Saw a couple of high school friends over the weekend, went to a few hometown bars where we hoped we wouldn't run into anyone else we knew from the dark old days. As we took the first sips of a fourth round of pints, one of us mentioned how none of us ever drank in high school.
"What was wrong with us?"
"What did we do then?"
But we knew. Unlike normal, decent kids who got wasted at some house whenever someone else's parents were in Aspen or Acapulco, we were out causing real trouble: trespassing, jumping from rooftop to rooftop downtown, violating any number of other local ordinances. I spent nights in police stations. I was frisked more than once. "Remember that time you jumped out of Steve's jeep after he drove up that giant sand dune behind the Budweiser plant?" I asked one friend. "We chased you home with Steve shining that police spotlight on you the whole time."
"You assholes said I looked like a Yeti."
But more than anything else, back then we broke into abandoned buildings. There was the ghost town out in the country, the abandoned tuberculosis asylum down by the cemetery, the vacant churches, the shuttered paper mills. We'd bring girls with us sometimes, and they'd stay close, hide their eyes in our shoulders, their frightened breath on our necks. When one of us couldn't round up a girl, we'd go out ahead of time and wait alone for our friends to show up, ready to terrify them with stomping footsteps and rattling chains. I remember the feeling of being alone in those damp, echoing places, the cold silence of the long-vacated morgue, its steel corpse drawers haphazardly opened and closed. I remember the smell of ancient wine spilled from casks stored in the back of the old hotel, where there was an open door facing away from the road and where, terrified, we'd burst out into air that smelled like the mint growing wild in the fields. The ghost town had once boomed providing mint to William Wrigley. The town had died, but we went there to feel alive.
Detroit, with its thousands of abandoned structures, is something of a mecca for kids and adults who still do this sort of thing. There's a whole community of them here, and people come from all over the country to "explore" the city's ruins. In the little I've done since we moved here I haven't found that same adolescent thrill. Maybe because I no longer need to terrify girls to get them to come close to me. Or maybe the whole thing just seems so hackneyed because there are so many people doing it here. My photographs of these buildings seem so clichéd, so easily sentimental. There have been moments where I have been awed, like the eve of this past Thanksgiving, when I finally wandered into the darkness of the Michigan Central Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by the same firm as New York's Grand Central, but abandoned to the mercy of the elements, architectural scavengers, vandals, and graffiti taggers. To visit and photograph this building again is something of a cliché in urban exploration, as it ranks high among the greatest modern ruins in the world. It is our Parthenon, our Colosseum. Yet in the stillness of the early evening, with rain dripping everywhere through its tattered roof, and darkness slowly swallowing the faded, almost-unfathomable grandiosity of the waiting room, it was not hard to get lost in the sublime. I was alone in there (as far as I knew), and the darkness and giant Doric columns allowed logic itself to bend. I saw things I will not admit to you. It was terrifying and highly satisfying.
But trespassing across the road, I experienced something else entirely. Because of the response to the photos I put on flickr of the abandoned Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, I went back again to take some more with a better lens in HDR (blending different exposures):
This is a building where our deeply-troubled public school system once stored its supplies, and then one day apparently walked away from it all, allowing everything to go to waste. The interior has been ravaged by fires and the supplies that haven't burned have been subjected to 20 years of Michigan weather. To walk around this building transcends the sort of typical ruin-fetishism and "sadness" some get from a beautiful abandoned building. This city's school district is so impoverished that students are not allowed to take their textbooks home to do homework, and many of its administrators are so corrupt that every few months the newspapers have a field day with their scandals, sweetheart-deals, and expensive trips made at the expense of a population of children who can no longer rely on a public education to help lift them from the cycle of violence and poverty that has made Detroit the most dangerous city in America. To walk through this ruin, more than any other, I think, is to obliquely experience the real tragedy of this city; not some sentimental tragedy of brick and plaster, but one of people:
Pallet after pallet of mid-1980s Houghton-Mifflin textbooks, still unwrapped in their original packaging, seem more telling of our failures than any vacant edifice. The floor is littered with flash cards, workbooks, art paper, pencils, scissors, maps, deflated footballs and frozen tennis balls, reel-to-reel tapes. Almost anything you can think of used in the education of a child during the 1980s is there, much of it charred or rotted beyond recognition. Mushrooms thrive in the damp ashes of workbooks. Ailanthus altissima, the "ghetto palm" grows in a soil made by thousands of books that have burned, and in the pulp of rotted English Textbooks. Everything of any real value has been looted. All that's left is an overwhelming sense of knowledge unlearned and untapped potential. It is almost impossible not to see all this and make some connection between the needless waste of all these educational supplies and the needless loss of so many lives in this city to poverty and violence, though the reality of why these supplies were never used is unclear. *[see update below]* In some breathtakingly-beautiful expression of hope, an anonymous graffiti artist has painted a phoenix-like book rising from the ashes of the third floor.
