It seems that only when all your other needs are met, then you can start really worrying about how to decorate your house. Some experts say the cave paintings at Lascaux were incantations to gods, a way to ensure that the animals appearing on the walls would appear on the plains during the next hunt. But how can anyone know? I'd be willing to bet that those Gallic troglodytes were just well-fed and bored.
I have spent the last several weeks painting walls, rearranging furniture, considering new floors, and cleaning obsessively (anything to avoid writing). But I wasn't always this way.
I recently borrowed a scanner from my father-in-law (figuring he wouldn't need it during the second round of chemotherapy), and started scanning pictures from the last decade of my life. As I looked back on these pictures from college in the late nineties and beyond, it became clear that when surviving on $5,000 a year, you can't account for much in the way of good taste, either with how you dress or decorate your home. At least everything on my body or in my home looked exactly like what it was: two sizes too big and still smelling of thrift store. We did have a great affordable furniture store in town with a warehouse full of wild vintage crap and a showroom full of panther sculptures and brand-new purple velvet armchairs. One time Wood bought a "funky" vintage Swan chair repro for $15 and we didn't tie it down in the back of her truck so on the highway home we watched in the mirrors as it tumbled into the passing lane, shattering into pieces and rolling onto the median without disrupting traffic too much. We were lucky, however, that the salesman who sold her the Jacobsen-knockoff had thrown in a 1960s hairdryer chair, the kind old ladies once used to gossip in, nodding their curlered heads disapprovingly under steel bowls. It was free, and very heavy, and no threat to crush a tailgater's windshield.
That chair sat in her apartment under a patchouli-soaked Asian wall-hanging for years. When she moved she gave it to one of the aging prostitutes from the motel across the street who used to wait for rides home on Wood's front porch. We watched her drag it off into the sunset. She sure was excited. I'm sure it still has a good home.
But looking at the photos of myself in tapered thrift-store khakis standing in front of what passed for decoration in the houses I lived in with other men (posters with clever sayings about beer! inflatable furniture! ) and with my now-wife (matching maroon leather couch and recliner! A framed Klimt poster!) I am humbled. These were the days of empty liquor bottles on the mantle. I was so earnest and clueless. When poor, I guess I had more important things to worry about.
That is not to say that rich people are the only ones with good taste. I have stared long and hard at Walker Evans' photographs and understood that the dirt poor were the first true minimalists, long before Donald Judd was a pup and Wal-Mart made it affordable for everyone to be tacky. Because I had no sense of taste myself, it always seemed like the best way to decorate your house would be to take a middle-aged black woman to that store with the panther mirrors and velvet furniture and pick her brain for ideas, or drag one of those guys who sell Nascar tapestries out of conversion vans down by highway interchanges down to Big Lots and tell him money is no object. Either one could make a house so much cooler than some dipshit like me with a DWR catalog and some color swatches. I was driving alone to lake Michigan a few nights ago and I passed the house of the septuagenarian farmer who used to sell me pumpkins as a kid. His name was Gene Rhodes, and he still drives a 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood painted bright orange. His barn is orange. He only wears orange clothes. It was about 8:30 p.m. and I could see into about five windows of his farm house. In that brief moment it looked gloriously like hell's country kitchen. When asked about living with all that orange, Gene the Pumpkin Man once said, "I can do it and get away with it, so I do it. I always liked the color orange." I have hung out in trailers that looked as though they were decorated solely with items purchased (or more likely, won) at county fairs. These are the true visionaries, people.
Looking at the old photographs I've been scanning, it is easy to mock the decor, the furniture, or the subject's glasses, hairstyle, and clothes, particularly if you are the subject and consider your taste and wisdom to have improved with age. But I sometimes question this instinct. As with any derision, I wonder if it isn't sourced in some insecurity. That kid in those photos, he is still hungry. His needs aren't met: he has a hunger for sex and beer, ramen noodles and pizza, even poetry. Here is a boy so filled with passion for life he reads good poetry and writes plenty of bad. Nevertheless, he thinks it acceptable to read and write poetry! He makes translations from Greek and Latin on his own and gives them to his girlfriend because he's found some relevance in the ancient words. He dreams and yearns for things far greater than money. And yet he knows so little of the world and the compounded genius of others that he believes his ideas revolutionary, his thoughts new. This fire in his brain and in his belly obscures the ugliness of where he lives. He is still hungry for his future. Thread counts do not matter. All he needs is a bed to fuck and dream in.
