Thursday, June 26, 2008

Telemarken

(Readers note: Pat Blashill is on holiday, so the Blog Drone 2000XdW has been posting a few of his old journal entries for him. This is one about his father, Donald James Blashill....)

May 25, 2004

It was the most brilliant, sky-blue day I have ever seen in South Dakota. As we drove to Wallace, the landscape became one of lunar lakes and old farms. I was sitting in the front seat with Tracy, and as the barns we were passing pulled memories out of us, we talked about the one thing I remembered most about the farm our grandmother Inga shared with our uncle Oscar: the narrow, too-steep staircase to the second floor. Somehow, even as a kid, it didn’t seem right to me—it was too tight and vertiginous. Now Tracy guessed that it felt that way because Oscar (or was it his father, Ole Lund?) had built their farmhouse himself, and so did not follow any housing codes about stair height or the rise between steps.

Inga and Oscar’s farm was out here somewhere, and my brother and I would have loved to see what my father, even though he never lived there, had called the “homeplace.” But neither Tracy nor I really believed we had the time that day.

The service at the church in Wallace was, as Tracy put it diplomatically, a little too “churchy.” Dad never believed in God or Jesus—I think he thought religion was a con. His wife Maria sat next to us in the front pew, and I was afraid to think that she, deep in her grief, was being made more unhappy by the preacher’s talk of resurrection and the flower that blooms from the mortal body. As it turns out, she later sobbed that she believes all that stuff, she just was finding it hard to believe that day. But it was what it was. My aunt and uncle had arranged for it, and the service no doubt gave them some comfort. My own beliefs about religion are a more vague-less angry echo of my fathers’ skepticism. I started crying anyway.

Afterwards, I needed to get out. I took Adinah out the back door and she toddled happily through the grass behind the church as I held her tiny brown hand.

She found a small, smooth stone that she liked, and I put it in my pocket to keep for her. As I was kneeling beside all the parked cars with my daughter, my great uncle Hank Riggenholt walked up the sidewalk. Hank just turned ninety, and I only recognized him because I’d heard that he’d fallen down recently and had two black eyes (the back story: he was walking out of the restaurant where he gets his lunch sometimes and he tripped and fell face first onto the pavement. He broke a small bone in his nose, scratched up his glasses too, but he was so hungry, he sat up, afraid that he’d crushed his lunch, then opened it up and ate it before he went to the doctor).

So Hank hunches up to me and asks to meet “Donnie’s” wife. I take him over to Maria, who’s only slightly weeping at the moment. Hank shakes her hand, and then he says,
“You know, Donnie always sent me grapefruit.”

Maria, well aware of how much this bent-over farmer of the northern plains always loved getting those big pink fruits from the sunlands, began to sob again. A few more fat tears squeezed out of my eyes, and I clutched Adinah closer to me. Hank, having nothing better to say, and feeling damn awkward, receded.

We all climbed in our cars, and drove to the old Norwegian church that was one of my father’s favorite places. It’s an extremely simple and somehow awesome building—although maybe it seemed so formidable, even eerie to me because as we turned up the dirt road and the white wooden spire came into view, Telemarken loomed less like a real place and more like a figure re-emerging from the grainy composite of dreams and old photographs some of us call memory.

We didn’t go inside: the church is only ever open for services on Memorial Day weekend. Instead, the preacher, my cousin Sherry and her kids, my cousins Lynn, Barry and Danny, my aunt Helen and her Ronny, my uncle and his Evelyn, Maria and her brother Arturo, Tracy, my wife, my daughter and I all walked out into the middle of the cemetery surrounding the church. As I glanced around at the black granite headstones (RIGGENHOLT, LUND, FJELSTAD, BLASHILL) I realized I knew a large share of the people who are buried there. The clouds above were thin, pretty curves, like clouds in a painting. Pheasants were calling to each other all around us.

Someone had dug a perfect twelve by twelve inch hole next to my fathers’ parents graves, and after he recited some familiar verse that no one was listening to, the preacher told Maria she was supposed to put my father right there in that neat little hole. For the first and only time that weekend, Maria expressed an opinion: she said no. Her Don, my dad, their Donnie—he wouldn’t have wanted to be dumped into a perfect hole.

