Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

1) Yesterday, as an early present to myself, I took myself over to my beloved public library--the big one at Burgasse--and just dawdled and explored. I found a book of photographs of the New York Downtown art and music scene of the early eighties: some nice photojournalism, but I came away with the impression that that whole Philip Glass/the Kitchen/art gallery scene was ultimately so insular, elitist and white. While looking at the pictures, I listened to a bunch of CDs I'd never heard before: a late period Edgar Winter (which was this upbeat weird disco drivel), an early one by Edgar Broughton (strange, damaged and intriguing), the Pet Shop Boys (sorry, they're still too mannered and inessential to me), and Bryan Ferry (hey, maybe all of his early solo albums are good!?)

2) This morning, the girls woke me up by singing "Happy Birthday" and serving me cake. Very sweet. Then they gave me a pile of new shirts and a new hoodie. I am now officially Mr. H & M.

3) I'm not getting older, I'm getting sleepier.

4) My friend LouAnne once said she thinks that almost everyone in the USA really really thinks that they will one day wake up rich and/or famous. I think that's a true thing, and I try to keep it in mind as a cautionary principle.

5) Still, I really really thought that by the time I was 48, I would have knocked out at least one bestseller, Oscar or multi-platinum double live album.

6) Some of my best friends and some people I barely even know wished me a Happy Birthday on Facebook. That was pretty cool too.

7) If I could have an all-star birthday party to celebrate, the guest list would include Anette, Adinah, V., Steve, Simon, Keepsie, Leo, Dorit, my brother Tracy, Betsy, Molly, Marty, Alan, Rich, Sims and Yow, Ron, Luke, Kathy, Ed, Ed, and Ed. Plus the Little Guy, Max, Sam and Caesar. And my brother Sean, and my mom.

8) I guess I'm gonna die some day. Probably. That's usually the way it goes.

9) Especially if I keep celebrating by eating nachos and french fries and drinking Coca Cola.

10) But then again, I've always been a lucky guy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

you drive me ape, you big gorilla

As I may have disclosed before, I work in a pretty straight-laced, corporate office, and yesterday, my department made a presentation. It involved a full body, giant-headed Monkey costume. Needless to say, I decided to bring the Monkey home with me. Thought the kids would get a chuckle out of it.

As I was getting off the subway near our apartment, I thought, 'It'd be really funny if I put on the Monkey suit now, and just walk into our house, a giant Monkey with a satchel, and sit down to dinner with my family, without a word of explanation.'

Then I had another thought.'No, that would be really stupid, because you'll scare the hell out of them, especially V. "My father--psycho Monkey." '

So as I got closer to our street, I called Anette and just asked her, “Do you think me walking in as a Monkey would scare V.?” I heard her put down the phone and ask V., heard V.’s responding squeak, then Anette back on the line, telling me, ’No, she says she wants to see the Monkey.”

I also decided to test how Viennese bystanders would react to a man-sized Monkey in their midst. The Monkey is super hot to wear, and it’s real stinky inside from the sweat of all the people who have been there before me. So I stopped at a bench just around the corner from our place, and stripped down to my underwear and socks before I put the damned thing on. Then I threw my satchel on and walked around the corner.

Nothing. Not a blink (nor a smile) from anyone. I think I got a vague nod from someone sitting in a parked car, but it’s pretty hard to see (and breathe) out of the Monkey head eyeholes, so I can’t be sure. None of the passing cars even bothered honking. There’s Vienna for you.

But as I padded down the sidewalk, I knew I would be in full view of the girls if they were up at the bay window of our apartment. I waved at a few cars, then looked up. There they were, looking down at me. I thought I could see Deanie waving and Anette holding V. up to the window. I couldn’t discern the look on V.’s face. Actually, she was terrified. But I didn’t know that, so I waved and blew kisses.

Once I fumbled my way into our building, though, Anette called down from the top of the stairs and said, ‘Pat, she’s scared—you have to take it off.”


For the first hour I was home, V. could only ask me, ‘Will the Oooh-Ah (Monkey) come back later?’ then answer herself with ‘No, the Ooh-Ah is gone,’ or ‘You don’t have to be afraid of the Ooh-Ah.’ Even then, I asked her, ‘V., do you want to see the Ooh-Ah again?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

Then she said, ‘No.’

I should have known better. Big Monkeys and Santa Claus outfits scare kids. But V. has this same profoundly intense reaction to all sorts of things, particularly animals, like cows, horses, and monkeys: she is always torn between terror and fascination. Maybe that should be telling us something about the way she sees the world. She doesn’t act the same way with people, at least not overtly. But she does alternate between playing with strangers on the U-Bahn, and being extremely shy when first meeting someone new. And in her dealings with us, she can swing very quickly from spitting, hitting or scratching, to coming over to ask for a hug.

When she was smaller, we would have called it the Ay-Yay/Oww-wa! Dialectic. When she met another person, she oftentimes didn't know whether to pet them or to clobber them. She didn't know how to touch other people.

