The Mies van der Rohe dollhouse

Posted by jdg | Friday, June 29, 2007 | , ,

A long time ago I wrote a post lamenting the kind of dollhouses that were available on the market. At the time, Juniper wasn't even a year old, and things have gotten considerably better since then. In that old post I vowed to build Juniper her own dollhouse, and ever since my wife's cruel revelation about the woeful cardboard vehicles I make for Juniper, I have felt a need to redeem myself in terms of what I am able to make with my hands. So I decided to build Juniper a dollhouse that resembled our own home, a Mies van der Rohe shoe box whose lack of any ornament would make the job extremely simple.

The problem was, every time I visited one of those giant chain hardware stores, I would quickly grow intimidated and walk away before the guys in the smocks needled me into exposing my complete incompetence. All that talk about different kinds of saws really stresses me out. Besides, wood is freaking expensive. You'd think it didn't grow on trees.

I decided I was going to build the dollhouse out of scraps of wood that I could find wherever. Last weekend we were on the west side of the state, and I sniffed around the bargain bin outlets of Herman Miller and those other furniture companies over there. I found five heavy shelves that were the perfect length. They were $1.00 each. Then I needed to find some plexiglass for the window-walls, but all I could find were four sheets of translucent matte acrylic for $2.00 each. I spent a good chunk of Saturday morning with my dad in his auto body shop cutting the acrylic sheets and configuring the dollhouse. All week I have been using nap time to put it together, drilling holes in the acrylic and screwing at least 200 screws into the damn thing. I used toy blocks for the stairs and a leftover acrylic strip for the staircase. Just like our own floating staircase, they may look perilous, but they are solid:

All in all, the dollhouse cost me about $15 to make, including screws. But considering that my woodworking experience consists of about an hour watching the New Yankee Workshop and maybe half an episode of Bob the Builder, I don't think it turned out too bad. I love it when minimalist taste, thrift, and complete lack of craftsmanship all come together to form a happy trifecta:

I am debating whether to make it look even more like our place on the outside, or just leave it kind of abstract and minimal. I am leaning towards the latter. What I like about dollhouses is that they are spaces designed solely for a kid's imagination. She lands airplanes on the roof and lets Wild Things climb the stairs. I don't want to dictate any of the terms inside, or buy these chairs. She really wants a potty for it though, so I'll probably do what we did to decorate our real house: buy a whole bunch of cheap vintage stuff from the 70s and let her put the furniture wherever she wants to.

Posted by jdg | Thursday, June 28, 2007 |

Last fall, all the streets were closed around Wood's building in downtown Detroit because Michael Bay was in town filming Transformers. I heard John Turturro was in the movie, so I went to watch because I figured it would be the best opportunity I'd ever get to yell, "Nobody fucks with the Jesus!" over and over at him while he tries to drink a macchiato or talk on his cell phone in between takes. Overall, what I could see of the shoot was pretty disappointing. There were a bunch of hipsters who looked like they moved to Hollywood ten years ago to make the next Pulp Fiction but somehow found themselves hauling cables around for Michael Bay instead. There was an astonishing amount of equipment and lighting. But all I saw them filming was take after take of a bunch of extras running down the street pretending to be scared of something they were pretending to see. Pretty underwhelming. But last night I saw the commercial for the movie, and those same people were now totally running from Megatron and the Decepticons with all kinds of badass explosions in the buildings around them.

One of the last cases I worked on before I quit being a lawyer was a patent infringement lawsuit against every major movie studio and distributor for some boring digital technology method that the plaintiff claimed to have invented. I was on the side of the studios, and spent several months sifting through hundreds of thousands of documents related to the process of making pretty much every crappy movie from the last five years. Seriously, you would not believe how many people and man hours went into Kangaroo Jack. I saw it on an airplane, and I wanted to believe it could all be blamed on Jerry O'Connell and his portly black sidekick and the few Australian rubes they conned into acting in a movie about a rapping kangaroo. Sadly, there were literally thousands of people responsible for it. Many of them, I'm sure, knew just how bad it was, and considered it "just their job" to spend hundreds of hours syncing the lips of a CGI kangaroo to the Outback Steakhouse version of Rapper's Delight. I can sympathize. I certainly considered it "just a job" to spend hundreds of hours looking at documents showing just how boring it is to actually make movies.

