Dangerous Vaults

Posted by jdg | Friday, September 28, 2007

My wife is a pretty cool chick. She's not overly trendy or indentured to some "look" or into that whole byzantine hipster highwire act of what's slipped in and out of irony the right number of times to be acceptable this week. She's never read Vice Magazine. She thinks Pitchforks are for angry villagers. She knows she likes songs but rarely concerns herself about the bands. She just finds her own strange clothes here and there and wears them well, even while gaining thirteen pounds in this hump-month of pregnancy. I admire her. She's smart and confident and cool. She seems very comfortable with who she is.

The thing is, you wouldn't know it, but part of who she is also happens to be a total gymnastics nerd. And I don't mean that in a post-1989 "nerds are cool" kind of way; I'm talking about a "please don't make me sit in a room anymore with this freak" kind of way. If the world gymnastics semifinals are on ABC Sports, she's automatically on the phone with one of her old gymnastics teammates like characters in a Bruce Springsteen song talking about their beam performances at the 1993 Buckeye Invitational or else expressing scorn at whatever is going on with Amanda Borden's hair. Sometimes they discuss the elite prepubescent athletes they once followed during their own prepubescence, much like male dorks discuss their favorite episodes of Robotech or share laughs over allusions to MST3K jokes. Most of the gymnasts they talk about seem to have been named deep behind the iron curtain: "Ohmigod remember Svetlana Boginskaya's second vault at the 1990 world championships? I still can't believe that French judge gave her a 9.73."

I know what you're thinking, that there must be certain advantages to being married to a gymnast. Well, it's true. Wood was once a very great gymnast, a two-time high school state champion and a Midwest regional club champion on the vault. To this day, she can really stick a landing, if you know what I mean.

But it's pretty much inevitable that when the kid gets old enough she's going to want to do gymnastics, too, and even though I have a wife who can treat me like a pommel horse at the end of the day, I'm still going to spend all my weekends driving all over the state so I can sit around in pole-barn gymnasiums out in industrial parks with a bunch of women wearing windbreakers and big buttons with their daughter's picture on them. Man is that ever going to suck.

Wood currently teaches gymnastics one night a week at a local community center. It's not the cutthroat helicopter-parent environment you find at a gyms in the suburbs or large cities where white people live. It doesn't even have any real equipment. The kids have fun, they learn some tricks, they lose some hairclips on the mats. Juniper and I usually sit and watch. I spend the time writing an imaginary screenplay about a feisty redheaded lawyer who volunteers her time teaching gymnastics to a group of troubled street-wise minorities who don't trust her at first but gradually warm to her after she wears her "hoodie" leotard and performs a special "rap" with lyrics that finally help them understand toe placement on a back handspring; eventually that ragtag group of socially-challenged but extremely-talented African American middleschoolers will take on the evil club gymnastics squad from the "Cobra Cartwheel" gym in suburban Grosse Pointe. At that meet, the team will do their best but suffer a series of seemingly devastating setbacks until finally the one introverted girl who narrowly lost the spelling bee at school that day and didn't think her alcoholic mother would make it to watch her perform gymnastics will see her mom's face in the crowd just as she's about to make her last tumbling pass, and she'll stick a perfect dive roll front handspring rebound for the win and her mother will cry and give up drinking and the feisty redheaded lawyer will rush out to hug the little girl but then she'll get fired by the community center for her unconventional coaching methods and on her last day of class all the students will stand up on the beam and light candles and sing her a elegiac rendition of the Pink/Kayne West duet that was used in all the trailers. I need to write a role for Tone Loc, too. So underutilized in Hollywood, that Tone Loc. So while I sit there wondering if Jennifer Garner would be interested in my script, Juniper sits there pretending to do all the gymnastics moves that the big girls are doing.

Juniper's still as petite as a Dominique Moceanu. Size is what really makes the difference between a talented gymnast and a virtuoso. This morning I heard her talking to herself and doing gymnastics moves on the rug: "Pike! Straddle! Now point your toes!" I think the other day I heard her say "Nadia Comaneci." Man, I sure do hope she inherits some Greek mythology nerdiness, too, so I have something to talk to her about when she's twelve. Either that, or my general clumsiness.

I can't even turn a proper cartwheel.

