to be worn again.

Here is a view from the side of the house, looking toward the street. The house that was to be my home for the next year was so drastically different from the house in Germany that I had just left. The entire architecture in America is very different from that in Germany.

Many months later I went outside and took another picture of the place in winter, with the icicles pointing down from the roof.

Here I am in the hallway toward the end of the year, a proud high school graduate. By then, 22 E. Summit had become as much my home as any place in my life. I still remember the countless hours lying on my back on the thick, plush carpet, next to the stereo, listening the Elton John records using the headphones: “Ticking, Ticking, don’t ever ride on the devil’s knee, Momma said.”

Five years later, in the summer of 1979, I brought my German parents to the U.S. and we drove across the country from Arizona to New York. While we were there, my stepfather and I painted the house. Here we are, he on the left, myself on the right, working away in the hot summer morning.

The Saxtons sold the house within a couple of years after that and moved on with their lives, and so did I.

Now let’s turn the clock forward 40 years to last Sunday, Father’s Day 2019. My sister Val and I drove by the old place. It is now long abandoned and tagged by the authorities. There is a red warning sign on the wall. The place is infested with mold, bed bugs and anything else you can imagine after being left to the elements for years. I assume it will eventually be torn down. There are no other options left.

The yard is overgrown and the house is literally crumbling.

Here I am in front of the steps where I stood in my cutoff with fringes 45 years ago as a boy.

Looking in I see that the place is completely gutted. I can see the spot where I stood when I had my graduation picture taken. I see where the couch used to be where I watched Gilligan’s Island after school every afternoon, where I learned listening to rapidly spoken English in the first couple of months. The old house is full of memories.

No visit to the old house would be complete without a parting selfie. Here we are, Val and I, after a lifetime of memories and a friendship that started in these very rooms so long ago.

Good bye, 22 E. Summit.

The Ageless Sounds of Silence

When I was a 12-year-old schoolboy, my German professor (W.I.) once ruminated about the longevity of various types of music. He was a lover of the classics, we all knew, and his point was that the classic composers like Beethoven and Mozart created works that lasted centuries – probably millennia. Pop music on the radio, according to him, would last months in comparison, perhaps a few years.

Well, time has shown that it’s not quite true. Fifty years have gone by, and when I listen to the rendition of Sounds of Silence in the video below I get goosebumps. I am transported back to my youth instantly, and the feelings, the passions and the memories flood back, and I drift in timeless reveries. The Ageless Sounds of Silence will live on at least as long as those of us who listened to it when we were young are still here to testify.

Go on, have some goosebumps!

Coincidences around Gigs and Christian Morgenstern

In the last few weeks, a set of amazing coincidences came together around me that had me marveling enough to write a post about it. It all starts in 1973, when I was a 16-year-old high school student in Germany. I was in my room and somebody took a photograph of me – probably one of my siblings. In those days, we made photographs into slides. Slides are endemically difficult to thumb through and browse in an album, so they are often forgotten. I had no idea that this picture of me even existed. I have no recollection of it being taken. It was taken in my teenage-decorated room, where I had plastered the walls with my own artwork and knick-knacks.

Norbert at Age 17

I didn’t have this slide. One of my sisters, when moving house a few months ago in Germany, found it in one of her picture boxes. She, too, did not know how she came to have it, but she thought I’d like it and put it in an envelope and mailed it to me.

It was difficult to see what was on it. Trisha had it developed for me and “cleaned up.” Slides almost 45 years old have spots and marks. One day a few weeks ago she brought it home to me enlarged in print and framed. It was a surprise. Now I could finally look at it.

At this point is must digress for a minute for a backstory. I have written about getting rid of much of my old collection of hardcover books, as I outlined in this post of last winter. I have proceeded with that project, and many of my non-descript books, old paperbacks, outdated non-fiction books, and the like, are now gone. However, I have saved some of the treasures I have – and will always have, and some of those are resting, seemingly forever and untouched, on the shelves around me.

There is an old book of humorous poetry by the German poet Christian Morgenstern, born May 6, 1871 in Munich, and died in 1914 at age 42. The book’s title is Alle Galgenlieder (All Gallows Songs). Morgenstern is a little like a German Shel Silverstein, writing hilarious poems that make fun of human nature and ordinary situations.


You can see the little blue softcover book Alle Galgenlieder on the left side of this little section of my shelf, not four feet behind my head. The book has been sitting there for the last few years, pretty much untouched and unmoved. It’s in revered company, as you can see, with Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, The Prophet, War and Peace, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

So where is the coincidence, you ask?

