Wednesday, April 30, 2008

the weary anti-intellectual

I'm preparing to teach my second photography course at a local university, and I've decided to make my students read "In Plato's Cave," the lead essay in Susan Sontag's On Photography. Not that I read it when I was learning how to take pictures: I learned by going to the public library in Austin, texas, and poring over monographs by everyone from Danny Lyon, Harry Callahan and Diane Arbus to Eugene Atget and Edward Sheriff Curtis. I learned by looking at great photographs. And by taking lots of pictures myself.

But after teaching my first photo course, I understand that college students who don't have photography in their blood may not learn much by simply looking at photos and listening to me talk about them. So, the Sontag. (I'm also considering making them suffer through John Berger's interpolation of Walter Benjamin, chapters from Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography, and something called Digital Photography: The Missing Manual.) But as I go back to read her for the first time in a while, I get excited then annoyed. Excited to read someone who can examine something as everyday as photography and then overturn some of our everyday assumptions about it. And annoyed because after awhile--in fact, just after she refers to August Sander's amazing early 20th century portraits of German people as nihilistic and abstract--I lose Sontag completely. I just don't understand this sort of critical language. (Which was one of the fundamental ironies of my life as a pop music critic.) And I start to suspect that it's all smoke and mirrors. Actually, I'm sure that some of it is just art theory fancy-walking, and some of it is actually good thinking. But I can't discern the line between the two.

Is everyone always at least partly mystified by theory like On Photography? I don't think so. Some humans seem to understand it. (Like my wife.) I think my excitement and irritation betrays a certain crankiness in me, as well as a deep-seated ambivalence towards the academy, and perhaps even a burning suspicion or two about the nature of intelligence itself, people!

Here's what I'm talking about:

Sontag: "To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker and go out; but with still photographs, the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store."

This makes sense. This is true of me. I have taken pictures of Nepal, punk rockers, Mexico City, clouds out the airplane window, and my wife and my daughters to collect my experience. Whatever happens to me next, I know that in those phases and places, "I got it." I captured something of the ever-disappearing stuff of life. Not The Truth, but one of them.

But here's Sontag again: "Ultimately having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of nineteenth century aesthetes, Mallarme, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph."

Is this true, or is it showboating? Is it live or is it Memorex?

One of my first lessons was that you can't photograph everything. You can't document your every profound or throwaway moment. This is true of blogging as well--some things get away from you. If I tried to commemorate all of my life, I wouldn't have time to live it.

I know, I know, Susan Sontag didn't mean this literally. She was writing rhetorically. But that's my problem with some criticism--it plays with ideas until they become half-baked notions. Cleverisms. Love and bitterness do not exist to end in a photograph.

Of course, some folks will tell you love is just a construct, invented in the nineteenth century.

Yeah, right.

question of the week

Here is a strange place.

Yesterday as I was walking down to the Strassenbahn stop, I saw one come around the corner, and started to run for it. Then realized I didn't want to run for it.

I saw a woman, mid-thirties, dressed for work, in heels, barreling up the street as fast as she could, to catch another train. This has always struck me as funny. Vienna has an excellent public transportation system. Miss a train, there'll be another one in three minutes. Yet you see otherwise dignified citizens sprinting, galloping and hooking-ass down the street or stairs to catch the 8:13 38a or the U4 or the U6. Never saw that in New York City (where, if you miss a train, you might be waiting for awhile.)

Why is shaving three minutes off our commute so important to us?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Vienna Past/Perfect #2

The Karlsplatz u-bahn station must have been some kinda Jetsons glamour scene back in 1950, when these black and white photos were taken. Maybe the future seemed very sleek and fantastic for people who walked through it then. Today the undulating lines are the same, but the lingering passers-by have been replaced by permanent surveillance cameras, the champagne and cheese shops by tourist souvenir shops, and the bustling cafes by fast-food bakeries. Perhaps the world really is trending towards control and alienation. (And self-medication--though you wouldn't know it from these fotos, the Karlsplatz station is also the home of the most pathetic rummies and tweakers in the city.....)

Friday, April 25, 2008

my cool family top ten, Week of April 21

1) The way V. woke up this morning, held out her arms for a hug, and laid her head on my chest. Then bolted upright, looked at me very seriously and said, "Quargrum korum, quarum," as is she was telling me, "Actually, there is a difference--an important one--between lo-fat and no fat."

2) The way my wife evaporates problems, bitch-slaps challenges and re-edits her Power Point presentation in twenty minutes, with both kids screaming, while wearing those giant sunglasses and looking hot.

