Helen Levitt

I hate it when there's only two posts between urchins, but I've been busy on a new alphabet book and some other big things that should be posted next week. Have a great Spring weekend.

A modern dad

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, April 25, 2007 | , ,

Yesterday I took Juniper to the Henry Ford Museum, and made the mistake of walking her through the 600-ton steam engines before we made it to the exhibit that I was there to see, the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Eames Lounge Chair, a vintage example of which we just revealed sits in our living room. I hadn't been to the Henry Ford since I was a kid, and I fell in love with it again. A Smithsonian for the upper Midwest, it has the Rosa Parks bus parked a few feet from the bloody rocking chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, itself not far from the car JFK was riding in when he got shot. Beyond these common objects grafted into history by the events that occurred within them, there are thousands of other common objects, long rows of automobiles and airplanes and bicycles built for ten and motorized roller skates, steam trains that dwarf every man, steam engines that propelled the first Ford assembly lines, airstream trailers and a R. Buckminster Fuller dymaxion house, all of it together such a wonderful celebration of American ingenuity and industry.

But I was there to see an exhibit about a chair I already owned. As Juniper sat in my arms and I read the placards under early Eames prototypes and molded-plywood splints, she began to whine, "Dada, can we see trains again? Dada, airplanes?" I was there for the minutia of the Eames exhibition, the letters Ray wrote to Charles on construction paper and the charcoal sketches of morphing shapes that would form the basis of so many famous chairs, but Juniper couldn't grasp why we would be looking at pictures of chairs when there were trains and dollhouses and airplanes to see. When we got to the star of the exhibit, the 1956 lounge chair owned by Herman Miller president D.J. Dupree, set under soft light on a spinning pedestal, Juniper looked at it and said, "That our chair. Juney go round and round?" I often spin her on the one in our living room.

Before I took her out of the exhibit to squeal at the most magnificent thing she had ever seen, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile ("Dada, buy it? Juney drive it!"), I was struck by this 1959 ad showing a pajama-clad father sleeping with his infant child on his lap. The text reads, "Even if you don't have a two o'clock feeding at your house, we think you will appreciate the deep comfort of this rosewood and leather lounge chair designed by Charles Eames for Herman Miller":

See inside our house

Posted by jdg | Monday, April 23, 2007 | ,

For the last eight months, we have been living in a fishbowl. I don't mean that as some sort of metaphor about this blog and the way it allows you to peer into our lives, I mean literally, we live in a fishbowl. Two walls of our home are wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows. We throw no stones around here.

Last October, we were honored to learn that the lovely Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge fame enjoys this blog, particularly the pictures of little Juniper. I am nothing but an unphotogenic man who had one photogenic sperm that met an egg inside my photogenic wife. I am not an artist, or a designer. For weeks Grace has been peeking into the beautiful homes of talented artists and designers. When she asked me if she could allow her readers a peek into our fishbowl, it was with some trepidation that we obliged. If you would like to share a peek inside our home, be sure to head over to Design*Sponge today. And go back. Every day. Grace always leads her readers to people and places and art worth seeing. I just hope we can live up to that standand.

For those visiting from Design*Sponge, this is a blog mostly about parenting. In downtown Detroit. I can be a curmudgeonly, cheap, bitter asshole sometimes. I can also be ridiculously sentimental. We started using the goofy nicknames years ago because I didn't want people from high school finding the blog and making fun of me. I just turned 30. My real name is Jim. Welcome.

A story of when we were young and stupid, Part 2

Posted by jdg | Thursday, April 19, 2007 |

[This is the second part of the story of what happened to us in Greece ten years ago today when we woke to find everything we needed to survive had been stolen while we slept on a ferry to Crete; the first part is here]

After an hour's worth of searching and pleading with the unhelpful officers of the docked and now-empty ship, we were shooed down the gangplank. There seemed to be a small village, Souda, to the east. The ship's purser had told us to go see the Tourist Police, but nothing seemed to be open that early in the morning, so we sat down on the vast concrete pier and considered our options. There was no American embassy on Crete; we would have to get back to Athens. But we had no money to buy tickets back to Athens. We didn't have enough money to buy a phone card to activate a pay phone so we could call our parents collect and beg them to figure out a way to get us some cash in the middle of their night. I feared that we would become beggars, or throw ourselves upon the mercy of a band of gypsies. Wood, I thought, would make a pretty hot gypsy, at least. That line from Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" kept running through my head: "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." God, I kept thinking: if that's true, freedom totally fucking sucks.

What I found interesting about this crisis was the way Wood and I exchanged panic and comfort. When Wood stood there on that empty pier, shaking with fear and wailing with uncertainty, I would be calm, holding her close and stroking her hair, whispering that things would all be okay, at least we were alive, this would be a big pain but that's all it was. As she would regain composure, I would start to slip. I would think about everything that was gone. The money, the plane tickets, gone. The passports, gone. All gone. A few months earlier, Wood had gotten her long red hair cut short, and I was so distraught I'd asked the stylist to save me a lock of it, which I'd kept in my wallet. The thought of some thief with that precious hair made me so angry. I swung wildly at things. I might have cried. And Wood held me, calm and close, whispering the things I needed to hear. We sat there islanded by cement for a long time.