As a new homeowner, I've spent so much time with color palettes, paused too long on HGTV while flipping channels. I have looked for midcentury pottery on eBay. Last Sunday I sat cramped in the backseat of our Volkswagen, my rib cage and lungs practically penetrated by the carseat, with the baby and the dog back there with me, while a vintage Herman Miller chair I picked up for $5 rested comfortably in the roomy passenger seat up front. This was the second such journey we have made from that side of the state this month. "I suffer for good design," I proclaimed halfway through the 120 mile journey. I have become a man who loves to buy beautiful things as cheaply as possible and make our home as beautiful as I can. I am always hauling unnecessary shit into our house. I have called Wood from a junk shoppe asking her what she would think about me bringing home some five foot letters from an old supermarket sign or a giant painting of the disembodied head of a sea captain looking wistfully out to sea at a lonely boat tossed by the waves. I have showed up with spider-filled dish stackers from old cafeterias and instead of a desk I use a 1960s scoring table recovered from a bowling alley that was being torn down. I now have more chairs than friends.
And yet I can remember a time when I didn't give a damn about a chair so long as it didn't collapse under me. I am sure that there will come a day when I will look back on pictures of this time of my life and think about how lucky I was to have the time and money to worry about furniture and the color of our walls.
Every kid in the neighborhood was out in the park last night: two preteen girls practiced pitching a baseball, two elementary-aged sisters trudged through cedar chips on roller skates, watching Juniper and her friend who's a mere two weeks younger than her surreptitiously exchanging the toys they brought with them in full denial of the fact that they were sharing. More kids showed up, all girls. The only kids missing were the internationally-famous techno DJ's daughters (they were staying with their grandmother in another part of town). At one point, every kid from the neighborhood sat on the spinning merry-go-round. And no one fell off. I attribute this to our neighborhood's lack of boys.
Dogs chased down the things their masters had thrown for them. Old ladies were out there walking, some with old husbands. New mothers pushed strollers filled with babies that might have never seen seventy-five degrees and sunny. The air was pungent with smoking mesquite and hickory and pork, while young black men hovered over the wobbling air of barbecue grills and their kids took turns driving one of those miniature motorized hummers up and down the sidewalk. Two male robins danced in midair, grasping and clawing one another, squabbling over a female. Two college-aged girls shed their sleeves and emerged from their homes for a walk in the kind of tank tops and short shorts only college-aged girls, blissfully ignorant and robust in their youth, can get away with. Juniper was wearing sandals and that dress she wore at the Utah salt flats. The fact that we could now see more of her legs ensured us that our miniature child was, indeed, growing. Even here in downtown Detroit, where some would consider it child abuse to raise a kid, our daughter was growing into her own person.
There was not a single leaf on any tree, but there were flowers that had managed to bloom in the course of a few hours, after a wet and muggy morning. The first thing I did yesterday was shave off my miserable winter beard. Wearing a ridiculous Morgan Spurlock mustache, I then took the kid and the dog out for a walk. Juniper wore her new boots for an activity she likes to call "puddle trouble." It is exactly how it sounds, but much to her consternation the dog is far better at it than she is. She picked up a frail twig and told me she had a "mighty stick." Ever since the incident with the wild dogs, she has been obsessed with mighty sticks. By the time we returned from our walk through the park later that evening to get Stroh's ice cream, after eleven hours above seventy degrees, I could already feel the stubble of my beard growing back.
All day I had a strange urge to refill our birdfeeder and start gardening.
I am not a man to grow sentimental about the weather. Ordinarily I loathe the cold because it keeps me inside and I resent the sun for making me feel guilty about missing a moment of it. San Francisco weather suited me well. But in five years, this is the first time I have seen the spring. And to see all these people together, so different but all so similarly thrilled simply with the sun on their skin, here together defying the sense of a city that has spread to everyone who doesn't live here. You will, I hope, indulge me if I enjoy it for just a moment.
Does this mean that someday people who can't dance will be able to get a microchip implanted in their butt that will fully remedy such a shortcoming? If so, that stinks, because my ability to find the beat and wiggle like this robot is one of the few things that I can do better than Dutch.
