Thursday Morning Wood

Posted by Wood | Thursday, July 26, 2007 |

Juniper's inflatable pool was in the backyard, a lukewarm stew of twigs, bugs and grass, and she was walking around the backyard in her underwear searching for more stuff to throw in it. Dutch was out there reading; I wanted her to come inside for dinner. She didn't want to. After fifteen minutes or so, when the air started to get cooler and more and more of our neighbors had arrived home from work, I tried to coax her in again. She completely ignored me.

Dutch responded: "Oh, I can get her to go in."

Huh, I thought. Now that he's a stay-at-home dad he really likes to show me up. He walked inside and headed to the fridge and pulled out a can of whip cream. He held it up in the back door, tapping its side on the glass.

"Juney!" he cried. "Come in!" At first she didn't look at him. "NO!" she screamed and continued to run around, shirtless, filthy, and now clutching an inflatable pink flamingo, grubby proof that we are the trashiest people on the block. Then she looked at him, and her eyes widened.

"Okay, Dada!" she shouted, and ran to the door. He deftly swung the door shut behind her, giving me a self-satisfied 'I told you so' look as he held the can up to her open mouth, squirting a dime-sized dollop of cream directly on her tongue. She laughed hysterically. "It kissed me!" she said, licking her lips. "More?"

Dutch gave her one more squirt while I stood aside, mortified and fascinated at the same time. "I thought you cared about her heart," I said.

"It's just a little whipped cream," he said. "It's not like it's Easy Cheese!" But my mind was whirling with possibilities. Imagine what you could get her to do with a can of aerosol cheese.

El Corazon

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, July 24, 2007 |

A few weeks ago I bought the kid a couple packs of Loteria cards, and she quickly became obsessed with El Corazon ("The Heart"). She asks me to draw hearts when we we're out chalking the sidewalks, and when I draw a nice figurative valentine-style heart she throws down her chalk and stamps her feet until I draw a realistic veiny and ventricled blue-and-red lump with severed aortic arches and pulmonary veins and auricles sticking out of blue atriums and she isn't really happy until I draw some drops of blood squirting out, like the beating heart Mola Ram pulled out of the ribcage of that poor turbaned Thugee in Temple of Doom. I do sometimes suspect my child has the morbid tendencies of an old Aztec priest. "Heart," she finally says---quite satisfied---before asking me to draw a red-nosed drunkard and a topless mermaid.

Truthfully, I think it's that she only gets freaked out by things when we expose her to our own prejudices; this is why I pinch Wood extra hard when we're at the meat counter of the Mexican grocery store and she starts gagging at the piles of spotted cow's tongues and beef hearts. But the other day Juniper asked me to show her a movie about a heart, so I clicked on youtube and searched for "heart," first coming up with only this one, but then finding this one and this one. I watched the first with horror, and the latter two with the creeping sense of doom I get whenever I see someone else's insides. This is what I have been avoiding all these years, since 9th-grade science, this reminder of that weird glistening universe that exists within us all, that pulsating network of wet alien tubes and tanks and tissues. The surgeons were chatting above the gaping chest cavity, the very definition of nonchalance, and Juniper watched, entranced, but not the least bit grossed out or frightened. I tried not to wince or turn away. Why should she be scared of this? I asked myself. What is it that makes us frightened of what's under our skin, if not the grim reality that our souls are tethered to dirt by those crude mechanics? "Does Juney have a heart like that?" she finally asks me, blissfully ignorant of mortality.

"Of course she does," I answer. "But Juney has a very strong heart. It's the size of her hand," I say, and wrap her little fist inside my own, squeezing it over and over against her own chest. "It sounds just like this: pu-dum, pu-dum, pu-dum." I try to picture it inside her, strong and fast and young.