This building is not far at all from the Michigan Central Station. Its exterior boasts no Corinthian columns, no real ornament to speak of. Unlike the station, it is squat and quite unremarkable. Suburban teens and even adults often ignore it as they regularly break into the station to leave their talentless tags, thrill at the decay, or just stand in awe of the colossal space inside. Their grandparents might have first set foot in Detroit at that station, stepping off trains from back east or down south. It was built with the sort of opulence that signified great promise for anyone who passed through it. Peasants from Poland or Alabama would have been awed by it all, but could hardly have realized that their great-grandchildren would one day leave their names upon its crumbling columns, binding themselves in that way to those same stones as though it were a promise kept.
When I post pictures of Detroit, I am always struck by the way people respond in the comments with a sense of "sadness." The reactions we have to ruins is something that fascinates me, and I'd love to hear more in the comments about how you feel looking at such buildings or even just seeing the photos I post on flickr. Of course, I sometimes share a sense of sadness, but still I wonder: why is it "sad" for a building to be left to decay if there is no one willing to use it? Can decay be something more than sentimental? Can it ever be beautiful? Can it just be respected for what it is, and not further corrupted by our emotions? And what is it that draws us to ruination? Why do some of us find it so compelling? I'd like to believe I am much more saddened by people whose lives fall apart than I am by crumbling stones or plaster. Sadly, social decay is just so much more easy to ignore, and not as prettily exposed with the lens of a camera.
Unless, that is, you stumble upon a warehouse full of abandoned hope. Walking back home from the book depository that day, I stopped to talk to the homeless men who live in Roosevelt Park. They told me they see people like me going into the station every day. I assumed by "like me" they meant bourgeois whites carrying tripods and DSLR cameras. The next time I went, I saw a few dozen more homeless men and women receiving handouts from some mobile charity, directly in the shadow of the train station. Some of them have made homes inside these ruins. They carried bottles covered with paper bags. They seemed almost giddy, happy just to eat something warm. I thought of the lovers in Robert Browning's poem. I thought of the paintings I'd seen earlier that week at the Detroit Institute of Arts, of medieval peasants frolicking amid the ruins of Ancient Rome.
Cows once grazed in the forum. And rich men who are long dead once decorated their walls with scenes not so different from this.
[*update* I have done some research about what actually happened at the book depository/Roosevelt Warehouse and post about it here]
Sometimes my wife will take my hand and jab it into her tummy. "He's right here," she'll say, with my fingers harshly parting the mucilaginous sea inside her, and I'll feel some dense shape against my fingertips. "Stop it," I'll grunt and wrench my hand from her grip. "You should be more gentle with that," I say, and she'll tell me it's no big deal, that she does it all the time. I must admit it freaks me out, when she grabs my hand and places it on a certain spot where he is kicking or twisting. I have been known to squeal like a 12-year-old girl with a mouse running up her leg. When I sit on the floor and talk into the belly, he always responds with some kind of punch or kick, either a hey pops or a shut up, you freaky jello voice. My wife has no sympathy for how bugged out I get. "I have to live with this inside me," she says.