My asshole footprint

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, September 26, 2007 |

I can be one hell of an asshole. There's no hiding from it. My wife keeps a binder on the bookshelf with the words "feuds" on the spine. Inside it she's three-hole punched pages of nasty e-mails between 21-year-old me and the Washtenaw County District Attorney arguing about whether he should have brought indecent exposure charges against a girl who rode naked on a horse through downtown Chelsea, Michigan (it got to the point where I openly mocked him for the night law school he attended---while I was a 1L at Michigan; God, I am an asshole). The binder also holds all my notes from the time I took a former landlord to court just because he was such a dick to me and my college roommates all year. The verdict was not in our favor, but I still considered it a victory because I got to cross examine that bastard all afternoon. The binder contains vitriolic e-mails between member-of-the-bar me and some eBay buyer who wanted a refund for a Burberry suit I'd found at a thrift store a few years ago. This guy was a lawyer too. There are pages and pages of e-mails escalating to threats of litigation (we were arguing back and forth for hours over $7 in shipping charges). Assholes like me don't see forests, but we get all bent out of shape over injustices done to single trees. Leaves, even. Whenever I slip in my neverending quest to "reduce my asshole footprint," Wood sighs and pulls out the old binder. She knows it embarrasses me. I found it this morning sitting out on the daybed downstairs. I think she just added a whole new chapter.

See, last week I learned from some people who read this site that a certain corporate "hipster" online parenting magazine had a picture of Juniper on its front page. Problem was, I'd never been asked if anyone could use the photo, and nothing on the site gave me credit or attributed the photo to me. My little girl was just sitting there, on a corporate site I couldn't control, with some text creeping towards her from the left talking about the dangers of lead-based paint.

Looking back, I realize that the passion and anger that were aroused when I saw that photo were the same emotions that made me a good attorney. I have never really written about it, but I was a really good attorney. For years I worked as the only associate defending a $300 million class action brought by a group of multi-millionaire investors. They were such colossal jerks, their claims against my client so unjust, I channeled my indignation to dig up so much dirt to use in a countersuit that they ended up running away with their tails between their legs, settling for fractions of pennies on the dollar. It was a huge victory. The problem was, even though exploiting these kinds of emotions made me a good lawyer, I didn't like myself as a good lawyer. I was such an asshole. That's one of the many reasons I walked away from a life in the law.

The other day, I wasted hours conjuring legitimate legal threats against the website to get them to take down the photo of my daughter, responding to their eventual response with further bombastic, angry tirades. I was in full asshole mode, though eventually I accepted their apology and moved on. After a few days, I started thinking about what this all meant. A certain sense of security had been shattered, and I removed nearly a thousand photos from our Flickr account. Eventually, I wrote something about the infringement, hoping I could use the story as a warning to other parents about what can happen when we naively make images of our children public on sites like Flickr. I have definitely lost some sleep in the past thinking about what perverted creeps might want to do with my photos, but I had never before considered what the corporations were capable of doing. Just when I'd made my peace with everything, other people started coming forward with their stories about what this very same online magazine had done with photos of their kids, and things escalated again. I don't appreciate being lied to, even though Nerve Media/Babble's lies were always very polite and reassuring. The asshole in me came out once more. When something like this happens, it consumes me. I can't think anything nice. I can't write anything nice. I hate it.

So that's where a lot of my free time has gone the last few days. If you haven't already, you can read more about what happened here. I am hoping now to put this all to rest, to move on to the kinds of things you have come to expect to read about here. I want to put the "feud" binder back on the shelf. In some ways, I am glad I stood up to them. I'm glad I left my asshole footprint across Babble's scrawny hipster ass. I hope by bringing this to the attention of so many people that they will finally stop, that this reaction might act as a deterrent to others who might now think twice about doing the same thing. But I still want to use this experience to remind everyone to be careful with what they share online. If you share photos on Flickr and want to reduce the likelihood of corporations using your intellectual property as free stock photography, I have the following suggestions:

1. Make sure your Flickr settings are set to restrict downloads and keep the license "all rights reserved." You can also add more specific copyright language in the "description" area of every Flickr photograph, and I would encourage you to do so.