She laughs and puts her ear to my chest and listens. "I can hear your heart, too, dada," she says.
A few weeks earlier I sat in a doctor's office at Henry Ford Hospital for my Wood-mandated 30th-year physical, trying to figure out whether the paper robe left the front or the back open when the doctor walked in. I hadn't seen one in a decade. He showed me how to put the robe on, slipped the stethoscope onto my back, my chest. "Your heart and lungs sound great," he said, and later: "You are in perfect health." I felt relieved, but walked out through the cardiovascular ward looking at the faces of those with less optimistic prognoses. As you are now so once were we, they said. Out on Grand Boulevard, I looked at all those bodies moving around, all those hearts nestled somewhere inside cages of bone among slithering viscera.

We use a "white noise machine" in Juniper's room when she sleeps. It allowed us to sneeze and speak above a whisper in that tiny apartment we shared in San Francisco. She still uses it, and one of the ways I can tell she is up from her nap is when she changes it from "Yosemite Falls" to its "Heartbeat" setting, a muted constant thumping. "This is the sound of when Juney was in Mama's belly," she says when I open the door to her room. She is repeating something I'm sure her mother told her, still it reminds me that the heart's rhythm has a wombish comfort, just as the flickering rhythm on an ultrasound or the pattering of a heart monitor comforts those trying to usher new life into the world. "Does Wendell have a heart?"

"Yes. Everything alive does. Even bugs. I think. Wendell's heart is very fast."

They say pets are useful for teaching children about empathy and death. Someday Wendell's heart will stop and she will wonder why. As will mine.

There was a time or two in our eleven years when Wood and I broke things off. Once when she left for a year in China we tried it, and to say it broke my heart is not quite right. I remember running a lot then. I used to sprint up this long stretch of hill in the Arb trying to get my heart to burst, but I could not run hard or fast enough. At the top of the hill I would double over, sometimes collapse to my knees, picturing my heart at its brink inside my chest, yet somehow stronger now. The other time we broke up I was so despondent I went to see a counselor, a former professor of mine who talked to me about why seventeenth-century ascetic artists painted Jesus with his heart outside his chest. He said that it symbolized not only his great love for humanity, but his immense vulnerability, especially in those depictions of him nailed to the cross with his arms outstretched, his heart completely exposed, lance-pierced, but still burning with love. Vulnerability, he said, has its own sort of power. It allows you to love even when you have every reason not to, to keep your heart on fire even when you have every excuse to let it go cold.

"Does Juney have a strong heart?" she asks me almost every day. I tell her it is a very strong heart. Sometimes her silly questions send me spinning, thinking not only of that tiny mortal organ inside her chest, El Corazon, but her figurative heart, the heart of pop songs and bad teenage poetry, the one that will lead her through life's greatest joys and disappointments. I felt so helpless knowing that as sure as it has its own separate rhythm, there will come a day that it will suffer, and there will be nothing for me to do but hold her bigger fist in my hand again and squeeze it, and if she'll listen I'll tell her how strong it still is, that it is never really torn or broken, but merely wounded and exposed, and that even in that state of terrible vulnerability, the most important thing to do is not let it grow cold.

Terribly Two

Posted by jdg | Friday, July 20, 2007 | ,

Juniper can spend hours looking at pictures of herself from when she was a baby, and this inevitably launches her into a series of regressive behaviors that result in me taking care of a six-month-old again, swaddled and googooing and gagaing in her old boppy. The other day she asked me to take her to the dollar store next to the wig shop so she could buy a pacifier with the quarters and nickels she'd scrounged from beneath the couch cushions. A resourceful one, this child. I took her over there, but only because I've been meaning to buy her one of those toddler-sized doo rags they sell at the wig shop. She asked to ride in the bjorn, but I just ignored her. I do have some limits, you see.

Juniper never took a liking to the pacifier back when it would have been really useful to cork all that hollering, but after we walked out of that dollar store with a 3-pack of pacifiers, I didn't have to listen to her asking me if kangaroos have shadows or why the dead squirrel had no eyes for at least twenty minutes. It made me wish I'd followed through with those fantasies of duct taping a nuk in her mouth back when she was a baby. Eventually she took her new pacifier out and said, "Swaddle me, dada."

