Evicted

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 31, 2007 | ,

Our couch was the first piece of real furniture I ever purchased. Through law school we used hand-me-downs, and during those months I lived in the quad, I used an actual blow-up couch my parents gave me as a birthday present when I turned 22, dense and heavy in a 12" by 16" cardboard box. When I got my signing bonus and signed a lease for an apartment in San Francisco, I decided to buy a couch that didn't (1) smell like Nixon-era onions; or (2) lose several pounds of air pressure when someone's ass occupied it for more than three minutes. As luck would have it, the fanciest furniture dealer in SOMA was having its annual floor-sample blow out that weekend, so Wood and I walked around the sale shocked that furniture that had cost so much to begin with could still cost so much when marked down 75 percent. But in the very back of the store we found a gray Flexform sofa that we both loved, originally $5700, marked down to $1250. As I paid for it, the impeccable little saleswoman informed us that the delivery charge was $300. "Fuck that!" I said. "I'll tie it to my rear bumper and drag it through the streets before I pay a $300 delivery charge." She shrugged; she was one of that species of high-end salespeople who couldn't give less of a shit that you exist.

As I stood there pondering how many funyun-flavored couches I could buy at the Salvation Army for $300, I decided to walk over to the nearest U-Haul agency. It was a Saturday, so I had to wait four hours, standing around with all these Mexican day laborers before a truck became available. When we finally showed up to pick up the couch, everyone watched us as though they had never before seen anyone carry their own furniture. "They think we're poor," Wood whispered over our new couch as we maneuvered it through a selection of Artemide lighting. "Well, if they don't want us buying their shit they shouldn't have sales," I said. We got the couch home for less than $35.

In the summer of 2006, when we were preparing to move away from San Francisco, Wood suggested we sell the couch. I looked at it and grew hopelessly sentimental. This was the couch where years earlier, on so many Sunday nights, we'd fallen asleep early in each other's arms before waking at eleven to drive to the airport for the red-eye flights that took Wood away from me for weeks or months that year. The very day we bought the couch turned into one such night, in an empty apartment, a thrift-store television on the floor, a few DVDs, a pile of clothes waiting for hangers, and all I could focus on was how the only thing that has ever made me feel at home was hours away from leaving me.

Even after she moved out west, and we had a full bed, we would fall asleep on that couch watching crap on network television. We had a certain way of sleeping on it, a seasoned leg-and-arm tetris that allowed us to be comfortable even in such a small space. We'd been sharing a twin bed for years, ever since Wood moved into a shitty apartment her junior year and found a moldy old twin mattress and boxspring in her room. "I'll put a sheet over it," she said. I've seen mattresses on the curb after long, hard rains that grossed me out less, but I was sleeping with the hottest girl I had ever seen, so I couldn't complain. We always slept on twins. Until recently we've never had rooms big enough for anything else.

Every home needs a real couch, my wife believes---not a sofa or a loveseat---a couch you can stretch out and sleep on. In San Francisco, we positioned ours by the bay windows that overlooked the corner of Cabrillo and 2nd Ave, so we could sit there and watch souped-up 1991 Honda civics gun it from stop sign to stop sign out through the avenues. Some nights we would fall asleep on it only to be roused at 3:00 a.m. by "Ace," the homeless guy in a top hat who walked up and down our street fighting with his "slut whore-bag-cunt" of a girlfriend, or sometimes we'd be woken at dawn by the old Russian lady across the street beating her carpets on the fire escape. In the fall of 2004, with this daughter of ours expanding my wife's uterus, I lost some crucial real estate on the couch and could no longer fall asleep there. When Juniper was born, the couch became one of her favorite places. It was where we would play in the early mornings before I had to go to work, and it was where she would sit and watch out the windows for me to walk up the avenue. It was this couch where we retreated so many of those nights trying to get her to sleep, her crib in our bedroom, when any silence from her was suddenly as precious as those hours we'd once had on that couch before Wood had to catch a red eye.

I have some sympathy for compulsive hoarders; I understand illogical attachment to objects that incite memories. I don't get the people who keep old newspapers, but I know the unease in the faces of those people forced to throw away their old things on HGTV, the love for those small intimacies in an object's history. When we left San Francisco, we left the "home" where Juniper had taken her first steps, spoken her first words, done all those other treasured things that happen in the first eighteen months. We had to say goodbye to those walls, but I'd be damned if I was going to let some silly freight charges get in the way of us keeping that couch. It ended up costing less to ship across the country than that snooty store wanted to charge to cart it across San Francisco when it was still new, unstained by breastmilk, untrammeled by toddler feet. It's still here with us, and for over a year nearly every night I've fallen asleep there against the warmth of my wife, against my will to get things done. A vortex, she calls it, consuming the most productive part of my evening time, distracting me from all the things I'm sure I need to do.

But now, again, my position on the couch has eroded away, the wombling and his mother need it all to themselves. This is it, I think: the last trimester is almost here, the last chance to spend these hours in some pursuit other than the pure delirium of sleep, or the inevitable exhaustion of his coming infancy. Soon he will be here. I'd better get some things done.

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 30, 2007 |

I need to take the kid on a school field trip to the pumpkin patch today. We've already been to so many apple orchards, pumpkin patches, haunted farmer's markets, and spectral cider mills this year, I don't know if I can take another goddamn hay ride. If I make it back, I should have a real post up later this afternoon.