2. I know it's against the fundamental spirit of Web 2.0, but if you want to reduce the number of random people looking at your photos, don't use descriptive tags or titles. Most of the photos that Nerve Media stole from Flickr users were discovered because the images' tags and text descriptions showed up in simple searches related to the subjects of the articles they were stolen to illustrate. You can also easily hide your photos from public searching in Flickr's settings.

3. Don't support commercial sites that repeatedly and cavalierly rip off copyrighted material.

"Whoa, look there, he's moving his little fists."

"You said he. Is it a he?"

"Oops, I meant 'the baby.'"

"But you said he. Is it a he or not?"

"Uh, yeah, he's totally a he. No question. It was the first thing I saw. Couldn't miss it."

Don't advise patients to drink three 8 oz glasses of water before arriving at the clinic, then make each of them wait an hour and fifteen minutes while a receptionist named Tykeesha paints her nails instead of assembling their files.

Also, Tykeesha, when your office provides service to an urban population well-versed in not taking shit from anybody, it's just not a good idea to make fifteen pregnant women wait an hour and fifteen minutes to pee while you do your nails. I suspect that one of these days, we big bellied will revolt against you, and after that fight, your nails are going to look like crap anyway.

[As soon as Dutch can get Juniper to take a nap, he'll reveal the sex]

Watching Gene Kelly on a Tuesday Afternoon

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, September 19, 2007 | , ,

Sometimes when the wife gets home and takes over the parenting reigns I go down into the basement and watch an old movie and work on my art crap. I'll put on something with Cary Grant or Gary Cooper or Steve McQueen just so I can remember what it looks like to be a man. Such a manly act itself, I know, hiding in the basement from a child, holding a paintbrush. Distracted from what I am trying to make or do by all the celluloid masculinity, I just slip further and further into self loathing over what I've let myself become. I recently read a biography of Robert Capa, all the time not feeling swarthy enough, or drunk enough to call myself a real man. It takes a real man to treat Ingrid Bergman like shit, I figure, and not just Bogie-with-a-broken-heart shit, but actual real-life shit. What a man, that Robert Capa. Stormed the beaches at Normandy with nothing to fire but a Leica. The other day I was sitting on the floor playing with my daughter and my niece, singing some made-up song about pigs and I heard my mother sarcastically say across the room: "Yep, that's my son. I'm so proud." Then I heard my grandfather ask, "Is he even doing any legal work at all?"

When we picked up the dog after he was neutered, his nutsack looked like a deflated balloon you find under the couch a week after you let it shoot its way across the room. That's how it felt to hear my family talk of me that way. Balloon-sack boy. Watching the dog walk away from me then, I understood the appeal of neuticals. As far as I know they make no testicular implants for stay-at-home dads, those men suffering from too many months of ring around the rosy duets and dinner checks snatched away by paycheck-wielding wives. Occasionally after work I'll put in a DVD with Gene Kelly, because sometimes the only cure for feeling like less of a man is to watch another man dance. I understand why woman fall for men who dance, even those without the Baryshnicrotch. To dance is to fully embrace one's vulnerability. In the same way, I understand why my wife might have fallen for a man capable of the breathtaking displays of sentimentality I cough up here on a regular basis. As sappy as this man can be, and as much as he finds himself outmaneuvered day in and day out by someone under 36 inches tall (to the point where he feels more nervous about her going to school in the morning than he ever did about an upcoming performance in federal court), damn it at least he can say he's never sang a song while tap dancing and wearing a straw hat. But if anyone were to tell you he's painstakingly taught his daughter the entire choreography to Feist's 1,2,3,4 video, tell that lying motherfucker to stop peeking in my goddamn windows.

My mom saves clippings from the Announcements section of the local paper to tell me what the people I went to high school with are doing with their lives when they announce their engagements. So-and-so is an architect in Manhattan. He went to Yale. That kid you used to make fun of all the time is a vascular surgeon in Boston. She never saves the ones of the guys who work at the paint store. I know she's just being a parent, trying to get under my skin, insinuating that none of them are stay-at-home dads, that they're all doing something with their lives, and, in turn, that I'm not. This bothers me less than she thinks. These guys are just getting married now. In a few years, their wives will get knocked up, and they themselves will get kneecapped by this whole parenting thing. That is, if they're lucky.

Yesterday morning she walked right into her preschool class without a tear. All afternoon, after school, she sang new songs I've never heard. "Teach that song to me," I said, and we sang together. I thought about Gary Cooper. Steve McQueen. Robert Capa.

