"Your daughter just screamed at the governor."
"Where are you?"
"The State Fair. We were sitting there petting a newborn pig and looked up to see the governor standing over us with her entourage. She got in Juniper's face and said, 'Well hi there!' and poked her gubernatorial finger at her cheek and Juniper screamed 'Nooooooooooooooo!'"
"What happened then?"
"The governor laughed uncomfortably and walked over to the baby chicks in the incubator."
"You were disappointed you didn't get a chance to say, 'ello, guv'nuh in your chimneysweep voice, weren't you?"
"Oh very much so."
"Your daughter just screamed at the governor."
My friend's husband is an obstetric surgeon at a local hospital, and once a month he has to stay at the hospital all night, on call, just in case something happens that the residents can't handle. He has a cot and he tries to sleep a little, but I imagine the nights are lonely.
A few months ago my friend told me she was pregnant. I know some people worry that ultrasounds are invasive or even harmful. I'm not sure if I agree or disagree, but I do find it kind of romantic that when my friend's husband has to spend the night on a cot instead of next to her in their bed, my friend drives to his hospital and they steal away to an ultrasound room and sneak a peek at their unborn daughter. The flicker of the baby's heartbeat comforts them, and they both marvel at the way her arms and legs dart all over the screen.
On Saturday night, my friend stopped to pick me up on her way to the hospital. She'd invited me to come that month so that her husband could try to determine the sex of the baby. We pulled up to the hospital and her husband met us downstairs. It was nearly ten o'clock at night and even the labor and delivery floor of the hospital was quiet. I heard a small newborn cry from a darkened room, but as far as I know, there were no women laboring on the floor. It was practically silent.
When people ask, as my friend's husband did as he smeared ultrasound gel on my stomach, if we're hoping to have a girl or a boy, I'm not sure what to say. Of course we'll be happy either way. Of course we're just hoping for a healthy baby. If I'm honest, I say I'm torn: I want Juniper to have a sister, but I would love to have a son. The other day Dutch tried to engage me in speculation about what color hair this baby will have or whether it will look like Juniper, or him, or me. I told him I don't care, all I really want from this one is sleep. I'm also secretly hoping for an easygoing nature -- I feel outnumbered and outflanked at our house by the stubborness and intensity that my husband and daughter share.
During the ultrasound, my friend's husband kept apologizing for the quality of the machine he was using. He couldn't get a clear picture, and the details were scant. The heartbeat was there, but other than that, it was hard to tell what we were seeing. For a second, he was sure he saw the third leg he was looking for, and then I caught a glimpse of it, and then it was gone. He started calling the baby a "he," though he warned that the results were highly inconclusive, and he could just as easily end up being a girl.
Dutch was at home with our sleeping baby. I contemplated how to tell him this exciting but inadequate news. Then I started thinking for the first time about the possibility of having a boy. I realized that I'd been assuming for the last few months that this one would be a girl. It felt strange. I couldn't imagine a little penis growing inside me. But then I got excited. Maybe he will cry when I go away on business when he's nine. Maybe he'll have hair like mine. Maybe he will sleep.
But then again, maybe he's still a she.
We have a couple artist friends staying at our house on their way from Brooklyn to California. They are taking back roads the whole way, driving a butter-colored 1982 Mercedes 300D turbo diesel sedan that runs on used vegetable oil. They have become intimately familiar with the deep fryers and back alleys behind kitchens all across the Keystone State and Ohio, having stopped numerous times to beg wary Chinese chefs for their used eggroll-frying oil, and asking waitresses at the end of diner breakfasts whether the kitchen saves its waste grease. When they arrived they asked us if there was a tortilla-chip factory in Detroit and when I said there was they high-fived. Apparently tortilla-chip factories are the grease-car equivalent of Jed Clampett's backyard.
I also showed them to a restaurant supply store where they bought several "greasebuckets." Now I didn't know "greasebucket" was a technical term---I thought that was just what my dad called the kids he didn't want me hanging out with in high school. But with several actual greasebuckets in tow, yesterday I followed these intrepid travelers around southeast Detroit scavenging for grease. Several ethnic restaurants and luncheonettes were a bust: "We just pour our grease in the dumpster," they all shrugged.
Our friends described how to tell by the color of the oil the last time it was changed; some restaurants almost never change their oil, they insisted. "They just let it go solid overnight, then reheat it the next day," they said. French fries have never seemed so unappetizing.
I waited for what seemed like forever outside our local Chinese takeaway, sure that they'd emerge with a few gallons of vintage-Mercedes-propelling fuel. Wood orders food from this place every couple of weeks or so (she is a big fan of the deep-fried General Tso's chicken, especially now that she is pregnant). They emerged shaking their heads in dismay. "Lard!" they said. "That's all they use. Not a drop of vegetable oil in the house. You can't eat there anymore!"
This is all wrong, I think. We order food from restaurants so we don't have to think about what goes into it. It just tastes better that way. Now I'll never be able to enjoy that Chinese food again, knowing that's cooked in giant vats of putrid month-old pig back fat. Now I'm going to spend half the time I look at any menu wondering what kind of oil is in the restaurant's deep fryers. This must be kind of what it's like to learn that all those plastic licensed-character toys you bought at Wal-Mart were made in shoddy Chinese sweatshops and filled with enough lead to regularly send your kids into a hyperirritable lead-induced stupor, or worse.
Man, I hate it when the hippies are right.
I guess I just always expected we would be the parents of an only child. It seemed like everywhere I looked I saw well-heeled couples with one kid, wearing a school uniform perhaps, well-groomed, and discussing, say, a Samuel Beckett novel over dessert at a patisserie in a fashionable neighborhood somewhere, the child skipping while holding one hand of each parent on the walk home. And then there were the rest: the multi-childed, the people pushing double-wide strollers in strip-mall parking lots with swarms of children rolling around them on those roller-shoes, or signaling despair with shoes planted with flashing red lights deep in their soles. I had convinced myself we were never going to join that tribe, those Bedouins you see in airports, with their caravans of stuff. I was fairly certain we were never going to need a minivan.
Last night I put my hand on my wife's swelling lower abdomen while she was sleeping. Far too small to feel anything move in there now, I knew, but still it is in there, slouching towards Detroit. I just wanted to feel the swell. It had all the weight of inevitability.
There is a familiarity to all this now that has drained me of much of the awe of the last time. As I spooned her with my hand there, I remembered this New Yorker cartoon that I think I first saw when I was thirteen. [Someone had donated several years of New Yorkers to the free bin at the local branch of the public library, and I took them all, exposing myself to as much false profundity of contemporary fiction, outdated off-Broadway show reviews, and wry one-liner cartoons as I could before my parents took them away from me out of fear that I might grow annoyingly cosmopolitan.] Something purely biological overtakes me from time to time, an evil strain of what ifs that press me to propagate. The world is such a dangerous place; the future, so unknown. Things fall apart. You should have more than one, this relay of snapping synapses and inexpressible urges tells me. Just in case.
Besides, I asked myself, thinking of my wife (an only child) and the exhausting and sometimes oppressive parental love she still receives on a daily basis, can you really pin all the pressure of love from two parents on one fragile being? But then, of course, there is my own experience: as an older brother I tapped into the same well of pitiless human cruelty that surely inspired medieval inquisitors, eighteenth-century satirical poets, and Karl Rove. To see Juniper handle siblinghood as poorly as I did would surely break my heart.
I fell asleep. This morning, hours later, this has been hard to write about. We couldn't write about any of these long-simmering emotions while we still held our secret close. I suppose I have been a little ashamed, given the way Wood has (accurately) portrayed my fears of having a second child. It's complex, and scary; I don't want to whitewash anything out of concern that this new child might one day read it. The fact remains that I am far less frightened of the coming of this second child than I was of Juniper. I was a real piece of work during her gestation. And all my stereotypical fears from back then turned out to be true: she was going to change my life forever; nothing was ever going to be the same; our lives weren't going to be just about us anymore; not only would I be the guy who talks only about his kid, I would write about her, too; etc.
The surprise is I never would have expected to be this happy with the realization of all my fears.
Three years ago, I was pregnant. It was a summer of weddings in dresses two sizes bigger than I'd ever worn, a summer of double-take-inducing cleavage. In mid-August, when I was about 16 weeks pregnant, three of my best friends flew to San Francisco to see me. When they joked about the size of my boobs, I burst into tears. When discussing where to get brunch, I burst into tears. I spent a sober evening in the Mission while they drank margaritas and I drove everyone home at 2:00 a.m., a few hours before I had to drive them all to the airport. The next morning was the first since Juniper's conception where I had someone else's hair to hold while they puked alongside me.
I haven't written much about being pregnant. Other than a first trimester full of migraines, excessive vomiting, and near-constant exhaustion, I liked being pregnant. For so long it was just a secret that made me smile standing on the bus. Even at 30+ weeks, no one ever gave up a seat for me. I liked to think this was because I was carrying my pregnancy so well, but it was probably just because San Francisco commuters are selfish jerkoffs who thought I was really fat. Juniper was born at 3:30 p.m. on her due date, after 12 hours of labor. My labor was only difficult in the way that getting a child out of your body is always difficult. There were no complications and nothing terrifying happened. We were incredibly lucky.
It's no secret that about a year ago, I started tapping my feet around here. With every month that passed after Juniper's 2nd birthday, my desire to be pregnant again became more impossible to ignore. But to Dutch, the sound of my biological clock ticked fainter than a rat's heart behind a wall. "Look at your friends," he said, referring to the girls who'd come to visit in San Francisco. "Can't you wait till they all meet the right man and settle down before we start talking about another one?" Still, I knew I was getting somewhere when it drove him to parody. Things have been getting rather stale around here, I kept admonishing him. You sit there racking your brain for things to write about. It's time for another one, dude.
Remember when Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen went through that really unfortunate stage on Full House when they were about 3 years old? You know, when they looked like shaved fruit bats who couldn't really do anything except scrunch up their little pig noses and repeat a few stock phrases in response to the zany antics of Uncles Jesse and Joey? They were all, "You got it dude!", "You're in big trouble, mister!" and "Aw, nuts!"? Oh, the dark days of the Olsen Empire. As we all know, when they were no longer able to pull off their relentless adorability, the producers decided it was time to pull a Cousin Oliver and add a double shot of cuteness in the form of Uncle Jesse's twins Alex and Nicky. Twins? Have mercy!
I wish it was as easy to infuse additional cuteness in real life as it is with a Hollywood casting call. Instead of a fresh-faced towheaded moppet showing up on your doorstep, dumped there by his irresponsible archaeologist parents, it takes bout after bout of determined, premeditated sex, followed by Costco-sized boxes of pregnancy tests, and then, if you're one of the lucky ones, several months of migraines, vomiting, and nights where you don't make it past 8:00 p.m. before you're snoring on the couch. On the plus side, your boobs are once again spectacular.
Yes, I am pregnant. Not twins. Just one, whose hummingbird heartbeat and in utero twisting on the ultrasound the other day finally cracked Dutch's remaining reservations, just as another ultrasound had temporarily quieted both our fears about becoming parents three years ago. The baby is due in February, just after Juniper turns three.
After a mile and a half ride, I would lug my bike across a fallow corn field to get to the gun shop, a windowless pole-barn set on a hill overlooking the nearest blue highway, a road my parents specifically identified as too dangerous for cycling. The gun store had been around for more than half a century and had some legitimate business name, but it was always known simply as GUNS, because the word GUNS stood on its exterior in giant 10-foot letters that glowed red for miles across the county. The journey across that corn field and back usually discouraged any follow-up visits for a few months: the ground was uneven and it was often easier just to carry the Huffy than roll it through the waist-high switchgrass and forbs.