I haven't had many interesting thoughts lately. Nothing exciting has happened to us, nothing even as exciting as watching a bunch of people running down the street from robotic aliens no one can see. I wish I had an army of talented people to add some CGI to our lives or at least give me some better lighting, but the reality is other than building Juniper a dollhouse, all I have been doing lately is sitting on the couch watching bad movies on cable every night in the dark. The other day it was one of those Matrix sequels. Last night it was Spiderman 2. One time Wood woke up and said, "Go write a blog post. Stop watching these crappy movies."

"I don't have anything to say. . .Besides, do you realize how many thousands of people worked very hard to make these crappy movies? It's the least I can do to to watch."

[I'll post pictures of the dollhouse tomorrow]

This past weekend, Wood had three debilitating migraines in three days. During the first, she slept at our friends' house on the other side of the state while Juniper and I walked down to their beach. The kid did the whole half-mile-or-so walk without being carried, both progress and in this case a necessity, as my arms were filled with buckets and sand shovels and towels and a frisbee for the dog and a kite for us all. We all stood together on the bluffs, dog, daughter, and dad, looking down at that endless stretch of water, down to the beach where I'd soon pick up some weird cell phone signal from another time zone. I carried Juniper down the hundreds of wooden steps to the beach, and pointed out into the silver blue horizon and said, "That's Lake Michigan, where your mom and I swam all the time when we were kids."

"The Wild Tiger farted," she said. And she had. Even the strong onshore breeze could not mask evidence supporting that declaration. I was not permitted to smile.

From its eastern shore, Lake Michigan does seem as impressively vast as any ocean in the world. Plus, it is low in sodium and has no sharks. I'd forgotten how much I missed the lake. I used to go all the time, back before it started to feel like just a bunch of creepy people lying around on sand. Last Friday we were the only ones on that desolate stretch of the beach, though you could see the silhouette of a girl in a bikini tossing a football to a guy knee-deep in the water a ways down the shore. Once set loose on the hot sand, Juniper ran straight toward and into the water, a marked improvement over her performance one year ago in Santa Cruz, though she may still wear the same swimsuit. She did not shiver this year, or cry. She laughed with this weird laugh she reserves for new experiences that she finds surprisingly pleasant, and I was proud of her. Juniper has been a very skeptical child. She is extremely deliberate. I followed her along that part of the beach where the waves just reach being that cheesy dad from an old car or coffee commercial who's all proud of his kid growing up a bit, the little squirt.

Then the dog disappears.

I scan the beach into the distance, but Juniper is the first to see him: he's about thirty yards out into the water, and once I see his little seal-pup head all the way out there, I think, "Well, Wendell was a good dog while he lasted."

Five, ten minutes pass. He's further out there, but swimming north along the shore now. I figure with the way he is going, he'll either drown or reach Milwaukee early the next morning. I can't do anything to save him. I'm not David Hasselhoff---not even the earthbound drunk sloppy-burger-eating Hasselhoff. Am I actually capable of rescuing something? Could I trust Juniper to stay on the shore? She laughs again with that weird laugh, watching him dogpaddle out to sea, no idea that I'm standing there holding her hand and figuring that her dog is probably going to die. She won't be laughing when he doesn't come back, I think, and toss my shirt off into the dry sand. Scooping up Juniper while slowly walking out into the water, I scream the dog's name, assuming his crazy dog brain is all panicked and he's swimming in circles not knowing the way to shore. Haven't I read in books about dogs drowning themselves like that? Almost instantly I am in water up to my armpits, not twenty feet off shore. Juniper is wet and she just wants to swim around. I hold her tight, ready to turn back, but heading out just a little further, calling to him, and suddenly my knees are back in the breeze. It's a sandbar, and as I get closer and closer to the dog I realize he's been on this sandbar the entire time, basically walking around in two and a half feet of water fifty or sixty yards offshore with just his head visible above the water. He walked over to me and smelled me for a second then walked away again. We swam out there for almost an hour. It was fun. When we got back to the place where we'd thrown all our stuff, the dog still had enough energy to sprint up and down the shore and spend the next forty minutes harassing me with the pieces of driftwood and other detritus that he wanted me to throw for him. I would close my eyes for a minute and he'd cover me with twelve chewed-up twigs and a tampon applicator he'd found on the beach. And to think I ever for a split second considered diving into that water to rescue his sorry wet ass.