Back in her early days, I was always the designated swaddler. I was good at it, like those ladies with the hair nets in the taquerias who roll burritos so tight that when you stick your fork in them black bean juice squirts in your eye. Still, it's no easy task to swaddle a 30-month old wearing shoes. The other day we went for a jog and she refused to sit in the jogging stroller unless swaddled. After the swaddle, I couldn't get the restraining straps over her shoulders, so I just used the chest strap to keep her in nice and tight. It must have looked like I was taking the world's smallest psychotic cannibal out for fresh air in her little chariot. A couple days later she wouldn't leave the house unless swaddled, but I had to play fetch with the dog, so I swaddled her up and brought her over to the park and just sort of propped her up against a tree. I put the pacifier in her mouth and occasionally asked if the little baby was doing okay [she'd nod] and she was perfectly content. It strikes me as somewhat disingenuous that her fantasy of infancy is this pantomime of quiet, reflective observation, whereas the reality of her infancy was anything but.

All of this comes with a balance of big-girlhood, of course: two inches of height in the last two months, several consecutive diaper-free months, underdogs on the big girl swings, and the ability to tear my heart to shreds with a few icy words. "I don't like you anymore, dada," she said to me the other day. Then, later: "Dada, stop singing. You are not a good singer."

And of course, there is also whining. Sometimes it seems like one of us must have dropped her at around 28 months and she just got stuck in the whining position. I also don't understand why everything has to be said at the same level of heightened volume, as if I'm not submitting to her will because I'm some foreign tourist who doesn't understand her, so everything needs to be shouted for clarity's sake.

There are things I love about her growing older, like the conversations we have and how she can reveal all the trippy shit going on inside her head. Oh, and how she can walk by herself now. That rules. But when we sit there with her old photo albums I do sometimes find myself wallowing in maudlin thought, seeing a photo of her as she looks in my memories of those days I would drop her off at daycare in the morning and couldn't even make it to the bathroom upstairs before I started sobbing. Wouldn't it be nice, I think, to go back and spend more time with her when she was that age? Then I slap myself across the cheek. Perhaps she gets her baseless fantasies of a quiet, reflective infancy from me. Those days weren't fun. They were loud as hell, and we were hardly sleeping.

Someday I'll probably look wistfully back upon these days, too, when Juniper the big girl always pretended to be Juniper the baby. I may be capitulating too much to her regressive demands, but when it comes down to it sometimes I'd rather deal with a 2.5-year old quietly acting like an imaginary infant than a 2.5-year old acting like a real 2.5-year old.

"Why do some of them wear bell bottoms? They have to be the only professional athletes who wear bell bottoms while they're playing."

"It's more like a boot cut. Some of them tuck their pants into their knee socks. I like that. It's very old-timey."

"Have they ever considered elastic waistbands? Basketball players, football players, those guys don't wear belts. At least not the kind you could buy from JCrew. Look at Ordonez: JCrew belt!"

"And buttons. Baseball uniforms are the only ones that button up the front. Some have pinstripes."

"On the field, baseball players are, like, the most professional-looking professional athletes."

"They should all wear ties."

* * * * *

"Do you think they change those advertisements behind home plate between every inning?"

"I know they do. That shit is expensive."

"Do they really think having that word there is going to make me want to buy a Dodge truck?"

"I don't know. Hey go get me a new Southwest Salad™ at the end of the inning. And make it snappy."

"Fuck you."

* * * * *

"What's a breaking ball?"

"I think. . .I actually have no idea."

"Do you think it's because the ball breaks and they have to use a new one? Or is it a braking ball like the brakes on a car?"

