Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

the Great? Outdoors

One of my colleagues is also a male American knucklehead married to an Austrian woman. We sometimes share a bitter laugh over our wives inscrutable ways. Both his and mine believe in fresh air and wilderness expeditions on Sundays. I believe in padding around in slippers and pajamas for as much of the weekend as possible.

I was thinking about him Sunday as we were putting on our hiking boots and checking the train timetables. The weather was gorgeous, so it was hard for me to argue for padding around. Anette suggested we take a trip to the old village of Hainburg.

On the train, Adinah and I drew pictures, while V. got bored, got screamy, then got asleep. Anette is always so patient. Outside our windows, Vienna waned into farm fields and lonely mills under a warm winter sun.

In Hainburg, we saw ten minutes worth of town, and forty-five minutes worth of playground. Adinah laughed and laughed, but I think the merry-go-round gives V. the creeps: too much dizzy-spinningness.

After awhile, we started down the inevitable hiking path along the Danube. (I like hiking, really I do, but I prefer that someone does it for me. Or at least brings nachos and beer.) It wasn't too bad. Until Anette said, 'Let's play hide and seek.' I groaned. For the rest of the walk, the girls would periodically run ahead, tuck themselves behind a scraggly bush or a tiny tree, and I would have to pretend I didn't see them. Then they would jump out and "scare" me. That was ghastly.

There we were walking a beautiful piece of river, goofing off on one of the rare sunny January afternoons in Austria. But I was drowning in a sea of cantankerousness, my friends. Actually, I was just hungry. After we stopped and ate some salami and bread, I was better.

We walked to the edge of a marsh, and broke off chunks of the ice sheets in the shallows. Then we threw them out onto the frozen river, and watched them break into ice cubes. All the girls "oohed" and "ahhed" and giggled.

Then we turned around and headed back to Hainburg. As we reached the quiet edge of the village, I looked around at the train trestles and the empty streets. I was hit by a sudden wave of longing for the US, for America, for my home. Sometimes I think I won't be able to make it here for much longer. Sometimes it feels like a long dream, and I wonder what's happened to me. Sometimes I just want to be back in the land I know, the one I understand with my eyes and all my senses and my body.

I don't know where this ache comes from so suddenly--is it always in me? I don't know how long I will feel this way. Somehow I still can't believe I'm going to live in this strange old place for the rest of my life.

Then the wave passed. I started taking pictures of the strange old place. 'Wow, that looks funny.' Hey, isn't that cute and medieval!' Click-whirr-snap.

So it goes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fifteen Things I Don't look Forward to Explaining to my Daughters

1) The difference between "I don't care" and I don't mind."

2) Ringo.

3) Self-loathing.

4) The ponytail I had from 1991 to 1992.

5) Slaughterhouses.

6) Divorce.

7) Shoulder pads in women's clothing. (Just thinking about them makes me shiver.)

8) Baseball.

9) Homelessness.

10) The apparently enduring appeal of cigars, bullfighting and Lucille Ball.

11) Racism.

12) The end of Sly Stone.

13) That which is and is not cool.

14) Why things like chocolate are good sometimes, but not all the time for kids, and things like alcohol are okay for adults, but never really good for them.

15) How airplanes fly.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's On

Judging from the headlines here, a lot of Austrians, and Europeans in general, are excited about the 44th President of the United States. After his election, one glossy magazine put Obama on the cover with the words "Die Hoffnung der Welt" (the Hope of the World.) This morning, Heute, the conservative tabloid given away free in the subways(and swallowed whole by a frightening number of straphangers), called its front page story on the Inauguration "Stark, cool, gut (Strong, Cool, Good.)

Is that a time-warped reference to TLC, or is it just me? "Crazy, sexy, cool"? I don't care--I think seeing headlines like this here is Alright, Uptight and Outta Sight.