At some point, the purser came out and stood at the top of the gangplank. He shouted Wood's full name. We looked at each other with great hope and rushed up to him. They had found her purse. It was empty except for a few photographs and her Trinity College Dublin ID card. It was found by a janitor emptying a trash bin. Still, it was something. This could prove who she was to some authority. We waited anxiously, hoping something else might have been discarded, but about an hour later the ship belched out smoke and slipped off into the Aegean. With no options left we stood and wandered into the village of Souda.

I found a couple of cookies in a garbage bin by a bus stop. That was something. We sat and ate them in a small plaza. Those cookies were delicious. Eventually we decided to try the police station. They might be able to tell us what we should do. But really, I thought: what do you tell people who have wandered into your town like time travelers, people with nothing but their clothes and a deep need for mercy? Still, it felt like we ought to do something and not just sit there. I found a map of the village with a building that said "civic law" in Greek, and we headed that way down a residential street lined with olive and lemon trees. When we got to the building all we saw were a couple of squad cars and a typical old peasant woman in a black dress sweeping the walkway. She looked up at us with black eyes nestled within the parabolas of age, and I said, "Police?" She nodded her head sharply. She pointed into her own house, and we followed her past faded oriental rugs and some dried plants piled on a table, over to a staircase. She pointed and urged us up, eager, it seemed, to get back to her sweeping. We climbed the stairs in this old woman's house to discover a fully-operational police station on the second floor. Fully operational in the Greek sense: several mustachioed men lounged about in an office setting, one pecking lazily at an old-fashioned typewriter, another fully asleep at his desk.

They looked up at us as though they had never seen anyone other than their fellow hirsute, worry-bead clicking countrymen walk through that doorway. And of course, not one of them spoke English. They were charitable enough, tolerating my effort to explain what happened in a language that must not have been spoken in those parts since the age of Pericles. Plato himself might have been able to discern something from my barbaric mispronouncements, but not Sargent Balki Bartokomous there. It was like walking into a police station in rural Arkansas and explaining that you were just carjacked using only words you remembered from Beowulf.

One of the officers knew the word "wait," so we did. We had nothing else in the world to do. After about an hour, a hot lady cop showed up to work---not hot in the Jennifer Aniston sense, but hot in the sense that she was the first Greek woman I had seen in 48 hours without a mustache. Even if she'd had a beard I would have thought she was hot, simply because she spoke English. Beautiful, beautiful English. Wood and I stumbled over each other's words trying to get our story out. She looked at us with a mixture of pity and confusion. Finally, she spoke: "Why do you come here? We can do nothing. You need the tourist police." She led our mournful asses down out of the station, out through the old lady's living room, and drove us back to the plaza where we'd started. Taking some pity, she handed us a 500 drachma note, and we thanked her until she probably wished she hadn't. It was enough money to buy a phone card and a bottle of water, so we were able to terrify our parents and rehydrate ourselves from the loss of all those tears.

Once we sat down we realized it was our anniversary. Exactly one year before we'd gotten drunk and made out all night. This was not how we'd envisioned celebrating it, trying not to cry into each other's shoulders in a nondescript plaza waiting for the tourist police whose office might never open.

About an hour later a car driven by an attractive young man pulled up in front of us. He was wearing a uniform of some sort. "Camera?" he said. I thought he was another one of those con artists trying to sell us a broken camera. "Ohee," I said, and he shook his head. "We find camera. Yours, maybe?" We jumped in the back seat; we would have followed him anywhere. He drove us right back to the old woman's house; took us up the old woman's stairs, through a maze of cubicles. The hot cop and the sleepy cop and the typing cop all looked up and stared as we passed their desks.

And there, on a sturdy wooden police desk, was everything. Everything. Our passports. Our plane tickets, credit cards, traveler's checks, cameras, film, Irish money, American dollars, and a wad of drachma notes so big it looked like it belonged in the fist of a blinged-out Hellenic rapper, not tossed casually in a pile of treasure the likes of which had not been seen in all of Greece since Schliemann dug out the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae. I saw the lock of Wood's hair peeking out of my wallet.

Then there was that feeling you get when you're dreaming of something wonderful but you're slowly starting to realize that you're dreaming and you still just want it all to be real. But this was real. I am not a religious man, but at that moment it felt like the gods had intervened in our lives just to show us what mercy they were capable of.

The lady cop came over to the room. "We caught a man who does drugs, a wanted man. We recognize him, find this in his bag. Do not touch it. He is dirty. It is dirty. A bad, dirty man he is." I realized that if we had not wandered far into the village to find the wrong police station, they would not have known about us. They wouldn't have sent the young cop to get us. By some stroke of luck, we'd wandered into that old woman's attic.