3) The way that Adinah beats me so efficiently and constantly at Uno, Mensch Argert Mich Dich (sort of the German Parcheesi) and Homer Simpson Memory, and then dances around the room yelping "I am the Champions, I am the Champions."

4) The way V. rolls into a room with absolute authority, even though she still falls down a lot.

5) The way Adinah looked from the back as she wobbled away from me, really riding a bike for the first time.

6) The fact that no matter how crazy busy and stressed out she may be, Anette puts it aside so we can all be together on Sunday.

7) The way V. sits in her hi-chair with pieces of rice in her hair and throws her head back and laughs, as if the only way to laugh is to laugh with your entire body.

8) The scientific experiments Adinah is conducting in the swing we've hung from our living room ceiling. (The latest project: can she write her name and play air cello while spinning around counter-clockwise and swinging back and forth?)

9) The way that Anette gets so excited whenever she goes to Caritas to buy used furniture or shoes for V.

10) The way that Adinah refers to whichever kid she played with today as her Best Friend.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

the wall

My reading is blurring with my real life, again. After seeing--what, four?--movies based on his books, I'm finally reading Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. I thought about his hard-ass working-class Boston characters today when I got to the playground with Adinah and V.

Deanie has taken to a new boy at kindergarten. His name is Manuel, and I've never really noticed him before, though as I watched them play together today, I could see that he's a sweet kid. But I kept my distance from Manuel's parents. I have noticed his father: a beefy, unsmiling guy who's always in a white baseball cap and white jacket with Formula 1 patches. Whenever I see him there, he looks uncomfortable and eager to get the hell out of the kindergarten. I've only become aware of Manuel's mom lately, probably because she's smiled at me once or twice. She looks washed-out, and too old for her age. All in all, somehow, they look like a family who don't have as much money as we do.

Which is weird, because aside from the fact that we're buying our apartment, Anette and I aren't exactly bathing in milk and honey these days. But there it is--they look different from us, so I presume they won't speak English, so I don't cross the playground to say hi, even as our kids tear up a significant chunk of the sandbox together. A "real,"or more precisely put, an easy conversation with them seems as impossible as one with the hard-knock-life housewives and ex-cons in my book. I feel a difference between me and them.

But not Adinah. She plays with the kids she likes. She isn't reading class yet. She plays with the Croatian kids of hairdressers and the Vienna-born kids of novelists. She doesn't feel the wall between her and the kids who live in the Gemeindebau super blocs. I envy her. I hate these lines that separate us. But of course I honor them too.

And I know that unless I make some effort to talk to/deal with/break through to people who are different from us, Adinah will be acting like me soon enough.

That's more than a little fucked up.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Gentrification, Vienna Style

A notable corner in our neighborhood, circa 1890 and again this afternoon. I only figured out where the archival photo was taken (and mistakenly labeled) because of the unicorn cornice at the extreme left of the picture.

Friday, April 18, 2008


What if Adinah throws another temper tantrum tonight, and I lose my temper again, and I hurt her with my words, or even my hands? What if, no matter how hard I try, all my patience boils away, and I see red, all because she doesn't want to brush her teeth or put away her Legos? What if I become Bad Father of the Week? And what if, then, it rains tapioca pudding?

Or, what if Adinah throws another hissy-fit tonight, and I ignore it, and she thinks, 'I've won,' and then she starts to think she is the Boss of me? Will we ever have peace in our house again? What if Anette and I become mere shuffling trolls, the pale, moon-tanned and warty slaves of our masters, our children? What if, Spock? What... If ?

What if neither of us does anything tonight, but Adinah stops liking me anyway? What if she doesn't love me forever, like the daughters do their papas in all the best books? What if she grows up and becomes a Republican? What if she discovers Black Sabbath, but only likes all the records they made after Ozzie left? Jeezus Fucking Christ, that would be a nightmare!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Nut Village of the Damned

Here on Nussdorferstrasse, a name which translates loosely as Street in the Little Town of Unrepentant Screwballs, I have had occasion to think of that old sci-fi movie about the little town in England which gets taken over by a gaggle of monstrous Aryan children. These little blond darlins' are so well-behaved, so perfect...until they use their awesome psychic powers to make Papa drink a Drano smoothie! Ha ha!

Replace the blond, blue-eyed munchkins with an Ethiopian princess and a fuzzy-wuzzy, Rock'em Sock'em Robot, and you will have a good idea of my life lately. Or at least last night.