Last night I downed two shots of espresso because I wanted to stay up late to work. When I finally went to bed, Wood rolled over and threw her arm around me, but I was nowhere close to sleep. While she slept, her belly found it's way to the small of my back, and soon he woke up as if to say hey. I sat there for so long, eyes open while the little pugilist inside her womb made his presence known, just the two of us awake in the dark room. Being awake with him at this hour will one day be a cause for complaint, no doubt, but last night it was nice, the silent fluttering, the closeness despite the months and membranes between us before we meet like real men.
I was driving Holly around one of my favorite neighborhoods and she asked the question anyone with sense asks when they first see the hulking art deco apartment buildings of Detroit ornamented with moorish details and colorful brickwork: "Why are people building hideous, poorly-constructed homes in the suburbs when buildings like this sit abandoned and crumbling?" I answered her question with more questions: Why do people pay to see any of the big movies released by Hollywood? Why do they eat at Applebees? Why is Mitch Albom a bestselling author?
There was this movie in 1990 called "Avalon" that followed the path of a fictional American family. It began with a Thanksgiving, it ended with a Thanksgiving. The opening Thanksgiving was sometime after World War II. There were so many relatives, they had to cram past each other on the staircase. There was noise and screaming and laughter and, of course, endless food. Lots of arguing. Lots of kids. The immigrant relatives telling stories of the old days. It was a raucous, messy, family festival. And that's the way, as Carly Simon once sang, I always heard it should be.
There was this other movie in 1990 called "Home Alone" that followed the path of a fictional American family who forgot one of their many children while leaving on a holiday trip. There were so many children, they had to cram past each other on the staircase. There was noise and screaming and laughter and, unfortunately, a limited amount of Little Nero's pizza. Lots of arguing. Lots of aftershave hilariously applied to cheeks. A solitary moppet wounding and maiming two bumbling burglars in a variety of ways, and the boy's mother riding all the way back from Scranton with a polka band. And that's the way, as Paul Simon once sang, "the mother and child reunion is only several days' worth of slapstick comedy away."
Thanksgiving, the purest of American holidays, should be a marathon. It should go on and on. After all, the first Thanksgiving, nearly 400 years ago, lasted for three days. There were 22 Pilgrim men, four married women, nine teenaged boys, five teenaged girls, 13 young children and some 90 Wampanoag Indians. Now that's a Thanksgiving.
And they didn't even have a football game.
Thanksgiving with my extended family always felt like a marathon. The food-shoveling went on. And on. And on. One Thanksgiving, 14 years ago, nobody volunteered to cook, so we spent three grueling hours with my relatives at the Ye Olde Country Buffet in the Maple Hill Mall parking lot. There were 26 morbidly-obese Dutch men, 28 morbidly-obese Dutch women, twelve teenage boys, eight teenage girls, thirty-four coupons, 56 young children, and some 18 Mexicans cooking the food and clearing the plates. Now that's a Thanksgiving, motherfucker.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Thanksgiving, you see, is a big tradition in our family. My mother and father were in charge of hosting the holiday when I was younger, and those Thanksgivings were all in the "Avalon" tradition. Everybody came. They stayed in guest rooms. Slept on couches.
Gosh, if your uncles farted as much as mine do, I'll bet that house smelled just awful.
It lasted a long time, usually from Wednesday night until Sunday afternoon, but nobody would think of leaving -- or, heaven forbid, not coming.
Sorry Mitch, but I can pretty much guarantee that somebody thought about leaving. One of your cousins probably thought about banging your wife, too.
These days, hosting Thanksgiving is my responsibility. In my house. And every year it seems to be more of a fight. My extended family is spread all over the world. Plane fares are an issue. It's cheaper to fly the actual day of Thanksgiving rather than the day before. Cheaper to go home on Friday than wait until Sunday. Work has crept in. The boss wants someone to work on Friday, so he can't stay. The college kids want to go home and party with other college kids back for the holiday. The divorced families have so many obligations -- this grandmother, this stepfather, this in-law. The teenagers all have cars, so they drive themselves and leave when they want to.
