This is not about dogs

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The other day my dad was telling me how he finally put his dog down, how he sat up with her all night while she had seizure after seizure. He hadn't slept in 72 hours. He said at one point the previous night he couldn't keep himself from crying and the dog got up from her seizures seeming to forget what she was going through just to lick the tears off his cheeks. I could tell he was tearing up on the phone with me then. This was a man I'd once seen load and point a rifle at a dog, he was so sick of her barking all day long and eating the drywall. One time he nailed a dog into the doghouse he built for her just because the damn dog wouldn't use the damn doghouse he built for her so he just nailed her right in there. I can still remember the hollow barking of that dog from the other side of plywood. This was no man to be crying over a dog.

"It was like when you were a little baby," he said. "She was crying all night and I felt like there was something she wanted me to do for her, but she couldn't tell me what it was. Like when we first brought you home from the hospital. I was terrified by you," he said. "You and your sister. And I was even scared of Juney when we first visited you guys after she was born. I hated that feeling. It got much easier for me when you could talk." Then he continued on about the dog: "You know, she was crying like that all night long so I just sat with her but she couldn't tell me what was wrong or what I could do." Ultimately, the dog was able to communicate what she needed him to do.

"You understood her," I said.

"The final vet bill was $400 but I'd give ten times that to get her back," he said. Now that doesn't seem like so much, you might suggest, but this a pure-blooded Dutchman we're talking about here. To a Dutchman, this was the equivalent of an incredible emotional breakthrough.

* * * * *

All weekend I did not think about the dead dog. But I thought much about what my dad had said about being terrified by me.

You come into the world so helpless. And yet, you have the power to render a grown man helpless, to drown him in terror. You're this tiny little thing but you have this presence so large it lilliputs your parents in their place. You encroach more than you'll ever know. You cause your parents to speak differently, to use words they've never intended to use and discard dozens that might have been among their favorites. Even in the most ambitious you might set to steam all flames of ambition. You might change in them the very meaning of success. Even before you have much of an identity of your own, you become what they are all about. You supplant everything. You demand much. You're a total pain-in-the-ass, to be honest. But if you are lucky they will always hold you and rock you through to contentment. Even if you terrify them.

Lately I have been thinking more and more about those days when we brought Juniper home from the hospital, those days of balancing desire for sleep with the urgency of knowing that she was still breathing. As hard as those days were, there was a simplicity to her needs that I miss. It was easy to feel we were doing a good job: she only demanded that we keep her fed and warm. These days, Juniper will come to me and say, "Dada keep me nice and safe?" And I'll hold her close up against me with her head on my shoulder, sometimes for almost an hour. I miss those first days with her so deeply I'd hold her like that as long as she'll let me, drowsed by her lungs pumping against my chest. Now that she's talking so much and demanding so much more of me, I can't help but feel that I am failing her, that I am doomed to fail her for the rest of my life.

After my father told me I terrified him when I was a baby, I did not think of how hard that must have been on my mom, or consider it in the context of my own over-doting fatherhood. Instead I remembered a sleepless night at a time when I was so stricken with anxiety over how to avoid an already-adolescent fifth grader who had been beating me up before school every day, I hadn't slept for several nights. My parents must have been baffled at what to do. I never spoke about what was happening at school. That night my dad just sat next to my bed and kept his hand my head and petted and scratched my temples softly like one might comfort a dying dog. I slept that night. That memory came back to me clear as anything.

When I was about 7 months pregnant with Juniper, Dutch had a great idea. He proposed it to me exactly like this:

"We should get a puppy when your maternity leave starts! You're going to be home for a few months with the baby anyway, so it's the perfect time to get a puppy. It'll be awesome!"

I'm not sure exactly how I responded, but I'm pretty sure I tossed in plenty of shock, a smidge of outrage, and a whole helping of incredulity that my husband could have temporarily lost such a grip on his goddamn sanity.

During the last two months of my pregnancy, whenever anyone asked me how Dutch was doing, and was he ready to be a dad, I told this story as an example of how he just "didn't get it" to people who wanted to hear about how he didn't get it. Obviously, we never seriously considered getting a dog at that time. Instead, I interpreted the fact that he could even suggest something so ridiculous to mean that my worst nightmare was about to come true. I pictured myself sitting on the couch, slowly going crazy, struggling to nurse a newborn for at least 22 hours a day, with Dutch at his office completely unsympathetic and clueless about what life was like for me at home.