(click on that link to watch a cute robot dancing to one of Dutch's favorite Spoon songs. If you don't find yourself bopping along with the little yellow guy, then perhaps no microchip can help you.)
(Thanks to Laura from Merge Records for sending the link---Juniper and I have been watching this all morning.)
(Dutch wants to add the following: "as long as you are linking to videos, please tell everyone to go watch this one, sent to me by Laurie many months ago")
"Slow to warm," said the pediatrician as Juniper kept her head buried in Wood's chest for the fifth consecutive minute since the good doctor entered the examination room. I have never heard of a physician performing an examination without actually seeing the face of her patient, but apparently it's possible. Juniper could have had a lazy eye and a cleft palate that would have gone undiagnosed. We described to the pediatrician the hundreds of times we've sat in shrug-filled horror as our child screamed "No! No lady look at me! No lady look!" whenever a stranger wanted to pay her a little attention. I mentioned how a kid at the community recreation center punched her solidly in the gut, and ever since that day whenever we encounter another kid, she asks with trepidation, "that kid won't hurt me, will he?" I might have also mentioned that she even seems a little afraid of squirrels.
Although admittedly heartwarming at times, Juniper's desperate cry of, "Dada keep me nice and safe!" has less emotional resonance when, say, the set of grandparents she sees the least have just driven across three states to see her and I have been looking forward to a morning of uninterrupted computer time while they play with her. She wouldn't let me leave the room. She seems to have this irrational fear that we are going to leave her with every unfamiliar person she encounters. I say irrational, because we have hardly ever left her with anyone.
"Slow to warm" seems euphemistic to me. Juniper is not a rump roast in a crockpot. At her very best, she is shy. Typically, when confronted with someone other than me, Wood or Logan Summers she seems anxious. At her worst, she makes Boo Radley look like Bill Clinton. It is not surprising, given that by all reports Wood and I were both shy kids. And we are both still shy in unfamiliar social situations. But I have also considered the possibility that Juniper is the way she is because we've really never left her with strangers. During her seven months of daycare, she would only tolerate the one wonderful man who took care of her. On days he was sick she would just cry all day, and one of us would have to come get her. When she was older and we once left her with the drop-in daycare provided as a benefit of my old job, we returned to find her slumped in the corner screaming while the surly Asian teen who was supposed to be taking care of her scuttled over to pretend she had been giving her attention. The tears that had dried on the collar of her shirt and the exhaustion when she finally came to rest on my shoulder proved that had not been the case. In San Francisco, we had no family to rely on, no friends willing to sacrifice a night out on the town. Wood and I have never left her with a babysitter while she was awake. We can count on our fingers the number of times we've been out together after dark these past two years. We have returned from many of those dates hours early because she woke up and refused to return to sleep, filling the sitter with constant queries about our present location. We have just grown accustomed to drinking at home.
In a lot of ways this reminds me of our sleep predicament. One could argue we are coddling her, that she has trained us to submit to her demands and that we should just be tough, let her "cry it out" with some poor stranger without any comfort from us, and then she'd see everything is okay in some Weissbluthian epiphany. To those who'd say so, I say you don't know this child. It isn't just that she is strong-willed; it isn't just that as parents we have a weakness for hearing her screaming as though she were a child wandering without her parents through the streets of Troy during its final burning hours. I think this is just a part of who she is, and that someday she will grow out of it naturally. At least, I hope she does. I won't be able to deal with this shit when she's thirty.
One of my earliest memories is being taken to a babysitter's house at about Juniper's age, where I was left in a room to "take a nap" all afternoon. I can still remember how much I hated it there. One day when we got to the babysitter's house and my mom got out of the car I locked all the doors. The keys were still in the ignition. To this day, my mom doesn't think I locked the doors on purpose---she thinks I was too young. But I knew what I was doing. I remember being in that car when the police officer came and jimmied the door open. I remember watching them from inside, not wanting to get out.
I gave Juniper these genes. Now I figure it's the least I can do to suffer for that gift.
The Cowherd, Part 3, in which Saint Patrick causes Dutch to betray his own countryman for twenty quidPosted by jdg | Saturday, March 17, 2007 | Cowherd , Reminiscin'
This is the third part of the story of the time I spent as a cowherd on a dysfunctional farm in western Ireland in 1998. The first part is here, the second, "in which Dutch conquers the Irish countryside riding on the shoulders of a gentleman who has just consumed 23 pints of Guinness" is here.