Mitch, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but those are called "excuses." You see, I doubt it's some kind of national undoing of the holiday: it's more likely that no one in your extended family wants to spend three days sleeping on the couch of an egomaniacal windbag who never lets anyone forget he wrote the New York Times bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie.
It drains the holiday slowly, carves the bark off its hide. What took the Pilgrims and Indians three days now can be completed in three hours.
And people go back to their lives.
It used to take hours to de-feather a turkey, too. Now you can buy them without feathers or blunderbuss shot embedded in their flesh. That, my friend, is called progress.
How did we advance so far and go so backward?
Hold on. A second ago it was good to go backwards, and bad to go forward, but now it's good to go forward and bad to go backwards? It's going to take a few minutes to let all the profundity of that statement sink into my thick head.
In grade school, we were taught about the Pilgrims and the Indians, about the wild fowl, deer and maize they ate.
Wow, those are actual tears that dripped on the finger-trace turkey I was making while listening to your poetic description of the First Thanksgiving.
But we've likely forgotten the final sentence of one attendee, Edward Winslow, who wrote one of the only two surviving accounts of that first Thanksgiving:"We are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
I love that phrase. "We are so far from want." It is a measure of American happiness.
Right, "being far from want" is the measure of American happiness. That's why on every Thanksgiving a 23-lb newspaper arrives on every doorstep filled with advertisements for what is truly the purest of American holidays: The Day After Thanksgiving. I don't know how "far from want" my Uncle was every time he left Thanksgiving dinner to go camp out in front of Best Buy, but it wasn't very far. This year he wants everything in HD!
Most of us have homes, cars, TV sets, good teeth and more food than a Pilgrim could dream of. We are so far from want. But we can't make time for each other. Things seem more important. Work. Outside relationships. Shopping. Video games. Holidays get clipped. Internet time grows.
I love that you have inflicted a grumpy Thanksgiving rant on the paper's entire circulation base simply because you're mad that last year your nephew preferred playing Guitar Hero II to sitting on a lumpy couch listening to grandma tell stories from the days of yore. I can almost hear you yelling, "We're all going to be a family this year, whether you like it or not." But it's in this little pipsqueak voice, because seriously, you look like a jockey who'd ride Dennis Kucinich around Washington.
I told you the first scene in "Avalon," the big Thanksgiving meal. The final Thanksgiving scene takes place years later, after the kids have grown and made lots of money. This time, instead of a huge, loud, extended Thanksgiving festival, a family of four sits in the kitchen, with the TV set on, quietly clanking the silverware. I wonder if that's not where we are heading, slowly whittling down the best holiday of all.
We are so far from want. But we're forgetting what we need.
My gripe with you Mitch is not that you take shmaltz to levels an entire army of Hallmark-card-writing monkeys could never achieve (that's your shtick, I get it, and I've certainly peddled a fair amount shmaltz from this site) my gripe is that you always deign to impose your own controversies and syrupy conclusions on the rest of us. Your I's always become We's. And now that you're middle-aged, you're turning into that kvetching old fart who's a witness to the collapse of everything good about the good old days amid postmodernity's foul-smelling tsunami of moral degradation. In that way you're just like my dad. And I just want to give both of you a hug, and whisper this in your ears: the world has not survived this long in spite of the onslaught of younger generations. It has survived because of them.
Last night the orange clouds over downtown were further illuminated by over a dozen search lights, all sourced at the same spot on the ground. I counted fifteen, but they were each scurrying in their ellipses so fast I'm not sure I saw them all. It was like we were expecting a visit from the Luftwaffe, but there was no roar of Messerschmitts, no tracer fire from the ground. The only sound was your grandmother shoving what's left of your meager inheritance into a video poker machine. The skies were lit to celebrate the opening of a new $65 million, 2900-space parking garage at the Greektown casino. Yes, I live where the opening of a parking garage is a cause for celebration. There have been billboards in the suburbs advertising the opening of this garage for weeks. "Parking has been our Achilles' heel for a long time," said the CEO of the Greektown casino. Until now, casino customers may have had to walk one---sometimes even two---blocks from the nearest garage to the casino. Now cars can drive right into the garage from the highway off-ramp. The structure is connected to the casino by a climate-controlled walkway. There is no longer any need for anyone to actually set foot on a street in Detroit, God forbid.