I had intended to post my favorite Halloween story this week, but when things started getting bad for Wood's stepdad earlier this month, I wrote it up knowing I wouldn't be able to post anything else for a few days. If you haven't read the haunted house story, that's good, because I originally wanted it to be read today. Please read it. It's not just about ghosts & such. There are hookers, too.

And this year Juniper chose her own costume(s), without any input from us. She couldn't decide between Medusa or a robot, so we're going to do both (one for school and one for trick-or-treating). You can imagine how delighted I was.

The Heart-air Bearloon

Posted by Wood | Thursday, October 25, 2007 |

Jim likes to go around taking pictures of every piece of broken stained glass in every abandoned church window along with every strand of ivy overtaking decades-old graffiti. This is Detroit, so he has a lot of ground to cover before he'll ever be done. He could drive around all day every day for months and not run out of subjects for his camera.


He usually brings the dog, who loves these photo trips, because most of the vacant buildings smell like various types of pee and there are always at least fifteen different ways for him to get absolutely filthy. They usually do this during the two-and-a-half hours that Juniper spends in preschool, but occasionally she'll go along for the ride when they are going to an area that's not all that dangerous. I find it hard to believe he's willing to drag her along, because I know exactly what a pain she can be in the car. The other day, he called while they were out driving through the neighborhood of Detroit known as Delray, a strange-smelling little area of abandoned storefronts and homes along West Jefferson Avenue right before the River Rouge separates Detroit from the downriver suburbs. Unlike most of Detroit, Delray has an array of ethnicities clinging like mollusks to a neighborhood constantly encroached upon by industry and blight. There are gorgeous old Hungarian and Polish churches floating on islands surrounded by shit-filled sewage-treatment ponds and meticulously-maintained homes with chicken coops in the back yard. It is beautiful in the way my husband finds things beautiful, which is to say that most people would think it tragic, or sad, or just downright depressing. But he loves it.

From what I understand, Jim got Juniper to behave quite well during this drive by promising to take her to the toy store when they were finished. When he told me this on the phone, I was confused. What toy store? There aren't many in Detroit, and certainly none in Delray. I don't think you can buy anything in Delray except for lung cancer and malt liquor. "You're going to the suburbs?" I asked.

"Nah," he said. "I'll just stop by the Salvation Army on the way home. She thinks it's a toy store."

He is pretty proud of that, I can tell. He spoils her, in his own way: he lets her buy whatever $1.49 piece of crap she latches onto after playing with every single gooey, germ-ridden broken plastic toy that has been thrown away by children who weren't sired by mangy, over-educated Dutch ex-lawyers with a thrift-store fetish. To this day, Jim will buy a pair of pants at the thrift store and wear them for weeks before washing them, something he's done since high school. It's a wonder he doesn't have scabies.

When I got home from work that day, Juniper was still napping, and Jim showed me some pretty cool pictures he'd taken. When she woke up, I discovered the toy she'd chosen: a somewhat-tattered naugahyde heart attached to a little basket carrying a stuffed bear. It read: "HEART-AIR BEARLOON."

It was clearly a cheap valentine's day gift some guy bought for his girlfriend at the Hallmark Store back in 1992, probably right after he bought her a box of Fannie May chocolates. But, as with anything cardiovascular, Juniper grew attached to it immediately, and at the end of her nap I found her adorable little cheek resting on it.

"Jim," I yelled, "What is this THING she's sleeping on?"

"Oh, that's her new heart-air bearloon. She could have had one of those trikes with the handle on the back, but she wanted that."

"It looks like it has HIV on it."

"Yeah, I was going to wipe it off with one of those antiseptic wipes, but I forgot."

"She's using it like a pillow."

"Awwww."

I've heard some wives of stay-at-home dads have anxiety about not being as needed around the house. Not me, I thought, as I scrubbed that damn heart she's since slept on every night for a week. I'm as necessary as ever.

I need to put a post-it note on the dashboard

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The drive to the kid's preschool downtown is short, but still takes a few minutes with the traffic. Some days she spends the whole ride sobbing, other days she just interrogates me about what owls eat. Things have been inconsistent with the transition. Once at school, she either runs right past me into her classroom shouting, "See ya, pops!" or the sound of her crying only stops once I'm out the front door of the building. Either way, her teacher says she's fine while I'm gone. We're extremely pleased with the changes we've seen since she started. She's much bolder and assertive at the playground. At her grandpa's funeral, she was so polite and well-mannered to adults she didn't know that we went looking for the pod from which this unknown creature inhabiting our daughter's tiny body had crawled. Where did she learn all this? Her proud answer, whenever asked where she's learned anything new, is school.

The mornings, though, are still hard. She cries through breakfast. She cries while I dress her. "I don't want to go to school today," is her snot-nosed refrain. Some days I pretend I can't talk, and for a while this amused and distracted her, but she quickly grew frustrated with the mimery and just started screaming louder. Some days I talk like a robot, but she just starts telling me in a robot voice that she doesn't want to go to school.

On the drive, we pass a weeping willow tree, and I tell her the tree is crying, and that when we pass the tree she has to stop crying. I always put in her favorite Music Together cassette, and that helps, though every day I forget to take it out after dropping her off, so I find myself rolling through the streets of old Detroit singing along to some numbnuts' sluggish-bongo version of "This Old Man." Some days Wood doesn't have to go to work until later, and I'll drop her off after Juniper, and we'll both sit there in the car, so stunned by this brief moment together, alone, that we don't even realize we're kissing goodbye with "The Eensy Weensy Spider" playing in the background.