After I had been living in Aideen's barn for a few months, one morning she told me I would be getting a roommate. I already considered Christopher the Bull, who slept in his own filth on the other side of a plywood wall, to be my roommate. There was another bed in the barn, a low, lumpy thing that made my own duvet-covered pile of hay look like a King-sized canopy bed at the Waldorf-Astoria.
"He's Swiss," Aideen told me, which gave me the shivers. All summer, old Swiss men wandering around Ireland wearing funny little feathered caps and biker shorts while yodeling had been stopping by the farm to ask if they could exchange a day's work for a meal and a warm bed. Aideen, who was thankfully as repulsed as I was by these creepy European hobos, always shooed them to the end of the driveway with her broom. Apparently, though, today she'd broken down and accepted such an offer. Aideen, after all, wouldn't have to sleep in the same room as him. This was all I needed: some pie-faced Helvetian on walkabout lecturing me about human rights while unpacking his alphorn every night.
A few hours later, I saw a vigorous-looking couple hugging a teenage boy in blue camouflage parachute pants near a rental car parked between the bed and breakfast and the barn. The slim mother had tears in her eyes, and the boy clutched a simple duffel bag. "That's him," Aideen said to me in the kitchen. "Thomas is his name. He's fifteen."
I went off to the fields to do that day's work, and when I came back later in the afternoon Thomas was sitting in the barn, unpacking his small bag. I shook his hand while he unfolded a pair of electric pink camouflage parachute pants. I looked at the rest of his clothes. In addition to a few t-shirts and a sweatshirt, all he had were four more pairs of camouflage pants in neon green, purple, yellow, and orange. It looked as though he were returning from a recon mission to the late 1980s. I tried to make small talk with him while he unpacked the rest of his things: an entire library of books by or about Bruce Lee: Bruce Lee's Fighting Method 1-5; Chinese Gung-Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self Defense; The Tao of Jeet Kune Do; Jeet Kune Do: The Principles of a Complete Fighter. He pulled out a small framed portrait of Bruce Lee and hung it on the wall where he had leaned his martial arts library, creating a small shrine where during the next few weeks he would spend many hours each day performing various karate chops and poorly-balanced kicks.
"I come here to learn English," he said apologetically. "I stay five months."
I responded to him in German: "Oh, Thomas, you can't learn English from these bog Irish. I don't even understand what they're saying 90 percent of the time."
Thomas pulled out his last possession, a dog-eared soft core porn magazine filled with a number of sturdy-looking Teutonic women in various stages of undress. "Nice pussy, right?" he said to me in English. "Titties!" It quickly became apparent that his limited grasp of the English language came from pornos and dubbed-English kung-fu movies. Now he was going to fill in the gaps with what he could glean from Aideen's filthy farm talk and Tessie's ancient Gaelic-infused Cancer-obsessed dialect?
I wished I could fast forward five months just to have a conversation with him.
But I quickly grew to hate Thomas. Aside from his virginal pestering about sex ("I bet pussy feel so good around the penis, does it?"---he pronounced penis like "pen is") , he was a really good worker, and this made me look bad. He could clean a room in half the time it took me. Further, he was Catholic. He went to mass with them every week while I nursed hangovers. This meant Tessie and Aideen loved him far more than this heathen. Around the dinner table, all talk of sex stopped, and he would turn on the charm. "In four years," he would say, "I join the Schweizergarde," looking to me to translate. "The Swiss soldiers in the Vatican who protect the Pope," I sighed as Aideen and Tessie made the sign of the cross and blessed him. I looked across the table at the little kiss ass and chortled at the thought of him in those uniforms (the Swiss, it seems, feel compelled to issue their only military regiment carrying blades longer than 3.5 inches the uniforms of a medieval court jester).
Luckily, there was only one bike on the farm, so if Thomas wanted to come to the pub with me he had to run. I told him Bruce Lee ran ten miles a day and he would try to keep up with me as I coasted on the ancient, rusty Raleigh down to Doolin or Lisdoonvarna, past scarps and clints and grykes and the ruins of cottages set back in limestone-strewn fields. Sometimes I took the scenic route along the sea, making the excuse that I needed to check on the lame heifer in one of Aideen's distant fields. On the way back the bike tire was always deflated so we both walked, our pockets empty of coin.