So, after her weeping subsided a little, and she caught her breath, Maria opened that little brown case that she had been clutching to her chest for the last two hours, opened the plastic bag inside, and took out a handful of the light grey ashes that were once my father. She threw them carefully across the ground behind James and Inga Blashill’s graves. Then she took another handful of ashes, moved away a bit and threw it out into the air and over the dirt of Telemarken. I was standing downwind, and some of my fathers’ ashes drifted into my eyes, my nose, my clothes. Maria wandered out through the cemetery, flinging the ashes across the grass and the graves; Arturo followed behind her, holding the box of my fathers remains. A lot of us were crying again—Anette grimaced as if she couldn’t stand to see me in this kind of pain—but Adinah was just wandering around, climbing on top of headstones. I gathered her up and showed her how to blow the fuzz off of a dandelion. And when Maria had finished, I hugged her. She was still sobbing, and through my own tears, I choked the words, “That was so beautiful, Maria.”

After awhile, everyone filtered back into their cars and left. Tracy, Anette, Adinah and I stayed back to visit a couple more graves. I hovered at the headstone of my great grandmother Tomine: Dad had always said that Tomine, who had come to America as an arranged bride for our great grandfather, Ole, was so unhappy that she watered her rose garden with her own tears. I picked a little yellow flower from the grass that grows over Tomine now, then we got in the rental car and drove back to our hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Flashback: The subway singer

(Readers note: the guy who types Euro Like Me has skipped town, so the Blog Drone 2000XdW will be posting a few of his old journal entries for him. I'd like to dedicate this one to Stacy, wherever she may be....)

March 1, 2004

Two weeks before Christmas, Adinah and I were swimming upstream against a tide of Manhattanism in the Thirty-Fourth Street F station. She was asleep and strapped into the stroller, I was on foot and on edge. Somehow through the crush of people, I heard some street musicians flirting with the beginning of a tune I thought I recognized. Let’s stop and listen, I thought.

The singer was a pretty black girl—twenty-two maybe, long straight hair, wearing jeans, a sweater, black suspenders, and a smile as big as Brandy’s. She was working a tough crowd. Hardly anyone had stopped to listen to her, but she was thanking everyone within hearing range anyway. Upbeat and invulnerable, she paced the dank concrete floor of the station, and started into Christina Aguilera’s “You Are Beautiful.”

The casual reader will be aware of this song—a stoopidly catchy teen power ballad allegedly about being freakish—and may, as I do, believe that it sounds sorta perverse (and patronizing) coming out of the mouth of a tiny millionaire and former Mouskateer who is currently working a look best described as skank `ho at a piercing convention. Coming from a Barbie doll diva who has simply changed her style while she continues to broadcast the blur of melisma and kiddy-porn music critics call “teen pop,” “You Are Beautiful” is less a hymn to non-conformity than a rationalization of Xtina’s latest makeover. I’m saying.

But the subway singer crooned it defiantly at the indifferent mass rushing by her, as if she was singing it to herself, a mantra she repeated to keep herself warm. She was weaving gold out of garbage, until “You Are Beautiful” was.

I pulled the stroller over, unzipped her day-glo pink snowsuit a little and woke Adinah. I wanted her to see this strong black heroine singing her heart out. I thought, “This is what I want Adinah to remember about New York and her time here.” The poetry of the scene—the frenzy of the crowd, the unrequited tenderness in the singer’s voice, the faint light in Adinah’s waking eyes—everything fused together. Then the cast of characters got transposed and I was singing to Adinah,

“ ‘Cuz you are beautiful
In every single way.”

I love this city and I love the life I’m living and I love this little girl and all the beauty that seems to just blossom around her.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Flashback: We meet!

(Readers note: the old #@!#! who writes Euro Like Me is drunk again, so the Blog Drone 2000XdW will be posting a few of his old journal entries for him. Beware! The following post contains moments of unabashed sentimentality and next to no clear thinking: journey back with us now, to the day we met our daughter....)

July 30, 2003

Before we saw her, I was so anxious, I felt breathless. During our time together in that yellow orphanage office, underneath the framed picture of Jesus and the words ‘Confio et Mi’, time fell away, the skies opened up and poured, and I felt like white light—every color of the spectrum, full ablaze at the same time.

Afterwards, as I sat on the floor of the German Mission, furiously scribbling and slightly drunk on Ethiopian red wine—I felt pulled in every direction by a roulette wheel of thoughts that were bigger than my ability to think them. In my journal, I could only scrawl, “Adinah Rosa exists! She is a tiny, pretty, big-eyed, long-lashed dynamo who wants to talk even though she doesn’t have language yet. She looks all around and she looks out the window—she’s wondering, ‘What’s out there? And who are you?’”

They brought her in while I was autographing a vast sheath of adoption papers. Naturally, I was asking what these papers were, and I was requesting English translations of them, and I was otherwise acting on the Good Advice of everyone who ever told me anything about the way the world works. Suddenly, one of the younger sisters from the orphanage brought in a baby and handed her to Anette, and everything went Rosa. Then I was holding her up in the air—an amazing human airplane!!--and her little face and her big eyes cracked just slightly, so barely, into a smile. It was a smile which seemed to say, “Okay.”