In other exciting news, Mighty Masons were in town this week; Holly from Nothing But Bonfires has also been here for a couple days, on some press junket to show how appealing Detroit is for tourists now. They took her to dinner at the new Michael Mina seafood restaurant, to the Henry Ford's new Isamu Noguchi/Buckminster Fuller exhibit, a pre-opening view of Cranbrook's Eero Saarinen retrospective, and even a preview of the Detroit Institute of Art's grand re-opening. Last night she called during intermission from the symphony, before heading back to her deluxe suite at the brand new MGM Grand. She's spending tonight at our house, and tomorrow I'll take her on a neighborhood tour to completely undo all the work these people showing her around have done. In the meantime, I need to find a half-chewed York Peppermint Patty for her pillow.
And as for my despair the other night, thanks to all who sent e-mails of commiseration and support. Things have gotten a little better. One of the benefits of having a talkative two-year old now instead of a baby is that you can spend all day logically explaining why it's not good to carry on all night, how she needs to sleep if she wants to grow, or at least have fun playing the next day. And then at night, in that semi-darkness you can remind her of what you talked about all day, and if you're lucky you might find yourself singing her a few songs and petting her hair and then just sitting there and watching her eyes struggle to stay open, and if you sit there long enough, silent as can be, she might just go to sleep. All day she tells me stories and I have no idea where they came from. Her imagination is suddenly so powerful. Thankfully, some logic came with it.
Her room has become a place of menacing noises. In the half-darkness imposed by the security lights outside, I come in and she off-handedly tells me she no longer wants a dog, but a mouse instead. Half an hour later she is still awake, afraid. Now there are mice scurrying around her room. The sky at night is always orange. Even the empty prairies of Detroit are lit by streetlights that have not yet broken or been stripped of their copper wire, a hopeful remnant grid of utilities that belie the existence of any actual neighborhood. Darkness is never her bedtime fear, but always noise. When I ask her about any bad dream, it was inevitably a "loud, loud noise," and when pressed she'll imitate a siren, or a car alarm. Whenever one of us leaves the struggle in her room at bedtime, the chorus starts behind the door, and then the other one goes up a few minutes later to try their luck. This time it might be a demand for one more song, or a tree that is scratching her window. We take turns, like blacksmiths at an anvil, trying to calm her with stories of fairies and pandas, old songs, and long, whispered shhhhhhs while stroking her hair. The whimpering starts again whenever we shift, knowing too well that our every motion is bent towards the door. After an hour or so of this we might get some silence, and then sigh, "She's slept through the night for almost a year," Wood will say. "Why this now?"
"We've grown soft," I'll reply. "Remember how bad it was?"
But then the wailing resumes, and from that fleeting moment of solidarity, all that's left is frustration. And because there is nowhere else left to turn, we turn on each other. When the kid is finally asleep, Wood goes to bed without speaking to me. So I sit alone listening to the same song over and over, too angry to do anything. Sometimes I'm sure I have no idea what I'm doing, no lodestar here in the never-darkness of Detroit. I fear that am fucking her up and failing both of them in ways I cannot even imagine. I am no good. I suddenly crave untethered selfishness. I don't want to be responsible for anyone. I don't want to go back into that room. I don't want to tell another story. I don't want to fight with my wife again tonight. I don't want to end this with some pithy observation that despite all this, parenthood is worth it. Not today. Because even if that is true, sometimes it can be so hard, too. And I need to acknowledge how terrified I am of going through it all again.