Well, there are very few books that I had in my youth and my childhood that I still have today. I never gave Galgenlieder much thought in the last 40 years, other than thinking of it as an ancient classic, and keeping it around.

Then I looked at the photograph made of the slide, and it hit me:


Here it is, on the shelf next to me, in a photograph I didn’t know even existed. Don’t ask me how I even made that connection. I just looked at the picture, the knick-knacks I had forgotten, and I noticed the book. I turned around in my chair, and here it was.


And that, I thought, was pretty cool.

But the story does not end here. Today, I came across a Reddit post about the prefix Hella.


You know, in the series of Mega, Giga, Tera, and so on, Hella is for one octillion.  So I clicked on the link and came to this Wikipedia article, where the origins of some of the other prefixes are discussed. I scrolled around and got to the now ubiquitous Giga.

In the age of the iPhone and iPad, every grandmother knows what a Gig is – or at least acts like she does. Then I read about the origin of the prefix Giga, and was thunderstruck:

The prefix giga is usually pronounced /ˈɡɪɡə/ but sometimes /ˈɪɡə/. According to the American writer Kevin Self, in the 1920s a German committee member of the International Electrotechnical Commission proposed giga as a prefix for 109, drawing on a verse (evidently “Anto-logie”) by the humorous poet Christian Morgenstern that appeared in the third (1908) edition of Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs).[6][7]

This suggests a hard German g was originally intended as the pronunciation. Self was unable to ascertain when the /dʒ/ (soft g) pronunciation was accepted, but as of 1995 current practice had returned to /ɡ/ (hard g).[8] [9]

So this claimed that Morgenstern first used the word Gig or Giga. Could that be true?

So I turned around, reached for my trusty Galgenlieder behind me, checked the index for Anto-Logie, and promptly found it on page 76:


Sure enough. Here it is.

A friend (KJ) emailed me an excellent translation by Max Knight:


Of yore, on earth was dominant

the biggest mammal: the Gig-ant.

(“Gig” is a numeral so vast,

it’s been extinct for ages past.)

But off, like smoke, that vastness flew.

Time did abound, and numbers too,

until one day a tiny thing,

the Tweleph-ant, was chosen king.

Where is he now? Where is his throne?

In the museum pales his bone.

True, Mother Nature gave with grace

the Eleph-ant us in his place,

but, woe, that shooting anthropoid

called “Man”, in quest for tusks destroyed

him ere he could degenerate,

by stages, to an Ten-ant’s state.



And there it is, the story of coincidences:

Through this unlikely coincidence I learned the origin of Giga

From an old 19th century book by a German poet

That I didn’t realize I had near me

That I was reminded about by a slide over 40 years old

That my sister found when moving

In which I recognized a book

That I didn’t know I still had.



I am Throwing out my Books

Books in BoxesAll my life I have been a bibliophile. When I was a teenager, leaving home, I had several boxes of books that I hauled with me and kept in boxes, because where I lived there was not enough shelf room to put them all. As I got older and had a family, I would from time to time purge some of the older books in yard sales. But mostly I added my new books to boxes in the garage. One day I’d have a house with a “library” where I could display my books. So I kept them.

In the last five years I have resorted to buying only Kindle books. Even when I wanted to re-read an old book I knew I have somewhere in the boxes, I have re-bought the book in the Kindle format. I didn’t feel like rummaging through boxes to find it, and I prefer the consistent font, size and form factor that all my books now have. I don’t like holding hardcopy books anymore.

That was the moment of revelation for me. I have these heavy objects in boxes that I no longer have any use for. Even if I had a house large enough for a library, I no longer see the point of displaying decades-old relics. A few years ago I decided to sell them. I created an Amazon seller account and listed about 50 books, and a few of them actually sold. I found, however, that after I purchased padded envelopes and labels, and I paid for the shipping with the U.S. Postal Service, and Amazon took its cut, I didn’t make any money. And for those books where there are already a dozen other listings for $0.01, plus $3.99 for shipping, it actually cost me money to “sell” those books, because the Amazon cut and the shipping didn’t leave enough room for the packing materials. That was not even counting my time to take and fulfill the order, package the book, and take it to the post office (to get the lowest rate).

There are some companies that buy used books in bulk. One of them even has a mobile app that allows you to scan the ISBN number and gives you an immediate offer. I downloaded the app and scanned a random ten books on my self and found that they didn’t even want to buy a single one of them.