Then a new voice spoke in English from the other side of the station. "I took no Greek money," it said. "Only American money. Tell them I took no Greek money!" It was him. Standing in a small closet with a window cut in the door, a window affixed with bars he was banging and hanging from. This was the guy who'd seen two rich foreigners sleeping together on the floor, saw the bag under one's head and took it and everything it contained, leaving them to spend so many hours fearing the worst. "Quiet you!" (or its equivalent) one of the cops barked at him, raising a nightstick threateningly as the thief shrunk back grumbling.

"A ginger thief," Wood said aloud. He was redheaded and redbearded and they were right: he was filthy. He looked just like a satyr: there was a peculiar goatishness about him. "I took no Greek money! The Greek money is not yours" he shouted at us. "Tell them." The thief spoke better English than the police.

The cops gave us latex gloves and allowed us to take everything. I'm still not sure all that money was ours, but they insisted we take it all, as if to spite him. "Noooooooooooo," wailed the thief from his cell. I will never forget the feeling of that cold, dirty cash in my pocket, the sight of those passports and plane tickets in my hands. I thought of our parents, awake and terrified for us. If only they could know what had transpired, and rest their heads against their pillows with a smile.

There was still paperwork to be filled out. I was given copies of the mimeographed police report, much of it typed in Greek. At one point, the officer filling out the report grunted something at the girl cop, who was acting as translator: "Do you wish to punish him?" she asked. The typist looked at me expectantly over his Mexican-bandit mustache. I had visions of cat'o'nine tails and iron maidens. What he had done to us was still fresh on my mind and I would have happily punished him. "Yes," I finally answered.

"No," Wood said at the same time. She had already forgiven him. So Christlike, this wife of mine. I wanted blood. Welts, at least. The Greeks waited for us to make up our minds. "We have everything now, we should just let it go," Wood said.

"I don't want him to think he can just do this and get away with it," I replied. The point was moot. In order to "punish" him, we would need to stick around for months to testify. I was disappointed I wouldn't get to dole out any punishment personally, but the man was already in trouble for possession of heroin. The Greeks made us wash our hands with a foul-smelling soap, then we shook all their hands and said, "efharisto" a thousand times. We heard the thief pitch a fit as we climbed down the steps: "I took no Greek money!" I could have kissed every hairy mole on the cheeks of the old hag still sweeping her front porch outside.

* * * * *

Crete is a beautiful island, but you have no idea how beautiful it is when you are flush with cash just hours after having nothing. I counted the money and could have sworn we now had a little more than before the theft. We took a rickety bus across the island, down to a hippie beach town called Paleahora on the southern coast. Wood fell asleep with her head on my shoulder for the entire ride while the bus radio blared bouzouki and tambourine chants. I might have whispered myths into her ear: "On this island, something new was born: demarcation between barbarian and Greek; Crete stole Europe from Asia, back when things like continents were sexed. It was just the first of many thefts, when Zeus, guised as bull, swept Europa across the sea; later Jason stole Medea; Paris, Helen; from this very mass of rock Theseus reversed Crete's crimes: he took Ariadne but left her somewhere in between. Here we are, at the source of it all. From these mountains and these valleys, chieftains of ragged tribes emerged to give us light; from these craggy hills, the Cretan mists, they started stories that still pass human lips." I might have said those things. I wouldn't put it past my former self. She might have smiled, cooed, and nestled deeper into my neck. Kissed it even.

We got off the bus and headed right to the beach. We met the woman who wrote the Lonely Planet Greece, and she helped us find the a wonderful room with its own rose garden. For a few days it was though I was not Dutch, it was like I'd been replaced by some profligate Irishman willing to spend all his money on all manner of fine food and drink. I ate a whole octopus. Wood went topless at the beach. Hot. We became so sunburned we could hardly move. It was one of the best weeks of our lives.

But before we left town, I booked tickets for the voyage back to Athens. Although I cannot pretend it wasn't difficult for me, I spent three times as much to get us a private berth. With a door. A door that locked.

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 17, 2007 | ,

It used to kind of annoy me when people would tell me that their pets were their children. I would be wrangling the baby at a barbecue and get introduced to someone who would show me a picture of "their baby"--- a boxer or a basset hound --- and I always wanted to say, "The only way that gets to count as your baby is if I can put my daughter in a crate for eight hours with a bowl of kibble while my wife and I spend the evening getting wasted at the Arcade Fire show."

I get uncomfortable encountering women pushing pugs in $800 strollers. It also used to bother me when couples would tell me they were getting a dog as "practice" for raising a kid.

But now that I am a dog owner, I have greater sympathy for those who have agreed to share their homes with a canine. In some ways, having a dog isn't that different from having a baby. Consider shit. After Juniper was born, it felt like I was wrist deep in feces about half of the time. Shit was no longer something that easily slipped away up through the plumbing after a simple flush: suddenly it was something that oozed and leaked; it lurked in tightly-packed bundles at the bottom of the diaper decor; it hid behind the mysterious crags and folds of infant genitalia; it came in colors I had never seen, in consistencies that seemed to defy conventional earthly viscosities. It was, in a word, every-fucking-where.