The Swiss boy's efficiency in the bed and breakfast meant I could focus more on the farming tasks, which is why I had come to Ireland in the first place. I had wanted to learn how to tend crops and make cheese; instead I was set to counting cows and building walls. "I need a wall rebuilt in the field down by the Spa," Aideen said to me one Sunday in late July before she and Tessie and Thomas left for mass. I'm going to send to Paddy Nieland and have him show you what to do."
"Where's Davey?" I asked. Davey O'Dwyer usually showed me what I needed to do on the farm.
"He's off at Croagh Patrick." Every July, she told me, Davey climbed the mountain barefoot with thousands of others. "He's never missed a pilgrimage," Aideen said. More than fifteen centuries ago, St. Patrick was supposed to have spent 40 days and 40 nights in penance on its peak. The feet of the pilgrims have left a white gash in the mountain side that can be seen for miles. "But don't you worry. Paddy is the master wall-builder in these parts." I was thrilled. I was going to learn from a master wall-builder! What an authentic experience!
Patrick Nieland silently drove me out to the small field protected by three sturdy walls of stone and one that was crumbling. He was a young farmer who wore an AC/DC t-shirt and smoked constantly. He didn't say a word to me, even after we'd gotten out of the car and walked over to the wall that had collapsed outward into a neighboring field. He started rebuilding the wall like he was some kind of fucking stone whisperer. He held the stone up to his face as if to smell it, his eyes closed, then gaging the stone against the rest of the wall, settling it on the previous layer of limestone as if it were a Fabergé egg. I noticed that the new wall he was building was three or four feet deeper into the neighboring field. Then Patrick Nieland grunted at me, letting me know it was my turn to try. I fitted four or five stones into the wall as he had done, ensuring the balance of each was supported by those next to and below it.
"Not like that, yeh fuckin' spaz," he said to me, and proceeded to place a few more in a manner indiscernible from what I had just done, aside from the chanting and holding each stone up like a golfer using his club to measure the angle to the hole. He grunted again for me to copy him, pretending there was some kind of majestic poetry in placing stones. "All right," he said finally, then went up and down the wall, kicking what remained standing into the neighboring field.
"I would have come out here and kicked down the rest of this wall myself," he said, "but I was piss drunk last night."
I didn't know what to say. I wanted to know why he was knocking down a wall only to have me rebuild it. The Irish seem mad for building walls, as if they had no better use for their energy. The limestone of the burren is great for building walls: large stones flake off the earth and fit and balance easily without any mortar and stand for many years. Besides the lingering feeling that this was a futile and pointless effort, I felt very proud of the wall I was building.
"If you see a car on that road over there, hunker down behind the wall," Paddy said as he continued to work alongside me.
"Why are you knocking down the wall?" I finally asked him.
"I knock down this wall every year," he answered.
"Why? Why are we rebuilding three feet into this other field?"
"Look: he said. Don't tell anyone of this. This field over there is owned by an American. He never comes around."
He didn't need to say another word. He just handed me a 20-pound note. I took it, and built a beautiful wall that would not stand longer than a year.
Dutch: I forgot to bid on that lamp on eBay for you.
Wood: It's okay. We'll find another one.
Dutch: I just don't know if I can figure out how to wire something like that without hiring an electrician.
Wood: What do you mean? What's so hard about it?
Dutch: There are wires from the wall that will need to hook up to wires in the lamp. I don't know if I can do that.
Wood: Electrical tape. That's all you need.
Dutch: I'm listening.
Wood: My dad taped wires together all the time when I was a kid. With electrical tape.
Dutch: Sounds pretty dangerous.
Wood: Electrical tape and wires are some of my strongest memories of childhood with my dad. He was always stringing some kind of wires together.
Dutch: Like how he had household stereo speakers in his Suzuki Swift when you and I started dating?
Wood: Yes, exactly. Oh, and no memory of being a kid with my dad is complete without fuzz busters and CBs. Oh, and fuses too. We were always blowing fuses in the car and searching around on the floor to replace them. And there was that one summer where we drove around to all the junkyards in western Pennsylvania searching for a replacement clutch for his Yugo. And then there was that one time we got stuck in a terrible rainstorm and the Renault's windshield wipers didn't work so we hid under a highway overpass so he could tie a shoelace to his wiper and pull it manually through a crack in his window.