Fucking pussies.

Posted by jdg | Monday, September 17, 2007

On Friday afternoon we sat, just the two of us, in a train station, our final goodbyes delayed at least a half an hour by freight congestion, watching college kids waiting for Friday-afternoon Greyhounds, homeless men chomping at (or talking to) invisible shoulder parrots and pushing the limits of loitering laws, farm families who'd driven so many miles to put one of their kin on a train or a bus to Godknowswhere with nothing but his Axl-Rose hopes and a small 30-year-old suitcase that never saw much use till now. "Remember all the times we used to do this," she asked me, as if I wasn't already thinking about them. A lifetime ago we knew our share of suffering in airports, train stations, and bus depots, and we remembered them all watching the hipster college couple murmuring nose to nose in the corner, the nerdy kid down the bench fighting back tears while saying goodbye to his father before climbing aboard an Indian Trails bus to Owosso, Flint, Port Huron, Detroit. I used to always ask why we did it. Why do we do this if it feels so bad? But there were always other scenes made in airports, train stations, a weird symmetry: jumped leg-wrapping hugs in Dublin and tears of relief in Beijing. There were always arrivals that followed departures.

"How long's it been, since we did this, said goodbye like this?"

"Since you took that deposition in Minneapolis, over a year ago, I think."

"You'll only be in Chicago for a couple days."

She put her head on my shoulder. I still walked along her train like a guy in a corny movie.

Thursday Morning Wood

Posted by Wood | Thursday, September 13, 2007 |

For three mornings this week, I sat at my desk waiting for Dutch to give me the low down on the preschool drop-off. On Wednesday, nearly an hour after drop off, he called me:

"Yeah, it was pretty much the same as yesterday. I stayed around a bit longer. In between howls she told me she was tired so she sat down with her pillow and one of her classmates brought over a blanket and we all sat there with the teacher and kind of petted her and told her everything was okay while she whimpered."

"What happened next?"

"She ripped one. It was one of those awful smellers."

"Did anyone say anything?"

"No, two little girls kind of backed away holding their noses, but I think even they understood she was still too fragile to point it out. Her teacher stayed right there, though. She toughed it out."

"That's how you know you've lucked out as far as teachers go, I guess."


* * * * *

The good news is that every day at pick up time, Juniper was smiling and having fun with her new friends, though she did run to him and grab his leg at the end of the day, screaming, "Dada!" Not too traumatized yet. I'll save the real trauma for when she's a teenager and I can pull out that fart story.

Harder on the parent

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 11, 2007 | ,

I have just left Juniper screaming for me in a room somewhere. Today is her second day of preschool. After I spend a few minutes in the classroom trying to get her to calm down to a point where she could say something without all the mottled cheeks and snot bubbles and tears and tears and tears, I make my final, confident, I'm-so-proud-of-you goodbye, and one of her classmates says to me, "Where are you going?" and the waterworks start all over again. Her teacher shoos me away and intercepts a screaming Juniper, picking up the tangle of kicking legs and arms reaching for me and I rush out into the hallway, shutting the door behind me and standing against it with the relief of a horror movie heroine after a narrow escape, and as I stop to breathe the entire school echoes with her hollering. Dada. I want my dada. Dada don't leave me. Dada don't go outside. Hold me and keep me nice and safe. Dada hold me and keep me nice and safe. And then it's just screaming. Gargoyles up twenty stories all around downtown Detroit crane their necks away from it; stained-glass windows collapse in deadly, saintly shards; birds are rousted from their nests on Belle Isle, as far south as Canada, and Ohio; Aretha Franklin hears the High C and snaps a Z.

In this moment, all anger and frustration and that unfathomable parental longing to do what feels right even when it will only cause further harm, I bang the back of my head against the door and then scoot away in fear that Juniper might know it's me there, I'm just twisting the knife in deeper and deeper by being there, mere feet away, while she feels so abandoned and so alone. And then I'm crying too, and I'm angry while I'm crying, because she's made me so utterly helpless. Other teachers find me with mottled cheeks standing against the lockers and they say, "You must be the father of the screaming child," and I say, "That's right," with a mixture of shame and pride, shame that I'm crying and shame that I've coddled her and shame that she's not quiet and accepting of her fate like the other kids; and there is also pride, this strange defensive pride I can't explain, a mixture of "how dare someone else have any negative opinion about my kid, she's perfect just like she is," and the sick, selfish pride of being loved and needed so badly that she can hardly tolerate life without me, and perhaps also some pride in the knowledge that this is how I was, how I've always been, a pride at how she cries just like me, her face twisting up while she chokes on words just like I always did whenever I had to part with someone I loved for some reason I didn't understand, a pride that she is turning out to be just like me.