Now that I have a dog, I can see that it is good way to acclimate oneself to loads of crap. Wendell, our dog, is a real shitter. He craps every time we take him for a walk, and that's four or five times a day. He has, on occasion, even pooped on our parquet floors. I have to say that having a lil' crapper was really good practice for having a dog. I haven't gagged or retched once now that I have experienced the plight of the urban dog owner: bending over and picking up the steaming pile of poo that has just oozed out of a dog's anus. It's not just humiliating, it's humbling in the same sort of way that parenthood can be. This is the cost of taking on the responsibility of something that doesn't know any better. Sometimes you just end up with a little bit of turd on your index finger.

Friday Morning Wood

Posted by Wood | Thursday, April 12, 2007 | ,

I haven't been writing much around here lately, and there isn't a very interesting reason for it. I'm busy, I work, and I miss my kid even though I like my job.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about twenty-four of my SAHM hours. There have been a lot of changes around here in the last year, not the least of which is that if I could manage to go running, one sportsbra would be more than sufficient. I'd probably do just as well without. In honor of all the changes, here's what Thursday was like:

6:08: Wake up briefly, wonder why our room is so hot and why our thermostat seems to hate us. Consider going downstairs to turn off the heat, but decide against it. Calculate number of minutes until cell phone alarm goes off -- it's 42.

6:50: Alarm goes off and I begin the vicious snooze cycle. Remember this new clock I saw yesterday, note that I should order one before hitting snooze again.

7:10: Hear Juniper calling for me. Drag ass out of bed, and silently curse because she wasn't supposed to wake up for another hour, and now this means that I'll be late to work, and I really shouldn't be late today. But I also smile because this means that I'll get to spend at least an hour with her before I leave.

7:11: I find Juniper sitting up in her bed with her legs in a butterfly position; she looks up at me and says: "Like gymnastics!" I sit on her bed, pull her footie-pajama-clad body into my lap, and she looks up at me and says: "What does Juney smell like?" I stick my nose into her neck and tell her she smells like sugar and then ask her what I smell like. She sniffs the air loudly and says: "Mama smells like kisses." I catch my breath, replay in my head the precise way her voice said that, and understand in an instant that this moment will be the highlight of my day.

7:15: Take Juniper downstairs for breakfast. She asks for yogurt and frozen blueberries, she gets it. Make coffee. Get the paper. Straighten up the kitchen.

7:30: Search for our shoes, coats, hats and the dog's collar and leash. Take the dog for a quick walk. He poops. I pick it up. Juniper talks about it.

7:50: Finally start getting ready for work. It takes a long time because Juniper wants her diaper off, then her pajamas back on, then a book.

8:15: Go in the bedroom and wake up Dutch, 5 minutes after I was supposed to leave. Encourage Juniper to call him "sleepyhead" when she greets him. Throw on a suit. Say goodbye. Go downstairs.

8:21: Go back upstairs to say goodbye again and get another kiss. Leave once and for all.

8:42: Arrive at work twelve minutes late. Go into my office to change out of my walking shoes and into heels. Open my drawer to find 3 pairs of black pumps, but I'm wearing a brown suit. Damn it. Put on the black shoes.

8:45 -- 1:00: Work.

1:00: Eat lunch in the office with boss and co-worker.

1:25: Talk to Dutch. He went to Trader Joe's, and it was a nightmare; something about Juniper pooping in the middle of it and no diapers to change her but she was so stinky he just sat her on the employee bathroom sink and hosed her down.

1:30 -- 5:22: Work.

5:23: Change into my regular clothes and cram my suit into my bag. Walk to the YMCA to meet Dutch and Juniper. Call my mom on the way over and tell her the story about Juniper saying that I smell like kisses. Note that my mom responds with the appropriate "awwwww" and is the only person other than Dutch who doesn't find it cheesy at all.

5:33: Arrive at the Y and sit with Juniper while she eats a snack and Dutch works out. Take her to the bathroom to pee. Redo her ponytails at least 3 times. Ask myself why I do that, consider possibility of control issue.

6:00 -- 7:00: Teach gymnastics class to six and seven year-olds while Juniper tries unsuccessfully to follow along or at the very least stay out of the way. Tell the little girls to stop talking so much. Note how six and seven year-olds never, ever stop talking even when they are upside down.

7:02 -7:10: Fold up the mats. Clean up the detritus from the class: hair clips, hair beads, and abandoned socks. Find Dutch and head home.

7:25-- 8:10: Dinner, bath.

8:10: Brush Juniper's teeth. Put some Badger Balm on a q-tip and stick it in her nose in the hopes that it'll stop her from getting bloody noses at night. Marvel at how she doesn't scream or bat my hand away, just insists that after I do it she gets a chance to do it herself. Hand her the q-tip and the balm and let her put more in each nostril.

8:15: Go into Dutch's office, he's on the computer. Juniper shuffles and dances around asking for "one last song." Hold her and dance for three.

8:23: Take her into her room, where she chooses books to read. One has a library card from the Wyandotte Library in it. The other has crayon marks from other children all over it. My husband can't pass up a book for ten cents, even if it is about a poorly-drawn pig wearing sunglasses who wants to paint her fence purple and relies on a dog named Danny who tries to paint it green and orange first.