I grew up in what then seemed like "the country." But that fallow field was never replanted, as far as I know. Now it is a parking lot for a big box hardware/lumber store, with a McDonalds, a Subway, and a tire store out there islanded by asphalt. It was all built after I went to college. But at thirteen, it felt so liberating just to leave home on my own two wheels and go to a store, even if all it sold was weaponry I couldn't buy. Once every summer, the farmer who owned all that land would have an all-day sheep auction and he would hire a lady to sit in a trailer and ladle sloppy joe meat from a crock pot onto wonder buns for a dollar each. She also sold candy and pop. I looked forward to riding my bike down to that trailer every year. There was something so satisfying about being able to engage in such commerce on my own accord. That's partly why I loved going to GUNS. They had a pop machine and charity candy for sale at the counter. I remember strolling through the aisles of the gun shop, staring at semi-automatics and revolvers, assault rifles and shotguns. I admired the sophisticated lines of vintage Walthers and Lugers, the slick, gimicky plastic of the Glocks, the harsh beauty of a Sig Sauer .45 caliber handgun. I would spend hours there, wandering with the distant staccato of small-arms fire from the basement shooting range, dreaming of turning eighteen, examining everything from boxes of bullets to the armpit holsters to the compound bows and their vicious broadhead arrows. I would hover over the case of Rambo knives, listening to the clerks describe to their customers what kind of damage the various pistols would do to an intruder's skull. When you're a 13-year-old boy, you are not just grateful that the only business within bike-riding distance is a gun shop and not, say, a place that sells dollhouse miniatures or scrapbooking supplies. You are in heaven.
One night, a few years later, GUNS caught fire. My dad and I drove over there in his truck, while the disco lights of the local constabulary and the firetrucks and the red ten-foot letters of GUNS itself were outmatched by the flames illuminating the night. There is a strange sense of community when some local building catches fire: neighbors come out from behind their televisions and have conversations when they might not have spoken in years; hands are shaken, news exchanged. Someone is a grandfather now. Somebody else had a good old dog die and now they got a new one. Word quickly spread throughout the township that GUNS was on fire, and soon more rubberneckers in pickup trucks and station wagons were lining up along a road that now spans five lanes between a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Meijer's Thrifty Acres, all assessing the heroism of the township fire department, the performance of the brave volunteers, the possibility of a malicious cause of the blaze, and the speculated damage to our township's lonely island of commerce. I remember some men were drinking beer, the flames reflected in their glasses. Before the fire could be contained, the building was rocked by a series of explosions: enormous hollow, echoing booms, probably from the cannisters of gunpowder. "It's nearly muzzleloading season," a nearby man said. "They sell a lot of black powder there."
Then the ammunition boxes caught fire. I remembered where they were kept along the eastern wall of the store, 25-round boxes of Remington buck shot piled 50 high and ten deep, hundreds of boxes of .45 caliber bullets and countless 5,000 round boxes of Winchester rifle ammunition. Now you could hear them whistling into the darkness. The volunteer firefighters tore away from the scene in their Broncos, cops barreled towards us screaming through their loudspeakers to get the hell away from there, bullets, they said, were flying in every direction. I've never seen my dad drive so fast, my teenage body tucked snug under his right elbow, my shoulder practically against the wheel and his big battered hand around my head.
I get a lot of e-mails asking whether we've remained as rigid with our no-television policy for Juniper as we set out to be. I'm not going to write much about it. I just don't have it in me to write a post about how she flies kites and plays pick-up-sticks and whittles her own wooden toys and makes dolls out of corn husks and does all the sorts of things that children did before the advent of television. Writing about your elitist attitude towards television---no matter how sincere---is no different from writing about your elitist attitude towards anything: you can hold up your hands and claim you're just expressing your personal beliefs about breastfeeding or cloth diapers or natural childbirth or, ahem, blog advertising, but even if you attempt to drain all sanctimony from your message, you're going to piss someone off and it's your own damn fault for not keeping those self-proclaimed "personal beliefs" to yourself.
Truth be told, it's pretty easy to be an elitist about television when your kid won't sit still for it. At this age I wouldn't mind if Juniper took some interest in watching TV. Apparently it is great for occupying a child so you can take a shit without a wingman, get some housework done, or even spend some time on the internet. I wouldn't know. Once in awhile I will turn on PBS, but the only thing she'll sit still for is this show about a whiny 4-year-old French-Canadian cancer patient. I can understand why his family puts up with all the whining, considering the chemotherapy and all, but as far as I can tell all Caillou has taught Juniper is how to be a more accomplished whiner, and frankly I could do with less of that.
What I really want to write about today is how Juniper is obsessed with getting the dog to talk. Wendell has proven to be a blessedly quiet dog. He does not bark or growl, and, perhaps sensing that our household is currently experiencing a glut of it, he never, ever whines. Juniper is uneasy with this silence. She has been trying to teach him the words she learned first. "Talk Wendell!" she shouts at him. "Talk, now! Say ball!" He just sits there, wagging his tail, staring at the ball in her hand. "Wendell won't talk, dada," she says to me. "Get him to talk."