I'm convinced that cities -- downtowns especially -- are the hottest places to be in the summer. All the pavement, cars, buses and air conditioning exhaust coming out of tall buildings add at least ten degrees onto the high temperature of the day. Dutch tells me that yesterday Juniper walked out the front door wearing nothing but the sandals she'd put on her feet herself. Dutch grabbed his shoes as quickly as he could, and followed her down the sidewalk. Maybe other toddlers do stuff like this all the time, but in general, our kid is cautious and reluctant to be out of our sight. But not on this day. She walked several blocks down the sidewalk, emboldened by her nudity, I guess, so fast that Dutch had to run a little to catch her. When he finally reached her, he asked her where she was going. "To work," she said. When asked what her job was, she said, "To take good care of Dada."

So far, I haven't resorted to walking to work naked to deal with the heat in this city. Instead, I listen to music to take my mind off the sweat that's trickling down the back of my knees. I'd like to say that I created this new mix of music for you by carefully considering the perfect transition from one song to another, but really, I just lifted them from among the "most played" songs on my iPod.

I'm sure some better streaming player has come along since the last time we did one of these mixes, but since Dutch spent an hour and a half last night swearing trying to get this just right (time that could have been spent looking for a much easier solution), we're just going to stick with this one. Some of the links below go to free and legal mp3 downloads.

To listen to the mix, just click here

1. Bowerbirds- Olive Hearts
2. Bishop Allen- Rain
3. Heartless Bastards- All This Time
4. Broken West- Baby on my Arm
5. Andrew Bird- Plasticities
6. Pas/Cal- Poor Maude
7. The Lucksmiths- The Music Next Door
8. Jarvis Cocker- Heavy Weather
9. Luna- Bonnie and Clyde
10. Yo La Tengo - Little Eyes
11. Shelby Sifers- Snowman
12. Two Gallants- All Your Faithless Loyalties
13. Spoon- Black Like Me
14. Piano Magic - I Came To Your Party Dressed as a Shadow

I don't have comments about why I like each song, but I will say that the first couple bars of #2 cause Juniper to instantly start her "rock-and-roll" dance, which involves shaking her head side-to-side while running in place, a dance I assume she learned from her father. When she hears #9 , Juniper imitates the "ah-ah-ooh" background noise EVERY FREAKING TIME. Dutch saw Yo La Tengo at the Detroit CityFest last weekend and he said they were amazing (and free) but I stayed home with the baby so I don't know if they played #10. And you really need to buy the new Spoon record, and #13 should be all it takes to convince you.

In the past four years, I have married six people, including my sister. You wouldn't believe how much that upset my grandmother (she's a strict Calvinist who doesn't approve of that sort of thing). After Wood and I got married, she told my dad she does not believe we are actually married because our ceremony was performed by a judge and not a minister. It was of little consolation that my sister's wedding would be conducted by a minister, once she learned that she used to change the minister in question's diapers and (despite his ability to read the gospels in their original Koine Greek) his ordination was conferred by a single click of a mouse, just one of the 20 million ordinations performed by the Universal Life Church since 1957. She knew her newly-ordained grandson did not attend church, and that he had not believed in the truth of every word of the Bible since he was eleven. And besides, what kind of minister has hair like that?

Still, all three marriages I have performed were legal and binding. I conducted a great deal of research before each ceremony, once discovering case law that suggested New York state does not recognize ULC-ordained ministers as proper officiants. So before I married two friends upstate, I incorporated my own church, with a board of directors that included my wife and our neighbor the go-go dancer. I then ordained myself as the bishop of this new church. When others questioned the validity my newfound faith, I launched into an inspired diatribe about the beauty of the first amendment's free exercise clause and the separation of church and state, and how both ensure that the government has no business investigating the merits of my religion, which at that time consisted of a weekly liturgy of several pints of Anchor Steam and a lot of loud, live music at various holy night spots spread throughout San Francisco. Were it an evangelical faith, I would have had no trouble finding converts willing to help sacrifice a six pack.