Dropping names

Posted by jdg | Monday, October 22, 2007 |

This whole thing started years ago on a near-empty 4 Sutter bus somewhere between Fillmore and Presidio, the kid asleep in a bjorn on my chest, the three of us returning home from some sortie into the Tenderloin; in those few short blocks, my wife suggested that we start a blog. I had been reading political blogs for years, and she had grown hopelessly addicted to reading the ones kept by new mothers when she was pregnant and had nowhere else to look to catch a glimpse of what her life might become. "What would we call it?" I asked.

"Sweet Juniper," was her first suggestion. I immediately agreed. Despite a general annoyance with exclamation points, I suggested we add one. That way it seemed more like a curse, an exclamation, either way, more than just something about the nature of our hippie-named daughter: It was a battle-cry, a barbaric yawp. Removing a shitty diaper? Sweet freakin' juniper berries! Toddler refusing to eat that tofu-and-pea scramble you just made her? Sweet juniper, why in the hell won't you eat this, it's covered in melted cheese! No longer able to differentiate between diaper contents and tofu-and-pea scramble covered in melted cheese? Sweet juniper, get me a vicodin and a gin and tonic.

"It will be good for you," my wife said, "To write again."

"What will we call ourselves?" All the political bloggers I read used aliases, the interesting ones at least. They seemed to recognize that blogging was inherently an embarrassing activity, like designing clothes for K-Mart or ripping wet farts on a public toilet. These were things best done anonymously, without announcing to the whole room who you are. I never had the foresight to think that more than a few close friends and family members would ever read this site, but I did know that if I attached my real name to it, it would be googleable, just like the names of all those poor second-year law students I used to interview every year (though when I found one applicant's blog entry about dropping acid every day for a week, I actually viewed that as a positive thing: "Very openminded," I wrote on his review. "Willing to experiment and consider new ideas.") Truthfully, I wasn't so worried about future interviewers as I was about old friends from high school or college googling me only to learn that I'd become that guy. As I wrote to a friend a few weeks before the kid was born: "Well, I'm about to turn into that guy who says, 'you just can't know until it happens to you, but it's the most beautiful thing in the world, etc.' It was nice knowing you." I felt relative anonymity might help prevent everyone who's ever known me in real life from gagging up their lunch in disgust, or worse: delight.

"I'll be Wood," she said, which was easy: it's the first syllable of the last name she never gave up when she married me. I have never had a nickname. I tried to think of something about me that was as lame as the very idea of having an alias. "I'll be Dutch," I said. The newly-christened Wood approved. It was that poorly thought out. And for more than two years now, this name has been the freakin' albatross reminding me of how lame I have become. Well, I've been thinking for some time about giving up the pseudonym for good. It only makes people from the internet I meet in real life uncomfortable addressing me and it makes me question my own sincerity when signing e-mails. Besides, there are plenty of people now who know my real name is Jim.

But that brings me to the bigger issue, and that is once child #2 is born, should we or should we not change the name of this website. I am inclined to keep it, because I'm lazy and can't think of anything better. Besides, I paid for the domain for like five years, and though I may slowly drop the pseudonym Dutch, I can't as easily rid myself of the cheapness in my Dutch genes. On that bus, years ago, we never set out to have this site be as read by as many people as it is now. I just thought of it as a place to write about the things that were important to me while I worked a job that wasn't. Now it has become something else entirely. As time goes on, I plan to write less and less about my daughter, in order to respect her privacy and protect a child who is no longer a baby. We may decide to change the name, eventually. Either way, we feel extremely blessed and lucky to have these issues to work through.

We will still write about life with our daughter. We will write about how a second child changes that life. But I can't deny that the Nerve Media nightmare a few weeks back really rattled me. I'm going to be more cautious. One good thing that whole mess did was make me turn the camera away from the kid a bit, and find some inspiration and beauty here in Detroit. I've been sharing those images on Flickr, and I will continue to post three new pictures there every day. And I will continue to post pictures of Juniper. Just not as many.

Never mind the Duggars. . .

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | , ,

I have had it with talking, with explaining. "I have a kid's book coming out next fall," I say to Wood's millionaire Shanghai-sweatshop-running Uncle, who's smoking a cigar while I'm singing Juniper to sleep in my arms outside the funeral home, and he's pestering me with all kinds of questions about what a person---who is by all accounts a man---does with his days when he no longer has a job. This is the man whose white-gloved driver once gave us a tour of turn-of-the-century Shanghai back when Pudong still seemed like it had suddenly emerged from the muck, while he was off cracking the whip at the Chinese street urchins who knit the sweaters he sells to Land's End and JCrew. I might as well have told him I had taken to wearing adult diapers and playing video games all day.

Wood's mother has seven siblings, and all six that are legally allowed to return to the United States made it to the funeral. It must be something to be a part of a family that big. As the night grew long and the bottles of scotch and rum emptied, the conversations grew louder and louder, and you could almost imagine yourself back forty-some years in the days when seven kids between the age of eighteen and one sat around a single dinner table. They always tell stories of communal childhoods one or more of them haven't heard, like how their mother used to tie one of them to a tree in the front yard when he was a baby because she couldn't watch him and the others and do laundry and make supper all at the same time, or they discuss how another one wasn't circumcised and how the rest of the sons gave him such a hard time. So one child who was there will tell a story and the others who were also there pipe in to tone down hyperbole or outright falsehoods, and the ones who were babies or in the army or working as stewardesses at the time sit enraptured as though listening to the stories of some other family who grew up on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. "Do you remember the night I had to watch the youngest five while mom and dad went downtown, and I thought someone was breaking into the house because I kept hearing these loud booms at the front door?" Some admit they don't remember the story, so she continues: "I had to call the restaurant where they were eating and dad rushed home to find a blind man at our front door, banging a broom handle against it over and over. I guess mom had bought a broom from a blind traveling salesman, and I mean, he's blind, so he didn't know it was the middle of the night I guess when he tried to drop it off." Then the sisters launch into a fifteen minute conversation about who used to wear whose clothes and how they tried to sabotage such thievery or conceal it.