We haven't touched a diaper for a couple months around here, and we have the Japanese to thank for it. In the chance that anyone out there is still struggling with potty training, I might suggest a steady diet of bing cherries and a cappella in-bathroom renditions of the songs from this video:

And just in case your kid is confused by squatter toilets in public restrooms, this video should help:

I know these videos made the rounds long ago, but many of the links I've seen have been of the insulting "those wacky Japs!" variety. Personally, I don't think they're that out there. I think they are just more helpful, honest stuff from the far more civilized culture that brought us Everybody Poops. Has anyone else found these videos useful in potty training their non-Japanese speaking kids?

It turns out that a huge part of successfully potty training Juniper was not using a system of rewards, but cultivating a sense of mystique and ritual around the excretory functions themselves in the context of the bathroom. Long before she was ready, a friend of ours let Juniper watch her kid use the potty and then put on big girl pants. Ever since, Juniper has considered the porcelain shrine in our bathroom the site of an important rite of passage after which you get to wear special underwear (so, not unlike the Mormon temple). The Japanese potty training videos have been an integral part of further cultivating this mystique. She doesn't understand a word of what those crazy-ass tigers say, but that never stopped her from being mesmerized, and---as with any religious-experience worth its salt---a bit terrified by it all. Every time the live-action chubby kid at the end of the first video gets up on the pot and starts his grunting, Juniper shakes her head "No" and jumps off my lap and runs out the door of my office to watch the end of the video from the doorway. "No, no, Juney don't like that part," she says, but then asks to watch it all again. Luckily, there are plenty more Japanese toilet training videos, these ones starring a heroic hippopotamus named Pantsu Pankuro:

If only we'd had that constipation song six months ago., we never would have needed all that Miralax. Consider also the zen-like disposition of the anthropomorphized toilet, Toire-sama, a true sensei of the shitter. Note his wise resolution of Pankuro-kun's dilemma here:

I just don't know if I could pee with him looking at me like that. It would way be worse than those bathrooms with the mirror right above the toilet. The Buddha-like squatter toilet, too, seems to give excellent spiritual advice, and you don't have to look him in the eyes:

Squatter-san does seem to enjoy the flushing a little too much, though, if you ask me:

This last set includes the all-important "it's no big deal when you piss your bed" song for those mornings right after the nighttime diaper becomes history:

For months, Juniper has instituted a moratorium on scatological humor in our household. I am no longer allowed to laugh when she farts. She loves these videos, but she is deadly serious about them. She is constantly on guard for even the faintest hint of a smile on my face when we watch them together. "Dada, don't laugh! It's ridiculous!" She said the other day to my astonishment. How do you then not laugh at a toddler trying to pronounce ridiculous (At least she didn't say ridicurous).

"You are right Juniper-chan," I say, emulating the wise old toilet. "Pooping is a very serious matter. Even when it involves singing toilet paper dispensers. And jazz hands."

Posted by jdg | Monday, June 18, 2007 |

During the winter, we walked past a construction site every day where the workers all wore face-masks or wool hats that left nothing exposed but their eyes.

"What are those ninjas doing?" Juniper would ask.

I didn't have the heart to tell her that the ninjas were building a casino. "They're making a special house where all the owls will live." One day I will have to explain why only chain-smoking oldsters with fanny packs full of nickels go in and out of the building. When she asks where the owls are, I'll just tell her they are up in the penthouse suites.

On Friday afternoon, when we arrived home from the grocery store for nap time, there were construction workers tearing out our front stoop with a jackhammers. This was unexpected.

"What are those ninjas doing to our house?" She asked.

We had to wait until they took a cigarette break before we could get inside. When they were done sucking on their Marlboros and we were inside, it sounded exactly like you would expect three guys with jackhammers tearing out our front stoop to sound. Her bed vibrated like one with a quarter slot in a fleabag motel. Juniper just sat in my lap sobbing.

"What are those ninjas doing to our house, dada?"

I had no idea myself. I just held her in my lap for what would have been the duration of her nap. Damn, I thought. All those months of ninja goodwill, completely down the drain.