At the rehearsal dinner for the wedding in New York, I was introduced to members of both the bride and the groom's families as "the minister" who would be conducting the ceremony, and quickly realized some of them thought I really was clergy. I was addressed as "Reverend" by several people whose names I forgot as soon as I was done shaking their hands. I humbly avoided correcting anyone who failed to call me "Bishop" or, more appropriately, "his eminence." Forgiveness, you see, is an important tenet of my faith. Wood slurped down half a box of Chablis at the prospect of being the minister's wife that night, drinking, perhaps, to forget that half the people in the room assumed she was having sex with a man of the cloth.

At the first ceremony I officiated, I wore my law school graduation robes, all medieval and wizardly. If I'd talked at all about trees, I could have been a druid. The bride was Wood's college roommate, a girl I once spent two years not speaking to after she encouraged Wood to let some frat boy suck a jello shot from her cleavage. The not speaking thing was a little awkward when the only bathroom in their apartment was in her bedroom, so we eventually started talking again once I grew sick of pissing off the front porch in the middle of the night. Among the congregants at her ceremony were several people who would commonly be called "rubes," or "yokels." One such specimen approached me while I was drinking a large glass of gin with very little tonic; he had more earrings than teeth, a sad little mustache and a wardrobe that looked as though it was purchased entirely with Marlboro miles.

"So, it must be really hard, huh, not having sex and all," he said, not asking me so much as contemplating celibacy as a barrier to himself ever entering the priesthood.

"It's not so bad once you consider the alter boys," I said, and downed the rest of the drink.

At one time in my life I considered myself a fairly-competent public speaker, and in college I frequently gave speeches in front of dozens or even hundreds of people. I was always nervous before I took the podium, but something about performing weddings was worse; I always lost the contents of my stomach right before I had to stand up at the front and watch all that formal wear approach. There is so much pressure on you during the ceremony; you have to invisibly bring everything together under the knowledge of all of that money spent to make that moment when the couple affirms their commitment so perfect, and there you are, at the center of it all, your words the ritual, repeated, the legal binding of two individuals. It is an awesome risk to ask a friend, or even a brother, to do it.

Each time I wrote out the ceremonies individually and revised them late into the night before; I tried to fill in the emptiness I had found in the bland minister's sermons at other weddings I'd attended, and improve upon the perfunctory civil ceremonies handed down at city hall. I tried to fill my remarks with with personal details about the couple, their stories, and the things I knew about them both that everyone in attendance would find beautiful and true. In the end, I found a certain spirituality there that transcended my own lack of religious credentials. These people chose me because they did not want to be married in a church; they wanted to be married on their own terms, under their own beliefs. But even without mentioning a god, when you're talking about love it's hard to avoid transgressing boundaries that the great religions have already drawn. I tried to write the ceremonies the way a talented vegetarian chef can make a meal that doesn't leave even the most fervent carnivore missing the meat. For my sister's wedding, I hope grandma hardly noticed that God wasn't in attendance.

I was listening to the radio yesterday, and several men were debating whether gay marriage will ever be legal in the United States. The conservative spouted off the tired homophobic talking points about how next it will be legal to marry goats and lemurs. The moderate suggested that perhaps religious marriage could remain penis-and-vagina only, whereas civil unions may one day be used by any two individuals who want the legal benefits of a marital relationship without disrupting anyone's holy sanctimony the sanctity of anyone else's holy matrimony. Civil ceremonies are usually only performed by public officials specified in statutes, like mayors or sea captains in international waters. But as we have seen, religious marriage rites may be performed in tenebrous Mormon temples or sacred groves of oaks, ash and hawthorn; they can legally be performed by high priests of Cthulhu, scientologists, or even web-ordained pricks like me.

I hear all this talk about the sanctity of marriage, but it seems to me every day there are straight people undermining the narrow idea of divinity-sponsored marriage simply by rejecting it. And yet in my experience, there is still something inherently spiritual about these marriages, largely stemming from the depth of love shared by the two people committing their lives to one other. Wood and I were in a camera shop a few blocks from San Francisco City Hall when the mayor started marrying gay couples. Two chunky, middle-aged men came in with tears in their eyes, looking to buy a frame for their freshly-printed marriage certificate. They'd been together twenty years, they said.