One of Wood's aunts lives in Hollywood; her husband is ten years younger than her, a television editor who used to work on Family Matters and send Wood autographed photos of Steve Urkel. They have two young daughters, and they used to lavish them with princess birthday parties and carefully arranged meetings with the Olsen twins. Now, it's all about Hannah Montana, who is apparently the Elmo of the 8-14-year-old set. This aunt is one of the family's dominant storytellers, so everyone was regaled with tales about how her husband "got tickets to the Hannah Montana concert because he knew somebody who knew somebody, and this is like the hottest act in Hollywood right now---we even heard John Travolta couldn't get tickets---and would you believe it the next day we were shopping at one of those chic boutiques you always read about in Us Weekly and in walks Miley Cyrus and her entourage, but she was totally down to earth and signed autographs" for her girls. Clearly, Hollywood aunt is a "cool mom." Remind me to keep Juniper away from her in about six years, lest I be forever known as the least cool parent in history. Hollywood aunt is, as I write this, packing up a box of "princess outfits" that no longer fit her youngest, postage paid to Detroit, Michigan.

As with any family of eight, along with the millionaire sweater magnates and Hollywood gossip queens, there are sisters who drink too much and brothers who never got a break in life. But for all their craziness, every few years or so these people come together and prove they really are family, bound by something greater than themselves. Weeks like this one help me to better appreciate my mother-in-law, the median child, to better understand why she sometimes repeats things over and over as if she doesn't believe she's ever going to be heard. It can't have been easy to have been born right in the middle of all of this. Weeks like this do also help me appreciate the inherent virtues of family, those people willing to travel to you from all over the world to let you lean on them when you are so close to falling. And there, at his own wake, after hours of increasingly drunken stories, I found an even greater appreciation for Wood's late step father, a man who lived for twenty years on the periphery of this family, working his way into their hearts, until one day, like me, he must have realized he was a part of it. And, as a true measure of his character, he didn't turn tail and run.



Posted by Wood | Sunday, October 14, 2007

We have been in my hometown, staying with my mom for several days, answering the phone, eating through pound cakes, greeting visitors at the door, ordering pizza, buying beer and liquor in bulk, and sifting through the ephemera of a man's life. One thing I'd fogotten about grief is how it can be forestalled, temporarily, by all the details. I feel the tears come when I find pictures of him cooking me pancakes or holding 6-day-old Juniper, but they only last for a few minutes, because I have to move on to look for some proof of his military service, or call the funeral home, or do something else that needs to be done.

Every few minutes, it seems, someone new is at the door, someone my mom teaches with or one of the neighbors. I try to smile and recognize that it is good there are so many people, saving some hope that they will still come around when it's just my mom here, alone, without anyone to break the silence in the house they shared for so long. But there are times I grow weary of all these visitors, and the way they talk about their own grandchildren or the lives they'll return to outside my mother's front door. They all say something nice about him. Almost all of them pull me aside to ask in a hushed voice if my mom is okay. I say that she is, that she's strong. That is the answer they want. If I were honest I'd say what they already know, that she just lost the man she thought she'd travel to Italy with when she retired, the man who spent hours cooking for her every night, the man who loved her daughter like she was his own. She is not okay.

The other day I went to visit my grandmother at her assisted living home. She is lost in dementia, and her short term memory lasts only a few minutes. When I find her, I introduce myself, and see some spark of recognition in her eyes. We wander through the memory-loss wing where she lives, looking for her room, because neither of us really knows where it is. I tell her that I'm pregnant, a boy this time. I remind her that I already have a daughter, and take down the framed and labelled pictures of Juniper sitting on her dresser. She tells me how lucky I am, and I agree. We talk a little about how she raised eight children. Then I tell her I'm pregnant when she asks how I'm doing, that it's a boy. She has been told so many times that Doug has died, but she doesn't remember, so I don't bring it up. We do a crossword puzzle together, and she knows that ecru is a word for beige, though I don't. I tell her I'm pregnant, after she asks if we're planning to have any more children, that this time it will be a boy. Normally I find all this so sad and frustrating. But this day, I am grateful for a chance to see my 88-year-old grandmother in her nursing home, to live for a little while in her world, where it is so simple to forget what everyone else keeps forcing me to remember.

The shocking, true story of Cam's big shaft

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 10, 2007 | ,

The first time I met a real hooker I was eighteen and working in a haunted house wearing a long black robe and jumping out at people in the darkness. She was smoking a cigarette outside a small purple building along Main Street that had a sign advertising a 25-cent video arcade and LIVE GIRLS, represented on the sign by a voluptuous brunette wearing a silky negligee. The Velvet Touch sold pornographic movies and sex toys to men who would willingly venture into a building with no windows and a buzzer on the door to stall police raids. The parking lot abutted the backyard of the haunted house, where a few of us would hang out on lawn chairs when no one was coming through. One night the hooker looked up at us and smiled. She had dyed-black hair with that always-wet look still popular among certain elements of the population in 1995. My friend Matt said to her, "Excuse me, ma'am, we were just wondering what kind of services you offer in there."

She looked at us skeptically, perhaps wondering whether she should take us seriously. Matt was dressed up like an evil dentist in a bloody smock. She just laughed and came closer to us. At first I'd thought she might actually be cute, but when she laughed I saw she had strangely-elongated teeth.

"Well, first you give Bobby $40 at the counter," she said. "That lets you into the back room, where I work. Then I give you a massage. But let's say you have some more money for me, then you might get something more." She rattled off a list of happy endings, like a technician at an oil change shop might describe various package options. She told us her real name was Julie, but her name inside The Velvet Touch was Asia. There was nothing discernibly Asian about her, though, and she later said she'd grown up "really religious" in a small Indiana town. She was one year older than us, a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, and every weekend she drove 300 miles to give hand jobs to anyone who handed her a $20 bill. She drove that far because she didn't want to run into anyone she knew, and besides, southern Indiana's pretty much the Bible Belt, she said, and they don't have much tolerance for that kind of thing down there. She was managing to pay her own way through school. She was just like any girl who might live in my dorm, eat lunch in the cafeteria, except she was 6'2" in five-inch heels. It didn't seem so crazy that she was a hand job hooker, not when there were girls in the dorm giving away full lube jobs for free.

I got the Haunted House job after a couple friends from high school and I answered an ad in the college paper: WANTED actors and artists to help create the most frightening Halloween experience in town. Haunt Industry experience a plus. $8/hour.

We weren't actors or artists, and we certainly didn't have any experience in the Haunt Industry, but we sure did like the sound of eight dollars an hour. I even quit my minimum-wage job at the student bookstore. The guy in charge of the operation was a scatterbrained 20-something named Cameron ("Call me 'Cam!'") who'd inherited an old house that he planned to gut and flip after Halloween. He hired us the second we showed up. "Can you papier-mache?" was all he asked. He pronounced it "pop-ee-ay ma-shay." Nearly every night during the month of October, we toiled at the haunted house, building rooms, painting everything black. Cam would show up every few hours with hundreds of dollars of materials, gallons of fake blood, pizza, and cases and cases of beer. Cam had bowl-cut blond hair and he literally tied sweaters around his neck. He had Excel spreadsheets to show how much money he was going to make on this haunted house. Cam was the first entrepreneur I ever knew.

The majority of our fellow spooks looked like they'd made the short list for "most likely to become a serial killer" at their respective high schools. The time spent decorating this haunted house was kind of like an extended group therapy for these people: Instead of sitting around alone, torturing small mammals and masturbating to old issues of Fangoria, they were doing something socially redeeming, you know, brainstorming better ways for the child mannequin torso to emerge from the bathtub full of blood or how to make the corpse hanging from the noose the closet look more realistic. "Let's put a puddle of real piss under him," one suggested. The others nodded. Who knows how many lives this haunted house actually saved.

Two of the nicer guys were in a local death metal band called Erotic Funeral. They had t-shirts and everything. I spent some time trying to convince them to write a song called "Orgy of Knowledge," consisting only of those three words chanted over and over in that death metal voice. They weren't very receptive. In addition to this stringy-haired, vaguely-Satanic crowd, apparently a number of individuals from the local community theater crowd had decided to use the haunted house as a resume builder for that winter's Our Town auditions. One middle-aged guy named Tony was recruited to play the role of "zombie tour guide." He wore a moldy old morning jacket with a waistcoat and a high, stiff collar. That's how he showed up for his interview. Like Robert Deniro, Tony the Zombie was a Method actor. He never went out of character. He came and left with his outfit and zombie makeup on. He refused to eat pizza with us, too. "Tony prefers brains," he grunted.

When we were done with construction and decoration, I have to say the house was pretty damn impressive. The upstairs was reserved for "shocking" scenes of flailing strait-jacket bound lunatics, silent murder-suicide victims and cannibals eating dead bodies. In the cannibal room, Tony the Zombie would remove the cover from a platter on the table and say, "Dinner is served!" as a human head surrounded by parsley and quartered lemons came to life. One of the cannibals took his role very seriously, and would stuff his mouth full of whatever it was they were eating to resemble flesh and then vomit it out whenever Tony the Zombie led guests out of his room. After a few tours, Cam had to warn him not to vomit on the guests. Downstairs was full of strobe lights, black-lit dry-ice vapors drifting through maze-like hallways with actors dressed in black jumping out to scare the guests. I did that for a while, until a group of sorority chicks came through and one of them punched me in the nuts. In the last room, Cam had set up an old dentist's chair, and this was where my friends Andy and Matt took turns playing the sadistic dentist and his patient, the dentist squeezing the trigger of a power drill or feigning treatment with a hacksaw or claw hammer, with the patient convulsing and howling in pain. Like the cannibal upstairs, they really got into their roles, and by the end of the night they were always sore and covered in bruises. The third night, they broke the chair.

The worst part about this job was that we had to listen to this horrible sound effects CD on repeat, the kind with creaking doors, demonic laughter, baying wolves, rattling chains, disembodied sobbing, more creaking doors, laboratory bubbling, thunderstorms, some creep's limping gait, spooky wind, more demonic laughter, and lots of barred owl calls. One night we grew so sick of listening to all this over and over, we switched it right in the middle of a tour. One second it was all cackling witches and chainsaws, and the next David Byrne howling out the first few lyrics of the Talking Heads' B-Side "Sugar on My Tongue." Man, Cam was pissed.