My eyes blurred. I handed her back to Anette and signed the rest of the goddamn papers.

Sister Deherika and the other women cleared out of the room. So did the men, except for a guy with a large boom box who just sat in the corner, rewinding and fast-forwarding a cassette tape of Ethio-pop music until it sounded like the Chipmunks doing all your Amharic faves! Then he left too, and Anette and I were all alone with the little jewel who was to be, apparently, our first daughter.

We must have stayed in that office for four hours. Our driver, Zerihun, came back to pick us up twice: we told him we wanted to stay with Adinah Rosa a little longer. Outside, the heavy clouds burst, and the skies hurled big buckets of rain at the concrete playgrounds of the orphanage. The door to the courtyard was wide open, but the nuns left us alone—besides, anyone attempting to cross the grounds and come back inside our room would have been drenched. I thought the storm had exploded right outside our new family just so the world would go away for a minute, if not exactly stop.

Anette held Rosa in her arms. I held her, too. Anette walked with her; I kissed her on the head and cheek. She liked tugging at the gold heart which hung from a chain around Anette’s neck. She liked it when I burrowed my nose into her neck and squealed “Eeegi-eegi buggi-boo!” She liked it when we lifted her up so she could fly and swing and twirl in the air like a freestyle astronaut.

We took a lot of photographs. We even gave Ms. Adinah Rosa a bottle of formula. Then she upchucked all over Anette. We could feel her heart beating fast, so Anette laid little Adinah across her knee. And the baby, despite an interest in Everything, fluttered her eyes, and slowly, slowly, finally fell asleep. When we switched places, Adinah Rosa, now sleeping across my legs, barely stirred. Anette laid her head on my shoulder and in a few minutes, we were all asleep--together again, at last, for the first time.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Flashback: Sugar C. Jones

(Readers note: the lovable hairdresser who writes Euro Like Me is abroad, so the Blog Drone 2000XdW will be posting a few of his old journal entries for him. So sit back and cool yr. heels: This is a little flashback to the bureaucratic labyrinth behind our big fat international adoption....)

May.14.2003

Sugar C. Jones.

Voice like a tarpit. Lime sherbet polyester pantsuit. Blond middle-aged dreads. But before I actually saw her, I saw her nameplate—itself approximately sixty-five years-old, made of rubber, plastic and glue, like a chipped relic from a film noir movie--sitting amongst the tilting piles of her desk. Sugar C. Jones. But that's Mrs. Jones to you, pal.

In the middle of my paperwork day, as two simple tasks multiplied like a root system, and I realized that, in addition to catching a three A.M. bus to Washington D.C. for a visit to the Ethiopian Embassy and the US State Department, I would also need to send a fax and a Fed Ex package to Texas, make two visits to the New York County Clerk's office, another to the fingerprint crew over at One Police Plaza, set up a last minute rendezvous with our American social worker (whom I would then walk over to a notary to get a signature, another stamp and a seal,) then visit the New York Secretary of State, the Treasury Department, and the Authentication Section of the DC Office of Homeland Security--in the middle of this ratpath without-a-breadcrumb-trail, I found myself sweating from the forehead, perhaps only seconds away from going into a full-body twitch, and staring at yet another paperpusher who was telling me that my documents were not only not in order but that they were pretty much meaningless. And her name was Sugar. Sugar C. Jones.

"You'll have to separate these papers," Sugar was saying, her fingers folding and spindling my delicately bound and sealed adoption dossier, "And you have to get your social worker to notarize this form before I can authenticate it. You'll have to take this other form back to 1 Police Plaza, have one of the three supervisors over there resign it at the bottom, then bring it back to me. And you'll have to separate these papers."

"Wait a second," I sputtered, "Why do I have to go over to the Police Department again--this is an original and official document, and they've already signed it! I was told you would just notarize these papers and then I could take them to--."

"I don't notarize documents, I authenticate them."

"Wha-? I don't, I…?"

"I can only authenticate the notarization of notaries who are qualified with a stamp for New York County to notarize county documents for authentication. This, and this--matter of fact, a lot of these other documents are gonna have to be notarized and authenticated before you take them to the Secretary of State."

"I'm sorry," I whimpered, my head descending into my hands, "Could--could you please be careful with that--we paid a lot of money to have those documents bound like that…."

"Just a minute," Sugar C. Jones said, storming off with my dossier.

For a second, I thought she'd gone to get security. Somewhere back in the dizzy murk of my brain, it was beginning to dawn on me that the pantsuited Mrs. Jones was a steel wall.

She came back with her superviser, a man with a yellowish tie and a haircut and a head that somehow made me think, 'Rutabaga.' "He doesn't want to separate these documents," Sugar was telling this turnip man.

He didn't really tell me anything different, except that if I would go away and get all the necessary stamps and signatories on the relevant papers, then come back again, he and Sugar might be able to authenticate them without cutting the thin peppermint-striped string and paper seals which bound the dossier. Somehow this felt like a d├ętente.

As I gathered up my documents and started for the door, Sugar C. Jones was still shaking her head and croaking, "I've never seen papers tied up in a book like that before."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Flashback: notes from an adoption

(Readers note: the rumpled brainiac who writes Euro Like Me is on holiday, so the Blog Drone 2000XdW will be posting a few of his old journal entries for him. So sit back, and get out your handkerchiefs: This is a little number from our earliest days as adoptive parents-to-be....)

april 18 2003
On the phone all day: with the State Department, with the former INS--now known as the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, with international adoption advocates and other strangers, and all of the sudden, as I sit at my computer, half-reading the Ethiopian government's requirements for adopting a child in their country, I get to a line about how all the court documents in Addis Ababa, where we will be adopting our daughter, have to be translated out of Amharic and into English, and I start crying. Like a big baby.

I'm not even sure why. Something about that word "Amharic," and its place in this sentence that I am reading, this information that I will soon be using to take a child away from everything Amharic and Ethiopian and African to come live with me and Anette as our little girl, something in the tragedy and miracle of that fact hits me. Hits me now, and that's strange: we've been working on this adventure for a few months now, but it's only real to me in flashes like this.

And the flashes are overwhelming: I think about how hurt and sad we were when we tried to make a baby, in-vitro styley, this summer and it didn't work; I think about how fucked up it is that all them kids in Addis Ababa don't have parents; I imagine a slim Ethiopian woman in a light brown wrap--fuck, I don't even know what Ethiopians call their clothes--hurrying through the city with a baby, thinking back about all the things she wishes, all the reasons she can't keep the little girl in her arms, all the things that put her in this place, and I imagine her setting that baby down on the steps underneath a statue, in a public park somewhere in the City, a place that's not too crowded but not too deserted either, a place where she knows her child will be found.

Maybe she leaves the park, maybe she walks to a spot a couple of hundred yards away, so she can watch and make sure someone picks up her baby and takes her to a policeman. Think about the people there in the park, who see the woman come in, and maybe they've seen this so many times they know that she's there to leave her baby behind; think about the person who finds this little girl, a couple of months old, if that, laying wrapped in a blanket in a cardboard box, crying for someone, someone who might help.

I don't out and out sob, I just cry in little jags. Once I know it's coming, I give up reading the State Department web page, and just give myself over to it by putting on some old Fairport Convention (which will make me cry almost any day) and getting out our travel guide to look at the people and places in that land. I find myself apologizing to the Ethiopians in the pictures, not because I feel guilty that we may take one of their daughters away from them, but more because I'm thinking something like: "I'm sorry the world is like this."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

hurtling

Over the course of one hundred and five hours in New York City, I:

Ate sushi twice. Saw my dear friend Simon twice, but did not see his wife and kids. Sold CDs at Academy Records and at the Entertainment Outlet on 14th street. Ate the world's best cheeseburger and fries at the Corner Bistro (4th Street and Eighth Avenue). Had dinner and several cups of coffee with my wonderful neighbor Tina and our sublettors Aras and Amy. Donated eighteen 12" x 12" boxes of books, CDs, graphic novels and a stamp collection to Housing Works, an organization which benefits homeless people with AIDS. Ate amazing El Salvadoran pupusas and drank cold ice tea with tamarind juice. Saw my friend Marty, who showed me the vacant block near the Brooklyn Naval Yard where he will be building a $100 million housing complex (!) Sold two crates of vinyl, a handful of CDs, and a couple of books about monster movies at the Brooklyn Flea. Ate great Thai food in Park Slope. Saw my friend Adrienne, who, much like Al Pacino in Godfather III, wants to get out of her racket (the culture-media complex), but "they keep pulling me back in." Bought two pink "NYC" baseball caps for $18 from a vendor on St. Marks. Ate Mexican food once, and it was too salty, but it was great. Met a new wave promoter I knew in Austin 25 years ago (and sold him Austin new wave vinyl.) Bought a beach umbrella, two laundry baskets and a pack of gum from K-Mart. And slept a total of fifteen hours.

