Tuesday, July 28, 2009

in a waiting room

Okay, alright, after bringing in some documents and shelling out another 110 euros in my semi-annual visit to the immigration office, I'm legal again. I can live in Austria with my family for two more years--hooray!

MA 35--I know the place well. The young clerk with a dozen fotos of Elvis taped up above her desk; the harsh, barely understandable voice on the loudspeaker (' Did they call my name or was that a sneeze?'); the looks of desperation all around me. I'm usually sitting with lots of Turkish people, some Croatians, and one or two Indian or Thai people, all of them hoping for permission to stay in Vienna.

To me, the staff are usually kind. Bemused. I have to hack up the German language for the first few, lower-level employees, then for the first few minutes with one of their bosses. Then she will probably smile--in a strictly non-patronizing way--and start speaking English.

But God knows how they treat Turkish applicants, black applicants or anyone who doesn't speak any German.

I don't know if Austria ever thought of itself as an immigration country, but it needs to start. There is a certain tone that creeps into conversation and media and everyday life here which makes me think some Austrians still think of their country as some sort of imperial powerhouse, drawing people to it like moths to a flame. If I'm perceiving it correctly, some Austrians will continue to believe the country should be selective and elitist and xenophobic about immigration, perhaps in the belief that only the best of the best deserve what Austria has to give.

The New Yorker, and the American, in me thinks this is precisely the wrong approach. I think Austria (and the rest of Europe) is gonna have to get right with immigration. Make it easier. Accept it. That's the only way this fossilized old country will ever get any new ideas. That's the only way Vienna will be able to join the 21st century, to return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Otherwise, Austria is living in the past.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Back off Boogaloo

So I'm reading this book PostWar, right? It's provocative and well-written and seems smart, so I'm having a good time. Then alla sudden, we get to the seventies and the author, Tony Judt, mentions punk rock and I have to stop, put the book down and seriously question whether this guy knows his onions. His take on punk could have been xeroxed from Time magazine, ca. 1977: for him, the music was a sneering, stupid pose struck by people who couldn't play their instruments. Oh boy.

So not only is he wrong, but he hasn't done his homework.

In fact, the only other European musical event of the seventies that Judt deems noteworthy is the schmaltzy, ultra-commercial Eurovision song contest and TV show. Together, punk and Eurovision proves his overriding "idea" that seventies culture was not the least bit innovative, and all about looking backward.


Brothers and Sisters, stand up and testify if you think the seventies gets a raw deal! Honk if you like Mott the Hoople and Krautrock!!

Okay, I came of age in the 19 and 70's. And alright, yes, I still listen to a great deal of music from that decade. Still. It really bugs me that an otherwise knowledgeable fellow jumps on this particular bandwagon. The seventies have been unjustly maligned for too long, people! Punk wasn't just the Sex Pistols (the only band that Judt mentions by name), it was also Wire and the Undertones and Nina Hagen, fer gawd's sake, all of whom were innovative and forward-looking in their own genuine ways. And never mind punk (and new wave), what the fuck about two other British/European bands who were almost genres unto themselves--Roxy Music and Kraftwerk?

This was the Euro music that I heard in the seventies and none of it was backward in any sense of the word. Instead, taken as a whole--even including schlock like Georgio Moroder and Italian disco (which actually bloomed a bit later)--my music told me that all bets were off. Everything was allowed and nothing was forbidden.

This anarchic and lovely storm of ideas roiled and boiled right up until 1982 or so, when some of it fed into the birth of electro, techno and hip hop. And so on.

Dag! That vein in my forehead is throbbing again.

I'm tired of people recycling the same old cliches about punk (and disco, for that matter.) Complain about Avril Lavigne now if you want--that's cynical. But if you were alive in the seventies and you missed out on all the crazy musical shit that was exploding in Europe and the rest of the world, you were just sleeping.

It's never too late to edumicate youself, Tony Judt. Get thee to the Internet!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

the Problem of Leisure

Toilet seat up. "Hmmn...?" Both of my computers on the dining room table, along with the external hard drive, burner and speakers. "Whazza--? You'd think...." Seventies hard rok squawking from the stereo. "YEAH! That's what I'm--yeah!" Children's toys, not put away but merely shoved back against the walls.

Uh-huh. My wife and daughters are out of town. And in this very quiet apartment, I have become Talking to Myself Guy.

I can stay up as late as I want, and sleep late too. I could be Go to a Rave Take Ecstacy and Become Convinced that the World is One Guy. Or Walk the Streets All Night and Experience the Real Vienna Guy. Or even just drink two beers and Walk the Streets Part of the Night Guy. No. I think I'll stay home, edit family fotos, watch an old Western movie, and mutter. "The lighting in this scene--wait, lemme back it up--this is-whoa."

That's the kind of guy I am.

I really did drink two beers the other night. I mean two of the big ones. Tall boys.