On many of those October nights, no one came to the haunted house at all. We all stood around in full costume, staring out the windows like stood-up prom dates, griping about whether Cam would ever be able to pay us. He promised business would pick up closer to Halloween. He showed us his spreadsheets again and said that everything was still on track. He kept buying pizza and beer. A suicide victim got drunk and made out with a cannibal. The lunatic juggled flaming torches for our amusement. Our favorite thing to do during down time was lurk in the trees over by The Velvet Touch's parking lot and whenever a new car pulled up and some lonely middle-aged guy headed towards the door, one of us would call from the bushes, "Daddy? Is that you, Daddy?"

Julie/Asia only worked weekends. On other nights during that long October, there were other women who would come out of the Velvet Touch wearing go-go boots, mini skirts and bustiers to smoke cigarettes. We were pretty sure these other women weren't in this gig just to put themselves through college. These were honest-to-goodness hos. One of them looked kind of like someone had chopped up a bunch of bodies and mixed them up before sewing them back together. She literally was Frankenhooker. The other one was slightly less monstrous, but Andy swore he saw a rash grow three or four inches down her left thigh as she sucked down a menthol. We looked down at our spook outfits and felt ridiculous, standing there in the presence of something so legitimately scary. Cam should have hired both of them for his haunted house. I looked over at the dismal little smut shop. I wondered what it smelled like in there. I figured I didn't really want to know.

The days leading up to Halloween were actually pretty busy. Cam kept some space in his budget for beer, but we noticed there was less of it and he was much more concerned about collecting the bottles for refunds than he had been at the beginning. Tony the Zombie demanded to be paid the night before Halloween, so Cam fired him and started doing the tours himself with his little powder-blue sweater tied around his neck. He was in such a frenzied state that he was way more frightening to the customers than Tony the Zombie. They thought he was supposed to be the Preppie Murderer. After midnight on Halloween Cam sat down in the backyard with his head in his hands while everyone circled around him, expecting hundreds of dollars each for their month of labor. Cam pulled out a giant wad of cash and started doling out an equal share to everyone. You could tell by the faces of those who got theirs first that it wasn't at all what they were expecting. He handed me three twenties. "Sorry dudes," he said. "I totally fucked up. I'm taking a huge hit on all the other costs. We didn't make a dime on this thing." I was pretty pissed, but I figured I still earned a better hourly wage there than I had busing tables at that Dutch restuarant. Besides, from the look of fury in the Satanists' eyes, I could tell Cam was already in pretty hot water. There was some shouting. I think one of the cannibals had already spent his paycheck on facial piercings and he tried to head butt Cam. The Velvet Touch hos came over to find out what all the ruckus was about, but then just walked away, laughing. "Always get paid up front," Frankenhooker shouted at us. "That's the first rule of business, unless you just wanna get fucked."

"Well, at least we got a lot of free beer," my friend Andy said. This fact meant more to him than me, because at that time I didn't drink. Matt was the real hothead, though, and I was a little afraid he was going to go get the shotgun he kept in the trunk of his car.

"What are you going to do?" I asked him.

Matt ripped off his dentist outfit, rubbed a sore spot on his arm and looked down at the sixty dollars in his hand. "I think I'm going to go get a hand job."

Columbus Day, Thanksgiving

Posted by jdg | Monday, October 08, 2007

Before dawn Saturday morning, the phone rang. When you don't have any friends or family in other hemispheres, no one is calling at that hour of the morning to ask about your chicken-pot pie recipe or to tell you about how their date went last night. There is nothing quite like the sound of a telephone in those early hours to jolt you from the deepest dream, to pump you so full of adrenaline you're awake enough to work through long division before you even check the Caller ID and press "talk."

It was Wood's father. He and his wife had been planning to leave Pittsburgh that morning to visit us. He spoke so intensely and clearly I heard every word. His stepson had tried to break into his house in the middle of the night, high on crack. He wanted money. Wood's dad went outside to tell him to go away, and the kid started shoving him. "I punched him," he said. "I probably shouldn't have punched him. I got in a few good pops before he started kicking my ass. He got me down on the ground. I was protecting myself pretty good, but they had to drag him off me. I'm not hurt too bad." He hadn't slept at all, he was so wired from the confrontation. Needless to say, they weren't coming.

"That's okay Dad," said my wife, accustomed to stories like the one about the party where her dad's large Mexican friend had to pull out a handgun when some coked-up guys started hassling him for being white, and more recent stories like the time some dudes threw something at his car so he backed up and started chasing them until suddenly he was surrounded by guys hitting his car with bricks and baseball bats. "Just rest and take care of yourself," she told him.

"I'm not hurt too bad," he said again.

When she hung up the phone, she buried the bridge of her nose in my shoulder. Her body trembled. "He's too old to be fighting," she sobbed. That spot where my neck ends and the shoulder begins grew wet. "That kid is more than twenty years younger than him."

"You heard him though," I said. "Thank God he's okay." And he was. Grandpa Woody arrived Sunday afternoon, no worse for wear, much to Juniper's delight. Wood was looking forward to spending time with her family on this Columbus Day, as she didn't have to go to work.