That's not what happened, of course. After Juniper was born, Dutch took all the paternity leave his firm offered, and he was at home more days than he was in the office for the first few months of her life. He fought with me over the privilege of holding her and changing her diapers, and he took sole responsibility for putting her to sleep at night -- the most difficult chore we faced -- so that I could have a break and watch Season 5 of American Idol in peace.

Now I tell the ill-advised puppy-proposal story for a different reason: to explain how badly Dutch has wanted a dog.

When we were first friends and freshmen in college, nearly 11 years ago, I knew that Dutch liked me when he dragged me down the parking lot outside of our dorm to meet his parent's new puppy, a tiny wiggling dalmation. It was also the first time I met his parents, but that part was no big deal. The dog was who he was excited to show me.

When Dutch and I were first dating, his mom whispered a story to me about him while he was out of the room. She told me that when she and his father had taken his first dog to the vet to put her to sleep, and left Dutch home with his sister, they'd come home to find him missing. They followed his footprints in the two-foot deep snow and eventually found him sitting in the woods crying.

Somewhere in the boxes of college stuff I have in our basement, there's a picture of a 20 year-old Dutch wearing puma sneakers with a huge smile on his soft, stubble free cheeks crouching down and petting a strange black lab. We met the dog while we were visiting a castle in Ireland when we lived there. Dutch played with that dog for an hour.

Because of stuff like that, I always knew that we'd have a dog. I even promised Dutch that when Juniper learned to say the word "dog" that we'd get one. Though he tried to argue that her panting at the sight of a strange canine counted when she was eleven months old, I disagreed. Now she's able to identify specific breeds, so I guess I broke that promise, but until now, until this very week, it wasn't the right time. This morning, I tried to call Dutch but his line was busy, and he wasn't picking up the call waiting. "I'm sorry about that," he apologized later. "I was talking to my dad. He was crying. He had Dolly put to sleep early this morning." Dolly was the dalmation Dutch introduced me to when we were still in our teens. This thing is in Dutch's blood.

Despite how badly Dutch has wanted and needed a dog in his life for as long as I've known him, he's still nervous that now isn't the right time. He's still afraid of the dog hair, and he's even more scared that the dog will be something that I resent. He overheard me tell my mother on the phone that "I'm not a dog person," and he's worried that I don't really to want to have Wendell around.

But he's wrong. I'm not a dog person only because I've never had the privilege of living with one before. I haven't seen Dutch so excited -- and so nervous -- since Juniper was born, and that alone is enough to make me excited.

Welcome to our family, Wendell. I'm glad to have you.

The new family member skulking about our house these days

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 21, 2007 |

The last post being a fine example of my patented windbaggery, I am going to keep this short and sweet: we went and got ourselves a dog. I would like to introduce Wendell. At the shelter they called him "Buddy." He is a ten-month-old German shorthaired pointer, and the shelter people think he was dumped on the streets and vacant lots of Detroit by a hunter from the suburbs because he wasn't a very good hunter. Wendell is supposedly the old-German word for "wanderer." He is wonderful with Juniper. He is letting her cover him in blankets and wipe his "owies" with baby wipes on the floor right now. At two, she is clearly smarter than he is. He pooped on the floor of my office yesterday while I was putting her down for a nap, which bothered me far less than I would have thought. My tolerance for feces is exceptionally high these days.

In the spirit of keeping this brief, I will leave you with these two things: (1) in the future, I promise not to write too much about the dog; (2) I may break that promise if the hijinks of pottytraining two creatures under one roof proves moderately entertaining.

I grew up with dogs. I haven't lived with one since I left my parents' house at eighteen. I can't tell you how amazing it is to have a dog put his head on my knees and look up at me and to know that he is mine. Now I need to go vacuum up the dog hairs before Wood gets home from work.

Last week, I walked over to the Fox Theater and bought these two tickets. I was going to see if they had any available for this week, but then the guy behind the ticket window told me he had two front row center tickets available for that morning's show. "She won't be scared of the giant characters that close, will she?" the guy asked.