Almost every day I walk past our neighborhood witchcraft store, but it was only recently that I worked up the nerve to go in. For months I have been peeking in to see a wall of candles shaped like penises in various colors. Pink turns a friend into a lover. The black causes impotence for the man whose name is chanted when it's lit. There are also anatomically-correct vulva candles with wicks rising from the folded hoods of wax clits. Burning a red vulva candle incites passion. It is the same color as a quivering mass of maguro sashimi. According to its packaging, burning the blue vulva will promote fidelity and a harmonious home. There are skull candles and black cat candles for gamblers, candles of various colors molded in the shape of embracing lovers. There is a black candle of a nude man and a nude woman back-to-back with a wick between them; burning it is said to cause a divorce.
In the back of the store there are oils and powders. There are packages of goofer dust and graveyard dirt; oils that keep police at bay, or encourage a judge's sympathy. They sell "lavender love drops" to draw homosexuals closer, dressing oils designed to help one keep a job and "hot foot" oils to plant on unwanted guests or enemies you want to leave town. There are crystals of "Essence of Bend Over" for slipping into the laundry of those you want to control, love potion powders meant to be mixed with vaginal fluids collected while masturbating under a full moon. There are powders used in jinxes that will cause a man to stay at home. The store sells amulets that help pick winning lottery numbers, talismans that ward away gossip. There are lodestones sold alongside magnetic sand, miniature coffins, raccoon penis bones in bulk, buckeyes and badger teeth and bags of sulphur. I looked at the vials lined up behind the counter, wondering if the makings of a zombie weren't there in the century-old store.
The conjure store sells saddle-stitched grimoires, displayed on a revolving wire rack like bestsellers in a bus station: Rajah Rabo's 5-Star Mutuel Dream Book. If you have a dream about someone dancing the Charleston, Rabo's book provides winning lottery or horse numbers to pick. There is Billy Bing's Work-Out Book: Work-Outs That "Work," for numbers games, and playing the stock market. They sell Yoruba statuary and wizard robes and iron cauldrons, and aisles and aisles of glass-encased vigil candles that promise various results once elaborate instructions are followed: "Nanny Ma's Child Protector" candle will keep your child safe; an uncrossing candle will remove those jinxes placed on you by others; the "D.U.M.E. Destruction" candle comes with a blank black list for the names of five enemies. Most of the candles promise help with love, or money. Most everything is ostensibly Christian, associated with a saint or a biblical figure. The candles are expensive, and meant to be used with costly dressing oils. This is serious magic. It is not for dabblers.
There were several other shoppers, and there among all this hoodoo, I felt like the fraud. I know nothing of mysticism, conjuring, occultism, or necromancy. I was just there becuase I thought it was interesting, not because I could believe any of this was real. I ran through possible things to say should the woman behind the counter confront me, something that would sound desperate, hopeful, something real:
"My wife is pregnant. I want her and the baby to be healthy. Do you have something for that?"
People come to this store seeking a kind of control that the straight world can't provide them. It is a place to bring worries about cheating lovers, or the effects of the evil eye; a place for dice rollers, numbers players. My fellow shoppers might be women unafraid to cook with their own menstrual fluid. This was a place for people afflicted with jinxes, or those hoping to place them on others. This was a store for people with enemies. No one said anything to me. They must be accustomed to the occasional gawker, spotting frauds as easily as recognizing someone who needs a talisman to break another's love potion or someone else who needs a candle to burn before his sentencing at the courthouse a few blocks away.
I have never felt so white, so aware of the delirious dullness of my own life. And so I walked back out into the cold.
"The neighbor asked if we were going to circumcise the new one."
"That seems a bit nosy."
"She said something about how she would do it because her husband is circumcised, and he would feel funny, you know, if his son looked different."
"I've heard people say that before. I don't get it. Do fathers and sons regularly get their penises together for a little face time? Do they dress them up in little matching outfits? Because personally, I'd rather just burp and watch football."
"She also mentioned locker rooms."