And to this day I don't understand why anyone would worship a God who would decree that love a sin.

[His Eminence will happily perform any wedding ceremony in the Detroit metro area in exchange for a donation of a case of Bell's Third Coast Old Ale to his church]

Posted by jdg | Friday, July 06, 2007 |

"Look what she did to my wallet. My cards are all in her toy oven. Was she trying to make a debit-card casserole? At least I didn't have any cash in there."

"You never have cash in there."

"You can't spend what you don't have."

"While you were in shower, she was walking around with your credit card and her toy phone. She was saying, 'I am going to order it!' and 'Time to order it now!' she brought it over to the table and said, "I am going to order it for you now, Kitty.'"

"What was she trying to order?"

"Who knows. Whatever was in her virtual shopping cart, I guess."

"Oh well. At least there isn't candy in the checkout aisle on the internet."

Childish things

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, July 04, 2007 |

Days later you still find single grains of sand in your hair, even more inside a piece of paper that had been folded in your shorts pocket now unfolded, not so unlike the smell of a campfire in a coat you go to wear days after returning from the woods. I love the smell of old sunblock on Juniper's belly, the cold discomfort of water milfoil and clay at the shallow bottom of an inland lake, the sight of discovered mollusks drying on a dock. I love the inefficient plodding of paddle-boats, and the more slippery social coordination of propelling a canoe. I love the sunburned patterns of sandals on feet. I even love the mosquitoes I smack dead on my daughter, and the screens on our windows that keep them at bay, the itchy bites earned at the lake nearly gone now and the swimsuits pulled from plastic bags hanging dry on the railing downstairs near the dirty laundry.

Every weekend we seem to head to the water; last Friday we visited some rather-distant relatives of my wife who own a cottage on a large lake a few miles down the road from where my mother grew up, leading me to wonder if people who own cottages on lovely lakes are more likely to get to know their distant relatives on summer days than those who don't, in the same way the guy in college who owned a pickup truck seemed to discover so many good friends around moving day. When we arrived, I nodded hellos and shook hands and headed straight for the water. The kid and the dog followed after showing even poorer manners, leaving it to Wood to figure out who was Aunt Edna that was once married to what cousin of her dad, etc. These were lovely people, but the water felt warmer than the air, and if you threw a stick off the end of the dock, Wendell would jump off like a canine Carl Lewis to swim after it. I figured the relatives would derive some satisfaction from seeing us have so much fun. Wood said our hosts had married into the Fords and were as rich as Croesus, which I don't think is true, though they did have a jet ski and a vintage Chris-Craft and a sailboat and a pontoon boat. Despite that fleet moored to their dock, their simple cottage was not so different from the one where I used to visit my grandparents in the summer.

I catch myself trying to give her the same experiences I had as a kid, as if molding her that way will somehow allow me to outlive myself. This is both absurd and unfair to her, I know, but I still catch myself doing it every once and awhile. It is part of the false conviction I had about moving back to Michigan, certain that allowing her to grow up in San Francisco would have distanced her too much from us, her parents, provincial hicks, as if the inevitable distancing could ever be thwarted by a return to the Midwest, as if I hadn't pulled and pulled against my own parents until I broke free. But as far as I ran, this was always home. Far away, I found myself longing for the things that no one who didn't grow up here would miss: the squishiness of lakebottom in your toes; fireflies in summer; U-pick blueberries; the snugness of a lifejacket on a slow pontoon boat. Through Juniper's joy in experiencing it, all that stuff that seemed so old is new again. Like sparklers. I haven't lit a sparkler in twenty years; tonight we will light fistfuls and chase fireflies.

I try to tell myself this is all for her, but really it is just as much for me. And yet if I do this right, someday it might have a pull that will always bring her back to us.