Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Brand New, You're Ancient

The annual Donau Insel Fest is a sprawling, drunken, fried food and bad music party along the Danube. Six hundred thousand people attended this year—that’s about one third of the population of Vienna. It’s not a party which generally inspires life-affirming epiphanies. But that’s what I got at the Donau Insel Fest this weekend.

We got there just as the Masibambane Marimba Band was walking onstage. They are seven young women and three young men, and they look to be between the ages of 13 and 17. They wear matching shift dresses and shirts. They play four big marimbas and a couple of drums. Sometimes a couple of the young women sing. They are awesome.

At the front, stage right, is the Angus Young chair, where several of the older girls knock out the scorching, knarly leads. Sometimes they smile, or jive a little bit, but they always add scattering spluttering super-funky solos on top of everything else. But as with AC/DC, it’s almost more fun to watch the back line-the steady-on, never faltering rhythm monster, the real melody maker. The MMB’s Malcolm Young is a younger, very serious girl who pokes her tongue into her cheek as she lays down unshakeable, beautifully melodic lines. I don’t think she’d stop even if an earthquake hit Vienna.

I cycled through the band, picking a new favorite musician every few minutes. Each of them, especially the young women, had their own style and charm: one smiled so reflexively, a born performer; another, with smaller eyes, swept around the stage with such quiet authority, yet barely called attention to herself. It was also like the Beatles: all of them great, but each with their own ‘thing.’ Then they broke into ‘Amazing Grace.’

I think I would have been moved even if I wasn’t already in love with two young brown girls.

And even as I was having such a blast watching the band, and loving the idea of my Ethiopian-Austrian and Nigerian-Austrian daughters watching them too, I was struck by something else. I realized I’ve always loved the sound that comes out of a marimba—it’s a very lovable thing, so full and round and colorful.

The Masibambane Marimba Band made me think of the classic techno track “Voodoo Ray” by A Guy Called Gerald. In that old (1988) ditty, woven between the drum machine beats and the acid synthesizers is a melody line that rings clear and round, and sounds a bit like a marimba. It’s actually another synth, I think, but it doesn’t matter: a great deal of the beauty and funkadelicism of “Voodoo Ray” derives from that mellifluous, bell-like tune. In other words, the motor of this electronic music masterpiece is actually a sound that could have been made on wooden instruments in South Africa and Zimbabwe hundreds of years ago.

It made me think that there are no new sounds, only new ways to make them.

The genius of that, and the deep, historical continuity too, made me smile for the rest of that sunny Saturday.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's Personal

Well, I tried out the new line yesterday. It didn't go so well.

V and Adinah and I were walking down our street, in no particular hurry. I felt good.

About twenty-five feet behind me, V. had just decided she did not feel good, and was launching a mini-tantrum. Also behind us, a little old lady with shopping bags had just passed V. and Adinah, and was approaching me with that little smile people get when they want to make contact. She looked harmless enough.

When she got to me, she looked back at the girls, who were now assaulting a coin-operated rocking horse. The lady asked, in German, 'Where is their mother from?'

So I smiled a friendly but pointed smile back, like I was about to be frank with a good pal, and I said, "That's a very personal question."

The little old lady went off. Blustering, frowning, huffing.

"That's not a personal question," she cried. "That's a normal question!"

"Do we know each other?" I asked her.

"No, I saw the children and I thought they looked like they were from Africa!"

I started to ask her why she would ask me something like that, but she didn't let me finish. Tried to ask her to be more polite, but she didn't hear me. Blustering. And mad.

So I put up my hand and walked back to my kids. And Adinah, seeing the lady making a commotion, asked, "What's she saying, Papa?"

That's when I thought I might have been wrong. I'm so tired of people asking us about us, when it's just none of their business. It's probably harmless, she's probably a nice person, but really, I'm sure she would never ask any other total stranger the same question. And I wanted her to check herself. Maybe I thought, 'Now she'll think twice before asking another family a damn fool question.'

But maybe I was only thinking of myself, and that stranger, and not of my girls. Adinah could see something had happened, could see the lady was mad at me, and that may have frightened her, or made her feel bad. That's not right, either.

It's so hard to know what to do sometimes.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blow Your Whistle

I ♥ the public library. Doesn't matter which city-the library is the bees knees. I loved the branch libraries and the Bookmobile when I was a kid in Austin, Texas. I adored the gigantic reading rooms of the New York Public. And now I dig the Stadt Bucherei--you know, the one with the dizzy facade, at the Burgasse stop of the U6 U-Bahn. The library has always been where I go to get new ideas for absolutely fucking free.

Something caught my eye when I was there a few weeks ago. A shiny silver glitter ball in the shape of a Big Apple. And the word "Disco" in the title. I picked it up casually, gave it a glance, then put it back--I was on a different mission that day. But I noticed that it was written by Vince Aletti, who I've always been intrigued by: he wrote about photography and pop culture for the Village Voice, now he's at the New Yorker. He's smart. But I didn't know he was also the inside man journalist at Ground Zero Disco Manhattan nineteen-seventy-five baby!