Americans, Austrians, Africans and everyone in-between celebrated the swearing-in at a half dozen big parties across Vienna. Even though I was still woozly from a case of food poisoning (!), I brought my American-Austrian-African family to the rumpus on the Badeschiff. A friend helped throw the party for her organization, Democrats Abroad; the Badeschiff is a barge (moored on the Danube Canal) with a pool and transvestite DJs. As soon as we stepped inside, I was bumping up against every American I do and do not know in this city. Their moods ran the gamut from magnanimous to giddy.

The place was packed. I heard a 'Hi, Pat!' and someone was shaking my hand before I'd turned around to see who it was. The last time I'd seen this former colleague, she was practically hissing, as she told me what a terrible boss I was! Later, a fellow teacher from Webster University was standing next to me and almost blew a gasket as she belted out "The Star-Spangled Banner." The three African women on the other side of us were all beaming, sitting on a tabletop, sitting on top of the world. I even ran into an American lady who I'd met in line at Caritas (the Austrian Salvation Army) just last weekend. The Badeschiff was stinking with embassy officials, diplomats, NGO folk, UN thugs and ex-pats. I had a good time.

The girls too. Though Anette almost cried several times during Obama's speech. Adinah was asking a million questions: like many observers from the past two hundred years, she was particularly puzzled about the role of the Vice President.

V. just wanted more pretzel sticks.

It still didn't (doesn't) feel real to me. I almost lost it when Aretha sang. But that (and that hat) was just another level of surreality. The gigantitude of the moment is hard to express.

The entertainment at the party was several huge screens showing the live CNN feed of the inauguration, against which a few unfortunate live onstage human musicians were competing. As I tried to make sure Adinah and V. didn't tumble off their bar stools, I stared at images of the Mall in Washington DC, a place that evokes bittersweet memories in me. I've never liked DC. Too many politicians live there. And it's full of people who believe in the government. Since the Gulf War, I've only been to DC, and to the Mall, to protest. To march and chant and holler and sing out against the crimes of pro-life assassins and anti-Muslim presidents. Almost eight years ago, on my fortieth birthday, Anette and I went there to protest the invasion of Iraq. At the time, most of my best, most leftest friends thought I was crazy to question Bush/Cheney's War on Terror. The President called us enemies of the State, and a lot of really scared Americans agreed with him. So I remember the Mall as a place where we were always allowed to parade, but never to be heard.

But on Inauguration Night, my twisted-up brain tried to look at the Mall like it was a new place. Was it, on this grand day, still ground zero for the politics of deafness? Or could it really now be a place, again, of ideals and clear vision?

* * *

The next morning, Osterreich, the other tabloid given away free in the U-bahn here, published a tiny photo of Adinah and I at the Badeschiff party. I look bemused, and she, in her "Obama's in the House: 1-20-2009" t-shirt, looks beautiful.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

thank you, daughter

The thing nobody tells you is that when you have a second kid, no matter how much you love the new one, Ma and Pa will face a subtle challenge. You sometimes have to look over daughter number one to see daughter number two. That is, your first kid is used to getting all of your attention, and will continue to expect it. You may, as we have, continue to try to give it, even as you struggle to give the new kid a change and a bottle and some minimum level of care.

Well, that doesn't work. The first kid starts to notice she doesn't have your full focus, and protests about this, in all sorts of quiet and insidious ways. The second kid protests in all sorts of unsubtle ways, like wacking you with dinner rolls, or sticking her finger in light sockets.

This might seem obvious to some of the higher level lifeforms out there, but I'm not always the brightest bulb in the room. It's taken me a while to notice that if I make a little effort to include V., to talk to her as much as I talk to Adinah, to make her the boss of a game, or let her help me cook, she lets me get a little closer to her. My latest project is playing traffic cop for our conversations around the house. That means I often have to ask Adinah to pause in the middle of an epic tale about who draws the best butterflies at Kindergarten, so that I can let V. tell me the "story," for the fortieth time, about the time she saw a cow, and she wanted to ride the cow, but she was afraid.

So now, something is shifting. Now, V. voluntarily takes my hand when we cross the street, and she doesn't always let go as soon as we get to the other side. The other day, she fell down on the sidewalk, and she didn't get up and hug Adinah. She hugged me.