These days, she seems to have a clearer grasp of the difference between pleasure and pain. But maybe V. still can't decide whether she should love other humans, or fear them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Theresia Baldauf, 1929-2009

On Thursday, we took the night train to Vorarlberg for the funeral for Anette's mom. Last night we took the same train back, and we arrived in Vienna at about 8 am this morning. We're exhausted and cried out. But I want to tell you a little about the woman.

Teresia was one of seven or eight children. Two of her sisters would go on to become nuns. Resi was about 7 when the Nazis took over Austria. In 1946 or so, she was walking home to her village when she saw a young man she recognized from the next town over. He was walking home too. He asked her if she was hungry, and Resi said yes. Then Josef gave her some bread he had in his rucksack. He began to court her, and they married. They were married for fifty-three years, until she died last Saturday.

Ten years ago, when Anette called her mom from the US and said she'd fallen for an American guy, Resi cried. Because she was afraid this meant that Anette would never move back to Austria. I met Resi and Josef on my second trip to Austria, and I may have not made a very good impression on them at first: I was jet-lagged, they offered me red wine, and I was drunk within seconds....

One year, when Resi was sick, I took Anette to the airport in New York, so she could fly home to be with her mom. As she got on the plane, I gave her a Beanie Baby--a little weasel named Runner--and said he would protect her. Maybe Anette misunderstood me, I don't know, but she thought the weasel was a present for Oma, and when she got to the hospital in Vorarlberg, she gave Runner to Resi. For years after that, Resi thanked me again for that weasel.

When we returned from Ethiopia with our Adinah, we made a stop in Vienna before flying back to live in New York. Resi and Josef visited us in the city to meet their new grandchild. As you may have gathered, Austria is not the most progressive place as regards people with dark skin, let alone people with white skin who love people with dark skin. But Resi, devoutly Catholic and seventy-something years old, couldn't stop smiling and hugging Adinah. Even after we laid Deanie down for a nap, Resi kept stealing into the bedroom to peak at our baby.

Christmases at Resi and Josef's house were so nice. We all sang songs together in the stube (living room), and Resi usually made about eight different kinds of cookies.

Two weeks ago, I got the chance to say goodbye to her, as she lay in a hospital bed in that same room. She thanked me--my German is still too shaky to know why--and I thanked her for being such a good Oma. Then I said, 'Tschuss.' (Bye.)

It felt hopelessly inadequate.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One Who Got Away

I'm almost 48 years old, but I haven't lost too many people. My beautiful and young friend Jon died; a great magazine writer who had greatly influenced me, and whom I worked with briefly, Lou Stathis, died; and my father died. Then there was my gramma Inga.

Inga Lund, daughter of Ole and Tomine Lund, was a second generation Norwegian-American. She was a strong, sensible woman who didn't suffer fools gladly. She married John Blashill, and they had three children: Richard, Helen, and Donald James, who became my father. They were poor. John Blashill died when my father was two years old, so Inga had to raise her three kids by herself after that.

She always called my dad "Donnie."

After my dad and his brother and sister had left home, Inga moved out to her brother Oskar's farm. Oskar sometimes worked sixteen-hour days, and Inga took care of the cooking and cleaning for him. When I was a boy, we always visited Inga and Oskar at the farm. One summer, we picked and ate fresh strawberries until I turned red.

Years later, after I'd finished college, and Oskar had died, my father and I went to visit Inga in South Dakota. She was selling the farm, which had always been profitable, and finally moving into town again. One afternoon, after she had withdrawn a couple hundred thousand dollars from one bank so she could move it to another bank, we stopped for lunch at a diner. Gramma Inga was usually a pretty sober sort, but as we sat down to eat, she grinned, patted her handbag, and said, "Go ahead, Pat--order anything you want. It's on me."

A few years after that, Inga had a stroke, and her health gradually deteriorated. In the last few years, she didn't always even recognize my father when he came to visit her. And because of this, I thought I had already said goodbye to her. But then, when she died--my gramma!--it slammed me. Even if you expect it or think you're prepared, death can surprise you.

Maybe it's the only way to understand the word "forever."

Anyway, in case you are wondering, dear reader, there is a hook to this post, and it's sad news. On Saturday, September 12, my wife's mother, Resi, died. She was two weeks shy of her 80th birthday.

She will be missed.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Possible Heavens

1) A long night in a small Texas nightclub, circa. 1977, with one or both of my old friends Steve C. and Simon R. On the table in front of us: cold, cold Lone Star Bock, and a big sloppy plate of nachos with beans, cheese and jalapenos. Onstage? ZZ Top, fresh from recording El Loco, and ready to play till the cows come home.

2) An endless tour of the Earth, with Anette (in her hiking boots and black leather jacket), with enough time and information to eat well in every town. And some sort of universal translator device that would enable us to talk to taxi drivers and bartenders everywhere. First stop: the Norwegian town where my great grandparents were born.

3) An endless tour of the Universe, with Anette (wearing the same outfit), but also with Adinah and V., in a rocket ship with a Gottlieb pinball machine onboard.

4) An extremely comfortable (and well-lit) Moroccan lair, amazingly stocked with every great or important book ever published. And the time to read and understand them all, with the option of interviews and explanations from the authors in the flesh.