"The less he enjoys the locker room experience, the better."
"I told her I was going to leave it up to you."
"Remember how some gay clubs in San Francisco would advertise no cover charge for uncut guys? Tell her I'm not going to take a chance that our son might be gay and miss out on the opportunity to whip it out and avoid paying all those cover charges. I hate covers."
"Her husband is an internationally-renowned techno DJ. Their livelihood depends on cover charges."
"Well then let them circumcise their own potentially-homosexual son. Mine is going to get into gay night clubs for free."
A few years ago I saw a painting above a grand staircase at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue that drew my mind completely away from where it had been. I was in the library looking for a place to piss in Manhattan that didn't require me buying something, and seeing this painting I was stunned enough to forget the search for a few minutes to enjoy it. It was called "Blind Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughters." It showed the old poet in his Puritan's blouse, sullen and grumpy, slouched in an armchair, his whole face bent inward, his daughters at a table, hunched in anticipation of the next word to leave his lips. Most people know that Milton went blind, but not that he used his three daughters as amanuenses, forcing them to do all his reading and writing for him. I have read that Milton's daughters hated him for it, forcing them to read Latin and Greek and Hebrew aloud without being allowed to understand what any of it meant. Paradise Lost was written down entirely by surly teenage girls. I imagine them making faces at him through all his Hebrew and Latin. Why did he use his own greekless daughters for such a monumental task, rather than some Cambridge-bred republican lackey? Perhaps because he could completely control them. Or maybe it's even simpler than that: they were always there. After he died, one of Milton's daughters recounted that when they woke in the morning, he would be downstairs, pacing "like a cow waiting to be milked." He could hardly wait for them to gather their papers or dip their quills in the ink, he was so pregnant with poetry.
Greg's recent post made me think about my own experiences with the kid and museums. I have been taking the kid to art museums and galleries ever since she was old enough to sit forward in a bjorn. For the most part I think it's a load of horseshit to say she really got anything out of it during the first year of her life, but for the past year we both have enjoyed these trips, each in our own way. Since the Detroit Institute of Arts closed for renovations, and Cranbrook is so far away, we have spent a lot of time at MOCAD, Detroit's museum of contemporary art. Their opening exhibition last year included Roxy Paine's computer-driven sculpture machine that extruded huge piles of a crimson wax-like polymer (in Juniper-speak, "the red goo machine"), Jon Pylypchuk's little shanty-town full of morose and drunken stuffed creatures pissing in alleys and fishing for carp (J-s: "babies peepeeing!"), and a giant Nari Ward sculpture that involved hundreds of ceiling panels and tea pots with used styrofoam cups placed amid the piece by previous museum goers ("the cups.") Juney enjoyed these exhibits so much that we spent quite a few dull winter afternoons just sitting there, leaving me as familiar with each work as a security guard at MOMA must get watching that same room full of Rothkos all day.
That exhibition is long over, so every time we go now she gets upset that the goo machine and the pissing babies are no longer there, but inevitably there's another piece of pretentious conceptual art that she learns to love in a way that would certainly make the artist cringe. Right now it's Jennifer West's two films projected on the museum's northwest corner walls. The kid could really care less about the content (rapid sequences of scratched negatives); what she's really into is standing in front of the floor-mounted projectors watching her shadow dance and jump on the wall. This could go on for hours. Usually we are the only people in the museum, so it's not a big deal. I spend some time walking around looking at the other exhibits while she entertains herself, holding her hand as she points at a picture of a bunny while I try to consume the deeper meanings of the art around me.
This is, I think, a defining aspect of my experience as a father who doesn't "work" but spends all day with his daughter. Every morning we select a mutually-agreeable destination, and I try to find something to do there that will interest her on one level and still engage me on another. It is as though all day I am of two minds, one on par with hers, aware of what she understands and enjoys and appreciates, and another ready to capitalize on every distraction, every second of silence, a second mind ready to wrestle with ideas and thoughts that may have nothing to do with my daughter but do engage my own curiosity. I usually don't like calling myself a stay-at-home dad (that connotes a sort of militancy I don't have the energy for). Instead I have become something of a professional daydreamer.