It was one of the best things that happened this week.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The numbers

This little ray of sunshine just fell across the Euro Like Me city desk. Holy shit, I've never seen US economic figures like this. (Like I ever look at US economic figures.) 26 Thousand jobs lost every day in December? Three thousand families losing their homes to foreclosure every day?

I'm reminded of the tossed-off last line of that great movie about American politics, The Candidate: "What are we gonna do now?"

Save us, Obi Wan Obama!

From my safe (?) European home, I can only guess what it's like in the trenches over there in my homeland. Maybe I better get on the phone with some of you. I'm certain that most, if not all, of my former colleagues in the magazine bizness are working less, working freelance, or not working in that bizness at all anymore. (Like me.) But that's also part of something that started years ago when magazines and newspapers started to bit-i-fy themselves--shrinking cover stories to 500 words, downsizing feature articles to 200-word sidebars, dialing sidebars down to photo captions--all in an attempt to compete with the Web. The publishing industry just doesn't need as many writers as it used to. Funny, huh?

But what about my friend Dan, who works at a record company? What about Su, who works for public television? What about Scott, that funny queen who lived on our block on the Lower East Side and was trying to get started as a fashion designer?

When I read about 26 thousand jobs lost per day, it sounds like a tear in the fabric of space and time. Like a change to things we don't even notice anymore, because we're so used to the Big Mac, I'ma Get Mine U S of A. Take car dealerships. A colleague of mine told me a story about her brother, who owns a piece of a car dealership in Colorado. He made much money a few years back when SUV sales were peaking, so he's not exactly a sympathetic character in my book, but she tells me he's also worked very hard all his life. So there. Anyway, her brother explained something to her which I never knew: those three or four dozen cars on the lot of any American car dealer are always, mostly, owned by some local bank. It's hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory, just sitting there. Two weeks ago, his bank calls him up and says, 'Hey, we're getting out of the car business--it sucks. You've got two months to sell our cars, then we want the money for 'em.' My colleague's brother was almost in tears as he told her this. Long story short: he's gonna go bust.

My friend asked her brother, "Can't you sell your share of the business?"

He just laughed. "Who wants to buy a car dealership right now? Besides a vulture?"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Dear Birthday Fairy…

For my sixth birthday, I would like to get:

1 For my Baby Born doll, Merta, a terrace
2 A carriage or sleigh for Merta
3 Rudolf the Red Nosed reindeer
4 Some rose bushes
5 Crowns for Merta
6 A sister and mama Baby Born doll, and a really baby Baby Born, a really small one.
7 With a schnuller (pacifier).
8 A unicorn
9 And a horse.
10 Plus mirror, toilet, the button for the mirror, and a button for the toilet and for the heart-shaped pillow and for the teacup and the magic candle.
11 All ice-skating things
12 A swimming pool for Baby Born and a button to push for it.
13 A winter dress
14 A summer dress with short sleeves
15 Long sleeves for the winter dress
16 A Christmas tree for outside
17 One long winter coat, pink; one long winter coat, blue
18 Diapers
19 One blanket with red hearts and a
20 Crib

Thank you, Birthday Christkind, and I hope it will come.

Adinah (& Merta)

21 Cookies
22 A button for cookies: when you push it, cookies come
23 A kitchen
24 Soup pot
25 Frying pan
26 Oven
27 Sink
28 Ice cream
29 Cake
All of this in a castle with a swimming pool outside (with garden)
30 Gummi bears
31 Smarties
32 Maxi-cosi carrier for Merta and a
33 Stroller

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Between Moments

Last night, I looked at the several thousand photos we took during our holiday in Vorarlberg. Aside from realizing that Adinah's picture of her grandmother and grandfather is better than mine, I saw something else. V. is laffing and goofing off in lots of the pictures, or in a blur of motion and mania, or even displaying her new game face--a real 'Back off, Jack' sort of affair. But in several of the fotos, as in a couple of her kindergarten pictures, V. also looks lost. Sad.