Plus, yesterday, I did leave the house. I went to Prosi, our Asian-Latin-African grocery and bought a can of refried black beans and a jar of sliced jalapenos. Then I went to the main public library, and spent a few hours listening to music I've never heard while looking at coffee table picture books about sixties cinema and twentieth century Russia. Then I came back home, edited more family fotos and made nachos for one.

Completely useless, entirely exploratory, unhurried looking and listening. That's my excess.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Black or White and Adinah

Three weeks ago, we were all falling asleep in a hotel room in Santa Maria Navarese, Sardinia, when CNN reported that a website was reporting that Michael Jackson was dead.

The next morning, Adinah and I woke up early, and went down to the lobby. I changed the channel on the TV there to see if it was true. Then I started trying to explain Michael Jackson to my six-year-old daughter. I’m still trying.

Actually, now Adinah is explaining Michael Jackson to me. Her favorite music video in the whole world this week is Jackson’s “Black or White.” [Ed. note: This clip is an eleven minute epic directed by John Landis, and ends with a nearly five minute segment depicting a black panther, which turns into Jackson, then back again, after a long solo dance-scream-and-smash-stuff interlude.] My wife, who introduced her Cultural Studies lecture class last week with a discussion of Jackson, found the “Bass Amplify” version of the video on YouTube and showed it to Deano. Now her favorite part is where Jackson walks through fire!

She also likes the bit where the actor John Goodman, sitting in a La-Z Boy recliner, makes a crash landing at Jackson’s feet. “I would like to come down next to Michael Jackson,” Deanie says.

“Why?” I ask.

Adinah looks at me like I’ve got cheddar for brains.

“So I could watch him dance.”

When we watch the video together, I’ve noticed that my girl sings along the loudest during the scene where Michael Jackson is perched on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. “If you're thinkin' of being my bay-bee, “ she talk-raps,”It don't matter if you're black or white!”

I wonder what those words mean to her.

Yesterday, as we were sitting at the pool watching her little sister play, Deanie asked me, “Would you think V. is black or white?”

“Hmmm, well, that’s a good question,” I answered. “V.'s first mother is white and her first father is black. That’s like Obama. His mother is white and his father is black. Do you think Obama is black?”

She thought about that for a second.

Then I said, “Maybe it’s like Michael Jackson says in the song. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ ”

I thought about that for a longer second. Then I asked Adinah, “Why did you ask that question about V.?”

“Because I was thinking that if V. is black,” Adinah said, “Then we have two black people and two white people in our family.”

So, as I interpret Adinah interpreting Michael Jackson (and the rest of the world), I guess she’s saying it does matter.

And, of course, she’s right.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Top Seven Important Facts about Post War Europe

(as gleaned from the pages of Post War by Tony Judt, which I am halfway through now, thank you very much)

1) In 1948, Europe was like one of those Dogs Playing Poker posters. France was the Pug, holding a pair of twos, but still convinced that the world gave a damn. Austria was the Dalmation trying to change his spots. Britain was the Bulldog putting on airs, and dying for approval from the big American Spaniel in the corner.

2) Maybe the Nazis won after all. After WWII, Germany was bombed out and depopulated. Great Britain was one of the Allied victors. But within ten to fifteen years, the Germans were out-producing, out-reproducing, out-spending and probably out-living the British. England had become a model Welfare State, and they made crappy cars. The Germans had had all their debts forgiven, and they were cranking out BMWs, which everyone suddenly wanted.

3) A lot of the intellectual and cultural turbulence of the Sixties, in Europe at least, had to do with the fact that so, so many more young people were at last able to go to university.

4) Stalin was a ruthless cocksucker, and so was Tito. But Tito was more interesting.

5) For most of Europe, especially the rural populations, the early 1950's were very much like the late 1890's. Nobody had cars, refrigerators or televisions. An indoor toilet was bling.

6) Teenagers were invented in the Fifties. Before that, there were just kids and young adults. Kids simply wore adult styles in smaller sizes.

7) Plus: Everyone wore hats and suits.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

pop pop pop muzik

You know how it is. You hear a new pop song and somehow it sounds so cool, and full of life, and Right, that you want to eat it. Devour it, actually. So you do--listening to it over and over and over again until you're disgusted and ashamed of yourself.

Well, that's not how I felt when I first heard Lady Gaga's internationally gi-normous hit, "Poker Face." But I thought the video was funny and the song was fiendishly catchy and I liked it muchly. I was delighted to hear a young artist put her good singin' over some nice frozen electro eighties beats. It seemed like the first real techno hit I'd heard in a long time, maybe ever.

Now I can't escape the goddamn thing.

This fuckin' "Poker Face" was the first and only song playing in the multiplex two nights ago when I went to see Drag Me to Hell (more about this later. Maybe.) I heard the song bumping around faintly in the background at the pool on Sunday afternoon. In Sardinia, I heard it booming out of car windows and looming over the disco at the campground next to ours. Yeah: "Poker Face" is a big hit at outdoor beachside campground discotheques in Italy. That's the kind of song it is.

My biggest mistake was not letting this craven pop junk into my life. No. My mistake was playing it to my children. Now they want it all day, every day.

