Thanks to the mother in law, our shelf of celebrity-penned children's books grows with every visit. We've got Julianne Moore's book about the difficulties of growing up ginger, and Jamie Lee Curtis's book about being 50+ and Fabulous. Did you know John Lithgow writes children's books? I read them in a bad British accent (why couldn't it have been French Stewart who dipped his quill into the world of Children's Literature?) They say Bob Dylan is publishing a children's book version of "Forever Young." I hope it's as good as Will Smith's "Just the Two of Us." That song brings a tear to my eye every time, so you can just imagine what it does to me in illustrated form. "I wanna kiss you all the time/ But I will test that butt when you cut out of line." Gah! Waterworks!

The other day I heard Metallica's "Enter Sandman" during a hockey game. This was the song my high school hockey team used to listen to in the locker room before games to get "pumped up." It's from Metallica's "creepy old man" period, when normal kids started listening to Metallica without their parents worrying they would become satanists, and every video featured a creepy, wrinkled old man. Well, now Metallica is a bunch of creepy, wrinkled old men. Seriously. Balding drummer Lars Ulrich even has a one-year-old baby, which is usually right around the time washed-up celebrities decide to add "author" to their resumes. So, listening to the lyrics of "Enter Sandman" for the first time since I had kids, I thought, "that would make a really good children's book." Get on it, Lars. Those precious moments don't last forever.

In Rainbows

Posted by jdg | Monday, May 26, 2008

We're in some store and I pick up a greeting card with this picture of a baby taking a bath in a sink full of dirty dishes. Inside it reads, "Why dads shouldn't babysit."

Now, I'm not into the whole militant reaction to stuff like that. Why not wage a war against lawyer-joke e-mail forwards or sexist beer koozies? Who am I to deny some erstwhile Donna Reed a chuckle at the expense of her philistine of a husband who kept her in the kitchen all those years while he sunk deeper into the ass groove of his barcalounger? I don't lecture women who say, "Oh, dad's babysitting today!" when I'm out with the kid(s). I figure this says a lot more about them and the men in their lives than it does about me. Why be an asshole?

I've known for some time that when some women see my daughter, they think she belongs on a greeting card that says, "Why dads shouldn't dress the kids." To be fair, most of the time when I see their kids I think they belong on a greeting card that says, "Why people shouldn't shop at the Carter's Outlet." But I've found myself a bit more defensive since Juniper started to put together her own outfits from the thrift store wardrobe I've built so carefully.

The other day on the riverfront, a woman said to Juniper, "Oh how cute, did daddy dress you today?" I felt the need to interject on behalf of my fellow fathers:

"No way, lady. Today daddy let her dress herself like a freak."

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | ,

I am so tired of trying to write thematically-unified blog posts with not-quite-clever-enough titles and tidy conclusions. And Christ, aren't you tired of reading them yet? I worry that the way I write on this site has become so formulaic. Sometimes I finish a post and then wonder if it's real or if I have just written another parody of myself.

To make matters worse, I can't stop thinking about all the people who have recently discovered this site and its archives. My parents, for example, now know about it after three years of blissful secrecy. I don't know how they figured it out (and I'm still not sure if my dad reads it: he doesn't have much use for computers other than finding sweet deals for used car parts and tools on eBay). I also recently received an e-mail from my freshman-year roommate whose sordid sexual history and lousy laundry habits were detailed in a recent post. And now the nice Mormon girl I took to prom e-mailed me about the site this week. It was just so much easier writing here when none of the people reading it knew what kind of underwear I wore as a teenager.*

And I have to admit I have been struggling with the very concept of my life being remotely interesting to anyone. Sometimes we watch Intervention on A&E and I think, "Damn, that junkie's lived an interesting life. Why does a boring yuppie like me have a blog when your average meth addict is so much more interesting." Sometimes I wish I'd chosen a subject for this blog that people actually seem to find interesting, you know, like the Indian Diaspora or food. Most of these days my life is so boring I wish I could just invent a pair of meddlesome first-generation Desi parents or tell you about all my hilarious mishaps at culinary school.

Today, for instance, I did what I try to do every day: I avoided the interior of our home at all costs in order to prevent the kids and myself from making it look like the interior of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository. You know: that building I've now milked for two posts, several dozen photos, and an appearance in Harper's Magazine? Seriously, what's up with that? Enough already! So today we went to the zoo.

And I totally forgot to put shoes on the kid.