It's surprising. After a year with us, V. seems to be doing great. She's just 2 1/4 years old, climbing up and down stairs easily, going pee pee on the toilet when the mood strikes her, speaking short sentences in German and many words in English. She's even slept through the whole night in the last week! She seems virtually indestructible--healthy and strong. But she's also very sensitive. And scared of lots of things. Especially dogs, cats, cows and horses.

She seems so physically hardy that I think we forget she's also a little girl who got off to a rough start in this world.

To be reminded of this by looking at photographs of her is troubling because of my own family history. I remember a conversation with my mother, in which she remembered a similar incident. Years after all of us boys had left home, she was looking at some family fotos, and came across one of my younger brother sitting on her lap. She told me she looked at the little boy in that picture, and saw a troubled look in his eye. I pricked up my ears. Because in my adult years, my relationship with my younger brother
has been pretty difficult at times. So I worry a bit about this pseudo-predictive power of the camera to capture darker moments between moments. And I worry that somehow V. isn't getting enough from us.

Sometimes, when the four of us are walking down the street, and V. falls behind us, I wonder is she feels left out of our family, left behind the gang of three that was in our house before she got there. I try to think of how I can help her to feel safe with us, how I can let her know it's okay.

Thinking back over this, it sounds to me like I'm searching for a way to fix her so she'll be as healthy and perfect as we all want our children to be. Which is stupid. And presumes she's somehow broken, and not a beautiful complete person already. As if anyone's children (or any of us) are ever sunny and perfect.

Maybe what I'm really asking is, 'How can we can earn her trust?' But that question scares me. Because it sounds like more work than holding her hand and being nice to her as much as possible. I wonder if parents of biological children ever wonder how they can earn their children's trust. Do they just have the kid's trust from the beginning, and only ever have to worry about winning it back if they fuck up?

Or are we all always trying to earn and keep our children's trust?

I guess there's no easy answer, and earning her trust won't happen quickly in any case. But right now, I think these are the right questions to ask. Maybe that's a start.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ho ho ho.

Hey folks, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

I thought about this first sentence carefully, by the way. Coulda started with something finely wrought, or deadpan, or boring/reflective. But sometimes a fellow's just got to say the main thing and nothing else. So there.

We are back in the groove in Vienna after a week in the bizarre wilds of Vorarlberg and a nice New Year's Eve dinner party. Anette has been cooking with the giant soup pot that I gave her, the girls have been wearing the matching cowgirl outfits their Mimi sent them from Texas, and I'm rocking the thin silver chain that my wife gave me. We gave Adinah a new scooter and a watch, and V. a set of giant Legos and a Barbapapa plate and cup. I also gave Anette a book of pictures of our family, and my sister in law gave me Tony Judt's gargantuan book Postwar, about Europe after World War Two. We also got a very fancy new aluminum skillet. All in all, a pretty good haul.

For Christmas, we always go to Anette's hometown, Hard. No, really, that's the name of the place where my sweetheart was born. And it's a strange little dorf. It has always been a farm village, but in recent years, Vorarlberg has become one of the richest provinces of this rich country, and lots of the local tycoons apparently want to live in sleek gray minimalist boxes. Plus, both Wolford and Wolff, two different fancy panties companies are based there. So Hard still smells like wet cow shit, and houses just off the Hauptstrasse (Main Street) have chicken coops in the back yard, but there's also all these Architectural Digest showplaces and apartment houses that look like inverted and/or poorly stacked packing crates. In between various festivities, I had a lot of fun wandering around and taking pictures of the barns and lingerie outlets.

As for the festivities themselves, well, Anette's family really likes to sit together, sing Christmas songs and make bread. Anette's dad is about four feet tall and a complete clown, so Adinah and V. had a blast playing with him. It was a pretty cozy time, but the nicest thing is seeing our daughters with their grandparents. Adinah only met my dad once, and V. has yet to meet my ma, but after visits to Hard, I know they're always gonna remember their Oma and Opa.