8:30: Say goodnight. Comply with Juniper's demand that I tell her a story about going to the Y and doing gymnastics. And eating candy.

8:40: Eat take-out sushi with Dutch for the first time in months. We talk about San Francisco and how we used to get sushi every Friday night from the family on the corner. We vow to come up with a new Friday night tradition once it is more than a few degrees above freezing around here.

9:00: The Last Samurai is on. Note how even among a full cast of Japanese actors, Tom Cruise still looks so small. Dutch admits to me that the way samurai and ninjas fight kind of makes him nervous. "How do they know where the sword is coming from like that?" he asks.

9:40: Come to the office to write this post. Listen to Dutch ranting at the television downstairs: "Why does the Pope dress like that? Does the Pope ever get to wear pants?"

10:55: Finish this post. Head down to couch to fall asleep to the sound of Jon Stewart's voice.

Lately I have been telling Juniper stories from the Greek myths. This is something I have long desired to do. Even back when I was terrified at the very idea of becoming a parent, I still dreamed of one day telling a child intricate, partly-embellished versions of those myths. The stories would impart important lessons to my progeny, I believed, as they had for thousands of years. Recently, the book of graffiti letters helped pique Juniper's interest in mythology: one day she sat next to me pointing at the letters, saying the words she knew from repeated readings. "I is for Icarus," she said, and this led to the story of Daedalus and his son, a boy with wings who flew higher than the birds and even higher than the clouds, so high you couldn't even see him. He did not listen to his dada and he flew too close to the sun and fell into the water. See what happens when you don't listen to your dada? "Dada tell story Icarus flying then falling?" she now asks ten times a day.

"Icarus was a little boy who lived in Greece," I start.

"That's where Dada missed Mama," she said the first time I told the tale. I must have told her something about that at some point. How does she remember these things?

Ten years ago this week, Wood and I were living in Dublin. My classes had finished two weeks before hers, and I impetuously took off for Athens. I was studying classics and knew that if I wanted to see all of the important classical sites, this would be my chance. Archeology makes Wood sleepy. This was an era before cell phones, a time when Irish university e-mail required Eudora software and a 3.5 inch diskette. Wood's apartment had no phone. I left knowing I would not communicate with her until she herself arrived in Athens after her term ended.

I landed at the airport with one of those asshole "rucksacks" and a tent. It was two o'clock in the morning, so I spent the night slumped in a fiberglass shell chair welded to three others, one of which was occupied by a heavyset black woman from Indiana who had been in Crete visiting her boyfriend, a soldier stationed on a U.S. base there. "Raki!" she kept saying, "Damn, boy!" She was talking about some local anise-flavored drink that had left her severely hungover all day. I did not realize at the time this would be the last real conversation I would have until I picked Wood up in that same spot two weeks later. In 1997, the airport seemed more like an empty bus station, but there were a number of Greek soldiers patrolling the place with their hands on the barrels of submachine guns slung on straps over their shoulders. At dawn I took the first bus into town, spying the pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus amid some poplars, finally hopping off in pre-rush-hour Omonia Square, with its smoke-drenched Soviet-looking architecture and shifty gypsies making me question whether I'd mistakenly taken the wrong plane and ended up in some unpronounceable Albanian megalopolis. Up on the side of one of the buildings I could barely make out the word "Hellas." But in the pale haze of a smudge-fingered dawn, the lights of the "A" and the "S" were broken, so it simply read "HELL." I waited in Omonia for another bus that I believed would take me to the long-distance bus station; I considered this all an inauspicious start. Athens smelled. It was dirty. Everyone had a mustache. I wanted to go home.

Instead, I went to Delphi. Other than an old German man who looked at everything with a flashlight I was the only foreign tourist there, and he refused to speak with me (even in German). All the stores were open though. When I walked down the street in town I was marauded by shopkeepers and pidgin invitations to peruse their racks of baubles and t-shirts adorned with pornographic scenes from ancient pottery. For several days the only people I spoke to were shopkeepers, waiters, and the pension owners who held my passport and handed me keys. At night I would drink a big cheap bottle of Amstel, choking with boredom and loneliness until I fell asleep at sunset only to be woken in the middle of the night by random celebratory gunfire. This went on for many days: in Delphi, Olympia, Arcadia, Sparta, Mikenes, and Corinth. The restaurants were always empty. I welcomed conversations with scam artists who tried to sell me broken cameras and slip their Nescafes onto my taverna bill. Even the smallest transaction fulfilled a deep need for some interaction with my species. I smiled at ugly children. I bought souvlaki through the window of a stalled train. I stole blood oranges from trees and camped quietly in olive groves. I saw many beautiful things, but it was one of the loneliest times of my life.