"We can only hope so," I replied, realizing for the first time that this little indulgence could have unintended benefits. Perhaps a guy dancing in a six-foot Elmo costume just a few feet away would terrify my daughter so much that she would no longer have any interest in her mangy-red beloved. Here I was, willing to pay for and sit through two hours of canned dialogue and live-muppet dancing just to see the interior of Detroit's Fox Theater, and not only had I scored front row tickets without paying the 50 percent Ticketmaster surcharge, but could I also potentially release the headlock that the Sesame Workshop would have on my kid for the next three years in just a few minutes of screech-inducing costume-inspired terror? I had high hopes as I swiped the tickets away from the seller and giddily handed them to the top-hatted usher who opened the deco door for us into the theater's warm lobby.

The Fox is one of those theaters built in the Jazz age intended to transport the average theatergoer to a different world: with a gust of perfumed air it would blow the factory dust from their evening jackets and lift them up onto a magic red-velvet carpet and through an arabesque network of colonnades filled with tuxedoed booze-and-popcorn vendors, up and up through archways guarded by dragons and monkeys and Siamese coquettes, mezzanines under sixty-foot frescoed ceilings populated by armies of ushers eager to shuttle you to your proper entrance to the theater, and then you finally enter the theater itself, an orgy of oriental ornament held up by cyclopean Corinthian columns flanked by pensive Burmese Buddhas and Persian lions contemplating nicely-nippled Hindu deities. Outside in the snow and the soot and the wind chill you could not hide from Detroit in February, but inside this theater, the price of a ticket bought you not only the words and the songs and the sights of whatever was to appear on stage, but it took you off those streets and into Kublai Khan's court; into the dreams of Nebuchadrezzar himself.

I carried Juniper in my right arm, holding her cheek up to my cheek and pointing at the elaborate ceiling, the opulence that threatened, I thought, to overwhelm us both. "Isn't it beautiful, Juney? Look up. Isn't it amazing?"

"Elmo!" she shouted.

Sure enough, among the seraphim and cherubim adorning the ceiling, I saw Elmo's bug-eyed mangy red mug staring down at me. Smiling. It was a giant mylar balloon that some spoiled little chit had carelessly released from his grip during a previous matinée. I speculated about how they could ever get it down. Slingshot? BB gun? While I wondered, Juniper looked back from her front row perch at the hundreds of kids who were filling the seats behind her and the balcony above. "Who's that boy?" she asked. I had no idea which one of the kids holding flashing LED Elmo gewgaws or clutching other trappings from the concession stands she meant. "That boy is someone's whose parents planned ahead and did not wait until the morning of the show to buy him tickets," I said. "Ha ha!" I added.

We sat and waited until fifteen minutes after the show was supposed to start before the lights finally dimmed. I stood Juniper on my lap so her butt rested on my chest. I wanted to get a good look at her face when the characters came out, and I wanted to be ready to catch her and comfort her in case she decided she was terrified of those real, giant muppets and needed to leave immediately.

But even to my hardened heart, the pure joy in my daughter's eyes melted me so much I grabbed her close and smelled her hair as Bert walked out on the stage, followed by Ernie, followed by Prairie Dawn, and she pointed and despite the blaring noise from the speakers I could see each word on her lips as she said it. I never looked at the stage. My eyes were on my daughter's face. When a half dozen or so characters had made it out on stage, dancing to the opening number, the look on her face was the same as I imagine might have fallen across Coronado's visage had he discovered the seven cities of Cíbola in the Arizona desert rather than tumbleweeds. It was the same look Sir Galahad might have given the holy grail after years of toil and search. It was how Albert Einstein might have looked at a sheet of notebook paper that contained a unified field theory.

She was, in other words, delighted.

I looked up at the stage. Prairie Dawn, Telly, Baby Bear, Zoe, Big Bird, Burt and Ernie were all there. The Count was there. The turquoise one who is always talking about burritos and amigos was there.

I realized it didn't matter what the characters were saying. For the first ten minutes of the show, all the kids in the theater basically just pointed at the stage and at the top of their lungs screamed the preschooler equivalent of: "ARRGGHHAHHOOOOAYEAYEYIIIIII HOLY FUCKING SHIT THERE'S COOKIE MONSTER!!!!!!!" Still, there was something in Juniper's eyes that indicated anxiety. It wasn't just her. As time went on and more and more characters came on stage, but still there was a definite sense of unease among the entire audience. What was wrong with all these preschoolers? Couldn't they just sit back and enjoy a dance routine about oral hygiene or whatever? Then I realized what geniuses the writers of Sesame Street Live truly were. It was all dramatic tension. The song quieted down, the dancing muppets moved to the side of the stage, and one spotlight focused on the middle of the set. There was a burst of paper, a flash of red fur, and then every living being in the joint under the age of six suddenly collectively lost their shit. It was like 1955 Elvis Presley combined with the 1964 Beatles with a dash of 1988 Joey McIntyre and just a pinch of 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio (in Japan). There was a sudden sonic vacuum in the theater as hundreds and hundreds and children captured their breath and then released, screaming and pointing at the stage:


And my sweet Juniper was right there with them. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.