Also, remember: I'm too much of a goddamn asshole to use a stroller. So I had to carry a shoeless three-year-old kid around the entire zoo with a shoeless three-month-old baby strapped to my chest. I also had all your typically-unnecessary baby accouterments stuffed in a bag over my shoulder (but no shoes). I felt like how the Joad family jalopy must have felt sputtering towards California. At some point this shoeless old man hitched a piggyback ride talking about how he was gonna git himself a whole bunch a grapes and squash 'em all over his face and just let the juice dreen down offen his chin but he really creeped us out so we dumped him near some carrion birds.

Then my radiator busted and all the children was hollering so I sat down on a park bench by the rhinoceros enclosure and said to myself twice, "At least the house is clean."

Now see: that story could have totally been its own Sweet Juniper™ blog post if I'd just added some reference to ancient mythology at the beginning or somehow figured in something about living in Detroit. Like, Hey, what's up with all the white people at the zoo? I probably would have toned down the whole Grapes of Wrath bit. Or maybe I would have gone off on some pompous screed about how Juniper feels Henry Fonda's performance in that film transcends John Ford's flawed vision of Steinbeck's masterpiece. Then I'd try counteract this bragging about her precociousness by flagellating myself for being a flawed parent. Voila!

This blogging thing sure is easier than it looks.

So next week if I write a post contrasting my parents' arranged marriage in Mumbai with how unfair it is that they disapprove of me dating the chisel-jawed Anglo coxswain of the Brown crew team, trust that I'm probably making most of it up. But at least it will be more interesting than what I'm actually going through.

*just kidding, Ruth!

The necessity of low expectations

Posted by jdg | Monday, May 19, 2008 | ,

When we first moved to this terrible, beautiful city, we realized that among those willing to stick it out here, there were two major camps: the misanthropes who wallow in every bit of proof that the city is failing, and the optimists with a perpetually rosy outlook on its vast, largely-untapped potential. We quickly decided that the best course of action was to simply accept this city just as it is, and not to get our hopes up too much. Don't expect the police to show up when you call 911, and when they do, welcome them as heroes. When you hear news about new development, don't expect it to actually happen. Don't expect your municipal politicians to actually be smart liars. If you can learn to love it for what it is, and not get too wrapped up in hope for what it could be, you will find yourself much happier here.

This is the beginning of my third week at home taking care of two kids by myself. I have extended this theory of low expectations to my parenting, and so far that seems to be working out just fine. I have learned to accept that it's just going to be how it is, and I try not to get my hopes up. I don't expect to get anything done for myself over the course of any day. There is no time on the computer, no time during the day to write. If I can jot down a few thoughts in a notebook here and there, I'm lucky. I don't expect to keep the house up as much as I used to; any vacuuming or straightening up while the baby is in the sling becomes a real accomplishment. I tell myself not to feel bad at night, after the kids are finally asleep, when I suddenly have all the time in the world to get things done for myself, but all I want to do is curl up with my wife and fall asleep. I won't feel bad about hanging out in the shade all day. Or buying the older kid an ice cream cone once in awhile to keep her quiet.

I'll try not to stare at those parents with only one kid and remember all the time I used to be able to sneak in for myself. I'll try to forget about all the things I still want to get done for myself during the day. Because I think that's the only way I'm going to make it through this.

The Selfish Parent, Part Two

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One Saturday afternoon before my wife went back to work, she watched the baby while I took Juniper to the art theater to see four Buster Keaton shorts with a live pianist (Daydreams, The Boat, The Balloonatic, and the brilliant One Week). This was her second cinematic experience (her first I wrote about here). We had so much fun together. For days afterwards we talked about all the funny things that Buster did. I never saw a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie until I was in my twenties, but as I started watching them I felt that I had seen it all before: and I had, sort of. The pratfalls and gags of early silent comedy had been recycled again and again by the cartoons I watched as a kid. As a parent I find myself overly concerned with narrative: before we get to cartoons, I want her to start at the beginning.

This past Friday I spent the morning with both kids wandering around the Institute of Arts. We have an established routine there, and Gram is happy to tag along. There's a Picasso that Juniper is obsessed with: I have to promise we'll see "the blue lady" before she'll agree to any trip to the museum. I always take the long way to the Picasso room, and when we get there the kid stands silently mystified on front of this painting, and soon the questions follow: "why is she sad?. . .why is she in jail?" We talk these things over, then spend half an hour in the Greek and Roman room, discussing the characters on vases and which gladiator helmet is our favorite. We try to find paintings with "girly colors" in the contemporary art wing. I am the guy I always hated standing next to at the museum.

I have a dog-eared copy of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney's The Rattle Bag that I keep next to the bath. It is bloated and misshapen, its pages soaked and dried ten dozen times. When she's taking a bath sometimes she asks me to read her "poms." I'll read a pom by William Blake or Ogden Nash slowly, over and over, until she memorizes it. Before bed she wants more poms. If you miss one word in a pom she's heard, she'll tell you.

You may think I'm being boastful. I actually hold off on writing about this kind of stuff most of the time. I get nasty e-mails every so often calling (1) me a snob; and (2) my kid a freak. True, and true. My daughter probably comes off as a future social outcast no different from some fundamentalist spawn whose bedtime stories are all from Deuteronomy. My kid is Carrie with a dad in browline glasses. I have some sympathy for vegans. I am intimately familiar with the desire to shield my kids from cheese. They are my kids and I will screw them up however I please.

But then I fear that I am parenting spitefully. Through this undeniable censorship I am providing them with such a meager buffet of options. It's not that I actually believe they're somehow better off than some kid whose parents aren't as paranoid about the modern children's media clusterfuck as I am. I do this partly because it helps me enjoy parenting. I fear that if I didn't exert so much control, I might find this business as mind-numbingly dull as some suggest it is. "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall," wrote Cyril Connolly (this website, I suppose, is proof of that).

But I admit it's not just about me. I also believe it's sourced in the same naive eagerness we all have as parents: I want them to learn from the lessons I've learned, the knowledge I've accumulated, so someday they won't have to go to all the trouble, so that one day they can surpass it all and go further. What I sometimes forget is that the most important lessons are often the ones you learn on your own. And the most joyful things in life are usually those you discover for yourself.

Francis Kilvert once wrote, "If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire." The other day, all her pink skirts were in the laundry, so I pulled out a pair of blue jeans and forced them over her legs. She hasn't worn pants in months. Not since Hercules donned the shirt of Nessus has a creature writhed in such agony over the wearing of a simple article of clothing. Her performance was so authentic I could almost hear the hissing of the denim against her flesh as she turned circles on the carpet. This, I realized, was the resistance my child is capable of when being forced into something she does not want. I swiftly removed the cursed jeans, and patted out the flames:

"Sorry kiddo. All your pink skirts are dirty. Let's look in your closet together for something else. But you can choose."

"Okay Pops."

And for a few more years at least, I control what hangs in the closet.


Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 06, 2008 |

With my wife back at work, I went out and bought a used Babyjogger Twinner II. It's built like a bicycle and as wide as the sidewalk, but its hulking presence in our foyer encourages a daily activity where I will be able to avoid eye contact with both of my children so they won't be able to see the constant fear in my eyes. I'm also hoping that with an hour of running every day, I will finally be able to rid myself of one or more of these pesky supernumerary chins.

Juniper and I have gone jogging every night for a few weeks in the old mono-jogging stroller and she loves it. As we embarked on yesterday's trial run in the behemoth, the new kid was the unknown variable: my progeny are not known for their affinity for speedy little chariots in their earliest days. Juniper cried every time we put her in a stroller at Gram's age. For the first mile of today's run, I considered it a success as he merely maintained a constant mild whimper. A mile later it reached a full-on scream. I suggested that Juniper hold his bottle for him, and she did, causing every woman we passed along the Riverfront to buckle over backwards from the cuteness. Within a few minutes he was asleep, and blessedly silent. "You're the best big sister in the world," I told her. And I meant it.

There is a fundamental unfairness to the way men are treated with their children in public compared to women. A man carrying a screaming infant while dragging a toddler who's having a fit because the carousel is only open on weekends, well he's "such a good dad." I swear four women came up and told me that yesterday under those exact circumstances. If I had been my wife I'm sure they would have been shaking their heads with a tsk tsk. Mothers, I've learned from floor polish commercials, have to give 100 percent. Fatherhood is not unlike the Special Olympics. Sometimes you get a medal just for showing up.

But still, I guess a white guy pushing a giant stroller with two children while holding the leash of an energetic German Shorthaired Pointer is not something you see every day in Detroit. At least, that's what I assume, given the reactions I got from people on the street. Rubberneckers in passing cars slowed to a menacing crawl beside me. Women shouted out, "You keep it up, Superdad!" Three different people yelled some variant of that to me today.

Superdad? Hardly. When I told my wife, she groaned and suggested that today I wear a cape.

Herb Goro again, from The Block, 1970.

They are listening

Posted by jdg | Thursday, May 01, 2008 | ,

We've run into old friends at Eastern Market and I'm telling a story. I forget my daughter is there.