I was eager to get back to Athens, to get a sense of the city and wait out the final days before Wood arrived. I rented a simple room on a quiet street between Syntagma Square and the Plaka, an area largely empty of tourists but bustling with pimps and con artists. One day a very nice older man who spoke excellent English started talking to me and walked alongside me until we came to a bar where he invited me in for a drink. It was foolish, I know, but at the time I was so desperate for conversation I followed him into a dark bar where he assumed a seat next to me and a fat woman behind the bar silently opened two beers. "Do you see my niece?" he asked, nodding into the darkness. I then noticed the heavily-made-up woman who looked like Abe Vigoda wearing a peroxide-blond wig sitting in a booth inside the otherwise-empty bar. "She is beautiful, yes?" I took another look: unibrowed and squat, she easily outweighed me by 30 pounds, but this was the man's niece. "Yeah," I said. "She is."

"She would like a drink too, is that okay?" he asked. The niece smiled at me under her bleached blond mustache. "I guess," I said. The silent bartender had already made her a pale blue cocktail. It suddenly occurred to me that I would be paying a exorbitant price for all the drinks. "Do you like her?" my new friend asked.

"Um, I have a girlfriend."

The truth is, Wood had forced me to learn that sentence in Greek before I left. I said it again, in Greek, and they laughed. "Well," the old man said, "you still buy her drink."

"No," I said. "You make me pay for that drink and I'll go straight to the tourist police."

I thought Greeks were animated in normal conversation, but I had never seen one really pissed. They were shouting at me, at each other, in Greek, in English. The old woman bartender was insisting that I pay for my own drink at least. The old man was telling me I could go to hell. Wasn't I already there? I suppose I could have avoided all the Hellenic histrionics by paying the bill and learning my lesson, but, you see, I'm Dutch. We don't buy drinks for anyone, especially the manly-whore spawn of two miserable con-artists eager to take advantage of a lonely traveler.

A few days later, when I related that story to Wood, Athens was already a lovely city full of charms. It looked so nice from the Acropolis. We walked hand-in-hand through Monastiraki. We lounged outside a Byzantine church, tossing pieces of pretzel to dogs who slept on cobblestones. That afternoon we headed to Piraeus, where we bought tickets for an overnight sea voyage to Crete. We figured we'd save money on lodging by sleeping on the boat. Once aboard the good ship Aptera, we found a nice quiet room where we had relative privacy. There were a couple of other guys who'd sought out a similar arrangement sprawled out sleeping between rows of airline-style seats. I took everything valuable out of our rucksacks and put it all in a smaller bag that I would use as a pillow: our passports; our plane tickets onward from Athens to Rome and eventually back to Dublin; about $1000 in traveler's checks and $500 in Greek drachmas; credit cards; cameras and rolls and rolls of film. I went through the rucksacks again, meticulously removing everything that might tempt a thief, finally stuffing a fleece jacket in the smaller bag that would rest underneath my head. In our first year together, Wood and I had slept in the back seats of cars, on dorm-room floors and long bus rides. We made a bed for ourselves on that ship between the seats and snuggled close, so happy to be together after several weeks apart we could have slept on a rock. We fell asleep wrapped in each other's arms.

The ship passed through winedark waters reflecting the lights of the Cyclades, of Naxos, so close, reversing Daedalus' daring flight, from Athens to Crete. We woke at dawn, still hours from port. But the bag beneath my head was gone. I stood up, panic shedding all trace of sleep from my eyes, and I found it, emptied of its contents on the seat in front of us. The thief had left the fleece, but nothing else. We suddenly had nothing of any real value. We didn't even have enough coin to buy the 200 drachma phone card we would need just to activate a pay phone to make a collect call to our parents, who had just gone to bed back in America. We searched through our rucksacks. We had nothing at all between us but dirty clothes and a rudimentary grasp of Ancient Greek when the ship docked at Chania and the thief finally escaped with the crowds down the gangplanks out into the unknown.

[Next week I'll get to the really good part of the story; and Wood has promised a post for tomorrow.]

[*update* The conclusion is here]

Leonidas would have no use for me

Posted by jdg | Monday, April 09, 2007 |

I was sitting in the children's book department when it finally happened: I officially became a fucking woman. The transformation is now complete. The possibility has reared its head before, once when I uttered the sentence, "I think I prefer sea foam to lagoon for that wall," and another time when I squealed like a ten-year-old girl as one of Wood's friends threw a dead alewife at me, striking me square across the face on the shore of Lake Michigan. That was long ago, but stay-at-home dads must be particularly vigilant, even when it comes to developing a preference for one household cleaner over another. And that is especially true for stay-at-home dads who have been keeping an online record about how goddamn sentimental they are. When I found myself reupholstering a chair the other day, to counter some of the affection I felt for the new fabric, I got out my power drill and gutted a 1950s television set and used it to build a sweet cabinet for my turntable and LPs. After realizing the only two times I'd sat in a theater these last twelve months were to see Sesame Street Live and a children's ballet, Wood let me sneak away to catch a showing of 300, after which it felt as though I had been infused with a year's worth of much-needed testosterone. I had been getting a little too much pleasure doing my daughter's hair every morning, I realized as I climbed aboard the People Mover after the show. No more of that: I'll still do it, but I'm putting an end to the smug sense of satisfaction I get from perfect pigtails. And maybe I'll get a big tattoo on my forearm.