I also found that nobody wants donated books when I googled the subject. Libraries, used book stores, even Goodwill, routinely throw books into recycle bins because they have no place to put them. Here is a blog post with many comments attesting to that reality. Nobody wants my old books, even though every one of them had enough meaning and value for me at one time in my life to pay out retail dollars to buy them.

I will keep the coffee table books, art books I enjoy, and reference works that have some value, and make sure I get the volume down to no more than two boxes. The rest will go into the paper recycle bin every week, until they are gone.

Good-bye, old life-long friends, good-bye!


10 Smells That Make Me Happy

I just read William Lloyd’s post about 10 smells that make him happy. Mine are different. It inspired me to think about mine.

1. Fresh Coffee –  whether walking down the cobblestone streets in Europe and getting a waft out of a café, or just the brew in our own kitchen.

2. Devin Aftershave by Aramis – when I was young, a street vendor put a little of this aftershave on my wrist while I was out shopping. I kept smelling it for an hour and then I actually went back and found the vendor again and I bought a bottle. For the next 20 years, until I could no longer get it, I kept buying aftershave of this fragrance. I have one half bottle left which I don’t use anymore, because I don’t want to run out of it. I need it around for an occasional whiff.

3. New Car Smell – I have never met anyone that does not like new car smell. Although it’s not so poignant for me, since I get a lot of rental cars, which often are still new enough to smell.

4. Orange Blossoms – I used to live in Arizona in my younger years and I started loving them then. Orange blossoms always make me happy.

5. Campfire – childhood memories.

6. Fresh Cut Grass – it seems almost everyone loves the smell of fresh cut grass. Why is that?

7. Fresh Lumber – I used to build houses. Framing was my favorite task. I love the smell of a newly framed house.

8. Onions and Bell Peppers – sautéing in the pan. Breakfasts with family. Bliss.

9. Oil Paint Fresh on the Canvas – the feeling of accomplishment. Something was just created and now it’s curing. The artist is happy.

10. The Stink of a Dead Animal – now I have to explain: I have a lot of very early memories of spending time at the country house of my grandparents. They had a huge yard (or so I remember) and there was always somewhere in the back some cadaver that the cats left to rot and smell. Now that smell is very rare in my life, but when I get a whiff of it on a hike somewhere, I get instantly transported back to my early childhood at my grandfather’s house. Happy times.

Memory Lanes and the Digital Age

Memory Lane
Memory Lane

Everyone has memorable or favorite songs. When we hear them, we are instantly transported back to a time in our lives, sometimes to a specific period in our lives, like the senior year of high school, or even a specific day, like that first night with that special girl by the camp fire.

I noticed that when I hear such a song, I instantly mind-travel back to that period, or season, or day, when I first heard the song, or when it was popular on the radio. Some of the associations are so vivid, I can smell the air, I can see where I drove when I heard the song, sometimes as long as 40 years ago.

So I did something that I could not have done only ten years ago: I made a list of 50 songs that had special meaning to me. Predictably, many of those were songs that were popular in my youth and younger years when I tended to be more into music. To refresh my memory, I sampled collections of hit songs in some of the target years, and favorites jumped out at me that I had forgotten about.

Then I went on iTunes and bought the collection one song at a time (unless I already had it on CD somewhere). There are no artists with two songs on the list. I just picked the top 50. I called the playlist “Nostalgia.” When I play that list, in random order, I can literally mind-travel, jump around over the years and decades, and imagery of long past events flash bright in front of me, feelings and moods come to life, and the people of those days are suddenly around again – copies of their former selves, of course.

My mind always ponders mathematical implications. I realize that my list is unique in the universe. If a million other people all picked their own top 50 favorite songs and called the list “Nostalgia,” every list would be different. I’d venture to say that if I asked any random person about their list, I might not find a single one of my songs on their list. Yet, every one of us would have those unique, personal experiences when mind-traveling down memory lane.

Why can music do this to us? How is the melodic word, propped up by rhyme and rhythm, able to create such powerful associations in our heads to recreate the smells, the feelings, the places we lived when we were first imprinted with these songs?