So a man standing there in the six-foot Elmo costume basked in the love of a thousand ecstatic toddlers, while a pre-recorded voice sang and he flapped the giant muppet lips to the words. It didn't matter what he said. It didn't matter what any of them said. As long as Grover fell down, as long as Elmo was always on stage, the dollars all those parents spent on tickets and ticketmaster fees and LED spinning Elmo gewgaws and stuffed Elmos and overpriced popcorn and juice boxes was worth it. I tried to pay attention to the nonsensical plot but lost interest after about five minutes, when I started imagining what the lives of the touring Sesame Street Live: Super Grover! Ready for Action road crew were like in between performances. From the several characters that came out without muppet costumes, I could tell they were all in their early twenties. This was probably a pretty good gig for a graduate from the Dance-Theater department of the College of Wooster, you know, before they move to New York City and work as receptionists at pilates studios before making their big breaks and proving to their parents that it was all worth it. I imagined the romance and heartbreak that must occur among the staff: Ernie catching Bert giving an assistant carpenter head behind Hooper's store; The Count making gentle love to the guy who plays the dancing broccoli without taking his costume head off. Elmo telling Zoe that she's a sweet girl, and the time they spent together was nice, but when they get to Fargo and the tour ends, he's going back to a girl who's been Glinda's understudy in the traveling production of Wicked. Zoe getting all drunk and fucking Telly back in the hotel room they've been sharing just to make Elmo jealous. I like Telly. He reminds me of the oafish kid in your fifth grade class who's two months late for a haircut and who brought homemade cupcakes on his birthday but one of them had a dead fly in the frosting and everyone in the class made fun of him and no one ate theirs, including you, but you still want to hug him and tell him that everything will be all right some day even though you're pretty sure things will never be right for him in this world.

The plot had something to do with superheroes or something. I think they were trying to get Grover his superpowers back by learning even superheroes need baths and sleep and good nutrition. All I know is I haven't seen a more inspiring performance of Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero since the climactic moments of Short Circuit 2.

About forty minutes in the bastards left the stage for a fifteen-minute intermission, and all the kids shook their heads groggily from the muppet-induced hysteria. It was then that they brought out the balloons. An army of men carrying dozens of the same mylar Elmo balloons Juniper had spotted on the ceiling emerged from cloisters at the sides of the theater, creating a feeding frenzy of children begging for and parents buying the $10 souvenirs. Juniper started walking over to a guy with the balloons all by herself, screaming for one as I dragged her back to our seats. Soon the theater behind her was filled with dispersed floating evidence that I am a lousy father. A lousy father who waited with her for the lights to dim again, feeding her cherrios, and then watching her face while the muppets reappeared and the desire for mylar diminished, and the spectacle of color, and fur, and song spread out across the stage just inches from her eyes.

Behind me a black father wooted during one skit when Cookie Monster started "rapping." I turned and saw the honest joy in his eyes as he stood up and did a little dance, enjoying the show with his two little girls as wide-eyed as mine. God it was so lame, and so awesome. We are parents. This is what we do.

The third path

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 14, 2007 | , ,

Occasionally I have to tell people what I'm doing for a living these days. I try to avoid such situations by never leaving the house, but that just makes it worse. When they do ask, I have to be honest and tell them the truth with shifty eyes and then follow my answer with some exclamation about how good it feels just to be out of the house. Usually men ask the question ("so what do you do?") And when I tell them I am home taking care of my daughter, some chuckle uncomfortably and inevitably say, "playing Mr. Mom for awhile, huh?"

That kind of happened this past weekend. There is this rich little man from Cincinnati whose antique cars my dad occasionally restores, and he came by while my dad and I were working in his shop last Saturday. When he asked me what I do, my dad answered for me: "Dutch here is playing Mr. Mom for a few months."