V. was sweet and adorable until she winged her bottle across the dinner table, grabbed our sharpest knife, screamed at the top of her tiny lungs for the fifth time, and smacked Anette in the face for the sixth.

Adinah was (and is) less explosive, but somehow harder to handle. She's whiny and temperamental, sometimes nasty, increasingly picky about what she'll eat (basically only the white Trinity: pasta, potatoes and rice), and somehow often dissatisfied. In other words, she's a five-year-old. Only I worry that there's something else...bugging her. She gets bellyaches, and she's had diarrhea off and on again for two weeks. She's probably not sleeping enough.

Last night, after exhausting my last gay nerve, she walked into the living room, and flipped on the tv. I turned around and told her to turn it off. She did, then she threw the remote on the floor. And smiled very sweetly at me. Just like her sixteen-month-old sister would do (see That Horrible Synchronicity Thing).

I, erm, lost it. Barked "That's it," picked the kid up and hauled her into the bathroom, fully intending to brush her teeth, stuff her into her pajamas and march her summarily into bed. Instead I grabbed a towel and started (vigorously) drying off her hair, which was still wet from her bath, and she started howling like I've never heard her.

Luckily, Anette intervened, although I don't know what I would have done next--possibly made her watch all two hours, plus Special Features, of that goddamn Barbie DVD she got from the library. Cooler heads prevailed, and Adinah was in bed twenty minutes later, with her pride, unlike my dignity, unscathed.


After I wrote some of the above, I spoke to Anette again today, and she mentioned some study she'd seen that found that kids that get a new sibling often regress back to infantile shenanigans. But even before she said it, I thought, 'Maybe Adinah just wants to do some of the demonic sorta stuff lil' V. does.' I couldn't blame her for wanting to be a baby again sometimes. God knows V. is always trying to do the five-year-old stuff she sees Adinah doing.

The challenge for me will be to try to treat them both with some bit of understanding and equanimity. And of course, to avoid their awesome psychic powers.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

the saturday afternoon zoo research project

Anette had to teach a seminar in Innsbruck this week, and when she found out I would be taking the girls to the zoo, she asked us to research the diet and origin of each of the aminals we saw. Once we got there, I thought recording each critter's "feind" (enemy) was more interesting, so I changed the parameters of our mission. I can just do that. Then somebody spilled something green and sticky on my notes, so I've had to revise them by memory, although I may have made a few spelling errors.

Our research was carried out by myself and a staff of two, comprising Adinah B., our Mega-Fauna and Popcorn specialist, and V. S., the team's Vulpine expert and Primal Scream Pugilist....

Creature: Zebra
Eats: Various dried weeds resembling Hay
Enemy: Lions

Creature: Piranha
Eats: other Fish
Enemy: Lawyers

Creature: Panda Bear
Eats: Bamboo
Enemy: Paparazzi

Creature: Orangutan
Eats: Apples, Pears, Bugs
Enemy: Bulldozers

Creature: Elephant
Eats: Tall Grasses
Enemy: Bulldozers, Men

Creature: Giraffe
Eats: some more stuff that looks like Hay
Enemy: Lions

Creature: Jaguar
Eats: Antelope
Enemy: Range Rovers, Men

Thursday, April 10, 2008

School Days

In New York City, kindergarten administrators interview prospective four-year-old students by asking them about their goals, and parents start planning careers for the kids just after poddy training.

Life moves a little slower here.

Nevertheless, even though she will still be in kindergarten for more than a year, we must choose Adinah's elementary school now. We've talked about international schools where English is the classroom language, but Anette rather forcefully dismisses these joints as elitist. So that leaves the public schools, and we can choose from several in the neighborhood. Ehh, who am I kidding? It'll all come down to getting Deanie into the school where Oskar, Teresa, Magdalena, Mariella, Vincy and all of her other friends go.

The other day we went to our first and possibly last Open House. The school is directly across the street from Adinah's kindergarten, and it's an odds-on favorite, in Adinah's mind at least, because Markus Novak goes there. (Surely you know of Markus Novak? Adinah always says his full name, as if the little guy was world famous.)

The director addressed all the visiting parents, and my German is good enough to get the gist of what she was talking about, though our friends later told me she basically recited all the information that's on the school's web site. And I listened in on some of the parents' conversations with various teachers and staff. But I snooped around the place for more incidental evidence of it's value (to us) as an educational institution. I scanned a framed photograph of almost all of the current students: four or five black kids, several Asian, Turkish and Croat kids, and a couple with very long Spanish names. For Vienna, that's a pretty diverse student body. So far so good.