Then, this morning, the phone rang at 4:30 a.m. This time it was her mother. Her step dad, who has been battling acute myelogeneous leukemia since last January, was dying. "I need to see you," her mother said. I stood out in our driveway with her in the darkness a few minutes later, watching her get into our car to start the three-hour drive to where her mother sat by a hospital bed. Juniper woke three hours later. I spent the time trying to figure out how to explain all this to her, to articulate the proper sense of respect and finality without terrifying her with the great mystery of death. That is so hard to do when you're not sure you understand any of it yourself.

Well, I've decided I'm never going to write about anything serious or controversial again. For anyone who is still reading this site, I will return next week with five days of fall TV lineup blogging. You won't want to miss my Two and Half Men recap or my take on next week's big Dancing With The Stars mishap. My wife might chime in with a snarky America's Next Top Model post, that is, if she can stay awake for a full hour of quality anorexic-cat-fight-filled entertainment.

Until then, head on over to DesignMom, where I have written a little guest post about my cheap vintage modern kids chair addiction. I hope only the anti-materialist bloc finds it offensive.

The first test

Posted by jdg | Thursday, October 04, 2007

I was standing next to an ultrasound machine last week, watching the child squirm inside my wife's uterus, and I couldn't help but wonder what ancient people would have thought to see this machine and its technician at work. I once took a class on medicine and mortality in the ancient world, and I left no longer wondering why so many myths and legends arose from the experience of gestation and childbirth: Athena from the head of Zeus, Dionysus from his thigh, and Jesus from a virgin. Birth was always one of those ultimate mysteries. For thousands of years, it was enhanced by ceremony and prayer, a rich culture of folklore, old wives' sedimentary knowledge, and ultimately an unbinding sense of faith. I remember stories of pregnant women unbraiding their hair in the temple of Juno Lucina to prevent such symbolic entanglements from complicating a coming birth. Pliny believed placing the right foot of a hyena on a laboring mother was as effective as pitocin in hastening delivery, though the hyena's left foot would cause death. Tonics were made from goose semen, weasel urine, and sow's dung to ease pain. Suffering was inevitable; death, rampant. And yet the human race toiled on for years and years like this, men holding their palms together in prayer, women holding onto hope and faith that the little life inside them would turn out all right.

Last week the ultrasound technician was training a young resident on the machine. "Have you ever seen Svetlana do one?" she asked him casually. "Svetlana is a consummate professional," she said. They proceeded to argue over our baby's measurements and pointed adamantly at disputed shapes on the screen. Wood couldn't see the screen at all; it was turned away from her in what must be the cruelest aspect of this intervention, a roomful of people staring at a baby inside her that she herself could not see. Still, together we hung on every one of their technical words. We tried to determine implications from their intonations. These were our priests, our shamans. The machine, our oracle. In the end, we were left only with a snapshot of an in-uterine phallus and that birdlike heartbeat still in our ears.

A month or so earlier, still in the first trimester, we'd had another ultrasound that left us equally mystified. Later we learned that this screening had been scheduled just to determine whether our baby was likely to have Down Syndrome. "That's weird," Wood said to her OB. "I'm not even thirty. We didn't have that test during my first pregnancy."

"It's a new test," the OB assured her.

In the modern world, when you find yourself or your significant other pregnant, you often hand over a bit of your hope and much of your faith to some OB in clogs who takes your hand and stares at charts and declares that everything is okay, so long as that machine keeps beeping like that and you haven't eaten sushi or consumed the tiniest drop of alcohol and when the time comes you'll have a sip of that sow's dung tea or take a shot of goose semen in the spine and then hopefully everything will be okay, but even if it's not, everything will still be okay, thanks to the blessings of modern medicine. You trust your OB. You don't eat sushi or unpasteurized cheeses. You agree to undergo an unnecessary sonogram intended solely for genetic screening, so they can tell you if your kid isn't going to be "normal" when it's still at a developmental stage where it can be flushed out with Misoprostol. You do this as a matter of course, just because your OB tells you to. Then, weeks later, you sit in an examination room waiting for her to come tell you the results of that screening. You are angered by the very implication that you might destroy this life you've created, because you know part of you just might want to; but the fact that it is in there clinging to existence holds some immense power over you. You can't know yet but you are pretty sure that even if it turns out to have 21 chromosomes you will keep it, though you know there are plenty of people who've heard that news and 90-93 percent of them have decided otherwise. Who are you to judge them? You don't even know yet, and here you are judging them. You can't possibly judge them. You know the paper the OB holds when she walks into the room has your fate written all over it. Pottytraining until age seven or liberal arts college brochures at seventeen, which will it be? Your mother is a special education teacher. Your sister too. You know more than many what the life of a special needs kid's parent is like, though you haven't really got a clue, because you haven't lived it. You only know you have been raised to believe that there is value in every life, and you believe it still. And then the OB is ready to tell you your fate.

The other day I was talking about this screening to a friend who has an extremely-rare genetic condition that makes her about three-feet tall. I told her this test made me fear that one day the world might find itself free from people like her. That giving such choice to vulnerable expectant parents will mean those kids born to parents who chose not to destroy them because they had Down Syndrome will one day find themselves alienated in a world with few others like them. We talked about a world without anyone born with genetic flaws, only those who slip through the testing or can't be tested, the autistics and ADHDs and people brought into disability by the dangers of the outside world: paraplegics via polo accidents and teenagers with brains damaged by car wrecks. There will never be a world where everyone is normal, she said. There will always be people who are different. "Normal people benefit so much from having disabled people around," I said, thinking aloud. "Disabled people do so much to teach 'normal' people about empathy, and how to overcome actual suffering. So many disabled people somehow find a way to be so cool, and happy," I said, inserting my foot even deeper into my mouth, "Even when they have every justification to be miserable. It shames the rest of us to stop acting like selfish navelgazing dickheads all the time, and teaches us something about the nature of happiness."