The rich little man obviously didn't hear him right, or perhaps he is simply accustomed to not really listening to anyone. "Oh you don't want to do that," he said. "My wife had back surgery last week and I had to take care of my son all day, let me tell you, you don't want to go anywhere near that kind of work. What a nightmare." My dad later apologized for his friend, noting that this was a man who bribes his 13-year-old son not to misbehave. In cash.

Still, I had to wonder why even my own father felt the need to explain what I was doing with my life in terms of a Martin Mull film from the 1980s, and also to place a time limit on my doing so when I have never set one for myself. He is clearly a bit uncomfortable with my choice.

I actually don't mind telling people what I do, mostly because I'm pretty comfortable with the decision. And more often than not, I discover some envy in those who ask. "That sounds so great," they say. Or, "You're so lucky. I would give anything to go back and spend those years with my kids." More and more men, it seems, are open about admitting that they would like to do what I am doing, or regretting that they didn't. I have now been doing this nearly six months, which is almost as long as Wood stayed home and I worked. But Wood always had a job on her horizon. Me, I'm trying to avoid getting her pregnant again so that I won't find myself in that 9-month endgame. I like this gig. I have no intention of going back into an office any time soon. If anything, as Juniper gets old enough for preschool, I see myself opening my own small law office but spending most of my time writing.

The one thing that does trouble me even with all the positivity about staying home I get from other men is that all the positivity seems tied to the idea that this is just a temporary phase: that I'm down on my luck but making the best of it. The underlying assumption, of course, is that the natural state of anyone with a penis is to be winning bread, and though I may have been temporarily gelded, before I know it I'll grow my balls back and they'll rest comfortably against the crotch inseam of a pair of dockers once again. One thing my favorite senior partner said to me when I quit my big law firm job was that the longer I spend away from the big firm environment, the harder it will be to get back in. "Despite what people say," he said, "these firms are still old-boys' clubs, and you will not find a lot of acceptance there for what you are doing." But the longer I spend outside of that environment, the less desire I have to return. Quitting that job feels even more significant to me now than it did at the time. I was on track to be a partner there in four or five more years, locked into a cycle of heavy work and heavier pressure. When I first arrived at the firm, I watched as a senior associate on the cusp of partnership worked until midnight every night and every weekend day. Assignments he gave would occasionally draw me into this hell. One Saturday he didn't call me into the office, but the next day I came down in the afternoon. He showed me pictures of his new son, who had been born the day before. In the maternity ward one day, in the office the next. That is the life I left.

And now I feel as though I have been cut free from that life. I can't even begin to explain how good it feels. I will go back to work eventually, and what makes that exciting for me is that I think I will be able to do it on my own terms.

The fart ref

Posted by jdg | Monday, February 12, 2007 |

When I was a kid, the word "fart" was on the same list as all those other words I wasn't allowed to say around my parents. No one in my house was allowed to use the word fart, and rather than fully exploring the wonderful euphemistic possibilities for this wholly-natural act, my family generally refrained from doing it in each other's presence altogether. Occasionally one of us would be blamed for "breaking wind," but it was more likely that one of us (or the dog) would be shamed for making a "toot." If you think "toot" sounds lame, consider it as a verb in the present perfect aspect: "Dutch has tooted." Now that's downright embarrassing. A fat kid in my Sunday School class who loved to talk to me about 18-wheelers was quite proud of his "rippers," and my 8-year-old self frequently giggled through the jealousy that he could speak of them with such pride. The black kids at my school called them "poots," which was way better than "toots." My classmates also used the wonderful phrase, "dropping bombs," as in, "damn son, you dropped a bomb!" They could have been "bombs," or "zingers," "brown thunder" or "air bagels." Anything but "toots." I vowed at an early age to never restrict the verbiage my children would use to describe their flatulence.

This early vow has turned into something of a mistake.

Juniper is obsessed with farts, her own and everyone else's. She has taken it upon herself to play the role of fart referee. As lawyers, we are accustomed to presenting evidence to a neutral arbiter. Juniper has no time for evidence or neutrality. When it comes to farts, what she says goes. The scooting leg of a chair? "Dada farted!" A poofy naugahyde seat? "Mama farted!" In mixed company, holding Juniper in my arm, I feel an air bubble travel through her diaper and pants, breaking against my forearm? "Minnie farted! A real big fart! Smells like poopoo!" Even worse, Wood's parents are much less self-conscious than my own when it comes to expelling their gas. Wood was raised to believe that "holding them in" caused "green gases" to back up and affect her brain. Thus, Wood's mother bears no compunction to let one rip under almost any circumstance. Over the weekend, this happened several times.