Thursday Morning Wood

Posted by Wood | Thursday, June 14, 2007 |

Every time Dutch writes about his experience as a stay-at-home-dad, we get some comments asking about my perspective, as if there is a natural presumption that I should have some kind of problem with it. Sure, there are times when Dutch calls me at work and hands the phone to Juniper so she can tell me that she is riding the new carousel at the Detroit riverfront or peeing in the kid-sized toilet at the zoo and I can tell from her voice that she thinks it's the most exciting thing she's ever done in her life, and when that happens, I do feel pretty jealous. I don't think that's because I'm a woman--- I know Dutch felt the same way when he was working and I was staying home. Most of the time I don't even think all that critically about our arrangement, because at this point I can't. In our house I really do wear the pants. And here are the reasons why:

Things I Can Do That Dutch Has Never Been Able To Do
  1. Get up before 8:00 a.m.
  2. Leave the house, fully dressed, before 8:30 a.m; and, of course, get to work on time
  3. Brush my hair
  4. Avoid rolling my eyes or falling asleep during staff meetings
  5. Engage in polite conversation with my secretary, even when that means we talk about her relationship with her podiatrist for 30 minutes
  6. Wear dress pants
Things Dutch Can Do That I Cannot
  1. Run every day with both a jogging stroller and a high-energy dog
  2. Tell the story of Medusa 20 times a day, without ever cutting corners or mixing up names
  3. Make commissioned poop drawings
  4. Draw more than "J-U-N-I-P" with sidewalk chalk before breaking the chalk and swearing and getting bored; he'd recreate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel on our stoop if he didn't think chalk was so expensive
  5. Not feel like curling up in a ball on the couch because he's so overwhelmed by the frozen peas, dog hair, and cheerios all mushed together under Juniper's high chair; in fact, I don't even think he sees it
  6. Spend 8 hours without talking to anyone over 3-feet tall, and still manage to write a novel during nap time

Every family does what makes the most sense given their very particular set of circumstances. That's what we do. In our house, Dutch has an amazing immunity to boredom. The other day, Juniper asked him to make a car and a pirate ship, so instead of ignoring her like any normal person would, he made her a car and a boat out of cardboard. Exhibits A and B:

Sure, they're pretty crappy. But I wouldn't have known where to start. Axles? So when people ask how I feel, I have to say, like Dutch, I feel lucky. My kid has somebody to take care of her who loves her, my husband is happy, and I get to wear nice pants every day that aren't smeared with cookie crumbs or apple juice. And sometimes I even wear a skirt and cute shoes.


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, June 12, 2007 |

John Hubley was an animator for Disney during the days of Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi. After he was blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he went on to create uncredited television commercials, and eventually shifted his focus to independent short films after moving to New York and marrying Faith Elliot, who became his partner and collaborator at Storyboard Films.

The Hubleys' Storyboard animation would be familiar to anyone who has seen classic Electric Company and Sesame Street from the early 1970s---it had a distinct style that was low-key, a bit jittery, and often surreal. As I've been trying to update my list of YouTube offerings that I use to entertain Juniper instead of television, I realized that a lot of my favorite old Electric Company and Sesame Street animations were created by the Hubleys; I recently looked into their story and some of the others films they created, and stumbled across this:

"Georgie," the younger girl whose tantrum erupts into a green feline beastie at 5:00, grew up to become Georgia Hubley of Hoboken (the drummer for Yo La Tengo). The older girl, Emily, followed in her parents' footsteps (she did the animation in John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Beyond that trivia, I am struck by this cartoon's simple genius: the girls seem to be mic'd up and playing without any interference from their parents, and the use of animation here is so perfect, from the way it effectively conveys the imaginative play of preschoolers to how it captures the true ferocity of a sudden tantrum like no video camera ever could. But beyond that, and even beyond the unscripted reality of the subject, what I see in this animation is the love of the parents for their children, such a patient, tender understanding and appreciation of these two kids for who they are right in those moments and the amazing world they inhabit together. I sit watching it as enraptured as Juniper. She is doing a lot of this kind of imaginative babbling and quiet play herself these days, and this makes me want to give her a sibling.

Along the same lines is the Hubleys' earlier short film Moonbird, an Academy Award winner from 1959, that uses gorgeous mid-century-feeling animation and a similarly-recorded dialogue between their older sons as they hunt for an imaginary creature in the middle of the night:

I was struck by how revolutionary these decades-old cartoons felt when I was first saw them. I think it's because the voices are not supplied by actors, the stories not plotted by a team of writers. The voices are those of real children, and the action is supplied organically by one of the most powerful creative forces around: the imagination of preschoolers. But as I watched each of those videos for the first time, I had a hard time imagining two preschoolers raised in the current culture of pervasive branding sustaining a conversation for eight or ten minutes without talking about Dora or Spongebob or Thomas or Bob the Builder or whatever other preschool icon has hijacked their imagination.