The kids were spilling out of their classrooms, sitting on the floors of the hallways looking at the globe or playing games. Our friend Andy heard one kid say something in English to another student, who answered him back in German. The gymnasium is built out of beautiful old dark wood, but isn't otherwise fancy or high-falooting. And the kids throughout the building looked like they were having a pretty good time. Not drinking, gambling or shooting smack, just, you know... having fun. And there aren't any metal detectors at the school doors.

It was nice.

It was only later that I got all sentimental and thought,'Our little girl is going to school. She'll be at NYU in no time!'

Monday, April 7, 2008

statistical analysis

A new billboard has begun appearing around the city. It's an image of two giant people shaking hands, but once you look closer it becomes clear that the two giants are actually two crowds of people in formation. Adinah and Anette were talking about it yesterday, and Adinah said that there were only two black people in the whole picture, and no people at all with curly hair (like hers.)

When Anette told me this, my first thought was that we should write a (suitably indignant) letter to the advertiser (The Vienna Insurance Group). Let 'em know that they hurt my little girl's feelings. I can hear the deafening silence a complaint like that would meet with, and I can imagine the response of an insurance company spokesperson if he or she were cornered and confronted about the subject ("Actually, the image in our advertisement accurately reflects the demographics of our Austrian client base--we did market research, you know.")

But I don't know what it means to Adinah. I wonder what she thinks when she looks at the world around her here, and sees so few faces of color (like hers.) And when she sees other black or brown people, does she count them on one hand?

I imagine that might be a lonely experience.

We were talking recently, and Adinah told me that when she gets older, she doesn't want to have a baby in her belly. She wants to have a foster kid, like V. But what does this all mean to her really? From what I've read, adopted kids go through phases of understanding what adoption means, what having biological children means, phases of wanting to be different, and wanting to be the same as all the other kids. The kid's views on the subject aren't progressive, either--in other words, Adinah probably won't suddenly develop angst about being adopted, then gradually work it out and accept it and become a 'whole' person. Actually, right now, Adinah doesn't seem to have much angst about who she is at all.

But when she counts the number of black people in an advertising billboard, or when she talks about how cool long blond hair is, or when she draws herself with long blond hair, well...I see some trouble over the horizon.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Ten Hours

I came home from the cafe early Thursday night, and sat down on the couch to talk to my wife. We shared a beer and potato chips. The part of the conversation that was not about our kids or family chores did not begin for awhile. I had a smoke.

Everything started to slide downhill. I could feel it but I couldn't stop it.

By 10:30 pm, we had fallen asleep on the couch, in each other's arms. When we stirred, Anette said, "Let's get in bed." "Feels cozy," she said. I felt pathetic. Another night wasted.

In our bedroom, Adinah started to cough. The Cough. I felt guilty: I had let her play soccer without her jacket that afternoon in the park. I listened to her breathing: before every cough comes a catch--a momentary, desperate inhale--and every catch felt like a hook in me.

Finally I sat up, and muttered "I gotta go."

In the other bedroom, I tossed and turned.


I woke up at 6:30, made myself a cup of strong black coffee, and sat alone on the love seat.

I felt a little better. That Radiohead lyric in my head: "For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself...."

An hour later, I was standing, waiting, at the Strassenbahn stop, and I imagined I looked like a troubled, downcast sort of fellow. I had a curious sensation. I turned my head up and looked at a pretty blue sky. Is today the day that a jet engine will fall on me?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Man with a Lumix

I walked out of the house yesterday at 7:15 pm, looked at the evening sky and felt free. The excitement of a night all to myself buzzed through me, almost like it did when I was young and commitment-challenged. I entertained the notion that this night could be endless, that I could see something fantastic (hey, maybe a rock band!), and that almost anything I might see might seem endless or fantastic or beautiful.

I get this way when I take pictures. Some photographers have said that it doesn't really matter where they stand or what they frame up on--the pictures will be good (or not) for other, more intangible reasons. I understand this now. I would only add that if the photographer is able to rediscover the world every night, and explore it again like Magellan, the pictures will be good.

On a night like this, everything is fascinating. Two Turkish children gawking through the window of a McDonalds, as they wait for the Strassenbahn. An overbright train station. The facade of a sleazy bar. Vienna looks new again, and strange, and vital--like a story I want to tell. A cel phone boutique looks like the ultimate day-glo evidence of globalist narcissism; a roller coaster becomes a pilgrimage site.

Then it doesn't matter whether the photographs are any good. Feeling the world like it's a new place--that's the rush.