In doing this, I am never all that distant. But let's be honest: it doesn't take that much to keep a constantly-babbling 2-year old engaged. It's pretty much the same amount of engagement my law school professors expected (eye contact, head nods, and the occasional astute follow-up question). And toddlers, like law professors, are easily fooled. Sometimes you can just phone in this whole parenting thing, and man, they don't even know. I can have a full-on conversation about fairies or owls or fairies riding on owls, and at the same time I am trying to imagine what life is like for the fucked-up-looking guy we just passed walking down the street, or what that street looked like in 1926, or what an artist is trying to say with a particular work in front of me. And Juniper still believes I'm like this total expert on owls and fairies and shit. In her mind, I have a PhDs in Ornithology and Folklore Studies, specializing in Wee Folk/Owl relations.
At MOCAD, after you see the exhibits, you end up in a room with all these Eames chairs and tables set out with art supplies, openly inviting visitors to create their own art before they leave. Juniper loves this, and the other day she sat there drawing with me for over an hour. When a friend came through and we started talking, the kid looked at me and said, "Dada, I want you all to myself. Can the lady please go away?" I apologized for this polite discourtesy, but still loved how much fun she was having. We were just sitting there together, talking about who we were drawing. I've done a lot of drawing this past year, not just people pooping. I used to have so much fun drawing and painting things as a kid, and now, I do again. I sing a lot more since the kid came around, too. I never drew anything in my mid-twenties except a paycheck. I didn't even sing in the shower. Becoming a parent is kind of like getting a permission slip to again do all the things that seem too silly for a grown man to do.
I will admit that hanging out with a kid all day does make it hard to "get things done" in the old "office" sense, but the truth is I never really got anything done in an office where I had unlimited internet access. I "work" much harder now that I don't just sit there open-mouthed in front of a monitor all day. But I still find the time I spend with Juniper to be valuable beyond seeing her so much and listening to all the crazy junk she says: I have all this time during the day to just gather my thoughts, plot out daydreams, and still pursue interests and projects that have nothing to do with being a parent or taking care of a kid.
These days, I may not be cracking $300 million cases or composing iambs about the fall of man, but by the time nap time arrives or the wife gets home from work, I usually have a torrent of backlogged thoughts I want to get down on paper or some project I've been plotting all day to get underway in the basement. I love the idea of Milton in the morning, his brain a burdened udder. What benefit did his blank verse get from all that midnight plotting, from the bulwark of sleeping daughters?
I know a lot of people would be (or are) unhappy staying home with a kid, but as I've said before, it suits me. I feel unleashed. I feel free. When I was a lawyer, I sometimes had my best thoughts about a case and even some breakthroughs while riding the bus or staring at a lunch menu. Now I have some of my best thoughts pushing a swing.
I had some serious concerns about Halloween this year, mostly because Juniper insisted on being a robot, something she came up with on her own, as far as I know, with no instigation from either of us. I was concerned because I had to relinquish control over her costume. A robot, I knew, would involve cardboard boxes and wires and electrical tape, and that's not my area, it's her father's. I can hold my own with thread and fabric, but he's always on the lookout for an excuse to spray paint something or bust out the hot glue or staple guns. I knew she couldn't wear a robot costume during school, so we let her be Medusa in the morning, which was easy because she already had the hat.
Over the last week, my husband actually started pulling together a robot costume. Each day, I would come home from work and the costume would be even more complex, covered in wires and LED lights and circuit boards. He was so proud that everything cost less than $3. This did nothing to alleviate my concerns. There were so many pieces that looked so incredibly uncomfortable. It didn't help that the little tunic I sewed from a metallic fabric was way too tight. I was sure Juniper wouldn't wear the costume for more than two minutes, if she ever let us squeeze it on her in the first place. But I need not have been concerned at all, it seems. She loved it: