Friday, August 29, 2008

the children of ghosts

Anette and I were laying in bed the other night when she told me that some friends had just gotten some bittersweet news. They are on the verge of meeting, for the first time, a baby girl who may become their foster daughter. That afternoon, they had learned that the child's biological parents had agreed to relinquish their custody of her and said they would not fight to get her back.

Hearing this, I felt the same mix of relief and sadness that I felt when we adopted Adinah and when we met V. I was disoriented: when you realize that your joy comes at the cost of someone else's great sorrow, you feel an ache like no other.

It made me think of an old Japanese horror film I've been attempting to watch, a little bit at a time, over the last two weeks. It's a very long, very slow film from 1964 called Kwaidan. It tells the story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful woman, who becomes his wife, then the mother of his three children. One night, as he gazes at his beloved, a trick of the light reminds him of a terrifying experience of his youth.

Then his wife looks at him and tells him that she is that ghost.

I should kill you now, she says, but we have three children. If they ever have cause to complain about you, I'll be back. Then she disappears into a black, snowy night.

The man is overcome with fear and grief, and he runs out into the dark after her. He knows she is gone, he knows she has killed many men, but already he misses her so much it hurts. Just that day he had finished making a beautiful pair of sandals for her. Now he puts them down in the snow--his last tender gift to her. He turns to go back inside, to his children, and the falling snow begins to cover the sandals.

Back in our time, in our bedroom, I told Anette about this scene, both because it moved me, and because it seemed relevant to a discussion about people who lose their loved ones.

"So many children," I said. "And so many ghosts."

"I love you," said Anette.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

road trip

Last Friday night, Andy and I drove to meet our families in the the southern Austrian province of Carinthia. Carinthia is the birthplace of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom party. It's also quite beautiful. Actually, for me the trip was a chance to (re)discover how very excellent the Stooges, the Clash and Captain Beefheart sound when one turns them up to 11 and drives really fast through the mountains at night.
PS: Like Iggy, Shostakovich was a headbanger.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Neat, Neat, Neat

Blur did a song called "Magic America," about a land where, according to one verse, "the air is sugar-free." So when I meet people who are going to the US (with stars in their eyes), and when I want to tease them a little, I sing it, in my most miserable falsetto,

La la la, I'd like to go to Magic America/
La la la I want to live in Magic America/
With all the Magic people.

But I don't know why I'm singing. I live in Magic Austria. The magic people here dress neat, and even the punks wear spotless, new black jeans. No matter their background, cultural or sexual preferences, the Austrians are well-shampooed, tucked-in and carefully shaven. It would be nice to see an occasional hair out of place, but I never do.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

(There's a) Stranger in the House...

...and it's me. Or maybe I just feel like I'm in a strange house. Because my girls are gone, all out in the country, rolling around in tall grass and eating ice cream and playing Uno without me. Sigh.

Of course, I'm enjoying being all alone. After work today, I went swimming by myself and reveled in the feel of the hot sun on my skin and took deep breaths of my own independence and loved being the captain of my own scooter and remembered completely how it was to be a man without a family all those years ago. Right now I'm back home again, with Black Sabbath kranked up really high, and I might listen to evil music really loud all night while I....well, it would be nice to say I'm going to imbibe all sorts of psychotropic substances while wearing sunglasses and bouncing a prostitute on either knee. Most likely though, I'll just sort all my photographs of my, uhm, family. That's what I really want to do with my he-man independent night off.

I guess that's pretty strange. But hey, that's where I'm at these days.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

non-Verbal communication

At almost 22 months, V. is an extremely articulate person. This morning as I was leaving the house, I kissed Adinah, then V. chirped "Auch!" so I kissed her too. Then she pointed at Anette to remind me to kiss my wife goodbye as well. She knows the way things are done around here.

Last night, as the girls were finishing up their rice, red beans and tomato salad, we were listening to one of the mix CDs by the Belgian mash-up duo 2 Many DJs. I pulled V. out of her hi-chair and the three of us walked into the ballroom, and just as Salt-n-Pepa's mock-horny "oooo-baby, bay-bee!"s mixed with Iggy Pop's feral "Well, c'mon!" V. looked up at me and wiggled her elbows, in the gesture I know means, 'Now we dance.' So we danced for awhile.

When she means to be solicitous, V. will walk over, stand in front of you, crouch, then tilt her head to the side, as if to say, 'How are you doing, my little one?' When she wants skin-to-skin contact, she backs right into you, like a garbage truck in reverse, and plonks herself down in your lap. And of course she also deploys the arms-upraised, imploring-eyes combo, known to parents worldwide, which means 'Please pick me up. Now.'

It's not that V. doesn't know any words. She knows twenty-seven. Some of them are,







lala (water bottle)

cacao (milk bottle)

eeh-ahh (horse)

ooh-ahh (monkey)





trauben (grape)

She also says, 'Nah-dee,' and 'Nah-doo.' Which means 'One more time, please.'