I just shrug. I won't break the news to her that she will never have a conversation with her beloved German Shorthair. Not yet. Instead, I've inflamed her hopes by going back to my old standby of televised toddler entertainment: the easily digested 2-3 minute fare on YouTube. Remembering that a simple search in YouTube has solved a half dozen dilemmas caused by Juniper's strange obsessions, I searched for "talking dogs." The search yielded this.
We have watched it many dozens of times. It never ceases to crack her up, the last dog in particular. Talking dogs, like bike-riding bears and cigar-smoking chimps, are mildly amusing at first, but it doesn't take long before you look into their sad, empty eyes and realize what depraved creatures we humans are to enjoy forcing animals to act like us. I now sit there overanalyzing the video, wondering about these women who have taught their dogs to say, " I wuv woo!" or "I want my momma!" How long did that take? What drove them to teach their pets to express such complex emotions beyond their ordinary vocal range, to articulate such words with no actual understanding behind them? What satisfaction do they get from the blank eagerness in those canine eyes, merely watching for the milk bone to be tossed their way? And don't get me started on all the people who have taught their cats to say, "I love you."
Other than YouTube, just about the only other thing I can get Juniper to watch are the dozen-or-so DV tapes of footage I took while we were living in San Francisco. I'll sit there and watch them with her, cringing at the sound of my own voice talking to her, acting like a blabbering 4-month-old is having some kind of conversation with me, then, on another tape, reading far more into guttural 14-month-old proclamations than they clearly deserved, as though I was privy to some hilarious Bruce-Willisy voiceover about drool that the mic just didn't pick up. God, what a douchebag.
[I am in the process of updating that "Anthology of Televised Toddler Entertainment" I started last summer; there is a lot of brush to clear from the Sesame Street section where videos have been removed from YouTube, but I am more concerned about adding some great new short videos that 2-5 year olds enjoy. Is there anything on YouTube your kids love to watch over and over? Let me know and I'll be sure to add it to the video page]
Every year on a September Saturday my high school German teacher would borrow one of the athletic department's 15-passenger vans and take eighteen of his German students to Chicago. This teacher was a wise and fabulously lazy man who grew up in the very small town of Watervliet, Michigan before attending college and settling down in the slightly bigger town of Kalamazoo. Looking back, I believe he saw his role in our lives as more than a mere martinet of Teutonic grammar; he considered himself a mentor whose mission was to expose young provincials to the possibilities of the wide world beyond their petty secondary-school social upheavals. Not to get all Mr. Holland's Opus on you, but if men and women like him weren't out there sacrificing the exciting lives they could have led in Berlin or New York to inspire the pubescent petite bourgeoisie to get liberal arts degrees and move away to bigger cities, there would be no embittered penniless hipsters living out their thirties in cramped Brooklyn apartments writing short stories about embittered penniless hipsters living out their thirties in cramped Brooklyn apartments. And without them and all the other urban paralegals, copy editors, consultants, lawyers, editorial assistants, government employees and research associates bored out of their fucking minds at work, who would be left to read and write blogs? If no one had inspired us to break up with our high school sweethearts and seek something more from life than throwing empty cans of Milwaukee's Best into the rock quarry every Saturday night, there probably wouldn't be any blogger conferences to go to in Chicago. Danke Herr Holland!
Back in Chicago all those years ago, wir deutsche Kursteilnehmer were supposed to spend the morning on a brief architectural tour, followed by a few hours in the Art Institute, and later dinner at the Berghoff. But between Nighthawks and the Schnitzel, we were allowed to roam the city as we pleased. Most everyone headed up Michigan Avenue, straight for Niketown. I remember Niketown being a very big deal to people. If you told someone that you went to Chicago, you were always asked if you went to Niketown, and if not it meant you had a lousy trip where it was assumed your parents made you do all kinds of boring crap. I don't think Niketown is such a big deal anymore, now that downtown Chicago has ESPNworld, OldNavyburgh, Hollisteropolis and HighSchoolMusical2Land.