Dutch: Dear God woman, now I understand how you can be so patient with me.
Right before we moved into our new home last September, another young couple moved from Brooklyn into a house just around the corner from us. They are in their late twenties or early thirties, both are architects, and they have a dog, but no kid.
We had them over for drinks last fall. They hosted us a few weeks later when the Tigers were in the World Series. And then winter set in, and we closed our doors, cranked our heat up, and stopped running into each other in the park. The girl works a few blocks away from me, and for the last 3 months, we've tried to schedule a lunch date. At first I lost her card and was too lazy to knock on her door and get another one. When we finally communicated and set a date, we both cancelled on each other several times. Last week, on the morning of our long-awaited lunch, I ran into her while she was walking her dog and I was walking Wendell. She looked pale and ill, and tried talking to me about our new dog for a minute or two before she had to excuse herself. She felt dizzy, she said, and sick to her stomach. Later that morning she called and told me she hadn't been able to go into work because she was too sick, so we had to reschedule again.
La La! I sang in my head: She's pregnant! I was thrilled, both at the prospect of another baby in our neighborhood (there aren't many), and also at my sleuthing. I'm so clever, I told myself. Dizzy, lightheaded, with a side of nausea? During the morning dog walk? What else could it be?
A few days later, we resumed our scheduling emails. She apologized for canceling, and explained that she'd had a virus but now was better. I was crushed. She wasn't pregnant, and I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. Before I knew it, I confessed all of this to her in a response email. It went something like this:
"A virus! Too bad. I thought you were pregnant, and I was so excited! Ha! I can't believe I told you that! How's next Friday work for you?"
And then several days passed, and I didn't hear a word from her.
So I told Dutch the whole story. And when I got to the part about the email, he interrupted me. "You didn't TELL her you hoped she was pregnant, did you?" He had a look on his face like he thought I was about to tell him that I'd left the plastic baggie containing Wendell's morning dump in her mailbox in retribution for cancelling so many lunch dates.
He then laid out the two main reasons why I should not have said anything about any pregnancy that I imagined, hoped for, or suspected.
1) This couple is from Brooklyn, and they're architects. They are too cool for babies, and are probably members of the "childfree" cult who cannot tolerate children or people talking about their children, let alone even consider creating one.
2) You should never be the first to utter the word "pregnant" about a woman you're not close friends with and who has not mentioned the word first. (I'm the girl! How could I forget this rule?)
Dutch assured me that I'd never hear from her again, and that our friendship with the other young couple was over before it'd begun.
But! Then this week she emailed me back, said my email made her laugh out loud, and that I must have a "sixth sense" (her words), and that the "now or later?" baby conversation was happening in her living room nightly.
I was relieved, but I had to wonder what had come over me. Very few of my girlfriends have had kids, and all of Dutch's local guy friends are still far from getting married. Virtually no one from our old life has joined us in this new one. If parenthood is a cult, apparently I'm on the recruitment committee.
Next up: suggesting to her that we coordinate her first pregnancy with my (yet to be scheduled) second one. If that doesn't creep her out, we're sure to be friends for life.
"I think we got the best one," Nicholas Cage's character says in Raising Arizona, referring to the baby he and his wife (whose insides were a rocky place where his seed could find no purchase) have just stolen from fixture magnate Nathan Arizona. Despite the circumstances, it is a sentiment that I have seen reflected in the world beyond the Coen brothers' imagination. In a Washington Post magazine article I read over a year ago, a woman recounted the embarrassing story of what her husband said on a bus full of other newly-adoptive parents driving around Beijing: "Does everyone think they got the best one?" Then, when friends they have convinced to adopt from China return to the U.S., the first thing the new mother says is, "Oh my God, we got the best one!"
Before I became a parent, I was uncomfortable with that kind of talk; it had the ring of conspicuous consumption: as though one were talking about a new pickup truck or a piece of high-end furniture. How could every kid be the best? I wondered. It made no sense.