Our neighborhood was once a true ghetto, first a neighborhood of Eastern-European Jews and then one of the only places in Detroit that black people were allowed to live. Through racist clauses common in land conveyances early in the twentieth century, blacks were not allowed to purchase or rent property in most of the city outside of what was then known as Paradise Valley and the Black Bottom. The influx of black workers from down south in the 1920s swelled the population in this neighborhood to the point where overcrowding was a major problem. Still, like the famous black neighborhoods in other cities, music and culture thrived here. Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed regularly at the clubs in Paradise Valley. There were doctors and poets and petty criminals. The Nation of Islam was born here.

Eventually it became illegal to prevent the transfer of property to an entire race, and the neighborhood ebbed into a ramshackle slum as middle class blacks poured into other parts of the city. The old neighborhood was emptied and leveled in the 1950s for a highway and the redeveloped neighborhood designed by Mies van der Rohe where we chose to live. While digging in our garden I often find red bricks not a foot beneath the surface, all that remains of the bulldozed homes and businesses of the Black Bottom.

When we first moved here, I became enamored with the below-grade Grand Trunk Railway line that formed the eastern border of the old Black Bottom. When our neighborhood was built, they tore apart the urban fabric of streets for a series of parks and impassable cul-de-sacs. But when I started walking with the dog down in the old abandoned railway line, I got a real sense of the grid of the old neighborhood: old bridges remained over the sunken tracks that once connected streets which no longer exist. I found a nineteenth-century map of the city and spoke aloud the names of those streets: Champlain; Mullet; Sherman; Macomb. All that remained of those streets were buried bricks and bridges.

The railway line is called the Dequindre Cut, named (like most north-south streets in eastern Detroit) for the French settler whose narrow ribbon farm once stretched all the way to the river. When I first started exploring it, the cut was a wild place filled with overgrown invasive plant species, trash, and empty cans of spray paint left by the graffiti artists who'd turned an entire mile of the cut and the undersides of its bridges into the most spectacular urban canvas I have ever encountered. They called the bellies of these bridges "the caverns," and the underside of each was splashed with an ever-changing archaeology of color even the most stodgy crier of vandalism couldn't deny was art. The cut was home to a dozen homeless men, countless ring-necked pheasants, rabbits, raccoons, and even foxes. It was like a wilderness in the middle of the city, and I used to go down there several times a week.

One of those times (I tell my friends as Juniper listens from the crook of my arm) I was walking in the cut when I came across a naked man standing on a cement pylon. I made eye contact and nodded, and he nodded back. I wasn't scared and I didn't feel threatened by this naked man. It was fairly obvious he wasn't carrying any concealed weapons. It seemed a little cold to be standing on a cement pylon completely naked, but there he was.

"What was the naked man doing?" Juniper asks.

I keep telling the story, ignoring her repeated queries. After I'd walked the mile up to the market and started back, I became wary as I returned to the place where the naked homeless man had been. I need not have worried. There he was down ahead, still naked, playing a mournful song on a battered-looking trumpet.

I go on to describe how the cut has now been cleared of all its trash and brush, how the homeless men and pheasants and wild dogs have been driven out into the surrounding neighborhoods (twice now I've found a ring-necked pheasant on our doorstep). They are turning the cut into a paved biking/jogging trail, replanting native species, and connecting it to Detroit's spectacular new riverfront. For months the sound of heavy equipment knocking down those old Black Bottom bridges has started early each morning, the sound of the last traces of the old neighborhood churning into dust. Even in Detroit, where often there is no incentive to bury the past, history finds some way to disappear. It is bittersweet, I say, having loved what it was but also looking forward to what this new "safe" green space will mean for our neighborhood. Juniper tugs at my sleeve again:

"What did you say about a naked guy, Pops?"

And for two weeks I have been answering questions about the naked guy.

Every day, we go jogging and she asks me to tell her about the naked guy. I weave a story for her as she rolls through a green park that covers long-silent streets, a story not so different from the one above. I tell her about factories that once needed men and steel. I tell her about a neighborhood full of men and women and children who couldn't live anywhere else because other people were cruel and the laws unfair. I tell her how steel was brought on ships down the river and taken right past this neighborhood to the factories by steam locomotives. I tell her those factories closed and the trains were no longer needed, and then the tracks became overgrown and wild like a jungle full of plants and animals and a man came to live there and decided one day he no longer wanted to wear clothes while he played his trumpet. So he didn't, and in this jungle there was no one to tell him he had to.

My wife is not privy to these conversations.

She was having lunch with one of the kid's classmates and his mother at the market the other day, and they started talking about how nice it would be to have the paved cut connecting the market and the river. "Are you talking about the cut?" the kid asked my wife. Wood started explaining to her what the cut was. "No mama," she replied. "I know what the cut is. The cut is where the naked guy lives. The naked guy who plays his trumpet."