Monday, August 11, 2008

On Evolution and the Origin of the World

The plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex whom we call Twinky has reappeared in our home. The girls excavated him from the sub-strata of the toy box the other day. But V. is a little afraid of Twinky, especially his plastic teeth. Adinah was trying to explain this to me this morning, as she sat on the edge of our bed, and Anette read a magazine and V. lurched around between all of us. And I said,

P: I can understand why V. is afraid of Twinky. I think men would have been very afraid of dinosaurs if they had lived at the same time. But they didn't. The dinosaurs were all gone by the time men started walking around.

A: Pat, do you think one man made the whole world?

P: Well, a lot of people think-

A: I don't--I think it was fire and rain that made the world.

P: Yeah, a lot of people think it was made by one man, and a lot of people think it was fire and water and rain. But some people think it was made by a man who was more powerful than a man--a god. But when we look at the rocks and wood and plants around us, it looks more like it was the fire and water. That stuff tells us that men came from monkeys and monkeys came from fish and-

V: The ooh-ah! Oooh-ahh.

P: Oh yes, V., the monkeys.

V.: Oooh-ahh.

A: In Ethiopia, they think that.

P: What--that one man made the world?

A: Uh-huh.

P: Well, I think Ethiopia is like a lot of places--some people think it was a god, and some think it was other stuff.

A: I think it was fire and water. Just like it says in the Mickey Mouse movie.

P: Yeah--hmm--well, Mickey Mouse might be right about this one.

In all my years as a pop culture junkie, this was the first time I'd ever heard such a close reading of Fantasia as a Darwinist, pro-evolution film. Who says you never learn anything from your kids?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

they've got worries

Bad news and pain. Illness and rejection. Lay-offs, selfishness and drug problems. Friends and family are hurting, and it seems like I heard it all yesterday. I left the house, got on my bike and all I could see as I rode was other people’s troubles. Then, as now, I can’t distill what I think into one thing (besides, ‘We’re lucky we only have regular problems.’) I was just staring into the middle distance, thinking, Damn.

Real Adult Problems. You don’t have them when you’re twenty-five or thirty. Maybe you don’t get them if you’re rich. But when you get to be a grown-ass man, or have kids, your troubles get more complex, more thorny, more troubling. And less resolvable.

It’s a cinch when you’re young, stoopid and made out of rubber. Once you depend on other people, or they depend on you, then you graduate to Real Adult Problems.

Caution--Real Adult Problems may include one or more of the following: confronting the death, or impending death, of a loved one; unexplained, chronic, undiagnosable illness; known and very diagnosable illness; living with a husband or wife; separating from a husband or wife; drug addiction and alcoholism; intra-family cruelty; abandonment; and the inability to find cheap, comfortable shoes.

I guess having real problems makes life more complex, even more interesting, at least in the spirit of the Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ But having already lost one of my parents, I’ve taken steps to assure that my mom will never die. Having survived seven years of marriage without ever trying to strangle each other, I’m determined to never divorce my wife, or even spend more than twenty minutes apart from her. And having had some firsthand experience with alcoholism, I’m foresworn to stick to lemon soda. I fail at this almost every night. But two out of three isn’t bad.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

the real wild child?

Anette and Adinah and V were at another kid's party the other day, when they got a free medical diagnosis.

"V. is hyper-active," said our friend G.

I wasn't there so I don't know what V. was doing, though if she had clobbered a few kids or knocked over several Dixie cups of juice, those would have been typical V. playtime moves. Nevermind.

G. offered a semi-professional opinion (actually he's an engineer) that says more about him than it does about our kid. And he's not even American!

What is it with parents these days? A kid is minding her own business at a party, she drinks a little too much punch, maybe snaps a few necks, and the nearest adult prescribes Ritalin for her. For some parents, the only thing worse than a kid who's a little quiet is one who's a little loud (okay, very loud.) Amateur pediatricians enter stage left and right, and they intone the most dreaded words: "hyperactive" and "shy." What is this shit?

No doubt, V. wakes up every morning, 6 a.m., full of beans and ready to play hard. She drives me nuts and she wears me out. And she comes home from any special event involving cake so wound up she can barely stop talking. (So do I.) But why would a grown-up look at her and see a pathology, instead of a young life, extra excited and curious about Everything?

Maybe we forget what it's like to be that new, that alive. I suspect we want so badly to care for our kids that we try extra hard to name their problems, so we can research, evaluate and then administer a definitive solution. Or maybe some parents are just lazy bums, and don't want to know from kids who 'splode like supernovas.

I know that last is not true of G. His kid is both temperamental and demanding, and he and his wife do their best, 24-7. So why would he say something so wack about our V.?

A: Parents, as a species, also normalize their own kids, then diagnose everyone else's.

I don't know. Some of this is culture-specific. Americans wanna prescribe drugs for every problem bigger than a headache. Americans believe in scientists and scientific diagnoses. European parents, at least most of the ones we know, tend to be less panic-stricken.

I'm somehow, somewhere, as usual, in the middle. I just don't think I want to write some semi-professional, medicalized script for any kid who's still in size 5 Pampers. That seems...unjust. Labeling a kid before she can explain herself seems like the opposite of parenthood. Isn't it our job to wait, and listen, and then make room for our children?