Anger and concern and frustration and helplessness and shame and a curious pride, all this in me as I grip the steering wheel and drive away. I remember some trite condolence: "It's harder on the parent than the kid." Of course she will be okay when I get back there. Of course she will hardly notice I've returned. This cleaving of apronstrings is necessary. This unwelcome helplessness, just another curse of parenthood. This was the first of many such partings, of a lifetime of parting. If I'm lucky, it may never be too easy for her.

Posted by jdg | Monday, September 10, 2007 |

Picture it: my little family eating ice cream and watching a troupe of chanting, yellow-shirted college students performing Capoeira, The Brazilian Art of Dance Fighting. They move very slow. Juniper is mesmerized. I keep trying to say something about it, but Wood just shakes her head at me with a stern look, interrupting me with a "Stop." A few minutes later we're walking away and I start talking about how I hope none of my kids ever come back from South America to join some group that performs Capoeira, The Brazilian Art of Dance Fighting. Wood says, "God, you waste so much energy worrying about what they'll be like in the future."

I say, "Yeah, but that's because you don't waste any. I have to do it for both of us."

"Well, there's nothing you can do. They are going to do what they like."

"Yeah. But that doesn't mean I have to pay for any lessons in Capoeira, The Brazilian Art of Dance Fighting."

"Remember when you used to play the banjo? Imagine how pissed you'd be if you'd really wanted to learn Capoeria, the Brazilian Art of Dance Fighting and your dad wouldn't pay for lessons, or, worse, he made fun of it."

"Yeah. I would want to bust a slow totally-pretend handplant-cum-cartwheel elbow chop on his ass."

Thursday Morning Wood: 17 Weeks

Posted by Wood | Thursday, September 06, 2007 |

Last week, I started to feel better and lost my excuse to not do almost everything. I am no longer too tired to leave the house after 7:00 p.m., or too nauseous to pick up the dog's shit, or too queasy to eat anything that wasn't fried. In lard.

I loved having pregnancy as an excuse to fall asleep after work while Juniper climbed all over me, telling me about her friend Luther the owl, or instructing me to "get my butt off" her bed and read her a book. Now if I fall asleep on Juniper's bed after work while she plays, it's just because I'm lazy. I haven't had a migraine in over a month, though I had exactly fifteen from weeks 6 to 12. Though those migraines were horrible, they gave me the perfect excuse to close the door to our bedroom and sleep for hours during the middle of the day. I'm going to have to start hanging my clothes up again.

Now that I'm looking at all that in the rearview mirror, I finally feel comfortable writing about how horrible the first trimester was. This one was way worse than Juniper's first trimester, unless it's just that I forgot how awful hers was because I never wrote about it. Just in case I ever forget how every morning during the past few months I felt like my stomach was swirling with the bloated corpses of a dozen diseased rats, let me record it here: the first trimester of this pregnancy was absolute hell. At work, I spent my days running to the office bathroom past unsuspecting coworkers while trying to look like I wasn't in a hurry at all so that I could discreetly puke, all the time praying that no one would come in and hear me. At home, I was sleeping or wishing that I was sleeping.

I am so glad to be over that.

Now I'm at that stage where I don't have a single thing to bitch about. I can't yet complain about being big and uncomfortable. My clothes are tight and many of them don't fit at all, but that just means I get to dip into my fat pants from 3 years ago. I lugged the bin of old maternity clothes from the basement last night, and I'm still sneezing from the smell and dust. At one point, I called Dutch into our bedroom to marvel at a pair of gigantic gray, elastic-waisted pants. I don't think he remembered that I was ever that big. He assumed they were the bottom half of an elephant costume.