5) Reincarnation as a super-intelligent (and immortal) bird, flying from one cozy aerie to another, in the Himalayas.

6) Command of an elite squad of ferocious monsters—including the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon—who would jet all over the place, righting wrongs, fighting injustices and never actually hurting anyone!

7) The slow and delicious discovery, then mastery, of an entirely new and unprecedented form of music.

8) The ability to channel surf between all of the previous seven Heavens, at will, Forever.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

School Days

In case you've joined us late, much of the subtext of this blog was more humorously expressed in the scene in Pulp Fiction where J. Travolta and S.L. Jackson discuss the "little differences" between the US and Europe. I got an eyeful of these little things the other morning, because it was Adinah's first day of First Grade.

It began in church.

Being both an American and an avowed Satanist, I should have burst into flames as soon as we walked into the joint. But I survived long enough to hear the school's religion teacher lead the kids in a song about how the (Christian) God will help all children. I even stood up for it. Then I started wondering how I would feel about all of this if I was Muslim. Then I sat down.

It's not that I'm godless. I just care less for religion when it's used as a blunt instrument. And I won't let my dark-skinned daughter be seduced or cajoled into any of the ideological rat paths of this deeply Catholic, conservative and racist country.

I watched Adinah's eyes as she watched the well-combed goodie-goodies from the older grades at her new school, as they marched up to the lecturn to recite epithets and other monkey tricks. It looked like she was taking notes on who is cool and how they get points from their parents.

It could only get better from there. And it did.

One of the other differences about the first day of school in Vienna is that the kids only really go for about an hour. And they can bring their parents and little sisters along for the fun!

So after the Mass, Adinah, V., Anette and I crossed the street and piled into a classroom with twenty-two other kids, and a couple dozen parents and assorted close relatives, to meet Adinah's new teachers. Before they came in to introduce themselves, I crouched in a corner and photographed Adinah, as she grinned and worked her corner of the room: Oskar, Teresa, Susanna and Magdalena--all her best friends from kindergarten, all sitting next to her! She looked like she was already preparing to announce her candidacy for First Grade Class President.

This is more like it, I thought. I always liked school, and I never had any doubts that Adinah would like it too.

The teachers came in and said hello, and I was especially pleased to see that Adinah will have a good, and good-humored, English teacher. The most moving moment for me, though, was watching the teacher call the roll, which she did by taking each of 23 name cards off of the white board, showing the written name to the class, then calling out the name.

Some of the boys and girls stood up and walked to the head of the class to get their cards as soon as they saw her reaching for what they recognized to be their names; some had to wait until she spoke their names; and a couple were still staring into space even after she'd called their names twice. Anette told me later that some of the kids may not understand much German, let alone English.

It was like watching these kids, in the first moments of their Austrian personhood, already slipping into the familiar dramatis personae of any classroom anywhere in the world: the Smarty Pants, the Class Clown, the Loser, the Princess, the Secret Weapon, the Heroine. It was sweet, and heartbreaking. There was something both reassuring and quietly terrible about it.

School can be so brutal, these roles so imprisoning.

There I was, squatting in a corner in a Viennese public school classroom, thinking about the way that kids grow into big people. I should have just been proud of my eager, bilingual and beautiful 6 and 1/2 year-old-daughter. Instead, I found myself hoping that it won't be too painful and difficult for her, and her classmates, to find out who they are.

Friday, September 4, 2009

(parenthood) business not personal

(An old friend was asking some very serious questions of herself and her parenting, so what did I do? Made a smart remark, naturally. She was wondering aloud about taking your kids behavior personally, and being responsive to them. I told her a parent should never take (mis)behavior seriously. Which isn't true. This is what I meant....)

Okay, I was being a bit flip there, a leftover from too may years as a magazine writer. Sometimes as a parent you have to take your kids’ behavior personally because you are the SOURCE of some of their struggles. You should deny them the fun of automatic weapons, for example.

But one also has to remember (and honor) one’s own adulthood and life experience. Your kid is six? So’s mine, and if so inclined, she will howl at the vast injustice of being denied almost anything. I believe she is her own person, and I think I take her very seriously, but there are many things she is just not ready to do for herself. This is a loaded phrase, but I really do know better, and I know (mostly) what’s best for her. The trick, as you allude to, is knowing when you are asking too much as a parent or not listening well enough or pushing your kid too hard. That’s one of the most difficult parts of the job. Hell, I’d say listening, in and of itself, is one of the most difficult things about being a person.

You wrote that your “elder child’s development has changed the game” on you, and I think that’s brilliant. I would restate it though: parenthood (and kidhood) is itself the game that moves as you play. It sounds like the tagline for some old Parker Brothers game, but it’s true. Knowing how and when to listen to your child changes as they develop and grow. You do have to stay awake. But asking questions of yourself—maybe even answering them—is a form of being responsive.

My harder work right now is with our three year old. Like me, she can be a motormouth, but she hasn’t really gotten the hang of listening to other peoples yet. This has caused me to think of Jesper Juul, who wrote something to effect of, ‘If you kid isn’t listening well, maybe you’re not saying much worth listening to.’

So I’ve been chewing on that lately.