Last night, Wood and I were talking about our new dog, who has acclimated to our home far better than we could have hoped. He is so well-mannered and easy to love. I remembered walking through the shelter, staring down at the wide-eyed pups desperate for us to bring them home and save them from the needle and the 50-gallon barrel of hazardous waste that would otherwise be their fate. I had wanted to save each of them, but something about Wendell spoke to us. Talking about what a good dog he is, I said to Wood, "We got the best one."
"Just like our kid," she said back to me. She was sleepy. "And that's how I feel about you, too."
I remember when Wood and I had just started dating nearly eleven years ago. She was an eighteen-year-old counselor at a camp for severely disabled kids. I would drive across the state to see her almost every weekend in my mom's 1994 Cutlass Ciara and steal her away for the 24 hours she had free from changing adult-sized diapers and comforting paralyzed eleven-year olds from Detroit who'd been shot in the spine when they were four but were terrified by the sounds of the forest at night. This was a time when we would literally stay up all night like they do in R&B songs. We would drive up and down the shore of Lake Huron. I would take pictures of her. I took so many that in several of them she looks a little embarrassed, tussling her hair and scrunching her shoulders a bit uncomfortably. I wanted to document the miracle that was happening to me. I wasn't sure how it happened, but I was sure I had found the best one. And I had.
I realize now this is just part of what it means to fall in love. Negatives slip away like dead skin. You don't even notice they're gone. You are left with the overwhelming evidence that you've got the best one. Logic dictates that not every husband, or wife, or child can be the best one. Yet in the face of that terrible logic, belief persists.
That belief drives us to document it, to photograph the object as proof. It may drive us to share those photographs with strangers (even thousands of them). Though a belief may be illogical does not make it untrue. It is true for all of us. The moment every child enters the world, two insufferable blowhards are born. That's just the way it is.
One thing Wood hated about our dentist in California was that he would not take her hints about the teeth-whitening. Every six months, she could be assured of some hygienist scraping her teeth for half an hour, a new toothbrush, and a few seconds with the actual dentist who would give a cursory glance at the inside of her mouth, tell her everything looked acceptable, and then start his pitch about his office's teeth whitening services. "Does my insurance cover it?" she would ask.
"No," he would respond, "but it's only $1600 per session and the results are guaranteed."
With me, it never even got to the point of teeth whitening. He'd look into my mouth, wince, shake his head a bit, and poke at my teeth with his scraper: "You're going to need braces or all your teeth are going to fall out."
"All of them?"
"All of them."
I never had braces as a kid, and the thought of walking around San Francisco in my twenties with my teeth covered in metal terrified me more than the thought of walking around a bedentured old man. The fact that my insurance didn't cover orthodontic work sealed the deal, and I accepted my fate as a toothless old man. Still, every time I saw the dentist he insisted that I make an appointment for an orthodontic consultation. I would make the appointment, but never show. So for both Wood and I, that great feeling you get when you walk out of a teeth cleaning, (that feeling like you should go sit in a 1994 cutlass ciara and make out for three and a half hours until the car's more humid than a Turkish schvitz) was always tempered by the knowledge that our dentist thought we were a couple of snaggletoothed troglodytes. Most people fear dentists because of pain. We feared the dentist because of his judgment.
On Friday we had our first appointment with a Detroit dentist. Juniper sat with one of us in the waiting room while the other went off to get their teeth cleaned by the dentist himself. There wasn't even a hygienist in his office. As he cleaned my teeth, I began to wonder if he hadn't just returned from an archaeological dig in the north of England where he'd been analyzing the extant teeth on skulls of sixth-century Anglo-Saxon peasants. "Damn!" he shouted. "These are some mighty fine teeth. When's the last time you had a cavity, when you were eight?" I told Detroit dentist that San Francisco dentist had insisted I get braces. He laughed. "Braces? These teeth are perfect. Perfect enough, anyway."
Similarly, Detroit dentist scoffed at the idea that Wood needed tooth whitening, or even an x-ray. He just looked at her teeth and said, "I won't expose you to any unnecessary radiation. I've been doing this for thirty years and I know good teeth when I see them." We walked out of there with clean teeth, feeling so good we made out in the front seat of the car for like three minutes before Juniper started hitting us in the head with her duck umbrella.
Detroit dentist may be a total quack, but we won't be seeking a second opinion.