Was it fun? Yes. Do I want to move back to New York City? Not yet.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

Invisible Men

New York is the city that barely sleeps, and I have done likewise. I keep waking up at the hour of the Wolf (4 a.m., give or take.) Then I go for a walk.

This is when the shifts change. The bars have just closed and the last, die-hard, talk-the-bartender's-ear-off patients have been ejected out onto Stanton and Houston and Essex. They're almost all men, and they amble, like me. Some of them curse.

But as the skies get a little lighter, they're replaced by much more single-minded fellows. Often black or brown. They're going to work. Some of them say "Good morning, sir," as they pass. And I give it back to them, enthusiastically.

It's so nice to be able to chat and jive and flirt and just be friendly with people on the street. That is, it's nice to be able to speak English with strangers, just because I can. In Vienna, my German is not good enough to be Friendly Guy. Here, I've been gabbing with taxi drivers from Ghana ("I really want to see Ghana--my wife says it's great!") and all-night diner waitresses ("Can I ask you something: who were those kids who were just sitting here?") I get passing glimpses of people who have very different lives.

It's not just about speaking English--I'm racially motivated, too. I want to speak--even if it's just small talk--to people of color. New York City is amazing because everyone is mixed together on the street, but I think people still meet and greet and shoot the breeze with their own, according to race, class and all that other bullshit. Maybe I'm just talking about myself here, but I think it's easy for white people to slip into a mode of not really engaging with African Americans, Dominican Americans, Korean Americans. Like Ralph Ellison said, we don't see them.

And it's almost physically pleasurable to break out of that. Even if you exchange a few gentle words with someone in a different skin, they may respond with a hint of surprise. Then a smile. And that's a nice thing.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Selling my Vinyl

It came about suddenly, but apparently I'm flying to New York tomorrow. On a mission. It's time to clear away years of groovy accumulation in our old apartment. That is to say, I gotta sell my record and CD collection, all my books about monster movies and electronic music, and my bong too. Our sublettors have been stepping around this hipster detritus for too long, so now everything must go! Should be fun. Purging is great! Yeah.


For most male homo sapiens, the phrase "selling my vinyl" is a euphemism for "growing up." For me, it's like letting go of a central tenet of my psycho-pathology. What will I do without my white-marble vinyl copy of the Stranglers' Men in Black? Can I really part with my copy of Mudhoney's "Touch Me, I'm Sick" seven inch? Who will I be if I don't have my little treasures to fondle and cherish?

The danger is that I will walk into our old place, look around and immediately start sorting and organizing and plunging right back into my disease: hoarding. No, I won't do it. I will be brutal. I will clear and cut and even throw away my old journals. Yes. I must be strong and at last, edit myself. Or at least, edit my stuff.

Of course, I won't sell my stamp collection. That would be nuts.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Not in Front of the Kids



"Oh well, I woke up in bed, it was the middle of the night/
And we were still involved in a great big fight."

the dB's

Things have been a little tense around here lately. Kids, work, career, which swimming pool do we go to--whatever the conflagration, sometimes me and Anette bicker like a couple of old hens. It's usually me who loses my cool and goes too far, while Anette is a master of that very plain look which says, 'Do you really want to go there?' Yesterday morning, we huffed and puffed all over the house, from the living room to the bathroom and back. In the kitchen, while we were going at it, V. walked over to the stove and turned all the burners on full blast, just to try to get us to shut up. When we didn't, and the "discussion" moved into the kids' room, I looked over at Adinah at one point and wondered, 'Does it upset her to see her adoptive parents fight?'

I can count the times I saw my own parents fight on one hand, and Anette says she never saw hers in a tussle. Maybe that's generational: thirty or forty years ago, the idea seemed to be that arguing in front of your kids was both hurtful and undignified. I don't know if that's changed. I've only read three books about parenting, and two of them had completely different opinions on the matter. One, a gem called "How to Raise a Lady," declared that one must never lose their temper with their child. (Ooops!) The other, by Jesper Juul, the modern-day Dr. Spock of our Euro peers, takes a more nuanced, permissive view of mama-papa squabbles, throw he draws the line at parents who use pro wrestler moves like the Bleeding Skull.

In any case, yesterday, after the verbal fisticuffs subsided and apologies were quietly exchanged, I did meet the girls at the swimming pool, and then we had a very nice picnic in the park. We crawled home, sun-dazed and beat, and everyone went to bed early. Neither Adinah nor V. saw Anette nor I say 'I'm sorry,' to each other, but they watched us acting like we'd said it. Maybe that's enough.

I guess we'll know in ten or twenty years, huh?