Modern human evolution covers only a very short time span, perhaps 200,000 years, perhaps much less. Until very recently, like only a few centuries ago, knowledge and experience had to be transmitted from one person to another, from one generation to the next, by spoken and most likely sung words. Music and poetry may well have evolved to be so important in our experience now because it helped package knowledge and experience by creating associations. It’s easier to remember a poem that rhymes and is associated with a melody than it is to remember just spoken words. Those of our ancestors that were able to make those powerful associations and benefited by surviving and passing on those skills were the ones whose tribes survived through the ages. That’s probably also why we have songs that get stuck in our heads. We call them earworms.

Our brains are not good at remembering strings of numbers or words. But they are excellent at recognizing patterns, like seeing faces in tree bark or angels in clouds or animals in the stars of the night sky. When smells, images, feelings about people and places, come together with sounds, rhymes and rhythms – in short music – then magic is created.

That magic can now fuel the trips down our memory lanes unlike any generation before us could – because we have playlists to arrange them, iTunes to buy the songs from, and YouTube to trigger our memories about periods or things we have forgotten. The Nostalgia playlist is like the shoebox of photographs in the attic on steroids.

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein – by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein

For years I have been worried about losing my memory. I used to be able to recall the phone numbers of all my friends. Dates and events seemed to be forever ingrained in memory. Now, I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. But worse, recently I could not remember the name of the Vice President of the United States (Joe Biden). I could picture his face clearly. I just could not recall the name. Also, I could not think of the name of the large lake by Reno, between Nevada and California (Lake Tahoe). I had to look up the name of the model of the full-sized Nissan car (Altima).

Moonwalking with Einstein is about memory. It digs deep into our ancestral history and explains how memory works, why we seem to be able to memorize some things forever, and others elude us completely.

Foer was a young journalist covering the elusive mental sport of memorizers. These are people who can memorize a deck of cards in less than two minutes, and then recall it backwards or forwards without error. They can memorize long strings of random digits, like about 20,000 digits of Pi. When Foer got to know these “mental athletes” he became interested in their mental gymnastics and he learned the various mnemonic tricks and techniques they used to perform these feats. He came to the conclusion that anyone could learn how to do that, so he embarked on a journey to become a mental athlete himself.

Coached by the young British mental athlete Ed Cooke, he quickly learned the tricks and within a year, entered the U.S. National Championship – and promptly won.

If you want to learn how memory works, and how such incredible feats are performed, Moonwalking with Einstein is a perfect book for that.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting insight into the obscure world of the sport memorizers, learning of the personal interactions of Foer with famous savants. He met and interviewed Kim Peeks, who was the real-life model for the Rainman character in the Dustin Hoffman movie. He also met and worked with Daniel Tammet, whose books I have also enjoyed. He suspects that Tammet is not actually a savant, which is what he poses as, but an exceptionally effective mnemonic athlete; but this is the subject for another post entirely.

The mnemonic adventures of Foer have inspired me to dust off my own mnemonic skills. I picked out an old poem I memorized in German class when I was 14. I still remember a lot of it and I have committed to refresh this poem so I can recite it perfectly. Now, for memorizing a deck of cards in two minutes….

Rating: ***

German Poem: Die Vergeltung – by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff

The German poet and writer Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born in 1797. Her poem Die Vergeltung (the retaliation) is about a shipwreck during a storm. A passenger survives and floats in debris, knowing that he will eventually sink and die. When he finds a sick man clinging to a strong log, he dislodges and drowns the sick man to save himself. Eventually he is rescued and his journey turns into another unexpected direction…

I cannot translate this poem into English, just as I could not translate Shakespeare into German. Some things need to remain what they are.

When I was 14 years old, in German class, we had a teacher who occasionally made us memorize poems. We hated him for that. We thought he did it because he was able to keep us busy without having to do any preparation work himself. While that might have been right, I am amazed that over 40 years later I still remember a number of the poems I had memorized in his class, the longest of which is Die Vergeltung, and I am grateful for having done it.

Granted, there were sections that were no longer on the surface now. My endeavors with memory, after reading Moonwalking with Einstein, have motivated me to spend a couple of hours dusting off Die Vergeltung so I’d have it on instant recall for the rest of my life.

My teacher may no longer be alive, but if he knew that I still know his assigned poems today, I think we would be happy.

For those of you who can read German, enjoy:

Die Vergeltung – Annette von Droste Hülshoff

Der Kapitän steht an der Spiere,
das Fernrohr in gebräunter Hand,
dem schwarzgelockten Passagiere
hat er den Rücken zugewandt.
Nach einem Wolkenstreif in Sinnen
die beiden wie zwei Pfeiler sehn,
der Fremde spricht : “Was braut da drinnen!”-
“Der Teufel”, brummt der Kapitän.