With Lady Gaga on the stereo, V. does an adorable, though somewhat hesitant Butt Wiggle--as if she's still unsure whether this sort of move is allowed. And Adinah likes to "rap" along with Gaga, as she holds forth on her "muffin" and, er, her "love glue." At least I think that what she's saying.

Mind you, I'm not bothered by the fact that my 6 and 2 1/2 year old daughters are happily chirping a song which extolls the virtues or oral and/or rough sex. I'm disturbed that they are enamored with a performer who is--conceptually--sorta lame. All bitch can do is sing about wanting to be rich, famous, fucked-up and fucked. She's got barely a stitch of persona, people! Yes, I'm aware she claims to be "commenting" on fame and commodification. Right. She's Paris Hilton with tunes and a copy of Andy Warhol for Dummies. That is troubling.

And now, because I thought it would be a good idea to turn my girls onto a song written in this century, I'll be stuck with "Poker Face" till November.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


In the class that I teach, I talk about the way that culture shock can creep upon you. But memories do the same thing. In class, I use myself as an example. I tell them that my mind plays tricks on me.

It's a terrible thing to lose your parents. It should be outlawed. But even though I swore neither of my parents would ever leave me, my father went ahead and died anyway, just over five years ago. I think of him at the oddest moments. He pops into my head like he's walked into the room, like he's still here.

Two weeks ago, on the beach, I was playing with V., and I understood again that I communicate with my youngest daughter by horsing around with her. I express my love for her by goofing off, and trying to make her laff. I know that's a father thing, but I still think it's funny. Funny-strange. Funny-interesting.

I'm quite good at it. Matter of fact, I can make almost anybody laugh if I try. It's how I (tried) to keep bullies at bay when I was eight years old. Cracking people up is a survival skill, and I've honed it.

But my father was not a funny guy. He could tell a humorous anecdote, or a bad joke, but that's not really the same thing, is it?

My mom enjoys a good yuck, but she's no clown either.

So how did I get this way?

I guess one can't blame one's parents for eveything.

Plus, I guess I might try communicating with V. in other, more conventional ways. Like hugs. Operation Huggy Bear.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sardinia 2009 Top Five Good/Bad Moments

1) My Last Swim:
Without either kid, I dog-paddled a ways out into the sea and pulled a dead-man’s float. Twice. Looked out the vastness, then back at my family on the shore. Decided to return to my family.

2) Anette’s Birthday:
On June 24th, on the porch of the trailer we rented at our campground, we celebrated my sweetheart with an awesome ricotta and chocolate-chip cake. Then we set out on our bikes for a nearby beach resort town. But Anette had a blowout before we’d made it five hundred meters. She may have run over a thorn. (I didn’t know thorns were sharp enough to puncture a mountain bike tire, but I guess the roses of Sardinia grow rough and tough.) We went back and borrowed a lesser bike, and pedaled to a much nearer beach, and a mind-blowing pizzeria named La Torre. And I gave Anette a hand-woven pillow case and two potholders, embroidered with a design of red coral—a symbol of Sardinia.

3) Adinah Loses her First Tooth:
This damn thing, a lower front one, had been hanging on by the slimmest of roots for weeks. Adinah was terribly proud of it—her first “waggle zahn”—and even more proud of what it meant: she’s becoming a little woman. She lost it as she bit into an ice cream. Unfortunately, we were on the beach at the time. She insisted on running over to some friends to show them her ex-tooth, and of course, she lost it in the sand. She was nearly inconsolable, and we all got down on hands and knees and searched through the pebbles for an hour, to no avail. The awful poetry of that—kid loses her first tooth, then loses it again among a million grains of sand—was almost unbearable. I promised her french fries so she would stop crying. She felt better the next morning, especially after a visit from the Tooth Fairy, who left her a note, € 1.50, and a pack of chewing gum.

4) Talking to the Donkey with V.:

Our short daily walk to the beach skirted the edge of another campground. A donkey lived there. One afternoon, when V. was particularly post-nap grumpy, and unwilling to walk, I tried to make her laugh by starting a shouting match with the burro.
“Damn it, you Donkey!” I hollered.
V. giggled.
“Come out and play!”
Another giggle.
“Come out, you damn Donkey!!” I yelped, like some berserk farmer.
V. howled with glee. She loves yelling and hearing anyone else yell. Or curse. So, thus inspired, she added her own favorite phrase.
“Donkey, ich haue dich um funf! (I’ll hit you at five o’clock.)”
“Donkey, goddamn it! Shut up!” I added helpfully.
“Ut up!” V. screamed hysterically.
By this time we were both laffing like complete loony-birds. But V. couldn’t resist a parting shot.
“Donkey, don’t eat my popo (butt)!!!”
The donkey never returned our calls, BTW.

Now I know I’ll always be able to cheer V. up by A) screaming hysterically, or B) finding a donkey.

5) Naptime at our Trailer:
While V. slept, and Adinah played with the neighbor’s kid, I drank espresso and read my book (Post War by Tony Judt.) Ahh, the sounds of silence.