Skipping the not-so-magnificent mile, a few of us hopped on the elevated train and headed up to see Cabrini Green before it got knocked down. We did not consider this to be dangerous; all our knowledge of Cabrini Green came from the movie Candyman, so we figured if Virginia Madsen could almost survive it, three high school guys from Kalamazoo should have no problem. People there just glared and made us feel like the assholes we were, so we left to try to find Al Capone's hotel, which was also scheduled for demolition. After we stared up at that crumbling old building ("that's probably where he killed that dude with the baseball bat!") we rode the train down to Chinatown and laughed at the crazy and smelly goods in the stores and wandered around the surrounding area filled with abandoned buildings until we found a paper bag stuffed with about twenty little plastic baggies of a resiny drug none of us recognized, along with a wad of about seventy dollars in cash and a .38 caliber revolver. We tossed the drugs and split the cash, and I saw the guy who picked up the bag put the gun into his jacket's inside pocket. "The best place to find shit is where people are always running from the cops," he said. The whole afternoon was just like that "going to town" scene in Wet Hot American Summer. Only real as fuck. By six we were back in the Loop with our classmates and their Niketown bags, eating spaetzle.
I wonder sometimes how horrified I will be when Future Juniper does stuff like hop on a train into an unfamiliar city and walk around places where she could very easily get sold into white slavery or get forced into running guns for the Yakuza. This is a curse of parenthood, I suppose, desiring nothing more than for your kids than for them not to be as fucking stupid as you were. I read an article a few weeks ago about how over the course of four generations, an eight-year-old British boy's freedom to move had been restricted to 300 yards from his front door, while his great-grandfather had enjoyed the freedom to walk six miles every day to go fishing. I thought of my own youthful wanderlust, spending all day hiking through endless forests (that are now endless subdivisions). I think of days like that one in Chicago, formative in a way of what I still find fascinating and interesting about the cities of the world. And then I wonder if I am committing Juniper to a life of virtual house arrest, even though my fearful colleagues in the suburbs are largely doing the same thing.
* * * *
"Psychogeography" is the study of the specific effects of a geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. In 1958, Guy Debord wrote the seminal psychogeographical text Théorie de la Dérive, or "Theory of Drifting," what he called, "a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences." In a dérive you (or you and a friend) drop your existing relationships for a few hours, you drop your work and usual leisure activities, ignoring all your other usual motives for movement and action, and let yourselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters you find there. Sights and attractions intended as touristic are to be avoided along with itineraries, your journey instead becomes "dependent on chance and the spontaneous subjective impulses and reactions of the wanderer."
Debord had been inspired by the situationalists, particularly the study Paris et l'agglomération parisienne, in which Chombart de Lauwe noted the narrowness of the real Paris in which most individuals actual lived, in comparison to the grand, touristic idea of Paris. Most Parisians, he suggested, dwell exclusively within an extremely small geographical radius. Lauwe diagramed all the movements made in the space of a single year by a female student living in the 16th Arrondissement. Her itinerary formed a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which were the School of Political Science, her residence and that of her piano teacher. Why live in Paris at all? One naturally wonders.
We spent the past weekend in Chicago. On Friday we followed our itinerary, visiting friends and beautiful old buildings, finally ending the day on Navy Pier---a tourist destination with a character seemingly defined by the absence of reality---to visit with people we only knew through the internet. On Saturday we took the train to uptown and walked back towards the tall buildings. I love Chicago. Beyond the city's obvious charms, there are still so many wonderful thoroughly unspectacular things to see there. It is never the grandeur that impresses me most, though I can certainly see the appeal of gothic skyscrapers and miesian monoliths as well as the bustle of a vibrant city center. I love the dirty Italian beef stands in Chicago, the old movie palaces turned into Mexican dance clubs, the Indian funeral homes, and the bars with glass-brick windows and faded Old Style signs hanging above the door. Tourists are almost always in a better position to partake in the dérive: seeing the familiar as new, bisecting the small triangular ambulations of the locals as we walk down streets with no idea where they'll take us.
We are back in Detroit now: house, market, playground, our own comfortable triangulated rut. But beyond the joys of seeing old and new friends, getting over to Chicago for a couple of days reminded me of the pleasure of wandering that so consumed me when we first moved to Detroit. Tomorrow I'm going to turn left where I usually walk right.
You never know when you're going to come across a paper bag filled with drugs, cash, and a gun.