Da hebt von morschen Balkens Trümmer
ein Kranker seine feuchte Stirn,
des Äthers Blau, der See Geflimmer,
ach, alles quält sein fiebernd Hirn!
Er läßt die Blicke, schwer und düster,
entlängs dem harten Pfühle gehn,
die eingegrabnen Worte liest er:
“Batavia. Fünfhundertzehn.”

Die Wolke steigt, zur Mittagsstunde
das Schiff ächzt auf der Wellen Höhn.
Gezisch, Geheul aus wüstem Grunde,
die Bohlen weichen mit Gestöhn.
“Jesus, Marie! wir sind verloren!”
Vom Mast geschleudert der Matros’,
ein dumpfer Krach in aller Ohren,
und langsam löst der Bau sich los.

Noch liegt der Kranke am Verdecke,
um seinen Balken fest geklemmt,
da kommt die Flut, und eine Strecke
wird er ins wüste Meer geschwemmt.
Was nicht gelang der Kräfte Sporne,
das leistet ihm der starre Krampf,
und wie ein Narwal mit dem Horne
schießt fort er durch der Wellen Dampf.

Wie lange so! – er weiß es nimmer,
dann trifft ein Strahl des Auges Ball,
und langsam schwimmt er mit der Trümmer
auf ödem glitzerndem Kristall.
Das Schiff! – die Mannschaft! – sie versanken.
Doch nein, dort auf der Wasserbahn,
dort sieht den Passagier er schwanken
in einer Kiste morschem Kahn.

Armsel’ge Lade! sie wird sinken,
er strengt die heisre Stimme an:
“Nur grade! Freund, du drückst zur Linken!”
Und immer näher schwankts heran,
und immer näher treibt die Trümmer,
wie ein verwehtes Möwennest;
“Courage!” ruft der kranke Schwimmer,
“mich dünkt, ich sehe Land im West!”

Nun rühren sich der Fähren Ende,
er sieht des fremden Auges Blitz,
da plötzlich fühlt er starke Hände,
fühlt wütend sich gezerrt vom Sitz.
“Barmherzigkeit! ich kann nicht kämpfen.”
Er klammert dort, er klemmt sich hier;
ein heisrer Schrei, den Wellen dämpfen,
am Balken schwimmt der Passagier.

Dann hat er kräftig sich geschwungen
und schaukelt durch das öde Blau,
er sieht das Land wie Dämmerungen
enttauchen und zergehn in Grau.
Noch lange ist er so geschwommen,
umflattert von der Möwe Schrei,
dann hat ein Schiff ihn aufgenommen,
Viktoria! nun ist er frei!

Drei kurze Monde sind verronnen,
und die Fregatte liegt am Strand,
wo mittags sich die Robben sonnen,
und Bursche klettern übern Rand,
den Mädchen ists ein Abenteuer,
es zu erschaun vom fernen Riff,
denn noch zerstört, ist nicht geheuer
das greuliche Korsarenschiff.

Und vor der Stadt, da ist ein Waten,
ein Wühlen durch das Kiesgeschrill,
da die verrufenen Piraten
ein jeder sterben sehen will.
Aus Strandgebälken, morsch, zertrümmert,
hat man den Galgen, dicht am Meer,
in wüster Eile aufgezimmert.
Dort dräut er von der Düne her!

Welch ein Getümmel an den Schranken! –
“Da kommt der Frei – der Hessel jetzt –
da bringen sie den schwarzen Franken,
der hat geleugnet bis zuletzt.” –
“Schiffbrüchig sei er hergeschwommen,”
höhnt eine Alte, “ei, wie kühn!
Doch keiner sprach zu seinem Frommen,
die ganze Bande gegen ihn.”

Der Passagier, am Galgen stehend,
hohläugig, mit zerbrochnem Mut,
zu jedem Räuber flüstert flehend:
“Was tat dir mein unschuldig Blut?
Barmherzigkeit! – so muß ich sterben
durch des Gesindels Lügenwort,
o, mag die Seele euch verderben!”
Da zieht ihn schon der Scherge fort.

Er sieht die Menge wogend spalten –
er hört das Summen im Gewühl –
nun weiß er, daß des Himmels Walten
nur seiner Pfaffen Gaukelspiel!
Und als er in des Hohnes Stolze
will starren nach den Ätherhöhn,
da liest er an des Galgens Holze:
“Batavia. Fünfhundertzehn”