One of the softest spots in my heart belongs to failing small businesses. On Friday and Saturday nights in San Francisco, most young professional couples dine at the city's hot spots, putting their names on lists and being seen before being seated. But on most weekend nights, you would not have found Wood or I among them. If you had a penchant for staring into empty restaurants in unhip neighborhoods, you might have seen us dining at the Korean place where no one but us seemed to eat, extending exaggerated compliments to the wait staff, or perhaps getting take out from the Thai place down the street that sat two or three tables a night. I can't stand seeing a stranger stumble under the weight of a small-business loan, open his doors to the public, stand by eagerly by waiting for everyone to walk in and make his dreams come true, and then have far fewer souls walk through those doors than he ever thought possible. At one point a Chinese guy opened up an Italian restaurant around the corner from us. He called it "Happy Chef." The place was decorated with dull color photographs taken in his kitchen of his whole overambitious menu: gray "osso bucco," a lot of misspelled clam-based pasta dishes, and a very questionable-looking "cioppino." The first week "Happy Chef" opened, a thief smashed the front window and broke into their cash register. So we started eating there all the time. We are pity-based consumers. I like my money to stand against a tide of failure rather than line some dickhead's already-flush coffers.
So Detroit can be hard on a guy like me. The city itself is like an empty restaurant.
Yesterday, Juniper, Wendell, and I left Detroit to go thrifting in Sanilac County. Here in the lower peninsula of Michigan we have maps in the flattened palm of our right hands. This is particularly true when referring to small towns, whose locations can be communicated by pointing to their general vicinity outside the bottom thumb-knuckle of Detroit. Yesterday we headed straight up into the heart of the thumb.
The problem with living in the city of Detroit is that you have to drive 30 miles in any direction to get out of the suburbs. People blame the dilapidated and abandoned state of Detroit on a downturn in the auto industry and poor economic conditions, but when I drive through the ring of suburbs around Detroit, all I see is a robust economy based on Best Buys, Home Depots, Wal-Marts, Outback Steak Houses, Olive Gardens, et al. The money is here, it's just not here. There is not a single big-box store in the city of Detroit: not because the city wouldn't love to have one, but because no big-box retailers have any interest in this community or its consumers. Instead, retail in Detroit is mostly a hodgepodge of Um-and-Abu dollar stores, beauty supply shops, chain drug stores, and small grocery and liquor stores. In that way, Detroit resembles a dimmed shadow of what it must have been like before this chain-and-franchise retail age: a lot of individual people slugging it out against the odds to scrape together a living under economic conditions no retailer based in Connecticut or Delaware would have the sack to touch.
Still, driving north, once you get out into the true country where changing economies have created shrinking towns, things start to look like Detroit again: abandoned buildings, a startling lack of chain and franchised restaurants and stores (at least in the towns themselves), and many of the kinds of businesses that find their way into that soft spot in my heart. I love the guy hawking jerkies from a shack on the side of the road near Almont, the hairstylist in Marlette who sells tombstones to the bereaved of Sanilac County from his barber shop. But most of all I love the junk shop entrepreneurs, the people who collect the detritus of our discarding society and try to slip it back into the stream of commerce: exersaucers that were on Wal-Mart's shelves last winter; Sylvania tube televisions; Paul McCobb credenzas hauled away from some dead lady's living room. A guy named Charlie in Marlette was reading a 20-year-old paperback called something like How to Get Rich by Being Cheap when I walked into his thrift store.
This was my kind of guy.
Everything in the store was well-tagged and reasonably priced. He entered each of my purchases into a form on his laptop and then printed me a receipt on an old Lexmark ink jet. I filled the car with chairs to re-upholster and bags of 1970s plastic dish ware, forcing Wendell to sit next to Juniper's car seat, which was to his benefit, he realized, after the first piece of Pirate's Booty slipped from her grasp.
On the way home, I remembered how much I love driving through the country. I used to do this all the time, I thought. In college and law school, Wood and I would just head off in one direction or another, stop at antique shops and greasy spoons, drive past old brick farmhouses and imagine a life raising kids in the country. Living in San Francisco, I retained this Rome rus optas attitude. I would imagine settling with Juniper in a small town, a place where one day we might actually be able to make some kind of impact, either become one of those pathetic small town business types ourselves or at least shovel our money into their sieves. We drove past Victorian mansions, rustic barns, and the general vernacular architecture of the road. We drove through the suburbs and then back into the struggling town where we live.