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.
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 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.