The bottom line: this weekend we learned we need to find a happy medium between, "Grandma has tooted!" and "Nana made big fart! It's a stinky one, too, I think!"

If you look closely, it appears the young gentleman on the right has stuffed a hot dog in his mouth to pose for the picture.

I have spent the last several days regretting that I started this weekly street urchin thing. Restoring our archives one post at a time, I started to really hate the year and a half worth of weekly urchins. But it's not their fault.

The upgrade to the new blogger has been anything but painless; it has been a lot of work that has prevented me from writing a decent post this week, but it does seem to have two major benefits: (1) we are now able to use a proper domain name for the site,; (2) we have now entered the 21st century of blogging, which means we can organize our posts into categories. Having gone through the archives, I am proud to say there is a fair bit of decent stuff there. One of the things I hate most about blogging is that it sometimes it seems like you're only as good as your last five posts. What these categories will do is allow anyone who enjoys a particular kind of post to find other ones like it that we have already written. Everyone who thinks I'm a pompous blow hard but loves my wife can click on the label Thursday Morning Wood and get rid of my ass altogether. Someone who only wants to read about her boobs can click on the boobs label. Her earliest weekly posts are here, where she transcribed the funniest notes we received from Juniper's day care provider. For quick access to all our music mixes, there is the Sweet Juniper Tunes label. For all of my photoshopped children's books, click on Sweet Juniper Media. Despite the pain it's been to manually re-post all of these entries, I think in the future these features will be nice. When I write something sentimental, I can slap a sentimental or precious label on it, and then you can go suffocate yourselves on sugar-coated wistfulness in a land of gum-drop trees down lollipop lane. Or if you want to be overwhelmed by the charm and pluck of a thousand adorable street urchins, just click on the Friday Morning Street Urchin Blogging label.

My next chore is to restore the comments. They mean too much to me to leave on haloscan's servers. I realized how much of a community this has become for us, and how much your comments add to our silly little thoughts.

Thank you for your continued patience with this.

Thursday Morning Wood

Posted by Wood | Thursday, February 08, 2007 |

We threw our alarm clock away when we left San Francisco. I hadn't used it since Juniper was born. It was old and ugly: I bought it for $10 at Target before my freshman year of college, and when we got rid of it, it still had a shamrock sticker from St. Patrick's Day '96 next to the snooze button.

We don't have an alarm clock now. Like our grandparents who could never recover from the depression, I've not recovered from the first 20 months of Juniper's life. During those months, getting her to sleep involved an elaborate combination of nursing, singing, dancing, rocking and patting. Most nights she woke up every two hours, and she was awake for the day by 5:30 a.m. These days, it only takes reading her three books and telling her one story before she willingly, and quietly, goes to sleep for an uninterrupted 12 hour stretch. Still, the idea of rising before she does seems unforgivably wasteful. Even if I've slept for 10 hours myself, I just can't bear to do it.

Juniper gets up somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00 every morning. When I hear her calling for me, usually by demanding: "Mama! Mama, say good morning!", I stumble into her room and listen to her chatter for a few minutes before we go downstairs for breakfast. She sits on the counter narrating everything I do while I make her oatmeal with frozen blueberries. Then she eats her breakfast while I read the paper and drink coffee. Sometimes she talks to the blueberries, telling the baby blueberry to listen to the dada blueberry and take a bath and go to sleep. After a half an hour or so, we head back upstairs so I can get ready for work while she plays with her toys in the bathroom sink. This whole routine means that I'm usually a few minutes late for work, but I don't care. It's my favorite part of the day.

For the last week and a half, for the first time in over two years, I've had to be somewhere before 8:00 a.m. In order to get to work on time, I set my cell phone to wake me up at 6:40 each morning. Most days this week, by the time Juniper woke up, I was already fully dressed and ready to head out the door. I greeted her for the first time in the morning wearing my hat, scarf, gloves and boots. After holding her against the stiff collar of my winter coat for a few minutes, I had to leave her with her barely-awake dad. I left each morning to the sound of her wails.