"I'm glad we could be of service," she said.

"All I meant was that I resent this presumption that just because someone has a genetic abnormality, it means they don't have something important to bring to this world."

In the examination room, the OB coughed and told us that the odds were in lotto territory that the kid would have Down Syndrome. Still, I thought, someone wins the lotto almost every day.

I know life with a mentally-disabled child isn't some Cuba Gooding Jr. movie with a swelling orchestral score that marks the moment when the whole world learns the kid has a heart of gold and something special to teach us all. I know there are frustrations beyond imagination. But I also know that becoming a parent of any child takes a great leap of faith. I can't say it better that Kate, after she had confronted her own imagination, so I will borrow her words: "You may have a glorious labour and a robust baby only to have that same child become sick ten years later. Or, twenty years later, fall in with a bad crowd and become addicted to some vice and break your heart. To become a parent is to become unspeakably vulnerable, but there can’t be true joy, or discovery, or growth, without risk. Everyone knows this, senses it on some primal level — but mamas and dadas like us know it so much more vividly, having been struck by lightening."

So we "passed" this first test, but there are still so many ahead. The genetic screening couldn't pick up any of the other flaws and strengths we have grafted into this son. It couldn't determine the tragedy he will see during his lifetime. It didn't make me feel any less vulnerable.

I am still offended by how this initial genetic screening has become routine, by the ease it gives two vulnerable people to end a life they thought they wanted to become a part of theirs. In the ancient world, when babies with any genetic defects were born, they were left on the slopes of Mount Taygetos or tossed into the Tiber under the fourth table of Roman law. If they'd had the ultrasound technology to detect Down Syndrome in the first trimester, I have no doubt the Romans would have used it for eugenic purposes.

But those toga-wearing freaks drank weasel piss, too.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. I only have one blog in my Bloglines written by a parent of a kid with Down Syndrome, but I would like to know of any others written by parents of special-needs kids. If you know of any good ones, please share in the comments to this post.

I am not a true city person

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, October 02, 2007 |

Our normal exit ramp was closed off the highway after a Sunday afternoon at the pumpkin patch where we fought off bees trying to climb into our gallon jug of cider and bought homemade watermelon pickles and breathed in thousands of hay particles following the kid on our knees through labyrinthine tunnels built under a giant pile of straw. Actually my wife didn't do that; I did that, though she paid for the pickles and the donuts and the pie pumpkin that Juniper spent all day carrying around like a trophy she won for being such a giant pain in my ass.

So we took an earlier exit, finding ourselves jettisoned from the highway onto one of the thirty or so serpentine off-ramps that commit you to one of the various arteries through the city. This one left us sitting nearly at the foot of Ford Field, where apparently the Detroit Lions had finished their fourth quarter only moments before, surging against the Bears with 34 points in those final fifteen minutes. So at least the 65,000 or so drunk bejerseyed people streaming around our car in one massive human sea were happy, except for those heavyset men wearing navy and orange, who had a long drive back to the Windy City ahead of them and a lot of bratwurst and $9.75 beers in their bellies. I sure wouldn't want to share an SUV with one of them for five hours.

It was the worst possible timing. We were stuck in our idling car for twenty minutes, staring at the white-gloved palm of a lady cop while tens of thousands of people I didn't really care to know I shared oxygen with shuffled past us. We passed the time pretending to talk like those Chicago Bears guys on the old Saturday Night Live sketch, except neither Wood nor I can do any accent properly. We always end up sounding like Indian convenience store clerks raised by my Dutch grandmother among marshmallow-cereal leprechauns in an Irish theme pub. The one-way street we were stuck on was heading the opposite way we wanted to go; to get back home we knew we needed to get through the mess another time. Morale was not good.

Part of the reason I like living in downtown Detroit is that it satisfies a desire I have to live in the country. This is a satisfaction the island of Manhattan or downtown Chicago cannot provide. See, there's hardly ever anybody here. At certain times, even on the biggest streets, you can feel like you are the only person left on earth. Living here can lull anyone with even the slightest misanthropic tendencies into believing that the post apocalypse won't be that bad after all. But then, before that belief can fully set, there's a football game and you remember that the post-apocalyptic world is going to be run by guys wearing football shoulder pads with red mohawks and wrist crossbows. It makes me want to move to Iceland, where the post-apocalypse will be run by leggy, tolerant Scandinavians who skinnydip in geothermal pools. I would happily eat pickled ram scrota living out the apocalypse there.

When we finally got home, Wood and I had a breakdown in communication, which is another way of saying we had a huge shitty fight about putting the groceries away or something stupid like that. I wasn't angry at her, but I had grown so frustrated by the experience of driving through the city when it was acting like a proper city and not some rural hamlet that I just lashed out. We were supposed to go meet the Summers at a restaurant downtown but I was too terrified to get back in the car, too angry to talk. Wood left me alone until I came to my senses, finally convincing me it would be okay and that the football people were long gone by now. She was right. The roads were Sunday-afternoon empty again. We saw a wild pheasant crossing Gratiot. The Summers had already emptied their first pints when we got to the near-empty restaurant, and had ordered another. All was right with the world again.