Still, whatever patina of virility I received from watching 300 stalwart Spartans die with honor was gone within a couple of days, and I was sitting on the floor of the downtown Detroit Borders reading books to Juniper, trying to figure out if any of the books published in the last few years weren't total crap. She was sitting on my lap while I read her the book Someday by Alison McGhee and by the end I was sitting there crying. I'm not just saying that: I was bawling my fucking eyes out. I had to bury my face in the back of her head to hide it. I think even she was ashamed of me. "Juney no like that!" she said about my dripping nose in the nape of her neck. The book is a mother's sentimental list of a bunch of things her little girl will do someday: "Someday I will stand on this porch and watch your arms waving to me until I no longer see you."; "Someday I will watch you brushing your child's hair"; Someday you're going to be old and I'm going to be dead and you'll remember me and then ah, fuck it all to hell even right now my eyes feel like crumbling, porous concrete holding back a flood for chrissake. I don't know what it is about those words. Juniper has lately been telling me about all the things she's going to do someday ("Someday, Juney will buy a boat! Someday, Juney will go to the big red barn, see the animals! Someday, Juney will buy a house!"). That could be it. Or maybe it's that I just don't like to think about dying. Either way, curse you Alsion McGhee! You can hear her read the book here.

I cried when translating the end of the sixth book of The Iliad when I was in college because it was so beautiful. I cried when I finished Ulysses (although that may have been because I had grown mad with frustration and exhaustion). I am not ashamed that I have been moved to tears by certain lines in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. I have cried over a lot of books, but none of them were goddamn children's books. And I never cried while reading them on the floor of a big box bookstore surrounded by the prying, judgmental eyes of Sam I Am and Maisy and Thomas the Tank Engine. "Why is that man crying?" Dora the Explorer asked all the dimwitted children from the front of her book. "Yes, that's right," she said after a twelve-second pause, twirling her finger around her ear: "He must be loco!"

Afterwards, I called Wood to tell her what happened: "What day is it?" I asked.

"Why?"

"Because Jesus Christ, I think I'm about to get my period."

It's been some time since we had a good smoking urchin.

The blue jumper

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, April 04, 2007 | , , ,

Juniper still has no opinion of her own when it comes to clothes. She is content to let me dress her however I want to. Is there any wonder why I love her so? She sits in the crook of one arm at the thrift store without complaint while my other arm brushes through rack after rack of well-worn licensed character kid's clothes, searching for early 1980s flammable footie pajamas and vintage sailor dresses. My greatest find of all time is perhaps the 1979 blue-and-yellow jumper, discovered in the Chico, California Salvation Army for 99 cents. My mother has pictures of me wearing a similar get-up at her age. And can I even put into words how much pleasure this little scrap of well-sewn polyester has brought me? In this jumper, Juniper has recited Shakespeare, contemplated modern art, and seen a stranger's sweaty penis. When I came across it in the closet last weekend, I decided there was enough potential for adventure in the coming hours to warrant another wearing of the jumper (or as Juniper calls it, her "jumpersuit").

But I found she was stretching the fabric just to fit her in it, even using the second (and last) button on the straps. She still didn't mind the style--- I have at least ten years before she hates me for dressing her like this, I think. But she didn't like how tight it was. It seems despite all other evidence to the contrary, this tiny little girl is growing.

"We'd better have another one soon," Wood said to me, "Just to have someone around you can dress in that jumper."

She may have found a chink in my armor.

[A while back I had written to the women who run Babylegs (who have also kindly bought advertising on this site in the past) to see if they had any more of the babylegs Juniper usually wears with the jumper---ours were devoured by the washing machine. They responded that unfortunately they no longer carried that style; but a few days ago, the UPS guy brought a box full of them. I now have far more than I could possibly need, so I would love to give them away to some folks who might like them. If you'd like one, leave a comment on this post indicating such (and include your e-mail). I'll choose five winners randomly]

[*update* because of the response I'll throw a few more pairs of babylegs into the pot; after I post the street urchin on Friday I will choose the winners completely randomly.]

For several months we've had tickets to see the ballet production of Where the Wild Things Are. This is a book Juniper has long loved. Several months ago I bought on eBay a dog-eared set of plastic Wild Thing toys that had previously lived in a day care. Each was gnawed on or missing a limb; her room looks like a Wild Thing VA hospital. For several weeks we have re-introduced the book into her repertoire of bedtime tales. For days before Friday's matinee, we talked it up: "You're going to see the real Max and the real Wild Things! Just like the real Elmo we saw." All of this led to a groundswell of anticipation, where Wild Things were seen in closets and peeking from the windows of Detroit's abandoned art deco skyscrapers. "Wild Thing, dada!" she'd shout, pointing into the tops of bare trees where no behemoth of terrible roar, tooth, eye and claw could hide. And yet I have no doubt she saw them. She saw them in the abstract masses of scribbled marker and colored pencil on paper she handed me all week. By Friday morning, she was adequately prepared.