They say you have to give a new job six months before you fully adjust, before you know if it suits you. I'm nearly six months in on this job, and I like it most of the time. I'm getting used to it. I don't think I'll ever get used to leaving Juniper in the morning, though, even long after she learns to stop crying each time I reach for my keys. It hurts just as much every day as it did the day before.

Posted by jdg | Monday, February 05, 2007 |

It is -2 degrees Fahrenheit when Wood leaves for work this morning; it is the kind of day to crank the heat and let Juniper walk around all day without pants. On days like this I might not put any on either. Juniper, at least, has the excuse of a focused potty-training regimen. She only wears diapers at night and during her naps now. The rest of the day I am on constant duty, shuttling her ass to the toilet on a moment's notice.

Today could have been spent solely in such glorious pursuits, but despite the negative 20 degree wind chill I snap Juniper into her polyester winter exoskeleton, dust the snow off the salt-encrusted car, and leave the lazy comfort of our home. I have decided it is about time to fully acknowledge that we have left the brown hills of California and finally register our car here in Michigan. That means a trip to the DMV, located in a nondescript strip mall in a nearby suburb. The wait inside isn't bad, aside from the part where Juniper shouts, "Minnie go poo poo in the potty?" in front of everyone. I whisper in her ear that she can go in her diaper, but she screams and arches her back, insisting on the toilet. Begrudgingly accepting this as a good sign, I leave the line and remove her shoes and her pants and her leggings and her diaper only to sit face to face with her in front of a disgusting men's room toilet watching her release a mournful whistle of a fart and then ask me to tell her a story about "Hondo pooping." Who the fuck is Hondo? I think as I dress her. Then I remember: Hondo was a dog we met at the animal shelter the previous day whose cage was filled with enormous turds. Back in line, she resumes her demand to go poo poo on the potty. You can stew in it, I think, and say nothing.

When we get to the front of the line, the DMV employee looks at me as though I've slung a rotting goat carcass over my shoulder. She does not acknowledge my daughter, who does not stop talking throughout the transaction. Despite this, I am thrilled to learn that my BEA RTHUR vanity plate is available (DORTHY Z4NAK has too many letters). Rock on! We head out into the cold, looking into the wind hurtling along the floor-to-ceiling windows of the half-abandoned strip mall. Irish pub! Dollar store! Office Depot! Discount Party Supplies Plus! We stop in the party store to see what kind of decorations we could have had for Juniper's birthday last week if we'd had our shit together.

Inside, I'm shocked to find an entire wall of shimmering metallic balloons in the shape of every imaginable licensed character. "Elmo!" Juniper screams, and I quickly carry her towards the aisle marked "party favors." The store is huge, but I can't find a single anonymous party favor among the Spongebob Square pants twisty straws or the Disney/Pixar Cars Oil Can Squirts. I am horrified. I'm not really such a snob, but I just can't believe that we have so willingly allowed a handful of companies to completely hijack our children's imaginations. I don't look down on this stuff because it makes me feel better about myself. All it does is make me feel very sad.

Those feelings are heightened when, before we leave, an old man wearing some pretty sweet blublockers enters the store, walks right up to the cashier who is checking out another customer and asks her if she has any anniversary balloons. The girl at the register can't be bothered with him, so she yells out to a pimply kid behind another counter: "Jason, can you help this guy?" she shouts.

I watch the old fellow shuffle over while Juniper amuses herself with some out-of-season gewgaws in the clearance bin.

"Do you have any anniversary balloons?" he asks again.

"You want nylon or mylar?" Jason responds, hardly looking up at his customer.

"I'm looking for a sixtieth anniversary balloon. Today is my sixtieth wedding anniversary."

"I don't think we have any specific anniversaries," said Jason. "We got some nylon balloons that just say Happy Anniversary, or we've got these mylar ones. Wait, in the mylar we do have some specific ones. Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty. Forty. That's it."

"Oh. We've been married sixty years today. She was my high school sweetheart, but she's in a nursing home now. You think they'd let me bring some of those into the nursing home?"

"I have no idea," says the kid. "Probably."

"Give me two that say happy thirtieth anniversary," he chuckles. "She won't know the difference." Jason just starts blowing up the balloons.