A week or two later, I went back, checked it out, and brought that book home with me. It's called The Disco Files 1973-78, and it collects all of the columns Aletti wrote about dance music for a trade magazine in the middle 70's. This is a great book. It came out (!) in 2009, but I must have missed it. Aletti writes about music with a ton of passion, but he balances that with the perspective of a DJ, who has to also think of music as a functional thing. A surgeon thinks a heart is just another kind of pump, and a DJ thinks of a piece of music as a people mover. Or a sedative. Music as a firestarter or a fire dowser. This perspective makes The Disco Files a nice mix of infectious music criticism and epic shopping list.

So now I'm obsessed with finding a copy of Hot Blood's "Soul Dracula." And I'll also be needing a copy of "7-6-5-4-3-2-1 Blow Your Whistle" by Gary Toms Empire. Yes! Did you know the Ventures did a (allegedly great) disco tune? It's called "Superstar Revue"! One, please!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Don’t Believe the Hype

1) the Brazil team

2) the Tea Party

3) the next big Flu

4) neo-liberalism

5) Robin Hood

6) Power Point

7) LCD Sound System

8) Viennese ice cream

9) Automobiles

10) Los Angeles

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Seven Years Later

My favorite news source, besides Facebook of course, is the New Yorker. It's the best magazine. It regularly blows my brains out. And sometimes other pieces in it are just 'Meh.' I'm not sure what I think about this one, about an international adoption from Haiti.

The writer, John Seabrook, began an adoption before the horrible recent earthquakes there, then he scrambled down to the island as soon as he could to meet his daughter in the wake of the disaster. He writes that he and his wife just wanted a kid, but then it turned into a rescue mission.

I guess I'm ambivalent about this because it's a lot like our story. Our adoption of Adinah began with a lot of paperwork, a slow build of excitement, then a sudden, unexpectedly early trip to Addis Ababa to meet her. It became an emergency in our last days there, when Adinah caught pneumonia. Then just before we got on the plane home, she broke out in a rash, which we thought was maybe an allergic reaction to the anti-biotics. A few hours later we landed in London with a very sick baby. What was supposed to be a four-hour layover turned into an four day hospital stay. When one of the doctors made a "casual" remark about the unreliability of AIDS testing in Africa, we were worried sick for 24 hours as we awaited a new round of test results.

But we were all heroes, and we got through it, got home, and then we started to become a regular family. That was seven years ago.

Maybe every international adoption is an emergency. Or seems like one at the time.

These days, I forget some of what we have experienced. I think we're normal and special, but special in a regular family way. When I look at Adinah, I don't think about all the stuff in John Seabrook's article: the problems of transracial relationships, the wealth gap between Ethiopia and the US, the disasters she may have witnessed in the time Before Us. I look at her and I see my daughter. My most precious A'd.

I don't see a damsel in distress, I don't see a victim. I don't see what a stranger once told us we'd taken on--a superproject. She's not an errand of mercy. She's a little girl, and she's getting bigger all the time. I see that she has darker skin than I do, and I notice that sometimes people stare at us. But I don't repeat 'We're a normal family,' as a mantra. I don't think,'That's racist,' every time someone is mean to us.

I do grimace a little when I read an article like this about adoption, though. Journalists--even those who are adoptive parents themselves--often play up the drama and trauma and ambivalence of the experience. I know I did. But I think that what we share with all families is a lot of uncertainty. As any sort of parent, you can never be certain that your kids will be healthy, or kind, or upstanding, respectable Deep Purple fans. Nobody gets guarantees. Perhaps adoptive parents are exposed to one or two more variables, like what the NAACP or the National Social Workers guild will think about interracial adoptions five years from now when all the hubbub over Brangelina and Madonna has died down. But...who...cares?

Parenting is always a tightrope act. Look down, and you're done. Keep your eyes front--commit--and you might just be okay.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

my watch

I like the scene in Terminator 2, where Arnold, now the good Terminator, is playing with John Connor, the boy who will grow up to save the world, while the boy’s mother watches them. She muses, in voiceover,’ Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The terminator wouldn't stop, it would never leave him. It would never hurt him or shout at him or get drunk and hit him or say it was too busy to spend time with him. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers that came over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only thing that measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.’

I could say this scene is a foundational principle of my dadhood, but it’s closer to the truth to say that it sticks in my head like a broken record. Something about this ridiculous science fiction feels true. That is what a dad must do, I think. At least, that’s what he should try to do: protect the kid. Eliminate cyber-bots and/or bullies, defuse plasma bombs and/or common colds, but be sure you maintain a secure perimeter around that child.

Aspiring to be a metallic, super-bodyguard-bot seems like a reasonable goal.

But I think, somehow, I’ve let my intention to be like Arnold slip a little bit. Especially as regards V. When she came into our lives, she was a chubby, strong kid who seemed fearless. She didn’t look like she needed protection. But we were wrong about her. Maybe I can try to be Atticus Finch for Adinah, but V. needs more Terminator 2 from me.

She tries to do everything her big sister and the other 7-year-olds do. But she’s 3. She hollers a blue streak when I say, ‘No.’ And she’s been known to shout down playground bullies several years older than her. But she’s also afraid of loud noises and almost every animal besides caterpillars.

Sometimes V. falls down, scrapes her knee, and doesn’t even blink. But she’s still a princess, a sensitive flower. She looks so pretty in a summer dress, even though she’s gonna be covered with chocolate and glue and mud in twenty minutes.

And she needs more looking out from me.