It was a general admission show, so we walked over to the Detroit Opera House an hour early to find ourselves among the first seated: front row center again. The Opera House is a former movie palace built in 1922, less oriental than the Fox, but like the Fox its gilded gargoyles and gorgons and its Tiffany mosaics seemed recently renovated. At one time there were over 150 single-screen theaters in the city of Detroit, and several dozen palatial one-screens between the central business district and midtown. There were 26,000 theater seats around Grand Circus Park alone. Some still hide behind quiet moldering facades like this. Some switched to porn to survive before being demolished. The first Detroit theater I visited with Juniper was the Michigan Theater, which with much-commented-on irony, still stands at the location where Henry Ford built his first automobile and now serves as a private parking garage, with much of its architecture still intact. I could have stood in there for hours imagining men in top hats and evening jackets escorting women in flapper dresses to their seats, the screen lit with the gaze of Valentino, or the wink of Clara Bow. But after a few minutes, Juniper demanded a snack that I didn't have, so we snuck out the same way we snuck in.

On Friday, sitting in the front row of one of the surprising number of Detroit movie palaces that have been spared the wrecking ball, I was again moved to consider how different it was to experience entertainment long ago, to get dressed up and leave your neighborhood and take a streetcar downtown, to enter the ornamental splendor with thousands of your fellow citizens and laugh together at Buster Keaton's antics or be moved to tears by the Little Tramp's final silent gaze at the flower girl. This is an experience we will never be able to replicate in our own homes with any type of technology.

As curtain time approached, the Opera House remained empty. One of the ushers told us that there was a pile-up on I-75, the main artery from the suburbs, and that many of the patrons would be late. I spent the extra time walking Juniper around the theater, pointing out the lions, birds, serpents, and other creatures she'd recognize in the plasterwork. We chose to see the performance that would be attended by many of the local schools, thinking that two-year-old Juniper's ill manners would be insignificant among the throngs of kids. When the first students arrived, about 50 black 4th-through-6th graders marched silently down the aisle with the precision of a Roman cohort. They surrounded us up front, their teacher gesturing where to sit with her hands. Juniper grew concerned that the big kids were going to try to play with one of the Wild Thing amputees she clutched in her hands, but I told her she was being silly. Then I noticed that one of the boys about six seats down from us had grown angry: his lower lip had devoured the upper, his eyebrows were rumpled. Oh he was so angry, and silent, and he thrust his hands towards his teacher like a defiant maestro, telling her exactly why he was so upset. All around him, I saw other little hands moving, the other silent conversations that were taking place. Juniper and I sat at the front of a 3,000 plus seat theater with 50 other kids and the only sound was my daughter's voice above the rustling of air.

It was a beautiful moment, it lasted only until many dozens of busloads from the northern suburbs started to fill all the remaining seats in the opera house.

Wood arrived straight from work at the same time as the hordes, and she scooped Juniper up and took her to the powder room for some motherly pampering. I waited in our prime seats; eventually the volunteer ushers prepared everyone for the show to begin. After a third usher asked me if the two seats next to me were occupied, I grew a little anxious, and almost said, "Yep, just me and my two other child molester friends---they're probably still in the little boy's room! I wonder what could be taking them so long?" When Wood finally walked Juniper down the aisle, a curtain fell over the stage covered by a 40-foot-tall face of Moishe, the one I drew pooping, his eyes glowing purple from the beams of two spotlights. When the curtain lifted, Max pranced out in his wolfsuit, and Juniper jumped into my arms with terror and unsurpassed glee. When the fear passed, she sat on her mother's lap and I was able to watch her face, and the faces of the fascinated kids beyond her as they stared at the stage and the story they all knew so well, first through the fluttering of fingers and then through words they could see on the page, now come to life.

I knew this was going to be a ballet, but I guess I just assumed it wouldn't be a ballet with all the twirling and smothered nutsacks and stuff. But yes, there was a lot of twirling and plenty of smothered nutsack. Ballet is okay, I suppose, but it's hard to twirl in a 9-foot-tall Wild Thing costume, which was fine with me and the thousands of kids who screamed (in my case, with relief) as Moishe the Wild Thing peeked his head around the curtain for the first time, and we all clapped as the other three shimmied on stage. The deaf kids around us did not clap then or when Max discovered that his supper was still hot. They raised their hands, I guess as deaf people do, wiggling their fingers at the stage.

"It could have used more of the Wild Things," I said to Wood as we walked out of the Opera House, but later I regretted saying it. If Disney had anything to do with it, it would have been all about the Wild Things, but that's not the lesson of the book. After the G-rated bacchanalia of the rumpus, in the face of as much wildness and savagery as he could ever want, Max chooses to return to a mother who would tame him. Juniper is too young to appreciate that. She was one of the youngest kids at the show, and in my zeal to get her excited about it I had convinced her that the Wild Things were real, and even in the bright light of Broadway in Detroit she was convinced that what she had seen inside the theater was real, that Max and the Wild Things, like Elmo and Cookie Monster, live behind curtains in gilded palaces where she watches them from the front row. Max teaches us is that imagination is so powerful and amazing, but ultimately you must return to what is real.

And I think I will lament the day she realizes that is true.