I watch the old man as he watches the kid blow up his happy anniversary balloons. I am not at all surprised by the lack of humanity in the service he has just received. That is something I am accustomed to. What shocks me is that he made any effort at all, that he hasn't yet been worn down to expect the transaction to be no more than the exchange of cash for a good. I imagine he remembers a time in his eighty-odd years when salespeople actually knew their customers, perhaps even cared about them. I look at Jason, who has finished pumping helium into the second heart-shaped balloon and is now twisting a tiny piece of plastic at its nape. It is not his fault. He is being paid virtually nothing. Someone in his position could have been nice, but he certainly isn't being paid for it. The paucity of his wages simply provides the affordability of the goods. That is all. Most of us have come to expect no more than indifference from the likes of him. I look around the interior of this store. A bird has escaped the weather and sits on a bare metal girder of the ceiling.

Once in awhile something happens that reminds me of why I feel the way I do about these chain stores beyond all the pedantry and elitism. Sometimes it feels like we have exchanged some of our humanity to save a few lousy dollars.

The kid rings up the old man. The old man hands over a ten dollar bill and gets some change. The kid hands over the balloons and says, "There you go. Have a nice day."

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Helen Levitt, New York, 1972.

Alphabet Book Update

Posted by jdg | Friday, February 02, 2007 | ,

If anyone really wants a hard copy of the alphabet book I posted about the other day, I've added the images to a lulu book that will be printed and bound on a made-to-order basis for $8.73. That is pure cost---I am not making a red cent from this, and I am only doing it because so many people expressed an interest in owning a copy. I have no experience with lulu or any idea about how good of a job they do. I think there is also a $1.91 media mail shipping charge on top of the manufacturing cost. If anyone knows of a cheaper way to do this where a third-party handles everything and I don't have to make or mail anything, please let me know. Click here or on the image below to order a copy.

I have two other similar books about half finished, and I should be posting them both in the next couple of months. And now I have ideas for about ten more. Thanks for all the positive feedback.

Wood's in trial, so her post this week is delayed. Have a good weekend.

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Sweet Juniper's Alphabet

Posted by jdg | Thursday, February 01, 2007 | , ,

As you may have figured from that video Wood posted, we're big on the alphabet around here these days. This week I was really getting sick of all the stupid alphabet books we had been reading, so I decided to make my own. Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of Nikki McClure's Awake to Nap and Michael De Feo's Alphabet City, but despite the latter's lovely urban scenery, the subject verbiage itself is a bit humdrum for my taste. Like most alphabet books, the words tend to be either zoological or agricultural. I wanted to create a book for a kid, like mine, who is growing up in a dirty-ass city and who already knows the names of all the animals in the zoo and in the Big Red Barn. De Feo (who did create the beautiful paste-ups for his book) simply doesn't use very many words that aren't that different from those in all of the other alphabet books I've seen. The letter N, for example, is represented in De Feo's book by a nest. Every alphabet book uses a nest for the letter N. Juniper and I seem to be in agreement that nests are kind of irrelevant. I feel it is much more important for her to identify other things that start with the letter N, such as ninjas:

Now if our home is ever attacked by a group of numb-chuck-wielding, star-throwing ninjas, Juniper can shout out a warning that could save all our lives. The same is true for this one:

You traditionalists can teach your kids about all the zebras all you want, but my kid is going to know how to identify a zombie wearing underwear as soon as she sees one. And anyone who has seen a Romero film knows how important a few seconds of warning can be when fending off zombies. The same theory works for mummies, pirates, robots, economists, vikings, and yeti. You won't find them in any other alphabet books, but you will find them in ours. I also threw in some hard words like Gnome and Knight just to mess with her head.

Now I don't want to hear any bullshit about how my kid is going to need therapy or how I'm so politically incorrect etc. etc. ad nauseam. We get plenty of e-mails about that every week. If you have an inclination to point something like that out, just remember you're not as clever as you think you are. Seriously: yawn.

For the past few months whenever I see a painting or a stencil of something that would make a good subject word in an alphabet book, I have snapped a picture. I have so much gratitude for the amazing artists who are out there creating these beautiful works in our streets for little or no recognition, risking so much just to make our cities a little more colorful and interesting.

In a few days I'll probably post some pictures on flickr to show how I turned these images into an actual book, but for now if you have any interest in making one yourself, using or adapting any of the images, or just getting a closer look, click on the 4-paneled jpegs below for high-res downloadable images.

Juniper and I had a lot of fun making this (I knew which images to choose when she pointed at the screen and said, "who's THAT guy?"). Enjoy.

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