A few days ago, I resolved myself to enjoy this pregnancy. It is probably the last one I'll get to experience, and now that I'm not puking or scraping at my brain in agony, I want to savor it. I'm going to stop skipping ahead in the pregnancy books, and I'm trying not to think about how desperately I want to meet this baby. During my pregnancy with Juniper, I was consumed with the desire to just get it over with so that I could finally hold her and see her and know that she was okay. This time, I'm going to try to relax.

Last night I finally realized that the fluttering I felt low in my stomach every so often wasn't my imagination: it's the baby. There really is one in there.

I figure I do have one excuse left. If Dutch catches me sleeping while Juniper draws all over my face in permanent marker, I'll just tell him my body is storing up sleep for the long hard slog ahead of us.

The rhythm of memory

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, September 04, 2007 | , ,

In San Francisco I occasionally heard a suspicious piece of conventional wisdom that because of the weather, it is particularly difficult for people who move there to remember when things happened to them. Someone said the brain associates events with the weather in which they take place, with the season. Changes in the weather and seasons in San Francisco are so nuanced: brown grass in the suburbs indicates summer; it may rain more in the spring; the fall, they say, is when it will finally be hot enough to leave your house without a coat. To minds accustomed to stark seasonal contrast, days blend into one another and you cannot remember what month something happened.

In that way, years are said to pass like weeks. Everything happens in the fog of a perpetual spring. One day you are 23 and single and poor and drunk most of the time and the next day you are 33 and single and a bit richer but still drunk most of the time. I have my doubts, but I heard this discussed by enough provincial refugees trying to figure out where the last five or ten years of their lives had gone that there must be something to it.

It is understandable why parenthood is so feared by those who've grown accustomed to partying and generally behaving like 23-year olds well into their thirties. There are plenty of reasons your childless friends will dislike your baby, but one is that your baby will be a goddamn touchstone that even an endless summer cannot obscure. There is no way to hide from the creaking of your own bones when there's a baby around to remind you of how long it's been since it was born. For two years its life will be measured in months, months that slip past you as they always have, and the baby serves as a perpetual reminder of just how quickly they've gone.

San Francisco is a city where, besides money, the preservation of youth is everything. Despite the marginal presence of old gays with their moisturizers, the aging, bitter hipsters, and those ancient Chinese on the buses, it is a city of young people, with new batches of them arriving all the time from universities on the east coast or the Midwest, many of them overpaid and willing to spend obscene amounts of money on food and drink. At 24, we'd read newspaper articles there about the city's continual loss of families, and say, "bah, who needs families?"At 26 we found out were were going to become one. It was one of the loneliest times of our lives, not knowing anyone who had already tread that path. For a city that treasured youth above all else, San Francisco seemed to have a Herod-like fear of diapered usurpers.

This is why we started writing here. For all its bizarre current manifestation as dull domestic performance art, "Sweet Juniper!" started out as a way to communicate and commiserate what we were going through with others who were similarly isolated. We actually met other parents in San Francisco through the site, and the loneliness ebbed. But not enough to keep us there.

I have never really written about why we left San Francisco for downtown Detroit, although I am asked why we did it almost every day. I have different answers. It is complicated. I have not written about it because I have so much to say it would be boring. The bottom line is that it was the right decision for our family, that San Francisco was a wonderful place to spend our twenties, and we loved it.

And yet I have not missed it once.

When we moved into our current home one year ago, hundreds of monarch butterflies converged on our neighborhood as they migrated to California and Mexico. This morning, exactly one year later, Juniper and I counted nearly three dozen in the tree outside our house. Strange, I considered, how they know to head out on the same days every year. Such a befuddling ritual, to go all that way for constancy in temperature, only to come back again in spring. On one of our first nights in this house, we spotted a mama opossum carrying all her babies across our backyard. The other day we saw one of her babies, now nearly fully grown, sniffing around our mature tomato plants at night.

This hasn't been just another year for me. Beyond where we now live, this year has been all about how we live. I haven't logged into Lexis Nexis for thirteen months. I've spent my days picking apples, tramping through snow, watching buds form on freshly-unfrozen branches, and burying my feet in the sands of Lake Michigan. More importantly, I've spent every day exploring the world with my little girl. I will remember this year always. Those friends we left in San Francisco might see her now and gasp at how much she's grown, how much she's changed in the past year. But there is no shock in it for me. I've been watching her grow, all day, every day of the best year of my life.