Then I shook my cane at the kids these days and told them to get off my lawn.

Someday she will

Posted by jdg | Monday, June 04, 2007 |

There is a school that Juniper and I walk past almost every day. "Where are the big kids?" she asks every time. Sometimes we see them inside their classrooms, sometimes some of them even come to the window to see us, a tangle of smiles and waving hands pressed up against the glass. "Someday, Juney will go to school," she says. "Someday she will be a big kid." I nod.

"Someday," I say.

After we see our neighbor's new baby, she always asks me to hold her like I did when she was that little. I cradle and rock her against my chest, and she pretends to cry but bursts out in giggles instead. She tells me that she is not a baby. She is a big girl. She shows me this by riding her tricycle in the park: "Juney is a big girl now," she says, "She has her own bike." She puts her size-five shoes against the pedals and pushes so hard I can't believe the trike doesn't go flying out from under her from the force of her sheer determination. The trike doesn't move at all, of course, but then it does, and she screams with surprise and glee. She doesn't notice me bent down, my forefinger pushing ever so slightly on the seat behind her. All she sees is the sidewalk ahead.

"J-U-N-E-Y, that's Juney!" she shouts as her trike runs over the words we wrote the previous day in chalk on the sidewalk. "M-A-M-A, that's Mama!" and: "M-A-M-A, that's Dada!" Then we sit in the grass and she tells me about an owl named Luther who comes to her window at night.

"No Dada, I can do it all by myself," is her new refrain. She usually can't, but I like to let her think she can. We look at photo albums filled with pictures I took of her when she was first born. "What's Juney doing there?" she asks. I tell her she didn't do much then, not like she does now. Still, she asks me for stories about when she was a baby. I tell her about how much she cried, about how we would hold her and dance with her and bounce on the ball until she fell asleep so warm against us. I tell her that her first word was ball. I tell her she used to see the moon in the sky and call it ball. This fascinates her. "What's the moon's name?" she asks, and I tell her the moon's name is Luna. "What was my second word?" she asks, but I am so confused about where she learned to use the word second properly that I cannot remember that her second word was light. She still weighs less than 25 pounds; I still have never used a stroller with her. She still sits in the crook of my arm whenever we walk. I have never had biceps like this in my life. They make Wood purr. But that is just a fringe benefit. I walk with Juniper like that so we can talk.

When it's almost time for her to nap, we dance. First we dance to fast songs and she shakes her head side-to-side and runs wildly in place and in circles. Then we listen to soft songs and she puts her sweaty forehead against my shoulder, and laughs when I dip her. She pretends to read me books before I put her under the covers and sing to her. One of the best parts about staying home is there's no one around to make fun of how I dance and sing. I make up songs about Juney turning into an owl and flying away with the other owls but she looks down and sees her Mama and her Dada and she flies back down to stay with them a while longer but someday she will fly away. When she wakes up from her nap she wants to be held quietly for awhile.

My time home with Juniper recently eclipsed the amount of time Wood spent at home before we left San Francisco. For me there is no imminent move, no endgame, no job prospects or any real interest in returning to the world of work. Some days I might be out in the mid-morning sunshine, in some park or the zoo or maybe inside a museum if it's raining, and I think, Wow, this is my job. Juniper and I just spent two-and-a-half hours the other day building a sandcastle so big she could hide inside it, and the same thought occurred to me. I am so damn lucky.

Here I am, freshly-30-years old, a parent of a two-year old. I should be burdened by the heft of parental responsibility. I should be losing my hair and starting college-savings plans. I should be working hard in some office somewhere, not sitting around playing all day. That's not just my own father's voice talking, but some deeply-ingrained cultural imperative. Men work. They provide. They put meat on the table. They lose their hair from all the stress. Men have ambition. They seek power. They don't consider a 4-mile jog and an enormous sandcastle to be acceptable accomplishments for a weekday. Obviously, I've learned not to be seduced by this way of thinking. But the guilt that I feel for living like this does accomplish one thing: most of the time it prevents me from complaining. Some men don't just feel like they should be providing; they actually need to be. They have no alternative. That makes me feel very lucky, even when my greatest accomplishment on any given day is nothing more than successfully cleaning crayon off a wall. Even when my child is on her third temper tantrum of the morning I feel fortunate to get to do what I do. It is a privilege that I wish every dad in the world could have if he wants it.

Stanko Abadzic, in Prague.